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 Park 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

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100 Films @ 10: Favourite Film Series

Once upon a time, sequels were very much a lesser thing, and making more of them only made things worse. Nowadays we’re almost at the opposite extreme: first movies are routinely designed as setup for the better sequel, and never-ending franchises are all the rage.

Today’s top ten ranks some of my favourite movie series that have been part of 100 Films. Here that means a series with four or more movies (three would just be a trilogy, wouldn’t it?) where I’ve watched at least a couple of them during 100 Films’ life, as well as having seen a significant proportion overall. For instance, I’ve seen the two most recent Planet of the Apes films but none of the original five, so I can’t really judge that as a series.

A big factor herein is acknowledging consistency — one or two great films and a bunch of duds should mean exclusion. For example, the Star Wars series has two unimpeachable classics, and at least two more pretty great movies… but that’s only 57% of the Saga, or just 44% if you count the two theatrically-released spin-offs. Considering the lowly quality of the prequels, how much do they drag down the series as a whole?

You may disagree. Let’s take a look…

10
Marvel Cinematic Universe

If we’re talking about consistency here then the MCU has it in spades: consistently underwhelming villains, consistently bland cinematography, consistently unmemorable music… Ah, but they also have consistently likeable heroes, a consistently light tone, and a consistent ability to be pretty entertaining. None of them are really bad (except the first Captain America, which has its fans anyway), a couple of them even push towards a certain degree of greatness, and overall they are — to paraphrase the description of The Avengers by its writer-director, Joss Whedon — not great movies, but they are each a great time.

Best film: Captain America: Civil War
Weak link: Captain America: The First Avenger
Other reviews: Iron Man | The Incredible Hulk | Iron Man 2 | Thor | Avengers Assemble | Iron Man 3 | Thor: The Dark World | Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Guardians of the Galaxy | Avengers: Age of Ultron | Ant-Man | Doctor Strange | + 5 Marvel One-Shots (take a look under ‘shorts’ on my reviews page) and various TV series, including Daredevil season two and Luke Cage season one


9
The Hunger Games

The shortest series in my top ten, this is very much a borderline on my rules — if they’d done the third book as one film, it wouldn’t count. That gives The Hunger Games a certain advantage over the other films here, in that it has one long story to tell across just a handful of movies, rather than trying to refresh itself in some way with each new film. About a group of young people fighting against an oppressive autocratic regime in a future version of America, it’s a future-history of, like, next week. For all the fun of its action theatrics, a series aimed at younger viewers with themes about the dangers of dictators and the potential benefits of and need for a resistance — what some might call “terrorism” — has rarely been more pertinent.

Best film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Weak link: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Other reviews: The Hunger Games | The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


8
The Thin Man

Ostensibly a series of murder mysteries, the reason the Thin Man series is such a joy is that the films are more concerned with the screwball-ish relationship between the leads, married detective duo Nick and Nora Charles, played with a certain rakish aplomb by William Powell and Myrna Loy. The mysteries themselves are Christie-esque parlour games and there’s a major role for the pair’s adorable dog. Mix all that together like one of the Charles’ favoured cocktails and they make for similarly splendid entertainment.

Best film: After the Thin Man
Weak link: The Thin Man Goes Home
Other reviews: The Thin Man | Another Thin Man | Shadow of the Thin Man | Song of the Thin Man


7
George A. Romero’s ‘Dead’ Films

With his low-budget horror film Night of the Living Dead, co-writer/director George A. Romero single-handedly created a whole sub-genre: the zombie movie. Although the form eventually degenerated into a miasma of excessive gore, what makes Romero’s films timeless is the way they use the zombies to reflect something else, whether it be basic humanity or wider sections of society. The first two movies (Night and Dawn) are genre-transcending classics, but if we’re talking consistency then I even have a fondness for the underrated fourth instalment, Land of the Dead, and the rush-produced but not meritless sixth, Survival of the Dead. Even the weakest, Diary of the Dead, has more of interest to say than many of its genre stablemates.

Best film: Night of the Living Dead
Weak link: Diary of the Dead
Other reviews: Dawn of the Dead | Day of the Dead | Land of the Dead | Survival of the Dead


6
Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone

Between 1939 and 1946 Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 14 Sherlock Holmes films, cementing themselves as the definitive screen interpretation of Holmes and Watson for decades to come — some would say forever. Rather than faithful adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, these liberally remix the best bits into exciting new mysteries and adventures. If that sounds familiar from more modern times, it’s because Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are massive fans of the Rathbone/Bruce films, and have never been shy about admitting their influence on how Sherlock adapts the canon. Maybe not one for literary purists, then, but otherwise there’s barely a dud to be found in this entertaining series.

