Movie review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II”

OK, so “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II”. If you can hear me teeing up on the basis of that ludicrous title alone, then you know me well. If you have protective feelings about the books, you may want to seek minimum safe distance now, because it’s about to get ugly.

I have a minimal standard for movies, and it’s this: if a film cannot distract me from my aggravation over having gotten a speeding ticket on the way to the theater, the movie has failed in its purpose. (If you’re a careful driver, you can swap out the speeding ticket for any sufficiently irritating condition: a headache, an uncomfortable seat, an annoying moviegoer.) This movie not only failed the test as a film, but if boiled down to its essence, might not pass the test as a commercial. I’m told millions were spent making this movie, but I submit to you that millions were spent promoting this movie, which is different. If millions were spent on those drab and featureless sets, those uninspired and plastic-y looking costumes, and those intensely artificial, computer-glossy CGI terrors, then perhaps someone should have lit them with more than a guttering glowstick, because we can’t see any of it. During the approximately sixteen hours spent in underground tunnels, I had to guess which character had died in each battle by who was sobbing afterwards—mid-melee, it was impossible to distinguish one leading actor from another, which, given that one of the leading actors is Jennifer Lawrence and another is a lesser Hemsworth, should not be a point of confusion.

Aboveground, the news isn’t any better. In a deeply dubious CGI landscape of copy-pasted buildings, as repetitive as the cactus-mountain-cactus background of a Wile E. Coyote film, the last surviving rebels infiltrate the Capitol, where, we are repetitively told, the sadistic gamemakers have laid thousands of elaborate deathtraps in “pods” throughout the city, creating the ultimate Hunger Games—an urban maze of mines. Finally, we’re getting somewhere—the Hunger Games series was always at its best when it was exploiting the tension between the reader/viewer’s desire to see Katniss and her friends survive the Games, and the uneasy knowledge that this desire makes them (the reader/viewer) little better than the hordes of shallow and bloodthirsty aristocrats for whose entertainment the Games were designed. This movie seeks an escape hatch from the uneasy double-bind—unfortunately for us, the escape hatch it chooses is, “Promise the Games, then make them unutterably dull.” In what felt like three hours of wasteland wandering, I counted not thousands of boobytraps, but three. One which shoots fire, one which shoots bullets, and one which releases a menacing “oil” of surprising physical properties—it alternately rushes forward like an avalanche, stops short of a main character’s boot, speeds forward again to engulf a tertiary character whole and screaming, then laps gently at another main character’s boot. Interesting oil. I wonder if we could use it to clear up some of the draggier bits of Game of Thrones.

To fill in the spaces and stretch this movie into two parts (because every trilogy must now be a quadrilogy), characters are given portentous monologues, somber orchestral send-offs, and endless amounts of time to sit in poorly-lit foxholes emoting at each other over banalities. One such stultifying conversation between Jennifer Lawrence and her love interest, a charmless Josh Hutcherson, centers on favorite colors. His is “orange. Not bright orange, but soft, like the sunset.” I’ve always been told that the boredom of war is one of its most insidious unpleasantries, but had never really grasped why until that conversation. When Donald Sutherland, as a gloating old-school villain, pops up on every screen in the country to twirl his mustache and gloat over Katniss’s supposed death, I can’t have been the only audience member who was relieved that someone, somewhere, far away from this deathless movie, was having fun.

Movie review: “Spectre”

(Note: many spoilers ahead, if you care.)

The end of Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond is here, and we have four movies to show for it. Two outstanding films bookending an abysmal one, and now “Spectre”: a big, shiny Greatest Hits album that includes all the chart-toppers but somehow misses the actual soul of the band. It’s breathtakingly beautiful to look at, just heart-clenchingly lovely: most of this is due to Sam Mendes, who is physically incapable of making ugly things, but I’d also like to buy a drink for everyone involved with lighting this joint; each frame looks like a Vermeer. A simple shot of a newspaper on a desk manages to evoke the cloudy day outside the window, without ever showing the sky. No franchise captures cloud, smoke, heat, humidity, fog better—every room has an atmosphere, visible vapor in the air, a palpable texture and temperature. The fights, chases, and action sequences are also good news—during an initial fistfight inside a barrel-rolling helicopter, I actually gasped out loud. I, an American moviegoer in 2015, gasped. That is not easy to make American action fans do, and this movie did it within the first ten minutes.

