Review of Avengers: Endgame

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This Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie was produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It follows The Avengers (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and features a large cast of superheroes, including Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Rudd as Antman, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Karen Gillian as Nebula and Josh Brolin as Thanos, etc., etc., etc., while Stan Lee makes his final cameo. This review contains spoilers.

After Thanos uses the Infinity Gauntlet to disintegrate half of all living things in the universe, Tony Stark and Nebula are rescued from space by Captain Marvel. The Avengers who are left organize and go after Thanos. Thor kills him, but this does nothing to reverse what Thanos has done. Back on Earth, everyone tries to get on with life, but they have to deal with the huge losses. Existence is hard and bitter, but they try to make new lives. Meanwhile, Scott Lang (a.k.a. Antman) has been stuck in the quantum realm since the catastrophe. Five years later he manages to find his way out. He takes stock of the situation and approaches Captain America and Black Widow with a plan to go back in time to reverse Thanos’ actions. Can the Avengers pull off a complex plan to capture the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get them? Can they create a new Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos and bring back everything that was lost?

Good points: This movie has a little of everything: humor, pathos, love. It’s an ambitious script, and a lot of it goes by really fast. This is one possible explanation for the way it’s blown past USD$2B box office take in just a couple of weeks—people are going back to see it more than once because they missed a lot the first time around. It takes the main characters back in time for a brief visit with people they’ve lost, and in some cases, provides a do-over. For example, Gamora, who was sacrificed in Infinity War, gets a second chance. However, some other people apparently don’t and seem to be permanently dead. This may reflect the retirements of some of the bigger stars, including Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ), Chris Evans and Scarlett Johannson. Rocket the Raccoon is, as usual, a huge star in this film. The script didn’t tie up everything, though, which suggests a direction for future films: Loki got away with the Tesseract at the end of Infinity War, which sequence is reviewed in this film, and Carol Danvers’ not-a-cat puked it up at the end of Captain Marvel. Does this mean more time travels lie in our heroes’ futures?

On the not so positive side, this was a three hour movie that hurried through everything, suggesting they might have broken it up into two or three films and made better use of their stars. One big issue with putting all these highly charismatic people together is in suppressing the charisma to make clear leads. In all the Avenger films, it’s clear that Iron Man and Captain America are expected to be the leads, with Black Widow as a strong second. This probably reflects their seniority, contracts and the amounts they’re being paid. However, there are clearly obstacles to this plan. The first is Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor). In some of the other films, he’s had very few lines, and in this one, the script makes him into a cartoon figure. Surprise, surprise—Hemsworth is good for it. He does comedy well, too. Maybe this is supposed to demonstrate the dangers of alcoholism, but regardless, the role he’s given is offensive and smacks of body shaming. Ruffalo, also a strong personality, is disguised with CGI. Other obstacles include Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Pratt as Star Lord, both of whom could steal the movie in a heartbeat. The directors were apparently expecting trouble here, though, so both are given very minimal appearances. In a three movie sequence, characters like these could have been given better roles and more screen time to develop subplots and make the film less jam-packed and hurried. Given the loose Tesseract and the fact that Thor went off with the Guardians at the end of this, we might expect they’ll get to follow up in future films, or maybe TV shows on Disney’s streaming service. Last, if RDJ, Evans and Johannson are all retiring, this will be a huge hit to the MCU films. Disney’s choices for replacement so far, like Brie Larson as Captain Marvel and Don Cheadle as War Machine, don’t really have the charisma and presence to carry the roles.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

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Film Review of Captain Marvel

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This Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie is produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It’s written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, with Geneva Robertson-Dworet also contributing to the screenplay. Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. This review contains spoilers.

