Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is called such because it is the first Spider-Man film since Marvel originally sold the rights to the character and those surrounding him to Sony way way back at the turn of the millenium.  Since then Sam Raimi has made three movies featuring the character being played by Toby Maguire, one of them actually really good, and Andrew Garfield took on the role twice, and was meant to play him a third time, but Sony realized they didn’t really know what they were doing.  So, while Sony did not give the rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel, they did turn to Marvel for help, and the result is an agreement in which Sony retains the rights to produce and distribute the Spider-Man solo films, but Marvel gets to include him in their cinematic universe, Sony gets to include the Marvel Universe in their films,  and Marvel oversees the writing on the solo films so that the character and the world he is in are done justice.  Spider-Man has left his bubble created by Sony and has come home to the world he began in.

We got to see a bit more than a glimpse of Marvel’s take on Spider-Man last year in Captain America: Civil War. and regardless of what you thought of the film as a whole, though it was well received, you were looked at really funny if you didn’t agree that Tom Holland was a fantastic choice as the actor to portray the wall-crawler, and that the writing of the character was spot on.  Now we get to see how Tom Holland does when he has to take the spotlight for more than twenty minutes, and when given the chance to anchor an entire story surrounding him, Tom Holland shines even more brightly.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is more than just a superhero movie, it is also a coming-of-age character piece which uses the superheroic conflict as the means through which our teenage protagonist grows into, if not manhood, then at least his next stage in life.  Tom Holland gives us a spot on Peter Parker and Spider-Man, showing his vulnerability, his awkwardness, horrible luck, and his friendly but nerdy nature as Peter Parker, then changing into the wise-cracking, blustering superhero when the time comes as a means to hide what is really a lack of confidence.  This is a facet of the character that has been missed in all the earlier cinematic incarnations, the fact that his jokes are really just a way of covering up his inferiority complex, and it is fantastic to finally see it realized on the big screen.  Another part of the character that we apparently needed Marvel on board to see is his remarkable intelligence, and that we get here, too.  Only his youth and inexperience keep Peter Parker from being one of the preeminent brains in the universe of Marvel comics, and we see that in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well, both his genius and the inexperience that holds him back.

A character piece is best when there is more than one strong character, however, and definitely get quite a few here.  I could write quite a bit about the crew of high school friends that surround Peter in his everyday life or about Marisa Tomei’s unique but great take on the now not-so-decrepit Aunt May because they are all very well written and acted, but instead I’ll tell you that Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture is not only a very well written and well rounded foil, I believe that he is the best villain yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though, not quite the Netflix shows).  While he may not have near the charm of Tom Holland’s Loki, he makes up for that in being a real person. This is the first Marvel villain with real motivations, real ambitions, and isn’t just a stereotyped cartoon that is around solely for the good guys to overcome.  Vulture in the comics is not only a bad villain, he is one of the worst villains ever put to page in 4 colors, however he is a good foil for the very early Spider-Man still learning his powers.  Spider-Man: Homecoming realizes this, modernizes the character, makes him far more threatening than just an old man in a suit that can fly, but not so threatening that The Avengers would take much notice of him. While this would probably be enough to make a good foe for Spider-Man’s first solo outing, they go the extra mile and make him a character with motives we understand and can even see ourselves going along with under the right circumstances as well as a character who challenges the teenage Spider-Man’s intelligence and ethics, allowing Peter Parker to grow as a person as well as as a superhero.

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But, if you go to a comic book movie to see action and characters are just a nice bonus, you still will not be disappointed.  The film spreads out its action set pieces at excellent intervals and all of them show off the agility, strength, intelligence, and big mouth of our favorite costumed arachnid.  Special effects have advanced a bit since Andrew Garfield’s turn in the red and blue suit, and an awful lot since Tobey Maguire’s day, and we can get a real sense of the speed Spider-Man has, as well as the limitations in scenes such as a hilarious bit in which Spider-Man finds himself in the countryside rather than the city and realizes he can’t swing on his webs to the rescue, like never before.  The action bits take on true creativity as Spider-Man and Vulture learn from one another over time and learn to counteract the regular strategies the other uses, making for action that relies on the intelligence of the pro and antagonist as much or more than on their superpowers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is not content to be just a good action movie and character piece, though, it also is finally a well realized coming of age story.  It’s not a movie about beating the bad guy as much as it’s a movie about Peter Parker growing into the man he needs to be.  This is going to be a journey made over multiple films, so I don’t think this movie is meant to show us the end of his personal growth, but the true catharsis at film’s end is not that Spider-Man beats the bad guy, but how, and what he learns from this in his life as Peter Parker.

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The film does have some flaws.  The fact that it is in the Marvel Universe and the writing was overseen by Kevin Feige added a ton to the film, but the way Iron Man and Happy Hogan were included in the action was awkward.  Happy is given a role of Peter’s watchdog, which seems odd enough on its own, but then he performs these duties by acting as if he doesn’t want them.  Tony Stark himself, also, only seems to be in the movie as less a mentor and more a harsh critic until the end when he suddenly turns 180 degrees without our being shown the change of heart.  This all adds up to a really awkward and unnecessary tie in to the rest of the MCU which probably would have been best left out and merely hinted at.  They also do something odd with an incredibly iconic Spider-Man character, nearly as iconic as Spider-Man himself, that makes for a character who may as well be someone else entirely, just with the same name, and while we will have to wait and see how that plays out in future films, it just seems like a really unusual decision in a film that otherwise manages to nail nearly every major part of the Spider-Man mythos.

