Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Reeling from the devastation caused by Thanos, the remaining Avengers and their allies attempt a risky strategy to put things right…

In early October 2019, a few months after the release of the Marvel superhero film Avengers: Endgame, the revered film director Martin Scorsese caused a minor kerfuffle. Asked if he’d seen any Marvel movies, he said, ‘I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’

An array of fans cried foul on Twitter, ridiculing Marty as an out-of-touch old man or a snob or a fool or all three. (Samuel L Jackson, who’d had a small role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas before appearing in many Marvel films, gave a more measured response: ‘That’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either.’) Scorsese is entitled his opinion. He’s earned that much after a career that has included genuine all-time-great works of the art form such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, even if there’s a certain irony in him evoking the purity of cinema while preparing to release a film, 2019’s The Irishman, that has been funded by Netflix and will be available for people to watch on their phones astonishingly soon after its theatrical run.

Also, as clumsily articulated as his point was, modern, flashy, big-budget, effects-heavy superhero films are undeniably different beasts from, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Casablanca or American Beauty. Films such as Avengers: Endgame and its stablemates have a different focus, a different intent. Scorsese’s theme-park analogy actually holds up when you consider that every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is awash with boldly designed visuals intended to excite and thrill, as well as camera movements and rapid editing designed to pull you along and sweep you around.

The problem comes when you assume that that’s *all* they are. To use Martin Scorsese’s logic against him, should we conclude that Mean Streets is not cinema but closer to a videogame because it contains lots of violence? Of course not. The film uses violence to tell its story, and its story is about human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

It’s true that the Marvel series is open to any number of criticisms on a filmmaking level. The movies can be cinematographically bland, flatly staged, horrendously over-edited and lit like a game show; the scripts can feel hammered out by a committee and have a sense of explain-everything-for-the-people-in-the-cheap-seats; occasionally the stories can be undermined by boring action sequences and badly thought-out villains. However, saying they’re ‘not cinema’ is patently ridiculous. And while no one is going to claim that modern superhero films are as sophisticated as Shakespeare, so is implying that there’s no drama involved amongst the razzmatazz. Soon after that Scorsese quote went viral, the writer C Robert Cargill tweeted to say that when he was working on Doctor Strange, the 14th MCU film, ‘the vast majority of Marvel’s notes were about deepening character, strengthening the story, and asking us if we could “make it weirder”. Anyone who thinks Marvel is only trying to make theme park rides is being unjust and cynical.’

That approach is easy to believe when you watch Avengers: Endgame, which is nevertheless the most bombastically epic movie in a serious not short of bombast or epic qualities. The film, all three hours of it, is packed pull of *stuff* and characters and spectacle and action and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of talent and effort, but its story is still founded on character choices and character reactions. It starts, in fact, feeling less like an event movie and more like an indie drama: an understated cold open shot with a handheld camera shows us Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton in idyllic domesticity with his family. But then the mood darkens, as his wife and children fade out of existence thanks to the villainous actions of Josh Brolin’s Thanos as seen in previous MCU mega-hit Avengers: Infinity War.

Endgame is very much a follow-on from that earlier film. In fact, when originally announced in 2014 its title was Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2. However, the script moves events on by five years into a grim, sombre, post-Thanos world where the remaining members of society are trying to deal with their grief and their survivor guilt. Even the mighty Avengers and their associates have been hit hard by Thanos’s finger-clicking carnage. Well, ish… Fifty per cent of all life in the universe may be now gone, but for storytelling reasons the big headline characters who started this series of films – Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Bruce Banner aka Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye – have all survived the cull.

Character stories dominate. Thor has descended into a overweight drunkard. The traumatised Clint has become a cyberpunk vigilante. Tony Stark has retreated into rural obscurity. Natasha is trying to coordinate the remaining Avengers but is emotionally raw. Bruce Banner has actually flourished, finally finding peace with the two halves of his personality. It’s a bravely downbeat way to start such a film, but a smart one. Martin Scorsese may disagree, but the MCU has always put emotion at the heart of their stories. For all the razzle-dazzle, each film has been about characters wanting things and overcoming hurdles. It’s fundamentally why the series has been so enjoyable. (And why it stands up so well when compared to the rival DC franchise.)

