Mission: Impossible and Feminism

It’s hard to imagine being able to use a spy-thriller series to talk about feminism. Even the most progressive James Bond films still have the women in distress or wanting to bed Bond, and more often both.

But Mission: Impossible is an interesting case study, because the series has consistent stars and producers, but it’s been going for 22 years.

What I’ll do here is break down the major female characters and see if there’s a trend to be found.

Mission: Impossible — There are really only two women of note in the film: Claire (Emmanuelle Beart) and Max (Vanessa Redgrave). Max comes off better, as a self-possessed arms dealer with an agenda and the means to bring it about. Claire, on the other hand, is a pawn of both Jim and Ethan as the story progresses, and her only moment of defiance is when she begs Jim not to kill Ethan (because, I guess, she loves him?) and gets killed for her trouble. This is clearly a mixed bag for the women.

Mission: Impossible II — This film has but one woman: Nyah (Thandie Newton). Her opening shows her to be a gifted thief who has no problem walking away from Ethan. But soon enough she’s mooney-eyed over him. Then she finds out she’s needed, not for any skills she has, but for her past relationship to Ambrose. She makes some noise about how that’s unfair, but she still does it. She manages one decent pickpocketing, but then screws up the return of the thing she stole. Her big moment is injecting herself with the virus, rather than handing it over to Ambrose. That feels like the character exercising her agency, but the only result is that she’s left as the damsel in distress for the third act. It’s starting to look a little better.

Mission: Impossible III — We’ve got a bunch of women in this one. One is a gung-ho agent named Linday (Keri Russell) who has some serious skills–and is then killed. Ethan’s new fiance is Julia (Michelle Monaghan). She gets to do some medical stuff and shoot a couple of people at the end. So that’s pretty good. Lastly, we have Zhen (Maggie Q) who is an actual female IMF agent who survives the film! (A first for the series.) Unfortunately, her job seems to be to wear a slinky dress to the Vatican that one time, and other than that she blows up a lot of stuff.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — For this film we have one woman who’s a good guy (Jane, played by Paula Patton) and one who’s a bad guy (Moreau, played by Lea Seydoux). Part of me thinks it great that Jane has an actual story arc. Then part of me is annoyed that her story arc is about the dude she thought was cute getting killed. Moreau is an effective antagonist, and the fight she has with Jane is brutal, and only involved their clothes getting ripped once. So that’s something. I guess.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — Now we introduce Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who breathes life into this franchise. The film has no problem showing off her body in slinky dresses and bathing suits, but it isn’t central to her purpose in the story. She’s an agent no less effective and lethal than Ethan, and she even gets to save Ethan in one pretty spectacular sequence. Her final fight with the lead henchman is hers and hers alone; Ethan is off doing something else. If only there were any other women of note, we might have had a truly feminist entry into the series.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout — Sadly, Ilsa doesn’t fare quite as well in the next film. She’s still a bad-ass with her own agenda. But she’s also largely defined by her attraction to Ethan. Every time there’s anything mentioning or showing Julia, there’s a cut to Ilsa looking sad. Julia comes off a little better, I’d say. She has a new husband and while she still has a connection to Ethan, it’s not like she defines herself by her relationship to him. White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) is basically a copy of the Max character from the first film, which is great. And they add Angela Bassett into the mix as the CIA Director (?).

All in all, I think there’s a clear trend line (at least after M:I2), from movie to movie, toward more feminist portrayals of women. An argument could be made that Fallout is a dip on that trend, but the sheer number of women, all of whom have something to do in the story, is worth valuing.

Anyway. There you go.


MCU Villains

I’m far from the first to bang on this particular gong, but I’ve had a chance now to see Ant-Man and the Wasp, and since I’ve seen every other MCU film at least twice, so I feel like it’s time to do a ranking of the films’ villains.