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Final verdict:  Spider-Man: Homecoming finally brings us the Spider-Man from the comics to the big screen, and does so in a way that isn’t merely action packed, but also thoughtful and with characters as well rounded and authentic as you could hope for in a comic book movie.   I left the theater knowing that I had just seen the best portrayal of Spider-Man himself ever put on screen, but not sure if the movie itself was better than Spider-Man 2, my favorite of the previous Spider-Man films.  I decided that not only was it better, but that it was a great movie for all the same reasons, just that they took everything Spider-Man 2 did to another level.  Yes, I did say Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great movie, and therefore I wholeheartedly recommend it to all but the most ardent detractors of the modern superhero movie.

Wonder Woman (Jenkins; 2017)

Last November, I wrote on article on what the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.  To sum it up, I stated that Warner Brothers and DC don’t understand their own characters, are starting their stories in the middle giving us no frame of reference, and they are focusing solely on action and using no other elements of genre.  We are shown a Batman who unthinkingly kills, a Superman who couldn’t care less about collateral damage, a Lex Luthor who acts like a clown, and a Joker who doesn’t.  We have a story where Batman has been fighting the good fight for a long time and supervillains are filling the prisons, but no one seems to have heard about any of them until now for some reason.  And, every movie has been little more than excuses for people wearing unusual clothing to punch and otherwise injure each other.   I am happy to announce that for at least one movie every single one of these issues has been fixed in a DC Universe film, and the result is a movie comic book fans, action film lovers, and women everywhere have been anxious to see for a long, long time.

The character of Wonder Woman has been a tough one to crack for a very long time for some reason, probably because until recently the comic book business has been all boys, and even now the number of women working in the superhero creation industry is a very, very small percentage.  The history of the character is a long and interesting one, but until the last decade and a half or so, her personality hasn’t been much more than a desire to do good, a mission statement, and some superpowers.  Modern writers have started to latch onto the fact that she is an Amazon warrior and have used that very element of her backstory to give her a role very different from her male counterparts and very well defined.  The film Wonder Woman captures those elements of her character perfectly and expands upon them, giving us the first protagonist, or really character of any size, in a DC film that is true to her source material and also captivating.

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This film is also an origin story, which means we actually start the story at the beginning.  We get to see Diana’s (Gal Gadot) training on Themyscira, her relationship with the other Amazons as she was growing up, and her meeting with Steve Rogers (Chris Pine) which inspires her to leave her sanctuary and enter the world of men.  You would think giving characters motivations would be  an obvious element of story telling, but until now the motivations in the DC films have been muddied at best.  Not so here.  We get to see what inspires Diana, what her life was like growing up, and more so that we end up with a fully formed character we can relate to and root for rather than someone who is just fun to watch.

Wonder Woman is not just an origin story, it is also a film that takes place during World War I, giving us not only an additional genre of war film to work with, but also an interesting historical period as a backdrop, one not used nearly often enough in film.  We get to see a Europe ravaged by war, battles in which chemical weapons are an ever present threat and victories are measured in inches, and technologies which are nearly obsolete today are state of the art.  Throwing a fierce demigoddess into this mix works wonderfully, and gives us a truly original superhero origin story not quite like anything we’ve seen before.

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The one thing DC has always gotten right is its visuals.  While the stories are messy and the characters confused, watching the action on display in the DC Universe is a wonder to behold, and that is no different in Wonder Woman.  The sharply angled viewpoints, the technique of making some colors vibrant and others dull, and the use of slow motion to concentrate on detail rather than just being a cheap trick is all on display here.  This time around the battles are not just fun, though they certainly are that, but most are also inspiring.  Where most superhero action sequences are really a well choreographed dance with special effects mixed in, the battles here feel like battles, grittier than your usual comic book fare, and Wonder Woman herself feels less like an untouchable icon and more like a badass general leading and inspiring her troops to their best.

The relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor is handled as well as it possibly could be.  Chris Pine pleasantly surprised me last year with his tour-de-force performance in Hell or High Water which showed the world he had a lot more talent than just a pretty face and a decent Captain Kirk impersonation, and he brings that level once again here giving us just the right amount of confidence, smarts, self effacement, and wonderment to make a real person out of this character in a most surreal situation.  Chris Pine and Gal Gadot have some real chemistry going on, and half way through the film we feel it’s absolutely natural that this American spy and demigoddess should be so attached to and inspired by one another.

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The film does have a handful of minor issues, and two fairly major ones keeping it from being absolutely the best superhero film I’ve seen and only meaning that it’s in that conversation.  The film is fairly predictable.  They try to be clever about a major plot point which I won’t go into any more detail about, but if you’ve seen more than five movies in your life you will see a certain major reveal coming from miles and miles away.  The other major issue is that the climax of the film is a bit of a let down with a sort of deus ex machina of a type I thought movie studios were done with using a couple of decades ago giving Wonder Woman her ultimate victory.  These two disappointments were certainly not enough to sour the overall film’s effect for me, but they did make me sigh a bit.

