Justice League (2017)

2017 #157
Zack Snyder | 120 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English, Russian & Icelandic | 12A / PG-13

Justice League

This review contains spoilers, but only for stuff everybody knows.

DC’s answer to Avengers Assemble begins with a doom-laden cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows (a Zack Snyder music choice if ever there was one), and there’s a lot that “everybody knows” about the troubled production of this long-awaited superhero team-up. Everybody knows that the so-called DCEU was deemed to be in need of a course-correction after Batman v Superman. Everybody knows that this was to take the form of making this film tonally lighter, something Snyder and co said was always the plan. Everybody knows Snyder eventually had to leave the project for personal reasons. Everybody knows Joss Whedon was brought in as his replacement. Everybody knows that meant reshoots and an attempt to lighten the tone further. Everybody knows that was a recipe for a conflicted movie…

For those who are thinking “I didn’t know any of that” and aren’t so familiar with superhero things on the whole anyhow, Justice League is set in the aftermath of Superman’s self-sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman, which has given Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) a change of heart: he wants to make the world a better place. When he discovers than an alien invasion is imminent, he teams up with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to put together a team of metahumans (read: people with superpowers) to fight it. That team includes Barry Allen aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — and, following an opportunity to revive his cold dead corpse, Clark Kent aka Superman (Henry Cavill).

The new trinity?

Justice League has certainly provoked a mixed reaction from critics and opening weekend audiences. It was always going to: Batman v Superman has been very divisive, with critics largely hating it but a dedicated fanbase to be found without too much digging. Justice League compounds that issue by trying to appease critics, risking alienating fans in the process. The end result inevitably falls somewhere between the two stools, which means there’s no predicting what any one person will make of it — following social media the past couple of days, I’ve seen every possible combination of people who loved, liked, hated, or were indifferent to previous DCEU films and now love, like, hate, or are indifferent to Justice League.

So, my personal reaction is that I enjoyed it. On the whole it’s not as thought-provoking as BvS, but is instead a fun time with some good character bits thrown in. From early reviews I feared the whole story would be choppily edited, and the opening act is indeed a bit disjointed and jumpy, but the closer it gets to the team being assembled the more it settles down. Once they’re together, it’s a fairly straightforward action-adventure movie, with the heroes in pursuit of the villain to stop his world-ending plan. Unlike BvS it’s not full of portentous (or, depending on your predilections, pretentious) themes to ponder, but it’s still a reasonably entertaining action movie.

Bruce and Diana

As for those character bits, it completes arcs for Bruce and Diana that have played out over their past couple of movies, both of them opening up to the world and their place in it. Moments that emphasise Bruce being old and tired and Diana stepping into the role of leader seem to have been added during reshoots, no doubt indicating the future direction the DCEU is now reported to go in — Affleck stepping away in the not-too-distant future; the popular Wonder Woman becoming central to the universe. (As a Batman fan, I hope this doesn’t kill off the raft of Bat-family films they’ve been planning. We’ll see.)

For the new team members, it does a solid job of introducing the Flash and making him likeable — he’s under-confident but good-hearted and funny. Fans of the currently-running TV show may find he’s “not their Flash”, and his costume is one of the worst ever designed, but I’ve never been that big a fan of the series and I can live with the costume. Cyborg gets a mini-arc that works well enough, considering he’s mainly there to be a walking talking plot resolution. Aquaman’s also OK, but a good chunk of his part feels like a tease for his solo film — which, by total coincidence, is the next DCEU movie. This all might’ve been more effective if DC had gone the Marvel route of introducing everyone in solo films first, but the film makes a fair fist of the hand it was dealt.

Flash! Ah-ah!

And as for Superman… well, that’s a whole kettle of fish. Firstly, it’s the worst-kept open secret in the history of movies. The final shot of BvS was a clear hint he’d return, so there’s that for starters. Then early promotional materials included him; behind-the-scenes photos referenced him; when reshoots rolled around, the fact they’d have to deal with Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible 6 moustache was big news. Despite all that, they left him off all the posters and out of every trailer. Would it have made a difference if they’d publicly acknowledged he was back? Who knows. Let’s judge what we were given.

In short, he’s not in it enough. The story of his resurrection is a decent idea, but the film has to rush and condense the arc of his return, presumably because Warner were pushing for a lighter tone and brisk running time. How his return affects him does complete the overall story that started in Man of Steel and continued through BvS — the story of how an ordinary young man with extraordinary abilities develops into the paragon of virtue that Superman is to many people. Honestly, I believe this was (more or less) Snyder and co’s plan all along, and those haters of Man of Steel and BvS who now say that “Justice League finally got Superman right” have perhaps misunderstood how something like character development works. (Should that entire character arc have been contained in the first movie? I think that’s a different argument — in our current franchise- and shared-universe-driven blockbuster era, character arcs are routinely designed to play out across a trilogy.)

There are no official photos of Superman from this movie, so here's a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman
There are no official photos of Superman from this movie,
so here’s a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman.

Much attention has also been focussed on the ridiculousness of the moustache removal — both how funny it always was, and how poor the end result is. Honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as you may’ve heard. I’d wager most people won’t even notice, especially if they’re not looking for it. It’s the kind of thing film buffs see because they’re looking and, yeah, sometimes it’s not great. Personally, I didn’t even think it was the worst computer-generated effect in the movie. Main villain Steppenwolf looks like a character from a mid-range video game, and has about as much personality as one too. There’s terribly obvious green screen all over the place, which is undoubtedly the result of reshoots — sometimes it crops up mid-scene for no obvious reason, other than because they’ve dropped in a new line. Other effects — stuff they’ve probably been working on since principal photography — looks fine.

Naturally the effects drive all of the action, for good or ill. Some have said these sequences are entirely forgettable, which I think is unfair. There’s nothing truly exceptional, but how many movies do manage that nowadays? I’d say what Snyder offers up is at least as memorable as your typical MCU movie, which is presumably what critics are negatively comparing this to. The everyone-on-Superman punch-up is probably the high-point, with an effective callback to “do you bleed?” and a striking moment when Superman looks at the Flash (that sounds completely underwhelming out of context…) I also thought the desperate escape with the Mother Box on Secret Lady Island was a strong sequence. The big tunnel fight has its moments, but needed more room to breathe and a clearer sense of geography. The climax is a great big CGI tumult, which clearly aims for epic but is mostly just noise — again, with one or two flourishes.

AQUAman

Another late-in-the-day replacement was Danny Elfman on music duties. It’s proven controversial — turns out there are a lot of fans of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s work on the previous Snyder DCEU films. Personally, I think Elfman’s score largely works — its numerous callbacks to classic themes are better than Zimmer’s musicless thrumming. There’s a massive thrill in hearing Elfman’s iconic Batman theme again, and John Williams’ even-more-iconic Superman theme. In his work on Man of Steel and BvS, Zimmer never produced anything even close to that memorable. Elfman’s style works other places too: an early scene where a bunch of criminals take a museum hostage immediately brought to mind the feel of Tim Burton’s Batman for me, mainly thanks to Elfman’s score. That’s no bad thing in my book.

The biggest point of discussion swirling around the film this weekend, in many circles at least, has been “which bits were Snyder and which were Whedon?” According to one of the producers, the final movie is 80-85% what Snyder shot during principal photographer, making 15-20% what Whedon added during reshoots. Not a huge amount, but also not inconsiderable. Personally, while I felt some Whedon additions were glaringly obvious, it also felt to me like a shot or line here and there rather than whole chunks of the movie. I think they’ve done a better job of integrating it than some have given them credit for. I put this down to some people thinking any humourous line must be a Whedon addition, but we know that isn’t the case — they were showing off lighter stuff during press set visits and in the initial footage previewed at conventions, both of which were long before Whedon became involved in re-writes, never mind reshoots. The lighter tone was intended from the off, Whedon just added even more of it.

Born 'borg

For those interested, someone who worked on the film has posted a very long list of changes, attributing various bits to Snyder and others to Whedon. There’s also this tweet, which says Snyder’s original cut went down badly with WB execs (hence why Whedon was sought out) and that the vast majority of Superman’s role was reshot to change it entirely — supposedly all that remains of Snyder’s Superman are his action beats (though Whedon added some more), the final scene with Bruce (“I bought the bank”), and maybe one or two other individual shots. This, then, would be Whedon’s biggest contribution to the film. Some love him for it, others not so much. There seems little doubt this is a lighter, more fun Superman. I liked him, though it can’t hurt that I have a bit of a soft spot for Henry Cavill.

Generally speaking I’m a fan of Whedon — I grew up with Buffy; I’m certainly a Browncoat — but I think his additions (assuming those accounts are accurate) are a mixed blessing. Most vital is all the character stuff he’s slotted in, some of which really adds to the movie — Batman’s pep talk to the Flash about “save just one person” was a highlight, I think. The jokey dialogue sometimes lands, sometimes feels forced — the obvious insert of Batman complaining “something’s definitely bleeding” feels incongruous. I’ve seen some complain that he added too many pervy shots of Diana’s ass in that short skirt or those tight trousers, but then whenever I noticed such shots they were in footage that’s been attributed to Snyder, so who knows.