Best film: The Scarlet Claw
Weak link: Pursuit to Algiers
Other reviews: The Hound of the Baskervilles | The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror | Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon | Sherlock Holmes in Washington | Sherlock Holmes Faces Death | The Spider Woman | The Pearl of Death | The House of Fear | The Woman in Green | Terror by Night | Dressed to Kill


5
Batman

You could, not unreasonably, split the Batman movies into multiple sub-series at this point: the four movies from 1989 to 1997, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman’s role in the DCEU; plus the ’66 Batman, animated cinema release Mask of the Phantasm, and, now, the LEGO movies. This ranking encompasses them all… more or less. Certainly the live-action ones since ’89, anyway. Yes, that run of movies contains one of the poorest blockbusters of all time (Batman & Robin), but it’s counterbalanced by one of the greatest blockbusters of all time (The Dark Knight), and several others I’d place in the form’s upper echelons (Batman Returns, Batman Begins, maybe one or two more). I’m one of those people who likes Batman v Superman and sees promise in Justice League and The Batman, too, so long may it continue.

Best film: The Dark Knight
Weak link: Batman & Robin
Other reviews: Batman (1966) | Batman (1989) | Batman Returns | Batman Forever | Batman Begins | The Dark Knight Rises | Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (and its Ultimate Edition) | + 8 animated movie reviews (take a look under ‘B’ on my reviews page)


4
Harry Potter

I rarely classify myself as “a Harry Potter fan” because I know the full extent of obsessiveness you get from die-hard Potheads (as I like to call them. I don’t think anyone else does, but I think we should.) It’s no worse than any other dedicated fandom, I’m sure, but I’m not that extreme. Nonetheless, I’m of the right age to have read the books during my childhood (albeit right at the end of my childhood) and do have a fondness for them, as well as for the film adaptations. This is the perfect list for those, because I definitely feel like they’re more than the sum of their parts: each film is at least ‘good’, but few of them stray toward the territory of ‘really great’ — not individually, anyway. As a whole eight-film saga, though, I think they make for an impressive piece of work.

Best film: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Weak link: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Other reviews: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone | Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban | Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix | Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 | + an overview of the Harry Potter films of David Yates, and also fan edit Wizardhood


3
Mission: Impossible

It’s the second-shortest series on this list, making my following statement comparatively less of an achievement, but still: in my view, there are no bad Mission: Impossible films. They’ve sometimes been given a rough ride down the years, with the first two especially meeting with more than their fair share of criticism, but I’ve enjoyed every one. The most recent is the best, in my opinion, but I don’t think I’d begrudge anyone naming any of the others as their favourite.

Best film: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Weak link: Mission: Impossible III
Other reviews: Mission: Impossible II | Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


2
X-Men

I feel like I’ve written plenty of introductory overviews to the X-Men at this point in my blogging career — about my near-lifelong love for the series; about its relevance to the modern superhero movie landscape; and so on. As with most of these series, not every entry is perfect, but very few of them are outright bad. Even the black sheep of the series, The Last Stand, isn’t all it could’ve been had director Bryan Singer stuck around, but it often gets an unfair rap — it’s not a bad piece of blockbuster entertainment. On the other end of the spectrum, I think the series’ high points are among the very best superhero movies. By the sounds of things the imminent third Wolverine movie, Logan, only continues that tradition.

Best film: X-Men: First Class
Weak link: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Other reviews: X-Men | X2 | The Wolverine | X-Men: Days of Future Past (and The Rogue Cut) | Deadpool | X-Men: Apocalypse


1
James Bond

With 24 films to date, produced across 53 years, the James Bond films are a series like no other (though, in terms of number of films, the MCU will likely surpass it within the next five years). If we’re talking consistency of quality, then there are probably more underachievers here than in any other series in this top ten… but then there are more films full-stop, so what do you expect? Conversely, there are probably more high points too, be it the era-defining action of the Connery films, the lightness of the better Moore movies, the grit of Dalton, the polished blockbusterdom of Brosnan, or the series’ reinvention as prestige pictures with Craig. Indeed, there’s pretty much a Bond movie for every taste (unless you fundamentally object to enjoying the adventures of a government-sponsored killer, of course). At this point the series seems to be inoculated against any obstacle — they are critic proof, box office proof, almost audience proof. Whatever else happens in this crazy, crazy world, you can be sure of one thing: James Bond will return.

