26 May 2019

First Impressions: Avengers Endgame

One day we'll get back on track around here. But it's been a few weeks, or maybe exactly a month since Avengers: Endgame (2019) hit theaters, so it's time we talk about this behemoth of a movie. This has been one of the more anti-Spoilery movie campaigns ever, so let's just say right now that there will be plenty of spoilers in this far-too long discussion of the merits of this movie.

BFFs

Let's start by rewinding to the 90s. Most specifically - the DC vs. Marvel and subsequent "Amalgam Comics" gimmick. I got caught up in a clickhole last night looking through previous crossover comic events from both DC and Marvel and I remembered this event - I in fact had the first two collected volumes, but looking back something interesting struck me. If ya'll don't remember, the event started out with match-ups between all the premier heroes of each respective Universe. You've got Superman vs. Hulk, Batman vs. Captain America, Storm vs. Wonder Woman. Remember when Storm was a respected character?

Take a look through these match-ups. Notice anything? Out of 11 fights between the best of what each brand has to offer, a whopping three appear in the biggest comic book movie of all time. It's striking to remember how much the X-Men were Marvel's marquee heroes. Taking it a step further, check out who all got the first round Amalgam treatment. Thor and Iron Man are not even in the Justice League / Avengers mash-up. They're C-level billing.

This is all just an exercise to say that none of these characters have any right to headline a movie like Endgame. When Marvel was bankrupt in the 90s it makes sense that they would sell off their most popular characters like Spider-Man, X-Men, and Hulk to the highest bidder, which of course led us to splintered cinematic universes for years and years. This also, however, gave us the unique prospect of Marvel hanging on to all the in-house terrible characters like Iron Man and Captain America. No names like Captain Marvel (Ms. Marvel at the time, mostly known for having her powers sucked by Rogue) and Black Panther. All the joke characters.

A lot of folks on the Internet get pissy that there are so many Marvel / Disney fanatics and not enough DC fans. DC bungled the two most popular superheroes of all time. Marvel centered an 11-year multi-billion dollar franchise around a hero no one even knew about in 1996. It's a testament to writing, casting, vision, planning, adaptation, and delivering in that sweet spot between fan service and cinematic treatment. This has always been Tony Stark's story, and this film ends that the most satisfying way possible.

There seems to be this ebb and flow with Marvel films. The first couple were all pretty good but not quite outstanding. They were serviceable. No Daredevil (2003), but okay. I think a lot of folks around this time formed some idea of the Marvel formula and what these films are, and to be fair, even up until today we have introductory flicks that either stick really close to that formula (Doctor Strange [2016]) or those that stray and are criticised anyway (Captain Marvel [2019]). This, however, ignores how well Marvel has produced sequels (or sometimes, threequels) that build and challenge their characters. and how much their more recent films have knocked it out of the park. They have maintained an on-going story and exploration of themes that are frankly, unparalleled in cinematic storytelling. For all the legitimate hate there are also epic "One Marvelous Scene," which shows both how far reaching these movies have become and just how many damn YouTube video channels there are now.

Comic crossover events are increasing in popularity but somewhat decreasing in quality. It's all about stakes. If there's a universe-shattering event every week it lessens the emotional potency. It becomes exhausting. What strikes me is that crossovers are really nothing more than a promotion gimmick. It's a desperate act. Also, as we've said, it's not like comic books are all THAT popular of an entertainment medium. It's baffling to me that this long desperate staple of the comic book world (including the need to read every slightly affiliated comic book to catch up on what the hell is happening) is adapted so well to cinema. This is of course nothing new. From Freddy vs. Jason (2003) to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), this concept isn't innovative. It's never been attempted on this scale (or with this budget), though - and that's what makes Endgame special.

Everyone else seems to screw this up, too. I still have some hope for the Legendary Monsterverse - we'll see how Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) does next weekend, but early reviews are positive. The trick is patience, writing, and casting, which is not unlike any other movie made ever.

DC blew their load too early. Steppenwolf in Justice League (2017) never felt like a huge threat, especially when all they needed was Superman to kick his ass (which negated the entire premise of Batman v. Superman [2016] but it's cool, guys). The stakes of Infinity War (2018) were high, but no one (including the audience) really realized how high until Endgame hit. This pair of films are so groundbreaking because in the biggest insane gimmicky superhero crossover event of all time the heroes lose! 99% of Endgame is then dealing with that loss and even though it's the same big bad (sort of) the stakes are real because even though the heroes reset the timeline, they're so close to fucking it up again. We know the cost of when and if they do.

