Avengers: Infinity War Spoiler Discussion

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I’m going to break this discussion down by moving chronologically through the events of the film and addressing each noteworthy moment when I get to it.

I’d like to first point out that the film really is from Thanos’s perspective. He has the most development, depth, and screen time. The film begins immediately after the Thor: Ragnorak end credits scene, where a mysterious ship has assailed the Asgardian refugee vessel. By the way, if you haven’t seen any of the previous Marvel movies, odds are you’ll be pretty lost in Infinity War since it builds heavily off of the previous films. It depends on the audience knowing who these characters are since they don’t really get any introductions here. As I said, the film is Thanos’s story, so all of the other Avengers characters are really just supporting cast that are the instruments upon which our protagonist (Thanos in this case) must act upon. The first shot of the film is the wreckage of the assailed ship. The first character we see is actually Ebony Maw, one of Thanos’s servants. We first hear his voice, then watch as the camera pans up from his feet and to his full grotesque features. We then see the rest of Thanos’s Black Order. They serve as “hype-men” as they introduce the audience to Thanos who is finally revealed to us in a full body shot. Thanos’s first words aren’t, in fact, evil villain clichés, but rather statements of empathy and inevitably. He states that he understands “what it’s like to lose”. He talks about desperation, failure, the inability to escape from destiny. What’s effective here is that when Thanos compares himself to destiny, it establishes his viewpoint. He is not doing this out of a quest for power and dominance over the universe (so he thinks at this moment). He sees himself as an agent of the universe, sent to balance the scales and do the necessary evil that only he can do (or so he thinks). It’s a great way to introduce a powerful, unflinchingly rational villain with shades of empathy (or so we think…never mind).

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The battle in New York is pretty neat. We get reintroduced to Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Iron-Man, etc. The banter between some of the characters that have never met, like Strange and Tony Stark is pretty good. Dr. Strange and Tony have a somewhat antagonistic relationship and its funny to see the verbal jousts of two characters that are so similar (both were arrogant rich guys who after a traumatic incident became superheroes with new perspectives and new priorities of protecting something). The opening action scenes are pretty entertaining. The Black Order, led by Ebony Maw confront our characters and try to take the Time Stone. The Black Order, though not developed in any way (though they don’t need to), serve their purpose as intimidating henchmen of Thanos. They look great and match their comic book counterparts especially well. Ebony Maw is a formidable second-in-command. His Lovecraftian features, slender frame, upright posture, and telekinetic powers conducted by the wave of his bony fingers all create a unique sense of might and terror that poses a serious threat to the superheroes. The New York set piece ends with Dr. Strange captured and Spider-Man and Iron Man stowing away on the Black Order ship to save Strange.

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We’re then reacquainted with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they run into a space-stranded Thor. The good thing about so many characters being integrated from so many different films is that the aesthetics of these films are somewhat translated here, as I’ve said in my spoiler-free review. Anyway, since the Guardians are characters played with more comedy within their respective films, this is where the comedy really starts to amp up. Some of the humor hits, like Drax calling Thor a “handsome, muscular man”, until it devolves into several fat jokes about Starlord aka actor Chris Pratt. Regardless, Thor wakes up and goes with Rocket and Groot to forge a new hammer while Drax, Mantis, and Gamora head to the Collector’s domain to stop Thanos from getting the Reality Stone. We then cut to the next storyline, which starts with Vision and Scarlett Witch hiding out in Scotland. It’s shown here that they’ve been in a romantic relationship for at least two years. We’ve never really seen this relationship develop in the rest of the busy Marvel movies, but we’re supposed to just go with it now. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if later on in their film the emotional weight of their relationship is supposed to impact the audience but obviously can’t if we never saw the relationship develop. What we do feel the impact of is Captain America arriving to save them from the Black Order. It’s a great moment too, seeing a silhouette between the gaps of a speeding train, Alan Silvestri’s epic score kicking in as the familiar face of Steve Rodgers enters the light. It’s also good to know that Captain America has been secretly operating with a small group of Avengers for the past two years. Unfortunately, Cap doesn’t get too much screen time or character development in this movie. It is hard to fit in so many characters in such a big movie in such little time, but I could have used a few more Cap scenes to flesh out his convictions. Nonetheless, it’s great seeing my favorite Avenger and I look forward to seeing his development in the next movie. Also, we have two stellar Captain America movies that have already fleshed out his awesome character. His awesomeness only heightens when he refuses to give up Vision’s life for the Mind Stone, stating that “we don’t trade lives”. This statement ultimately becomes the film’s main message and counterargument to Thanos’s utilitarian perspective but we’ll get more into that later. What it does is further cement Captain America’s position as the ultimate moral center and voice of reason within the Marvel Universe.