Final verdict:  DC and Warner Brothers finally got it right, and in doing so they outdid themselves to a level that can only add pressure to both themselves and Marvel for the future.  Wonder Woman is exciting, inspirational, thoughtful, and visually stunning.  It makes a few missteps, but not fatal ones by a long shot, and I am so happy that the first superhero film in one of the comic universes starring and directed by women is one of the best films ever seen in the genre as a whole.  Wonder Woman is a must see movie.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

In 2014, Marvel Studios took a pretty big chance, which ended up having a huge payoff, in bringing us Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel property which was largely unknown even to comic book fans, let alone those who had never picked up a comic in their life.  In Guardians of the Galaxy movie fans got a fast paced space adventure with incredibly charismatic characters and just the right amounts of adventure and humor.  It was the best “Star Wars” movie since The Empire Strikes Back (I went there).  Three years later, and the Guardians are back, minus Groot but plus Baby Groot, except this time we already know and love these characters and are familiar with their schtick and how they fit into the Marvel Universe, so can Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 have the same impact as the original?

This time around, the characters are just as, if not more, charming as in the original.  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Star-Lord, man) is still the leader of the Guardians with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, his right hand bad ass assassin, Dave Bautista as Drax the overly literal Destroyer, Baby Groot voiced once again by Vin Diesel, and Sean Gunn and Bradely Cooper both working to bring weapons expert Rocket (don’t call him a Raccoon) to life.  Michael Rooker is also back as Yondu in an expanded role from the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and he deserves special mention as he and Dave Bautista are, in my opinion, the two true stand outs in the cast. Last time around, while the Guardians did ultimately end up as a complete group, there was still some definite pairing up going on with Quill and Gamora being one team, Rocket and Groot being a second, and Drax being the unfortunate fifth wheel.  This time around, the relationships are much more advanced with every character having quality time with each of the others and now very established ties to each other, making their interactions far more dynamic than the first time around – most of the time, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

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The visuals are of the quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, with very proficient camera work and excellent special effects even if neither is ever terribly inventive.  The art direction on display, however, is definitely unique.  We are shown that the galaxy is a diverse place with equal parts ’60s psychedellia, dystopian grunge, and medieval retro pastiche making up its reaches.  The settings don’t always make a lot of sense, even within the confines of the story, but they are always creative and eye catching.  Even the opening and closing credits hold onto those creative and eye catching visual elements, with the opening credits being one of the most visually dynamic pieces in the entire film and a great way to open things up.

The script is well done with its dialogue being its stand out element.  The plot does have a few pacing issues unlike the first film, and the methods used to move it along can get a tad clunky, but overall it’s a story that does its job of drawing you in and raptly holding your attention, so even the few lulls aren’t obvious in the moment.  The dialogue, though, is the best I think has ever been written in a Marvel film.  Every single line is full of character, is crisp and entertaining, and this is by far the funniest Marvel film made to date with quip after quip, joke after joke, I was laughing so hard I had tears in the corners of my eyes for Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol. 2‘s entire running time, and I have never really found Marvel films quotable before despite how entertaining they are in general, but I’ve found myself wanting to quote many lines from this one, virtually biting my tongue even as I write this.

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This, however, leads me to the films largest flaw, and the flaw large enough that it keeps me from ranking it among Marvel’s best.  Can a movie be too funny?  The jokes are non-stop, one after the other, often verging into straight on slapstick territory, yet the film has a lot to say about familial themes.  Every character in the film deals with daddy issues on some level, with the exception of Baby Groot, and we see the Guardians and their various acquaintances playing the parts of a family unit in the film and all that entails.  It’s the point of the movie, showing when a family is at its strongest and when it can hold you back.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a lot to say about family, and it could say it well, except that it undercuts every serious moment in the film save one with a joke.  Sure the jokes work, but Gunn and the cast did not know when to let the humor go for a minute and let a poignant moment sink in.  I will say, though, that the part of me that’s more analyst and less film fan finds it fascinating that the movie’s main weakness is also its greatest strength.

To those who are wondering how this movie specifically plays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it can be seen without knowing much about the rest of the movies Marvel has created, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is practically a stand alone entity.  The only references to other films in the Marvel canon are to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and even those are more character references and not needed to understand the story going on here.  The future world building that goes on in most Marvel films also seems to be absent here, though it is possible they are just more subtle about it than is often the case and we will see ripples from this movie in future Marvel installments, but importantly even if that is the case it is never distracting nor even obvious.  Anyone can see this movie without having seen another Marvel film in their life and still enjoy it just as much as someone who has seen every Marvel Studios movie to date.

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Final verdict:  Marvel films are always entertaining, they have yet to release an outright dud, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, while not being one of Marvel’s greatest, is still excellent and continues the tradition of high quality we now have come to take for granted from Marvel.  While Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may take the humor a bit too far at times, it is still Marvel’s funniest movie to date, never, ever letting up on the laughs while also giving us plenty of eye popping action taking place in eye popping settings.  You will be entertained, and you may even gain a little insight into family while you’re at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is highly recommended by yours truly, go make Marvel and Disney even richer than they already are, they keep earning it.