Best film: Casino Royale
Weak link: A View to a Kill
Other reviews: Dr. No | From Russia with Love | Goldfinger | Thunderball | You Only Live Twice | On Her Majesty’s Secret Service | For Your Eyes Only | Octopussy | GoldenEye | Tomorrow Never Dies | Quantum of Solace | Skyfall | Spectre

Tomorrow: an elementary list.

Doctor Strange (2016)

2016 #169
Scott Derrickson | 115 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Doctor StrangeThe latest from Marvel (or Marvel Studios, as they’re now branded, presumably in a bid to differentiate themselves from the properties owned by other studios that have been only too keen to use the Marvel logo and blur the line for the casual moviegoer) opens the door on a new facet of their shared cinematic universe, though does so in a movie whose plot follows the familiar “superhero origin story” rulebook. On the bright side, Doctor Strange has several other qualities to recommend it.

It’s the story of Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but cocky New York neurosurgeon, whose hands are ruined in an accident, taking his career — the sole focus of his life — with them. In search of groundbreaking healing, he travels to Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) — not a doctor, but a mystic, who introduces him to the world of magic. Which in this case is real and not just, like, some Derren Brown stuff, because that wouldn’t make a very good superhero movie. Then there’s some stuff about evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

So yes, the story is familiar — but you can say that about most superhero movies, especially origin films. It’s only a problem if you think movies are entirely about their plot. What Strange offers to accompany this through-the-motions narrative is its visuals, and oh, what visuals they are. You’ve likely seen some of it in the trailers — the folding cities, which look like Inception run through a kaleidoscope. Certainly, their complicated detail and intricacy leaves Nolan’s movie in the shade. The old idea of “an effects movie” — Wowzerswhere the incredible effects are half the point — seemed dead in an era where every movie has CGI and every blockbuster has its share of once-impossible visuals. Strange demonstrates the form can be alive and well. The way the effects are created — with green screen and pixels — is the same as any other movie, but the designs and the visual imagination are exciting.

The action scenes that are choreographed around and through these effects are suitably imaginative also, making use of the concepts and ideas of the magic, rather than just having people punch each other in front of swirly backgrounds. To say too much would be to spoil the movie, but the Inception-y stuff is not the film’s climax — it has several other tricks up its sleeve. There’s one bit where time flows backwards, which I specifically mention because at that point the music does a bit too, which is primarily notable because the rest of the score is your typical bland, generic, forgettable Marvel music. On the other hand, I’ve read others praise the music for being more memorable than Marvel’s usual temp-tracked output, so maybe I’m wrong.

When the film isn’t tickling your adrenal glands, it at least has the courtesy to sweeten the pill of its Superhero 101 storyline. For one thing it’s very funny, though in a way that doesn’t steal from the drama. This lightness of touch has become Marvel’s forte, and Strange handles it as well as any, without going all-out like Guardians of the Galaxy or half of anything starring Tony Stark.

Practical magicThen there’s the cast. Obviously keen to avoid being typecast after playing an arrogant British genius in both Sherlock and The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch here plays an arrogant American genius. Strange doesn’t have the charm of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, nor of some of his Marvel stablemates, like Tony Stark or Peter Quill, but his character arc takes that arrogance and transforms it into a kind of caring aloofness that, with flashes of dry wit, makes him an appealing character — even if it may take further films for that appeal to be fully realised.

Mads Mikkelsen is somewhat wasted as Marvel’s typically lightweight villain, though his inherent skill as an actor allows him to flesh out the few speeches he is given. You could expand that assessment out to most of the cast: they’re all above this — four of them are Oscar nominees or winners (clearly Mikkelsen has been overlooked by the Academy) — but the fact that quality flows through their veins helps elevate some of the material. You could argue their talent is wasted with this stuff, but what do you expect? It’s an action-adventure blockbuster from a company known for their consistently light tone — that’s never going to dig into proper emotive character drama. Suffice to say that such top-tier actors effortlessly add resonance to their roles, however little they had to work with on the page.