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Meanwhile, the Guardians try and sneak up on Thanos as he visits the Collector. Gamora attempts to kill him but is tricked by the Reality Stone. Thanos kidnaps Gamora, and in a nice nod to the Infinity Gauntlet comic, uses the Reality Stone to dispatch Mantis and Drax in clever ways (Drax is diced into cubes, Mantis is turned into paper cutouts). While all of this is happening, Spider-Man and Iron Man are able to save Dr. Strange and kill Ebony Maw, which it’s sad to see him go so soon. They then head over to Thanos’s homeworld, Titan, to confront him. The only real character development that we get to see during this time is between Thanos and Gamora, and with Thor. Despite there never having been a time where Thanos and Gamora are on screen together, the time they share in this movie is well spent. We do get to see Thanos’s love for Gamora, his admiration of her fierce spirit, and his hope that she can maybe understand that what he is doing will save the Universe. On the opposite end, we also see Gamora’s conflicted feelings. She hates Thanos but still considers him family, and her breakdown into tears when she thought she had killed him earlier signifies that she too still harbors love for her adopted father. Thanos’s feelings of love, however, only extend to one daughter, as he tortures his other daughter, Nebula, so that Gamora can reveal the location of the Soul Stone.

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Thor gets development too, as this movie effectively builds upon the character revamping that he got in Thor: Ragnorak but focuses on the tragic aspect of his character rather than the comedic. In a brilliant scene with Rocket, Thor recounts to his “rabbit” friend all the loved ones he’s lost (mother, father, brother, best friend). It also shows that Thor tries to use humor to counter and mask his sorrows. We realize that Thor’s overly boisterous and heroic personality compensates for the tragedy he’s suffered in his long life. His grief-masking doesn’t work so well at this moment, however, and he tries to give Rocket a trembling smile while he fights back tears. It’s a sad moment, and it strengthens Thor’s motivations for going after Thanos. Chris Hemsworth is also fantastic as Thor, capturing his conviction and his rage. He owns the character. So, Thor, Rocket, and Groot travel to the dying star that forged Thor’s original hammer in order to forge a new hammer. One Game of Thrones cameo later (Peter Dinklage as Eitri), Stormbreaker is made.

The drama continues to hype up as Thanos and Gamora travel to Vormir, the planet where the Soul Stone is located. Upon arrival, they are greeted by the Stonekeeper who is in fact, surprise surprise…. Red Skull! It’s revealed that Red Skull survived the events of Captain America: The First Avenger and was transported to Vormir to guard the Soul Stone. In a shocking moment, Thanos must give a soul in order to have the soul stone. The moment when Thanos drags a screaming Gamora and throws her off a cliff really earns its drama. The music kicks up, symbols clash and an adagio of strings play over a wide-eyed Thanos. His expression appears to show disbelief at his own actions, yet because of his actions, he now has the Soul Stone.