However, the dark mood doesn’t last. Slowly, bit by bit, the film raises its levels of humour and momentum as the characters realise they have a way of righting the wrongs caused by the now-dead Thanos. The surprise reappearance of Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who avoided the cull because he was infinitesimally small in the quantum realm at the time, gives the gang the impetus to attempt a plan based on time-travel. The plan dominates the middle third of the movie, and is generally a hoot.

The goal is to obtain a full set of the Infinity Stones – singularly bland plot devices that have recurred throughout this series since 2011’s Thor movie – by removing them from the timeline before Thanos did his damage. We get the usual meta gags about how time-travel doesn’t really make sense (Back to the Future is cited), then we’re thrown into a gleefully self-indulgent tour around the MCU’s own heritage. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Scott Lang travel to the New York City of Avengers Assemble; Bruce Banner drops in on Tilda Swinton’s character from Doctor Strange; Thor and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) head to the planet Asgard at the time of Thor: The Dark World; Nebula (Karen Gillen) and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) visit the planet Morag at the time of Guardians of the Galaxy; and later Tony and Steve must also travel to a secret research base in the 1970s where they encounter a succession of younger versions of important MCU characters (Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and John Slattery’s Howard Stark). The sequences are riotously enjoyable, blending action-driven plotting and emotion with humour and postmodern winking-to-the-audience. Several times, new footage is stitched into old scenes, a la Back to the Future Part II, allowing both fresh perspectives and a hell of a lot of fun.

The final third of the movie is then more conventional, essentially boiling down into yet another MCU battle scene where thousands of characters are filmed (or created digitally) in isolation and then matted together in post-production. But you forgive it with Avengers: Endgame because the stakes have been laid out so cleverly. And for all its CGI noise and bluster, this climactic action sequence still contains plenty of character moments, comedy and stirring emotions. (Having said that, how you respond to an archly designed moment that features all the major female characters – Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Hope van Dyne aka Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula – teaming up for *one shot* will depend on your levels of cynicism. Is it a daring, pointed, woke breakthrough? Or a rather silly bit of tokenism? You decide!)

Endgame is well named. The MCU series has continued, with movies and TV spin-offs announced for several years to come. But this film has the real feel of a season finale, an end point, a conclusion. The two biggest, most well-known and most popular characters are written out, while it features the final cameo from Marvel godfather the late Stan Lee. It’s the end of an era. Given how effective the emotional series of wrap-up scenes are, it’s also undeniably the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

Nine men shouting, ‘Make love, not war!’ out of 10

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Avengers must spring into action when the powerful Thanos begins to acquire the Infinity Stones…

Avengers: Infinity War is the fourth massive, multi-character, multi-plot, multi-focus mash-up movie in the Marvel series – and it’s easily the most successful. A big reason for this is the structure of the plot. Avengers Assemble (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) all feature many, many heroes and sidekicks wanting our attention and yet are built around a single, unifying idea. In the first film, the team must come together to face Loki. In the second, the team must stay together to defeat Ultron. In the latter, the team are split into two camps and face off against each other.

But the script of Infinity Wars is a different kettle of superheroes. There’s still an overarching plot, of course. After several cameo appearances and references in previous films, the all-powerful god Thanos (Josh Brolin) wants to be even more all-powerfuller so is collecting the magical Infinity Stones, ancient totems that will allow him to wipe out half of all life in the universe. The extended Avengers family must work towards stopping him.

But writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – key players at MCU HQ since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger – break this storyline down into discrete segments. As the various characters we’ve got know over the last 18 movies react to the Thanos threat, they’re divvied up into separate groups, each one getting its own chance to shine. For example, in one thread, there’s the joy of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) butting heads and trying to out-Sherlock each other. Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) also tags along like a fanboy. Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) crash-lands into the sarcasm-and-sassiness world of the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are living a mean, tough, espionage-y life. With such a big cast – the DVD cover manages to squeeze *24* of them into one collage – it’s admirable that they all feel like they have a role to play in the story. (The only notable absentees from the MCU roster are Ant-Man, being held back for the next movie in the series, and the forgettable Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton who’s said to have retired.)