I don’t subscribe to the common wisdom that the MCU has a “villain problem”. But there is definitely a differentiation of quality out there. So, let us begin at the bottom:

20) Yellowjacket; Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) — This is an exceedingly pointless villain. I feel like there was some shifting of the story, so his descent into madness was supposed to have been caused by his cut-rate shrinking tech, even though he doesn’t use it until the very end of the film. Messy.

19) Kaecillius; Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange) — “I am evil. I want evil to win.” Yeah, I guess he’s supposed desire “peace”. Whatever. He’s just there.

18) Ghost; Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp) — She gets surprisingly little screen time, but since she’s pretty boring, that’s okay. At least we get a rare villain who survives the film.

17) Ronan the Accuser; Lee Pace (Guardians of the Galaxy) — The only scene of his that was interesting was watching his incredulity when Star-Lord started dancing at the end.

16) Malekith; Christopher Eccleston (Thor: The Dark World) — Most people put him at the bottom. I’ll give him a little credit for having an audacious plan: he want’s to turn off all light in the entire universe. I mean, come on. That’s…dark, I guess.

15) Loki; Tom Hiddleston (Thor) — Yes, he will be back, and yes, he will be better. But in this one he is a whiny a-hole. A charming one, though.

14) Iron Monger; Jeff Bridges (Iron Man) — A late-in-the-film villain reveal saps some of the power of this one. And it was somewhat random for him to just start fighting Tony with his own suit at the end.

13) Hela; Cate Blanchett (Thor: Ragnarok) — She’s all slithery menace, but not much personality. She didn’t have a plan so much as a desire for chaos. And she was kind of laughably overpowered.

12) Ultron; James Spader (Avengers: Age of Ultron) — He’s the only AI on the list, so there’s no physical performance. It’s all in the voice and in the plan. And it’s a crazy plan. I’ll give him that.

11) Killmonger; Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) — I’m bucking the trend here. Most people think he’s top-tier. I didn’t find him particularly menacing. He was overshadowed by Ulysses Klaue for much of the film, and his “black power” ideology was maybe a little too on the nose in the current political climate.

10) Aldrich Killian; Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3) — We know from a One Shot that Killian was not actually “The Mandarin”. Which is fine. His fire-breathing army was pretty cool, and he was a great foil for Tony.

9) Abomination; Tim Roth (The Incredible Hulk) — I think people dismiss this one too quickly. I enjoyed Emil Blonsky as a soldier, and also as a guy who desired Hulk-like power a little too much.

8) Ego; Kurt Russell (The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) — This is a film where the reveal of the villain later in the story works, partly because he’s so instantly mysterious. And he’s clearly the most evil villain on the list: he impregnated thousands of aliens and then killed all (but one) of his kids. That deserves points for insanity alone.

7) Whiplash; Mickey Rourke (Iron Man 2) — This villain underscores, for the first time, that Tony’s dad wasn’t a saint. And he’s the best Tony Stark foil. His fate is tied to his dad, and he creates his initial suit from scratch, just like Tony did in the first film.

6) Alexander Pierce; Robert Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) — It’s arguable that the villain of this film is really Bucky, but I choose to put the mantle on Pierce. There’s no redemption for him. He’s Hydra until the end. And it’s really enjoyable to watch him lose.

5) Vulture; Michael Keaton (Spider-Man: Homecoming) — This is one of the villains who is better than the film he’s in. He’s relatable though still merciless. And the reveal that he is whatshername’s father is ridiculous…and awesome. Kudos for not killing him at the end, MCU.

4) Thanos; Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) — Now we’re in the rarified atmosphere of villains who are all pretty great. I put Thanos down at number 4 because he’s a CG character, and is therefore at an emotional remove. That he’s so impactful anyway is the amazing part.

3) Helmut Zemo; Daniel Bruhl (Captain America: Civil War) — I love the fact that there’s a guy on this list who has no super powers, no money, no connections, no family heritage, nothing. All he has is smarts, patience and rage. And what he does with that is astounding.

