Movie audiences were all pleasantly surprised when the ensemble cast of Avengers all came together to make a pretty damned good movie. There was genuine anxiety regarding whether that movie could possibly successfully bring four movies' worth of superheroes together into a single movie, and manage to give everybody enough valuable screen time to make the whole thing work. Similarly, there was considerably anxiety regarding whether or not Marvel could double-down and pull off an ensemble of ensembles for the mega-crossover Infinity War. But at this point, I think we've all moved past any expectation that Marvel will screw up, and we all just assume that they're going to find a way to magically make it all work.

I had to wait a couple weeks to find out. I had planned to see the movie the Monday after release and have this review out two weeks ago, but fate conspired against that. Towards the end of the trailers, somebody pulled the fire alarm in the building, forcing the theater to evacuate. It was a false alarm, but by the time they let everyone back in, it was too late and the movie wouldn't be over in time to pick up the kids from KidsQuest before they closed for the night. Ah well. My girlfriend finally got sick of having to hush her students whenever they started talking about the movie, so she dragged me out to the theater earlier this week.

The sheer volume of characters, content, and punches here does make Infinity War one of the more unbalanced of Marvel's movies. It is after all, weaving a complex tapestry of superhero action, science fiction, and magical fantasy, and there's virtually no set-up or development for the characters. This movie is all climax all the time. It's probably the first Marvel movie that really requires that you have seen most of the lead-up material. There simply isn't enough time here to introduce who everyone is and what their deal is. If you haven't seen at least one film featuring each character, you'll likely be lost with regard to who they are. Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, and Ragnarok are pretty much essential prerequisite viewing. You can skip Ant Man though, as he's conspicuously absent from this particular compilation piece.

Infinity War is an ensemble of ensembles.

This movie would probably fail miserably if it were a typical super-hero movie focused around the heroes and their struggle to beat the bad guy. Instead, Infinity War is much more about the bad guy. Thanos is pretty much the main character here, and a great deal of time and effort is paid to trying to make him as relatable and understandable of a villain as possible. Whether or not you sympathize with his point of view will, of course, depend on where you stand on the topic of universal genocide. Josh Brolin's Thanos does, however, have some pretty definitive swagger and charisma. His CG monstrosity has a lot of screen presence. It's too bad that the CG isn't always completely convincing though.

Because the bad guy is basically the main character (and protagonist), the entire narrative arc of the movie is almost the inverse of what you'd usually expect. The bad guys show up to create the dramatic stakes and sense of threat with aplomb, as expected. But instead of the rising action being a series of setbacks for the heroes with a climactic victory at the end, the heroes seem to come together and get everything mostly under control for the middle act of the movie, only to have it all go to shit when the climax arrives.

Thanos is the main character of this movie, and the dramatic and emotional arcs revolve around him.
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Star Trek: Discovery

I finally sat down and binged the second half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season. I was actually excited to see it (not excited enough to sign up for CBS's All Access service), since it looked like the mirror universe twist would take the show in new and creative directions, and might even establish that Discovery would be a sort-of anthology series after all.

Boy, was I disappointed.

I was initially excited to see Discovery's mirror universe episodes.

Stakes feel artificial and exaggerated

The mirror universe storyline didn't feel like it was new or creative at all. In fact, it felt like it was retreading a lot of territory that Star Trek has covered before. Except now, they are supercharging it with stupid.

Once again, I'm not going to fuss about the show being aesthetically different from the original series. Such complaints are mostly pedantic. You can't use the same 1960's aesthetics from the original series and expect the show to look futuristic to modern audiences. I can overlook the shiny touch displays, the redesigned ships, the new Klingon makeup, the holographic communications, and things like that. I'm a bit less willing to overlook details like the insignia badge, but whatever.

I was actually a little bit excited to see the mirror universe in the second half of Discovery. After all, the mirror universe episodes of Enterprise were some of the most fun that series ever allowed itself to have. Granted, it was super fan-servicey and silly, but it had that campy charm that helped make the original series so successful. Discovery does not have any camp, or any charm.

Enterprise's "In a Mirror, Darkly" got away with its silly fan service by being charmingly-campy.

What I can't tolerate are the major anachronisms like the Klingons having cloaking devices ten years before Balance of Terror, fifteen years before The Time Trap, and twenty-eight years (give or take) before The Search for Spock. Yes, I also complained about the Romulans already having a cloaking device in Star Trek: Enterprise as well.