More controversial was Tilda Swinton’s casting. You could see it as whitewashing, or you could see it as dodging a racial stereotype — there’s a visual gag to that effect, in fact. “Oscar winners get bigger parts than Oscar nominees, okay?”Besides, one of the film’s best characters is of Asian ethnicity, so it kinda balances out. That’s Benedict Wong as the sorcerers’ librarian, who’s likely to emerge as the film’s most popular character. It helps that viewers aren’t likely to expect much of him. Conversely, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams are seriously underserved, perhaps hoping for more meat in the no-doubt-intended sequel(s).

Actually, that’s an understatement, isn’t it? This is a Marvel movie, and one that’s garnered positive reviews thus far to boot — it’s going to be a box office success, and sequels will inevitably follow. Nonetheless, some reviews have been bizarrely keen to frame Strange as “Marvel’s greatest risk yet” and “a radical departure for the studio”. That’s all empty hyperbole at this point and I don’t know why they do it. Guardians of the Galaxy already proved that no change of genre is a risk for the studio — and Guardians was a much bigger change of form for Marvel than Strange is. Plus, the way Strange handles magic is no more out-there than the way it handled gods ‘n’ that in two Thor films. Indeed, if anything Strange should look like a moderately safe bet: it’s following in Thor’s footsteps with the whole magic/other worlds/dimensions thing, but married to a fairly standard superhero origin arc. It’s no riskier a proposition for Marvel than any other new property. Nonetheless, it does open up some tantalising possibilities, especially when it comes to teaming Strange with the Avengers… though they’ll have to find a way to remove some of his abilities, otherwise he’ll be far too powerful.

To further those connections, there are two end credits scenes. I shan’t spoil their contents, of course, but in my opinion they’re the wrong way round. One is basically Magic toucha teaser for another Marvel film, the other relates to the plot of the movie we’ve just seen. The former is first (and about 10% of my screening walked out before it came on) and the latter is, obviously, second (by which time about 90% had left). Those percentages ‘matter’ because, a) how do people not know Marvel’s rep for these scenes by this point?, and b) I think the scene related to the film you’ve just watched is the one that should be more attached to it, with the ‘teaser trailer’ being a fun bonus for those dedicated to stick around to the bitter end. But maybe that’s just me.

Much earlier in the movie, shortly after encountering the Ancient One, Strange is offered tea. He drinks it, then something amazing happens, and he asks what was in the tea. The Ancient One answers, “Just tea. With honey.” That line struck me because it rather sums up Doctor Strange as a movie. In its well-rehearsed superhero-origin-story-ness, it’s just tea; but the quality cast, the genuine laughs, the imaginatively choreographed action, and, most of all, the mind-bending visuals add a very pleasurable sweetness.

4 out of 5

Doctor Strange is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US next month.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

2016 #92
Anthony & Joe Russo | 147 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English, German, Russian, Xhosa & Romanian | 12A / PG-13

This review contains spoilers.
(because, at this point, I’m not sure there’d be much point writing about it otherwise)

We’re now on to the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while you don’t need to have seen all 12 preceding movies to follow the events of Civil War, you do need at least four — and, to get everything, a further four or five beyond that. (Don’t worry about the four TV series — it’s increasingly clear that they’re only notionally connected to the movies.) So the Marvel model for a “shared universe” is not discrete stories that take place in the same world, but a series of ever-more-connected narratives. It’s working for them, though, as the continually stellar box office totals prove.

Ostensibly the third Captain America movie, Civil War is as much a sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron as it is to The Winter Soldier: it throws us straight in to action with the new Avengers line-up established at the end of Ultron, as they battle what turns out to be a villain from Winter Soldier. As I said, ever-more-connected. This particular mission goes disastrously wrong, bringing to a head plans that the governments of the world had been cooking up for a while: the Sokovia Accords, a way to control the Avengers and give them some accountability. Team leader Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t keen — he’s worried political interests will conflict with the Avengers’ ability to do good. Bankroller Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is on board, however — spooked by having created Ultron, and after being confronted by the mother of an American lad who died in Sokovia (because the Sokovian deaths didn’t matter enough, I guess), he thinks the Avengers need reining in. The burgeoning conflict is clarified when Rogers’ childhood friend Bucky Barnes, aka Soviet agent the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), emerges from hiding to attack the signing of the Accords — Rogers wants to save him; Stark needs to bring him in, dead or alive. As most of the other heroes we’ve met in the preceding 12 movies (not to mention a couple of new ones) pick sides, battle lines are drawn for an almighty clash.