 

 

 

Logan (Mangold; 2017)

In addition to whatever their myriad of other powers are, the one additional power that all superheroes seem to have is that they never age.  Superman, Batman, and Captain America are all octogeniarians now, or very close to, and Iron Man, Spider-Man, and that era’s heroes, the X-Men amongst them,  aren’t that far behind.  Yet, not a single one of them has lost a step nor aged more than a decade it seems.  Every once in a while, though, one of the major comics publishing companies will release a story that shows their heroes later in life.  “The Dark Knight Returns”, “Kingdom Come”, and “Old Man Logan” are all classics in this vein, and now Logan, the latest of the Wolverine/X-Men movies brings us a story in which two of the most famous X-Men are looked at in their twilight years.

It’s 2029, and Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) healing power has slowed for some reason, his wounds now leave permanent scars and sometimes never fully heal at all, and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is in his 90s and suffers from seizures and dementia.  They and a third mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are the only mutants left in the entire world.  Wolverine, now going only by his real name, Logan, hides in plain sight by running a limousine service to pay the bills to get the medicine Caliban needs to provide care for Professor Xavier, whose out of control mind could wreak complete havoc if not sedated.screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-16-16-am_0

It’s an interesting premise.  Superhero stories, much like cartoons, are capable of exploring hefty themes by camouflaging them behind spandex and fast paced action pieces, but old age is a theme rarely explored in these types of stories, probably because they’ve been seen as tales for a younger skewing audience until relatively recently.  Superheroes facing their own mortality not because of violence at the hands of a villain or a cataclysmic natural disaster but because their elderly bodies are beginning to fail them puts a whole new spin on the comic book story dynamic, but Logan is not content in leaving it there.  The true inciting force in Logan‘s storyline is not old age but youth when Wolverine reluctantly ends up caring for a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who has powers of her own and has to be hidden away from forces who want to use her as a weapon.

The X-Men series of films is noted for its highs and lows.  It’s rare that the series puts out a merely okay movie.  X-Men, X-Men 2, X-Men: First Class, and X-Men: Days of Future Past are widely viewed as some of the best movies the superhero genre has to offer while X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse are thought to be some of the worst.  Logan is not only a part of that first set of films, but is the best X-Men film to date, and will, I believe, ultimately be compared to The Dark Knight when superhero films are discussed in the future due to its maturity, quality, and artistry.logan-trailer-700x300

James Mangold, Logan’s director and one of its writers, has a very hit and miss history.  He is responsible for the excellent Girl, Interrupted and Copland, but he’s also brought us The Wolverine and Knight and Day, both of which, while not painfully terrible, are mediocre and ultimately completely forgettable.  In Logan he managed to tap into that part of his style which represents his best and then went on to perfect it even farther.  The story is exciting and mature.   His camera work and editing make the visual elements of the story an absolute joy and occasionally even a wonder.  While there are flaws in the film, which I will mention, Mangold manages to take all the pieces that make up the film Logan, most of which are already excellent, and melds them together into something even greater than the sum of its parts.

The majority of the acting in the film is truly high caliber.  Stewart and Jackman are always excellent in these roles, even if the films themselves aren’t always the best, but the added dimension of the characters staring straight on into their own mortality gives their performances an entirely new facet and allows them to breathe new life into the people they’ve been embodying for going on 20 years now.  As great as they are, though, and I don’t want to diminish just how fantastic Stewart and Jackman are here, the truly revelatory performance comes from the young Dafne Keen as Laura.  This girl can’t yet be even a teenager and yet she manages to demand your attention and ekes out incredible amounts of emotion from you.  For most of the film she doesn’t speak, and I wondered if that was a decision made because she was a good physical actress but couldn’t handle the demands of a speaking role.  Eventually she does speak, though, and when she finally does you are blown away all over again at just how amazing this prepubescent child’s performance is.  When I really think about it, it can be considered unfair how good she is at so young an agelogan-photo.jpg

Last year, Deadpool gave us an R-rated superhero film that, while far from the first of its kind, started the debate as to whether more comic book films should be R-rated.  Logan shows us once again that the R-rated superhero film can be excellent, and for very different reasons than Deadpool was, but I do hope that Hollywood takes the right lesson away from what is to undoubtedly be Logan‘s huge success.  Logan works as a more adult film not because swearing and blood are cool, but because some stories need to be visceral and raw to be told well.  You can’t tell a story about mortality without, well, mortality.  Heads get lopped off, deep gashes cut, and very realistic heads get very realistically blown off.  In Deadpool it was for humorous shock value, but in Logan it’s to raise the stakes and show us this isn’t your typical comic book movie where no one gets hurt too badly and even death isn’t permanent.  Both are legitimate and effective uses of graphic material, but it’s also very specific to this type of story, and this should in no way be a cue to Marvel or DC (I’m especially looking at you DC) that graphic content and language are what audiences want in all their superhero movies.