Well if you wear a skirt that short what do you expect to happen?

Everything to do with the Russian family was certainly Whedon, which I’d rather suspected. I mean, there are civilians there to add stakes to the final battle, so that it’s not just the villain being villainous in the middle of nowhere, but why is it that just one family lives there? Because they were added during reshoots and there was probably neither time nor money for crowds of people, that’s why. Their subplot could’ve been integrated better (it felt like they kept just popping up for no reason), but I liked the eventual pay-off with the Flash and Superman saving them — the Flash saving one carload while Supes flies past with an entire building is the kind of humour I think works in this film.

Justice League is a different movie for Whedon’s involvement, that seems unquestionable. Is it better or worse? That’s partly a matter of personal taste. As my taste stretches to include both directors’ works, I can see positives and negatives every which way. My ideal cut of the movie would likely keep some of Whedon’s additions but lose others, as well as reinsert some Snyder stuff they cut. There’s no pleasing everyone, eh? (If you want to see some of what was definitely cut, there are various shots in the trailers, and someone’s leaked eight short clips from Snyder’s version — mostly of unfinished CGI, but one reveals what Iris West’s role was. (If those clips are even still there by the time you read this, of course…))

The Batman

Finally, the post credits scenes. It’s obvious that the first is a Whedon addition (confirmed by the above breakdown) — it’s just a little coda that doesn’t add anything other than some fun. The second scene, however, is an odd one, because it feels like it’s teasing a movie that’s been uncertain for a long time. If it’s setting up The Batman (because Deathstroke was meant to be that film’s villain), well, we know director Matt Reeves is massively reshaping whatever Affleck had planned, quite possibly ditching Deathstroke altogether. If it’s setting up Justice League 2 (because Lex Luthor’s back with a team-building plan of his own), well, who knows if that’s even happening anymore? It was originally planned this movie would be Justice League Part 1 and be closely followed by Justice League Part 2 — presumably that’s why Steppenwolf is the villain, because he was meant to lead into Darkseid (it’s long been reported that a cliffhanger ending to set up just that was cut by Whedon) — but I believe Part 2 has gone MIA from the schedule, and with Affleck now making definitive noises about wanting out of the franchise… Well, who knows what’ll happen.

Back in the present day, Justice League is set to underperform at the box office this weekend: predictions have been revised ever downwards over the past few days, to the point where it’s now at under $100 million — which is kinda funny because it feels like everyone’s talking about it. I guess that’s the difference between “film Twitter” and movie blogs compared to regular folks. Movie Nerds v Regular People: Box Office of Justice, or something. Funny thing is, for all the hatred these DC movies have attracted, they don’t half get people talking. As I saw someone point out on Twitter the other day, you may not’ve liked Batman v Superman, but it’s more than 18 months later and you’re still talking about it. I can’t even remember which Marvel movie was out 18 months ago without looking it up. This is no doubt a simplification — not everyone’s still arguing about BvS, and one of the reasons Marvel movies don’t stick so long is that they produce so darn many of them — but I do think Marvel films give you fun for a couple of hours, and you can call them to mind again if prompted, while DC films stick around, turning over in your mind, love it or hate it. At least for some of us, anyway.

All in

With Justice League, there’s the added complications of its multiple directors and fraught production. Should we judge a film for what it could have been or for what it is? The latter, surely. The former is definitely an intriguing proposition, but not what’s in front of us (and, as the likes of Blade Runner, Alien³, and Superman II have shown, maybe one day we’ll get a chance to judge that movie anyway). Nonetheless, how much should we take into account the behind-the-scenes issues? Should we just pretend they don’t exist? I guess for a lot of regular moviegoers this isn’t even an issue, but for many of us film-fan types it’s hard to put aside the knowledge that this movie was the product of two directors with very different styles and very different production timeframes.

I don’t have any easy answers, I’m afraid. All I know is that Justice League is far from perfect, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Justice League is in cinemas everywhere now.

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Wonder Woman (2017)

2017 #81
Patty Jenkins | 141 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, China & Hong Kong / English | 12A / PG-13

Wonder Woman

Following Wonder Woman’s introduction in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (her central role in that film’s final act surely being the inspiration for its terrible subtitle), here we flash back in time to learn her origin — of her childhood on a hidden island of warrior women; of the events that brought her into our world; and of what made her keep quietly to the sidelines for almost a century.

The fourth film in DC’s shared cinematic universe, commonly dubbed the DCEU, is by far its best reviewed to date. It’s also the first superhero movie of the modern era (i.e. post Iron Man) to be based around a female character. I can’t help but think one has a lot to do with the other, because, in my estimation, Wonder Woman is not massively better than or different to the action-adventure blockbusters we get several of every year — the only exception being, of course, that it stars a woman. While that is undoubtedly important, and its meaningfulness can apparently not be understated, it doesn’t automatically elevate the quality of the rest of the movie. Or maybe it does for some people — maybe “the same, but with a woman” is enough to make it a genre classic.

The film’s strongest feature (gender politics aside) is its cast. Gal Gadot is fantastic — it’s no wonder this role seems to have made her an instant star. Chris Pine also gives a likeable performance, while Lucy Davis nails the comedic support. Also of note are the strong Amazonian ladies who shape Diana’s childhood, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. On the other side of the fence, Danny Huston is pretty much wasted, while David Thewlis ultimately feels a little miscast.

If anyone can take a sword to a gun fight...

The action is very much from the Zack Snyder school — an inexplicable mix of slow-mo and almost-sped-up (or speed-ramped, as it is either known or people have become fond of calling it). Fortunately it doesn’t degenerate into this all the time — while it was a neat effect when it was new, now it feels derivative and overdone. The rest of the action is of mixed quality: some of it is exciting and well-staged, but at other times succumbs to the modern foibles of shooting it too close and cutting it too fast. The climax is a disappointingly bland CGI-athon, which does on and on as if someone is stalling for time while they try to think how to end it.

The third act as a whole is probably the film’s biggest problem. The opening stuff on Secret Lady Island is all great; the middle stuff in London is often fun; and there’s some dramatic stuff when Diana & co first arrive on the front lines. It does drag a little in places, mainly when we get the umpteenth go-round of Diana and Steve debating their relative morals; but it’s as the film tries to bring itself towards a conclusion that it really begins to flounder, forcibly manoeuvring our heroes into a position to actually face the villains (who we’ve been seeing on-and-off in scenes where the only purpose is to remind us those characters exist). For instance, there’s a party scene which serves very little purpose. It’s not a bad idea for a sequence (even if it is a well-worn one), but it doesn’t contribute much to justify its existence. You could cut it entirely and nothing would be lost.

Undercover woman

Even after the climactic battle, some things just aren’t rounded off. Like, how Secret Lady Island sort of just disappears from the story (does Diana want to get back there? Does she try? What’s happened to it now Ares is dead?) There’s no closure given to the supporting cast either; and, as the inevitable sequel is reportedly to be set in the present day, I doubt there ever will be. They may not be the greatest or deepest characters, but Davis at least feels like she needs a final moment (there’s one included on the Blu-ray, at least, though it feels like it was intended as a post-credits tease that someone thought better of).

I don’t want to try to ‘mansplain’ (*shudder*) away the significance of either Wonder Woman as a character or this Wonder Woman movie to female audiences both young and old. It’s fantastic that there’s a strong, capable, independent, successful role model being presented in the blockbuster arena. It’s brilliant that it was also directed by a woman, something all too rare in movies as a whole, never mind big-budget ones (though note that none of the three credited screenwriters are female). It’s marvellous that it’s been such a big box office success, proving that these issues are important, and that Hollywood’s received wisdom that “female superhero movies don’t sell” is exactly as bullshit as it always has been. And, actually, all of that is good for men and boys too — to be exposed to such high-profile representations of women that are more than just objects of desire or support for their own endeavours. That’s part of how you begin to change thinking and status in the wider world.

Climbing the ladder of progess, or something

But, if you set societal significance aside, I don’t think this particular film is any better, nor any worse, than your averagely good male-led blockbuster. And that’s okay. I like those films. It’s important to have female leads in movies at the same level as their male counterparts. But I think some people have got carried away, hailing a film that’s averagely-good as being incredibly-great just because it has a female protagonist. In some respects, maybe they’re right, just to make the point (I won’t be surprised if the same thing happens next year with Black Panther and heroes of colour). But there’s been talk of Wonder Woman launching a Best Picture campaign, and I feel that’s just a little bit daft.

Still, let’s not end on a down note. I enjoyed Wonder Woman a lot, even as it exhibited many of the flaws — and, equally, many of the successes — found in most blockbusters nowadays. It’s a good blockbuster, and its significance in terms of little girls (and boys) seeing a strong, capable female hero is immense.

4 out of 5

The latest DCEU movie, Justice League, is in cinemas now.

