Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Did I like X-MEN: APOCALYPSE? I'm still not entirely sure

As I left X-MEN: APOCALYPSE this weekend, my gut assessment of the film was "about average." Then I thought about what that statement meant as I attempted to mentally rank the six films. After deciding it wasn't better than the first film, I slotted it in fifth, coming out only ahead of the painfully bad X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. The more I contrasted the first film and the latest entry in my head, the more I couldn't help but think about the role that timing plays in how a superhero film is received.

The original X-MEN film from 2000 seems positively quaint and low-budget now. Hell, even then it felt like a much smaller film than the recently-concluded BATMAN series, and two years later it would be significantly exceeded by Sam Rami's SPIDER-MAN. The first X-MEN is not the sort of film that a studio wagers its whole summer on, not today at least. It does the job of grounding a fantastical comic universe in a world that feels somewhat like ours, to the degree that it feels almost entirely divorced from the more comic-booky APOCALYPSE.

So I can't help but ponder, if you reversed the two, would a 2000 release of APOCALYPSE blow me away with all the VFX eye candy and the undeniably comic book plot? If it wasn't for the superhero fatigue of YET ANOTHER spandex-fest where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, would I treat this film's flaws more charitably? Would a 2016 version of the first film strike me as too small and too scared to embrace its comic book roots? Was that first film simply in the right place at the right time to be the leader out of the gate of a new superhero renaissance?

I honestly don't know. The fact is, though, with so many comic book superhero movies in the last eight years, we have a strong baseline for what the genre is capable of exploring on-screen. "Good enough for a comic book movie" isn't gonna cut it anymore. There were moments of APOCALYPSE where I was entertained, and plenty of other moments where I felt more sure than ever that superhero fatigue is real because so many moments felt like tired retreads of other films.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is still my favorite X-Men film and I think one reason it succeeds is it clearly understands its characters and makes their motivations and agendas critical to driving the story forward. The series always uses the relationship between Professor Xavier and Magneto as the core central conflict. The one wants to find a way for mutants and humans to peacefully co-exist; the other wants to lead mutants on a conquest of humanity. What DOFP does so well is that it makes the plot hinge on a battle for Mystique's soul - will she choose Xavier's way or Magneto's? Further, we know that if she isn't stopped, the entire future is doomed.

So right there, we're dealing with a character-focused story because not only does Mystique need to be persuaded to back down from her agenda, but Wolverine needs to get a broken Xavier back in the saddle again AND Magneto needs to be recruited to their side and brought along because he and Xavier side-by-side are the only two people who can bring down Mystique. Yes, there are superhero battles, but interpersonal conflict is at the core of all of this and it's conflict that's directly tied to the overarching themes of the series.

APOCALYPSE falls short of that depth. The plot is about the resurrection of the god-like First Mutant, Apocalypse and his intent to bring about the end of the world for all but the strongest mutants. To that end, he recruits his Four Horsemen - Angel, Psylocke, Storm and Magneto - and kidnaps Xavier. This leaves a reluctant Mystique to pick up the pieces and lead Xavier's students into battle to stop Apocalypse. With Magneto's power being critical to Apocalypse's plan, the good guy's gambit is to appeal to Magento to switch sides. That's not going to be easy because the former villain has just suffered the devastating loss of the family he'd built over the last ten years after a quiet life in seclusion. Anti-mutant paranoia led to their murder, and Magneto is again on his "kill all humans" kick.

There are moments where the pieces briefly snap into place perfectly and you can tell that if the script had been given a little more time, the result could have been something as compelling as DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. Regrettably, the filmmakers only had two years between films rather than the standard three or four and the rushed nature shows. I don't like doing this, but I'm going to have to spoil some of the climax in the next two paragraphs.

In the third act, Magento is using his abilities to mess with all the metal under the Earth's surface. Basically, it seems that he's going to lay waste to everything above ground by tearing up the planet from the inside. Visually this means he hovers while generating a magnetic orb and CGI debris floats around him. Mystique appeals to him, saying he may have lost one family but he still has people who care for him, people like her. Significantly, she's brought Quicksilver with her - who is the son that Magneto never knew he had. It feels like we're being prepped for a big emotional beat here...

