I've been sitting out of a lot of movies this past few years due to the COVID pandemic. Even though I'm vaccinated and boosted, I'm just still not comfortable sitting in a crowded theater with a bunch of randos. And if I did go to a movie in a theater, I would wear a mask, and that can get uncomfortable for a whole 2 or 3 hour movie. I could maybe be convinced to go to a theater for a small movie with a mostly-empty theater, but for a big summer blockbuster, I'm just not there yet. So despite being a big Spider-Man fan, and generally having liked the MCU's Spider-Man movies so far, and despite the movie's universal acclaim and praise, I passed on seeing No Way Home in theaters when it released last year. I waited until it finally showed up on streaming, and just now finally got around to watching it this past weekend.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the MCU's Spider-Man movies so far is that none of them have been terribly surprising. Both Homecoming and Far From Home had pretty predictable plots, with the only real surprise being Mysterio's deathbed public reveal of Spider-Man's true identity. No Way Home does not deviate far in terms of predictability. The multiverse aspect and return of villains from the previous movie continuities was in the trailers, and the fact that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would reprise their roles was one of the worst-kept secrets of any movie ever.

In fact, the only real surprise for me was that this movie did not do the one thing that I really thought that it would do. It doesn't have any new villains -- not even in a bit part. I thought for sure that some new minor villains would show up early in the movie, knowing Spider-Man's identity, and threatening him, May, MJ, and/or Ned, and that would be the impetus for Peter going to Doctor Strange to reset the timeline.

Specifically, I was expecting to see the Scorpion. The end-credits stinger from Homecoming introduced Mac Gargan, who very much wanted to learn Spider-Man's identity from the Vulture. I thought for sure that with Spidey's identity being public, that the opening act of the movie would have J. Jonah Jameson hiring Mac Gargan to become the Scorpion to hunt down Peter Parker and capture or kill him. Peter would defeat Scorpion, but not before Gargan goes too far in threatening Peter's friends and family, leaving Peter with no choice but to go to Strange to help protect the people he loves.

Spider-Man: Homecoming - Mac Gargan © Sony Pictures, Disney
I was surprised that the Scorpion did not show up early in this movie to raise the stakes.

This never happens. The impetus for going to Strange is that Peter and his friends aren't accepted into college because the colleges are afraid of the controversy of admitting a known vigilante. It feels like a flimsy excuse for wanting to change the timeline or mind-wipe the entire planet, especially considering that the MCU's Peter has strong connections to Stark Industries, Nick Fury, and the Avengers, and shouldn't have any problem finding ways for him and his friends to have professional lives together.

So I thought the lack of Scorpion was a huge missed opportunity. It would have raised the stakes, provided some act 1 action, and allowed for the inclusion of a new character. It also would have served as a red herring for the movie's trailers by letting Disney show some action scenes with a villain, while trying to keep the rest of the villain roster a secret for as long as possible. Maybe this was part of the original plan, but Marvel axed it after a version of Scorpion showed up in Into the Spider-Verse. Maybe they didn't want to look too similar to Spider-Verse?

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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 (and failure) to beat the bad guy. Marvel knows well enough to not try to replicate The Empire Strikes Back. 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. He is characterized with nuance, he's clever, he's ruthless, and he's consistent in his goals and ambition. 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. Instead of the good guys losing in the end, the movie is framed as the bad guy wins in the end -- a subtle, but significant difference!

Thanos is the main character of this movie, and the dramatic and emotional arcs revolve around him.
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When I reviewed Captain America: Civil War, I said that "the Marvel cinematic universe may be starting to collapse under its own weight". I probably should have said that "it's starting to buckle under its own weight", since Marvel is still a ways off from anything that resembles collapse. That movie also got better upon repeat viewings, but I feel much the same about the recently-released Doctor Strange. In much the same way that I had suspected that Suicide Squad must have taken place years (or decades) prior to Dawn of Justice, I had also assumed that Doctor Strange must have occurred (at least partly) prior to the events of the first Avengers movie.

The story of Doctor Strange is, after all, essentially a Doubting Thomas story. That would be fine if Doctor Strange were a stand-alone movie, but a Doubting Thomas story is a really difficult thing to buy into within the Marvel cinematic universe. By the beginning of the movie, Stephen Strange (who lives in New York) must surely be aware of (and possibly have first-hand experience with) superhumans since the events of the first Avengers movie. In a world in which the literal Norse God of Thunder Thor has descended from the mystical plane of Asgard, to team up with a gamma-powered Hulk and a super soldier frozen since World War II, to defend New York from an inter-dimensional alien invasion, can you really be all that skeptical of astral projection, alternate dimensions, or even blatant magic?

Avengers Tower in Doctor Strange
Avengers Tower is clearly visible.

If Doctor Strange's car accident and physical therapy took place long before the events of the first Avengers, then this skepticism would be excusable. If Strange spent years at Kamar Taj learning magic, while oblivious to the events of the Avengers movies, Winter Soldier, and Civil War, then that would be a satisfactory explanation for his ignorance. But I don't think that's the case. Doctor Strange was tight-lipped when it came to references to the other Marvel movies (potentially for this very reason), but Avengers Tower still shows up in the skyline, and I'm pretty sure there were references to the other super heroes in the first half of the movie. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Strange gets a phone call asking if he'd be willing to treat an Air Force colonel who broke his spine in experimental armor. This must surely be a reference to Rhodes' accident in Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War - brooding characters
Strange is asked if he'd be willing to treat Colonel Rhodes after injuries sustained in Civil War.

Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but buy-in is important in fantastical movies like this. But it's hard to buy into Stephen Strange, and it certainly doesn't help that he's an abrasive ass hole and isn't very likeable at the start of the movie...

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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.

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