A New Hope represented the first reset button for the story. The Force Awakens does the same for the Original Trilogy. A Catholic movie critic I respect, T.Martin, has a problem with what The Force Awakens does to the happy ending of Return of the Jedi.
And I must admit that this is a big concern. After all of the blood and sacrifices of our heroes, they deserve their happily ever after. But The Force Awakens makes clear that there is no happily ever after. At least not on this earth.
The Force Awakens, therefore, is clearly anti-Utopian. I would not go so far as to call it dystopian, but it does not appear as though you can achieve happily ever after. This is a condemnation of any kind of Marxist anthropology that would have us believe that with just the right circumstances, human nature can create heaven on Earth, or in this case, in a galaxy far, far away. That is because of the fallen nature of the person.
While I want happiness for the heroes of the Original Trilogy, I cannot argue with the anti-Utopian point. This universe, if it is inhabited by fallen creatures, cannot rebuild paradise. That isn't to say that there can't be some goodness and justice. But that light is very tenuous, always in danger of being snuffed out.
A friend of mine pointed me to a letter JRR Tolkien wrote about his attempt to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. He had to give up because it began to turn into something more akin to Game of Thrones. Tolkien wrote; "I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men, it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a 'thriller' about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing."
That damning indictment of men and "their quick satiety with the good," is on display in The Force Awakens. The hard earned victory of goodness from one generation cannot be automatically transferred to another.
There must be a generational choice.
The first conversation in the film shows two men of different generations with different world-views. Lor San Tekka calls Leia royalty, but Poe Dameron knows her only as a general. Already from the beginning we are made aware of how the Original Trilogy is something that this new generation stands on the outside looking in. The defeat of the Empire was a victory, but it was not their victory. Each generation is called to choose a side.
Finn makes this point early in the movie when he is in his first battle and doesn't fire. He later tells Rey that he was cut off from any family and was raised to be a killer. But when the time came, he says, "I made a choice." The movie is filled with characters who were raised to be something but choose to be something else.
This choice is made clearest in the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren. Rey is an orphan, cut off from her family. She longs to find a connection to those that have come before her. She lives in the relics of a dead past among the hollowed husks of great ships and vehicles. She has dolls of star pilots and wears their helmets like a child at play.
Kylo is the opposite. He was handed a galaxy of peace, paid for by his parents and uncle. He is given love and attention. His gifts are nurtured. And then he rejects his family's life and embraces a more rebelious path. He throws away the one thing that Rey wishes for more than anything.
This highlights the essence of choice. Kylo and Rey may have preternatural gifts and fate may play a hand in what they are, but ultimately they will be defined by their choices, not the choices of the people around them.
That isn't to say that the previous generation is finished with its journey. While the goal of parents is to raise children into the adults who will take over, the parental generation must still carry on, despite the failures.
We can see this in Luke, Han, and Leia. The loss of Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), is a crushing defeat. I had a student ask me today how could a good parent have an evil child. But this brings us back always to the element of choice. Your character is heavily influenced by your environment. But your soul is your own. Regardless, Luke, Han, and Leia all believe themselves to be failures and they retreat. Luke retreats from the world. Han retreats into his scoundrel ways. Leia retreats into battle. As I wrote in my reflection on A New Hope, each of these three is incomplete without the help of the others. The dissolving of these bonds unglues the entire fabric of the saga.
Leia is the only one who does not give up. She sets Poe on the path to find Luke. She sends Han to save their son. And even though there is failure here, she does not give up. The big mistake, as we can see, is pulling away.
In Han we see the regression some people have with age where they try to relive their "glory years." We see this in his hunt for the Millennium Falcon. In the end, it is only a ship. The real thing he should have been hunting for was his family. When he arrives on the Falcon, he says: "Chewie, we're home." And he is right, but not in the way he thinks. He is home because he finds someone with whom he can find a strong, fatherly connection: Rey.
Maz Kanata says to Rey, "The belonging you seek is ahead of you, not behind you." The same could be said to Han. Intransigency is the curse of age. The older we get, we close ourselves off to new experiences and relationships. Han is lost until his encounter with Rey brings him back to Leia and then to his son. And he tries to reach Kylo, but is rejected.