After those first ten minutes, however, the news is not so good. A creakingly ancient Trojan plot is wheeled onto the scene—MI6 will be disbanded! New technology and ideas threaten the supremacy of white men with carte blanche to kill people they dislike! This is bad! Clearly! We should absolutely be rooting, in 2015, for the idea that a “license to kill” is something which should exist, because a Hard Man Making Hard Decisions (say, whom he will execute without trial, and whom he will loftily spare) is totally not an obsolete model for heroism, and definitely not creepily colonialist when embodied by a guy like James Bond. The first three movies worked fairly well despite these inherent structural flaws by having Bond face uncomplicated villains: arms dealers, bomb makers, psychotic louts who threaten Judi Dench (How. Dare. They.) It was easy to overlook due process for these baddies, because they were clearly terrible and immediate threats. Unfortunately, this movie aims to make a sort of One Ring to rule them all by inventing from thin air an international supervillain organization that nebulously controls all crime and also terrorism and also intelligence (because you need to diversify, obvs) and who somehow has maintained absolute secrecy, despite the fact that its members… wear identical rings. Oh, how I wish I were kidding.

And the news gets worse when we discover that the Biggest Baddest Boss Of All Time, EVER, GUYS, is Bond’s estranged quasi-adoptive brother. Funny how we never heard about an estranged, quasi-adoptive brother before: oh, how convenient. He was presumed dead in a skiing accident. Interesting how little we care, given that we learn that he was supposed to be dead after we already know him to be alive. And furthermore, estranged quasi-adoptive brother—oh God let’s just call him Christoph Waltz and be done with it, it’s Christoph Waltz, doing a bad impression of his role in Inglourious Basterds—anyway, Christoph is claiming responsibility for everything bad that has happened to Bond over the last three movies! Everything. The death of Vesper Lynd, the only woman Bond’s ever loved, was supposedly Christoph’s doing (even though we saw her drown herself in an elevator). All the bad guys who kept attacking Bond were, somehow, sort of, working for Christoph. Judi Dench—that was Christoph, too! Never mind that Javier Bardem put a lot of hard work into becoming the kind of monster who would stab Judi Dench in a church, and did, an act of scummy brutality which we all saw with our own eyes. Never mind all of that, because Christoph needs to be a credible villain, and his villainy must be made personal to Bond! Bond is sprouting family connections faster than his backstory can be retrofitted to accommodate them, and the result is a thoroughly milquetoast villain. We know perfectly well this guy isn’t a threat. He’s a plagiarist, cribbing off everyone else’s tests. Bond could take him armed only with a snap bracelet.

Or, in this case, an exploding wristwatch. (Still not kidding.) This movie bills itself as a return to the Bond franchise’s roots, “roots” being here defined as:

Car chases
Wristwatch hijinks
Ejector seats
Q’s new gadget
M’s latest headache
Monologuing villains, eye injuries, white cats, bad puns, elaborate deathtraps, women in peril, martinistuxedosOmegaAstonMartinSonyBondJamesBond.

The makers are so busy genuflecting towards these obligatory Stations Of The Franchise that they seem not to have realized that the best parts of the Craig Bond tenure were the moments when he undercut the routines: think of “Casino Royale”, when a waiter asks him how he wants his martini and he snaps, “Does it look like I give a damn?” Think of “Skyfall”, when Q hands him a radio and a handgun and he grumps, “It’s Christmas come early.” Craig’s Bond felt fresh and dynamic precisely because he didn’t seem beholden, as a character, to the trappings of Bond-ness: he wore the tuxedo, not the other way round. His Bond could fall in love, quit and wander off to Figi, show a little vulnerability, because he was an actual character, not a checklist of trademarks and mannerisms. Now, in the last gasps of his reign, the writers are beating a hasty retreat back to the safe ground of the franchise’s most hallowed rhythms and routines—but that ground isn’t safe any more. “Austin Powers” killed the Bond franchise over a decade ago, and we don’t genuflect to the martini anymore, regardless of whether it’s shaken or stirred. Do we look like we give a damn?

Movie review: “Crimson Peak”

Here are some things that other people have said about “Crimson Peak”, Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic horror/romance that’s out right now:

“But you don’t go to a del Toro movie for the story […] or even the characters.” — Peter Howell, Toronto Star

“Like a theme park attraction, it’s a giant, intricate contraption that’s utterly amazing to look at. But ultimately it’s rather a dull ride.” — Steve Tilley, Toronto Sun

“Del Toro builds a tight plot but never develops it […].” –Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Here’s what I have to say about “Crimson Peak”: It’s really a shame that some of the top movie critics in the country are so bamboozled by the artistic use of color that they cannot see a perfectly decent forest/movie for the beautiful, spooky trees within it.