2) Loki; Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers) — It was a difficult call, who to put in which of the top two spots. Loki is the glue that holds The Avengers together. Every character has a notable moment with him on screen, and they are all the better for it. I think up until this film, the MCU still felt like a lucky streak. Afterward, it started to feel like it was all inevitable.

1) Red Skull; Hugo Weaving (Captain America: The First Avenger) — He’s the ur-villain of the series, historically speaking. He started Hydra (other subplots from the TV show notwithstanding). He introduces us to the Infinity Stones. And he may be the best example of an MCU villain as a dark mirror of the hero. He’s a joy to watch in every scene in this film.

Deepwater Horizon

dhThis is an entirely serviceable, non-threatening, genuinely emotional and relatively exciting disaster movie. It tells the story of the blowout and subsequent destruction of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform back in 2010. We follow three main characters.

Mark Wahlberg plays Mike, the head repair guy on the rig. He’s our everyman entry point into the story. He’s a regular joe, hanging out with the roughnecks on the crew, but adept at management. (His speech rattling off what’s wrong on the rig is hilarious.)

Kurt Russell is Captain Jimmy, the leader of this team, and the local representative of TransOcean, the drilling company. He’s gruff and loveable.

Gina Rodriguez is Andrea, the navigator of the Deepwater Horizon. (Which is actually a free-floating ship! I didn’t know that.) She’s strong but feminine. You know. Exactly what you hope a woman would be in this scenario.

The foil for all this working-class, low-key heroism is, of course, the “suit” from BP, John Malkovich as Vidrine. Vidrine is pushing, pushing too hard to get the drilling done so they can start making money from the well. He comes off a lot like that douchebag from Titanic, always pressing to go faster.

The back and forth between the suits and the working folk is well done, but I wish it had been a little less black and white. None of the BP guys are portrayed as anything but black hats. None of the TransOcean guys is anything but a white hat. I’m fine with most of the fault landing on the BP side (which is my understanding of what really happened) but couldn’t there be more shades in there?

When the heavy mud hits the fan, there is exactly the kind of chaos you expect. The sound design in particular sent chills up my spine. Every time some large piece of metal slammed into some other large piece of metal I couldn’t help but imagine the kind of damage that could do to human flesh. Sure, there’s a little bit of gore, but nothing too dramatic. The possibilities, though, were enough to give me chills.

When, during the finale, the entire rig was consumed in fire, I started to think, “Well, that’s Hollywood for you, making this out to be way more dramatic than it really was.” Then I saw the real footage over the credits. Dang, Hollywood, you really dialed it back didn’t you? The reality was much crazier. So that’s a bonus, I guess.

By the time all was said and done, I couldn’t help but compare this not to another disaster film, but to Captain Phillips. Director Peter Berg seems to be positioning himself as the next Paul Greengrass. That’s a good goal. But he may have a ways to go.

Furious 7

I’m an unapologetic fan of this series. The first film was an exciting hoot. Admittedly, 2 Fast 2 Furious was pretty bad. But I liked Tokyo Drift, Fast and Furious and Fast Five well enough. And Fast and Furious 6 was kind of awesome.

f7Despite the untimely death of Paul Walker, I suspected this seventh installment might be the pinnacle, followed by whatever diminishing returns the studio could wring out of the franchise before it fell apart. Sadly, this is the film where it actually falls apart.

I’ll start with what I think worked. The B-plot of Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty dealing with her amnesia was thoughtful and, at times, touching. The no-holds-barred way that Jason Statham’s Deckard is a one-man wrecking crew throughout the film is pretty awesome (even if it doesn’t always make sense). The way they made Dom’s (Vin Diesel) penchant for popping wheelies in his muscle cars actually a cool plot point made me smile. And, despite some pretty obviously choppy editing and noticeable face-replacement effects, the way they said goodbye to Paul Walker’s Brian was well handled.

But that’s only a little bit of good in a sea of well produced action sequences that I simply didn’t care about, plot twists that made me want to punch the screenwriter in the face, and sexism at a level that bounced me right out of the story.