But this goes back to the larger philosophical question: can virtue be taught? We can attain virtue for ourselves, but can we teach virtue to others. We will not know the full answer until this trilogy is finished. But it would appear that the answer is "no."
The Force Awakens appears to take the view that virtue is not a kind of knowledge that can be taught. If that were so, Kylo should be virtuous. Instead, virtue must be won anew by the next generation. All the previous generation can do is model virtue. But in the end, the acceptance or rejection of virtue is a choice.
As Maz says, this is the only fight that ever matters. Sith/Jedi, Empire/Rebellion, First Order/Resistance... these are all skins that cover the heart of the matter: Evil vs. Good. This is something that each generation must awaken to in its own way. We see this play out in human history where peace and prosperity give way to moral decay and yet war and struggle and purify the soul of a society. It doesn't always happen this way, but no generation seems to hold on to its victories for too long. The next generation must always choose as if it is all new.
Wisdom would be found in learning from the mistakes of the past. That is why it is important to know our story. Instead, Luke Skywalker has become a distant myth not connected to the real-life struggle of the new heroes. But if Rey and Kylo really learned and studied what had come before them, if they had really learned from the lives of the previous generations, they could avoid their mistakes.
And this loss of legacy is partly the fault of the older generation's retreat. While they cannot pass on their virtues, they can live the example of virtue and happiness for the future generations to follow. This is why we venerate saints so that we can see an example of how to live. But if we retreat away from that responsibility, we make it easier to fall.
This is one of the reasons I love the ending of The Force Awakens. Rey holds out Luke's lightsaber and not a word is spoken.
Is it a plea for help?
Is it a sign of her devotion?
Is it a reminder of his past?
Is it a condemnation of his abandonment?
Is it a call for Luke to find redemption?
All of this is left unsaid and unanswered because everything depends on the choice that will be made. The movie ends not with the decision of what is to happen, but the moment of choice. Rey has made a choice to find Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi.
What that choice means is something we will have to find out.
Most of the below article is from 2014, but for the most part, the list has not changed.
This either speaks to the fact that these movies are so good that they still endure as the years go on or the fact that nothing in the last few years has been able to match them. Or it could be both.'
Anyway, enjoy the read and share your thoughts in the comments section.
And no, I don't talk about the Star Wars Holiday Special.
No one should talk about the Star Wars Holiday Special.
There are some movies that I only watching during the 25 days leading up to Christmas. So at least once a year these movies will be played at the Catholic Skywalker house, especially during Christmas activities like putting up the Christmas tree and present wrapping.
(not surprisingly, a good portion of the choices below are from my previous Sunday Best list of best Christmas movies of all time).
Emmet Otter' Jugband Christmas
I remember seeing this back in grade school and it was unlike any other Muppet production I had seen. It was so… sad. There was a melancholy to this movie that I had never really encountered in a puppet based film, let alone a Christmas movie. But that is part of its amazing charm. Nothing in the world of Emmet Otter is easy, but the smallest things are so heavily valued.
And I can't help but love the music.
What a great song and dance team Crosby and Kaye make. This movie is just pure fun and heart. And it has one of my favorite movie dance numbers of all time:
This movie expertly interweaves seemingly disparate stories and reminds us that Christmas is about love. Christmas is a time when love, any kind of love, should be made more manifest.
Men discover that they truly love their friends. Lovers pour out their hearts to each other. Parents and children dare to dream for each other.
Expertly directed, sharply written, and splendidly acted.
What this movie gets right is that it captures the fun and heart of the old TV Christmas specials like Rudolph and Frosty, all the while setting it in our modern, cynical world. But more than that, we would rather be Buddy in his boundless enthusiasm and love.
The laughs are big and it will leave you with a desire to spread Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear!
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
This is, hands down, the best portrayal of Santa Claus I have ever seen. He was big and beefy, with grey hair, but he was not slothful and slow. He was a Santa Claus who was up to doing his yearly heroic mission. The gifts Santa Claus brings serve as a clarion call to fight on the side of the King of Christmas.
The Nativity Story
This is probably the best movie I have seen that is centered around the birth of Christ. It is filmed beautifully by Catherine Hardwicke. The landscapes, the homes, the costumes all feel so genuine. And I love Oscar Isaacs' Joseph. I love that he is portrayed as a young man who is still trying to find his place in this world. He is a simple carpenter who just wants a simple life, but God has other plans. I love how Isaacs performance of this man so overwhelmed that he almost buckles. But he mans up and trusts in God and Mary. For me, he is the real lynchpin of the movie.
