Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

2020 #49
Jon Watts | 129 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Spider-Man: Far from Home

For those not keeping track (who can blame you?), Far from Home is the third Spider-Man 2. It follows in the footsteps of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 from 2004, widely regarded as one of the topmost examples of the superhero genre, and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from 2014, widely regarded as one of the poorest examples of the superhero genre. (As you can see, they’ve ditched the numbers. Probably wise at this point.) Personally, while I agree with the accepted view of Raimi’s film, I actually rather enjoyed Webb’s sequel. That’s important to know when I say that I think Far from Home is my least favourite Spider-Man 2 so far.

This one is the sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming… except Spidey’s in the MCU now, so it’s also a sequel to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. And that’s not just a checklist of “other Spider-Man appearances”, either: the events of Endgame are absolutely vital to the storyline of this movie. It may be another Spider-Man 2, but more than that it’s Marvel Cinematic Universe: Episode XXIII.

Some people criticised Homecoming for having too much Iron Man and going too far in making Spider-Man into Iron Man Jr. I felt they got the balance about right, all things considered — it’s not very true to comic book canon, but, as the third big-screen iteration of Spidey in the modern era, it made a reasonable change. Far from Home is where it becomes overpowering. It has to lean heavily on the overall continuity of the MCU, which means all the business of The Blip (as what we call The Snap is called in-universe) and Iron Man’s death is front-loaded into the movie. The former is waived away as quickly as they can; the latter weighs heavy on the entire rest of the plot.

We'll always have Venice

Meanwhile, Nick Fury is trying to get in touch with Peter Parker, who isn’t interested in the big world-saving antics that implies. He’s more concerned with going on a school summer trip around Europe. How a poor kid from Queens is supposed to afford a weeks-long vacation around Europe isn’t even one of my issues with the film, but if you’re a Spidey devotee it might be. But go on this vacation he does, only to have it interrupted in Venice by a giant water man/monster thing, which is battled by a new hero Peter’s classmates reckon is a cross between Iron Man and Thor, and name Mysterio. Turns out he’s working with Fury, and Fury wants Mysterio and Spider-Man to team up to fight the possibly world-ending threat. But Peter doesn’t want to because he’s on holiday goddammit and he has a plan to woo MJ.

So far, so Spider-Man — the conflict between his personal and ‘professional’ life is a regular feature of the character. But it’s the way this story unspools that didn’t work for me, as it drags its heels through every storyline it’s got going at once, indulging in comedic asides from a whole range of characters. Having a comic relief character or double act is fine, but four or five of them? It just eats up screen time. The lack of focus robs the film of impetus or tension, as the characters and plot both meander around Europe and from set piece to set piece.

At least some of those set pieces are quite good. The Venice one is a nice change of pace, because Mysterio is off doing the main fighting bit, so Spidey’s left to tidy up around him. It’s something a bit different in a blockbuster action sequence. The real highlight, though, is an illusion trap Spidey endures, which is imaginative and creatively realised. Tom Holland gives the title role his all, but Jake Gyllenhaal is the standout as Mysterio, waltzing into the film and stealing it out from under everyone else’s noses. His real-life alter ego, Quentin Beck, has a really nice relationship with Peter, pitched as a kind of mentoring, older brother type role, admiring of the kid’s ability but not blind to his flaws. Even better, if you watch the gag reel you get the impression Gyllenhaal is kinda treating Holland like Beck treats Parker, which is… amusing.

Super friends

Like every other MCU film, Far from Home is competently made with occasional flashes of inspiration, so manages to dodge being an outright disaster. But, speaking as someone who thinks Homecoming is pretty great and saw a lot of promise in this sequel’s trailers, I was disappointed by the end result. Future Spidey appearances in the MCU are assured (naturally there’s a post-credits tease for them), so I hope they can recapture more of that Homecoming spark next time.

3 out of 5

Spider-Man: Far from Home is available on Sky Cinema from this weekend.

As Far from Home is officially the final film of the Infinity Saga (I guess it works as an epilogue; or perhaps the saga’s very own feature-length post-credit tease), here are links to my reviews of every other MCU film so far… except for one, which this has reminded me I’ve forgotten to write.

  1. Iron Man
  2. The Incredible Hulk
  3. Iron Man 2
  4. Thor
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger
  6. Avengers Assemble
  7. Iron Man 3
  8. Thor: The Dark World
  9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy
  11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  12. Ant-Man
  13. Captain America: Civil War
  14. Doctor Strange
  15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  16. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  17. Thor: Ragnarok
  18. Black Panther
  19. Avengers: Infinity War
  20. Ant-Man and the Wasp
  21. Captain Marvel
  22. Avengers: Endgame
  23. this one!

I’ve also reviewed a bunch of the shorts and (sorta-)tie-in TV series, but I’ll let you track those down if you’re interested.

…and, in keeping with the style of the MCU, here’s a surprise post-‘credits’ mini-review!

Peter’s To-Do List
(2019)

2020 #49a
Jon Watts | 3 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

Peter's To-Do List

Sony chose to bill this as a short film on Far from Home‘s Blu-ray release, so I’m going to treat it like one and review it. Let’s begin with a dictionary definition (from, er, a very real dictionary, honest) of “short film”…

short film
noun

1. an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits. “The Silent Child won the Oscar for best short film.”

2. a deleted scene long enough that someone thought they could get away with pretending it was conceived and created as an original motion picture. “The Spider-Man: Far from Home Blu-ray includes a short film called Peter’s To-Do List.”

That pretty much sums up my reaction to this — it’s a glorified deleted scene. To be precise, it’s several deleted scenes, so really it’s a deleted sequence — Peter running various errands before his trip to Europe. If you watched any of Far from Home‘s trailers then you’ll have seen almost all of this already because it’s footage that was used extensively to advertise the movie. I believe they also did some kind of special re-release of Far from Home with this bit cut back into the feature (an option not available on the home release).

So, it’s not a short film, but it is a fun-enough deleted scene. It wouldn’t’ve been out of place left in the movie, but considering the first act is already too long and a trudge as it is, I see why they wanted to lose some stuff.

3 out of 5

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

2019 #67
Anthony & Joe Russo | 181 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Avengers: Endgame

A trilogy each of Iron Mans, Captain Americas, and Thors; a pair of Ant-Mans and two volumes of Guardians of the Galaxy; an Incredible Hulk, a Doctor Strange, a Black Panther, a Spider-Man, and a Captain Marvel; plus, of course, a trio of previous Avengers — they’ve all been leading us here, the culmination of 11 years and 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an unparalleled achievement in moviemaking; a combination of blockbuster scope with TV-esque serial storytelling that is so 21st century. Within its three hours and one minute running time, Endgame encompasses and represents almost all of the tendencies of other MCU movies — for both good and ill. This is not a perfect movie, and this will not be a 5-star review, which I’m saying upfront because massive spoilers may follow. There’s not much to discuss about the film if we limit ourselves to what’s been revealed in trailers and promos, because they’ve purposely kept almost the entire movie a secret, so I’m just going to talk freely.

If you’ve seen the movie then a plot recap is unnecessary. But in case you just don’t care and have decided to read on regardless: Endgame picks up days/weeks after the cliffhanger ending of Infinity War (maybe I missed or misunderstood something, but I swear one character said it had been 23 days then later someone said it had been two days). The surviving Avengers, plus newly-summoned addition Captain Marvel, manage to track down super-villain Thanos and set off to retrieve the Infinity Stones and use them to bring back the 50% of the universe’s population he turned to dust. Unfortunately, Thanos has destroyed the stones. All hope is lost. Cue title card: five years later.

Thanos no more

Okay, we’ll return to the plot in a minute, because this is the first structural oddity of the film. This opening salvo — made up of a pre-Marvel logo sequence in which we learn what happened to Hawkeye and his family, a pre-titles sequence which sets up the plan to beat Thanos, and the pre-timejump action I just described — is almost a self-contained unit dealing with the hangover from the last film. It wouldn’t fit as a closing act to Infinity War — that movie ended at the perfect point in the story — but nor does it really belong at the start of Endgame, which begins properly after the “five years later” card. I have mixed feelings about it, because I like that we see both the heroes’ immediate attempts to rectify the situation, but also that they can’t, so we get to see how they’ve coped (or failed to) over the ensuing years. But, structurally, it felt a little clunky to me; a bit of business from the previous movie that has to be wrapped up before this one can start. I’m not sure what the solution is. If movies still bothered with opening credits, something as simple as separating it all off as a pre-titles sequence might’ve been the answer.

Anyway, back to the plot. It’s five years later and the world is still coming to terms with the snap. There are too many characters in too many different places to recap what everyone’s up to — that’s part of why this film has a three-hour running time, because there’s simply so much to tackle. But in many ways this is the best part of the movie, especially if you’re invested in these characters rather than just here for action or spectacle. It’s a bit grim, obviously — no one’s going to be cheery about half the world being wiped out — but it digs into the differing reactions this would provoke in ways that are character-specific and mostly plausible. I say “mostly” because, when Hulk (or whatever he is now) turns up, I didn’t quite follow the logic of why he’d turned himself into this Banner/Hulk hybrid. Still, seeing how the characters come to terms with their new reality is an effectively thoughtful way to start off.

Crying Cap

But that’s not going to fuel a superhero blockbuster, is it? Here the little mid-credit scene from Ant-Man and the Wasp comes into play. Marvel have always used their credit stings to connect up the films, but has it ever been so vital as this? They’re normally little teases, basically trailers to remind you which film is next, but what happens in that Ant-Man 2 scene is vital to the plot of Endgame. Basically, Scott has been stuck in the Quantum Realm for the past five years, but this provides them with an opportunity: it might be possible to use it for time travel, allowing them to go back in time and undo Thanos’ actions. Or something. Endgame’s relationship with time travel is… variable. Time travel movies are always complicated, and because it’s not a thing that’s really possible they get to set their own rules for how it works. The problem is, Endgame isn’t very clear what those rules are. It makes a great show of saying “it’s not like in the movies” and reeling off a slew of pop culture references (Back to the Future is mentioned more than once), but then it struggles to clearly define how it does work in this movie. And once the characters set off into the past, any explanations it did give seem to go out the window.