Batman vs. Two-Face (2017)

2017 #153
Rick Morales | 72 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Batman vs. Two-Face

Last year the spirit of 1966 was revived when Adam West and Burt Ward returned to the roles of Batman and Robin (or their voices did, anyway) in Return of the Caped Crusaders, a fun comedy-adventure animation that paid tribute to the enduringly popular ’60s incarnation of the (not-so-)Dark Knight. Given the film’s success, it was no surprise a sequel was instantly in development. West completed work on it before his death earlier this year, meaning it now acts as a tribute. It’s unfortunate, then, that it’s not very good.

As the title makes clear, it sees West’s Batman come up against Two-Face — perhaps the most major member of Batman’s extensive Rogues Gallery to never appear in the TV show. Famed sci-fi author Harlan Ellison did actually write a treatment for a Two-Face episode, but the series was cancelled before it could be produced. It was adapted into a comic in 2015, and there was speculation it would form the basis for this animation too, but that isn’t the case. Maybe it should’ve been.

Things are weird from the off. The film begins by depicting a version of Two-Face’s origin — one that involves Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn, a character who wasn’t created until 25 years after the series this is based on. Anyway, it still sees DA Harvey Dent getting half his body fried and subsequently turning into a supervillain whose every decision is ruled by the flip of a coin. With this established in the pre-titles, there’s then a title sequence that shows plenty of Batman vs. Two-Face adventures. Is this a preview of what’s to come? No, because post-titles the story resumes with Harvey being cured. What a weird idea for a ‘first’ Two-Face story.

Why you two-faced...

Then Batman has to take on a variety of other foes, and you begin to wonder why the hell this is called Batman vs. Two-Face if he’s fighting everyone but Two-Face. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does come back around to the eponymous enemy, though Batman refuses to believe his involvement — Harvey has been cured, so is someone impersonating Two-Face? The Boy Wonder isn’t convinced, but Batman is determined to believe his old chum. Oh yes, that’s right — this guy who’s just turned up in the series is apparently Bruce Wayne’s oldest bestest buddy. No wonder Dick’s nose is out of joint.

At the core of this, once what’s going on is eventually unravelled, is a not-half-bad Two-Face story. Unfortunately, that’s not really a strong marriage for this version of Batman — we don’t want a serious Bat-adventure, we want something light, daft, and above all fun. Batman vs. Two-Face isn’t exactly a sombre affair, but it isn’t funny enough either, lacking the gadabout charm of Return of the Caped Crusaders. The tone is just wrong. The makers admit they were trying to mix “camp with noir”, but — as I think any of us could’ve told them — that’s an unnatural combination that just doesn’t work. None of this is helped by the fact the animation looks cheap, even by the standards of DC’s other direct-to-video movies.

Best buds, supposedly

Clint Eastwood was being lined up to take on the role of Two-Face back in the ’60s, but he’s a bit above this kind of fare nowadays. Instead, the villain is voiced by another megastar of ’60s genre TV: William Shatner. Known for his mannered, scenery-chewing acting and ability to send himself up, Shatner seems the perfect foil for West’s Batman. Sadly, the material doesn’t allow Shatner to ham it up like you expect him to. Two-Face’s side of the story is played pretty straight, allowing none of the excess you’d expect from Shatner in comedy mode. Instead, the erstwhile starship captain delivers a genuinely decent acting performance. His voice work creates a clear delineation between the characters of Harvey Dent and Two-Face, and he delivers a fine interpretation of a man held hostage by his own alter ego. But, again, such a straight portrayal is not what’s desired from a Batman ’66 movie.

I was surprised to discover that Batman vs. Two-Face comes from the exact same writers and director as Return of the Caped Crusaders. The previous film nailed what it needed to be so perfectly, yet this seems to miss the mark almost entirely. My score errs on the side of harshness — there is fun to be had here — but it reflects my feeling immediately after the credits rolled that, overall, this was a massive disappointment.

2 out of 5

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

2017 #148
Taika Waititi | 130 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s been a busy year for the MCU. Long gone are the days of Marvel Studios putting out one or two movies a year — this is their third theatrical release in 2017, alongside three full seasons of Netflix shows and two network TV series currently running. Whew! Nonetheless, according to Rotten Tomatoes this Thor threequel is the best-reviewed thing they’ve released this year (so far). Some critics have even said it’s the best Marvel Studios movie ever made. Well, let’s not get too hasty.

Two years on from Age of Ultron, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been scouring the universe in search of Infinity Stones, to no success. After the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) emerges from her prison intent on conquering Asgard, the God of Thunder is cast out to a remote world ruled over by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There he must compete in gladiatorial championships in order to escape and prevent Ragnarok, the long-prophesied destruction of Asgard.

Having previously attempted to make the Thor movies Shakespearean (by hiring Kenneth Branagh to direct the first one) and Game of Thrones-esque (by hiring Alan Taylor to direct the second), to diminishing returns as far as critical reception and audience responsiveness went, Marvel have tried a different tack for this third instalment. Essentially, they’ve done what they’ve done to most of their movies of late: made it funny. Tonally, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel (apart from it not starring any Guardians characters, that is).

Not a buddy movie

To this end, they hired director Taika Waititi, who’s been gaining attention with this comedies What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Waititi’s influence is definitely felt in the film’s splashes of irreverent humour, but everything else about Ragnarok is a typical Marvel Studios blockbuster. Critics who’ve said it’s more a Waititi movie than a Marvel movie were overselling it. The plot, the locations, the characters — they’re all your standard Marvel stuff. It’s colourful, it’s fun, it’s exciting — all standard Marvel operating procedure.

Therefore, just as with almost every Marvel movie, the devil is in the details. Ragnarok is a good one because of Waititi — because of the extra humour he injects, a consistent presence throughout the film, but also because he clearly has a good eye for imagery. If you want a taster, a lot of the most striking stuff is, unsurprisingly, included in the trailers. (Though, interestingly, there are several shots in the trailer that have been modified for the sake of spoilers. But to say more would be, y’know, a spoiler.) Action and more dramatic material are handled as well as ever. That’s the way the cookie crumbles with Marvel Studios movies: a bad or unremarkable director will make a bad or unremarkable Marvel movie, but a good or unique director can seemingly only make their presence felt so far as making “a good Marvel movie”, perhaps with a few of their own flourishes.

They're not buddies either

You may have heard some reports claim Ragnarok is an intergalactic buddy movie. It isn’t. Or, if it is, it’s a buddy movie where one of them’s Thor and the other one’s constantly changing. As the eponymous hero, Hemsworth gets to flex the comedic chops he revealed in movies like Ghostbusters. Everyone’s favourite Marvel movie villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is back as well. While Ragnarok may ignore its predecessors tonally, it does a good job of continuing to build on Loki’s character arc. Blanchett is, if anything, under-hammy as the villain, pitching it too low when she’s sharing space with the likes of Goldblum. The expansive cast list means that both returning characters (such as Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)) and newcomers (such as Skurge (Karl Urban) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson)) can only snag so much screen time each, but several of them are given efficiently-told arcs nonetheless (as usual, Heimdall mostly misses out).

Arguably the film’s standout character is Korg, voiced by Waititi and spewing lines that feel very much from the director’s wheelhouse, even though he’s not credited as a writer. Most of the biggest laughs come from him, especially as bits like “friend from work” are now very familiar from the trailers. There’s also a cameo from Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), which feels like it’s there just because they included that credits scene in his movie and so were committed to paying it off. I suppose it may have future benefits, as I believe Thor is now the only Avenger to have met Strange, but we shouldn’t be thinking about that — what have we all said before about the MCU being needlessly over-connected?

She's definitely not got any buddies

Talking of credits scenes, you may wish to know that there are two here, Marvel’s default number nowadays. Without spoiling anything, one is the vaguest of vague teases, the other a funny button on one of the film’s subplots. Neither are going to be remembered among the studio’s best credits additions.

If Thor: Ragnarok has a problem it’s the hype that’s been attached to it since the likeable trailers and glowing reviews started coming out. For those with appropriately managed expectations, make no mistake, it is a highly entertaining couple of hours. But it doesn’t break the Marvel mould, instead just filling it with more colourful materials. The best Marvel movie ever? No. The best thing they’ve released this year? Maybe.

4 out of 5

Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas in the UK and various other countries now. It rolls out across the world in the coming weeks, ending with the US on November 3rd.

Vixen (2017)

aka Vixen: The Movie

2017 #137
Curt Geda & James Tucker | 75 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

Vixen

Received wisdom is that while DC comics adaptations are floundering on the big screen (because $3.1 billion from four movies is such a failure), they’re flourishing on the small one, with their ever-growing Arrowverse suite of shows a huge success on the US’s CW network. So named because it began with Arrow in 2012, said ‘verse now also encompasses The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. As well as these main shows, they’ve produced a couple of animated spin-offs for their online platform. The first of these was Vixen, which has so far produced two seasons of six five-minute episodes. Here, those two runs are combined with about 15 minutes of extra bridging material to produced a movie.