I watch this movie every Christmas Eve to remind me of the heavenly peace of the Nativity.
The Muppets Christmas Carol
This is, hands down, the best screen adaptation of Ebeneezer Scrooge's story. It is also the move that the Muppets have made.
Michael Caine is perfect. The music is fantastic. And how can anyone not love the Ghost of Christmas Present?
The Muppets make an excellent fit to the magical world depicted. I also love that they did not eschew the explicitly religious elements, but brings out how essential Christ is in Christmas.
One of the reasons Scrooged works so well is that it is hysterical. Bill Murray milks every ounce of humor from every quip and every glance. To this day, I can't help but smile as the elves go for their automatic machine guns.
But what puts this movie over the top is the closing monologue. The last 10 minutes of the movie are Murray preaching to the audience the meaning of Christmas.
And it is a special movie that can get an entire movie theater of strangers singing at the end.
It's A Wonderful Life
As a Catholic, I love that it starts with the collected prayers of the people of Bedford Falls. This is ultimately, the story of a man whose prayers have been answered. And I love the fact that God answers his prayers in a way that he doesn't expect. God has a knack for doing the unexpected and better thing.
If God had simply given George the $8,000, then he never would have realized what a wonderful life he was living. The point of the story is not the ending where the people give him the money (as the great John Nolte has pointed out). When he returns from seeing the alternate reality, all of George's problems remain: he's deaf in one ear, bleeding from a punch, and he's going to lose his business and his freedom. But even with all that, George is deliriously happy because he realizes that even with all of those problems, he still has a wonderful life: he has friends, he has a loving wife, and a treasure in his children.
In the movie, George has a plaque underneath the picture of his father that says: "The only thing you can take with you is that which you give away." It's A Wonderful Life makes me want to be a better person.
I can't think of a better compliment to give a movie, especially the best Christmas movie of all time.
I also have to watch the claymation Christmas episode of Community
Much of what is below is a repost from years earlier.
I think about St. Andrew quite a bit. He was one of the first four called by Christ. It was James, John, Andrew and Andrew's brother Peter. But of that quartet, only the trio of Peter, James, and John ended up being Jesus' closest friends.
I wonder if Andrew was like us and got jealous. According to the Gospel of John, it was Andrew who brought Peter to the Lord, and the Lord seemed to like Peter better. How often have we introduced a sibling or friend to our inner circle only to have them become more popular or have a greater aptitude for what you enjoy?
But I bet that Andrew was better than most of us. He was probably a model of humility. I like to imagine that he was happy for his brother and he was content to have others loved and esteemed more than himself.
My favorite story is about when he died. They tied him to the cross, but for days and days he preached non-stop to the point where the officials realized it was doing them more harm than good.
But when they came to take him down, Andrew looked at Jesus and told him he was tired and he just wanted to go home to heaven and be with Him. So the soldiers were unable to take him down and Andrew finally went home to the Jesus and his brother Peter on November 30th 60 AD.
Today is the feast of St. Andrew. And there is a special novena prayer that is prayed between now and Christmas. It goes as follows:
St. Andrew Christmas Novena
Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born Of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His blessed Mother. Amen.
That prayer is prayed 15 times a day until the ends. My wife and I pray this together every year and have found many graces through the intercession of St. Andrew. I pray that all of you do as well.
I am very grateful for all of the wonderfully positive feedback on this essay, so I thought I would share it again.
As you know, this year has been rough. The death of my mom is hitting me particularly hard this holiday. I had a dream about her last night. I saw her in a car and I went to tell her something. She told me she was feeling weak so I said we had to get her to the hospital because that's why we brought her there last time. Then in my dream I remembered that she never left the hospital.
I still catch myself wanted to text her when I get some bit of good news. The worst is that I know for our next holiday gathering at my house, I'm going to expect her car to pull into the driveway even though it never will.
And this year, both of her parents, my grandparents passed. 2017 has taken quite a bit from my family.
But there is so much to be thankful for.
As sad and as wretched as my mom's illness was, I am so thankful for the time we spent together, the hours upon hours holding her hand, and the words of love and farewell we shared.