It’s in this long middle act that Endgame was most often problematic for me. Act one is largely committed to being solemn, and act three is largely committed to being Epic, so it’s in the middle that the film shoots for the MCU’s trademark “light and breezy” tone. Unfortunately, sometimes this is so shoehorned in that it rubs against the serious stuff, resulting in a tonal mishmash. I’ve frequently advocated for movies that mix seriousness and comedy side-by-side, because real life often does the same, but there are points where Endgame undercuts its own stakes or undermines its characters for the sake of a one-liner or a comedy bit, rather than embracing the seriousness of the situation and letting comedy evolve naturally when it’s warranted.

There can be only one...

Conversely, some of the humour is accidental. One of the more egregious examples for me is when Black Widow and Hawkeye are faced with the Soul Stone dilemma: one of them has to die as a sacrifice for the stone to be released to the other. They both decide to sacrifice themselves, which leads to a protracted series of attempts to stop the other from committing suicide first. The constant back and forth of who had the upper hand gets almost to the point where it’s comical — I began to wonder if it was meant to be a comedy bit. But then, just as it was reaching the height of absurdity where I was about to conclude I should be laughing rather than just thinking “this is silly now”, it abruptly stops when one of them ‘wins’ and we get a Tragic Death Scene. It’s clearly meant to be a shocking, affecting moment of heroic sacrifice; instead, I found it a jumble of intentions that neutered any genuine feelings.

Another moment that’s well-meaning but fumbled comes during the big climax, when all the Lady Superheroes unite to do something. It’s a moment of such brazen, uncalled-for “feminism” that it feels like pandering, and that’s a bad thing. I’m searching for a better word to use in that last sentence, because overall feminism is a good thing, but this particular moment is so out-of-nowhere, so fundamentally meaningless (there’s no need for it to be just the women involved), that it’s egregious. When crybaby fanboy trolls scream about unnecessarily forcing political correctness onto genre movies, they’re unerringly wrong… except this time they’ll be right, because that’s exactly how this plays. There’s a broadly similar moment in Infinity War, when a couple of the female heroes defeat whichever of Thanos’ sidekicks is the female one, and I thought that worked, partly because no one made a big deal of it. Here, it’s clear they’re making a point. I’m not sure what the exact goal of it was — to say “women are as capable as men”; to say “look how many female heroes we have now”; or something else — but there are better, subtler ways to make that same point.

Nebulous plotting

Where Infinity War found room for almost all of the MCU’s ongoing franchises and characters (an impressive feat), Endgame cements its finale status by re-centring us on the original lineup from the initial Avengers team-up… er, plus a couple of other characters, who are important to varying degrees for various reasons. It’s that kind of “it’s almost this… but not quite” construction of content and/or theme that belies a certain lack of focus or forethought. If this is a last hurrah for the original team, why is Ant-Man vital to the story even being possible? Why does Nebula get one of the most significant subplots, intimately connected to her character arc from Guardians Vol.1 and 2? Why is brand-new (to the movies) character Captain Marvel repeatedly required to come in and save the day?

This extends to the time travel too: when they go back, it’s into the timelines of specific movies, but why those movies were chosen isn’t always clear. Avengers Assemble? Makes sense — it was where the crazy project of the MCU proved it was working, making that film both the end of the beginning and a beginning in itself. Guardians of the Galaxy? I mean, I guess — it’s where Marvel proved they could turn even the most obscure property into a massive, popular hit; plus it’s where a lot of the Thanos storyline really got going. Thor: The Dark World? …wait, what? Seriously?! Yes, perhaps the greatest trick Marvel have ever pulled is making Thor 2 — one of their least well regarded films — a moderately essential component of this finale. You need to have seen that movie to fully understand what’s going on here, and now you can’t really skip it in your rewatches either.

Thor after being told which movie he had to revisit

Talking of connectivity, Infinity War surprised by being a standalone movie, not just a Part 1. Okay, it was a standalone movie which ended with our heroes losing, which you could call a cliffhanger, but if you look at it from the other side — i.e. with Thanos as the main character — it’s a whole, completed, no-more-story-to-tell tale. Therefore it’s a fresh surprise (kinda) that Endgame is very much a Part 2 — and also, in fact, a Part 22 — freely nodding to and paying off stuff from previous movies on the assumption you’ll know what it’s referencing, more like the last instalment of a serial than a standalone film. Anyone who’s skipped a film or two (or three or four, etc) on the way to Endgame is likely to miss all the nuances, at the very least, and perhaps be left with more serious questions too. Newcomers definitely need not apply. But if there’s anyone who’s a fan of part of the MCU but not all of it, they’ll need to find their way into and through Endgame one way or another, because a whole bunch of stuff is wrapped up for good here; some heroes won’t be getting another standalone movie to put a button on their story.

I feel like this review has focused on the negatives and debatable drawbacks of Endgame, but that’s partly because a lot of the discussion right now seems unrelentingly praiseful. I mean, as I type this the film is ranked as the 5th best of all time on IMDb, a position it’s actually risen to over the past 24 hours (it debuted around 19th). I didn’t think it was perfect, or quite as good as that (for comparison: I thought Infinity War was more consistent and successful as a movie, and IMDb raters have currently ranked that 61st), but I did enjoy it overall. I don’t think it needed to be as long as it is (at times it meanders through scenes or comedic bits rather than getting on with things), but it doesn’t drag or bore. It’s a bit of an irreconcilable dichotomy that I think both it didn’t feel excruciatingly long and also that they should’ve tightened it up and brought the running time down.

The end for Tony?

Still, that runtime means they felt there was space for more than just action sequences. Allowing the film to focus on the emotions of the characters (at least some of the time) is suitable payoff for the investment people have in them. Indeed, as I said earlier, in many ways the first act is the film’s best stuff. This isn’t just an empty effects spectacle. But when it is a spectacle, it can be spectacular. Okay, the climax, where two sizeable armies rush at each other on a brown battlefield under a grey sky, degenerates into a massive free-for-all of whooshing pixels where it’s frequently hard to discern exactly what’s going on and who’s doing what to who (it actually reminded me of Aquaman, only with less colour. I’m sure such a comparison to a DC movie will be sacrilege to some Marvel fans, but it’s the truth). But within and around that there are still things that are a thrill, not least the big moment when the previously-dusted heroes turn up en masse in the nick of time. And when all is said and done, the end credits offer a special acknowledgement of the main Avengers who started it all, which was quite possibly my favourite bit of the whole movie.

There are no mid- or post-credit scenes, making this only the second MCU movie without them. (The first was The Incredible Hulk, which basically had its post-credit scene before the credits started. I’m sure they’d’ve placed that scene differently if they’d known it would become a trademark of the franchise.) It’s an appropriate decision: we know this isn’t the end (the next Spider-Man movie is out in a couple of months; many more officially-unannounced Marvel films are on the horizon after that), but this is supposed to serve as an ending nonetheless, and so letting it actually end, rather than attaching a tease for the future, is welcome. Though, really, how much of an ending is it? Yeah, it officially closes off the first era of MCU films, but a bunch of those characters are continuing into the future, and even some of the ones primarily associated with the first era — characters who died here — are coming back in prequels and the like.

Goodbye to MCU

However, the lack of credits scenes did allow me to enjoy some schadenfreude: I knew going in there were no scenes, but that there was a “meaningful sound effect” at the end of the credits. I had nowhere else to be, so I stayed to see what it was. Everyone else who stayed, however, was chattering about what the end credits scene might show. The credit roll came to an end, everyone went quiet in anticipation, that “meaningful sound effect” played, and I started getting ready to leave while all around me stared at a black screen while the cinema’s filler muzak played, thinking they were witnessing the beginning of another scene. It took them a good 30 seconds to twig. (Maybe I should’ve said something… maybe the usher stood at the front of the auditorium should’ve said something… maybe he and I are both just horrible people…)

That literally brings me to the end of Endgame. There’s much more that could be said about it, and will be said about it. For me, an interesting thing now will be to see what is its long-term reception. As I said, right now it’s riding high on a wave of audience euphoria, but it’s only just come out: most of the people who’ve seen it already are the really keen ones; the diehard fans. What will wider audiences think? What will the diehards think when they get a chance to revisit it, removed from the heat of initial emotion? Will the consensus remain that Avengers: Endgame ranks in the echelons of the very greatest movies of all time, or will cooler heads prevail?

4 out of 5

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas everywhere (except Russia) now.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

2018 #247
Peyton Reed | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 + 1.90:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Ant-Man and the Wasp

After the huge (in every respect) Avengers: Infinity War, the comically-minded Ant-Man and the Wasp feels like a palate cleanser for the MCU; a bit of light entertainment to help smooth the long gap between the Avengers film’s devastating cliffhanger and 2019’s double whammy of Captain Marvel (trailer today!) and Avengers 4 (trailer Wednesday!) Some people didn’t take too kindly to the ‘abrupt’ tonal swing (they’re completely separate movies, so that’s a pretty daft complaint to have, frankly), but I thought this sequel was a ton of fun.

It actually takes place before Infinity War anyhow: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, is finally coming to the end of two years of house arrest, his punishment for being involved in the events of Civil War. He’s also been forbidden from contacting the inventor of the Ant-Man suit, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), or his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who are wanted fugitives; but when Scott has a vision of Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), from his trip to the Quantum Realm (see the first Ant-Man), he becomes involved in Hope and Hank’s attempt to travel their and rescue Janet. Along the way they also have to deal with black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who wants to monetise the tech he’s been helping them build, and a mysterious masked figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase through solid objects and is trying to steal said new tech.

The Wasp and Ant-Man

Got all that? I haven’t even touched on some of the other subplots that get thrown in for good measure. For something that’s clearly been designed as a light romp, Ant-Man and the Wasp certainly has a lot of plot going on. That might be part of what keeps it romp-y, mind: with so much to get through, there’s always something happening, it’s always pushing forward. It arguably gets a bit bogged down having to line everything up in the middle, with some scenes that lean a little heavily on exposition, but it always finds time for a gag or two. Personally, I’ll let quite a lot slide if I’m having fun, and this keeps the fun quotient high throughout.