On the planet of Hala, Kree Starforce soldier Vers has recurring nightmares about an older woman. Her commander Yon-Rogg trains her to use her abilities while the AI Supreme Intelligence reminds her to keep her emotions in check. During a raid on the shapeshifting Skrull, Vers is captured, and after analysis, seems to have memories of the planet Earth. Vers escapes from the Skrull and crashes in Los Angeles, where she attracts the attention of the SHIELD organization, including Nick Fury and Agent Phil Coulson. The alien Shrull infiltrate SHIELD and order Fury to keep tabs on Vers. Following up on newly awakened memories, Vers finds she is really Carol Danvers, thought to have been killed years before in an experimental flight of a jet engine developed by scientist Wendy Lawson. Fury and Danvers find Lawson’s not-really-a-cat, who has apparently survived alone for years in her abandoned orbiting lab. The Shrull Talos reveals Lawson was actually Mar-Vell, a renegade Kree scientist, and that Danvers has developed amazing superpowers from the destruction of the test engine. Can she gain control of her powers and stop the war between the Kree and the Shrull before it destroys the Earth?

Good points: This is a complex script with several twists and unexpected developments. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson are old hands at this, and they carry off the alien contacts, the chase scenes and the Shrull infiltration of SHIELD with lots of class and wry humor. Danvers eventually sorts everything out and assumes her role as the hugely powerful savior of the universe. Plus, there’s an orange tabby non-cat. Not only is this a great addition to the cast, but it also pukes up a missing Tesseract in the post-credits scene, last seen in the hands of the Asgardian fire-and-mischief-god Loki Laufeyson. This device has been floating around through various of the MCU films, leaving us to wonder if it will feature in Avengers: Endgame and/or other films.

On the not so positive side, the script felt a little over-complex and convoluted. Like the shapeshifting Shrull, you couldn’t depend on anything being what it first seemed, which eventually turned a bit annoying. Danvers was represented as having god-like powers, a female version of superman but without the kryptonite issue; so why not stick around and handle things on Earth? Well, the universe calls. I’m suspicious—doesn’t she have any weaknesses? And last, like many of Disney’s recent choices for stars, Brie Larson doesn’t really have the presence and weight to carry this role.

Fairly entertaining and watchable. Three and a half stars.

Wrap Up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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I’ve already reviewed the remaining Hugo stories as part of the Nebula series, so I’ll move on to a discussion of what patterns emerge from looking at the finalists. As usual, I’m just looking at the four main fiction categories: short story, novelette, novella and novel. I’ve not read/seen most of the rest, at least not well enough to comment. These numbers are as best I can figure from online biographies.

First, the Hugo finalists feature “diversity” as the WorldCon members like to define it. That includes a huge slant to female and lesbian writers with only 2 cis men: Daryl Gregory and P. Djèlí Clark (who appears twice). Seventy-five percent of the finalists were female and nearly 38% of the finalists were LGBTQ, with the trans Yoon Ha Lee as the only male gay author and Brooke Bolander the single non-binary (appearing twice). Sex/gender breakdown of the finalists: 18 women (75%), 3 men (13%), 1 trans (4%), 2 non-binary (8%), 9 LGBTQ (37.5%).

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Looking at the racial/ethnic composition of the list, it leaned very heavily to white this year. Including Jewish writers, this contingent amounted to a whopping 71%, leaving only 29% of the list for other ethnic/racial groups. The voters made maximum use of the African American writers they did nominate, with P. Djèlí Clark appearing in the list twice and Rebecca Roanhorse representing both African and Native Americans (for this breakdown, I’ve listed her as Native America). As usual, Hispanics are very poorly represented at 0%, although I see Malka Older gets a nod in the Best Series nominations. This year’s total of 3 is a big drop in the number of Asians nominated, down from 8 last year (or 30%), but the African American and Native American groups remained flat. Racial/ethnic breakdown: 12 ordinary white (50%), 5 Jewish (21%), 3 Asian (12.5%), 3 African American (12.5%), 1 Native American (4%), 0 Hispanic.

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One pattern that repeats from last year is the dominance of Tor as the favored publisher. Nine of the finalists were published by Tor (37.5%), Uncanny magazine showed up well with three finalists (12.5%), and Fireside with two (8%). The big-name print magazines were totally frozen out of the Hugo this year; Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF didn’t feature among the finalists at all. An interesting new addition to the field was Zen Cho’s story from the B&N website, apparently getting into the game against Tor.