All this makes for a dynamic film that keeps zipping around a huge canvas – from enormous starship battles in deep space to a kebab shop in Edinburgh’s Old Town – and always to characters you’re interested in. Each scene moves the larger plot forward and no section outstays its welcome. There’s the usual helping of action sequences, of course, including an arch moment when Tony walks out of a quiet building, down a street full of fleeing people and turns the corner to see a gigantic space ship hovering above Manhattan – all seemingly done in one uninterrupted take. Meanwhile, the script never loses sight of humour, with Thor and Peters Quill and Parker probably getting the most amount of funny lines. Black Panther sidekick Okoye (Danai Gurira) also wins a big laugh during the obligatory third-act battle. Secondary Avenger Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) had earlier been in the palace looking after an injured Vision, but now joins the fighting and blasts some bad guys with her psychic force powers. ‘Why was she up there all this time?!’ deadpans Okoye, impressed.

This is a big, brash popcorn movie that entertains so successfully that you’re distracted from the flaws. There’s the inherent silliness of the premise, which is a rather unimaginative story about a bad guy wanting to do bad things to innocent people just because he can. There’s the lazy repeat of a third-act battle taking place in Wakada (which also happened in the immediately previous film, Black Panther). And there’s the fact that the Infinity Stones are thunderingly boring and drab plot devices. But little of this matters when a movie is this much *fun*, and when it keeps throwing up telling character moments, enjoyable combinations of characters, and even an apocalyptic, how-will-they-get-out-of-that?! cliffhanger, designed to lead into 2019’s as-yet-unnamed sequel…

Eight bus drivers out of 10

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Captain America: Civil War (2016, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Avengers are torn apart when their two leaders disagree over whether the group should sign a document that would limit their authority…

Not so much a movie as a balloon debate, Captain America: Civil War features a plethora of characters wanting our attention. Unlike The First Avenger (2011) and The Winter Soldier (2014), this third ‘solo’ outing for Steve Rogers is basically an Avengers film in disguise and has a bloated cast to match…