...and then the film balks. Quicksilver chickens out of identifying himself to his father and even after Magneto switches sides, Quicksilver opts to keep that secret. It's unsatisfying to deny the audience that resolution, compounded by the fact we really don't understand what's going on with Quicksilver's thought process. What makes him clam up? What is it like for him to REALLY see his father? What's he hoping to get out of that encounter? It's a surprising blind spot in a film that seems to want to explore Magneto's family.

And let's talk for a minute about the Four Horsemen. Just based on how Magneto's handled, Apocalypse doesn't seem to be using any sort of mind control power when he recruits them. They all join up of their own free will, but their motivations for doing so don't seem to go much beyond wanting power. Angel, Psylocke and Storm are all ciphers. There are hints of a little bit more going on with Storm, particularly her idolization of Mystique, but these three don't add much at all.

Olivia Munn as Psylocke is particularly bad. Halle Berry's acting was a popular punching bag for fans but Munn makes her look like an Academy Award winner... for CATWOMAN. Say what you will about Oscar Isaac's over-the-top and often cheesy performance as Apocalypse - it suits the movie. He blasts it out to the cheap seats, but there's not a moment where you can't feel his conviction. He's not mocking the material and he fully commits no matter how ridiculous he looks.

I was almost inclined to go easy on Munn, with the defense that she was just hired as eye candy. (No one else's costume has a "boob window" for instance.) Then I remembered Rebecca Romijn in the first film and how she gave an actual presence to an eye candy role - without the benefit of almost any dialogue. Watch Mystique in that film and you see there's thought and purpose behind every gesture. With Psylocke you can see all the gears turning in the actress's head about the pose she's going to strike or the scowl she's going to wear. The same goes for Lady Deathstrike in the second film. She and Mystique were two of the breakout stars in the early film because of what those actresses were able to bring that wasn't necessarily on the page. With the right casting and the right chemistry with the other actors it feels like Psylocke could have been that for this film. Instead, the miscasting only compounds the errors of the thin writing for the character.

In fairness, the script doesn't do right by Mystique either. The writers give her the same sort of reluctant hero arc they used last time on Xavier, but with less successful results. It mostly just takes the air out of the character. Jennifer Lawrence seems bored, and I can't really blame her. The resolution of that arc doesn't immediately leave the makers of the next film any place interesting to go either.

This is also the first time the film appears exhausted under the weight of its own cast. There was a point where I felt like I'd been watching for 45 minutes already and we were still in introductory material. I admit I can't readily think of a more efficient way to lay the same pipe, but that probably also speaks to how uninteresting some of the scenes were. Maybe the way to do this would have been to commit to making this Magneto's film and try to structure the first act around his journey, branching out to the other stories where thematic connections were possible.

How well this works for some viewers might depend on how excited they are to see the mutant cast drastically expanded. Younger versions of Scott Summers and Jean Grey join Xavier's school, and Nightcrawler ends up being brought in after Mystique saves him from captivity. It's fun to get some new action figures on the board, but it comes at the expense of the established cast - who all have sizable parts to play in this film.

The visual effects are occasionally subpar. The sequence where an entire city is destroyed on screen evokes no reaction from the viewer because of how artificial it feels. It's not that the CGI is terrible, but it's just a few hairs shy of photo-real. It doesn't help that none of the devastation is shown from a human POV. The city might as well have been empty for how little we feel for the people who lived there. It's baffling because Singer knows better. In a "save the city" sequence in SUPERMAN RETURNS, we're abundantly aware of all the people in peril and how Superman's actions are all about preserving that life.