While I meant it when I said I believe Logan will be remembered alongside The Dark Knight one day, it’s certainly not because of the quality of their villains.  Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker is the most legendary element of The Dark Knight, Logan’s villains are the most bland and uninteresting part of the film.  The forum on age and family are spectacular, and couldn’t exist without conflict, but that is all the villains here provide.  Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant give fine performances as the two primary antagonists, but they are given so much less to work with than anyone else in the film that fine is really the best they could hope for.  The villains have motivations and goals, but nothing else exists beyond these factors that we can tell making them one dimensional and ultimately dull.  It’s this unfortunate factor that keeps Logan from achieving full on masterpiece status.

Final recommendation:  If you read anything before this paragraph I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m giving this film my highest recommendation for most everyone.  Don’t take the kids to this one if you mind them viewing violence, as it is intensely graphic, and squeamish adults with no love for superheroes may also want to give this a pass.  But, aside from that this story is so excellent it may convert those who hate the superhero genre, at least for this film anyway, and will also allow squeamish superhero fans to get so engrossed they may get past all the carnage they are witnessing.  Logan is a shining example of what a superhero movie should strive to be, and since Jackman and Stewart have announced they are retiring from the characters after this film, they couldn’t have chosen a better film to be their swan song.

The LEGO Batman Movie (McKay; 2017)

Batman has had a very long and storied history in cinema.  His first appearance on the big screen goes all the way back to 1943, but the Batman we know today really made his first appearance as a campy, not at all to be taken seriously character in the movie titled simply Batman in 1966.  This was a time when comic books were seen as purely for children, and the character Hollywood gave us was more comedian than vigilante in a likeness which winks so constantly at its audience its a wonder the Batman of today hasn’t taken on a permanent squint.  The 1989 film by Tim Burton also called just Batman gave us a more gothic representation of the character.  Not a comedian, but still not entirely serious, this Batman showed Hollywood that the character can be enjoyed seriously by older audiences, a lesson which they promptly forgot 6 years later in Batman Forever and threw entirely out the window in 1997s Batman and Robin, widely considered one of the worst films ever made.

Then, in 2005, along came Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins to show general audiences that Batman, and superhero characters in general, could be real three dimensional characters with honest to goodness depth and could do it without giving up the action heavy story lines which made the characters popular in the first place.  This was something fans of comic books and animated series had known for a long time, of course, and these fans were arguably the reason Nolan’s film was greenlighted in the first place, but the success of Nolan’s films would forever change how live action superhero movies were made.  Gone was the camp, the genre could now be taken seriously, and for the last 11 years it has been.

Superhero movies were making so much money for the studios that everyone was trying to start their own franchise, though with only Marvel studios having real success, and we were (and still are) so inundated with superhero movies that people are starting to get sick of them and everyone wonders when the superhero movie bubble is going to burst, and that’s when early 2016 brought us Deadpool.  Deadpool set so many box office records it proved that the public wasn’t as sick of superhero movies as everyone thought, they are just sick of the same old superhero movies over and over again.  While many credit Deadpool‘s success to its hard R-Rating, I don’t.  I believe that its success comes from its tone.  Deadpool was the first comic superhero movie to come along in a very long time.  Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy have a light touch and a definite sense of humor, but Deadpool was a sort of modern throw back to that Batman of 1966 in which nothing is sacred and the sense of fun is more important than the plot or themes.

Which now brings us full circle to The LEGO Batman Movie.

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It’s about time you got around to me!

The LEGO Batman Movie is very much a kid friendly version of Deadpool.  Yes, there’s a plot and that plot has a point, but what it really sets out to do is be fun.  If self aware humor annoys you, then this movie will, I’m afraid, but anyone who can still find a film that satirizes its own genre and audience entertaining, then I can guarantee a good time.  From beginning to end if there is something to poke fun of regarding the character of Batman, the superhero action genre, LEGOs, and the people who like these things, then the writers found a way to goof on it, and on many other pieces of pop culture which LEGO has the rights to, of which the number seems endless.

The spoofing is usually clever, always funny, but it never leaves the realm of child friendly.  The makers of The LEGO Batman movie know very well that their target audience is families, not children – families, and while it actually may make people think on things that could make them uncomfortable at times, yes, it does go to thoughtful places on occasion, it never presents anything in a way that you wouldn’t want a young child to see.  I’m guessing the only reason it has its PG rating, and not a G, is that it is a superhero movie, so cartoony violence is often used to solve problems, but it never goes to a place darker or meaner than a Looney Tunes cartoon.

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In comparison to the original The LEGO Movie, The LEGO Batman Movie seems to always fall just short, but only just.  The new big song,”The Batman Theme Song”, is funny, toe tapping, catchy, and will make you smile as you sway in your seat, but don’t expect it to get nominated for an Oscar like “Everything is Awesome” was.  The jokes come at a fast and furious pace and most are hilarious, but every once in a while they do miss their mark here.  The themes of friends being family do hit home and they give the movie a lot of heart, but they just don’t have the heart string tugging power of the themes of true family the first film had.  The LEGO Batman Movie tries to have the cake of The LEGO Movie and eat it, too, but it seems the recipe of the first movie was just a tad too rich to truly duplicate, but damn if The LEGO Batman Movie didn’t come close.