Entertainment is definitely the name of the game here, and to that end director Peyton Reed and the five credited screenwriters (including star Paul Rudd) set out to tickle various emotional responses. The most obvious one is, as mentioned, the funny — there are laugh-out-loud moments here, as well as a never-ending barrage of one-liners and comedic business. But it also takes time to be emotive and heartfelt. Scott’s relationship with his daughter (a charming and likeable performance by young Abby Ryder Fortson) is a major character point, and a key touchstone for a definite parent/child theme across the movie. What we might actually ‘learn’ about parent/child relationships from all this, I don’t know, but it feeds some surprisingly heartwarming material at times.

But which is the parent and which is the child?

Thirdly, there are thrills in the shape of multiple fantastic action sequences. Hope dons the Wasp suit — all the powers of Ant-Man, plus wings and blasters — shrinking and growing at speed to kick plenty of ass, though Ghost’s ability to just phase through objects presents a unique challenge. There’s a heist sequence, too, recalling the overall theme of the first movie… though as it’s in a primary school and occurs while Scott’s suit is malfunctioning, it’s played more for laughs. Well, so’s almost everything in this movie, but it works. Best of them all is the extended car chase finale, with the good guys’ size-changing vehicles used for some highly inventive antics, plus all sorts of other goings-on in a race with multiple pursuers. I’ve seen some criticise this part for going on too long, but I thought it was just right, and is a strong contender to be remembered as an all-timer chase sequence.

Often when I watch stuff in 3D nowadays I don’t actually mention it in my reviews — I still enjoy the experience more often than not (some stuff underwhelms, naturally), but I know most people don’t have the option and, frankly, it’s rarely essential. Well, the 3D probably isn’t essential here either, but it is superb, really adding to the scale and impact of the big scenes — when things are switching sizes all over the place, that’s no bad thing. Plus it’s clearly effective in just regular moments, too: the film’s opening shot is just of a house, but the dimensionality is still palpable. Top work by whoever did the post-conversion.

Plus, the 3D Blu-ray comes with the benefit of the film’s shifting IMAX ratio, where the frame expands upwards from 2.39:1 to 1.90:1 for certain scenes. This is commonplace for Marvel films nowadays, which means sometimes it seems to occur just for the sake of it, but Reed has put the effort in to make great use of the larger image. Okay, it’s no surprise that it’s used for the action scenes (including opening up for a whole half-hour-or-so at the film’s climax), but he’s mindful of the transitions between ratios and the effect that can have — at least twice the actual moment the film moves from one ratio to another is as effective as the bigger image itself. Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-rays, I know, but I love ’em, and this is a great example of why.

Ant-Man will return... but will anybody else?

In the year of Black Panther and Infinity War, the relatively frothy Ant-Man and the Wasp was always destined to be “the other one”. But just because it’s not Big or Meaningful doesn’t mean it has no merit. Far from it. Whether you want to view it as a palate cleansing instalment of the MCU or as a standalone adventure, I think it’s pitched almost perfectly as a fun, entertaining ride of a movie.

The first Ant-Man is, to date, the only MCU film to make it onto one of my year-end best-of lists. The way things have gone in 2018, I won’t be surprised if this sequel is the fourth.

4 out of 5

Ant-Man and the Wasp is out on DVD and Blu-ray (regular, 3D, and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

The Past Month on TV #39

Travel through time and space, into dreams and memories, and along miniature railways in this month’s TV review…

Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 1-2
Doctor Who series 11The 37th season of Doctor Who begins with the show’s biggest soft-reboot since at least 2010; arguably, since 2005; arguably, ever. With a new showrunner comes a new broom, and so we have a new Doctor, a new TARDIS, a new set of companions — sorry, they’re “friends” now — new locations, new monsters, and a new style (thanks to a raft of behind-the-scenes changes, including a new effects company, swish new cameras and lenses, and a new aspect ratio). It’s the perfect jumping-on point… and it worked, with the premiere achieving the show’s highest ratings for a decade; or longer, depending how you count it.

Oh, and the Doctor’s a woman now, too. “It’ll kill the show,” cried a vocal minority. Hahaha, nope!

But what of Jodie Whittaker, anyway? As with any new Doctor, I feel she needs a little time to find her feet — something that lies in the writing as much as the performance. There are some lines which would seem more at home in the mouths of David Tennant or Matt Smith, which Whittaker gamely tackles but don’t quite feel natural. But at other times the material and her performance click in perfect synchronicity, and we can see the promise that lies within. Hopefully as the writers become more familiar with her mannerisms, what works and what doesn’t for this particular incarnation, then it’ll all become smoother. There’s no reason to doubt she’s up to the task.

Some question the new man in charge of running the show, though. Chris Chibnall’s TV record is… patchy. For every Broadchurch series one there’s a Broadchurch series two; for every Broadchurch series three there’s a Torchwood series one; and so on. He acquits himself decently with this opening pair of episodes. The first, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, may owe an obvious debt to Predator with its alien-hunter storyline, but Who has always liberally borrowed from other places and made the material its own.

TARDIS TeamIndeed, even as it’s open-armed and newbie-friendly, Chibnall’s era already seems as Who-literate as you’d expect from such a long-time fan (somewhat (in)famously, as a teenager in the ’80s Chibnall appeared on TV criticising the then production team). His sense of what Who should be is at once indebted to the modern era (in particular the years of Russell T Davies, who I suspect may’ve been something of a mentor to Chibnall at one point) and also seeks to reintegrate elements long absent. For example, there’s the expanded TARDIS team, which calls to mind that of the series’ very first group of travellers; though whereas 1963 gave us a teenage girl and two middle-aged teachers, 2018 offers two teenagers and one middle-aged bloke. Such are the changing times. And for dedicated Whovians, the plot of episode two, The Ghost Monument, also had an air of early Hartnell serials, with its episodic trek across a danger-filled alien world. It was a brisk, entertaining 50 minutes, but stop and think about it too much and the cracks begin to show (read Andrew Ellard’s tweetnotes to see how it could’ve been polished up, for example).

Still, two episodes into a new era is no point at which to make generalisations about it (despite what some people have been trying). This is a reasonably promising start, though: there’s a good cast in place, and a clear sense of purpose — this feels like a production team making the version of the show they want on screen, not one rushing headlong to get out anything so long as it meets the broadcast deadline (something that afflicted both RTD’s and Steven Moffat’s eras at times). Only the weeks ahead can really tell how consistently they’ve achieved this. Personally, I’m more excited for each new episode to come around than I have been for some time.

Maniac
ManiacNetflix continue to blur the line between movies and TV with this limited series starring Oscar winner Emma Stone and Oscar nominee Jonah Hill, co-created and directed by Cary “director of the next Bond film” Fukunaga. Well, I mean, it’s a line that other TV producers have blurred plenty in the past — movie stars on TV is far from a new thing at this point, and there’s no doubting this is a TV series rather than a movie (it’s 6½ hours long, for one thing) — but, still. And they bend the rules of TV, too, with individual episodes running everywhere from 26 to 47 minutes. (Does that matter when Netflix’s release-it-all-at-once strategy means you choose how much to watch at any one time? Maybe not. But if you’re the kind to still watch one episode at a time, a word to the wise: I recommend double-billing the ultra-short should-be-one-episode pair of episodes 7 and 8.)

Anyway, Hill stars as the paranoid and delusional son of a business magnate who enrols in a drug trial, where he meets Stone’s addict in search of a fix. The trial is a new method for treating past trauma, something both of them have plenty of; and when the AI that’s a vital part of the procedure malfunctions, the pair find themselves in each other’s dreams and fantasies. It’s kind of like Inception made by someone with a kookier imagination than Christopher Nolan.

In fact, an even better point of reference would be X-Men-adjacent TV series Legion: it has the same preoccupation with mental health, with mysterious possibly helpful / possibly evil institutions, with can’t-trust-reality trippiness, with retro-futuristic design… It’s certainly a heavily stylised series, which is half the charm. The other half is all the dreamworld stuff, which takes a few episodes to rock up but is worth the wait. And the other half — because this is the kind of show that would definitely have three halves — is the chemistry between Stone and Hill, which is unexpected but palpable.

Kooky chemistryA significant amount of the series’ offbeat likability is down to idiosyncratic direction by Fukunaga, I suspect — the way he’s shepherded the visual creation of this world, the leftfield performance choices across the cast, and so on — but Emma Stone is definitely the MVP. While the aforementioned chemistry between her and Hill is important, and a lot of the rest of the cast get to excel at being quirky and funny, it’s Stone who really brings heart and emotion to the piece, making it more than just a zany fantasy.

Maniac throws you in at the deep end, with a first instalment that’s densely packed with information and alternate-world building, which it races past and through, sometimes with two or three things going on at once, making it feel a bit like hard work. But, really, that’s all incidental detail. Once you settle into it, an inventive and kooky journey awaits. How much it all adds up to is debatable — though, for the characters, it definitely reaches a worthwhile place — but it’s the kind of trip where the journey’s worth at least as much as the destination.

The Great Model Railway Challenge  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
The Great Model Railway Challenge
Long-time readers of this column with exceptionally good memories may remember that I once watched two episodes of Shed of the Year merely because one episode featured a Doctor Who-themed shed and another featured a cinema-themed shed (I’m still jealous of the latter, and you should be too — see photos at the aforementioned link). Well, here we have another show that wouldn’t normally be up my street… but episode one was all cinema-themed builds, and episode two featured a Doctor Who-themed build.

As for the programme itself, well, the format follows the template established by Bake Off and since copied ad infinitum for almost every hobby TV producers can think of: a pair of affable, pun-delivering hosts; a mixed-gender pair of expert judges; well-practiced amateur contestants, who compete in a series of tasks and challenges over a period of three days — in this case, to build model railways. It comes across as being as nerdy a hobby as you’d think (and with one team choosing to do the Who themed setup, it’s like nerd²), but I don’t mean that as a criticism — the stuff they produce is, at its best, astonishing and a lot of fun. I think I’m going to end up watching the rest of the series.