I know, it’s odd to be a fan of a series that routinely features scantily clad women dancing around dragsters and get annoyed with sexism. But there’s a point where it just stops being escapism and veers into unacceptable territory.

They flirted with that line in the last film, when Elena (Elsa Pataky) gracefully exits Dom’s life after Letty is brought back from the “dead”. But that was just one little moment during the denouement of the film, tying off a loose end that wouldn’t have felt right to leave dangling.

Mia (Jordana Brewster) hasn’t ever had much to do in this series, beyond being an object of desire for Brian or a responsibility for Dom. But, in this film she responds to Brian’s restlessness with selfless worry that she bores him, rather than the more appropriate anger that he needs to stop being a child and be a father to his son.

Worse still, they had the stones to have the characters all weirded out when a mysterious hacker is revealed to be (wait for it) a girl! I saw the screenwriter trying to have his cake and eat it too by giving Roman (Tyrese Gibson) the speech about how it’s not right for someone like that (a woman) to be good at computers, and having Tej (Ludacris) reveal him as a fool. Nice try. You let the stupid sexist cliche out of the bag. Roman and Tej can’t stuff it back in there with a joke.

As for those action sequences, there’s another fine line between over-the-top fun, as in that insane plane scene at the end of Furious 6, and just plain dumb, as in Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) killing an armed drone with an ambulance. (Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t make that up.)

I mentioned how much I enjoyed Statham in the film… but I really didn’t enjoy the fact that there is no explanation for why he shows up half the time. When Kurt Russell shows up and practically turns the film into parody with his XXX-ish recruitment of Dom and his team, the film takes a crazy left turn (from which it never escapes, sending the story spinning for the rest of the movie), you kind of have to wonder what’s the point anyway? But Statham just keeps showing up, logic-be-damned.

Well, it’s a shame. I was really looking forward to this.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

dotpotaThis is the follow up to the sleeper hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That film chronicles the early life of Caesar, a genetically modified chimpanzee who leads a revolt and escapes with his fellow simians into the forests of Northern California. It also, almost as a subplot, shows us the release and distribution of a virus so lethal that it nearly kills of all of humanity. As a modern reboot of the much beloved, yet campy, Apes films from the 60s and 70s, most people were surprised at how freaking good it was.

Much of that praise is reserved (and rightly so) for Andy Serkis, the motion capture guru who embodied Gollum in the Middle-earth films, and King Kong the recent (and disappointing) remake of that classic ape tale. He returns to the role in Rise, now the leader of this ape community in the woods. A remarkable amount of time is spent early in the film showing us their lives and introducing us to Caesar’s family.

But, as you must in any Apes movie, they soon introduce some of those damn, dirty humans. Jason Clarke is a fix it guy for a group of survivors living in a ruined San Francisco. He has a girl (Keri Russell) and a kid (Kodi Smit-McPhee). His boss, the leader of the city, is played by Gary Oldman (playing more at the Professional end of his range, rather than the Tinker Tailor end).

The humans are on the brink of running out of power, and they come up with an idea to jump start the generator at a nearby dam. Unfortunately, the dam is in ape territory.

What follows is a tense interplay between two extremely wary populations. Neither trusts the other, but they can’t simply ignore each other either. The film could have made the apes the bad guys (as they seemed to be in earlier incarnations of the story) or it could have made the humans the bad guys (as they seemed in the previous film). The filmmakers took a trickier path by making the essential conflict not between humans and apes, but within each of the respective communities. There are good apes and bad apes. There are good humans and bad humans.

Yes, you get the exciting battle sequence with chimpanzees firing automatic weapons on horseback at humans. And, yes, that’s an incredible piece of film making. But the ending is a more complex and resonant piece of action/drama than I could have anticipated.

I hope they didn’t write themselves into a corner, and that the third film (I’m assuming there will be a third film) will up the awesome even more.

Jason Clarke was in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with James Franco. James Franco was in…