The titular Vixen is Mari McCabe (voiced by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who discovers that her family-heirloom necklace has the ability to grant her the power of any animal — so she can run like a cheetah, climb like a spider, stomp like an elephant, fly like an eagle, etc, ad infinitum. While contending with these new skills, she’s also accosted by superheroes Arrow and the Flash (Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin respectively, reprising their roles from the live-action shows), and has to battle with, first, Kuasa (Anika Noni Rose) trying to claim the necklace for herself, and then Eshu (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) trying to, er, claim the necklace for himself…

Foxy lady! Also lion lady, gorilla lady, elephant lady...

Firstly, it must be said that it’s really obvious Vixen consists of multiple episodes and seasons stitched together. It’s probably not so bad on the episodic level — me being me, I was watching out for where the breaks likely fell in the original five-minute-ish format — but it’s undeniable that it wraps up its first story in about half-an-hour, then moves on to a new story that lasts about 15 minutes, before finally telling another half-hour tale. It feels a bit like watching a movie and its sequel back-to-back, with a related aside in the middle, though in this case each ‘movie’ is the length of an animated TV episode. So, releasing it as Vixen: The Movie was perhaps a bit silly and/or disingenuous. It doesn’t desperately need to retain its original short form, but putting it out as two half-hours — with the added value of a bonus mini-episode containing that bridging story — might’ve felt more satisfactory.

Putting issues of form and presentation aside, the story — or, unavoidably, stories — are alright. The first has the shape of a pretty standard superhero origin story, given some added flavour thanks to the character’s African roots and the relationship with the villain. The short linking part feels like a run-of-the-mill episode of any superhero cartoon series. Apparently some fans complained that Vixen had mysteriously learnt to use her powers between the end of season one and start of season two, so this section attempts to address that point. The final section, as alluded to above, feels like a sequel, with a new primary antagonist but still carrying over threads and points from the first. It goes a bit awry the longer it goes on, with some very for-the-sake-of-it random cameos from the live-action shows, and a disappearance of internal logic during the climax.

At times it’s own format works against it: Mari says she has no identity and needs to find one, but the narrative doesn’t have enough room to let her. It probably would have if Vixen originated as a 70-minute movie, but in the form of five-minute episodes, which need to use their limited space to fulfil fan expectations of things like action sequences, there’s little to no room for genuine character development. The overall quality is often a bit cheesy and blunt — again, in part to make it satisfying for viewing in five-minute bursts, no doubt, but it does also feel in keeping with the overall style and tone of the Arrowverse.

Queen of the jungle

The animation itself is relatively cheap and basic — on a par with the lower end of Warner’s other direct-to-DVD DC animations; probably even a bit simpler. It’s not bad, but no one’s likely to be impressed. That said, when they pop in for cameos, the likenesses of the live-action actors is shit. On the bright side, they’ve used the animated format to create powers and action sequences that would require expensive CGI in a live-action show. These days they can manage that kind of thing, of course (Vixen eventually turned up in an episode of Arrow, in fact, and a version of the character is now a regular on Legends), and you can believe Vixen‘s first season wouldn’t’ve been a huge problem for one of the live-action shows. The second season, perhaps as a result of that, goes more all-in on the effects-y action.

Fans of any or all of the other Arrowverse shows may well find something to enjoy in Vixen. Otherwise, it’s newcomer-friendly (aside from those cameos it’s fundamentally standalone) but I doubt it would do much to persuade the uninitiated that they’re missing out.

3 out of 5

The Arrowverse returns to UK screens this week, with new episodes of Supergirl on Mondays, The Flash on Tuesdays, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on Wednesdays, and Arrow on Thursdays. That’ll certainly keep you busy (if you let it).

The Past Fortnight on TV #22

It’s only been a fortnight since my last “monthly” update but it’s been a busy one, with the entirety of Marvel/Netflix miniseries The Defenders and two feature-length instalments of Game of Thrones to look over.

Also reviewed: the penultimate pair of Twin Peaks episodes, the first season of Designated Survivor, and the pilot of Rick and Morty.

The Defenders  Season 1
The DefendersAfter years of build-up, and a grand total of 65 episodes of lead-in shows (yes, that many, really), we’re finally here: the culmination of Phase One in the Netflix arm of the Marvel Cinema Universe. Like Phase One of the movie side, said culmination is a big ol’ team-up of every hero we’ve been introduced to so far, working together to stop a threat that’s been building across some of their individual series.

The Defenders is the epitome of the “it’s really an X-hour movie” style of TV making. It starts slow, confident both that it’s got 8 hours to tell its story (though it actually only takes 6½) and that the majority of its viewer base will stick it out whatever. Said viewers have been divided on its merits, but I bet most of them did stick around for all eight episodes. I mean, if you made it through Iron Fist, The Defenders is a walk in the park. (Interesting aside: apparently most Netflix subscribers have watched at least one of the four contributing series, but very few have actually watched all four.)

Episode one, The H Word, takes its time to reintroduce us to the four lead characters, showing where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them in their own series. Depending on your whims, the aggressive colour grading used to differentiate each thread is either a neat visual shortcut or laughably overcooked. It’s kind of impressive that each strand evokes the style of its root show, though that means the combination feels like a bit of a hodgepodge. The downside is that the way hip-hop music kicks in almost any time Luke Cage appears (there’s no similar aural affectation for any other character) feels like a parody.

In Mean Right Hook, we begin to see that the apparently-unrelated storylines of our four heroes are, shocker, actually connected — who saw that coming? But it’s not until Worst Behavior that we get them on screen together. The episode is every inch the end of act one: it’s confirmed where all the separate threads lead (the Hand), we find out what happened to Elektra, and our heroes team up for the first time. That it takes almost three whole episodes to get to this point is emblematic of the leisurely pace these streaming series take; the downside of shows being released all at once and treated as a long movie in segments. It would be better paced if the team was together by the end of episode two — dividing what was originally billed as a miniseries into four two-hour chunks seems natural to me.

Teamed upWith the team introduced to one another, Royal Dragon is almost a bottle episode — the gang hole up in a Chinese restaurant to hide from the Hand and make a plan. It works neatly to let our heroes settle their differences and agree to actually team up. There’s some fun sparky dialogue in their interactions, too. For my money it’s the best instalment of the series. The downside: having said episode three is the end of act one, episode four really feels that way, with the team finally united — but we’re halfway through the series.

So now it’s into a truncated middle. Take Shelter is a lot of business, transitioning the series into its second half — getting the supporting casts into safety, establishing where the plot is headed now they’ve teamed up. Ashes, Ashes livens things up, splitting the team into the mismatched pairings of Luke/Danny and Matt/Jessica, which keeps things lively as they put the pieces together. Cap that off with a couple of big twists at the end and it makes for a low-key great episode.

The final two episodes, Fish in the Jailhouse and The Defenders, form a suitably epic-ish conclusion — essentially, a big punch-up (with a bang), though with character moments and developments liberally scattered throughout. As to how to finally wraps it all up… well, no spoilers, but it plays a card it can’t follow through on (but at least has the good grace to admit that as a parting shot), and doesn’t conclusively end some of the things I thought it would. Maybe future seasons of Marvel/Netflix shows will decide to leave those threads dead and buried; maybe they’ll resurrect them. I hope the former, but they haven’t shut the door on the latter. Either way, I think it’d be difficult to keep watching any of the individual series without also making time for The Defenders.

Going downOverall, the relative brevity and speed of the story here does make it feel like an event miniseries, more than the sprawling and novelistic styles of the four contributing series. Maybe it’s just because it’s how I chose to watch it, but I reckon it plays better as four feature-length episodes than eight normal-length ones. As this is Netflix and you can watch at your own pace, maybe that doesn’t matter; but if you were watching this weekly, I think it’d be immensely frustrating that it took three whole weeks to get to the actual team-up. In a post-series interview, the showrunner talks about how they didn’t have time for certain character combinations that writers and/or fans wanted to see. Well, you could’ve made time if you’d got a move on with things in the first few episodes. The freedom streaming series are allowed is great, but some of the hoops network shows are forced to jump through do have pleasant side effects.

In the end, The Defenders is much like it’s big screen analogue, The Avengers: it’s fun to finally see all of these characters come together, and there are good bits scattered throughout, but ultimately it struggles to measure up to expectations, or to reach the same heights of quality as the better individual adventures. Put another way: it’s not Iron Fist, but it’s not quite Daredevil or Jessica Jones either. Somehow, I guess it makes sense that a series which combines all the other series would end up settled at the median of their quality levels.

Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episodes 6-7
Men on a missionPicking up where the previous episode left off, the season’s penultimate episode saw us follow Jon Snow and his band of merry men Beyond the Wall in search of evidence. What ensued was a Thrones version of the “men on a mission” narrative, with the characters sharing scenes in a variety of combinations (I think we can all agree the Hound / Tormund exchange was the highlight) before running into trouble. Surrounded and outnumbered on a frozen lake, with Gendry sprinting back to Eastwatch for help, this is where some people found massive problems with the episode.