Also watched…
  • Upstart Crow Series 3 Episode 4 — It’s funny how this era of catchup TV can lead to both binge-watching and spreading stuff thinner than intended (or is that just me?) Anyway, the sole episode of Upstart Crow continued the quality run I commented on last month, this time with an amusing episode-long riff on Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Would I Lie To You? Series 12 Episode 1 — The best panel show on TV is back and as on form as ever, particularly with the ever-unguessable Bob Mortimer popping in for the first episode. A treat.

    The Not-So-Immortal Iron Fist
    Colleen the Iron FistHaving just last month written about how improved Iron Fist was and how I was actually looking forward to season three, Netflix went and cancelled it last weekend. That’s the first of their Marvel shows they’ve outright cancelled (it doesn’t look like The Defenders is coming back, but that was technically always a one-off miniseries anyway). There are lots of options for Iron Fist’s future, however: could be they’re planning to team up some of the characters into a new show; could be it moves to Disney’s forthcoming streaming service, which is set to have other MCU-related series. I figure the latter is unlikely — it’s tarnished goods now — but it would seem a shame to not pay off the second season’s cliffhangers/teases somewhere, somehow.

    Things to Catch Up On
    InformerThis month, I have mostly been missing Informer, BBC One’s new thriller. Well, it only started on Tuesday, so that’s fair enough, right? I guess I’ll save it up and see how it goes down — I’ve managed to avoid wasting time on a few initially-promising-but-ultimately-poorly-received series with this method; though, equally, it led to Radio Times spoiling Bodyguard for me, so you take your chances… And as the lack of review may’ve told you, I’ve yet to start Killing Eve. With a bunch of stuff popping onto Netflix over the coming weeks (see below), it’ll be lucky to make next month’s column either.

    Next month… after a 2½-year wait (which has included seven seasons of other Marvel/Netflix shows), it’s finally time to give the Devil his due — that being, a third season.

    Plus! Netflix’s spooky Riverdale spinoff, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and more new Who.

  • The Past Month on TV #38

    There are three major series for me to review this month, thanks to the UK’s highest-rated drama launch for a decade, Bodyguard; the debut season of Amazon’s heavily-promoted version of Jack Ryan; and a second season for the runt of the Marvel/Netflix litter, Iron Fist. Plus, shorter reviews of other stuff. All spoiler-free, of course.

    So, without further ado…

    Bodyguard  Series 1
    Bodyguard series 1
    A massive hit for BBC One from writer Jed “Line of Duty” Mercurio, Bodyguard follows copper David Budd (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) as he’s assigned to protect Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), who’s trying to push through a tough new anti-terrorism act. As multiple terrorist attacks begin to take place, and Montague cosies up to the intelligence services, the series quickly morphs into a conspiracy thriller, with Budd struggling to know who can be trusted as he hunts for the truth about what’s going on and why.

    Like Line of Duty, Mercurio excels at Big drama: this is a busy, fast-moving story that churns through plot. Not much here of the gradual, slow, “it’s really more about these characters as people” stuff we usually get from British drama. That’s not to say there isn’t fine character work, mind: Budd, in particular, is a complex and nuanced hero, who starts out calm and capable and is revealed to be… well, something else; so much so that you begin to wonder if he’s an unreliable narrator… The other thing Mercurio is great at is set pieces. In Line of Duty they’re often lengthy, jargon-filled police interviews, although he’s pulled off a couple of big action ones too. Bodyguard kind of merges the two, in that they’re talky but also usually involve bombs and guns. The series is bookended by them: episode one boldly devotes its opening 20 minutes to what initially seems like a prologue (unsurprisingly, it has more relevance later), and a massive chunk of the middle of the finale is taken up with another.

    David Budd and Julia MontagueSome have criticised the series for being OTT, implausible, or having too many plot holes. Well, individual mileage will vary on that. It’s not a slice-of-life drama, after all — the larger-scaled storytelling is a genre thing, not an inherent flaw. It’s no more implausible than hundreds of other thriller TV series and movies, just perhaps not the kind we make much in the UK anymore. I’m always wary of accusations of plot holes — it’s a term that gets thrown around too liberally nowadays by, frankly, people who either don’t know what they’re on about or have a failure of imagination (“we didn’t see that happen on screen so how can it have happened” is, genuinely, the root of one prominent complaint about Bodyguard’s finale).

    Still, I think the series’ main aim was to be an exciting guessing game — it’s a whodunnit, really, with a multitude of suspects and motivations. As that, I thought it was a success; and, based on the ratings and chatter, it looks like the public at large agreed. No second series has been commissioned (and, anyway, Mercurio is busy on the next Line of Duty until sometime next year), but I’d be surprised if we don’t see more.

    (If you’re outside the UK, it was announced last week that Netflix have snapped up the international rights, where it will be available from October 24th.)

    Jack Ryan  Season 1
    Jack Ryan season 1The latest reboot of Tom Clancy’s CIA hero sees him get the TV treatment, which is perhaps the best place for a hero who is more about solving problems with his mind than his gun, and a storytelling style that cuts between lots of concurrent plots before later revealing how they interrelate. That’s something this season has done rather well, incidentally — it’s an original story, taking Clancy’s characters but not directly adapting any of his novels, but they committed to trying to emulate his “mosaic storytelling style”. I’ve never read any Clancy, so I’m not an expert on this, but they seem to have evoked it well. (Considering there are multiple Ryan novels that haven’t been adapted, it seems a shame to abandon them entirely. Maybe in a future season.)

    The actual plot concerns — what else — Middle Eastern terrorism. On the bright side, it devotes as much time to the villains as to the heroes, painting a more detail picture than just “some foreign-looking people want to blow us up”. I don’t know if it has anything deep or new to say about terrorists and those who hunt them (we’ve had ten seasons of 24, seven of Homeland, and goodness knows how many other shows on this theme since 9/11 — it’s well worn), but it’s still effective as an intelligent thriller, bolstered by having a desk-jockey analyst as a hero rather than a trigger-happy soldier. Nonetheless, episodes are packed with incident, tension, and excitement. It’s not quite “a thinking man’s thriller” because I don’t think it ultimately has enough to say about things, but it is a lot more measured and realistic than your usual action-thriller fare, while still creating exciting (but also plausible) sequences.

    Naturally, the season takes the form of “an 8-hour movie” (to be precise, it’s actually 6.6 hours long), because that’s what’s popular with prestige TV nowadays, but it also works on an episodic level. Put another way, it’s in parts that build to a whole, rather than a whole sliced up because it has to be. That’s not to say the series isn’t heavily serialised, mind (for example, there’s a random murder in episode two that doesn’t seem to relate to anything else, but then pays off at the end of episode four), but this is only a problem if you dislike non-episodic storytelling. I tend to agree that some shows take this too far, seeming to go nowhere on an episodic level because everything’s designed to be “one long story”, but Jack Ryan is one of those serialised shows that strikes a healthy balance between the two — it is one long story, but each episode conveys a solid amount of plot.

    Field analystAn advantage the show has in this regard is its short length: with just eight episodes, the plot moves at a fair lick. It gets better as it goes on, too, as the various plot lines and characters begin to build and resonate with one another. Indeed, it’s something very rare, possibly unheard of, in direct-to-streaming series: one where I wished the season was a couple of episodes longer. Not that it’s rushed per se, but one or two subplots might’ve been even better with just a little more room to breathe; the main stories might’ve been even better with just a beat or two more in them. But in an era where streaming/prestige series are gaining a reputation for being bloated and not having enough story to fill their running time, maybe it’s better to leave people wanting more.

    And I certainly do want more — season two’s already in production, and I’m looking forward to it. Although I enjoyed this season a lot, I do hope the next one takes us somewhere a little more original (and therefore interesting) than Islamic terrorists. I mean, how about those Russians and the tech espionage shit they’re pulling nowadays? Now that sounds Clancy-esque.

    Iron Fist  Season 2
    Iron Fist season 2The first season of Iron Fist attracted a lot of criticism, and, thankfully, the people behind the Marvel/Netflix series have listened. This second season doesn’t suddenly revamp the show into the best thing on TV or something, but it is a big improvement. They were hamstrung to an extent — as new showrunner M. Raven Metzner has said in interviews, you can’t reboot something like this: it has to keep to the continuity of what happened in season one, and in The Defenders, and in the other Marvel/Netflix series, and go from there — but they’ve made a fair fist of it, (there’s a good piece about what changes they made here), and by the end of the season the show is in a much better place.

    It starts a little iffily, mind. I mean, the hero is a rich, privileged white guy with anger issues who appropriated another culture for his own ends, while the villains are the Asian guy who wants back his birthright that the hero took, and a businesswoman who wants her due from the company she helped build. If I was confident the show was going somewhere with that it’d be one thing, but it also feels like it can’t’ve been deliberate (considering the heroes also include a Japanese-American woman investigating her heritage and, later in the season, a black female cop), but it’s a definite reading of episode one. I began to worry it was going to accidentally pan out like some kind of Men’s Rights / White Supremacist show. Well, it’s not that bad, thank goodness — the season does make some nods towards tackling these issues (there’s a scene in episode six where Davos specifically calls Danny out on his privilege meaning he values nothing), but I’m not sure it truly engages with it, more hopes that if it’s acknowledged and sort of moved on from (I won’t say too much because of spoilers!) then we’ll let it slide.

    So, even with that, a lot of things are improved over season one. Most things, even. But the show is at its best whenever its title character is off screen. Every member of the supporting cast and their relationships to each other is more interesting than Danny. At best he’s a bit nothingy, at worst an irritant. In fairness, I also suspect the show knows this, given its focus on Colleen — look how she shares the marketing. She makes a better lead character than Danny — her conflictedness about being a vigilante is certainly a richer seam than his privileged certainty, and Jessica Henwick excels in some properly kickass fight scenes, too. Among the supporting cast, Ward and Joy Meacham get some interesting material as well, again developing from what they went through in season one. Where back then it was just Plot Stuff to provide a story and twists, here there’s a genuine attempt to explore what the psychological fallout of that might look like. Plus, there’s a lot less stuff about the running of Rand Enterprises, something I called out the first season for ballsing up.