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Assassin's Creed Origins - title

Hey, I actually managed to play and review all of this past holiday season's big, Triple-A releases! Hooray for me! I mean, sure it's the end of February, and I'm just now reviewing a game that came out last October, but at least I did play it.

Since the refreshing exceptionalism of Black Flag, the Assassin's Creed franchise has been scarred by mediocrity and controversy. As such, I opted to buy the game used off of eBay so as not to support Ubisoft. This is after I had enjoyed Black Flag so much that I happily bought a retail gift copy for a friend and recommended the game to yet another friend. Heck, if the save file could have been transferred over, I would have gladly traded in my PS3 copy of Black Flag for a PS4 retail copy.

Even Ubisoft realized that the series was growing stale, and stopped their cycle of releasing two or three games per year. It's been two full years since the last full release (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate in 2015). The extra time certainly helped elevate Assassin's Creed: Origins above the chaff of the rest of the franchise, but not quite enough to propel it to true greatness.

I played Origins on PS4, which means that I avoided the frustrations that many gamers reported involving Origins' multiple layers of DRM slowing down their computers. Wait, isn't Ubisoft the company that, years ago, publicly stated that DRM doesn't work, and that they "don't want to punish a paying player for what a pirate can easily work around"? This same company is now putting not one ... not two ... but three separate DRM applications on a single game? One of which is their own proprietary distribution service, U-Play? Is the company lying, or are they just scatterbrained and can't make up their mind? Or is the management just incompetent?

Would exploring tombs and temples by torchlight become a common mechanic?

Well, when I started up the actual game, I was pleasantly surprised that it starts off pretty damn strong. Even Black Flag was mired by an opening act that stranded players in a tedious, bog-standard Assassin's Creed sandbox city for a couple hours before opening up the seas by giving us our own pirate ships. Origins, however, has a very strong, distinctive opening chapter that eventually gives way to a more bog-standard gameplay experience.

After an admittedly-silly and confusing opening cutscene that utterly fails to establish the setting or characters, Origins throws the player into a one-on-one duel to highlight the new combat mechanics, then hands main character Bayek a torch and asks the player to explore and escape from a derelict Egyptian temple. Then we head off across an intimidating swath of Saharan desert to the oasis that is Bayek's home town. Here, we have some open-ended exploration, hunting, rescue, and assassination missions. During this, we are introduced to the game's shining star: its setting and environment.

Classical Egypt is magnificently brought to life in this game. The map is vast and spread out, with large swaths of barren desert and sand dunes separating some of the game's regions. Small farming settlements and market hubs dot the environment, and each feels like a necessary part of a functional society. Best of all, Bayek isn't stopping every ten steps to pick up some random, meaningless collectible, and our map isn't cluttered with icons representing all this meaningless garbage.

Egypt feels vast, is beautiful, and is brimming with life and energy.

Not only does the map work well with its sense of physical scale, but it also excels at representing the temporal scale of Egypt. Even though we are playing in antiquity, the game world is still dotted with tombs and abandoned settlements, some of which are thousands of years old. Remember, ancient Egypt is one of the longest-lasting civilizations in the history of the world, having been a world superpower for over three thousand years! The time span between the building of the Great Pyramids in Giza, and the life of Cleopatra is longer than the time span between Cleopatra and our lives today. Assassin's Creed: Origins completely nails that sense of living in this ancient kingdom...

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Justice League poster

From the start, Justice League seemed to be slipping off the rails due to its awkward editing in the first act. It certainly doesn't help that the opening scene is terrible, uncanny valley, cell phone footage of Superman. Who in their right mind thought that would be a good opening scene?

So this movie takes place years after the events of Dawn of Justice, but Batman and Wonder Woman are just now getting around to recruiting the others? Are we to believe that Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg had evaded their efforts for so long, only to suddenly all pop up at the same time? Then we cut to Steppenwolf suddenly appearing in Themyscira to steal his McGuffin box and butcher a bunch of Amazon. It's a scene that feels like it should maybe have been earlier in the movie in order to act as a catalyst for Batman to stop pussyfooting around and just go get Flash and Aquaman, or should have been after the bulk of the team has joined up.

As soon as Cyborg showed up, I felt the movie falling completely off the rails. Everything was getting too convenient -- too easy. There just wasn't any real resistance for the heroes. The villain completely failed to create any real stakes or sense of threat, and just has no real presence in the movie at all. Even when the characters are saying that "we're all probably going to die", it doesn't feel like a low point for them. By the end, the heroes are gleefully punching the bad guy, and Superman just shows up a toys with him. Nobody seems to be taking anything seriously. There's no gravitas. Even the Marvel movies, as colorful and upbeat as they tend to be, always have moments with gravity. Justice League tries to go the route of Avengers by pretending that the heroes don't really get along (until they have to), but it never feels genuine.