This presents a new challenge. When you have a threat like Thanos on a truly Universal scale, how can you go back to smaller story telling? I feel like this is a fallacy of thought. It's a  misunderstanding of how movies work. Stakes are important only in that they need to feel real to the protagonist. In two of the greatest superhero films in recent memory by our friends at FOX, Logan (2017) and Deadpool (2016), stakes are hardly larger than the hero's inner circle of friends. Yet these films are engaging because we care what they care about. We are made to emphasize with the hero's plights. I'm not worried about a future Spider-Man or Doctor Strange movie because stakes are what the film makes of it.

What of future crossovers, though? If we have a big universe-shattering event every summer then what's the point? It's hard to have anything more than blind trust right now. We can just bask for the moment in the fact that Marvel had the balls to retire its two flagship characters in addition to many more who didn't make it out of this movie alive. We can talk more about the future of this franchise later, but there are always revivals to be had. And now that Marvel finally has the X-Men back in its stable, they can get back to that '96 Wolverine and Storm revelry. Actually, we don't need another Wolverine-focused movie.

Endgame. There was only one way. Doctor Strange after viewing 14,000,605 possible futures comes up with one possible combination of events. It's striking how all this pays off. Doctor Strange gives up the Time Stone willingly not only because he needs Stark to be a live, but because that then sends a message in the alternate timeline in the past that the Ancient One needs to also give up her Time Stone. Of less thematic resonance is this concept since Avengers (2012) that Stark can't make the big sacrifice. This seems to have been resolved by the end of that film, but ends up a nagging issue. Stark has been dealing with visions and guilt for eleven years of movie time. Doctor Strange's vision hinges on Stark surviving the snap, being rescued, coming around to help his old Avenger friends, actually solving the Quantum time-travel problem, and most importantly, having the will as a mortal man to actually use the Infinity Stones.

There are a lot of other characters who have the right to defeat Thanos. Thor is probably the strongest candidate, but his own remorse prevented him from that honor. More on that later. The return and redemption of Savage Hulk would have been fun. Also much more on that later. Captain America exists as little more than a tool in the first film without much personal stakes against Thanos, and he does get a pretty solid worthy moment in Endgame. More on that later. Shit this is going to be a long post.

More than any of that, though - any of the Guardians have much more nobler motivations for destroying Thanos. Gamora at this point is out of the running, having only recently defected from his patronal toxicity. Quill certainly needs some redemption and might have some Celestial blood left to actually wield the gauntlet without being killed. Drax vowed revenge against Thanos after defeating Ronan. Rocket was left alone amongst the Guardians after the Snap. Groot is still a teenager and maybe has weaker motivation.

This feels like listing off Who Shot Mr. Burns suspects.

It has to be Tony, though. This isn't a Thanos movie or an Iron Man movie or a Guardians movie. This is a Marvel movie. And it's one that has to close the first 11-year chapter. When you look at the 22-movie narrative it's clear that it always had to be Stark, and his failure on Titan in addition to his failure with Ultron, with CIVIL WAR (2016), with Spider-Man - all these trump what any other character may provide.

Except one. As he often does, Nando v. Movies knocks a case for Nebula out of the park. He also gets a lot of what is wrong with that girl power scene. This is obviously a minefield to talk about, but as cool as that scene is, it comes off as pretty shallow considering Marvel's penchant for both killing women as motivation for its male characters (Hawkeye gets a double dose in this movie!), how its best female character (Black Widow) is absent because of this, and how at one point previously literally the only woman on the Time Force was fucking Nebula. It all just reeks of lip service while it's clear where the actual narrative aligns. I think we can hope for a bigger Valkyrie, Captain Marvel, and Wasp presence going forward, but we'll see. I did really enjoy seeing Gwyneth Paltrow as Rescue getting in on the action. She has a pretty big role actually fighting in Iron Man 3 (2013) but we haven't seen much since then.