The animation of this film is one piece that may actually be slightly better than the first.  As amazing as some of the things the animators were able to do with LEGOs in the first film was, they learned and managed to up the spectacle here.  Flames burn everywhere, things freeze over, machines morph and twist, and the film is constantly lively and in motion.  They may not do all the “Hey, we’re in a world made of LEGOs” tricks they perform in the first film, but the ones they do manage are clever and look amazing.

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Final recommendation:  If you have young kids, this one is a no-brainer, treat them and yourselves to this one, though maybe at a matinee if at all possible to keep the cost down.  For the rest, whether to see this one or not rests highly on what you thought of the first film or how much of a nerd you are.  The constant references that can actually get incredibly deep into Batman lore are fast and furious and will cause a comic book geek to fall in love with what they are doing here.  If you loved the original The LEGO movie, you will probably enjoy this one, too, just don’t set your expectations quite up to that one’s level and you will have a grand time.  This really is a Deadpool for kids so if you think of it along those lines, you should be able to figure out whether this is a movie for you.

Doctor Strange (Derrickson; 2016)

Scott Derrickson is a director that you probably have not heard of before unless you are a true horror movie aficionado.   Previously, he’s brought us The Exorcism of Emily Rose, both Sinister movies, and the film which probably got him this gig, Deliver Us From Evil.  That is not a resume you’d expect from the director of a Marvel film, and particularly not from someone with the unenviable job of giving us another origin story movie which has to not only keep up Marvel’s now high standards and introduce an entire facet of the Marvel Universe which up until now we hadn’t seen – the mystical, multi-dimensional world (Asgard not withstanding, as that’s been explained away by weird science).  Derrickson was handed a tall order with Doctor Strange, and he does an admirable, if not quite incredible, job.

If you’re not familiar with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), well that’s what the movie is about, so I won’t spoil much for you, but he is a character who was established in 1963 – the same year as the X-Men – and has been the Marvel Universe’s resident Sorcerer Supreme for most of that time.  His adventures center on keeping mystical enemies such as demons, powerful wizards, and extra-dimensional threats at bay.  The other dimensions of the Marvel Universe, as well as magic, are the most confusing and unfleshed out bits of their lore, as you are literally dealing with the infinite.  So outside of a few integral characters and places which appear time and time again, the writers really have no rules to follow or norms to work with.  It does mean limitless room for creativity, yes, but it also means there are no true anchors from which to work with a story.  In this, the film version of Doctor Strange, the other dimensions and extra dimensional threats are left just as vague as they are in the comic source material, but magic seems just a bit better explained, even if there is still a lot of room open for real explanation.

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It’s just like Earth, except nothing like Earth, and you can shift the landscape with no real consequences, except there are consequences.  Makes perfect sense.

There is a lot of good to be said about Doctor Strange, far more good than bad.  The dialogue is witty, sharp, and still natural.  The characters are detailed, true to the source material, and are the source of the strong themes of understanding your connections to the world and where you fit within it.   The pacing is near perfect, there was never a time where boredom set in, nor where I felt I needed things to slow down for a moment. The acting was excellent on all fronts, with a veteran cast giving their all.  Then there are the absolutely astounding visuals.  This film is a thing of pure beauty, from the alien landscapes, to the magical effects, and to the way a certain magical relic is so incredibly well done that a non-living object with no dialogue ends up becoming one of the film’s most entertaining characters.

The writers and Derrickson do an excellent job of showing how magic works in this world, not by giving intricacies of how and why it works, but by showing what it is capable of, how it is learned, and differentiating between different areas of study and focus.  Making a relic is not the same as casting a spell which is not the same as travelling through time and space.  Trying to explain how these things work would be a losing battle, so the film maker’s are intelligent enough to know this and give us just enough to know that they do work, that they have rules, and there is even a sort of “science” to them.

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It’s not the Pythagorean Theorem, but there’s still lots of symbols and symmetry.

Where the movie falls apart, is in its finale, unfortunately.  No spoilers, but in the film’s climax the excellent visuals give way to a hodge podge of undefined, low quality imagery.  The excellent rules set up suddenly don’t seem to matter in any meaningful way, and while the final solution is creative and nothing we’ve seen from a Marvel film before (and, does an excellent job at showing why Doctor Strange is considered one of the most intelligent people in the Marvel Universe), it is given no context to show why Strange’s plan would actually work.  This is the inherent problem with magic in a fictional universe, the authors can too easily make things too fast and loose, too “anything can happen”, and without hard fast rules we lose the context of true stakes.

Doctor Strange keeps up Marvel’s reputation for excellence.  It is a very well written, well acted, and visually astonishing movie.  It has meaningful things to say, as well.  It has some serious missteps, primarily in its finale and also in the way it keeps up the Marvel tradition of not so interesting villains (we need more Lokis, Kingpins, and Killgraves, Marvel), but overall it is a worthy, if not top notch, addition to the Marvel canon.

Rating:  7.8 out of 10

 

 

 

 

What the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.