Yes: every frame Guillermo del Toro shoots is a master class in dramatic framing; interior design; costuming. He makes beautiful movies, haunting visual feasts that communicate not just plot but texture, scent, temperature–and yet when faced with all this artistry, the predominant critical reaction seems to be a sulky insistence that he must be doing something wrong. The scales must be balanced! A movie is only great in one area if it’s lacking in another, and Guillermo del Toro’s movies excel in all the feminine-coded arts of decoration, costuming, and set-building, so of course he must not be able to cobble together a decent, manly plot. And so a critical consensus is built: “Crimson Peak” is a pretty, slight bit of visual fluff. Nice to take the little lady to on Halloween. She’ll enjoy the pretty dresses and Tom Hiddleston’s pretty face, but there’s no “there” there.

The only problem with this critical consensus is that it is wrong. Wrong on every single level. Crimson Peak is a lovely ghost story that works just as ghost stories do: you watch with mounting dread as the protagonist nears a peril that you can see, but they cannot. You hope that they will escape, but thrill at the possibility that they won’t. And (spoilers ahead if you care), how is “Precocious innocent seduced into a fraudulent marriage and then trapped in a nightmarish haunted house by a psychopathic dyad of incestuous, murderous siblings who are slowly poisoning her” NOT A PLOT??? Is that an average Tuesday for you? Is that just par for the course for the nation’s critics? Do they discover familial murders caught on wax cylinder every time they clean out the bathroom cabinet? More to the point: did they even watch this movie?

Listen: “Crimson Peak” isn’t a life-changer. It’s not going to give you terrible nightmares or stun you into staggering personal epiphany. I’m not going to set up a false dichotomy where if the movie’s one thing, it absolutely can’t be another (would that the critics had extended it the same courtesy). But what it is, is not what is being written about it. It is a cautionary tale about taking people at face value, whispered by a terrifying, skeletal ghoul who may, in fact, have your best interests at heart. It is a house that is speaking to you in symbols and color and wallpaper and light, being projected at an American critical audience who thinks none of those languages are worth listening to. It is a tree falling in a forest. Try listening.

Movie trailer review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

OK. Let’s talk this new Star Wars trailer. io9’s already done a terrific shot-by-shot breakdown of the potential character interactions and plot structure hinted at within the trailer, and I honestly can’t add anything on that front, so I’m going to talk a little instead about how this trailer wants to make you feel.

First, I’m going to assume that the vast majority of movie-going Americans aren’t like the fine people over at io9, and don’t already know the names of all the new characters and planets being shown here, especially not when those characters are shown swaddled in rags or are heard only in voiceover. To them, the tiny figure rappelling down a rope in the opening shots isn’t Rey on Jakku: it’s just a tiny, disguised figure rappelling down a rope into the strange, dusty wreckage of something very big and very old, something that came before her. And let’s also acknowledge that, for a lot of people who are coming to this trailer, the original Star Wars trilogy came before them, too. For nearly everyone who’ll be sitting in the theater come December, Star Wars is that echoey cavern of childhood that we rappel down into on memory’s line, wiping away the dust and hunting around in the corners for something that makes us feel, once again, like children. And the next shot shows us that Abrams is keenly aware of that interplay, too—here’s Daisy Ridley, who is an adult, walking through a desert landscape with a huge stick and a droid that looks like a child’s toy ball, both items so outsized to her proportions that she appears childlike. This movie (unlike the Phantom Menace) isn’t about children, Abrams is telling us, but adults who still feel like children, lost and lonely, not just dwarfed by a hostile world but nearly erased by it: “I’m no one,” we hear Rey say as she watches the upward trajectory, far away, of a ship escaping the bonds of her world (io9 astutely points out here that the ship represents her wish of escape). But Rey’s not just passively watching—she’s sitting up and taking notice, the way Abrams wants us to, and moreover is going to make a case, over the next two minutes, for us to do. Rey is us, the alienated audience, jaded by decades of bad Star Wars movies than wanted nothing more from us than an open wallet and a slack mind, movies that left us as alienated as Rey is here. We—and she—need a friend.