I am so grateful that my wife and I decided to change our travel plans and see my grandfather mere hours before he passed so that we could pray with him and share with him our love.
I am thankful for all the people that are still in my earthly life here. You know who you are and you are a blessing.
It is also in times like these that I am so thankful for my Catholic faith. Perhaps someone stronger than me could have borne the sorrow of these past months with stoic resolve. Not me. I am weak. But what gave me joy through all of that sorrow is the knowledge that our goodbyes are not forever. That we will one day spend eternity together, I will hold her hand again, and we will share words of love and welcome.
And I know that I have so many blessing of which I am oblivious. But today I will endeavor to be thankful for them all.
And I am thankful for all of you who read this blog as well.
(originally published November 22, 2012)
Thanks For Nothing
When I was 15-years-old, I got a little sick. In what was obviously an over-reaction on his part, my dad took me to the Emergency Room. As it turned out, I had pneumonia and my blood oxygen level was down to about 50%. If he had waited much longer to take me I might have died.
I share this with you so that you will understand why I am a little bit of a hypochondriac now. I don't freak out at every sneeze or obsessively lather myself in Purell. But whenever I have chronic problem, I begin to have a persistent fear of the worst.
For the past 4 weeks I've had a persistent cough. I cannot remember having one that has lasted this long. So of course, my mind helplessly gravitated to the worst case scenarios, despite the constant assurances from my long-suffering wife. After weeks of fretting, I went yesterday morning for a chest X-ray.
After they were taken, I was asked to wait for a moment alone in the exam room. I stood there for 5 minutes in that room with its claustrophobic white walls and antiseptic smell and thought about all those people who came to that room and got bad news that resulted in a lot more time between claustrophobic white walls and antiseptic smells.
Finally, after hours of fretting (and trying to distract myself with a viewing of Wreck-It Ralph) we got the results.
And what did they find?
They found nothing. I was worried about nothing.
I was put on some new medication and I've been feeling a bit better.
I didn't realize how much the storm clouds had been hovering over me until today. I was walking around, doing chores and errands with such a light heart. It was because I knew that my cough, though a bit annoying, was ultimately nothing.
Today is Thanksgiving. It has always been one of my favorite holidays, and not because I eat enough turkey to put a man twice my size into a literal coma (although that is a plus). I love that we take time out of our year to appreciate the blessings of life and give thanks to our Provider.
My boss, a man I greatly admire, once said to me that you cannot be truly happy unless you are truly thankful. Happiness only comes when you acknowledge that everything thing you have is a gift from God.
I have tried to take those words to heart and be thankful for everything I have. I have an holy wife, a loving family, loyal friends, a fulfilling job, and more action figures than you can shake a stick at (if that's your idea of a good time). Bing Crosby sang that we should count our blessings instead of sheep. But I never get to the end of count because God has been so very generous to me.
But all this time I have been overlooking something else to be thankful for.
I wrote earlier about how much I have come to realize what a blessing it is to feel normal. But I did not take it the necessary step further.
There is nothing wrong with my lungs. But it could have been something. And that something could have been not-so-bad to catastrophic. But God, in His goodness, gave me nothing.
About 2 years ago I was on the highway on my way to work in the middle of winter. I was in the left lane when I noticed a car had skidded off the road. I tried to get a better look, but I must have not been paying attention to the road. Because I then hit a patch of ice and my car spun out and did a 180 degree turn that hurled me across the other lane. And do you know what I hit?
For one of the only times I can remember, there were no cars around me on that part of the road. I skidded off to the right embankment facing the opposite direction. But I was fine. Nothing happened.
A few weeks ago during Hurricane Sandy, the wind was so strong it blew down a tree in my back yard. What did it hit?
A little to right and it would have destroyed my shed. If it fell in the opposite direction it would have caved in the roof and crushed my wife and I. But instead, nothing happened.
This world is so full of darkness and danger, disease and disaster. Some of it falls on us. But a lot of it doesn't.
So today I'm going to give thanks not only for the all of the things God has given me this past year, but I'll also praise Him for the "nothings" too.
No sudden falls down the stairs that break a limb. No food poisoning from that new restaurant. No angry student deciding to respond to his detention with his fist. No home burglary in the middle of the night. No careless accident to hurt anyone I love.