The whole season has been called out for its apparently flexible attitude to time — in particular, how long it takes to traverse huge distances — and Beyond the Wall focused that into a microcosm. Personally, I think the season (and episode) could’ve handled this better if they gave us a few more points of reference — a line here or there about how long people had been away, a shot of them travelling, that kind of thing. It doesn’t help that things are moving at a different pace to earlier seasons. Maybe in the past there were days between individual scenes; now there are weeks. That throws off viewers’ expectations. Nonetheless, the production team’s defence — that there can be weeks between scenes — covers almost all of the complaints. Even in this one episode, we don’t know precisely how long the guys are trapped on the lake. It’s at least over night, and in the North in winter nights would be very long.

Any episode with a flaming sword can't be all badSo ignoring those somewhat facile complaints, we can get back to looking at the end of the episode as pure spectacle. Other people (people not complaining about the timelines) hailed this as the series’ most incredible visual display yet. Well, some people always do that. It was great to see the dragons in action against the army of the dead, the exploding ice indeed looked spectacular, but as a battle it wasn’t equal to what we saw in Hardhome, Battle of the Bastards, or this season’s The Spoils of War. Coming fourth(-ish) to those is still a mean feat.

As for the ending… deus ex machina gets thrown around in online discussions a lot these days. It’s almost always used incorrectly. That was the case here. Still, the whole thing with Jon Snow almost drowning and then pulling himself out was a bit silly. We know he’s got the thickest of thick plot armour — stop putting him in mortal danger and then having to jump through ridiculous hoops to save him, it just shatters the illusion.

With the proof acquired, it was on to King’s Landing for a long-awaited meet-up by most of the surviving cast members in the feature-length finale, The Dragon and the Wolf. I don’t know about anyone else, but it felt like two episodes glued together to me. The aforementioned conference took up exactly half the episode, I believe, with the second half moving on to events at Winterfell, back at Dragonstone, and between Cersei and Jaime in the wake of promises made and already broken. Of course, if you did split it in half then each episode would only run about 43 minutes, and we’ve seen how angry some fans get when episodes dare to run as short as 50 minutes.

It's my throne and you can't have itSome people were blown away by the twists and revelations in the finale. I guess it’s the fault of the internet age, but it felt like an awful lot of stuff that had just been a long time coming to me. The Night King using his dragon to melt the wall should probably have been mind-blowing, but it felt like it was just a matter of time (him actually getting a dragon the week before, however, was as effective as it was meant to be). The reveal about Jon Snow? We’ve already had enough breadcrumbs to put it together. It’s not really worth mentioning until Jon hears it for himself. On the other hand, the revelation that Bran doesn’t know everything — he has the option to see anything ever, but he has to go looking for specifics — is potentially important. How? Well, we’ll see.

On the whole, it seems to have been a divisive season of Thrones. I feel like I’ve written that sentence before. Some people thought it moved too quickly — presumably not the same people who used to moan about how slow it was. Some missed the character moments that allowed for; others revelled in the spectacle on display almost every week. I wouldn’t have minded a slightly slower pace, spreading the big events out a little more (the end of The Queen’s Justice was particularly over-stuffed with major events), but said events were hugely impressive in themselves. HBO may lavish Thrones with an insanely large budget, but it’s all on screen, looking more like a summer blockbuster than a cable TV series.

Season eight is now on its way — eventually. It feels like there’s still a lot of story left to get through. With only six episodes left, I hope they’ve given themselves enough time to wrap it up satisfactorily.

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 15-16
He is the FBIAs we reach the penultimate week of the Twin Peaks revival, the one-armed man speaks for us all: “You are awake… Finally.”

Yes, it’s true: the thing most viewers have wanted since, ooh, the first bloody episode has finally happened: FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is back in the building. The advantage to the excruciating wait for his return was that, when it came, it was joyous. I don’t think anything has given me as big a grin this year as “I am the FBI.” Well played, Mr Lynch. Now the next two hours better be bloody good to make up for that wait…

Actually, it finally feels like there’s hope it might all wrap up and come together. Of course, this is David Lynch we’re talking about — his idea of “all wrapped up” is not the same as most people’s. But pieces are moving into position, some answers have been forthcoming, and the stage is set for an ending that is satisfying on at least some level, even as it inevitably leaves numerous things open for people to ponder for decades to come. Lynch has said before that season two’s cliffhanger was not how Twin Peaks was meant to end, so I don’t think it’s too daft to presume we’ll get something a bit more conclusive this time round.

Designated Survivor  Season 1
Designated SurvivorWhile signed up to Netflix for The Defenders, I also started watching this Netflix “Original” (it’s on ABC in the US, but Netflix have global rights, hence it gets their “we made this, honest” branding over here). Its setup has intrigued me since it launched last year, but its traditional release model (21 episodes across nine months) didn’t fit with my “subscribe for a month now and then” usage of Netflix until after the season had finished, i.e. now.

It stars Kiefer Sutherland as President Jack Bauer— dammit! President Tom Kirkman, a man who didn’t want the job: during the State of the Union address, Kirkman is the “designated survivor” — a member of the cabinet squirrelled away somewhere secret in case disaster strikes. And strike it does, as the entirety of the US government is wiped out in a massive explosion, thrusting Kirkman from junior cabinet member about to lose his job to leader of the free world. As he copes with his newfound responsibilities — not only rebuilding the government, but retaliating against those responsible and battling forces at home who question his legitimacy — we also follow an FBI agent who unearths a conspiracy behind the attack.

The dual-pronged narrative means the series plays like 24 meets The West Wing, with a big conspiracy storyline unfolding across the season while Kirkman faces a variety of political challenges and emergencies on a week-to-week basis. It’s not quite as sophisticated-feeling as Aaron Sorkin’s classic, though maybe that’s just time speaking — the rise of prestige TV has kind of dulled the ability of network shows to feel high-quality, and I wonder if The West Wing would hold up as well today. Anyway, what Designated Survivor lacks in sophistication it makes up for with watchability: we burned through the entire season in under a fortnight. Its American patriotism may be unpalatably cheesy at times (Kirkman makes a speech in the finale, greeted with a standing ovation from Congress, that’s like eating a stuffed crust quattro formaggi with extra cheese and mozzarella sticks on the side, all dipped in fondue), but if you can stomach that it’s a decent drama. I’ll be back for season two.

Also watched…
  • Rick and Morty Season 1 Episode 1 — People seem to keep going on about how great this is (it’s ranked as the 7th best TV series ever on IMDb), so, despite thinking it looked singularly unappealing, I thought I should give it a go. The pilot does not bode well. It has some fantastic throwaway ideas, but the characters and tone weren’t to my taste. Apparently it gets better though, so I’ll give it a couple more chances.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The TickThis month, I have mostly been missing Amazon’s new version of The Tick, the first half of the first season of which debuted last week, a full year after the pilot was made available. I wasn’t too impressed by that episode (my review is here), but I’ve heard episode two rights the ship somewhat, so I intend to make time for it at some point.

    Next month… it has happened again: Twin Peaks reaches its conclusion.

  • Suicide Squad (2016)

    2016 #178
    David Ayer | 123 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15 / PG-13

    Suicide Squad

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    1 nomination — 1 win

    Won: Best Makeup and Hairstyling.


    The third movie in DC’s attempt at a shared cinematic universe always seemed like an odd choice — why adapt a minor title starring second- or third- (or even fourth-) string villains when you’ve yet to bring several of your better-known heroes to the screen? Then the trailers came out and the apparent darkly comical tone seemed to click with viewers. But apparently that wasn’t what the movie was like at all, so then the studio ordered reshoots and hired the trailer editing people to re-cut the whole movie.

    That did not end well.

    The final version of Suicide Squad definitely feels like a film that was messed around in post. I imagine the basic plot remains the same, however: sneaky government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a Cunning Plan to use locked-up super-villains — including the likes of Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) — to undertake dangerous and/or secret missions, on the basis that these prisoners are totally expendable. Why would the villains agree? They don’t have a choice: little bombs in their head will go off if they don’t comply. Almost immediately after getting approval for her initiative, a crisis breaks out in Generic Skyscraper City that requires the Squad’s expertise — how handy! Meanwhile, the Joker (Jared Leto) is concocting a plan to free his girlfriend…

    Skwad!

    That there were editing tussles over Suicide Squad’s final cut becomes evident almost immediately: the way it introduces Deadshot and Harley before cutting to Waller pitching her plan is a little clunky, surely a re-ordering to get the big-name characters on screen ASAP, which becomes obvious when they’re later introduced again alongside the other candidates. However, it really goes awry when Waller’s pitch and introduction of the Enchantress is immediately followed by another meeting where Waller makes her pitch and introduces the Enchantress. Maybe the screenplay was that clunkingly constructed to begin with, or maybe they just made a ham-fisted job of the restructuring.