And, right on cue, here comes another lost adult, spinning down from the sky in a shot that mirrors and responds to Rey’s wish with an equal and opposite reaction—a crash landing into her world. Finn is a soldier without a cause, a toy without a purpose: “I was raised to do one thing,” he laments, “And now I have nothing to fight for.” So both characters (which Abrams has sketched out for us in the space of about thirteen seconds—holy shit he’s good) have this neat parallel; they feel erased, insignificant, like non-entities. They are self-described nothings and nobodies.

Which makes Finn and Rey exactly who Kylo Ren is talking about when he says “Nothing will stand in our way.” In any other trailer, this would register as an eye-rolling bit of villain doggerel; here, however, the cliché is undercut. We already know two pieces of personified Nothing who will obviously stand in Kylo Ren’s way, and we’re primed for his comeuppance.

That said, we’re also pretty primed to hear more about Kylo Ren’s whole deal, because “I will finish what you started”, while ostensibly a line of Ren’s to Vader’s mutilated death-mask, is actually a line for us. It is a promise being made to the audience, who did not give one fat damn about Vader’s journey from childhood trauma through moody adolescence to the Dark Side, and who continued not to give one fat damn as Lucas dragged us through three interminable examinations of that journey. Abrams is promising us that he will finish what the original trilogy started, which was quite simply: a good story.

Speaking of which…. let’s hear one from Grandpa Solo!
“Those stories about what happened,” prompts Rey, approaching the bench slowly, hesitantly. Both she and Finn look like kids hoping to be allowed to stay up past their bedtime, a mood enhanced by a holographic projection of stars in ethereal blue; slowly, the magic is starting to descend. “It’s true,” he assures them/us, going through a Christmas wish-list of the things we all want to see in the movie: the Jedi, the Dark Side. (Well-trained audience members, primed from several months of watching and re-watching the first trailer, will automatically mentally fill in “…and the Light.”) This wish list is as significant for the things it’s NOT including as the things it is—story elements notably absent here include trade negotiations, galactic parliaments, science, and midichlorians. (Such were the delights of the prequels. You know I’ve never gone back and re-watched a single one of those movies? Once was enough. And fuck the midichlorians, anyway! What a bunch of bullshit! Way to reduce magic and Zen and something resonant and real-feeling to a blood marker! I still get mad thinking about that shit! Where was I?)

Oh right. Grandpa Solo’s story, accompanied by that gorgeous shot of Finn being literally turned around by the friendly camaraderie of a fellow resistance fighter. God, that’s an elegant way to symbolize his character arc. Two seconds, max. Have I mentioned how goddamn good Abrams is at trailers? And now we’re into the meat of the story. We’ve set up our heroes, our villain, and above all our reason for being here: we want to be convinced that everything we used to feel about Star Wars is real. It’s all of it real. And oh man are we ready for some story now: in quick succession, we get explosions, blasters, stormtroopers, X-wings, CHEWIEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!, a modified-looking R2, more blasts, a pissed-*off* looking Rey with a bigass blaster, more explosions, LEIA!!!!!!!!!!!!, and finally Finn, firing up his lightsaber against a beautiful background of glowing blue snow, looking absolutely terrified. No sooner has Abrams assured us that “It’s all real” then shit gets extremely real. People are going to get blown up in this movie. It is not Star Parliament. It is not Star Trade Negotiations. It is not Star Regrout George Lucas’s Pool. It is STAR FUCKING WARS, and there is going to be some war here.

And all we have to do, in Abrams’ final call to action, is simple:

“The Force. It’s calling you. Let it in.”

God, I am ready for this movie.

Movie review: “The Babadook”

My sister recommended this Australian movie to me, and she is not one to put up with any nonsense or cheesiness in her movies. And indeed, while it did rely a little much on some cliched horror tropes, it was unusual in that the psychological tension was actually not being generated by the strange dark force bubbling up through the house, but by the extreme claustrophobia of a mother alone in a room with her child. Because while viewers might not all have a creepy shrine to our dead husbands in the basement, or a strange and disturbing Victorian children’s book on our shelves, or a house that is trying to murder us, a LOT of people–particularly a lot of women–have had the experience of being The Only Grownup In The Room. Enter feminism, stage right.

