I don’t go to church. But I do recognize and feel that need to connect at a big conceptual level through art or with my fellow living beings in my own choice of rituals. Sometimes when I want to immerse myself in a topic or escape into a story, I do it through the act of seeing a film in the theater. I can be a bit of a film elitist, but I’ve been known to see my share of popcorn pictures. With certain films, being part of an audience is an electric feeling. Just before the summer arrived, I saw two films from the gigantic Marvel Comics film franchise in the theater as well as a pair of documentaries that in some ways proved to be just as cosmic and captivating as their big budget competition.
Captain Marvel and Avengers Endgame are the concluding chapters in a more than decade-long arc of storytelling that brought the creative work of Stan Lee and his fellow artists and writers to a giant-size, reverberating, and almost unstoppable existence on the big screen. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers on these films and simply share some reflections.
Captain Marvel proved to be both ridiculously implausible and surprisingly energizing in its appeal. I’ve always felt that the fight scenes are overdone in these Marvel superhero films, but if you can go along for the ride in this one, it turns out that Brie Larson (in the starring role) and Samuel L Jackson end up having a rapport that creates various kinds of momentum in the film. The story hinges on a riddle of identity, and it becomes most interesting when the characters of fighter pilot Maria Rambeau and her young daughter are officially introduced. This movie doesn’t make itself out to be political at the outset, but the husband and wife team who directed it do a superb job of bringing out the inherent feminism and some cosmic social justice as part of the superheroics and twists of the plot. At the core, the film is about facing the past and finding the truth as the initial steps to unlocking the potential to be a hero(ine).
After the credits comes the teaser for the finale: Having become a galactic champion with a safely inspirational backstory, Brie Larson will reprise her character in Avengers Endgame, a three hour film that is by turns convoluted, self-indulgent, tear-jerking, and crowd-pleasing. With Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannson, and Chadwick Boseman among many others, this cast is about as good as it gets for a saga essentially about demi-gods in constant competition and planet-size brawls. This film is in fact the kind that calls for being seen with the hum and excitement of a full(ish?) theater.
As a fan many years ago of the comic book print version of Tony Stark and his alter ego Iron Man, I don’t think that the producers could have chosen a better actor than Mr. Downey Jr. for this role. Over a decade it seems, he showed the energy, confidence, and versatility to bring the character to life, aging into the persona without flagging in terms of energy or authenticity. My one issue with this Tony Stark was that he was written as too glib and cocky in a sometimes mean-spirited way. In the comics, Stark was confident and polished, but he also faced a terrible run-in with alchoholism, which absolutely added depth to the figure as he lost his business and his armored identity for a time.
Avengers Endgame is in some ways the ultimate human fantasy for an audience young enough at heart to be excited about super-heroes but experienced enough to know that life is rich with tragic potential and unavoidable realities. As has been the case in so many science fiction stories and films (and probably too many), events hinge on cracking open time itself and finding a way to rewrite what has happened, and in so doing, risking even greater dangers. Digging beneath the semi-apocalyptic plot, the most resonant element of the film is its focus on relationships between peers and legacies from parents to children.
The idea of changing the past for the most personal of reasons can be found in probably the first ever truly great superhero movie: 1978’s Superman, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. Transgressing the dictum of his father (played by Marlon Brando), the hero puts all of his power into flying beyond light speed into the recent past to stop Lois Lane from dying. The scene is acted with incredible skill by Reeve, and to their credit in Endgame, the closing work by Downey Jr. and Chris Evans (as Captain America) turn out to be comparably remarkable.
Super hero sagas and science fiction epics can be great fun, but I also yearn for great nonfiction stories in my moviegoing. Earlier this year, I saw the brilliant Apollo 11 found footage documentary, a story of technology and human triumph that provides the inarguable example of what actual ‘iron men’ look like. Seeing Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong carrying out this mission from start to finish in 90 minutes was a superb filmic experience. There are no talking heads from the 21st century, only well-placed contemporaneous voice-over audio and a subtle but appropriate symphonic soundtrack to accompany the mind-blowing images of the journey.
Returning to the Earth for a moment, I’d like to report on another documentary that I saw the day before seeing Endgame. The film is called the The Biggest Little Farm, and it is a cinematic journal that spans about 10 years in the life of a husband and wife who undertake the ambitious project of starting an organic farm essentially from scratch in a location of several hundred acres an hour outside of Los Angeles.
The story begins with an adopted dog and a seemingly eccentric farming consultant who advises the couple to embrace nature and plant dozens of different crops in an effort to create a teeming campus of natural produce and vibrant animal husbandry. However, it turns out that a farm is a hell of a difficult thing to manage, especially when attempting to be as responsive and gentle to the environment and the animals as this couple seeks to be. It turns out that adversity and loss and the effort to change seemingly irreversible odds are not just the province of violent epics. These challenges are part of giving and caring for life. Watching the story of John and Molly Chester deal with the adventures and risks of growing their farm and their family was as satisfying as any story I’ve seen in 2019.
There is no one formula for either entertaining or educating, but I’ve long felt that our best artistic works serve to do some combination of both of these things. I was only along for the ride for certain parts of this extended eleven-year supra-franchise, but whether a casual fan or a devotee, it’s hard to deny that the final 30 minutes of Endgame are crafted perfectly. And so, somewhere between the final reckoning, the splashdown, and the much anticipated harvest, I connect with experiences imagined and real. So if an armored hero or a superhuman woman aren’t your speed, there are always (I hope) the stars to guide us and the Earth to ground us.