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Cap and the rest of the Avengers head over to Wakanda to meet up with Black Panther and mount a defense against the Black Order. We see Cap reunite with Bucky, some of our favorite Black Panthers like Okoye and M’Baku, and Bruce Banner get outsmarted by Shuri. The battle of Wakanda begins and the Avengers fight off against an army of faceless, nameless alien beasts. My main gripe about this battle is the lack of build-up to it. It doesn’t feel like something from Lord of the Rings or Star Wars because it just kind of happens all of a sudden without fully establishing both sides. The Black Order kind of just shows up with an army of disposable creatures to fight the Avengers, it doesn’t feel as weighty as what is going on elsewhere. At the other end of the solar system, the rest of the Guardians excluding Groot and Rocket meet up with Iron Man’s group and come up with a plan to take out Thanos. Dr. Strange runs through millions of possibilities and determines that there is only one in which they can win. Thanos arrives and relays his strategy of dealing with overpopulation through random genocide. Again I’ll get more into that at the end. He engages Iron Man’s group and is surprisingly overpowered for a brief period of time, allowing Spider-Man and Iron Man to try and pry the Infinity Gauntlet off of him. This is where the controversial moment happens when Starlord, angered after discovering Gamora’s death, aggressively attacks Thanos in the middle of his incapacitation at the hands of Mantis, causing Thanos to regain control and keep the Gauntlet. I have to say, the entire time Starlord felt somewhat inconsistent with his character. He was either too humorous or too aggressive. I get it, he’s displayed these characteristics in the past, and his girlfriend was kidnapped and later killed. Nevertheless, I feel like it discredits him as a character since he definitely has been more level-headed than this. It definitely could have been better handled, and I feel like Starlord would have been able to bounce back from these events and respond to that situation much better than he did. I know technically this is the way things are supposed to happen because Dr. Strange predicted the timeline but does it really excuse Star Lord from being an overly confrontational douche? His actions lead to Thanos dispatching the rest of the team before only Iron Man is left to battle Thanos. The fight between them is another great moment and it ends with Tony at Thanos’s mercy. Thanos gives his respect to Stark but spares his life when Dr. Strange offers up the Time Stone.

On Wakanda, Caps forces are being overwhelmed by the generic alien monsters, so it’s a great time for Thor to show up with his epic new hammer. Again, the Avengers theme is awesome, and Thor arriving and absolutely obliterating the enemies to Silvestri’s score is my favorite moment in the movie. It also shows that Thor really is one of the most powerful characters in the MCU. It’s especially true since Hulk has been refusing to come out all this time in a neat character moment since it’s the first time we’ve seen Hulk afraid. The battle ends with the Avengers victorious, but unluckily for them, Thanos arrives with one stone left to obtain. In a slow-motion moment, we see Thanos easily overpower the other Avengers while Vision appeals to Scarlett Witch to destroy the stone. This moment didn’t hit as much for me since as I’ve said before, I didn’t really get to see the relationship between these two characters develop so I wasn’t as emotionally invested in Vision’s destruction at the hands of Scarlett Witch. It matters even less when Thanos rewinds time to reconstruct Vision and take the stone. With the Infinity Gauntlet complete, Thanos snaps his fingers and wipes out half the life in the Universe. Having read the Infinity Gauntlet story before seeing the movie, I was giddy with excitement when he snapped his fingers. We first see Bucky fade away in front of Cap. At this point, I was surprised, but once Black Panther faded away, I knew this wasn’t permanent. The other characters to fade include Falcon, Scarlett Witch, Starlord, Mantis, Drax, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and several Wakandan soldiers. Spider-Man’s farewell does pull at the heartstrings, and it is a shocking moment to see some fan-favorites fade away, but I was more intrigued than disheartened. I’m interested to see how these characters return, and what happens to Thanos in the sequel. I’m also looking forward to Tony’s decisions moving forward, as the deaths of everyone around him will surely leave him devastated. I did love the way the film ended, with Thanos looking over a beautiful landscape with a half-smile half-smirk on his face. We also get treated to an end credit scene of Nick Fury contacting Captain Marvel before fading away.