This is as good a time as any to talk about Captain Marvel. She was totally underserved. Again, to think of this as a culminating, 11-year saga it's hard to make the hero they introduced two months earlier a main star. This film is all about fan service and trotting out Marvel's greatest hits and there is no real reason to give her a bigger role. Still, this movie, hers, and the final scene in Infinity War really seemed like it was setting her up as a Thanos-killer. She holds her own, but the first scene has so much build-up only to be let down hard.

And I liked that. A little bit. It was a good subversion of expectations and let us know that this movie was not going to end the way we thought it would. And with Thanos dead via Thor axe chop it also really opened up the rest of the film to be a clever heist instead of a big battle gear up. We of course get to eat our cake too since that's what we get anyway, but it was a bit more satisfying not knowing exactly if we'd get that final cathartic Thanos showdown we were promised.

Still, Captain Marvel was ripped off. There seemed to be a lot of weak excuses for her not being around, like she had to patrol the rest of the universe and crap. It's all bullshit to force her out of the narrative. It'd be interesting to see how someone as powerful as Captain Marvel reacts to something all her power can't control, like the Snap or the stealth and intricacies of time travel. That's how you creatively write around someone who is all-powerful like that. Again, the real reason is that it didn't fit the overall Marvel narrative (hey oh!) and I think we can expect more from her moving forward, but there was a definite bait and switch feel for this whole film. But to be fair, since we were all pretty much expecting a "Captain Marvel shows up and kicks Thanos' ass" kind of ending, I'm sort of glad that wasn't exactly what happened.

Instead, our hope for the Universe rested on Paul Rudd, which is how everything should be always. It's interesting to picture Rudd being part of the Snap, that he avoided by being in the Quantum Realm (something else Doc Strange needed to count on). It's fun that a relatively minor character who definitely only exists in the joke Marvel movies is this huge huge factor here. Paul Rudd relishes this role, too and you can argue that he's our protagonist - the guy we first latch on to as we explore this new post-Snap world.

Everyone else is treated pretty well. Hawkeye continues to get some of the best character development after being also a joke character, taking the Ronin persona from the New Avengers comics of a few years ago. We probably could have used a whole movie about his fall and redemption and there are narrative themes unexplored here. This of course is not and never was the film to explore that, though. This flick has a little bit more room to explore its characters than Infinity War, which was preoccupied with zig-zagging across space navigating three different stories and a vast array of characters, forming more a series of set-pieces than intricate character moments. None of this is faulty, though, because of the Thanos-driven narrative momentum of that film and the simple fact that every character in each vignette has the same ultimate goal.

Endgame narrows its focus to primarily the six original Avengers: Captain America, Tony Stark, Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. There is window dressing here and there but these are the core protagonists. Even though the Snap was actually even (these character posters make it easy to count 16 vs 16 although I will have a nerdy nitpick that Vision, Gamora, and Loki did not die in the Snap. I contend that Paul Rudd should have died but he was in the Quantum Realm. Fanon = Fact). Not only that but exactly half of the combatants in CIVIL WAR also perished.

As much as this doesn't feel random at all, considering the Original Six were left perfectly intact, this was what was needed from a Marvel Cinematic perspective. You can maybe get past this squabble. Spider-Man's death is such a motivator for Tony. Doctor Strange's death increases stakes as the Avengers guess in the dark about what to do. Captain Marvel surviving gives hope to the hopeless, even if it's a false hope. Ultimately everyone who survived had to deal with some excess baggage leftover. So much of this movie is cleaning up these decade-long threads to clear room for the newbies to grow.

The film isn't as much of a movie as it is a behemoth marketing move existing to re-set its own universe. Now, this is all cynical, but it leaves its audience with such a good feeling because it largely comes through with its catharsis. Not only does Tony get to be the hero, but he gets to save his daughter and the family he's made, which is where his story has been leading over his last few appearances. His ideological conflict with Captain America has begun to bled more personally - going back to Iron Man 3, Stark wants to be domesticated and give up the suit but continually feels himself pulled into combat. Cap, on the other end of the spectrum, doesn't know or understand a life that's not at war. He eventually earns his domesticity and retirement.

While on that note, how the hell did we not get to see Cap returning the Soul Stone to Red Skull. How the fuck would that even have worked. It definitely happened, too.