    VillainsIronically, while the MCU movies became renowned for their poor villains, that’s the area the Netflix series have always excelled in. This season the star turn comes from Alice Eve as a version of Daredevil villain Typhoid Mary, who (spoilers if you don’t know the character!) has dissociative identity disorder (DID), aka multiple personality disorder — so she can be both sweet, timid, kind Mary, and hard, stern, violent Walker. It’s the kind of role that’s a gift for any actor, of course, and Eve is fantastic. Similarly, Danny’s childhood friend Davos gets to combine many of the traits I’ve described in other characters: motivated by past events; complex relationships to other characters (not only Danny, but, as the end of season one teased, Joy). He’s the kind of villain whose goal is almost relatable; where you almost side with him over the hero.

    Across all of the characters and storylines, I think the season wants to be about addiction, but it doesn’t execute it as a throughline particularly well. Early on we see Danny being a little bit out of control with the fist; then, many episodes later, he explains he was addicted to it; in between, there’s a subplot about Ward being in NA and struggling to stay on the wagon. These two plot threads should be mirroring each other, not tag-teaming — and in a way that sometimes leaves the theme untouched for an episode or two, at that. It’s a shame, really, because if they’d managed that kind of cohesion in what the show was “about”, it may have been able to lay claim to being a genuinely very good show, rather than just a marked improvement on season one. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked a lot of it, and I do think it’s a big improvement; but you can see signs that maybe it could’ve been something even better. But hey, even if it can’t offer depth, at least it can offer thrills. And really, it’s a superhero show — good vs. evil punch-ups are the order of the day.

    Marvel’s Netflix shows have often faced accusations of being too long, of not having enough story to fill their 13 episodes. That’s a problem of story, not episode count, as The Defenders proved by not having enough plot to fill eight episodes. Nonetheless, Iron Fist now only has ten episodes, and it seems to have helped. The plot moves so fast that by halfway it feels like it must be nearing its end, but instead of going in circles, it has some more twists and tricks up its sleeve. And to complete the indication that the show is making an effort to head in new directions, the finale devotes about half its running time to wrapping up the main plotDaughters of the Dragon (via a whole load of fighting, natch) and then the second half to what happens after — not just the necessary “wind down” type aftermath stuff, but also a fair chunk of time into establishing where things will go in season three. Netflix hasn’t commissioned that yet, but I hope they do because I’m actually looking forward to it. Wonders will never cease.

    Upstart Crow  Series 3 Episodes 1-3
    Upstart Crow series 3Ben Elton’s Shakespearean sitcom commences its third run as funny as ever, if not more so — I’ve always enjoyed it, but it feels particularly on point this series. I guess its on-the-nose satire of modern life by transposing it to Elizabethan society (e.g. Will’s woeful carriage journeys between London and Stratford are an unsubtle riff on the problems with British railways) won’t find favour with everyone, mainly because it seems a little easy and there’s a monologue about it pretty much every episode, but I still find that stuff amusing. When Elton applies the same strategy to other aspects of modern life, it’s similarly as rewarding/obvious, depending on your predilections. But there’s also a solid vein of mining Shakespeare’s own works for humour, the best one so far this series being an extended bit about how all of Will’s friends think Hamlet is a comedy due to its farcical plot. There’s also a running subplot about Will’s nemesis, Robert Greene, trying to discredit him by making people think he doesn’t write his own plays, which nicely pillories those ridiculous theories, and includes a guest appearance by Ben Miller doing an amusing riff on Mark Rylance.

    Reported Missing  Series 2 Episode 1
    Not normally my kind of programme, this — a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows police as they search for missing persons — but the ‘plot’ description for the first case piqued my interest. A dad reports his five-year-old son missing after having not seen him for two years due to a custody dispute with the mother. When the police track her down, she says the boy doesn’t exist and she doesn’t even know the man who made the report. Who is telling the truth? What’s really going on? It plays out like a low-key thriller. If you have access to iPlayer (the episode is here), it only takes up the first half of the episode and I’d say is worth half-an-hour of your time.

    Also watched…
  • Daniel Sloss: Live Shows — A pair of live stand-up shows, recorded at different times and places, that Netflix have lumped together as a ‘series’. The first, Dark, is a masterpiece; it lives up to its name though, so avoid if pitch black humour isn’t your thing. The second, Jigsaw, isn’t quite as exceptional, but is still excellent. A definite cut above most other stand-up specials I’ve watched.
  • Hang Ups Series 1 Episodes 4-6 — I was praiseful of Hang Ups last month, but if anything it improved as it went on, with the finale a riotous farce.
  • The Imitation Game Series 1 Episodes 1-3 — ITV’s impression-based panel show is a bit odd (everyone’s busy pretending it’s improvised when much of it is clearly scripted) and dependant on the skills of the guests (some of these so-called impressionists should find a new job), but it’s pleasantly diverting. Plus it gave us this skit of Andy Murray singing I’m So Excited, which is spot on.
  • Magic for Humans Season 1 Episodes 4-6 — Like Hang Ups, there’s even better stuff here than in the first half of the season (which I also wrote about last month). Episode four, Seeing is Believing, is not only a fun magic show but also kinda profound.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Killing EveThis month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, BBC America’s critically-acclaimed, Emmy-nominated thriller about an MI5 officer hunting for an assassin. It aired in the US back in April, and it feels like ever since I’ve been hearing praise for it flowing across the Atlantic. It finally made its way to this side of the pond this month (for an organisation with “BBC” in their name, BBC America productions do take their time getting over here). As I’ve only just (as in “as of last night”) finished making my way through 24 episodes of Jack Ryan, Iron Fist, and Bodyguard back-to-back, maybe that’ll be up next.

    Although likely to get in the way is Maniac, Netflix’s miniseries starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone that looks inherently interesting (based on the trailer — like Inception made by someone with a wilder imagination than Christopher Nolan) and is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, aka the recently-announced director of Bond 25. I’ve never seen anything he’s done, despite almost all of it being on my “to watch” list, so it’s about time I started. Expect reviews of both of those next month, then, alongside the return of a certain time traveller…

    Next month… Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor!

  • The Past Month on TV #35

    In this month’s TV review: wah gwaan in Luke Cage season two, and “what’s going on?!” in Westworld’s finale.

    Luke Cage  Season 2
    Luke Cage season 2The ninth season of the MCU on Netflix takes us back to Harlem for the continuing adventures of the eponymous bulletproof black man. It’s hard to imagine a more timely superhero for America (maybe if he was an immigrant too), not that the series’ is actually all that concerned with such issues, aside from passing nods and references. Instead, it’s more of a gangster crime drama: the still-standing season one villains, underworld power couple Mariah and Shades, intend to go legit by selling their illegal gun business, using the profits to invest in social projects for Mariah’s beloved Harlem. Standing in their way is Bushmaster, a superpowered patois-speaking Jamaican gang leader, who has a long-held grudge against Mariah’s family — and he’s come for retribution.

    This focus on the conflicts between the villains has led some critics to reckon that Luke Cage has been sidelined in his own show. That’s true to an extent: because we’re privy to Mariah, Shades, and Bushmaster cooking up and executing their separate schemes, Luke is left to kind of wander around, trying to figure out stuff we already know. At the very least, the series is as interested in its villains as in its heroes — I reckon if you totted it up, Luke and Marian’s screentime would be pretty comparable. On the bright side, this is a very character-driven season — it’s as concerned with who these people are and how they’re changed by events, rather than just the mechanics of the plot — and Luke is certainly no exception. For one, his estranged father is in town — a superbly nuanced turn from the late Reg E. Carney (who the season is dedicated to, appropriately), which lends a different perspective again.

    Plus, picking up and running with a theme from the first season, Luke is now famous as “Harlem’s hero”, but this is going to his head a bit, negatively affecting his relationship with Claire. The series does a good job of reflecting the celebrity status of superheroes, something the other Marvel films and series haven’t really touched on. If these events were even vaguely real, there’s no way Luke Cage could hang out in Harlem without being noticed. So now there’s an app to track his whereabouts, merchandise, sponsorship offers, his actions make headlines, and wealthy fans are willing to pay for him to make personal appearances. Luke espouses an ambivalent relationship to all this: he’d rather it wasn’t happening, but it does have its uses — and those prove seductive.

    Rulers of HarlemMike Colter remains a likeable lead, but, again, it’s a villain who steals the show: as Mariah, the brilliant Alfre Woodard is perhaps the best thing about the whole series. Her performance is consistently fantastic, selling every twist and turn of character the writers throw at her. The season is as much about what events do to her as it is about Luke. She isn’t entirely alone, though: there are plenty of great performances, and scenes to showcase them, throughout the season. Occasionally there are some really bloody terrible ones though, like the time detective Misty Knight and her captain argue loudly about a shared secret while they’re in a room full of other cops. Is that bad writing, bad acting, bad direction, or all of the above?

    And sometimes the good stuff is spread a bit thin. There are points, especially midseason, where it feels so goddamn slow. Or maybe not slow, but long. Episodes seem to just keep going. One is called On and On, like some kind of joke at our expense. This is the case with so many of these streaming shows, though — most of them need more plot and/or tighter storytelling. I guess part of the problem is the 13-episode diktat, which presumably the showrunners have no say over. It’d be better if they could make the season the length it needed to be, rather than spin wheels to make it last as long as it has to. That said, most Luke Cage episodes use the full hour “time slot”, and a couple run over it, so if maybe they’ve kind of reclaimed the padding…

    Talking of other shows, the last time we saw Luke Cage in Luke Cage he was headed off to jail, but he starts this season free as a bird. Oh, and another major character is missing an arm. MCU fans will know that, since the last season, The Defenders happened, in which we saw these major changes to these characters’ status quo. There are vague nods at explaining some of that for anyone who skipped the team-up miniseries, but, really, it assumes you’ve watched it; and that ‘issue’ crops up again later in the season, with a couple of guest appearances by characters from Iron Fist. If you’re not interested in any of the other Marvel/Netflix series and don’t want to invest eight hours to find out a couple of linking story points (because The Defenders’ main plot has nothing to do with Luke Cage’s storylines), then maybe you need to read a plot summary on Wikipedia or something.