I do have my share of crosses, many of them of my own making, but I have not been crushed by them. And I am not saying that any of the aforementioned catastrophes won't one day be mine to bear. One day, an X-ray may find something.
The events that began with the DC New 52, through DC Rebirth have hall come to head with this:
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
For those who are unfamiliar, back in 1986, writer Alan Moore and artist David Gibbons created a 12 issue maxi-series called Watchmen that deconstructed the mythology of super heroes. It is dark and violent and a work of genius. Though owned by DC, Watchmen existed in a completely separate universe. Until now. Doomsday Clock will see the world of Watchmen collide with the DC Universe proper.
I know that everyone describes Alan Moore's Watchmen as groundbreaking and a masterpiece. And they are correct. Today before I picked up my copy of Doomsday Clock, I reread the entire Watchmen trade. There is no doubt that it is a work of dark genius. I am in awe of the mastery that brought it about but also leary of it's nihilistic themes.
DC tried capitalizing on Watchmen's name in the past. Back in 2012 there were a number of mini-series that went under the banner "Before Watchmen" that explored the world that Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created. In my eyes the experiment was a failure for two reasons.
1. None of the writers were to Alan Moore's level.
2. The Watchmen world is exceedingly ugly.
Only a genius writer at or above the level of Alan Moore should even attempt to add to this mythos.
But I believe Geoff Johns is the only writer who can.
Not only that, but the whole point of Doomsday Clock is to thematic foil the Watchmen characters with the heroes of the DCU. This to me is an exceedingly interesting concept.
This idea has me very excited. It caused me to do something I never do: order all the different variant covers for the book.
When I left the comic book shop I went to my car and immediately read the first issue from cover to cover.
How did I feel after?
That isn't to say that the first issue is bad. It is actually fascinating in so many ways.
Gary Frank's art is beautiful and mesmerizing. He has an amazing ability to get across drama and personality in his characters. At the same time he has the ability to create amazingly detailed environments that have every bit as much character as the people in the scenes.
But it is jarring to see the color scheme used. Most comics base their colors around red, blue, and yellow. The original Watchmen set itself apart by using primarily purple, orange, and green. Doomsday Clock goes for the more traditional color hues and it's like watching a black and white movie that has been colorized.
But Johns completely embraces the nihilistic vision of the Watchmen world. This may be the first time I've ever read cuss words in a Geoff Johns DC book. In the pages we see a world on the brink of nuclear war, people shot in the back, brain cancer, the attempted gang rape of a male prison guard, the bloody disfigurement of other prisoners and an insane mime.
If Johns' purpose was to make us stare into the abyss of Watchmen's ugliness, then mission accomplished.
The story sees Rorschach breaking into a prison while the world is on the brink of nuclear war. He has been sent by a mysterious partner to liberate super-villain Marionette and (reluctantly) her husband the Mime.
Now those familiar with the original Watchmen know that Rorschach was unceremoniously atomized at the end of the series by Dr. Manhattan. So who is this new Rorschach? Who is his mysterious partner? Why do they need Marionette?
All of these are unanswered but intriguing questions.
The story feels like a logical continuation of Moore's dark vision. Marionette and the Mime are creations of Johns, but they feel at home in Moore's world. I cannot tell yet if the Mime is a character of genius of stupidity. The scene where he gets his weapons from his locker is so odd that I honestly don't know how to feel about it.
Johns also does a good job of making the story feel like a political commentary without taking partisan sides. In that way it feels relevant but not tied to this particular day.
I look forward to reading and re-reading this issue and dissecting all of its nuances in the future. But I like the thematic debt that Johns is making in the beginning. He is painting you a world of utter despair that seems to say something truly disturbing about human nature. This is a theme that cannot be brushed off or ignored. It must be answered.
I hope that the rest of the series is that answer.
I know that this listing overlaps a bit with my current ongoing countdown of greatest superhero movies of all time, but with the release of Justice League, I figured it would be a good time to see where we stand with the DC Extended Universe.
I think DC tried to kickstart the DCEU in 2011 with Green Lantern, which was supposed to be their Iron Man. However, the official kick start of the DCEU is with Man of Steel in 2013. Since then we have accumulated a total of 5 films in this shared universe.
They are ranked here below.