Another interesting pattern is the repetitive nature of the authors nominated. Ten of these same finalists appeared on the list last year (42%); five of the same names (20%) appeared in 2017, and four of the same names (17%) appeared in 2016, even with heavy interference from Vox Day and the Rabid Pups in both these years. This suggests the WorldCon voters have a very limited reading list, leaning to publications from Tor and from a small group of mostly female authors that they nominate year after year.

This year the stories leaned to fantasy, with 13 of the finalists falling into that category (54%), leaving 11 that could be classified as some type of science fiction. At least 3 of the science fiction stories also included heavily fantastical elements, and only Martha Wells’ Artificial Condition could be classified as anything remotely like hard SF. Twelve of these stories (50%) were also Nebula finalists.

Last, these stories tended to feature political messages, including a 3rd wave feminist slant. Five of the finalists (21%) went so far as to include a troubling quality of misandry, featuring men in stupid and/or sexist character roles. There were a high number of lesbian couples in the finalists’ stories, too, but I thought the number of non-binary characters was down a little from last year. Male gay characters remained poorly represented, featuring in about 8% of the stories.

Review of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is published by Solaris, and is third in the Machineries of Empire series, following Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, also awards finalists. It’s published by Solaris and runs 400 pages. There’s an accompanying collection of stories from this universe called Conservation of Shadows, plus a few singletons about on Amazon. This review contains major spoilers.

This book picks up roughly ten years after Raven Stratagem leaves off, though we have flashbacks that fill in some events since then. A new Shuos Jedao wakes, resurrected by the ancient and powerful Hexarch Kujen. Jedao finds himself in an alien, chimera body that reflects the scars and traumas of an older man, but he only remembers being a seventeen-year-old cadet at military school. He finds Kujen wants him to be his general and lead the forces of the hexarch against the upstart Protectorate formed when the rogue general Cheris-Jedeo took over the Kel forces and Hexarch Mikodez staged a coup. Plus, it quickly becomes clear that Kujen is a cruel tyrant, and that the young and inexperienced Jedeo has no free will in the matter. Can he find a way to victory?

On the positive side, this installment is a great setup to continue the investigation of consensual reality and free will that runs through this series. The Kel on board Kujen’s command ship Revenant hate and fear the new Jedeo, both because of what he is now and what his predecessors did in the past, but they have to follow him because of the Kel formation instinct. In turn, Jedeo quickly finds he is a captive, meant only to be Kujen’s tool and that he has no free will, either. Even his aide is forced to submission through psych surgery. Besides this, the mothships are also slaves, an alien lifeform harnessed to serve in the human wars. As usual, the characters are well-developed, and there’s a light strain of humor that runs through the whole thing, despite the horrors and decadence of the empire. Some of the asides are very touching. The pacing and plot run better in this installment than in the last, with plenty of action, suspense and conflict to keep the reader interested. Last, Kujen’s physical attraction and sexual manipulations bring a strain of S&M to this installment of the series that I didn’t pick up in the predecessors.