So much of this movie takes place in small confined spaces–a bedroom, a moving car–with a screaming child throwing a fit or a tantrum. No one else is ever in frame–just Amelia, the meek suburban nurse and mother, and her apoplectic son. These spaces, the film seems to be saying, are the loneliest places on earth. There is nowhere to get away, no escape from the sound or the oppressive wave of emotion you can’t tame or soothe, nothing but your own responsibility, crammed up against you, red-faced and raging.

And yet this movie isn’t anti-motherhood, or anti-child, at all. What it is anti-, is anti-isolation. It’s against a society that offers no slack but plenty of criticism to parents, and mothers most pointedly. It’s an illustration of how badly things go wrong when single mothers are expected to endlessly, perfectly be The Only Grownup In The Room, with horrendous social consequences for failure and zero social support. It does so through the very simple and classic horror setup of the haunted house. To wit: Outside the house, there are bosses who want to fire you for missing work, teachers who want your child isolated from others, a sister who will not allow your child to play with hers, Child Protective Services who want to interview your child to see why you have removed him from school for a week. Inside the house, Amelia is terrified. The walls were closing in on her long before a scary monster started banging doors and sliding out from the shadows. You could literally remove all traces of the top-hatted and grinning Babadook–it looks like an Edward Gorey illustration sprung to life–and this would still be the scariest movie I’d seen all year.

Because the calls are coming from inside the house.

Movie review: “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies”

NOTE: This contains not only spoilers for “The Hobbit”, but also for “L.A. Confidential”, “Serenity”, “Avengers”, and “Leon: The Professional”. I like to talk about movies, what can I say.

Christ, this movie was long. Long like a six-year-old telling you the plot of a videogame, long like driving across Ohio in a rental car, long like your uncle’s rant about Obama. The last movie I went to that felt this long was LOTR: Return Of The King. And it’s not like it was tightly storyboarded, either; twenty minutes of nothing but well-lit reaction shots and echoing vocal flashbacks could have been cut out of this movie before an editor even had to *start* making difficult decisions. And part of this unwieldy length were the odd fits-and-starts and false run-ups to plot points that didn’t happen (see below), but part of it was also Peter Jackson’s staggering lack of comprehension of one basic tenet of cinematic storytelling, which is that the more time we have to anticipate, experience, and then reflect upon the death of a character, the less impactful that death becomes. Think about the most memorable deaths you’ve seen in movies. Think about Dudley Smith shooting Jack Vincennes in his own kitchen. Think about Leon almost making it to the alleyway. Think about Coulson getting stabbed in the back by a god who, a millisecond before, was standing in front of him. Think about Wash, for God’s sake.

(I’m sorry I made you think about Wash.)

What do all these deaths have in common? They’re all impactful because you don’t see them coming. There’s no ponderous what-does-it-all-mean trombone music. There’s no long tearful goodbye. There’s certainly no monologuing. By contrast, every death in Jackson’s world is foreshadowed and prefaced and foretold and premeditated and scheduled on an Outlook calendar. Every named character who dies in this movie dies by slow, grunting, impalement, followed by a fall down a cliff, after which they are surrounded by their friends, who have a little conversation with them about their feelings and their memories, and then the light does something majestic and their eyes cloud over and the survivors have a dignified little weep and there’s no less than three separate characters pondering on about their legacy and their legend and then it’s time for the funeral pyre. In the middle of an battle. Who has time for this shit in a war? Apparently, everybody, except Orcs, who are all either A) killed with an easy-peasy scissoring motion that requires no more effort than snapping the head off a daisy or B) are the spawn of Jason and Chucky, and can only be killed by being stabbed, shot, frozen, drowned, and then impaled by slow, grunting effort, as per Jackson’s Rule of Maximal Deathage.

In between the endless, excruciating deaths, we are treated to multiple false starts to plot points that either don’t matter or don’t happen. Can anyone explain to me what the point was of the entire battle with the Necromancer/Witch-Kings/Incipient Eye of Sauron, other than allowing Christopher Lee to look cool while swinging his hair around like a L’Oreal commercial? If it was just to break Gandalf out of his cage, isn’t there a moth for that? Was it really so all-fired important that we foreshadow Saruman’s flip to the Dark Side–and did this scene really tell us anything that the actual casting of Christopher Lee did not? Where was Radagast, physically, before the escape, and how did he travel so damn fast? If Galadriel can send Sauron fleeing for the hills by dropping her voice a register and looking like a greenish early 90’s arcade game for a few seconds, what do we need hobbits for?