5. Suicide Squad
This was a bold choice for this franchise. And the risk almost pays off. The premise is unlike anything in the mainstream of super hero movies. You had charismatic performances by Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Heck, even the perennially unwatchable Jai Courtney was amazingly fun to watch. But the movie suffers from three things:
a. a Joker performance that, while not terrible, suffers in comparison to Nicholson and Ledger
b. a incredibly uncompelling villain
c. a moral black hole in the middle of the movie from which the film never recovers.
This series could still come back, so I will be there for the sequel.
4. Wonder Woman
As super hero origin stories, this is one that was done right. While it has familiar story beats to other films that have come before it, it feels epic and iconic. I have seen so many comic book movies, but the No Man's Land scene might be one of my favorites of all time. Wonder Woman is a fantastic hero whose strength and femininity, courage and innocence, are all wrapped together to make a great movie.
3. Justice League
I will give my full review on this later. But this film is the one that most mimics Marvel movies in tone and style. This isn't a negative, but it also isn't necessarily a positive since I tend to like the DCEU over the MCU. And this film suffers from another very uninteresting villain. But the pure joy of watching my childhood super friends come together for the first time on screen... pure magic.
2. Man of Steel
There are so many moments in this movie that still give me chills. People knock on the movie for Superman not being the pillar of optimism and hope that he normally is. But that was one of the things I loved about the movie. Superman has to rise above the cynicism of the age that he was also raised in. He is called to be more, to rise above. And he does. Even though he stumbles, he rises.
1. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
My love for this movie only grows and grows. Zack Snyder fully committed to make a movie that used these iconic characters to explore deeper questions about life while still being focused on that iconography. The movie, to my mind, is unappreciated genius. I would have loved to have seen the full Snyder vision realized in Justice League, but I can still go back and watch the amazing second film in his DCEU trilogy and lose myself in it.
I know it has been a few months since I visited this list, so here is a quick recap:
25. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 24. Deadpool 23. Avengers: Age of Ultron 22. Thor 21. The Incredible Hulk 20. The Crow 19. Dredd 18. Batman Begins 17. Batman 16. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm 15. Spider-Man 2 14. The Dark Knight Rises 13. The Wolverine 12. X-Men: Days of Future Past 11. Captain America: Civil War 10. Superman II 9. The Incredibles 8. Iron Man
Now, as this list began a number of months ago, it does not reflect the inclusion of: Logan Wonder Woman Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Spider-Man: Homecoming Thor: Ragnarok Justice League
So now we are at #7:
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Now, some may object to this movie going in front of the original Iron Man on this list. But I stand by my choice. If we were ranking these movies by importance to the overall genre, Iron Man would trump Winter Soldier. But just in terms of film quality, this Captain America movie is better.
It is important to remember at this point what a strange risk this film was in the series. Captain America: The First Avenger was an enjoyable movie but didn't break through the way other comic films had. Screen Junkies even joked in their Avengers honest trailer that of all of the heroes on the team, Steve Rogers was nobody's favorite.
But Winter Soldier changed all of that.
The departure in tone, story, and style from the first one is akin to Christopher Nolan's evolution from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight. The original story was a nostalgic look at the past. This second film was a fish-out-of-water story. But whereas Steve's old-fashioned ways were more of a punchline in Avengers, they served as a moral compass to The Winter Soldier.
What amazed me about the story was how relevant it felt without feeling preachy. We instictively feel that there has been erosion of values in our country, but it is hard to pinpoint where. And what was more amazing was that Steve's insight did not come off as simplistic in the style of Pollyanna or Forrest Gump. The solutions to the problems presented were bold, radical, and costly. I was shocked at how this movie attempted to change the Marvel status quo by not compromising with corruption.
From my original movie review:
I was not expecting this movie to be as good as it is.
The story takes place after the events of The Avengers. Our title hero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a leading operative for the uber-national defense agency SHIELD. Having been displaced from his own era, he throws himself into his missions. But when he begins to question the ethics of his assignments, tension mounts between SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his mission partner Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson).