It's also hard to ignore the problems with this sequence on a storytelling level - Magneto murders millions, if not billions. It's hard to walk the character back after that kind of attempted genocide, no matter how much his character arc justifies his motivations. The film could have ended with Magneto escaping justice in a "lives to oppose the X-Men another day" sort of resolution. Instead, the filmmakers opt for an ending that sells out Xavier's character.

Even dodgy CGI can't mar the film's best sequence - the big Quicksilver setpiece. It's not quite as inventive as the Pentagon sequence in DOFP, but its the one part of this film where the filmmakers are clearly having a ball playing with all their toys. It's also an action scene with real action and peril rather than people merely floating and striking poses amid CGI graphics. In terms of action sequences, this might be Bryan Singer's most disappointing film. It's a shame to realize that after looking back on two and seeing how well he constructed many of the setpieces there.

Is it a bad movie? When films like THOR: THE DARK WORLD, CATWOMAN, and WOLVERINE have shown us the lowest points of the genre, it's hard to lump APOCALYPSE in with them. Release this in the same summer as BATMAN FOREVER (which was pretty well-received at the time, don't forget) and it probably feels like a much better film.

On the other hand, it's a letdown and a disappointing entry from a team that's shown they're capable of so much better. We've reached the point where the characters' growth has stopped being the driving factor of this franchise. This is the most "comic book" X-Men film because the VFX eye candy has finally overcome the themes and the character development in the franchise. APOCALYPSE is like Chinese food - fun while you're taking it, but leaving you hungry an hour later.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The writers of the spec script THE MAKING OF STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII revealed!

In recent years, May the 4th has come to be recognized as an unofficial Star Wars holiday, as in "May the Fourth be with you." The practical result of this is that for the entire day, most geek sites turn into complete advertisements for Star Wars, whether they're posting new Star Wars-related news or reblogging old content it seems no story is too small so long as it's Jedi-related.

This most recent holiday saw the release of an unusual spec script: The Making of Star Wars: Episode VIII. If you are part of the online circle known as Screenwriting Twitter, you probably saw some discussion about this, spawned by this tweet:

A writer drafted their own spec script about the making of a Star Wars movie that hasn't even finished filming yet, then made it available on the internet via both the Black List and an open download, making certain to put it out on May the 4th. It was clearly an attention-seeking tweet from Making Episode VIII, and in reacting to it by telling everyone, "Don't do this," Mr. Sweeney was clearly giving the author exactly what he wanted. How do I know this?

Because I am "Making Episode VIII."

The script the account was shilling was authored by me and my friend Brian Scully. The whole gag was my idea, and it actually started as an April Fools joke. The last few years, the internet has been a horrible place on April 1st. As one observer noted, it's like people think doing something like "Your mother was just killed! April Fool!" counts as a clever prank. I wanted to do something that was fun, but that wasn't necessarily ruined if people didn't think of it as "real."

In the wake of THE FORCE AWAKENS, I also saw how some sites were so hungry for Star Wars discussion that they'd repost seemingly every scrap of Star Wars content out there. More than one site was regularly building stories around fan theories that originated on Reddit! It felt like nothing was too ridiculous to be spotlit and that was when I hatched my plan.

The final thing that motivated this prank was when I saw several geek sites devote space to the totally nothing story of a guy trying to crowdfund the cost of billboards to promote his WAYNE'S WORLD 3 spec script. I've blogged about my part in spreading that story before. If you Google "wayne's world 3 gofundme" you can see exactly how far this story spread, branching out from a tweet from Geoff LaTulippe after I tipped him off to this campaign. I go into more details in my older post, but for me, the spreading of this story was just a sad comment how a completely irrelevant story got spread just so the phrase "WAYNE'S WORLD 3" could provoke some clicks.

In a way, I guess I wanted to prove how easily an empty-content story could be spread, even if it was clearly some kind of troll or goof. It seemed completely doable that we could get at least a few of these sites to post about The Making of Star Wars: Episode VIII.