    Heroes for hireThe flip side to all that is that this interconnectedness will perhaps be comic book fans’ favourite thing about the show — the way it casually references other series, or suddenly brings their characters in for a guest spot, is just like how comic books operate. It’s pretty constant too: barely an episode goes by without a significant reference to or cameo appearance by someone from another Marvel/Netflix show; and these aren’t all mere Easter eggs, but sometimes quite important or vital pieces of plot or character development.

    For all its variability, Luke Cage finds its groove as the season goes on, and the final few episodes feel like an improvement (though I’d still contend they’re longer than they need to be). It all builds to a finale that feels almost low-key — I mean, there’s war on the streets and a lot of minor characters die, but that’s almost incidental, because it’s all about the characters, their relationships to each other, and how those find (or fail to find) closure. No spoilers, but it ends in a really intriguing place for season three. That’s not been officially commissioned yet, but surely it’s inevitable. It’ll be interesting to see where they take things next.

    Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 8-10
    Riding into the sunset (metaphorically)And so Westworld’s sophomore run rides into the sunset, and I think it’s left behind more questions than answers.

    When the show’s first season finally came to expose its secrets, there was a lot of oohing and ahhing — the twists and reveals, whether you’d guessed them or not, retroactively made a lot of sense, and suggested a good deal of cleverness on the part of the writers. Season two’s finale, on the other hand, seems to have been met with a collective “…huh?” Even plenty of people who enjoyed it confess to not understanding everything that was going on, while others have just given up at this point.

    Personally, I’m somewhere in between. There’s a lot to like and admire about the closing hours of season two, not least the production values: the show looks fantastic, and the acting is top notch. But I won’t dismiss the argument that the writers have disappeared up their collective arse, because there’s a lot of tricksiness and jiggery-pokery going on here that is sometimes hard to unravel — a stark contrast to the end of season one, I think, which managed to make the games it had been playing clear. Perhaps in their bid to outwit Reddit users, Westworld’s second season seems to have been jumping through hoops merely to be cleverer than its viewers, and I’m not sure that’s paid off.

    Dark DoloresExhibit A is the “Hale was Dolores all along” revelation. It’s a neat twist, almost up to season one levels, were it not undermined by the season’s own structure: Hale hasn’t been Dolores all along, and the muddled timelines make it hard to recall how many scenes we’ve had with “Halelores” (as the writers apparently dubbed her). In fact, one of the ways they hid her in plain sight was to limit her screen time: apparently she only popped up in episodes three and seven. Those scenes are littered with subtle clues to her identity, however, though I guess the Redditors missed them — probably because they couldn’t keep track of which timeline we were in either.

    There’s so much else going on here that I don’t even know which bits to pick out. I guess that’s part of the problem: with so many conclusions saved up until the finale and then all stuffed in at once, there’s just too much to digest and process in one almighty hit. One of my long-held suspicions has definitely been confirmed though: despite the plot of the series’ movie inspiration, co-creator Jonathan Nolan isn’t really interested in making a thriller about a robot rebellion at a technologically-advanced theme park, but instead has set out to make Person of Interest 2.0, for good or ill. That’s only going to become more apparent next season, I think, which is set to leave the titular park behind entirely. It’ll be interesting to see how many viewers it takes along with it…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Preacher season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Preacher’s third season, which started this week. Well, I only watched the first two episodes of season two in the end, so I’m very far behind. There’s also another Marvel TV series, Cloak & Dagger (which is passingly referenced in Luke Cage, apparently). That’s releasing new episodes weekly (on Amazon Prime this side of the pond). So many of these weekly shows I now wait to be complete before I binge them, but then I don’t get round to it (cf. Star Trek: Discovery, Black Lightning, etc). Finally, I happened to spot there had been a French sci-fi series called Missions on BBC Four, just before it disappeared from iPlayer, so now I’ve got all of that downloaded too.

    Next month… you know, I have no idea. I know it’s the summer, but there must be something coming up? Maybe I’ll finally take the chance to dig into my massive backlog.

    Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

    2018 #87
    Anthony & Joe Russo | 149 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Avengers: Infinity War

    People are incredibly wary of Infinity Wars spoilers right now — understandably — so here’s the deal: this review starts off completely spoiler-free, until a clearly-marked move into spoiler territory. Then the last paragraph (after the picture of Thanos and right above my star rating) is everyone-friendly again. Get it? Got it? Good.

    Ironically, it’s actually quite easy to give a fair summary of the plot without spoiling anything that’s not already been teased in previous films: alien warlord Thanos (mocapped and voiced by Josh Brolin) is out to collect the six Infinity Stones, crystals from the birth of the universe with unique powers, which when amassed together will grant him ultimate power. Out to stop him is pretty much every hero introduced in the previous 18 MCU films.

    I confess, I was all prepared for Infinity War to fail to live up to the hype and hyperbole of the reviews that have swarmed over the internet in the past few days, just like happened for me with Avengers Assemble six years ago. In this case, there’s so much going on, the experience is such a huge rush, that it’s almost hard to get your head around what to think of it. I don’t believe there’s ever been another movie quite like it — so many disparate primary heroes, all needing time, and facing a single huge villain, who also gets plenty of focus… Setting aside any of the usual quantifiable elements, reviewing the film comes down (as it really always should) to one simple question: did I enjoy it? Yes, I did.

    Avengers (partially) assembled

    Like the first Avengers, it’s certainly a great event of a movie — but more so, natch. It trades off that event status too: the stakes are huge, the pace and size relentless. It could’ve been like a Transformers movie — “a beginning, then AHHHHH! for another two hours or so”, as someone once described them — but thankfully it’s not so one note: as well as big action, there’s room for humour (plenty of that, it being a Marvel movie, but never ill-placed) and emotion (some affecting dramatic scenes, most of them too spoilersome to mention here).

    It’s impressive to join together so many different sub-franchises and manage to create a consistent tone. In some respects it does feel like they’ve chopped up bits from the characters’ individual movies and spliced them together. The most striking for this is the entrance of the Guardians of the Galaxy, when the Russos cut so abruptly into those films’ style that it initially feels misjudged… though I guess a lot of people won’t mind because, hey, everyone loves the Guardians (my audience practically cheered with recognition — not at seeing the characters on screen, but at the very obvious stylistic shift just before they appear). But, across the movie as a whole, it gels well. I suppose some would counter this with “all Marvel films have the same formula and tone so obviously it works”, but that’s not wholly fair — The Winter Soldier and Thor: Ragnarok are hardly the same, are they?

    Science meets magic

    Whatever the cause, the big plus is that none of the characters ever feel inconsistent — you’ve not got funny people suddenly being serious, or serious people suddenly cracking one-liners, just to make it all fit together. On one level that’s just good character writing, but it’s also good story structure: which characters get teamed up together, because each group has a good mix to butt against each other in the right ways. That doesn’t mean every set has one Funny One, one Serious One, etc, because sometimes the film needs to be able to cut from The Serious Group to The Funny Group. Several reviews I’ve read talked about the film’s “surprising team-ups”. Well, maybe… if you haven’t watched any trailers or seen any posters. Whatever, they mostly work very well. Some characters are better served than others, which is inevitable in a film of this scope, but pretty much everyone gets at least a line or a moment. Who your personal favourites are might dictate whether you think the screen time was fairly allocated or not.

    (Spoilers follow.)

    Talking of other reviews, I read one that said that, while the film may be entertaining, it’s ultimately hollow because it has no major thematic throughline to explore. I disagree. It leans quite heavily into the question of “at what cost?” What is everyone prepared to sacrifice to achieve their end goal? Both the heroes and Thanos are presented with this question, again and again. Heck, it’s not only a major test for Thanos, it’s part of his origin story too! Now, you can argue about how well the film expounds on this theme, as you can with any work of art (In this case: several of our heroes make that ultimate sacrifice, only for it to be undone by plot necessity), but to say the theme isn’t there feels disingenuous.

    Thor and Rabbit, off on a whirlwind adventure

    With all of that accounted for, I don’t know what more could be asked of the movie, in some respects. That said, two fairly specific things bothered me. The bigger one was that we only witness Thanos collecting five of the six stones. Why not show us the lot? How he acquires his second stone makes for an effective opening scene — immediately killing off two well-liked characters, as well as defeating two of the MCU’s main heroes, quickly establishes Thanos’ power — but then how he got the first stone is just revealed in some exposition dialogue later on? C’mon, you can do better than that! The other was the random reappearance of the Red Skull, not seen since Phase One. I guess they felt in need of some kind of reveal at that point, but I’m not sure why. Does him being there even make sense? I don’t see how, but then I’ve not watched The First Avenger in the last six years so maybe I’ve just forgotten. They even had to get a sound-alike to do the voice, so clearly they felt it was vitally important!

    Something I’ve previously written about being bothered by in movie franchises are two-part films. As a rule I prefer that, even when a pair of films are connected, they should function as finite units — think Back to the Future Part II and Part III, for example, or the link between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Avengers 3 and 4 have an interesting history in this regard: originally announced as Parts 1 and 2, this was later changed to them having individual titles, to indicate they were two separate stories… but still connected, because the two films were shot back to back, and Avengers 4’s final title hasn’t been announced presumably because it’s an Infinity War spoiler. Nonetheless, some people seemed to interpret all this as meaning the two films would be completely standalone from each other, and are now annoyed at Marvel because, surprise surprise, there’s a cliffhanger.

    Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a high-tech Iron Man-esque suit can

    (I know I already gave a spoiler warning, but just in case you read on regardless: the paragraphs between now and the next photo give away, like, everything.)

    So, here’s my take: obviously Infinity War is not entirely isolated from Avengers 4, but I don’t think this is a Kill Bill one-film-split-in-two situation either. Fans who now think the original Part 1 and 2 titles would’ve been apt are maybe taking too simplistic a view of story structure. I mean, look at it this way: it’s only half a movie to us because we know the Avengers are going to come back and win somehow; but if you’re Thanos — the film’s real protagonist, remember — then the story’s over: he did what he set out to do, the end. Maybe this is an academic distinction, but I do think it’s fair enough to have ditched the subtitles that implied it was one movie in two halves. This film tells a whole story (of Thanos trying to wipe out half the universe) and the next film will tell a new story set after it (presumably, how the Avengers try to undo that).