Furthermore, what was up with all the eagles and bats and ravens that didn’t do anything except allow characters to make prescient observations like “The eagles are coming!” I mean, it’s very nice that Middle Earth has a thriving avian-and-flying-mammal ecosystem, but if, as Legolas claims, the bats were “bred for war”, what is their warlike purpose? So far as I could see, they gave him a handy lift to the top of a tower, and that’s it. If you are going to tell me these are war-bats, then I want to see them swoop down and drain an elephant of blood in 2.5 seconds, not just flap around looking menacing.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I didn’t enjoy this movie, or like I was filing my nails throughout; I did enjoy it, and except for the endlessly over-dramatized deaths of the Kennedys–I’m sorry, the Oakenshields–it held my attention. The battle scenes were outstanding, the animals that were truly utilized were terrific (one usage of a reindeer / elk’s antler rack stands out particularly as a hold-on-I-gotta-rewind-that moment), and Martin Freeman deserves All The Oscars this year, including for Best Sound Editing and Best Usage Of The Sniffles, because he is incredible and does not get anywhere *near* enough recognition, for the precise reason that he always plays overshadowed and overlooked men. (John to Sherlock, Tim to everyone else in the Office, the stand-in to the leading man.) You’re going to enjoy yourself in this movie. But when you stand up and realize that your knees are creaking and your neck is stiff and you have been listening to characters pontificating about the Legacy Of Thorin Oakenshield for nearly three hours, you are going to wonder why it needed to take so long for Peter Jackson to say goodbye to Middle Earth. And so did I.

Movie review: “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”

I have this test for if I’m gonna buy a dress. If I put it on, look in the fitting room mirror, and start grinning and dancing at the same time, that’s a roger on the dress. If I frown, suck in my stomach and start trying different poses, the dress is not getting bought. Simple as that.

I have a similar test for movies. It’s called the “bound-ahead” test. If, on the way out of the theater, I turn sideways and gallop two or three steps ahead of my friends, then turn around and begin talking and gesticulating excitedly while walking backwards, thus endangering myself, other patrons, and the stray potted plant, the movie was a good one. Simple as that.

“Age of Ultron” passed the bound-ahead test with flying colors, and was therefore a good movie. Everything else I have to say is predicated on that foundation. AoU was a good movie. In fact, I adored it.

I’ve never had so much beef with a movie I adored.

This movie managed to insult me as a woman, botch the characterization of some of my favorite fictional people on earth, and suspend disbelief by its underwear from the top of the school flagpole. It overloaded the cast; it tried to lay too much groundwork; it whiffed the ending. If this movie was a person, I would be making out with it on a pool table within ten minutes of meeting it, but I wouldn’t ever let it find out where I lived, because this movie is the kind of bad news whose texts could make you walk into a wall, but whose calls always come collect from county lockup. Somebody, tell me why I love this hot mess of a movie so damn much. Because seriously, it’s got problems. Here are some:

Problem #s 1-1,000,000. Clint Barton’s Secret Family. I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of people over the last three days about the many faces of Hawkeye, (criminal, avatar for ordinary humans, knockoff character, landlord, circus freak, reality TV show addict, super-spy, brainwashed clean slate, mentor of troubled youth, gay for Coulson, straight for Natasha, the knee bone connects to the ankle bone) and there’s a lot of room for individual interpretation, depending on what source well you’re drinking from. But the one consistent character trait across all sources (early comics canon, late comics canon, MCU canon, or fanon) is that Clinton Francis “Aw, Coffee, No” Barton is A) immensely talented at exactly one thing and B) a walking human disaster zone in every other area of his life, especially the “romantic relationships” area. This is a man whose previous girlfriends have basically bonded together in a little We Survived Dating Clint Barton And You Can Too, But Honey, You Really Shouldn’t club. This is a man whose best relationships are with his DVR and his dog. And that’s awesome, that’s relatable, that makes him work as a hero. Watching him magically become an ur-American dad in a functional marriage is deeply destabilizing to his character. Beyond that, it doesn’t work. Why would Clint keep his family hidden from everyone in SHIELD except Nick Fury if he was unaware of HYDRA’s infiltration? Why would Natasha make no mention of his family in Avengers 1? And why is he living in an aspirational, idyllic, America-that-never-was house with a tractor and a flag?  In short, why is Clint Barton living in Steve Rogers’ house? This plot development was clearly a generic escape hatch for an actor whose contract was about to expire, but it’s not the right escape hatch for Clint. And that brings me to my next problem:

2. Outside concerns influencing in-universe plot developments. Marvel, we get it. Robert Downey, Jr.’s contract is going to expire someday soon. You’ve been sitting us down, like a five-year-old with an aging pet, to gently break the news at the end of every movie since Iron Man 3. But the fact that your studio has problems holding on to actors is no reason to make this movie into Joss Whedon And The Case Of Too Many Producer’s Notes. We don’t need explanations of Pepper and Jane’s busy lives. We don’t need a timetable of Thor’s commuting schedule. We don’t need to be lead into a quiet room and shown the specs for the New Avengers while a nurse stands by with oxygen, and we certainly don’t need that to be the final scene in the movie! Stop trying to hedge bets on real-life business problems in your fictional universe. Worst case scenario, you replace an actor, and MCU’s already proven it can survive that with the Norton/Ruffalo swap. Besides, bending plot developments around potential contract negotiations is just goofy. Because shit happens. Hemsworth could die in a car crash tomorrow. Tell the story you want to tell, not the story you might have to. It’s totally possible to weave an extended absence—or loss—into a story gracefully; Hulk’s withdrawal from the group is a perfect example. That felt real and natural and like an organic character choice, and it leaves the door open for Ruffalo’s return or absence as the case may be,

(But Christ, I hope Ruffalo returns. Because watching him and Scarlett Johannson flirt felt like watching two planets sink into orbit around each other, an inevitable and gorgeous collision. Watching them made me realize I could no longer remember a time when romance was not for teenagers. I had forgotten what it was like to watch a grown woman serve a grown man a drink and then wallop him across the face with sex and confidence and bravado. I had forgotten that in movies, men used to have hair on their chests. I had forgotten how it felt to hear an actress deliver a line so brazen that the entire theater gasped and half the men started choking.)

3. But alas, that brings us to The Thing They Did To Scarlett’s Character, and I’m afraid the news there is the worst of the whole movie. Leaving aside for a minute the ugly, rape-y implication that a sexual/reproductive violation confers monster status upon the victim, not the perpetrator, since when does the Black Widow get taken hostage by a goddamned robot? We’ve seen her play Loki, who is a trickster God, like a cheap banjo. We’ve seen her take out an entire warehouse full of Russian mobsters with her arms literally tied behind her back. She has been Tony Stark’s assistant. Ultron should not pose a problem for Widow, and yet here she is, trussed up like Nancy Drew in a cave. What’s most painful is the knowledge that a fix would have been so easy—just by showing that Widow *allowed herself to be taken* in order to funnel location information to Clint. It would have changed nothing about the movements or mechanics of the plot, while keeping well in-character for Widow. The only reason the plot works the way it does is to allow Bruce to perform a princess-rescue, which is the last thing Natasha has ever needed. An assist with a door, fine. A rescue? Bullshit.

So, to paraphrase Steve Earle, let’s magnetize this motherfucker and see what’s still floating. And what’s still floating is, oddly:

The whole movie. Despite all these major problems, this movie is still a joyous, soaring, magnificent piece of work. Every fight scene is intricate as a Faberge egg, composed of a thousand moving parts, coming together and falling apart with balletic grace. Recurrent jokes surface and resurface at beautifully unexpected intervals like dolphins off the bow wave of a ship, creating a braid of dialogue we can imagine going on long after we’ve left a scene. The world of the team feels real, lived-in—relationships seem like they’ve been caught in-progress, not started and stopped for the cameras. Joss Whedon, famous for brutal and unexpected character deaths, feints right and goes left in a gorgeous bit of misdirection that caught the entire audience wrong-footed and left us sheepishly admitting that he got us, again. An entire city sequence is shot at actual dusk, in a process that must have taken ungodly amounts of time and created volcanic, ulcerous stress over lighting, but which results in a truly memorable cityscape of twinkling yellow lights against softly glowing purple walls. Andy Serkis shows up for three minutes and eats everybody’s lunch. And Hawkeye, in-character in his professional life at least, gets to deliver a speech that feels human and real and decent and humble in the middle of a truly humbling situation. The city is flying. The city is flying, and Clint is fighting robots with a bow and arrow, and none of this makes sense, but the story rips merrily along at a torrential pace, leaving you breathless and giddy and ready to go again.

I’m ready to go again.