    On a shot-to-shot level the editing is fine, but various events aren’t allowed the necessary room to breathe, the endless character introductions are a jumble, the narrative is fitfully revealed, and the overall pace is a disaster. It’s easy to believe that it was cut by trailer editors because the pace and style with which it handles some sequences is reminiscent of the storytelling economy applied in trailers. Problem is, what works in a 120-second advertisement doesn’t in a 120-minute narrative. There are bits that are well put together — the occasional strong scene or impressive visual idea — but there’s a nagging awareness that someone felt the need to mess things around.

    And nobody messes with Amanda Waller

    Similarly, the use of songs on the soundtrack is scattershot. Some are eye-rollingly on the nose, while others seem chucked in at random, the apparent intent to be ‘quirky’ by throwing on discordant tracks. Parts of the film are the same, like Captain Boomerang’s pink unicorn: it’s a self-consciously Funny bit that’s deployed a couple of times early on and then completely disregarded. I mean, I’m not going to argue that the lack of reference to pink unicorns after the halfway point is Suicide Squad’s biggest flaw, but it’s indicative of its sloppy handling of material.

    Examples of this disjointedness are almost endless. Like, during the climax the squad have a specific plan to deal with Enchantress’ brother, who they are aware of thanks to earlier seeing him on a ‘spy boomerang’ (don’t ask). But when the big fella comes out, their reactions are all “who the hell is this?!” and “we’re in trouble now!” It’s not a major flaw, it just doesn’t quite make sense — and when that keeps happening, I’d say the cumulative effect is a problem.

    Suicide stars

    On the bright side, Margot Robbie and Will Smith work overtime to both make their characters function and bring some entertainment value to the film, and they largely succeed. Viola Davis makes for a great love-to-hate character as the endlessly cunning Waller. I don’t even dislike Jared Leto’s loony take on the Joker. The rest of the cast… well, okay, the less said about them the better. For one thing, there’s a lot of them, and some don’t even need to be there. Slipknot and Katana barely serve any function, for instance, and the film only emphasises this by giving them clumsily offhand introductions.

    There’s a definite sense that this version of Suicide Squad was created based on either audience feedback or the perception of what the audience wants, rather than what was actually designed to be the structure of the movie. It hasn’t worked. Scenes butt against each other in ways that surely wasn’t intended, and the longer it goes on the more it feels like bits and pieces have been dropped in or taken out all over the place. It is possible to restructure a film in post, especially when you have reshoots to smooth the joins, but Suicide Squad absolutely feels like the hash job it was reported to be. Its legacy will be the lesson of what happens when you attempt a last-minute chop-and-change re-cut.

    Theatrical Cut
    2 out of 5


    So, is the extended cut better?

    2016 #195a
    David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15

    Please sir, can I have some more?

    Well, firstly, this isn’t a Batman v Superman-esque situation, where the extended cut puts the film back together how it was originally meant to be and suddenly makes it work. This is exactly what it says on the tin: extended. It’s the same movie, with 13 extra minutes.

    I did enjoy it more on second viewing, but I’m not sure that was because of the new material. There’s extra stuff with Harley and the Joker, which feels like it’s been shoehorned in — but then, so did their scenes that were there before. The bar scene was one of the highlights of the theatrical cut and is improved by adding back some material that was only in the trailer. Otherwise, I suspect it’s just the rewatch factor, under which circumstances familiarity can allow the brain to make connections or invent explanations that the film may not contain, but through their existence (even if it’s just in your head) the film makes more sense. Even that doesn’t absolve all of Suicide Squad’s numerous faults, but it’s something.

    It’s still not a good movie, really, but at least second time round I (overall) enjoyed watching it.

    Extended Cut
    3 out of 5

    And finally, lest you ever forget…

    Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

    2017 #94
    Jon Watts | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Spider-Man: Homecoming

    This review contains spoilers for, like, everything.

    When Marvel Studios began their grand experiment in revolutionising the Hollywood blockbuster landscape with Iron Man, I began my review with an hysterically funny (and totally under-appreciated) riff on the famous cheesy Spider-Man theme song, which was once buried at the end of the credits of a Spider-Man film as a joke. Nine years later, not only is Spider-Man joining the MCU, he’s doing so with the support of Iron Man — both in the film and in its marketing — and that cheesy song has been rendered in epic orchestral style to open the film. My, how times change.

    This is the second big-screen reboot for the Spider-Man franchise, but Sony and new production partner Marvel Studios aren’t keen for us to dwell on that (because the last reboot being such an unpopular move is the reason this one’s happened). So, following this latest incarnation’s soft introduction in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, here we pick up where that left off. 15-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is now hanging out back in New York, dealing with normal high school things like homework, parties, and casual bullying, and being just a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man by stopping bicycle thieves and giving old ladies directions. He waits for a call from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about their next big mission — a call that never comes. But when Spider-Man attempts to stop a bank robbery where the crooks are armed with suspiciously advanced tech, Peter finds himself on the trail of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage worker who uses bits and pieces recovered from Avengers battles to build dangerous weapons that he sells to criminals.

    He's some kind of... Bird... man...

    MCU films are renowned for having a “villain problem” — their films’ antagonists are often little more than human MacGuffins; someone for the hero to punch in the third act after they’ve undergone their own journey. Recent films have sought to rectify that (Zemo in Civil War being perhaps the best example), and Homecoming continues the trend. It hasn’t gone full-on pre-Nolan Batman — this is still very much Spidey’s movie, most concerned with our hero’s psychology and his personal arc — but Toomes (aka the Vulture) is a more well-rounded character than most Marvel movie enemies. Indeed, he’s a pretty relatable figure: he lost his livelihood due to government backroom deals forcing him out, since when he’s just tried to provide for the family he loves. In another version of this story, he’d be the hero.

    Although he’s not afforded an abundance of screen time, this is where having an actor of Keaton’s calibre pays off, as he effortlessly sells both Toomes’ everyman humanity and his threatening villainous side. He gets an interesting final beat, too: locked up in prison, he refuses to give up Spider-Man’s identity to a fellow inmate. I’ve read some interpret this as being because he wants to kill Peter himself, but I don’t think that fits with the rest of his arc. I saw it as he’d been reformed by Peter saving his life and was doing him a favour. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d spared his life, after all. It could go either way I guess, but there are so many good Spidey villains who haven’t made it to the screen yet that I hope they don’t intend to waste a chunk of Homecoming 2 on reheating the Vulture.

    It's mentor be

    As everyone well knows by now (thanks to it being repeated ad infinitum in the previous Spidey movies), the catchphrase of the Spider-Man franchise is “with great power comes great responsibility”. However, it’s not said once in this film. Instead, it’s threaded through the very core of the film’s story and character arcs. It’s the lesson everyone comes to learn. It’s what Stark is trying to teach Peter by giving him a fancy suit with a lot of its special features disabled, and by discouraging him from biting off more than he can chew. When Peter gets himself in too deep, as he does repeatedly, it always comes close to costing innocent lives. It’s a lesson Stark learns too, though: he’s trying to be a mentor, a father figure, and do a better job of it than his own father did, but he still doesn’t set the right example for Peter — until, of course, he does.

    That’s very much a subplot, though. Iron Man isn’t in the film as much as the trailers made some fear — this isn’t The Spider-Man and Iron Man Movie; indeed, that shot I’ve used for this post’s banner image isn’t even in the finished film. While Stark’s place as a mentor figure makes him important to our hero, this story is still all about Peter. Tom Holland is excellent, immensely likeable as both the socially awkward Peter Parker and the wisecracking, overambitious Spider-Man. You want to hang out with him more, he’s such a nice guy. It’s also clear he’s got the acting chops to carry off some of the more emotional dilemmas and realisations that hit Peter. As I said, he goes through the arc of realising his powers come with responsibilities — to himself, his family, his friends, and the people he’s trying to protect — and Holland navigates that while making it look effortless.

    Every superhero's gotta brood sometimes

    It naturally brings Peter to a place that, when he’s finally offered one of the things he’s most wanted — membership of the Avengers — he turns it down because he’s not quite ready. That scene, with the modest hero and the gag about the journalists actually being there, is… kinda obvious, even if it’s a strong character moment. But it’s quite interesting on an extra textual level: as it stands, it’s a good setup for future Spidey solo movies, but we’re not getting another one of those until after the big two-part Avengers extravaganza is over and done. Kevin Feige has talked about this being a five-movie character arc for Spidey, implying he has a major role to play in those two Avengers flicks, even though he’s just turned down joining that team full time. Really, it’s nice they haven’t just used this film’s ending to set up / trail their next one, which has been another common MCU problem. Maybe the honchos at Marvel Studios are learning some lessons about power and responsibility too…

    Further feeding into the focus on our hero, the movie spends a lot of time on Peter’s school life. All the “typical high school experience” stuff brings a different flavour to the Marvel universe; and, indeed, to Spider-Man movies, which have only passingly used it in previous incarnations. Although it’s ultimately used a bit repetitiously (Peter tries to attend something high-school-y; has to run off to be Spider-Man instead), what there is of it works nicely. Peter’s best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), drops neatly into the comedic sidekick role and is a very likeable presence. There’s a neat reconfiguring of Flash (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) from his usual depiction as a stock football jock into a kind of nerd-bully.