As complicated as the plot sounds once you start trying to succinctly summarise it, Civil War is easy to follow as it unfurls. In fact, it’s to its credit that it can’t be readily summarised in any more detail than “Cap and Iron Man disagree; fight” without really getting into it. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have followed up the political thriller of Winter Soldier with another global thriller storyline, again bringing different genre textures to the superheroics that are nonetheless present and correct. The film’s style mixes in just the right amount of realism — no one’s pretending this isn’t a comic book movie, with some elements of comic book logic and a casual acceptance of people having world-changing powers; but if such people did exist, this is the kind of way they would be handled by the authorities.

So while Civil War does work as a popcorn-guzzling action spectacular, the themes it raises — primarily of how we oversee and control those who claim to protect us — are relevant to real life, if you want them to be. The film attempts to make it a genuine debate by placing Cap and Stark as the figureheads of each side. Sure, that’s borrowed from the original comic book storyline that inspired the film, but it works perfectly for the movies: Iron Man is the basis around which the whole MCU was originally built, while Captain America is almost its break out star, emerging from the mess of The First Avenger to become one of the shining lights of every film he’s starred in since, at least two of which commonly compete for the crown of the MCU’s best movie. So who better to place at the heart of the conflict? Who better to present viewers with a genuine choice?

Well, maybe. But the debate is partially stalled by the fact this is a Captain America movie rather than an Avengers one. Yeah, you can side with Tony Stark & co, but you know Cap’s going to come out to the good, one way or another. As it pans out, it’s not a total victory (Team Cap are all now fugitives, presumably until Infinity War), but, morally, Cap wins, and even Tony knows it. Would it have been better to frame the political/thematic issues in an Avengers movie, to make it a genuine contest? Maybe. It’s almost hard to imagine it divorced of this context now, and a lot of that context is Cap-based. The rest of the cast of The Avengers may be hanging around, but the narrative drive comes back to Steve and Bucky, a throughline that belongs to the Captain America trilogy. You can’t doubt that this is a Captain America film — tonally, it fits better with The Winter Soldier than Age of Ultron — even as it is, really, also an Avengers one.

If we’re talking about hero-vs-hero conflicts and movies that give you something to think about, it’s only fair that we drag this year’s other big silver screen superhero battle into the fray. There’s little doubt that Civil War is a more readily entertaining film than Batman v Superman, and clearly a more popular one, but it left me with less to think about. That’s not to say there isn’t thematic weight here — I’ve just spent a couple of paragraphs referring to its attempts to engage with such debates, after all — but I felt like the film kinda covers what there is to say. Maybe Batman v Superman leaves its issues more open; or maybe they’re less well conveyed; or maybe we struggle to read them into it because they’re not actually there. Whatever the truth, I came out of Zack Snyder’s movie with lots going on in my mind and wrote 2,500 words about it that contained half or less of my thoughts. I came out of Civil War thinking, “well that was fun.”

On that visceral level, there are a couple of stunning action sequences. The car/foot chase between Cap, Bucky and Black Panther is fantastic, casually throwing in cool moments like the way Bucky steals a motorbike. The climactic two-on-one fight is also a sight, throwing in strong choreography and seamless effects work to create a battle that has a real ebb and flow, a back and forth over who has the upper hand. And the centrepiece of it all, of course, is the two teams facing off at the airport. For fans of superheroes, this is pretty much the ultimate expression of the genre yet brought to live-action moviemaking. For my money, the antics of Ant-Man — and Giant-Man — are by and large (pun very much intended) the best bit of it, but maybe I’m just a little biased. Certainly, that everyone’s favourite webslinger is in the mix is the icing on the cake, and Tom Holland seems to have quickly nailed Spidey. Personally, I still find it a bit odd him turning up, especially in such a minor role. There’s still a slight sense that the MCU is made up of second/third-string heroes, who needed that shared universe to kickstart their big-screen life. Spidey most certainly does not need that… or didn’t before Sony effed it up with the last two movies, anyway. Maybe he does now.