Fury pushes Steve on his old fashioned ideas of freedom, by introducing him to Project Insight, an operation designed to analyze and neutralize threats around the world with brutal efficiency. This sets off a chain of events that pulls Steve into a world of tension and intrigue where he does not know who to trust, whether it is Natasha, Fury's superior Secretary Alexander Pierce (a weathered, but potent Robert Redford, or even Fury himself. This forces Captain America to go on the run from nefarious forces that send the mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who are probably most famous for their work on the show Community, knock this film out of the park. They have a tight, taught thriller dressed up like a superhero film. Once the first act takes off, the movie really doesn't let up. Even when there isn't any visceral action, the Russos ratchet up the tension. The movie is visually dynamic and is just a joy to watch. The only major criticism I have is that, like most modern action directors, they are addicted to shakey-cam. This shows a lack of confidence in the power of their action set pieces, which is unfortunate because those sequences are fantastic.
Captain America is often dismissed as a slightly strong guy in a Star Spangled suit. And to be sure the directors do an excellent job of making Cap's fighting prowess a fun visual spectacle. But the movie wisely goes out of its way to point out how smart Steve Rogers is. He isn't just a fighter, he is a leader and a strategist. Evans does a great job of playing him as sincere but not naive. He is an honest, earnest man who is not blind to the subterfuge of others. Some of my favorite moments in the movie are when get into Steve's head and see what he sees. This was especially fun right before one of my favorite sequences in the film, a knockdown elevator fight between Cap and 10 killers.
Evans embodies the character perfectly. He has the physicality of a warrior, but he has the easily likable personality that people immediately become his friends, like veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). He has a much larger and deeper character arc than in his previous films. But Evans wisely plays Steve as a man of the Greatest Generation and holds his pain in with quiet dignity.
The Winters Soldier departs from the other Marvel films in its serious tone. There are some good comic relief moments, like Natasha constantly haranguing Steve to ask a girl out. But the other films have their tongues often firmly planted in their cheeks, as we saw with Trevor Slatery (Ben Kingsley) in Iron Man 3 or intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) in the Thor movies. You don't have any of that in the new Captain America movie. It is much more in tune with the recent DC movies like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel.
The themes are also more ambitious than anything we've seen from Marvel. Political thrillers are difficult because you don't want to date yourself by staking your theme to a particular time and place. You also want to avoid strong allegory to a particular political party or ideology or you could alienate your audience. Wisely, the story deals with universal ideas of freedom vs. safety. When the main enemy is revealed, there is actually an understandable perspective espoused that is diabolic in its pragmatism.
And it works so well because the filmmakers don't betray Captain America's essential character. Even as he becomes disenchanted with his government, he never once puts that view on his country. He is a character who not only embodies American exceptionalism, but he believes that believes that Americans are exceptional. He knows that we are capable of great evil, but he also inspires good.
Briefly I want to return to that elevator scene. Whenever this movie is on TV, I wait for this scene and re-watched several times if I can. It might be my favorite action sequence in any Marvel film. That scene is the embodiment of the entire film: smart, tense, action-packed, and immensely satisfying. And that more serious tone makes it stand apart from modern Marvel films even more.
And while I am a romantic at heart, I found it very refreshing to see a man/woman onscreen couple that had chemistry but were not entangled in romance. Captain America's relationship with Black Widow as well as Nick Fury was so interesting. Despite their cynicism, you could see that they looked up to him and deep down wanted his approval. He is the embodiment of the Greatest Generation and we still live in their shadow, hoping we have been good stewards of the freedom for which they paid.
Captain America:The Winter Soldier is the best Captain America movie and has earned its place as the #7 Greatest Super Hero Movie of All Time
Thank you all for your patience with me these last few months. I hope to be back to a regular blogging schedule within the next to week. Now it is time to turn to the upcoming Fall-Winter movies. This is the time usually when the "important" movies come out. The reason being that studios want Academy and other awards groups to have their movies fresh in voters minds.
However, some studios realized that this is a good time to release a big blockbuster because there is less competition, even though more people are home watching television.
Here is a list, with a few brief thoughts of my own, including on a scale of 1-5 stars my likelihood of seeing it in theaters (1 being “Not at all” 5 being “Cannot wait!”). So here are some of the movies that are coming out along with my level of excitement. My ability to get out to the theater may be limited this time around. But I will try to get to the ones that really excite me.