On the less positive side, I was disappointed by Cheris-Jedeo’s character in this installment. When the young Jedeo woke, I thought, “Oh, goody! It’s going to be a contest between the two Jedeos,” but it didn’t turn out that way. The young Jedeo is brilliant, of course, but Cheris-Jedeo seriously under-performs, is suddenly incompetent as an assassin, fails to communicate where they should and falls into knee-jerk reactions where they ought to know better—although they do finally come through with some helpful insight that wins the final battle. Besides this, I ended up with some questions about events and motivations. These may suggest this is all getting too complex to manage and/or that Lee has forced his characters into particular roles to send social messages. First, it looks like physical mods are widespread in this universe. People make themselves younger and more beautiful and apparently change genders at will. So, why is Brezen still worrying about sex prejudice and wearing something as uncomfortable as breast bindings to look like a man? Second, if the Protectorate is going to ditch the old order and bring a new freedom, why are the Kell still programmed and enslaved to formation instinct? Next, how is it that, in a universe where math is so basic to reality, the young Jedeo makes a simple sign error in his battle calculations? Doesn’t he check his work? With all those servitors around, doesn’t he have a friendly AI to help out? Or is he keeping these in his head because they’re such a dark secret? The issue seems simplistic and contrived (maybe a message to young readers about math?), and I think it would have been better to leave his error undefined. Next, after it’s clear the Revenant has rebelled, why doesn’t Jedeo give the order to abandon ship? I know it’s questionable whether anyone could have gotten off, but it looks really unethical for the brass to clear out like that and leave the crew to die onboard. And why didn’t all the other mothships rebel at the same time? They could have killed all the humans and escaped. Wouldn’t the sudden calendrical spike have affected their crews’ control of them? Last, if Kujen maintains the black cradle, how is it that he only seems to have had one copy of Jedeo’s consciousness? Apparently he let a big part of this get away from him when Cheris claimed Jedeo as her weapon of choice, and now he’s only left with Jedeo’s cadet memories? Of course, it’s possible that he just wants a Jedeo too young to have formed subversive opinions, but statements seem to indicate this is all he has left to work with. Still, maybe he has multiple copies now, as he’s made previous, unsuccessful constructs with other clones. I’m left scratching my head about this one.

Final verdict: Negatives are inconsequential. This is an entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and was published by Hodder & Stoughton/Harper Voyager. The story falls into Chambers’ Wayfarer series, following The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It runs around 358 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After trashing Earth, a group of humans left several centuries ago for interstellar space in an Exodus Fleet of generation ships. They eventually encountered other species and settled planets in the Galactic Commons free market, but some humans still stayed resident in the Fleet, allotted an orbit around a small star. This narrative (including an archive history written by the Harmagian Ghuh’loloan) follows the personal stories of a group of characters on the ship Asteria: Kip, a boy from the Fleet who wants something more; Sawyer, a young man from a planet who wants the security of his family’s roots on the Fleet; Eyas, the ship’s caretaker and composter of human remains; Isabel, the archivist; and Tessa, a young mother and salvage supervisor. Humans are integrating into the Galactic Commons, and these people are all faced with change in the culture that has maintained them for generations aboard the Fleet.

This is what is called a slow burner, as there’s no action line, very little conflict and not even much in the way of events in the first three-quarters of the book. The Fleet community seems to be a Utopian communist co-op, where everyone is guaranteed a home, air, an education and enough to eat, while expected to spend time in working for the common good. Money is not used aboard the ships, and trade is handled through a barter system. This is that safe space everyone is looking for, and the community is warm and welcoming. Asteria does seem to be experiencing a certain amount of stagnation, which is a real issue for societies that fail to balance capitalism and socialism well enough, and everyone has to deal with the austerity. Of course, now they’re now threatened by innovation and the Commons free market, and the question is rising about they can or really need to maintain the insular security of the Fleet any longer. I couldn’t identify anything much of a theme; maybe just the continuance of the human race? Purpose? There are statements, however: 1) All sapients are respected and valued; 2) death is a positive opportunity to recycle people into resources for others; 3) everybody needs to find their purpose; 4) there are givers and takers in the universe; and 5) it’s easy to accidentally destroy a species.

On the not so positive side: This is hard to get into, mainly because of the lack of action and conflict in most of the book; plus, I wasn’t immediately engaged by the characters. The story does offer comments on the human condition, and it gets emotional suddenly in the last quarter. However, I’m suspicious about the Utopian quality of the Fleet culture. The book doesn’t say what they do about mental illness, irresponsible layabouts and criminals in this society, or why there isn’t a huge crush of planetary immigrants seeking welfare—the kind of problems that plague real socialist economies on Earth. Also, I’m wondering how the same people who destroyed Earth would come together to create this utopia within the Fleet, with everybody suddenly cooperating and doing their part and not trashing the ship’s environment.

Four stars.