And while I’m talking about Spider-Man, let’s talk about those post-credits scenes. Peter Parker is the star of the second one, and it’s Marvel Studio’s usual kind of tease, though perhaps less teasing than normal — “hey, remember that kid who was Spider-Man? He’s Spider-Man!” Thanks, guys. Before that, though, the mid-credits scene is a mid-credits scene for the sake of a mid-credits scene. By establishing where Bucky ends up, it’s surely an essential part of the overall narrative. Okay, it has the requisite teaser properties, hinting at where we might find Team Cap come the start of Avengers 3; and it teases Black Panther too, but only very, very mildly — like the Spidey scene, it’s basically saying, “hey, remember that foreign prince who was Black Panther? He lives in a foreign country… where he’s Black Panther!” Other than that, it’s kinda important to answer the question of “hey, what happened to Bucky?” next time Cap turns up. So why isn’t the scene just in the film? Well, it is in the film — just after a few of the credits — so what does it matter, right?

As I was saying — there’s plenty more action in the movie. Sadly, much of it falls foul of the dreaded ShakyCam. Watching Civil War just days after The Raid 2 made that especially frustrating. With all the time and effort they put into training actors these days, plus all the effects technology they have at their disposal to paint out wires or replace faces (something they’ve been able to do unnoticeably since Jurassic Park, for pity’s sake!), you’d think a $250 million movie could manage better. (If you’re wondering what they did spend $250 million on, it was stuff like, “eh, we may as well just use CGI for the close-ups, too”.)

One thing the film definitely gets right, in my view, is its villain. So central is the Cap/Iron Man conflict that it seemed any villain would be an afterthought, at best; and it doesn’t help that the MCU is renowned for having weak antagonists. Indeed, for most of the movie Zemo seems like the expected nonentity; a villain for the sake of a villain, who’s being seeded earlier in the film just so he doesn’t come completely out of nowhere at the climax. But then, when his whole story and plan is revealed, it turns out that all along he may have been one of the most interesting villains the MCU has yet offered. His motivation is simple but effective; his methodology cunning and almost successful — even after the heroes know what he was trying to get them to do, they do it anyway! His final scene with Black Panther may be the best part of the entire movie. Nice work, Daniel Brühl.

In the end, Civil War leaves plenty open for future Marvel movies. Well, of course it does — half the time MCU movies are feature-length trailers for the next MCU movie. Where Civil War is really clever, however, is that it does that stage-setting while also feeling conclusory. As the third part in the Captain America trilogy, it actually makes a pretty satisfying end to that narrative. As the third part in the “trilogy in five parts” that is The Avengers trilogy, well, it’s clearly not the end, but it’s a fairly discrete segment.

It may well also be the best MCU movie so far, too. There aren’t many 13th films that can say that.

4 out of 5

The Past Month on TV #3

Superheroes, spies and Sherlock in this month’s spoiler-free TV round-up.

Daredevil (Season 2)
DaredevilIt’s certainly the summer of good-guy-on-good-guy dust-ups in the superhero subgenre this year, with Batman v Superman lighting up the box office last month and Captain America v Iron Man set to do the same next week (in the UK and 41 other countries, anyway; “next month” everywhere else). First out of the gate, however, was Daredevil v Punisher, in the second season of Netflix’s initial Marvel-derived success. Also throwing love-of-his-life Elektra into the mix, plus some additional plot elements teased in season one, meant Daredevil had more to do this year. However, far from feeling overstuffed (like so many a weak superhero sequel), it rose to the occasion, with a second run that was arguably even better than the first. Charlie Cox continues to be a real star as Matt Murdock, Jon Bernthal gave an excellent rendition of Frank Castle as a genuine human being, and supporting players like Deborah Ann Woll and Rosario Dawson shine too. Also, less widely praised but one of the season’s subtle successes for me, was Geoffrey Cantor stepping ably into the series’ Ben-Urich-shaped hole. And the fights were both plentiful and eye-poppingly choreographed, even more so than the first season’s. Exciting stuff all round.

Elementary (Season 4 Episodes 14-16)
ElementaryI’m a little surprised I’m still with this “Sherlock Holmes in modern day America with a female Dr Watson” series, because it was never a particularly good version of Sherlock Holmes and it still isn’t. What it has turned out to be is a decent show in its own right (for a US network procedural, anyway), with sometimes-interesting characters who happen to share the names and the odd characteristic of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed creations. It’s so much its own show that it’s never really bothered adapting the canon, so it was very odd when episode 16, Hounded, didn’t just use a few names from The Hound of the Baskervilles (as the series has in the past), but actually had a passable swing at modernising the entire plot. It doesn’t seem to have gone down too well with critics and viewers, though for my money it did a much better job than Sherlock’s disappointing attempt.