I am still a sucker for Marvel movies, even though the last Thor film wasn't the most exciting. It seems like they are taking a cue from Guardians of the Galaxy and amping up the fun-quotient. (****)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
It looks like pretentious Kubrik-esque drivel. I mean, just look at the title! (*)
My Friend Dahmer
This could be interesting, but disturbing. Not interested (**)
Daddy's Home 2
I was lukewarm on the first one, but the previews made me laugh, especially with the juxtaposition between Mel Gibson and Jon Lithgow. I might check it out (***)
Murder on the Orient Express
I love me some Kenneth Brannagh especially when he is starring and directing. Love the cast, love the trailer. This is high on my list (****)
I am in the minority who LOVED Batman v. Superman and Wonder Woman was awesome. I have high expectations for this film and I hope it does really well. I can't wait to see it (*****)
I Love You, Daddy
This looks like a Woody Allen movie, which I hate. But it almost seems like Louis CK's parody of Woody Allen. Still, it seems icky. (**)
Most Christian movies are of pretty poor quality. But if they can get this movie right, I would love there to be a PIXAR quality film centered around Jesus.
This seems incredibly creative and could be a fun adventure. PIXAR hasn't been as good as it has in the past. Maybe this will bring them back to their roots (****)
The Man Who Invented Christmas
I like the idea of this story, but the directing seems odd, like a strange BBC made for TV film. (**)
I would see this just for Gary Oldman's performance, but the story doesn't seem to break out of other movies about the subject. (**)
The Disaster Artist
I have watched The Room many, many times. It is a fascinating train-wreck of a film. I'm sorry but I desperately want to see this movie (****)
The Shape of Water
This has been getting rave reviews, but all I see is overblown European preachiness wrapped in a sci-fi coating. (*)
This looks oddly fascinating, but I might just wait for Netflix (**)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Already have my tickets and will be going to the first showing. But if they ruin Luke Skywalker, I will be start a riot (*****)
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
A lot of people have been knocking the previews, mainly because this seems to lack the heart of the original. I agree, but this looks like it could be a fun take on the story. (***)
The Greatest Showman
The trailer got me. Something about the music and the dancing got its hooks into my brain and now I have to see it. (****)
Pitch Perfect 3
The first one was an unexpected delight. The second was mostly derivative drivel. I'm not expecting much from this, but I think I'll see it just to finish out the series. (***)
This looks like unfunny raunch. I didn't laugh once in the trailer. This is sad because I like Owen Wilson and Ed Helms (*)
This is actually an incredibly intriguing premise and I would be much more excited to see this movie if it wasn't for a director who specializes in making depressing films that look like comedies and for the unlikeable Matt Damon.
All the Money in the World
This looks like a fascinating and tense drama. I am unfamiliar with the real life kidnapping upon which it is based, but Ridley Scott is usually dependable to tell a good story. (***)
This looks one of those "We were the real monsters all along" set in the old west. A two-hour historical lecture. Pass. (*)
This should be interesting, but the trailers failed to get me even a little interested in the main character's troubles running an illegal, high-end gambling racket (**)
The only reason to see this is that this is supposedly Daniel Day-Lewis' final film performance. But it looks BORING! (*)
In The Fade
Again, another lecture from our European betters who are letting us about the true source of hate and violence in the world. (*)
What happened to the Liam Neeson from Taken? Now he's seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel (*)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure
Saw the first one, but wasn't interested in the second. Less so by the third (**)
Fifty Shades Freed
No, no, no. (*)
I love him in Captain America: Civil War, and the cast looks great. (****)
Not a fan of the original series, but I have to admit I love when the drug dealer asks who Bruce Willis is, he responds, "Your last customer!" (***)
Sorry, but a Cave Boy and His Dog is not that interesting a premise. (*)
This could be really interesting and a good comeback for Jennifer Lawrence if they don't go the Atomic Blonde route. (***)
A Wrinkle in Time
I was very skeptical about adapting this story that I have read several times into a movie. But the trailer sold me. I'm seeing it in the theaters (****)
I think Alicia Vikander is talented, but this franchise has no appeal to me. (**)
MAR 23 Pacific Rim: Uprising
Didn't see the first, though I heard good things. Probably won't see the second (**)
MAR 30 Ready Player One
I loved the book, but it was way too cynical. But with Steven Spielberg directing, he can give it the heart it needs to be a truly great film. And the trailer was pretty sweet! I am there on the first night! (*****)