So now DC has completely squandered both the death and resurrection of Superman. These are two watershed moments in comic book history that are never going to have the same impact for movie goers. And hey, let's leave the magic, world-destroying McGuffin unattended while we wrestle with Superman, so that the bad guy can literally just beam down, pick it up, and beam away.

Why is the team just now coming together?
What the heck were Batman and Wonder Woman doing in the years since BvS?

In addition to poor editing and poor plotting, the movie is also just plain ugly to look at. I want to praise the movie for being brighter, more colorful, and not as washed-out as Man of Steel or BvS, but I can't because the movie just looks terrible. Superman, Aquaman, and Batman's costumes look particularly phony in the brightly-lit environments of this movie. Steppenwolf and Cyborg stand out as blatant CGI monstrosities. And Flash and Wonder Woman's costumes aren't far behind on the ugly scale. Flash's costume looks like it is being held together with pieces of metal wire and tape and looks like a cheap cosplay outfit, even though Bruce Wayne gushes over how technologically advanced it looks. What, Bruce, you couldn't give him a kick ass, actual technologically advanced costume like what Tony Stark did for Spider-Man in Homecoming? Half the time, Wonder Woman's costume suddenly looks too big in the top (like it's about to fall off of her) and too small in the bottom (with her cheeks hanging out from under her skirt). Jason Mamoa and Henry Cavill get topless for whole scenes, so the ladies get plenty of beefcake to ogle. But Wonder Woman is the only one with her ass hanging out of her actual costume.

In general, the color-correction looks awful. You can view early trailers of the movie, and then newer trailers and see that entire scenes were changed from being general night-time footage to being in broad daylight or having some weird red filter applied to them. I get that it's a reaction to the general consensus that the other movies are too dark (visually), but as movie-makers, someone had to have known that the costumes are designed to be shot in certain lighting conditions, and arbitrarily changing those conditions completely changes the way that the costumes look.

Even the trailers went out of their way to highlight gratuitous Wonder Woman upskirt.

There's also a few moments in which the heroes seem to completely disregard the preservation of their secret identities. Batman calls up Alfred within earshot of a thug, and Louis stands in the middle of an open park, in broad daylight, yelling Clark's name with policemen standing around her (and presumably a large crowd watching from a distance)...

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

What are the two biggest, most consistent weaknesses of the Marvel movie franchises? Well, they have a lot of trouble with direct sequels -- the sole exception being Captain America: Winter Soldier (why, oh why did I never review that movie?!). They also have a lot of trouble with villains -- the sole exception probably being Loki. I'd also throw in a third weakness, which would be the over-reliance on McGuffins to carry the plot.

Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 actually manages to avoid all three of those Marvel pitfalls!

Vol. 2 gets around the sequel slump by slowing things down a bit so that it can be a more character-driven story. For the majority of the film, the stakes are set pretty low and personal, and each character gets a chance to be an actual character rather than just an action hero. The main plot revolves around Starlord connecting with his long-lost father, only to discover (almost too late) that said father is actually a supervillain, and that he didn't realize that he had another father figure right there beside him the whole time. That's a great setup. But I almost feel like Starlord and the rest of the Guardians crew feel more like the B-Story here, because this movie feels like it's more about Yondu than about Peter Quill, Gemorah, or any of the main cast. But that might be partly because the entire cast gets such a balanced amount of screen time, and no one character or plot thread dominates the others.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 - Starlord and dad
This movie operates on a smaller scale, with a more personal conflict -- at least initially.

Despite the frequent cuts and the presence of almost half a dozen individual plot threads, the movie is remarkably tightly-themed. Virtually every plot thread in the film revolves around family. Quill meets his father. Gemorah finally gets to understand her sister. Rocket is dealing with raising Baby Groot and confronts his own inability to stop being an asshole long enough to let anybody actually like him. Drax is being repeatedly reminded of the loss of his own family. And Yondu is dealing with the feeling that he's a failure in the eyes of anybody who he ever might have considered "family".

This family-centered core of the movie then manages to help resolve the second major issue with Marvel movies. Vol 2 actually has a pretty interesting and mysterious villain...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

Follow me on Twitter at: twitter.com/MegaBearsFan

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