I sent an email to Brian Scully with the pitch: I'd seen a growing genre on the Black List in recent years - scripts about the "making of" famous films. It seemed ripe for parody, and merging it with my April Fool's idea gave me the notion to do a script about the making of Star Wars: Episode VIII. Because of the ridiculousness of such a script, I insisted that if nothing else, we needed to have fun writing it.

At this point, there were less than two months before April Fools. I pitched to Brian that we would not break out the plot or work from any kind of outline. Instead, we could take turns writing each day. I would write at least three pages, then send it to him and he'd have a day to think about it and get me back at least three pages of his own.

I'd done this sort of "write the other guy into a corner" approach back when I was running a TV show in college, and though I'm a meticulous outliner usually, a few years back I wrote a comedy script entirely by coming up with the high concept hook and just going where the story took me. I found it to be a refreshing exercise because each day started with "What's the most obvious choice? Great - now let's do the opposite of that and see where it takes us." Obviously, that was just for the vomit draft, and I later went back and refined the script.

But Scully and I were both coming off of several very dark feature scripts, so this seemed like a wacky palate cleanser for both of us. Before I go any further, I want to stress how FUN the writing of this script was. Every time my inbox revealed new pages from Scully it was like getting a gift. I couldn't wait to see where he'd taken the story and figure out how to pick things up. It was the most creatively reinvigorating thing I'd done in years. It felt like a great low-stakes way to warm up the writing muscles before getting back in the game on a real spec.

In practice, we ended up not sticking to the trading-pages-every-day thing. Real life got in the way, and soon it was clear we should bump our deadline from April 1st to May the 4th. Even then, as weeks slipped by and Scully and I found our time consumed by day jobs and other projects, we started writing in longer, less-frequent bursts. So when you read the script, don't assume that the writing changes hands every three pages because that's not at all accurate.

We occasionally traded a few emails about future directions, but most of it was on the order of "I've got an idea for Mark, so if you want to set this up..." or "Here's what George Lucas should be up to." Some of my favorite bits in the script came up on the fly, though. Fairly frequently, we not only would advance the script, but go back and rewrite earlier pages as well. There are a couple scenes that are clearly just me or just Scully, but also a lot that are a hybrid of our efforts.

While we made our deadline and turned out a script that - while a bit loose - still is a lot of fun to read, we were only partly successful in our bid. It was easy enough to get Screenwriting Twitter to talk about it, chastising this attention-seeking as unprofessional, all while giving this trolling the attention we wanted. Seeing friends say "Don't do this," all while spreading word of the stunt, it reminded me of my resolve in recent years to not give undue attention to people pulling these stunts. Having said that, I know it's VERY temping when faced with an annoying clueless newbie to make a spectacle out of their lack of tact.

Alas, the conversation on Twitter never broke out in a way that inspired any of the geek journalists to write about it, even in a "laugh at the idiot" sort of spirit that motivated their WAYNE'S WORLD 3 stories. In that sense, my main objective failed I guess I have to give them props for not being completely without integrity, especially since I specifically targeted people who I thought would be easy marks, given that they were the first to post about WAYNE'S WORLD 3. I suppose we could have planned a more elaborate rollout and fake website, ala BALLS OUT, but that seemed like the point where we were going too far and putting too much effort into it. The actual writing was fun. Making a website? That would have been work.

But even if that didn't work as well as we hoped, Scully and I both had fun writing it and seeing the reaction from people who did venture into the script. It got me using some writing muscles that I hadn't flexed in a while, and has made me more energized to dive into new scripts. Maybe we don't give enough credit to just allowing ourselves to be silly sometimes. The next time you're stuck while writing, maybe try something like this... though it probably is more efficient to just write a short film rather than a full-length screenplay.

There doesn't seem to be any reason to maintain the subterfuge anymore, and if you're interested in seeing the result of our insanity, you can find the script online here, and also on The Black List here.

Monday, May 16, 2016

BATES MOTEL: Does this story only work because we know the ending?

