Venom (2018)

2020 #181
Ruben Fleischer | 112 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / PG-13

Venom

The fad for shared universes, provoked by the success of the MCU, seems to be dying off: the Dark Universe, the DC Extended Universe, Fox’s X-Men films, the MonsterVerse, sundry others most of us can’t even remember — they all either died a quick, brutal death, or circumstances have wiped them out. Even those that are ongoing have either abandoned close interconnectedness (like the DCEU) or don’t have long-term plans (the MonsterVerse, which has nothing announced beyond Godzilla vs. Kong). The MCU still seems to be going strong (although we haven’t actually had a new MCU movie in over a year now, so who knows what the future will hold?), but other than that? Everyone seems to have realised the formula is impossible (or too much hard work) to replicate.

The exception lies in Sony’s desire to launch a superhero universe out of the one character whose rights they own: Spider-Man. It started when they abandoned Spider-Man 4 to go the reboot route with The Amazing Spider-Man, the sequel to which teased all sorts of stuff to come, some of which was announced. Those movies’ failure to live up to their titles (i.e. they were not amazing, in any respect) saw such plans cancelled, but it seems Sony don’t give up so easily — even after they loaned out Spider-Man himself to the MCU, moves to form their own universe have continued.

Which is what brings us to Venom. For those not in the know, he started life as a Spider-Man villain (if you’re not a comic book reader, you’re most likely to know him from his appearance in Spider-Man 3, a move forced by the studio that contributed to the film’s relative failure), but he later became an anti-hero in his own right, which positions him quite nicely for Sony’s first actually-filmed-and-released foray into a shared Spidey universe. (A lot of the other Spider-Man characters they own the rights to are villains, though after the success of Joker I guess they’ll feel emboldened to attempt villain-centred films.) And, to the surprise of some, Venom earnt over $850 million at the global box office, making it the 7th highest grossing film of 2018. Sony’s Spider-Man-universe-without-Spider-Man is definitely underway (there’s a sequel due next year, alongside other Spidey-related films both ready for release and in active development).

Venomous

But enough about future plans, because perhaps one reason Venom has been such a success at launching a new universe is that it didn’t try too hard. Unlike The Mummy or Batman v Superman, this isn’t a film bogged down with characters and references designed to tee-up future spin-offs. It’s an entirely standalone adventure, in which struggling journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) bonds with an alien symbiote that can take over his body and do powerful things. The alien is one of several brought to Earth by the explorations of Elon Musk-esque tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). In the mould of many an overconfident movie scientist before him, Drake hasn’t bargained on the aliens having their own agenda — to invade Earth and eat the populace, i.e. us. But for some reason Brock’s alien, Venom, takes a liking to the planet and vows to protect it.

It takes the movie quite a while to get to that point, mind. Sorry if you were wary of spoilers, but, I mean, it’s hardly a surprise that (a) a race of aliens that look like Venom are going to turn out to have vicious motives, and (b) the titular character is going to turn out to be a good guy who wants to save us. There’s certainly a place for slow-burn movies that take their time to get to the point or to reveal the monster, but I’m not sure a summer superhero blockbuster is one of them. While Venom isn’t exactly boring until Venom turns up, it does feel like we’re going through motions until we get to what we’ve come for, i.e. a crazy powerful alien kicking ass and biting off heads.

It feels further unbalanced because Venom is actually quite short. You might’ve clocked the 112 minute (aka 1 hour 52 minutes) running time and thought that sounded pretty reasonable (even if nowadays most blockbusters are well over 2 hours), but the actual content of the movie runs only a little over an hour-and-a-half, topped up by a long credits scroll and a lengthy post-credit promo clip for Into the Spider-Verse. (I can see why they included that in cinemas, but leaving it in the home release feels unnecessary. Apparently it’s cut from some digital versions.) According to IMDb, Hardy has said that half-an-hour or so was cut from the film, including his favourite sequences. Why those cuts were made and what exactly went, I don’t know, but even in the released version it feels like they could’ve slimmed down the first 50 minutes and put in more of Venom himself.

Note the lack of Venom

Partly this is the plot suffering from having to be an origin story, with all the usual issues that brings: a lot of time spent on setup; a villain who’s sidelined for the bigger point of Eddie and Venom finally coming together. Once it reaches that point, it’s allowed to indulge in the barminess of the character and the situation a little. All while playing safely within a PG-13 box, of course. Venom is kind of a ’90s teenager’s idea of what it means to be edgy and dark, and by staying faithful to that the film version consequently feels quite like an early-’00s superhero movie. There’s even an Eminem theme song. It reminds you how far superhero movies have come, though. I mean, they were hardly held in the highest esteem back then (aside from breakout examples, like the first couple of X-Men and Spider-Man movies), and it’s not just time that has changed attitudes but also developments in how they present themselves. But now, that it’s a bit of a throwback is part of Venom‘s charm — or another reason to dismiss it, if there’s no nostalgia in that for you.