That's one of the bigger frustratingly unexplained mysteries - just what the hell was going on with that stone and what its actual powers are. I mean, they're clear in the comics, but we need something here. Ultimately this side story is just unimportant to our main narrative.

Hulk is someone who stands out as a huge missed opportunity. While these recent Marvel movies are very good, there is certainly a bit of "existing because it'd be cool to exist." This was all over THOR: Ragnarok (2017), which gets so many points for tone, visuals, and moments, but is full of stuff that happens for no reason. There is no good reason, for instance, for Hulk to be there, beyond that it's cool for Hulk to be there. There aren't really any ramifications of their fight and Hulk doesn't do a whole lot in the final battle against Hela (this is lampshaded a bit when he tries to fight Surtur). Likewise, Hulk in Endgame tends to exist just because it'd be a cool thing to do.

We get funny dabbing and selfie moments with the Professor Hulk and learn of the off-screen melding of the Banner and Hulk personalities. What is in actuality, though, is that Banner has killed the Hulk and stolen his power. What ends up is that we get a neutered Hulk who lethargically smashes instead of that fun Ragnarok brute Hulk (along with the internal conflict for Banner since The Avengers [2012] - he regrets changing into the Hulk, but knows it can be a necessity in battle). He is, after all, the guy who ultimately defeated Loki.

It's unsatisfying to see all this played out off-screen. It feels like a way to maintain the brains of Banner the Avengers needed for their time mission, and also have the control and poise for the second snap. I read somewhere (I apologize for forgetting the citation), where it would have been brilliant for Hulk / Banner to go after the Soul Stone and need to sacrifice one of their alter-egos to obtain the stone. We do get a nice moment after the Avengers HQ is bombed that elicits Hulk lifting the 150 billion ton mountain, but other than that he does surprisingly little in the final battle.

For this reason I think the Hulk is pretty much done. His arm is fucked up and probably forever gone. It's amazing to me that no one in the modern cinematic age has really figured out what to do with him. Naturally, Film Crit Hulk can sum up his own media narrative better.

We move on to Black Widow, who is purportedly getting her own movie, which will likely be a prequel. Right? Her main purpose in this movie is to die, which sucks (see above for Marvel's hollow treatment of women! yay!), but again, this is a narrative decision that makes narrative sense. Hawkeye wants to die because of his recent sins and feeling like he doesn't have much to live for anyway. Black Widow had to die, though, in order to give Hawkeye that opportunity for redemption. There are deeper problematic things at work here, such as the fact that Black Widow can't have children and the bungled reveal of that in Age of Ultron (2015), but with the cards that we had on the table, this was the right move. I just wished we had different cards.

Widow does do a surprisingly effective job of taking over Fury's role in running the Intergalactic Version of whatever S.H.I.E.L.D. turned into these days. A totally capable professional woman with bureaucratic skills on par with her combat expertise? Please, show us that girl power moment again.

Before we get into the rest, let's mention Thanos for a second. He's a main character. And he's got the moves! Thanos is the most self-assured character in this movie, and for good reason. He won. He's a puppy when the Avengers confront him on Garden World. He doesn't care about his life any more. It makes their catharsis all the more unobtainable. When 2014 Thanos shows up, he's confident in his triumph because he's seen a version of the future where he did triumph. I love his defeat. Tony's last immortal words, "I am Iron Man" perfectly captures everything about his ego while sacrificing himself, as well as obviously calling back to Iron Man (2008). Thanos just sits. He's not a maniacal moustache-twirling villain. He respects his opponents and knows when he's won and when he's lost. It's why he's a great villain.

Fat Thor. Okay, I loved Fat Thor. While all these secondary characters went for a rough spin, Endgame nailed Tony, Cap, and Thor perfectly, and I think that's what this film was really trying to do. This is finally the culmination of all the regret and guilt that Thor has built up over the past few films. Ragnarok gets praise for its tone (I did a few paragraphs earlier!) but it throws so much death and loss and its protagonist while moving on to the next funny quip that a lot of the genuine pathos failed to land until Infinity War. It's not until Endgame, though, until we see the long-term impact and emptiness that all his efforts warranted him. Remember, Thor stood in the lens of a sun to forge Stormbreaker and it wasn't enough. His warrior way didn't work. He deals with that in the worst way possible. God of Thunder reduced to beer-swigging, Xbox-playing Norwegian recluse.