I don't know how I'd manage to recruit a control group for this experiment, but I'd love to know how BATES MOTEL plays to someone completely ignorant of Norman Bates's future. Does it work as a TV show if it has to stand on it's own merits, or do some of its flaws get a pass because the audience gets the thrill of seeing TV Norman take big leaps closer to being everyone's favorite cross-dressing serial killer?

In an ideal world, a prequel would stand as compelling without being propped up by Easter Eggs or callbacks (or is that "call-forwards") to its originating art. BETTER CALL SAUL seems to pull this off quite well, proving completely accessible to people I know who've never watched BREAKING BAD. It'll be intriguing for me to see how this plays out because BCS's Jimmy McGill is much more likable and sympathetic as a human being than his future incarnation Saul Goodman. Will people who root for the success of the scrappy Jimmy be disgusted when he evolves into the slimier, unapologetically ambulance-chasing Saul?

That's not to say that I don't feel like you can see the connection between Jimmy and Saul - just that Saul fans are having a rather different experience from Jimmy fans, and I find it fascinating that thus far, the show seems to work on both levels. The same could be said for the Mike character. On BREAKING BAD he was a villain with an occasional sympathetic side. Here, I really feel for the guy in a way that makes his eventual end feel far more tragic for me. (And if I was experiencing Mike's story chronologically, probably less satisfying.)

But BATES MOTEL... I enjoy it, but I'm not sure if it'd seem cohesive if we didn't know the destination. The season four finale airs tonight and the previous episode ended on what appeared to be the major step in Norman's evolution that we all knew was coming - the murder of his mother. As depicted on the show, it was actually a murder-suicide attempt, with Norman attempting to snuff out both him and his mother with carbon monoxide poisoning. It would have worked, if not for the arrival of the sheriff, who vents the room before Norman succumbs, but can only futilely attempt resuscitation on Norman. 

It doesn't help that BATES MOTEL is not a show without many faults. Going back to season one, I've basically zoned out whenever screentime shifted to "the pot storyline" all about the drug trade in the nearby town. I completely understand why it's there - to get five years of story out of this concept, there needed to be larger mythology. Developing the setting is a natural step, but too much of the drama there has felt incidental to Norman's transformation.

Season one also had a brief phase of what I call the "Norman Bates, Sex God" era. I don't find it inexplicable that he'd be appealing to some women. He's got that "lost scruffy puppy" sort of vibe and I can totally buy that some girls would want to take him home and clean him up. I DON'T buy one of the hottest and most popular girls in school hopping into bed with him. (And if I'm not misremembering, he actually had TWO such conquests in season one!)

It feels weird to say this, but there was a point by the second season where I wasn't watching the show through the lens of it being a PSYCHO prequel. I'm not sure what led me to drop my guard, but I remember being blindsided by a midseason episode where Norman suddenly started acting out and it became clear that he was speaking in the Mother persona. I won't lie - it was genuinely cool to see the birth of the character as we know him/her in the Hitchcock film.

But I have to wonder how many plot turns read as acceptable only because the audience knows where the story HAS to go. Having Norman committed this season was a good start because his erratic behavior through season two and three had gone past the point where one can justify Norma as being in denial about how sick Norman is. Of course, this creates another conundrum - if Norman's mental issues are well-documented does that compromise an outcome where he ends up quietly managing the family hotel, with the locals completely blind to his homicidal tendencies?

Hell, just in the short term it seems strange that Norma's death won't get more serious scrutiny from the police. I'm sure the show will deal with this somehow, but Norman's spent four years leaving behind clues to his psychosis so the real trick is going to be making it credible that none of the authorities piece any of this together.

I'm in for the long haul here, regardless. It's nothing short of criminal that Freddie Highmore and especially Vera Farmiga haven't been Emmy winners for their work here, though Farmiga has been nominated once. The wonderful Olivia Cooke might have started getting more mainstream notice from ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, but BATES MOTEL had her first. It's not easy to appear alongside Highmore and Farmiga and not get blown off the screen but Cooke holds her own in a quieter role as the one undeniable innocent among the players. That fact is also why I've been dreading the moment the plot requires her death. I've feared the show won't conclude without destroying the last bit of innocence in Norman's world.