* A short prologue set in 1991 shows us Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) during his time as a brainwashed Soviet assassin. (We know it’s 1991 because of a big, fat, Futura-font caption. This device occurs throughout the film, usually telling us which city we’re in.) Cut to the modern day, and Bucky is going about his life, wearing a baseball cap and buying fruit in an eastern European market, when a creepy guy called Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl from Inglourious Basterds) frames him as a terrorist. Zemo’s doing this in order to draw the Avengers to the secret base in Russia from where the Winter Soldier programme was run. He wants revenge on them, you see, for what happened a couple of movies ago.
* The psychic Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is now part of the Avengers team after temporarily siding with the bad guy in Age of Ultron (2015). And she kicks this film’s plot off when she accidentally kills some civilians while the gang are chasing a villain in Nigeria. Why this bothers Wanda and her friends more than previous times they’ve caused carnage is not clear. But then comes outside pressure: US Secretary of State General Ross (William Hurt, returning to the series for the first time since 2008) insists on UN checks-and-balances for the Avengers; the press start to question their legal authority; and team leader Tony is guilt-tripped by the mother of a friendly-fire victim. These films have often shown a ridiculous disregard for collateral damage. Characters seem to blithely accept innocent deaths and massive destruction of property, so this feels like the producers trying to right that wrong. Significantly, the same year’s Batman/Superman crossover contained similar ideas: time had clearly come for the superhero genre to address the elephant in the room. But despite feeling horrendous guilt for what she’s done, Wanda still objects to Tony being overprotective. Brat.
* Meanwhile, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) ain’t playing ball. He doesn’t like the idea of politicians being in charge of the Avengers and thinks they should remain self-governed. It’s a brave bit of storytelling, which basically casts the film’s nominal lead character as a villain. But it’s also a real head-scratcher. Steve is a man who voluntarily signed up to fight fascism despite being a weakling weighing 98 pounds. Now he wants to live without the law? Hmm…
* Fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) is another surprise. She’s previously shown a healthy disrespect for authority and even once walked out of a Senate hearing. But now she’s all for adhering to government oversight. There’s some unconvincing dialogue to explain her change-of-tune.
* In the resulting argument about what to do, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) sides with old pal Steve for no reason other than Steve is his pal. (Bear in mind that Sam was a test pilot in the US Air Force. And now he thinks a chain of command is a bad idea. Does that sound plausible?)
* Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is the leading voice advocating that the team sign the Sokovia Accord, a document that would limit their powers and give the UN jurisdiction. Um, that’d be Tony Stark the independent, dictatorial, billionaire businessman, then? (Incidentally, his argument doesn’t stop him later illegally smuggling a teenager out of New York City and into Germany…) So here is the film’s central conflict. The civil war of the title is the two opposing factors led by Steve and Tony. It makes you wonder why the movie’s not called Captain America vs Iron Man…
* Also in the mix is Vision (Paul Bettany), the powerful entity created in Avengers: Age of Ultron who now dresses like a Kennedy brother having a day off. He’s on Tony’s side of the divide, presumably because his personality is based on Tony’s old AI computer.
* James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle) sides with old pal Tony. Being a colonel in the Air Force, this one actually makes sense.
* A new character being introduced in this film is T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). When we first meet him, he’s the son of the king of fictional country Wakanda. After his dad is killed in an explosion, T’Challa seeks revenge on the man he thinks is responsible: Bucky. To do this, he dresses up like a panther. He presumably just happened to have the all-black cat-suit lying around in case he needed it. In recent years we’ve all grown tired of superhero origin stories, but this character goes too far in the other direction – he’s introduced with such little effort it’s difficult to care about him. Because the now-brainwash-free Bucky is a member of Steve’s gang, this automatically puts T’Challa in Tony’s camp during the conflict.
* When Steve and his colleagues refuse to sign the Accord and go rogue, Secretary Ross gives Tony 36 hours to bring them into line. So what does Tony do? Does he use the vast resources of his multinational corporation? Ask for help from the UN or the US military? No, he spends at least half of his allotted time travelling to America so he can recruit an untested teenager from Queens who’s been beating up muggers. The introduction of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is one of the film’s sillier elements, which highlights the fact that preparing the ground for sequels now seems more important than telling a good story. It must be said that Holland is decent in the role and it’s also nice to skip the character’s origin story (which has been filmed twice in recent years). But the only reason the character is in this film is to promote an upcoming solo movie. His involvement in this plot makes little sense. Peter has a hotter-than-usual Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
* Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) doesn’t appear until the 80-minute mark, then joins Steve’s team. For some reason.
* The movie gets a good boost of comic energy when Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shows up. He’s just pleased to be involved and is star-struck by Steve and Wanda (“I know you too, you’re great.”). During the massive, 12-character showdown between the two camps at an airport, Scott tries out a new trick: rather than shrinking down to a few millimetres high, he massively increases in size. Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man.
* Also involved in the story is Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Steve’s friend from the last Cap film, while Martin Freeman shows up with a phoney American accent as a dodgy civil servant. But there’s no sign of Thor, Bruce Banner, Pepper Potts or Nick Fury.

As indicated, how the superheroes fall into the two camps feels anything but character-driven. A cynic might suggest that the sides have been artificially balanced – each team has a famous Avenger (Steve/Tony), a famous Avenger’s best friend from the US Air Force who’s played by a black actor (Sam/Rhodey), a character of dubious motives (Bucky/T’Challa), a woman from eastern Europe dressed in an outfit that accentuates her breasts (Wanda/Natasha), a newbie who feels like a real person rather than superhero (Scott/Peter) and an ancillary character who’s easy to forget about (Clint/Vision). It’s almost like a committee have cast the parts depending on how cool the line-ups will look while fighting each other.

It’s certainly far from engaging storytelling. This is a shame, as there are things to enjoy here. The cast is entertaining, while the fights and chases are often energetic and weighty. But this is barely a film. It feels more like a season of television that’s been compiled into a highlights reel. We get the big story beats and lots of action scenes. The whole thing rattles along with some fun and style. But we’ve lost the ebb and flow of a well-structured movie.

Six FedEx delivery guys out of 10

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Captain America must battle an old friend who’s now fighting for the other side, and root out traitors within his own camp…

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) can’t escape his past and his past can’t escape him. Nostalgia, for good or bad, runs throughout this film. For example, there’s a lovely scene where Steve visits a museum exhibition about his own Captain America persona. It’s a character beat, showing us how he misses his old life, as well as a neat opportunity to remind the audience about his backstory. Steve also visits old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who’s now in her 90s, while the film’s eponymous villain is his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s now a zombie-like assassin. But the movie looks forward as much as it looks back.