    Either way, the film ends on a cliffhanger — a bloody huge one! But I have to wonder: is it actually too much? By that I mean: it has to be undone. Yes, obviously we know the heroes will win in the end, but none of those final deaths can stick. Even if you took Benedict Cumberbatch at his word that Doctor Strange 2 isn’t confirmed, and James Gunn at his that Guardians Vol.3 might feature a changed line-up, we know they need Peter back for Homecoming 2, T’Challa back for Black Panther 2, and so on. So if it has to be undone — if there have to be resurrections — well, why not also resurrect Loki, and Heimdall, and Gamora, and Vision, and anyone else who genuinely died earlier in the story? In fairness, in this I may be getting too far ahead — how the resurrections occur is absolutely a question for next time, after all. But it’ll have to be a very specific solution — one that undoes Thanos’ final act, but doesn’t undo all the ones that led up to it — to not just seem like a stereotypical death-doesn’t-matter superhero cop-out.

    A final point on these deaths. I’m not sure I can actually remember everyone who lived and died during the wipe-out-half-the-universe finale (there were so many!), but I’m fairly certain they were mostly Phase Two and Three characters. I remember that Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Cap all definitely made it, anyway. My point is this: things are now set for Avengers 4 to really cap off the first 11 years and 22 films of the MCU by placing at its core the heroes who started it all. That’s quite neat, isn’t it? You’ve got to assume that’s deliberate.

    Thanos

    Avengers: Infinity War is like a massive comic book crossover rendered in live-action. You might think “of course it is”, but it’s not that long ago that this wouldn’t even have been possible (the CGI required is phenomenal), and even less time since it would’ve been considered profitable (remember when all superhero movies had to be “grounded”?) As much as it’s a familiar epic sci-fi action blockbuster, it’s also a new kind of thing to the big screen. There are pros and cons to turning that kind of narrative into a movie, but Infinity War is heavy on the former and relatively light on the latter. When it comes down to it, it’s just marvellous entertainment.

    5 out of 5

    Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas everywhere (except Russia and China) now.
    The fourth Avengers movie will be released this time next year.

    Avengers: Infinity War placed 6th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    The Past Month on TV #31

    Murder abounds in this month’s reviews: Jessica Jones and Cormoran Strike are both on the trail of killers with a personal connection; Shetland’s top cop has deaths old and new on his hands; and Lucifer offers weekly homicide with a fantasy spin.

    Meanwhile, the only thing getting murdered on Nailed It are the recipes.

    Jessica Jones  Season 2
    Jessica Jones season 2When the first season of Jessica Jones debuted 28 months ago it was practically a cultural phenomenon. Its fresh, unique take on the superhero genre marked it out as noteworthy even at a time when there are innumerable other films and series in that space. A large part of that was the intelligent and grounded way it engaged with some thorny issues, making it a critical darling and attracting audience admiration too. So I’ve been a little surprised that no one really seems to be talking about season two. Perhaps it’s just me and my little internet bubble, but since the flurry of pre-release reviews I’ve heard nary a whisper. I’m sure there must be reviews and recaps out there, which I wasn’t seeking out so as to avoid spoilers, but I didn’t stumble across any either.

    Anyway, this season sees Jessica and co on the trail of the secretive medical organisation who gave her superpowers. I suppose saying any more than that might count as spoilers, depending on your point of view — they structure these seasons like novels, or long movies, meaning explaining the setup for the overall narrative can see you giving away things that don’t happen for three or four episodes. I mean, for example, in season one Kilgrave didn’t even appear until something like episode three or four, and wasn’t a major presence for another couple of episodes. A similar thing goes on this season. Some people criticise this form of storytelling on a fundamental level, wanting a more episodic approach, but it’s how these shows function — if you don’t approve of it, their very form will always offend you. You either give up on them, or take it at face value and roll with it. Sometimes it does make it feel like they’re moving too slowly, but there is a structure to the thing when viewed as a 13-hour whole.

    It’s a worthwhile caveat to note that I watched the season in five multi-episode clumps over the course of five days. You definitely get a decent chunk of story when you watch several episodes back-to-back. It would play differently if spread more thinly, I’m certain, but whether that’s a negative (making everything feel slower) or a positive (allowing more time to process each beat of plot and character), I couldn’t say. Nonetheless, I would say that giving the pace a kick up the arse wouldn’t hurt.

    This season's best thingAnd that’s not to say these series never work in episodic form. For instance, events at the start of episode five, AKA The Octopus, see Jessica begin to force herself to be a better person. It’s one of the season’s strongest episodes, in part because of this burst of character development. Okay, it’s a bit blunt, in that she’s told she needs to improve and we see her consciously trying, but it pays off in a scene where she has to be empathetic to question a mentally-impaired witness. It’s not only Jessica who benefits from development: supporting cast members like Malcolm, Trish, and Jeri get meaty subplots to tuck into. Jeri’s is the best — indeed, her storyline might be the strongest bit of the entire season. There’s a fantastic, nuanced performance from Carrie Anne Moss — it feels like they’ve really worked to make use of her in a storyline that’s far more emotional and nuanced than what she’s had previously in these shows.

    Conversely, Trish’s storyline feels slapdash. She falls off the wagon… until she runs out of her new drug, after which she’s fine. Well, more or less, because then they make it all about how she’s envious of Jessica’s powers. That’s a fine thread to pull — it’s been there all along — but some of the steps she takes as a result… it feels a bit much. Fundamentally it’s a good idea for her subplot, but I’m not sure it’s been well enough executed.

    As for the main story thread, although the season starts off in the mould of a superhero thriller (like most of these Netflix/Marvel shows), around the halfway mark it morphs into a family drama. A family drama where people have superpowers, and get shot, and debate the ethics of murder and running away to non-extradition countries, but, y’know, some families are unique. It also does the material the courtesy of digging into it. Several times the season reaches what looks like an ending, and in other shows would be, then pushes past it into what happens next; the psychological reality for these characters. That’s what the whole season is about, really: these characters as people, not as heroes or villains or whatever.

    Heroes, villains, or just people?For me, it lost its way a bit again in the final pair of episodes — there are still really good bits, but others feel like a wearisome rehash of plot beats familiar from other superhero/thriller series. Eventually it comes to a good ending — there’s a surprising resolution to the plot, plus an epilogue that lays some intriguing hints for a third season (an inevitability, surely?) — but the faffery of episodes 12 and 13 to get us there… there were more streamlined ways to do this, I think. Or, considering the mandated episode count they have, more interesting ways to have spent the time. So it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the best of the half-dozen Netflix/Marvel shows.

    Strike  Career of Evil
    Strike: Career of EvilThe latest Strike adaptation (and the last for at least a couple of years) was the best so far, I thought — a mysterious, reasonably complicated case, and plenty of character stuff for our likeable pair of heroes, too. The latter is certainly a big part of the series and its appeal, sometimes to the detriment of the actual investigation storyline, I suspect. By which I refer to the fact that some fans of the books have complained that the series isn’t devoting enough time to each adaptation, necessitating big cuts to the plot to fit into just two hours. I’ve not read them myself, and such editing didn’t feel noticeable during the first series, but Career of Evil did feel a little hurried at times. It’s hard to deny that the BBC have raced through their adaptations a little too fast. And now we have to wait goodness-knows-how-long to find out if Robin manages to stay married to her new husband. At the start I thought this would be a series that avoided the clichéd will-they-won’t-they between the male and female leads, but clearly it isn’t. Really, I don’t care too much if they get together or not, but her husband’s a bit of a dick and I look forward to her ditching him.

    Shetland  Series 4
    Shetland series 4In almost the polar opposite to Strike, Shetland is no longer based on the books that inspired it (even though I believe there are one or two they’ve not adapted), and it takes a whole six episodes to tell its story. Actually, I feel a bit daft calling Strike’s case “complicated” now, because it’s as nothing to this series of Shetland, which sees DI Perez and his team struggling with both a 23-year-old cold case, which has resurfaced because the convicted murderer has just been awarded a mistrial, and a new murder with clear echoes of the first. If that wasn’t enough, the investigation leads them to Norway, where both the suspicious activities of an oil drilling firm and the plotting of a far right nationalist group come into play. Shetland has always had a bit of Scandi Noir about it (must be something to do with the cold northern environs), but it strays even further into that territory by, you know, actually going there.

    All this while dealing with the continued fallout of events from last series in a respectful, mature, understated, and relevant manner. It might look like “just a cop show”, but there’s some depth here; and when everything finally comes together and the truth is revealed in the final episode, there are some revelations and developments that really hit home — it’s sad and horrifying, without wallowing in it or going tonally overboard. Good news: a fifth series has already been commissioned.

    Nailed It!  Season 1
    Nailed It!Not a reality show about manicurists (that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it? If I was making a reality show about manicurists I’d be annoyed this took my title), but rather Netflix’s answer to The Great British Bake Off (possibly literally: they were miffed they didn’t get a chance to bid for it when it went to Channel 4). It’s not about super-skilled amateur bakers, though, but rather normal folk who attempt the kind of grand bakes you sometimes see online… and fail miserably. It’s like that bit of An Extra Slice where they look at viewers’ photos, only turned into a whole programme. It’s also very American — brash, loud, fast, unnuanced… It’s also the way it’s shot and edited, very much more like American reality series than British ones, but I shan’t bore you with a Media Studies-esque explanation of that.