They are some of the biggest juggernauts at the box office right now, the superhero movies from the two largest and most established comic book companies.  But, while it seems like Marvel is incapable of making a bad film, churning out crowd pleaser after crowd pleaser, DC (in conjunction with Warner) is releasing mess after mess garnering critical scorn and audience disappointment.  With superhero fatigue being a very real thing movie audiences are suffering from today, DC is going to have to learn how to step up their game if they want to keep their share of the big box office gross, and Marvel needs to make sure it doesn’t fall into complacency, as well.

Before starting with the article proper, it needs to be explained what exactly the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes are.  The DC Universe really includes only the films Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad.  The Donner Superman films, the Burton and Nolan Barman films, and anything animated are not included in the current DC Universe, as the film Man of Steel was meant to start a brand new continuity which will branch across all further DC/Warner live action movies.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe includes only the films made by Marvel Studios (now owned by Disney).  Any properties owned by Fox or Sony studios are not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which includes the X-Men franchise, the Fantastic Four movies, and any Spiderman movie made before Captain America: Civil War.  With that clarification, let’s get to it.

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CHARACTER

Getting the characters right in a comic book movie should be the easiest part of the job, you would think, and also the most important.  The superheroes of these universes have been written about for decades, and in a few cases, getting close to a century.  They are some of the most recognizable and iconic characters in human history, and their writers have more character lore to work with than has been written about any other fictional characters before.  This amount of character lore makes for a huge base for any writer and director to draw from, but it also means the character’s fans can know them as intimately as they know friends and family, and it is of utmost importance to these fans that their favorite characters are treated with respect.

There is nothing wrong with a new take on an iconic character, so long as the foundations that character is built on are respected.  There have been many interpretations of Batman and Joker in film over the years, most loved, a few not so much.  At the core of the character of Batman is dealing with childhood trauma.  In most modern interpretations of the character, it makes for a serious, driven man, who looks to be feared and respected more than loved or admired, and who will do everything he can to not allow the same trauma he’s lived through be inflicted on others.  Joker is his mirror image, bright and colorful where Batman is dark, but what’s most important to his character is the absolute glee he takes in making sure others suffer.  At Batman’s core is a serious protector and Joker is his maniacal, abusive mirror image.

All of the film Jokers before the current DC Universe took a different take on the character, Jack Nicholson’s was a crime boss, Caesar Romero’s a manic comedian, and Heath Ledger’s a psychotic social engineer, but all understood that at the core of the character was a villain who takes honest joy in others’ suffering.  Batman has had a great many more interpretations, the largest failure would have to be George Clooney who just saw (or more likely was just allowed to be) a comic book character and played the part for giggles.  Even Adam West’s comic interpretation at least had sanctity of life as a focal point for the character, going so far as to save a flock of ducks at great risk to himself in one of the character’s funnier moments.

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Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

Marvel gets this.  Iron Man in the comics is not not a wise-cracking, smart-ass, he’s actually normally rather intense and serious.  Yet nearly everyone loved Robert Downey Jrs portrayal of Tony Stark, and not only because he wasn’t a well known character.  There were many who loved the portrayal purely because of Downey Jr.’s charm, but even the most die-hard and skeptical fans of the character were brought to love this version of Iron Man and that is largely due to the fact that Marvel understands that as long as they portray him as a man struggling with, and creating more, personal demons they have the essence of the character intact and the rest can be more open to interpretation.

Thor and Superman are an interesting contrast to look at between the two film universes, as both are very similar characters at their core.  In Thor and Superman, we have to characters who are, at their essence, gods who strive for humility due to lessons taught to them by their fathers.  Both learn that despite their immense power, they are not better than humans, and Superman even goes so far as to take on a disguise that, if he weren’t good at his job, would be considered little more than a nebbish by most of his companions.  In the Marvel films, we see Thor learn this lesson then act upon it from the last part of his first solo film on.  The early Superman films also get this.  But Man of Steel and Batman v Superman give us a Superman who revels in his power, seeks to set himself apart from humanity, and is very comfortable with being judge, jury, and executioner.  There can be room for interpretation, there can even be a complete break of character so long as it’s for story reasons (such as Thor learning humility rather than starting life understanding power does not make one better), but there is no reason to believe this is the case in Man of Steel nor Batman v Superman since the issue of power not being the sum total of a man is ever addressed, in fact the opposite is often implied.

There are many other examples of this in the DC movies.  Batman is a casual killer, Harley Quinn is never a victim, Lex Luthor is a giggling idiot, and so on.  It’s strange, but it seems the people making the latest batch of DC films don’t understand their own characters.  Perhaps they do, and are just pandering to their audience by giving them what they think they will enjoy, but if that’s the case, then it is the audience they don’t understand.  Marvel understands both, and proves it over and over again with each new character they introduce.  Every major character, at least.

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I’m just a really, really, really open interpretation.

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Marvel released Iron Man in 2008, followed later that year with The Incredible Hulk.  One was successful, one wasn’t, but Iron Man was successful enough that Marvel Studios was confident enough to go ahead with their plan of releasing an entire series of films contained in one universe culminating with The Avengers.  These films were Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.  What these films all have in common is that, with the exception of the first Iron Man, they are now viewed as some of the least of the Marvel films in quality.  Marvel understood, however, that these stories were necessary in establishing the series of films they wanted to make.  It’s almost as if these five movies were nothing more than the exposition to the stories they really wanted to tell, but as even the most novice of writers knows, exposition is absolutely essential.