So I’ve said it multiple times and I’ll say it again, Avengers: Infinity War delivers. It feels like the Empire Strikes back of the MCU, and the MCU feels like the Star Wars of this generation, even more than the actual Star Wars of this generation. Whereas the Star Wars movies today are repeating the same stories over again, the Marvel universe is managing to keep me excited for new stories. The Marvel comics are rich in creativity and storytelling, and the heads at Marvel are masterfully drawing from and adapting the cavalcade of source materials. The Russo Brothers dedicated time to crafting Thanos’s motivations and ideology. From a grand scheme, universal utilitarian view of how the universe should work, there are elements of Thanos’s ideology that make sense. Overpopulation is a thing, and lots of people suffer from the tragedy of the commons. It’s an identifiable perspective for a villain, but like Killmonger, Thanos takes it too far and his willingness to stomp out life makes him more of a monster than a savior. The film doesn’t qualify Thanos’s perspective, there is a clear line. When Thanos completes his quest, he says to a vision of a young Gamora that the crusade cost him “everything”. Thanos’s tears for Gamora are an outlier to his emotional detachment from killing the rest of the Universe. He fails to understand the sanctity of life. The decisions that our heroes make, including Scarlett Witch and Starlord’s decisions to try and kill their respective partners at their requests, were made out of love. Thanos’s love for Gamora wasn’t enough to sway him from his beliefs of what he thinks is the right thing. However, as Captain America said, “we don’t trade lives”. No matter the suffering, what makes life special is that everything has the opportunity grow, to become something important, something vital. If we go along with Thanos’s plan and wiped out half the life in the Universe randomly, what if the next Albert Einstein, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. was killed? What if people who were or will make major contributions to existence are wiped out? The Avengers understand this idea of all life being sacred. It is possible that Thanos may too. Perhaps in the next movie, Thanos will ponder on his decision, and realize that the value of life is far too important. He may come to miss Gamora, understand that the cost of his vision of peace would be too dear, regret his decision, and try and turn back time. I’m just speculating at this point, but the fact that the film has provided me the opportunity to speculate is a triumph of its own.

There’s lots of setup for the next film, so I see this as a part one of a two-parter. I’m glad that Marvel left us in this moment of despair and anguish, because obviously, in these kinds of stories, good triumphs over evil, but being able to have that darkness, let us sit and dwell in it for a little bit, consider its implications, and think it might actually be there to stay, only then for the good guys to triumph is how these kinds of stories should be told. Much like Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Halo, everything seems hopeless at a certain point. We wonder how possibly the overwhelming odds can tip in the good guys’ favor and when they do, we feel relief and satisfaction.

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In conclusion, I did in fact love this movie. It’s in my top five favorite Marvel movies and definitely one of the coolest superhero movies ever made. I don’t think it transcends the genre like The Dark Knight or Logan, but it does represent the best that the genre has to offer. It isn’t perfect. There are so many different arcs and no moments where all the characters come together. Characters like Black Panther, Black Widow, Falcon, and Captain America are underutilized. Still, the film is wildly entertaining, pushes the MCU in an even more promising direction, and finally gives the MCU the stakes it needs. I’m very excited for Avengers 4 and I can’t wait to see what the MCU does next.

 

 

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Spoiler Heavy!!!!) A Lesson in Moral Complexity

 

 

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Mildred Hayes, played by Francis McDormand, standing with the billboards

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s latest home run film. It follows up the masterpiece that is In Bruges by deftly blending dark comedy and dark drama. Featuring one of the most outstanding ensemble casts in recent memory, Three Billboards educates the viewer on how hate can affect one’s life.

The story follows Mildred Hayes, a mother who is dead-set on finding the men who raped and killed her daughter, Angela Hayes. To rile up attention for the case, which has gone on for seven months, Mildred rents three billboards on an unfrequented road and prints the messages: “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”, “And Still No Arrests?”, and “Raped While Dying”. The billboards serve as powerful iconography, especially since they’re really all the information we have about what happened to Mildred’s daughter. We never see the violent act of her death actually happen, and her presence is rarely felt throughout the film. McDonagh conveys the horrific nature of the crime through the ominous presence of the billboards. The camera pans out of order to show the first billboard “Raped While Dying” last in order to create a bigger shock value amongst the audience. Though the boards aren’t very high or very large, they are first seen through low angle shots which gives them a monumental perspective. The backgrounds of the boards are bright red with black text, which are not only eye-catching but also splash the film early with the color of blood. And so, the limited information combined with a showcase of how determined she is to find her daughter’s killer creates an immediate understanding and sympathy for Mildred. Despite all of the harsh or misguided actions she carries out in the film, there is always an element of forgiveness at play for the audience in knowing her pain and suffering. In fact, pain and suffering are factors associated with many of the characters in the film.