    So, for all those kinds of reasons, the first episode nearly put me off, but I stuck with it and it turns out it’s quite fun once you get used to it. It’s not as nice as Bake Off, but they’re not mocking the contestants either. Sure, they want them to mess up (they’re given ludicrously tight deadlines and bloody hard bakes), but it’s in a spirit of fun. Another difference between the UK and US shows: on Bake Off taste and decoration are equally important, leaning towards the former; on Nailed It, they do taste the bakes, but all that really matters is how they look. I mean, if you could distill what the rest of us think of as Americanism into a baking show…

    Lucifer  Season 1
    LuciferHaving finally finished Castle last month, there was a gap in our viewing schedule for a light crime-of-the-week cop show. Lucifer seemed to fit the bill. For one thing, it’s been knocking around for a few years now, meaning there’s a nice backlog of episodes to get through. Loosely inspired by a DC comic, it’s about the actual Devil quitting Hell and setting up a life in Los Angeles, where — for one reason or another — he ends up helping the police investigate murders. Meanwhile, he enters therapy, and there’s an angel knocking around who wants to drag him back to Hell. The series nicely balances the bog-standard US-cop-show case-of-the-week stuff with the ongoing fantastical subplots, powered by a cast of engaging characters with conflicting motives. Best of all is the lead, Tom Ellis, giving a deliciously charming and slightly camp turn as the Prince of Darkness himself as he tries to become a better person. I’m not sure the series has really made any waves (especially on this side of the pond, what with it being an Amazon Prime exclusive here), but it’s really rather good. I mean, it’s not going to be challenging Quality TV for greatest-of-all-time status — it’s still a case-of-the-week buddy show when you boil it down — but it’s done well and a lot of fun.

    Also watched…
  • The 90th Academy Awards — A solid but uneventful ceremony this year, I thought; a bit like everyone was playing it safe after last time.
  • Absentia Season 1 Episodes 7-10 — I was quite positive about this last month, but the second half of the series squandered my goodwill. It got a bit too daft, and the characters were too stupid (especially the husband). If it gets recommissioned I’m not sure I’ll bother.
  • The Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3Bake Off’s channel change means it’s on its third charity, with its most unwieldy title yet. Watching celebrities fail at baking is still just as amusing though.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 1-2 — Some people seem to write this sitcom off without a second thought, I guess because from the outside it looks a bit old-fashioned. Maybe it is. But it makes me laugh pretty consistently — what else do you want from a sitcom? Plus, this year’s second instalment, Escape Room, was a great bottle episode.

    Things to Catch Up On
    13 CommandmentsThis month, I have mostly been missing The X Files season 11, which finished earlier this week in the US (and comes to the same end here in the UK with a double-bill on Monday). I watched (and reviewed, natch) its first episode last month, but that was so uninspiring that I haven’t yet bothered to continue. I’m expecting the rest of the season to be an improvement (not that I’ve read any reviews — I’m just basing that on the show’s own form), but still, here we are. Other than that, I can’t think of anything new that I’ve missed; although I did happen to see an ad on Channel 4’s app for Belgian import 13 Commandments, which they reckon “makes Se7en look like Sesame Street”. As Se7en’s my favourite film, I feel I should give that a shot, but I don’t know when I’ll find time for its 13 episodes.

    Next month… Look away! Netflix’s vile family dramedy returns for a second series of Unfortunate Events.

  • Black Panther (2018)

    2018 #23
    Ryan Coogler | 134 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Xhosa & Korean | 12A / PG-13

    Black Panther

    Black Panther is not the first superhero movie to star a person of colour in the leading role — not by a long, long shot. But it does look set to be the most successful. In part that’s down to its association with the MCU (the last time one of their movies grossed under $500 million was the first Captain America, 13 movies ago), but it’s also due to a general underrepresentation of non-white heroes right now — Black Panther may not be the first, but it may be the most mainstream. It also won’t hurt that it’s a very good action-adventure movie in its own right, and one that feels especially fresh thanks to tapping into an under-utilised cultural milieu.

    Picking up shortly after the events that brought the title character into the MCU (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), the film begins with T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), returning home to be crowned king of his country, Wakanda. A scientifically advanced African nation, with incredible technology fuelled by its deep reserves of the extraordinary metal vibranium, Wakanda has kept its abilities hidden from the rest of the world, who believe it’s a third world country of farmers. However, T’Challa must face forces from within and without who think Wakanda should play a greater role on the global stage — in particular long-time enemy of the state Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his new partner in crime Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to rule Wakanda and then the world.

    The name's Panther. Black Panther.

    A villain who wants to rule the world? Black Panther doesn’t spell out his goal quite that bluntly, I don’t think, but that’s what it is. It’s just one of several clues that this is, in many ways, a James Bond movie… only one where James Bond is a black African king with superpowers. The film’s whole structure is more Bond than Marvel, though: most obvious is the gadget-explaining Q scene, but then it becomes a globetrotting adventure (the film sets significant sequences in California, Nigeria, London, and Busan (though they don’t get there by train, thankfully)), complete with undercover operatives, a casino, car chases, and a plot with significant geopolitical elements. I’m not claiming you can map this one-for-one onto the Bond template, but the inspiration (consciously or not on the part of the filmmakers) is certainly there. One Letterboxd user described it as “The Lion King meets Skyfall”, which might sound pithy but is also surprisingly accurate — and Skyfall in particular, not just any old Bond film; but there we’d be getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that for you to think about yourself after you’ve seen the movie.

    An even more significant influence, for numerous reasons, is African culture. Much has been made of the film having a predominantly black cast (aside from (to use an already well-worn joke) a couple of ‘Tolkien’ white guys), but it fully embraces that too. It isn’t nominally set in Africa with faces that happen to be of a different colour to the blockbuster norm — African traditions, designs, and ways of life have been woven throughout the film. Are they real ones the filmmakers co-opted or were they just inspired by the iconography of the continent? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t think so. It’s a different flavour on the blockbuster stage, and that adds freshness to just about everything.

    African culture, real or imagined

    For one, it helps the film to look beautiful. It’s colourful without being cartoonish, the vibrant palette coming through via costumes and locations in a very real way. Design is naturally a big part of this — make-up; costumes; however the production design department breaks down across locations, sets, props, etc, etc. They were obviously able to cut loose, finding inspiration from different places to usual (i.e. Africa) and imagining a whole alternate world, similar to ours but a bit more Sci-Fi.

    There’s the light, too — this is frequently a gorgeously shot film. Not just the quality captured by DP Rachel Morrison (who made headlines recently when she was Oscar nominated for Mudbound), but also the shot choices and editing — it’s filmic, whereas too many Marvel movies look like TV but with a humungous effects budget. Director Ryan Coogler stages the action well too. Across the board, the visuals don’t feel so generically “Marvel”, while also not forcing themselves so far outside the house style that it doesn’t feel like A Marvel Movie. Put another way, it’s probably not that radical, but it is fine-tuned.

    The music is oftentimes striking as well, with Ludwig Göransson’s score and various songs* mixing different styles for a heady but effective blend. In fact, the music occasionally achieves a feel or atmosphere that I don’t think Marvel’s usually-generic soundtracks have reached before, and not necessarily ones you’d expect.

    Suited up

    The film is rich and fresh in plenty of other ways too. The story is loaded with varied thematic concerns: there’s politics, both on the world stage and internal; the battle between tradition vs modernity; the pros and cons of both isolationism and being open to the world; issues of colonialism and its aftereffects (and the morality of a possible reversal thereof)… Obviously race is a factor as well, but in specific ways rather than some kind of generic “hey, look, black people can do this too!” I feel like there are many different things to read into and out of this film — numerous facets that could be focused on either singularly or in various combinations — and that, actually, the film would reward such a close reading, rather than falling apart when put under a microscope.

    Yet another thing it juggles well in this mix are the characters and the performances behind them. There are a lot of people to get to know here, but they’re all so effectively sketched that most are interesting, likeable, or memorable (or all three) within just a few moments. The film may be called Black Panther and he may be the central hero, but he’s not the only strong, capable, heroic figure here — far from it. Indeed, another aspect that will surely generate plenty of discussion is the film’s strong female roles. The Q figure, currently at the forefront of all Wakanda’s incredible technology, is T’Challa’s younger sister (Letitia Wright); the army (or security service? I’ll confess to not being 100% on Wakanda’s military structure) is made up of women, led (of course) by a female general (Danai Gurira); their best spy is also a woman (Lupita Nyong’o); and the Queen Mother (Angela Bassett) is a powerful figurehead who gives strong advice.

    Sisters, doing it for themselves

    The film doesn’t make a big to-do about all this — it doesn’t boast about how well these women are doing, or have people try to “put them in their place” only for them to overcome it — it just gets on with them being awesome. Obviously the race aspect is going to be the most talked about thing here, at least initially, but I’d wager Black Panther is second only to Wonder Woman in its foregrounding of exceptionally capable female characters in the superhero genre… and, considering how many of them there are in this, one might argue it surpasses even that. Although the lead’s still a bloke, so…

    Said bloke is an interesting lead character. He’s often quite quiet and thoughtful, very different to the wisecracking action men who typically lead Marvel movies. I’d guess he’s going to get on well with Captain America come Infinity War because they both have that stoic intelligence. It means that Chadwick Boseman doesn’t have the easy likeability of jokes to fall back on, as has so benefited… well, all those other Marvel leading men. But quiet strength is its own reward, if slightly slower burning, and T’Challa is ultimately a very engaging hero. On the other side of the equation, Michael B. Jordan’s villain is one of Marvel’s rare strong ones — in fairness, something they seem to have been improving since everyone pointed it out. While Erik is unquestionably a bad guy doing bad things, he has an understandable motivation, and Jordan even makes you feel for him a bit by the end.

    He just can't wait to be king

    Marvel Studios have often talked about trying to mix other genres into each of their movies, to try to add some much-needed variety to the familiar superhero movie formula. On the whole I’d say the effect is minimal — I’m always minded of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they tried to push as a ’70s-style political thriller, but which I thought was still very much a superhero movie with a dash of political thriller in the mix. Although maybe that’s enough. Anyway, Black Panther is once again undoubtedly a superhero movie in more than just the literal sense that it’s adapted from a comic book about a superhero, but this particular mix of varied influences — some familiar (it’s not the first movie to imitate Bond), others less so (African culture in an action-adventure blockbuster) — does make it feel genuinely different to the norm.

    I know some people say this every time the studio releases a new movie, but it probably is Marvel’s best film to date. Nonetheless, I was going to give it 4 stars again; but the more I think about it, the more I feel like it’s time to break my duck and make this the first Marvel movie I’ve given:

    5 out of 5

    Black Panther is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

    It placed 12th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    * I’m sure there was a “songs by” credit, but I can’t remember the name and it doesn’t seem to be in any of the credits lists online. ^

    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. Its 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