Review of “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com in September 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

On a day in 1975, LT is ten years old. His mother wakes him to watch meteor showers, but something else happens, too, canisters falling from the sky with seeds that take root and sprout strange, invasive plants. In 1976, his mother has a new boyfriend and brings home a fern man in a pot. LT names it Slo Mo, and it soon gets too big so it has to go live with his dad. In 1978, a thistle cloud overtakes East Tennessee, blotting out the sunlight. Angered by an argument, LT’s dad tries to shove Slo Mo into the fireplace but it survives. In 1981, LT’s mom takes him to see the Dragon Tails, alien plants growing in Arizona. In 1986, drunk with his friends, LT wonders where the space bees are? How do the plants propagate without bees? In 1994, LT and his husband Doran adopt an Indonesian baby daughter they name Christina. Agriculture has failed in Indonesia because of the alien plants, and people are starving. In 2007, LT is reading to Christina and their son Carlos when his dad’s neighbor calls and tells him he needs to check on his dad. The house has been overtaken with vines, and inside Slo Mo is pressing against the roof. His dad has cancer, and LT and Doran make plans to move him into their house. At Thanksgiving in 2028, Christina announces that her research team has found a bacteria is evolving that will consume some of the alien plants. There is a potential for these bacteria to become part of the human gut flora, which would make the alien plants edible for people. In 2062, LT is ninety-seven. Doran is gone, but his family is still around him.

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm, slightly wry and very inclusive. At the risk of dissing East Tennessee, LT’s parents seem fairly typical. Mom has serial boyfriends and dad is God-fearing fundamentalist, but LT and Doran still manage to put together a nice, normal marriage and a great family. The dates in the story make up a Fibonacci series, like the spirals made by the Dragon Tails or a nautilus, and give us glimpses into LT’s life as the alien invasion takes root and grows. At the end of his life, LT is assured that his children will survive.

On the not so positive side, the story structure leaves us as mere observers skipping through the years. We can assume LT’s dad dies of his cancer, but there’s no info on what happens to Doran and Slo Mo. The plants apparently wreak havoc, but we don’t experience any of this, just a brief storm of thistles and vague reports of people starving in Indonesia. LT and Doran seem to have a comfortable life. Nobody really does anything that produces a solution to the problem except the lowly bacteria, mutating away in the background to take advantage of a new opportunity.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog in November 2018. (Maybe a bit of competition for Tor.com?) Zen Cho is Malaysian and lives in England. She is also the author of the short story collection Spirits Abroad and the novel Sorcerer to the Crown. This review contains major spoilers.

Byam is an imugi. That means he’s an ugly, earthbound worm with the potential to be a glorious dragon if he could only become elevated enough. He spends his first thousand years in a cave, studying the Way and trying to improve himself. Finally he feels ready and begins his ascent to Heaven. However, he’s been distracted by an empty belly just recently and dined on some livestock, so the farmers curse at him, which drags him back down to earth. Byam comes up with a strategy for his second attempt at ascension. Hoping to win the acclaim of humans, he creates a beautiful dragon of cloud and light in the sky. However, the sailors below fail to recognize it as a dragon, and when he’s identified as only a worm, Byam falls to earth again. On the third attempt he’s interrupted by a female hiker taking a selfie, who catches him on her phone’s camera. Angered, he disguises himself as a human female and goes to her office, where he finds she is Dr. Leslie Han, an astrophysicist. He is charmed by her research, and they strike up an acquaintance that soon becomes a serious relationship on human terms. Byam manages to learn about human ways, and supports Leslie when she fails to get tenure, encouraging her to go to work for industry instead. Finally, she confesses she knows what he really is. The end of Leslie’s life comes too soon. Can Byam fulfill her final request?

Aww. This is a really sweet story about how the way others see us either pulls us down or elevates us to reach wonderful accomplishments. It’s full of love and humor and includes a hissy cat. What else can I say?

The only complaint I can come up with is that the lead-in to the relationship with Leslie seems long. I can see the reason for this, though—it’s to clearly establish how the anger and contempt of others pulls Byam down to earth at the moments he’s ready to become something exalted. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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