Certainly, the cast are all better than this. Sometimes that elevates it — Hardy is having a ball talking to himself and doing random shit like climbing in lobster tanks — but other times it feels like people are here for a payday. Riz Ahmed’s character arc is gradually whittled down to nothing, replaced by a CGI monster. And what made four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams decide this was a part worth her time? (Turns out the answer is “the chance to work with Tom Hardy.” But I’m sure the cheque didn’t hurt either.) Hardy has spoken a few times about how he wanted to make a movie his son could actually see. A superhero movie seems a good shout for that but I don’t know that Venom was the right pick. The film is clearly aiming for a PG-13 (there’s only one “fuck”; it’s not particularly gory), but the horror sequences and violence were enough to push it up to a 15 over here. And that’s probably fair — there are twisted and broken bodies (even if they then fix themselves), and several instances of biting off heads (it’s not shown in graphic detail, but we’re fully aware that’s what’s happening).

Real mature

All things considered, I wasn’t sure what I thought of Venom. It’s kind of fun, in a juvenile way (juvenile like teenagers who think violence and edgy dialogue is “grown up”). But it’s also kind of rubbish in places, in part because it can be so juvenile (juvenile like… yeah, same again). There’s a chance it’ll tee-up a superior sequel — with the origin stuff out of the way, hopefully we can expect a more original storyline; and, as it was such a hit, maybe that’ll allow the filmmakers leeway to go even barmier. For one thing, a brief sequel tease suggests Woody Harrelson is all ready to Woody Harrelson it up. Until then, I guess this’ll do as a crazy placeholder.

3 out of 5

Venom is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

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.

The Past Month on TV #43

Between trips away and rotten colds, my posting (and viewing) this month has been in rather short supply. That explains both why this TV column is later than normal and why it covers series that the constantly-churning “Netflix new releases” discussion cycle has already moved on from. (Next month: belated commentary on The Umbrella Academy, maybe.)

As well as Netflix shows that came out a while ago, there’s a BBC show that finished a while ago, an Amazon series that isn’t really out yet, and some thoughts on last weekend’s Academy Awards.

The Punisher  Season 2
The Punisher season 2Earlier this month the news everyone had been expecting was finally made official: Netflix was cancelling The Punisher and Jessica Jones, thereby bringing to an end the era of the MCU on the streamer. Altogether it will have produced 13 seasons and 161 hours of television, ending with the release of Jessica Jones season three sometime later this year — which will be a more appropriate time to get into this, I guess. For now, there’s just the second — and, as it turned out, final — season of The Punisher.

Picking up a year after the first season, initially it seems like this will be an all-new tale for the eponymous antihero (Jon Bernthal) when he finds himself protecting an ungrateful teenager, Rachel (Giorgia Whigham), from a group of highly-trained assassins who want to kill her for reasons she and they won’t divulge. There’s plenty of mystery around the girl, the villain hunting her (a religious fundamentalist type who goes by the name Pilgrim (Josh Stewart)), what everyone’s motives are, and what the bigger picture might be. At one point our heroes get arrested by small-town sheriffs and the series gives over a whole episode to an Assault on Precinct 13 homage. It’s all good.

But then stuff left hanging from season one begins to creep in. No surprise, really: that first run did the usual Marvel/Netflix thing of introducing us to a character destined to become a more famous character, then spent the whole season getting there. In this case its Punisher nemesis Jigsaw (also the villain of Punisher: War Zone, FYI), aka Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), Frank Castle’s friend-turned-enemy whose face he lacerated in the season one finale. So, they were due a rematch. Unfortunately, here Russo’s storyline plays out with that other regular fault of Marvel/Netflix series: it… takes… ages… to… get… anywhere… And as we keep cutting away from Frank and his new ward to spend time on Russo, it’s slow pace is even more distracting.

Frank and RachelThe two plots do converge somewhat, naturally, with Frank having to deal with the machinations of Russo/Jigsaw at the same time as Pilgrim is coming after him. That means the series has to juggle the two stories as well, and it does that less than effectively, swinging back and forth between which it wants to focus on. For me, the problem remained the same: the new plot is interesting with a lot of potential, while the season one hangovers feel like little more than unfinished business. The latter become stretched out to fill the season, going round in circles, rather than being dealt with succinctly. Conversely, with that stealing so much space, the Pilgrim and Rachel story doesn’t get the screen time it needs or deserves. It seems like there’s a half decent balance at first, but that ultimately goes awry, and the ins and outs of the new storyline (I keep wanting to call it the “main” story, but that’s only true in a couple of early episodes) aren’t as explored as much as they should be. Considering there’s some interesting potential in there (Frank and Rachel have great chemistry, and the plot shapes up as a kind of political thriller, in a 24-esque way), it’s a shame it goes under utilised. It also comes to a great conclusion, showing it’s the real star element of the season. That said, the ending to the Russo story is good too (and so, combined, they make for an exciting finale), it just shouldn’t‘ve taken up so much time.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Punisher’s second season a disappointment — there’s a lot to like here for fans of the character and the series — but its lack of focus is a drawback. On the bright side, it wraps things up enough that this is an okay place to leave it. It’s open-ended for more adventures, of course (the across-the-board cancellations came so late in the day that none of the shows had planned for them), but there aren’t direct “what happens next?” questions like in Luke Cage or Iron Fist. Considering the chances of a revival on a Disney-owned platform seem to be 50/50 at best, at least there’s that.