 

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Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby has a conversation with Mildred

 

The billboards draw negative attention toward Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, who is a respected officer within the community. Willoughby happens to also be dying of cancer. His relationship with Mildred isn’t antagonistic, and the viewer is made aware that he hasn’t been intentionally neglecting the case, however, Mildred is unflinching in her decision to keep the billboards. In a conversation with Willoughby, Mildred claims that all the men in the country should be put in a database and investigated whenever they’ve committed a crime. It’s clearly preposterous, yet you understand that Mildred wants to see more action from the police department. Her position stands unaltered even with Willoughby’s condition in consideration. To add another piece to the puzzle, Willoughby’s fellow officer, Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, is an apparent racist and all-around douchebag. He consistently tries to find ways to pressure Mildred into taking down the billboards. The first half of the film serves as an effective look at conflict where both sides have sympathy. There is sympathy for Mildred, played wonderfully by Francis McDormand, as she stands her ground on her daughter’s case. There is also sympathy for Chief Willoughby, who is conscious that his time with his wife and kids is dwindling. Woody Harrelson captures the pain, compassion, and love that embodies Chief Willoughby. In fact, as he appears to be the only one of the three central characters living without hate, his role transitions from an active character to more of an arbiter of wisdom. In a shocking twist, Chief Willoughby shoots himself in the head after spending one last day with his wife and children. In a letter, he explains that he would rather avoid his family having to see him slowly suffer and wither away in a hospital bed. His suicide is advocated by him as an act of bravery, and it shifts the film’s focus towards the redemption arc of Sam Rockwell’s character.

 

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Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, confronts Mildred

 

Upon Willoughby’s death, Dixon initially reacts by senselessly beating Red Welby-who rented Mildred the billboards-and throwing him out of a window. When Dixon gets fired for his actions by the new chief, his character seems to be headed towards a downward spiral of potential villainy. When the billboards are burned down, he seems to be a likely suspect. However, when Mildred retaliates by burning down the police station with, Dixon unbeknownst to her, still inside, it creates a symbolic moment where Dixon reads a letter from Willoughby while oblivious of the fires burning behind him. Willoughby’s letter urges him to let go of his anger and the pain in his past and instead work towards becoming a good police officer. When Dixon plunges through the flames with Angela Hayes’s case file, it’s as if the singes and burns on his body become a literal embodiment of his bad self, which he will always carry with him. In one of the best moments of the film, Dixon ends up in the same hospital room as Red Welby, the same guy he threw out of a window. He apologizes, and in a poignant scene, the initially upset Welby pours a glass of orange juice for Dixon, providing him with a token of forgiveness. From then on, Dixon tracks down a suspected rapist, gets beaten within an inch of his life in order to get the suspect’s DNA, and notifies Mildred that the suspect may be “the guy”.  When word comes in that the suspect, though a rapist, is not the same man as Angela’s killer, Mildred assures Dixon that the hope that he had given her was more than she had had in a month. She concludes that it was better to have that feeling of hope-however fleeting it is-than have nothing. The efforts that Dixon had made to find her daughter’s killer were the kind of efforts that she wanted out of the police. In the film’s resolution, when Dixon and Mildred decide to go after the confirmed racist, they debate whether it is worth it to take his life and ultimately agree to decide on the way to confront him.

 

The film ends ambiguously as to whether Dixon and Mildred decide to kill the rapist. In the end, it’s not about justice, or vengeance, or even finding the killer. It’s not even a story about learning to let go of hate and embrace love.  It’s learning to live with hate, learning to temper it and not let it consume you. Mildred will always carry hate in her heart, what happened to her daughter will always stay with her and keep the coals burning in the furnace of her heart. She’s unhinged, aggressive, and a danger to everyone around her. Dixon is still that racist asshole, just a more focused asshole, with a clear perspective on his goals of being a detective. Feelings of racism don’t just magically go away. Neither of them are heroes, neither of them are villains. They simply have more clarity in their goals, they are aware of their hatred, aware that they will always carry it with them. They’ve developed moral codes. Keep in mind, moral codes don’t necessarily mean righteous codes, they mean codes that a character follows and doesn’t break, good or bad. Their codes are also still developing much like everyone’s are, as they haven’t decided whether to take the life of the scapegoat racist. Even characters like Willoughby aren’t necessarily martyrs, since the act of suicide is generally considered a coward’s way out rather than the brave act that Willoughby feels it is.