The Night Manager
The Night ManagerA lavish, all-star, ultra-hyped John le Carré adaptation that, thank goodness, lives up to its reputation. Although it wrapped up in the UK a couple of weeks ago, it only started in the US last night, and I recommend any America-based readers who enjoy a good thriller to get on board tout suite. The Night Manager doesn’t have a Tinker Tailor-style twisty-turny plot, but fills that gap with tension and suspense. Tom Hiddleston is a likeable hero, dragged in to something that might seem over his head, but which it emerges he has an affinity for. Hugh Laurie is a personably chilling villain, Olivia Colman kicks Whitehall ass, Tom Hollander perfectly judges a part that could’ve been caricature, and Elizabeth Debicki shows a very different side after her ice-cold villainess in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As for talk of Hiddleston being the next Bond… initially his character here couldn’t seem further away from 007, lending credence to my presumption that everyone declared “he could be Bond!” just because he was in a spy series. But as it goes on, he gets to be suave, cunning, and sleep with pretty much every female character that isn’t his boss. So, yes, he could be Bond. At this point he’s certainly a better pick than too-old-for-it-now Idris Elba.

Also watched…
  • Gilmore Girls Season 4 Episode 18-Season 6 Episode 9Paul Anka, aww!
  • The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story Season 1 Episodes 3-5 — aka The “22 Years Ago No One Knew Who the Kardashians Were, Isn’t That Funny?” Show.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 4-15 — I know I moaned about this last month, but I’m actually rather enjoying this season now. Just as they cancel it. Typical.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The AmericansThis month, I have mostly been missing season four of The Americans, aka the most underrated drama on television. Well, apart from with critics, that is, who’ve given this run 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t know if anyone bothers to air it over here anymore (ITV ditched it after the second season), but I’ve always got it via other means anyhow, so it’s a moot point for me. I also save it all up and binge over a couple of weeks, because it really suits it — in the same way it suits, say, Game of Thrones, but as no one watches The Americans it’s much easier to avoid spoilers. This year, that means I won’t get stuck into it until sometime in June. Can’t wait. Well, I can, because I am. But you know what I mean.

    Next month… Game of F***ing Thrones returns!

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

    2015 #130
    Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

    Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

    That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

    Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

    A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

    Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

    Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

    Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

    Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

    4 out of 5

    Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Ant-Man (2015)

    2015 #181
    Peyton Reed | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The final film in ‘Phase Two’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most fun Marvel movie since Iron Man kicked off the whole shebang seven years ago.

    It’s the story of a burglar, Scott Lang (Paul “he’ll always be Mike from Friends to me” Rudd), who is enlisted by ageing genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to pilfer something from Pym’s old company, now controlled by his former protégé and villain-in-waiting Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym discovered/created something called the Pym Particle, which changes the distance between atoms and allows objects and people to shrink or increase in size. He hid his dangerous technology from the world, but now Cross has developed his own version and is seeking to sell a weaponised version to the highest bidder — which naturally includes some very nefarious characters.

    Marvel are currently fond of mixing “superhero” with “another genre” to produce their movies — which makes sense, given the standard two-or-three superhero narratives were already becoming played out by the time Iron Man came along, never mind in the raft of movies Marvel Studios have released since. Here, “superhero” is mixed with “heist movie”; more specifically, “heist comedy”. It’s superheroes by way of Ocean’s Eleven, basically. In the key position, you’ve got Lang in the Ant-Man suit, able to shrink, infiltrate places, and control ants to help him; but then he’s got a whole support team: Pym planning and overseeing; Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the inside woman; and a gaggle of Lang’s criminal friends (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris), brought in to help them hack security ‘n’ that.

    Nonetheless, some have criticised the film for not being especially original. I mean, originality’s good ‘n’ all, but c’mon, what do you expect when you sit down to a superhero movie from the primary purveyor of superhero movies? Ant-Man may blend elements from a few other genres into the superhero mix, but, yeah, it’s a superhero movie that, at times, plays like a superhero movie — just like everything else Marvel Studios has produced (with the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy). If that’s not your thing, fine, but there’s nothing so spectacularly rote or generic about Ant-Man when compared to the rest of Marvel’s output that it deserves to be singled out. In fact, if anything, it has a higher dose of originality than its peers. And it doesn’t climax with a giant flying thing crashing to Earth, the first Marvel movie you can say that about for years.