Thor doesn't quite get a cathartic moment the way Cap and Tony do. I hate re-writing a movie because it's easy to be an armchair critic, but if Hulk had been killed to obtain the Soul Stone, Thor could have had the redemptive moment of the Second Snap. This would have added quite a bit, though - I think that actually he should have had to re-earn a worthy moment after his years in exile. Anyway, it's not part of the narrative here. I use that excuse a lot. It's still valid. I suppose that would have taken Thor out of the final battle, where we do really need him, and he gets plenty of great moments dual-wielding Mjolner and Stormbreaker, and gets to cheer on Captain America when he proves himself to also be worthy.

This is what I'm talking about, though. With a closer lens on some of the character decisions it feels more like the filmmakers were working to position their characters into their coolest possible moments rather than moments that were genuine for their arcs. This criticism is difficult, though, because it's all ultimately excess, and those coolest possible moments are REALLY cool. I'm in the minority that sometimes we do need cool for coolness' sake and there is enough whiffing in modern blockbuster cinema to appreciate when a movie actually knocks it out of the park.

And there's no home run moment in years of watching these movies like Cap picking up the Hammer.

I cheered. It was amazing. We all knew that Steve Rogers was worthy and he's always been worthy. He's sacrificed more than anyone to be here. There's a moment when a God, a man in a technically advanced metal suit, and a mere mortal approach the Mad Titan Thanos. You cheer for Cap the most. There's another moment where Cap stands alone against the armies of Thanos. You know he'll keep fighting. It's downright gd inspirational. They wisely don't overuse the "I can do this all day" line (having already parodied it earlier), but you're thinking it. It's such a good damn moment.

This brings us to the biggest splash page ever. Sitting in the theater I can't tell you what I was feeling. I have flipped through so many comics and seen fifty superheroes and supervillains fighting each other, using all manner of wacky powers and flying and shooting lasers. CIVIL WAR flirted with this, Infinity War came close, but nothing, NOTHING was like the "Avengers Assemble!" moment in Endgame. It triggered something so deep in my nerd-lizard brain. I remember reading an issue about Reed Richards and Sue Storm's wedding - "Bedlam at the Baxter Building" (Fantastic Four Annual Vol 1 #3) which had every supervillain ever fighting every hero ever. This was like 1965 (I must have had a re-print) and I just thought - this is finally on screen. Every dumbass oversaturated splash page ever. I would spend hours at home picking out every character I knew and picturing how their powers would look in real life. This is why these movies are popular. I just complained a ton about how much Endgame screwed up some really significant characters, but it gives us a moment that takes me back twenty-five years and makes up for everything.

More than that, though, the real purpose of this movie is backwards advertising for a now 22-movie strong library. The main premise of the film (good to talk about 4000 words into an article) is that the Avengers are going back in time not to kill Thanos or prevent the Snap, but to nab the Infinity Stones to undo the Snap in their own time. The way this works in reality is them parading through a series of their greatest hits (and THOR: The Dark World [2013]). They march through The Avengers, Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). It's pretty fun and actually surprisingly light on action until the aforementioned final battle, which is the most epic of all battles ever.

There are hints here and there, though. Captain America in the elevator next to Sitwell and Crossbones feels like a Winter Soldier (2014) moment until he pulls a Secret Empire and fake aligns with Hydra. The film wisely weaves its way through these clever moments. Natalie Portman definitely didn't want to be in this movie, but appears for a hot second in archive footage, now with a digital raccoon stealing the Reality Stone from her tummy. I need to re-watch THOR: The Dark World. What the hell was going on this movie?

Speaking of Natalie, there is also a parade of characters who you definitely forgot where in Marvel movies. Rene Russo! Michael Douglas! Marissa Tomei! William Hurt! Rene Russo has a bigger role here than she actually did in The Dark World. It's a cool way to cap off this series of movies, with literally traveling through old movies, but like the cop outs bringing back Infinity War casualties like Loki and Gamora that just couldn't have stuck, the film is rewarding and clever enough that it doesn't seem to hacky.

Still, this is all backwards advertising. For the past ten years we've had movies that left things hanging and end credits teasers that promised the next adventure to come. Now we're looking backwards. Re-watch all these movies, especially The Dark World (because no one watched that) to see if you can pick up any small details! JK the details don't matter - follow the narrative!