As I said, there's a lot I genuinely like about the show, but it's impossible for me to know if I'm rationalizing some of it's larger flaws because of some kind of tunnel vision towards the resolution. Do I have any other BATES MOTEL viewers in my readership? What do you think?

Monday, May 9, 2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is Marvel at its best

The Captain America franchise has long been the strongest sub-franchise in the Marvel stable. THE FIRST AVENGER was easily the best solo film of Phase One, (yes, IRON MAN fans, Downey is great in that first film and it has a really strong first hour, but the second hour is rather weak and saddled with a pretty lame villain) and the second outing THE WINTER SOLDIER is one of the all-time best Marvel films ever (second only to the first AVENGERS, in my book.) In fact, when you look at it, none of the Marvel series have managed a strong second go-round. IRON MAN 2 and THOR: THE DARK WORLD seem destined to battle it out forever for the title of "Worst Marvel Movie," and even AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON was a pretty solid disappointment.

So to say my expectations were high for this third outing with Captain America, would be a massive understatement. The law of averages seemed to dictate that eventually they'd have to drop the ball. Thus far the only truly great superhero trilogy we've gotten is Nolan's Dark Knight series. Could Marvel pull it off with a film that wasn't just a Captain America story, but the culmination of themes and character arcs that have run through several of these films from the beginning?

Let's just say my expectations were not only met, but surpassed by CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. This is likely helped in great measure by continuity behind the scenes. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo return after directing the previous sequel, and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely are credited on all three CAPTAIN AMERICA outings.

Despite the fact the movie is loaded to the gills with appearances by other members of the Avengers, this really belongs under the CAPTAIN AMERICA brand. It's not a Cap story in name only. Maybe the most logical alternate title would be CAPTAIN AMERICA VS. IRON MAN. This is where four or five films of prior set-up on each of their parts comes to a head. The movie - and the audience - understands these two so well that when they come to blows, it's agonizing because we can see and understand both sides of the conflict.

Let's get this out of the way - yes, this film has a LOT in common with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, even more than you realize from the trailers. I don't want to waste an entire review comparing the parallels point-by-point, so let's just stipulate to the fact they're there and that CIVIL WAR handily wins every comparison.

Most of you know me to be a DC guy, at least in terms of the comics. The Marvel characters and storylines never held much appeal for me, though for over five years, I lived with a friend who was deep into Marvel. This coincided with storylines like HOUSE OF M and CIVIL WAR, which means it's a rare case of me being VERY familiar with the underlying material. I recall reading CIVIL WAR and being so far on Cap's side that it wasn't even funny. Tony Stark was written almost as a total fascist, a mustache-twirling villain who'd signed onto a sinister plot where every hero had to reveal their identities and register with the U.S. government or be declared outlaws. To side with this would be to side with Bush-Cheney-levels invasion of privacy. When you throw down that gauntlet, how can Iron Man and the government be anything BUT the bad guys?

When it comes to the movie, consider me Team Iron Man all the way. All the way. Things kick off when an Avengers mission results in collateral damage in a sovereign country and the world governments finally decide they've had enough of super-powered types operating unilaterally. The United Nations drafts accords that will force the Avengers to operate with oversight, and anyone who doesn't assign it is benched. Smartly, the entire "reveal your secret identity" issue is sidestepped, mostly because no one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has much of a private life at all.

It also helps that Tony Stark's advocacy of these measures doesn't play like him losing his marbles, but feels like the earned outcome of him being confronted with the last several years of his choices. In IRON MAN, Tony thumbs his nose at authority and flippantly reveals his secret identity in a press conference. He doesn't have the luxury of such brashness anymore. This is the man who survived the Battle of New York, who's seen his own creations subverted and used for evil, who ends up fighting his own plans gone out of control almost as often as he's fought the bad guys. Time and again, Tony has been shown there's a cost to people like him making their own rules, and he's finally reached the point where he's smart enough to take a compromise, rather than face the full force of what will happen if they REALLY provoke the world governments.