 

The morals of each character are identified by the actions they undertake in the film: Willoughby’s suicide, Mildred’s arson, Dixon’s “redemption” (All Oscar-worthy performances by the way). Each character no matter how small has a moment of sympathy or relatability. Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones has his moment when he hands Dixon the orange juice, and Peter Dinklage has a small surprise role as James, a car salesman attracted to Mildred. When Mildred botches the dinner with James, he goes into a rant of how he knows his position as a dwarf and how he’ll never be a “huge catch”, yet his stature and demeanor still outshine Mildred’s rage and foul temperament. Three Billboards, like In Bruges, is a character study. It doesn’t focus on finding mysteries or on Mildred finding inner peace. Three Billboards is about the effect of an unforgettable tragedy, and one mother’s response to that tragedy, on the lives of our characters. The story teaches that people are not perfect, and no matter how righteous the cause or effort, everyone has a point of darkness in their heart, or a different perspective that goes against the generally expected code of society. Even after being burnt down, the billboards are put up again. They stand just as the hatred in Mildred’s heart still stands.

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Director Martin McDonagh

 

When asked by Variety about the character of Dixon, McDonagh claims, “At the end he’s still the asshole he was at the start of the film, but hopefully by the end of it he’s seen that he needs to change. But the film isn’t about simple heroes and villains, and in no way does he become a hero in it. Part of the whole idea of the story is, ‘Who are the heroes and who are the villains and is anyone really that heroic?’ I wanted to explore the idea of a strong woman going against the police in the South, and I think the racial angle is one of the weapons she would throw at them. But the idea that there’s hope in a story like this, even with characters as despicable as Sam’s, I thought that was an interesting thing to explore.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MiniBlog: Good Character or Good Actor?

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One of the interesting aspects of film that I’ve noticed recently is that although good writing and good acting are two very different things, it is possible for good acting to overshadow good writing. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie and think to myself, were the characters good or was the acting just good enough to make the characters seem good? There are a few examples of this happening, the most recent being Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnorak. In the movie, Blanchett plays the main villain Hela, Thor’s evil older sister. Though Hela has been regarded as one of the more deliciously evil Marvel villains, when you really think about the development of the character, Hela falls flat as a compelling villain. Very little is established about the importance of her familial relationship to Thor, yes she does bring up the subject every now and then, but at the end of the day, she’s just another bad guy for Thor to defeat. There’s no bargaining, no internal conflict, Thor isn’t affected in any way by their relationship as siblings. She’s also given very little background and is simply depicted as the evil sister that likes war and wants to conquer things. What makes the role compelling in any way is Blanchett’s performance. She portrays Hela as a war monger that delights in the death and destruction that she leaves in her wake. If her character isn’t well developed, it is at least a joy to watch, and that may lead people to believe that it makes her a good villain. If the actor on the screen portraying the character is compelling, it doesn’t automatically make the character compelling though it may seem that way.

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Some other examples lie in many Christopher Nolan movies. Nolan, being a very big picture, narrative-driven, overarching story and plot kind of filmmaker, doesn’t spend too much time developing his characters. The story around the main characters often propels them towards much more interesting character moments. In films like Interstellar and Inception, the characters themselves are often simplistic and understated. In fact, both Interstellar and Inception deal with a single dad trying to pull off a near-impossible mission and get back to their kids. What makes us connect with Nolan’s characters are the actors that he hires to play them. In Inception, Cobb may not be as interesting a character if it weren’t for powerhouse actor Leonardo DiCaprio playing him. The philosophical lines and speeches spouted by the characters wouldn’t be as appealing if it weren’t Gary Oldman or Morgan Freeman executing them with pure eloquence. Now, not to say that Nolan or his screenwriters write bad dialogue or characters, they simply do not develop them as strongly as say Martin Scorsese’s The Departed or Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Take a look at these films again and really consider the depth of these characters. What do you know about them? What can you say about them in the end? I think you’ll find that the importance of the performance plays a big part in how we perceive characters, and in some cases, an underwritten character can be highlighted and improved by a great actor.