So -- spin-offs? I didn't even put this together, but yeah, that Loki Disney+ series makes a lot more sense now. One group noticeably missing from the final battle was the Defenders. There is apparently some difficulty getting them together because Marvel TV has different oversight than Marvel movies, but come on! I'd love to see Daredevil and Luke Cage pop their heads out! Throw Jessica Jones into the girl power moment! Maybe their time will come one day. I'm still waiting for the "Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe" Elseworlds movie starring Jon Bernthal.

And as much as they tried not to, these Avengers really did gunk up the timeline. That Thor no longer has his hammer! What the hell is he going to do against Malekith? Loki is on the loose again (not that being in Asgard Prison really stopped him anyway). Cap seems like he's part of Hydra, and of course the Guardians will never quite become the Guardians without Gamora, Nebula, or hell, Thanos to deal with. I don't think we'll spend all that much time in this alta-verse (besides the aforementioned Loki series), but it does open up a bunch of new possibilities.

Take for instance, our next Marvel film, Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) which features Mysterio as purportedly someone from another reality. I have suspicions about this because it's fucking Mysterio and I know too much about his mind-games, but Marvel surprised me with their Skrull treatment, so you never now. Also, Secret Invasion is still totally on the table with all those Skrulls still running around since the 90s. Sorry. I'm not convinced these guys are on the level yet.

What else do we have to do from here? Falcon is the new Captain America. That's not without comic book precedent. Some folks have been cheering for Bucky, but he's got a bit too much to atone for and hasn't had the narrative time since CIVIL WAR to really dig into that. This is also an upcoming Disney+ series, which also makes Endgame a gigantic advertisement for that streaming series. I love the idea of the black Captain America. The Black American experience is unlike anything else in the world and a truly American culture, for good or worse. It reminds me of the Isaiah Bradley "Red, White, and Black" comics, but we'll see if we can reach that point on screen. Non-Black Panther (2018) Marvel movies have largely steered clear of race (and even in that film it was only Killmonger), I'd love to see some of those ramifications on screen. I think Falcon has some growth to do outside of Cap's shadow to really earn that Shield, but I'm excited to see it happen.

The big question now is where this universe goes from here. Endgame is one of the biggest movies of all time and Marvel needs to keep this money train rolling. Thanos had six years of build-up, which was preceded by four years of cinematic universe build-up. Everyone is thinking of the next big bad and Thanos is hard to top. Incorporation of Fantastic Four and X-Men into this world opens up quite a bit of stories to explore. While the X-Men Universe has stumbled a little bit lately in its main series, it also gains points for series like Legion, the Deadpool movies, and crazy new directions like New Mutants (2020) if that ever comes out. A lot of the best stories have been burned, though, and Disney may need to chill on X-Men for a bit, or somehow incorporate the Tye Sheridan / Sophie Turner crew into their own fold, through some kind of Reality Gem, I don't know. It's a bit of a hurdle to introduce this long Mutant History into a world that's been thoroughly explored up until now.

Fantastic Four leaves some better opportunities. No one gives a shit about the Tim Story movies. Remember Chris Evans as Human Torch?! The Josh Trank effort was forgettable garbage. The Fantastic Four also opens up a slew of potential villains like Galactus and Annihilus. Can we adapt 2006's "Annihilation" into a major cosmic story? That's a soap opera set against a slow invasion of Negative Zone bug creatures. Cool.

Across Avengers villains I'd like to see Kang, but that's more an Ultron-level significant baddie to attract the whole team to defeat him, but not a Universal threat. On the Doctor Strange route, Dormammu and Mephisto are out there. That'd be fun.

The best, of course, would be Doctor Doom. Somehow, some way, the best comic book character of all time has defied cinematic interpretation. He might need a solo movie and then weave his way into the main Marvel Universe. I would love to just see him with weird magic and technology and a big metal face that we never see up on the screen.

Anyway, it's fun to nerd out and predict where things are going to go. Even at this moment of clarity, this perfect crossroads of our cultural zeitgeist, this current model is all about setting up the next big thing. We'll see what we get.

What do you think of Endgame? Marvel? Current cinema business models? Let us know below!

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