    Where the film really succeeds, however, is in being — as noted — fun. Sometimes the structure is a little wonky, sometimes the dialogue is a little off, sometimes it’s a little heavy on the exposition, sometimes this and sometimes that, but it never stops moving at a decent clip, is never too far away from a good laugh, and offers some strong action sequences too. The very nature of the titular heroes’ powers offers us something new. Okay, there have been plenty of shrinking movies before, but not like his. Macro photography and CGI have been used to great effect to bring us into his world, and the fact he can shrink and grow at will adds a real kick to fight scenes.

    It remains tough to talk about Ant-Man without referencing The Edgar Wright Situation. I mean, you could ignore it, but then it becomes the elephant in the room. If you somehow missed it: writer-director Edgar Wright pitched Ant-Man to Marvel as a movie before Marvel Studios even existed, back in 2003, and had been developing it on and off ever since. The ideas he brought to the table — an action-adventure-comedy style, being a special effects extravaganza but with a lighthearted tone — influenced how the studio approached Iron Man and, consequently, the whole MCU. Nonetheless, Ant-Man wound up positioned as the 12th film in the studio’s slate, finally going into production after a decade of prep. Wright had a script almost finalised, he’d cast the film, a release date was set… and then he left due to “creative differences”. And the internet was on his side because Edgar Wright has made Spaced and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Marvel are a studio and studios are always wrong.

    The full extent of what these creative differences were hasn’t emerged yet, because it wasn’t that long ago (inevitably, they will one day), but it must’ve been pretty major to walk away from a project you’d been working on for so long and were so close to finally realising. Some reports say Wright wanted the film to be completely standalone, with absolutely no ties to the wider Marvel universe. I kind of hope there’s more to it than that, because while the final version of Ant-Man isn’t completely standalone, it’s one of Marvel’s less connected efforts. Okay, it references S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and the Avengers, and there are cameo appearances by characters from other parts of the universe (including Lang having to fight an Avenger), but its story doesn’t feed directly from a previous MCU film, nor does it make setting up another one an inherent part of the plot. In short, it’s nicely connected — it’s definitely part of the universe — but you don’t need to know a great deal to enjoy it on its own.

    After Wright left, the screenplay was rewritten by a host of scribes (far more than the two extra writers ultimately credited). Other things they’re responsible for include bulking up the supporting characters, especially Hope, which works pretty well, and Lang’s friend Luis (Michael Peña), which we should all be thankful for: Peña’s Luis is one of the best things in the movie, an enthusiastic motormouth who’s consistently entertaining whenever he’s on screen. He’s the standout from an ensemble that is generally strong, with Rudd proving a likeable lead and Douglas committing to the material in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect an older actor to with ‘just a comic book movie’.

    Would Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man have been better than Peyton Reed’s? We’ll never know. Well, one day we’ll have a good guess, because one day what changed will all come out. Wright still has a story and co-writer credit, so obviously a lot of his material survived. Nonetheless, the movie we’ve ended up with doesn’t feel like a compromised, homogenised, studio-controlled disaster. Chances are Wright could’ve brought greater visual and storytelling flair to proceedings, but Reed doesn’t do a bad job, especially when it comes to sequences in miniature. The final fight takes place on a children’s playset, doesn’t involve giant things falling epically out of the sky (is it the only Phase Two film to avoid that trope?), and is one of the best climaxes in the entire Marvel canon. Sometimes less really is more. Especially when “less” includes Thomas the Tank Engine. Whoever thought you’d see Thomas the Tank Engine in a Marvel movie?

    I hope Ant-Man will be an important touchstone in what Marvel Studios do going forward. It proves smaller-scale adventures can work — not in the sense that it’s about a hero who shrinks to a few centimetres tall, but in that it’s a story focused on a couple of characters trying to steal something from a building and defeat one guy, not about saving an entire city or an entire planet. That doesn’t mean it’s a story that doesn’t have stakes, they’re just different stakes. It’s a refreshing change of pace at this point. It’s also pretty much standalone, with nice nods to the shared universe but without being dependent on other films (either before or to come) for its story. Guardians of the Galaxy did that too, but how many other recent Marvel movies is it true of? Even the highly-praised Winter Soldier is a long, long way from being immune to that fault.

    Still, I doubt many people are going to call Ant-Man their favourite Marvel movie, although I think it might be the most pure fun I’ve had watching an MCU film since… well, ever. And I like fun.

    4 out of 5

    Ant-Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, and in the US from next week.

    It placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.