    Class of 2017

    There’s an attempt to add some depth to the object of Peter’s affections, Liz (Laura Harrier), in the third act, but she’s mainly called on to be beautiful, then sweet, then scared, then sweet again, so… Meanwhile, there’s the much-discussed casting of Zendaya (are we meant to know who she is? I don’t) as a character who isn’t Mary Jane Watson, honest, but who does like to be called MJ. She’s mainly there to be sarky, and is presumably in place to be used next time. The same might be said of Angourie Rice, who demonstrated her considerable talent in The Nice Guys but is here wasted as A.N. Other Schoolmate. Her character name is familiar from the comics, so hopefully they have future plans for her too.

    Reading this review so far, you might be forgiven for thinking Homecoming was some kind of character drama. Not so, of course — there are plenty of the requisite blockbuster action scenes. I’ve seen criticism of them for being typically characterless Marvel fare, lacking in either distinctiveness or palpable stakes. While that’s not necessarily untrue of a couple of sequences, I think the Washington Monument sequence at least is mightily effective. I’m certainly looking forward to re-experiencing some of its dizzying heights in 3D when the Blu-ray comes out. The one I did find disappointing was the climax on the outside of the ‘invisible’ plane (“invisible” in the same way Die Another Day’s car was invisible, but executed a bit more realistically, so Homecoming isn’t getting the same degree of flak for it). Taking place in the night sky, aboard a vessel whose lighted surface is constantly flickering and changing, and with the requisite action-scene fast cutting, it was both too dark and too busy, the effect being just a blur of illuminations. I dunno, maybe that works better in 3D too…

    Monumental action

    And if we’re talking criticisms, I have to have a quick rant about how the trailers gave away the whole movie. Maybe I should be used to that by now — it seems to be happening a lot — but it’s still irritating. So, okay, Homecoming’s didn’t include everything — one pretty big twist was saved for the final film — but most (perhaps all?) of the best gags were included, and so many big scenes were featured that, at times, watching the full movie felt like working through a checklist of bits we’d seen. The most egregious was when it came to Peter failing at the ferry, then Tony taking his suit away, then Peter proving himself by rescuing the plane suit-less as the climax — that whole sequence of events easily deduced from the trailers. Yes, this is a fault of the marketing more than the film itself (or possibly of my brain having deconstructed the trailer and reconstructed it into a film), but it would be nice if the trailer editors could keep some stuff a bit more secret. It’s not as if there was a shortage of visually impressive action moments to hint at them without using significant chunks. And “Spider-Man tries to stop Vulture while Iron Man both mentors and ignores him” would’ve been fine for the plot. (Though, how much do you need to sell the story of a superhero blockbuster? Would “this famous character does cool things with superpowers” actually be adequate?) I’d like to say I’m going to start avoiding trailers in future, but I have no willpower; I just can’t resist.

    Finally, a quick word on the post-credits scene. As I left the cinema after it, the usher commented, “isn’t that the worst credits scene ever?” Well, I can see his point — it’s frustrating to have waited around just for that. At the same time, that’s kind of its point. And its point is bang on: it perfectly described how all of these credits scenes feel to the viewer; or, at least, how they feel to me. They’re pretty much never worth it, are they? And if filmmakers think it actually makes people read the credits… well, I dunno about you, but I turn my phone on and update Letterboxd and check Twitter until the scene turns up.

    Spider-American

    Ultimately, Spider-Man’s first full-blown outing in the MCU is… an MCU movie. Oh, sure, they’ve made inroads to fixing things like their weak villains, but the general tone — the lightness, the humour, the hero-focus, the style of the action — is all MCU stock-in-trade. Fortunately, they’re good at what they do, and that means this is a very good blockbuster movie. It’s entertainment value is consistent and high. For me, it lacks the kind of iconicity that mark out Sam Raimi’s first two Spideys as foremost examples of superhero movies — although it’s not as wedded into the ever-developing MCU storyline as some of their other movies, it’s still Marvel Cinematic Universe Episode XVI, to an extent. But, eh, when it gets so much right, what does that matter?

    4 out of 5

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

    2017 #59
    James Gunn | 136 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

    The franchise that some thought might kill the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but which actually turned out to be one of its most popular successes, is back for the difficult second album. And difficult it is, because Guardians 2 takes a lot of what made that first movie work and ramps it up to 11, consequently slipping over into bouts of self-indulgence.

    The story picks up on a thread left conspicuously hanging at the end of the first movie: who is Peter’s father, and why did he have the Ravagers kidnap Peter from Earth? Vol. 2 digs into those answers pretty quickly, because it has somewhere else to go with them… but that would be spoiler territory. So while Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the ever-hilarious Drax (Dave Bautista) toddle off to learn about daddy-o, the rest of the gang — Rocket (motion capture of Sean Gunn, voice of Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel, allegedly) — get caught up in a mutiny involving Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). All while the lot of them are being chased by a race of gold-skinned perfectionists led by the priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) who the Guardians conned.

    Returning writer-director James Gunn gets things off to a strong start, diving straight into answers, humour, an entertaining title sequence, a couple of action scenes, more humour, and more answers. But after this strong and pacy opening salvo, the film seems to flounder a little. Not fatally so, but it gradually becomes apparent that the middle is going on far too long. Your mileage will vary on how draggy this is — some people seem to have absolutely hated it; I thought much of it was amiable enough, but it goes nowhere fast and that eventually becomes wearing.

    You've got the power to know you're indestructible...

    Part of the problem lies in splitting our heroes up into two groups with two stories. It may have been inspired by The Empire Strikes Back (or that may just have been a parallel some critics have spotted, I’m not sure), and it’s not a fundamentally flawed structural choice, but here it doesn’t really work. Part of the problem is that the gang works best when sparking off each other. Heck, the film even goes to pains to set up a joshing rivalry between Peter and Rocket, then splits them up! Story-wise, the issue is twofold: the A plot is a slow one that spins its wheels because it has too little story-fuel to drive the whole movie; but the B plot feels grafted on to give half the cast something to do, as well as provide a little action and humour while the other plot is tackling the emotional heft.

    That said, uncommonly for a modern blockbuster, it’s the emotional side the film gets most right. While the plot dawdles, the action is adequate, and the comedy is hit and miss (more the former than the latter, to be fair, but there’s a definite case of “throw everything and see what sticks”), there are several characters who get strong, believable, rounded emotional arcs. The obvious one is Peter finding out about his parentage, but my favourite was where the film goes with Nebula and the relationship with her adopted sister, Gamora. There’s also a comparatively meaty subplot for Yondu, meaning it’s mostly the supporting characters who fare best with the material rather than the heroes — aside from Peter and (to a lesser extent) Gamora, the primary function of Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot is to be humour generators. They are funny, though.

    Funny.

    In the director’s chair, Gunn continues to dole out even more of what people praised about the first movie. You liked the retro-cool soundtrack? OK, how about a new track every time there’s a lull in the action! The use of the music feels sloppy, often just plonked there to cover a gap, with no discernible thematic relevance. It’s doubling down on something people latched onto the first time, but it feels slapdash. The one instance that almost works is Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, which has a setup and a pay-off, but they’re not quite properly connected.

    Also overdone is the slow motion walking. Remember that shot in the first film of the Guardians walking into battle in slow-mo looking badass, that was then humorously undercut when they started, like, yawning and stuff? James Gunn does, and he liked it so much that he uses it again several times here. Apart from he seems to have forgotten the second part of the scene that made it funny rather than cheesy. Cool people walking in slow motion seems to be one of those cinematic devices that doesn’t really date, especially when used sparingly, so I could let it go once, but here it reaches the point of “oh my God, another slow-mo walking shot?!”

    This indulgence in everything people liked before extends right to the very end of the movie — literally. The end credits are a lively affair in and of themselves, but they’re further interrupted by a total of five additional scenes. Five. They’re mostly inconsequential (don’t go expecting any hints towards Infinity War), but they’re worth sticking around for because a couple are quite amusing.

    More guardians, more... galaxy? I dunno.

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an uneven film, which manages to be entertaining as a whole thanks to its likeable and funny characters — even if the best gags have all been played in the trailers (and some of them played better in trailers, too), it’s trying so hard (so, so hard) to be a good time that much of it works. It’s strongest at the beginning and the end, which almost makes you overlook that it gets a bit thumb-twiddly in the middle, with one plot more of a short story than a movie and the other feeling a little like a waste of time. However, the surprising focus on and awareness of the characters’ psychological lives makes up for that somewhat — oddly, Marvel’s most comedy-driven and alien-starring movie may also feature their most effective understanding and representation of characters’ emotions.

    But don’t worry, there are still jokes about poo and penises.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now. Except Japan. Sorry, Japan.