After the 1940s boys’ own adventure of the first Captain America movie, we’re now in the modern day. Having fought the Nazis during the Second World War, Steve has woken up from a seven-decade freezing to find fascism alive and well in 21st-century Washington, DC. You see, the counter-terrorism agency he works for, SHIELD, is not quite the all-American, squeaky-clean organisation we first thought. It’s actually riddled with insurgents from a far-right cult called Hydra. (It’s also far more famous than in previous movies. Remember when Tony Stark and Pepper Potts had never heard of it? Well, now SHIELD has a humungous headquarters on the shore of the Potomac River and a budget that would dwarf Premier League football.)

When the bad guys seemingly kill father figure Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Steve goes on the run. A secret agent isolated from his support network is hardly a new idea – James Bond’s done it a few times, it’s Jason Bourne’s permanent state of being – but the film still sells it as an exciting development. And Steve’s not all alone. Refreshingly, there’s no clichéd will-they-won’t-they in his partnership with fellow agent-on-the-lam Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, enjoying the increased screen time). She’s not a love interest, and neither is she tiresomely perfect. In genre films, as a well-intentioned reaction to soppy Bond girls who scream a lot, female characters are sometimes presented as unflappable and flawless – in other words, they’re quite boring. Batman v Superman’s Diana Prince and Die Another Day’s Jinx are good examples of this; Jillian Holtzmann from the 2016 Ghostbusters is another, albeit in a comedy film. Thankfully, Natasha has more depth: she gets upset when she thinks Fury is dead, and generally has a droll line in irony. (Come on, misogynistic Marvel. Give her a solo film.)

Actually, as superhero movies go, this one’s pretty good for female characters. As well as Natasha and Peggy, there’s Cobie Smulders’s Maria Hill and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon, two strong SHIELD agents who get nice roles in the story. Steve’s best male friend, meanwhile, is new character Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). He’s a dude Steve meets while out jogging. He’s also a war vet and they bond over their civvy-street problems. The film is so good that you forgive it the ever-so-convenient plotting of Steve’s random new pal being in possession of some top-secret military equipment that comes in very handy during the action climax. That climax obviously features the Winter Soldier himself, who we eventually learn is Steve’s childhood friend Bucky. We thought he’d died in the first film, but it turns out Hydra saved him, rebuilt him and now periodically use him as an assassin. He certainly looks cool – metal arm, post-apocalyptic facemask, lank hair – but in truth he’s a bit of a red herring.

The story’s Big Bad is actually SHIELD executive Alexander Pearce. He’s played well by Robert Redford, whose presence provides a cute link to classic thrillers Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All The President’s Men (1976), films with an similar edgy, paranoid tone. It’s maybe not the biggest surprise in the history of cinema when Pearce is revealed as the bad guy – why else cast a heavyweight like Robert Redford? – but what is a surprise is the return of Dr Zola (Toby Jones) from the previous Captain America film. He appears on a brilliantly retro computer screen when Steve and Natasha find Hydra’s secret lair, which is full of 1970s-vintage equipment. Natasha even makes a joke about the old-school terminal, quoting 1983 cyber-thriller WarGames (“Would you like to play a game?”).

In fact, generally, The Winter Soldier is a movie that’s aware of pop culture, which is rare in the superhero genre. As well as nods to WarGames and Redford’s CV, we get a cheeky reference to Pulp Fiction, while Steve keeps a to-do list that includes seeing I Love Lucy, Star Wars and Rocky, and listening to Nirvana and Marvin Gaye. All this keeps the film fresh. It’s a big-budget action movie and yet characters are clever, make jokes, trade banter, and feel like people with lives – so everything’s more involving and engaging.

Credit must go to directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They make sure each element of the film is as sharp as it can be: it’s often funny, it’s often exciting, the story has a bit of substance, tension is built effectively, and the incidental music is terrific. Most commendably, some of the action scenes are sensational: the percussive, visceral attack on Nick Fury’s car; Natasha’s slick, acrobatic fights; Steve’s battering-ram chase of Bucky; the brawl in the lift… What a film. There’s intrigue, espionage and mistrust. There’s wit, pathos and drama. There’s action, fun and Christopher Nolan-style theatricality. A great sequel. A great superhero film. A great film.

Nine Smithsonian security guards out of 10

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