What starting with fairly typical action, superhero stories leading up to the first film teaming up characters from separate films allowed Marvel to ultimately do was create stories that didn’t need nearly so much character set up time and backstory to work as these elements had already been taken care of previously.  More intricate story lines with many more characters could now effectively be used within a decent time frame.  In Captain America: The Winter Soldier we didn’t need to be told where S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra came from, we already know.  We didn’t need backstory for Black Widow, we’d already seen that.  Instead we get to enter straight into the action, and we can use many more characters and plot hooks because we can relegate origin stories and backstories to the only the new elements, in this example’s case Falcon and The Winter Soldier himself, everything else has already been told and would just be a redundancy.

When DC started their universe, they did get this element right with Man of Steel, but after that with Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad they attempted to jump forward in the storytelling time line.  They give us many characters the audience has never seen in this particular universe before and act as if they are familiar faces we’ve been watching for years.  This Batman is older and experienced with a well established modus operandi and reputation, yet this is the first movie he’s been in.  The villains in Suicide Squad have been operating for a long time, but this is the first time we as an audience see them, and we have to learn about them through too short and very awkward vignettes early in the film rather than their being allowed to really breathe in their own feature film outings.

Then there are characters that we know feature prominently in the DC Universe but don’t have much time in the films themselves.  Joker doesn’t seem like Joker at all in Suicide Squad, but that could be because he only has minutes of screen time.  This Joker is more of a mobster than a happy anarchist, but perhaps that’s just the perception we get from his barely more than cameo status in the film.  Wonder Woman is the most fun part of the final battle in Batman v Superman, but why was she at Lex’s party?  When did she become a spy?  Why is she in Metropolis at all for that matter?  When characters are just shoed into a film for no reason other than for the film makers to get more box office gross because they put in a name people recognize with no actual character to go along with that name, all you end up with is a messy plotline.

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Wonder Woman, known for her magic lasso, invincible bracelets, and invisible jet, is pictured here with…  a sword and shield?

DC seeing all the money to be had from a shared Universe decided to rush into the center of their story line, and it is not working.  They did not recognize that, even as iconic as their characters are, they still need a story to go around them.  Maybe we don’t need to see Thomas and Martha Wayne being shot yet again or the rocket ship landing in Smallville for the umpteenth time, though ironically, those two incidents we did get to see, but we do at least need to know what brought the characters to the state they are currently in and why this particular take on the character is different than others we’ve seen before.  Maybe there’s a reason Lex Luthor acts more like Joker than himself, or why Joker acts more like Two Face or Penguin, but without sufficient story, we are just left puzzling where this character came from.

GENRE

This is less of a remark on something DC is getting wrong, and more of a something Marvel is getting right as a lesson to DC in the future.  Superhero films until the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been established were all more or less the same genre of film, action adventure with a focus on a comic book character.  This is why superhero fatigue is settling in with modern audiences as long before the first Iron Man hit the screens we’d already seen this genre of films many, many times.  When they were appearing once every couple of years or so, it could still remain fresh, but now with at least 5 being released every single year, and sometimes even more, the formula and the genre have to shaken up.

Marvel got this and started releasing films in their universe that weren’t straight comic book action adventure stories.  In Captain America: The Winter Soldier we got a spy flick very reminiscent of Cold War era espionage films.  Guardians of the Galaxy brought us the Marvel version of space opera.  Ant Man gave us the superhero Ocean’s 11 style heist flick, and on their Netflix television shows the bend the genre even more with crime dramas (Daredevil), neo noir (Jessica Jones), and blaxploitation (Luke Cage), with kung fu coming in the near future (Iron Fist).  This mix up of genres has kept the superhero stories fresh, and Marvel the least likely to suffer from general apathy toward superhero films prevalent in the public at large.

With only 3 films under their belts, so far, no matter how messy they may be I can’t fault DC for not innovating with genre, yet.  They need to establish their universe first, and they are already at fault for trying to do too much, too quickly so this isn’t another mistake that needs to be mixed into their formula.  But, looking forward this is something they must recognize.  Wonder Woman will take place during World War I, which could be an excellent opportunity for just this sort of genre mixing, and the DC Universe has Batman who is also called The World’s Greatest Detective.  It would be wonderful to see him actually earn that title in film for once with a good mystery movie.

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The first superhero romantic comedy?

While DC is off to a very shaky start, they are only 3 films in, and they do at least have the strength of their more stylized visuals and incredibly iconic characters to work from.  Marvel is now pretty much a juggernaut which has yet to make a bad film and will likely not be stopped in the near future unless DC manages to spoil it for them by making people outright hate the genre instead of just wanting perhaps less of it.  Learn from Marvel, DC, but don’t necessarily imitate.  Marvel understands their characters, they take the time to set up their massive and intricate story line, and they aren’t afraid of shaking things up when need be.  You need to do all this as well, DC, and you also need to stand out as your own product, and not just more superhero movies.  It’s more difficult coming to the party second, but you do have the resources to make your own universe a thing people want to experience, and not just be a spoiler for Marvel Studios, you just need to use intelligence and patience to do so.