    I am Baby Groot.

    The Past Month on TV #16

    Another busy month on the box round these parts, so I’ve once again divided my comments into new stuff (i.e. what was actually on TV this month), old stuff (i.e. anything older than four weeks), plus the usual round-up of quick thoughts.

    Doctor Who (Series 10 Episode 1)
    Doctor Who: The PilotThe 36th run of Doctor Who kicked off with an episode titled The Pilot — no coincidence, that. This is the most newcomer-friendly episode of Who for 12 years, an episode finely calibrated to establish everything for a first-timer but also function for regular viewers too. A lot of that effectiveness can be attributed to Pearl Mackie as Bill, the new companion to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. After a run of oh-so-special companions running back years, Bill is just an ordinary young woman; but of course she’s extraordinary in her own way: ready to learn, eager to help, full of both inquisitiveness and caring. This is surely the birth of both a fan-favourite companion in Bill and a star in Mackie.

    It’s also a rejuvenation for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. They arguably tried too many different things all at once when he joined the series a few years ago, making him old and irascible in contrast to the young and friendly Doctors that had preceded him throughout the revived series. He was gradually softening anyway, but freed of the burden of Clara he seems able to fully revel in his kooky kindliness. It’s perhaps the most Doctor-ish he’s ever been, and for Capaldi, a life-long fan of the show, that must be a real delight. It’s already a shame he’ll be leaving us this year, but at least we have 12 (or 11, if some rumours turn out to be true) more episodes to enjoy before then.

    As for this episode in itself, it was more solid than incredible, though that perhaps does it a disservice. No, it’s not going to sit alongside the likes of Blink and Heaven Sent at the pinnacle of all that modern Who can achieve, but it set out the series’ stall well: it’s sci-fi, but a little quirky, a little scary, and full of heart and emotion. It was almost like a Russell T Davies-era episode, but with an unmistakable Moffat-ness about it too — he may be trying to dodge the “fairy tale” mode he adopted for most of his time on the show, reasserting the “this is based in the real world” aesthetic that RTD relaunched the series with back in 2005, but, frankly, Moffat does the former better than the latter, and there’s an edge of that heightened unreality here nonetheless.

    But I think those are niggles and nitpicks. This is a strong opener that establishes a very likeable new TARDIS team to guide us through the season of adventures about to come. Fingers crossed the rest of the run can fulfil its promise.

    Iron Fist (Season 1)
    Iron FistThe last of the Marvel/Netflix series before the Defenders team-up, Iron Fist has certainly divided critics and viewers. It doesn’t begin well: the opening episode is possibly the worst thing yet released as part of the MCU, and I only say “possibly” because I never bothered with Agents of SHIELD after the poor reaction to season one. It’s needlessly slow, repetitive, the characters behave implausibly, and the fights are terrible, looking like a first rehearsal filmed with one take. Things do improve — there are more engaging characters, some interestingly developed arcs, and better realised fights — but it still doesn’t come together as well as it could. For one thing, it makes the running of Rand Enterprises a major element, but has a very vague-seeming understanding of how business actually works. It’s just too simplistic.

    One of the series’ strongest aspects is the unpredictable loyalties of its characters. I don’t mean that they’re inconsistent, but aside from Danny (who’s the title character, so of course he’s a good guy) and Claire (who’s been in every other Marvel/Netflix show, so she’s a known quantity), the trustworthiness and allegiance of almost every character changes at some point; for some of them, at multiple points. Heck, there are even scenes when you can’t be sure whose side to be on, because both have aspects of right and wrong, good and bad. There are better shows than Iron Fist that never manage that level of shading in their characters. I imagine there’ll be a second season, because when doesn’t Netflix commission more of anything, so hopefully they can build on what worked going forward. And maybe add a business consultant to the writers’ room or something.

    The Flash Duet
    The Flash: DuetAmongst the eight Arrowverse episodes I watched this month was this: the much-anticipated musical crossover between The Flash and Supergirl, which star Glee alumni Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist respectively — hence why (some) people called for a musical episode, which caused the producers to decide to do one. Somewhat ironic, then, that it seemed to go down well with critics (at least per Wikipedia) but less so with fans: its IMDb rating is just 6.0. I find myself in agreement with the latter. It wasn’t bad, as these things go, but it was overloaded with niggles, Like, why cast another former Glee actor as the villain but then not have him sing with the stars? Why is there a plot hole whereby they call said villain the Music Meister even though it was Barry and Kara who picked the musical fantasy? The guy’s powers seem to be hypnotism-based and nothing to do with music. There were only two original songs, one which was quite fun and one which was overlong and a tad cheesy. Neither came close to the delights of the Music Meister’s original appearance, which also managed five new songs (and a reprise) in an episode that was half the length. The episode’s guest cast seems to have been selected purely on the basis of “anyone from an Arrowverse show who likes to sing”. All in all it came across as half-arsed; like they felt they should do it because people demanded it, but didn’t assign enough time or energy to doing it properly.

    The Crown (Season 1)
    The CrownThe most expensive TV programme ever made (or not, whatever) certainly has its budget plastered all over the screen, which hopefully didn’t distract most viewers in the way it did me. It shouldn’t, really, because this is a good drama about the humanity behind the public faces. Its adherence to fact is apparently variable, which I imagine is very irritating to historians of the period, but it works for the fiction. There are great performances all round, with John Lithgow in particular disappearing into Churchill to the point that I forgot I was watching an actor more than once. There’s an interesting plot thread early on about the position of Philip (Matt Smith) relative to Elizabeth — how his role as a husband is challenged by her position as Queen, etc — which goes a bit awry as the series goes on and has other plots to focus on. It’s left quite open-ended, so hopefully it’ll be completed in the second season.

    Line of Duty (Series 2)
    Line of Duty series 2I devoted just 32 words to Line of Duty series one when I finally got round to watching it last October. In summary, it was pretty good but not really great, and the unadulterated adulation that follows the programme around nowadays seemed unmerited. Now I get it, though, because — in a similar fashion to how, say, Mad Max is a decent Ozploitation flick but Mad Max 2 is a reputation-earning action classic — series two is where it’s at. There was much praise for Keeley Hawes’ performance as a downtrodden copper under suspicion of organising a violent ambush of a witness protection convoy, and it’s deserved, but the real star is the writing. There are huge, attention-grabbing twists and surprises, and a mystery that keeps you revising your opinion on what happened right until the end, but perhaps most impressive are the lengthy, intensely procedural interview scenes that could come across as factual and dull but instead are completely gripping.

    Twin Peaks (Season 2 Episodes 1-9)
    Twin Peaks season 2I first saw the debut season of Twin Peaks many years ago during a repeat run (it was a ‘classic series’ even then, though with hindsight it can’t’ve been a decade old at the time), then watched it again when the DVD came out, but this is my first time watching season two (legal complications delayed its DVD release for what felt like forever, and by the time it finally came out I just never got round to it). The second season is infamous for representing a steep decline in quality, though that isn’t yet evident from this batch of episodes, which covers up to the revelation of who killed Laura Palmer and their capture. I’d say it lacks the pure concentrated genius of the first season, having ramped up the quirkiness quotient and, at the behest of the network, rushing the resolution of the Laura Palmer mystery, but it ain’t bad by any means. There’s certainly much to like in the off-kilter characters, the folksy mysticism, and some fantastic performances — Kyle MacLachlan is a constant delight as Agent Cooper, but Ray Wise is frequently incredible as the grieving Leland Palmer. But I guess it’s mostly downhill from here…

    Also watched…
  • 24: Legacy Season 1 Episodes 5-8 — everything I said last time still applies: this is little more than 24-by-numbers. Episode 6 was a particularly irritating example, as a major subplot was hurried to its climax presumably because the writers just got bored with it. Why else rush the plot so massively, in a way that practically ignored the series’ real-time gimmick? I miss the days when the makers cared about maintaining that illusion.
  • Broadchurch Series 3 Episodes 4-8 — it handled its treatment of the issues well, but as a drama Broadchurch 3 couldn’t quite reach the engrossing heights of the first series. Still, it’s a shame there won’t be further cases for the brilliant Tennant and Colman to investigate.
  • Unforgotten Series 1 — ITV’s police drama recently aired a second series, with a third commissioned. This cold case-focused first run features powerhouse performances from a bunch of quality elder thesps (Tom Courtenay won a BAFTA for it, but for my money Gemma Jones as his wife was just as good), plus nicely understated turns from the ever-excellent Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as the coppers on the case.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Car Share series 2This month, I have mostly been missing series two of Peter Kay’s Car Share, which is a couple of episodes in on the telly or available in its entirety on iPlayer. I nearly didn’t bother with the first series (two years ago now!) because I’m not a huge fan of Peter Kay, but someone recommended it and it turned out to be hilarious. I’m sure I’ll make time for the new one soon.

    31 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… more Doctor Who, more Twin Peaks, and probably more stuff dredged up from the “must get round to” pile.