Cap makes some good arguments about how this agreement could make the Avengers the tools of an agenda they don't want to serve. What happens the next time someone wants to send a strike force into Iraq based on dubious info about WMDs? They've signed up to be heroes, not soldiers. The problem is that Cap is an idealist, and while he's absolutely right, it's an argument that reminded me of a favorite quote from Deep Space Nine's Garak, "I live in hope that you may one day see the universe for what it truly is, rather than what you'd wish it to be."

As interesting as all this is, the Accords take a backseat to the real thread for most of the film. The signing of the Accords is bombed and Cap's brainwashed buddy Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier is the prime suspect. Since Cap's refused to sign the Accords, he can't be an official part of the hunt and when he and The Falcon go after Bucky on their own, the collateral damage he causes only further widens the schism between him and Team Iron Man. By this point, the film mostly abandons the ideological debate about the merits of the Accords and mostly uses it as a plot device to turn friend-against-friend.

Along the way, Iron Man picks up allies in Spider-Man and Black Panther. Both do a good job of scene-stealing and it might be the best example yet of Marvel seeding future films inside current films. If you really look at the film objectively, it becomes extremely apparently that both of these characters could be lifted out in a rewrite. Spider-Man in particular is a lot of fun, both in the battle and in his interactions with Tony Stark and it restored my interest in seeing another Spider-Man film after the debacle that was AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2.

Thankfully the other franchise outbuilding is equally unintrusive. The Infinity Stones are only alluded to once, I believe and there's nothing that feels like an unnecessary tangent like "Thor takes a bath" in AGE OF ULTRON, or a misfire like spending an entire movie with Thanos as "Guy who ominously sits on an uncomfortable throne." The real teases towards future films come from character. A lot of relationships come out of this changed permanently.

I'm torn about how much to reveal when it comes to the third act, because that's when we realize the movie has played all of us. We've been misdirected with talks of security vs. liberty, and dazzled by superhero slugfests so when the main event arrives, it's a gut punch. The real endgame here is not about a conflict of principles and pragmatism - it's a personal fight that goes right to the core of one of the characters. Even as the road to getting to this point is revealed as the manipulations of a villain, the clash works because everything about the combatants up to this point tells us they can't walk away from this fight, no matter what contrived to put them at odds.

We've seen how a shared universe can lead to bad creative calls in a film - this time the advantage of that larger world is the depth that it brings to a confrontation like this. Marvel often gets flack because as fun as their films can be, they're often too escapist and surface-level. That's a hard point to deny, but CIVIL WAR is the most ambitious of their films in terms of dealing with weightier issues. (And unlike BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, it delivers on that ambition.)

Some shorter takes:

- I respect Cap's loyalty to Bucky, but there's a point where you wish someone would point out to him that no matter how much a victim he is of Hydra, he WAS a brutal assassin. We don't really get a sense of if Cap is willing to accept that he might have to become a guest of the government, particularly if the brainwashing can't be undone. Knowing what Cap planned to do for Bucky once he caught him might have helped.

- I usually use my non-geek wife as a "control group" for movies like this. She didn't go with me and I really regretted that because I'd love to know how this film plays to someone who's not seen any of the earlier films. It feels like there's enough here to help the film stand-alone, even if the juggling act is the most complicated one in comic book films, save for perhaps X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. (Which my wife DID enjoy, by the way.)

- Didn't miss Nick Fury, though I thought there might have been a chance of him covertly popping up to help Cap.

- I hope the Accords aren't forgotten in future films. Using them again will make them feel less like a plot device here.

- In a crowded film, I was glad to see Emily VanCamp get to briefly kick ass as Agent 13. If AGENT CARTER has to go, maybe there's a place for an AGENT 13 series.

- With the way this film ends, it's gonna be a long two-year wait for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, which seems to be the first time the most interesting dangling threads will likely be addressed again.