Russian Doll  Season 1
Russian DollYou spend years wondering if anyone could re-do the premise behind Groundhog Day in a different way (well, maybe you don’t, but the thought has crossed my mind), and then several come along… not exactly at once, but in relatively close succession. So, following Happy Death Day, which saw a college student having to repeatedly relive her birthday which was also the day of her murder, now we have Russian Doll, which casts co-creator Natasha Lyonne as a thirtysomething New Yorker having to repeatedly relive her birthday which is also the day she dies. Well, she’s not being murdered, at least. Indeed, the series has a few tweaks and additions to the basic premise up its sleeve, but to say too much would spoil it — although the trailer gives away at least one biggie. Of course, as this is a streaming series, it takes three whole episodes before it reaches that major game-changer.

Fortunately, the show has other things to commend it, primarily the characters. Well, one character, and a bunch of quirky funny types. But hey, this is a comedy, so we can let that slide. And as for that one actually fleshed-out character, Lyonne’s heroine, the series really makes itself about her, her attitude to life, and how the situation affects her. It’s all good stuff. Plus, if you’re here for the plot, although it takes a little while to reveal its unique twists on the formula, once they’re out in the open they build up into an intriguing mystery. And, though it starts out looking like just a comedy in the vein of those other films that have used this concept before, it actually evolves into something more psychological, darker and more complex.

Frankly, one of the main reasons I started watching Russian Doll was because I expected it to be just Groundhog Day / Happy Death Day rehashed as a TV series — that’s what it looked like from the trailers, and I was partly expecting to be able to justifiably complain about that if I’d actually watched it. But, at the same time, I do like both those films, and Russian Doll’s trailer promised at least one new twist on the formula, so I was prepared to give it a fair shout to prove itself. In the end, it deserved the latter. Sure, of course the basic premise is similar to those previous films, but it reimagines it with a dark and foul-mouthed wit that’s distinctly its own, plus it takes the concept down some entirely new avenues. I don’t know how they’d do future seasons (it was originally pitched as three seasons, but it sounds like that evolved during production, so maybe they don’t have as clear an idea as they once did), but I’ll be here for them if they come along.

Hanna  Season 1 Episode 1
Hanna the seriesAmazon are adapting Joe Wright’s 2011 film Hanna into a TV series. Apparently that was commissioned back in 2017, which I don’t recall hearing about, and I feel like I would’ve remembered because I loved the film (never did get round to writing a fuller review, though). Anyway, the first I did hear of it was when they made the first episode available for 24 hours as a preview (the whole first season will be released at the end of March).

Unsurprisingly, the story has been extended to fit its new TV format — this first hour only covers the first act of the film. At this pace, it’s very plausible it’ll take the rest of the season to get through the rest of the movie’s plot (and I’m sure they’ve got some tricks up their sleeve to extended it beyond that). But, surprisingly, it doesn’t feel horrendously slow or artificially drawn-out. This isn’t a mile-a-minute action show, but its pacing is no worse than most other streaming series, here with the added excuse that it’s setting the scene. Indeed, that’s arguably the episode’s biggest problem when viewed in isolation: it feels a bit like the real plot will kick off in episode two, and this is all prologue. On the other hand, in that sense it works all the better when released as tease ahead of the main series. Either way, it grabbed my attention enough that I’ll continue with it when the rest is released.

Les Misérables  Episodes 4-6
Les Misérables
The second half of the BBC’s new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel (gotta be careful to be clear about that, apparently) is all set in the story’s final time period — Cosette is now a young woman, desperate to see the outside world; Marius is now a young man, whose friends seem desperate to die for a revolution; and Javert is still Javert, still desperate to catch Valjean, presumably out of sheer spite and/or pride. All the characters, connected as much by coincidence and chance as by choice or action, come together around the June Rebellion of 1832, and… well, you either know the plot or you don’t want me to spoil it for you. This remains a handsomely mounted production until the last, however, including pulling off the action at the barricades with suitable scale and impact.

That stuff always feels like it should be the climax to me. In a literal sense, it’s the big action set piece, and is the end of the road for several major characters. But no, there’s plenty left after it, for good (the final confrontations between Javert and Valjean) or ill (Thenardier in the sewers; the unearned redemption of Marius’ grandfather). I rewatched the film of the musical when I was exactly halfway through this series, and by comparison most of the movie felt like a long “previously on” montage. The exception is this post-barricade stuff, where the BBC version, conversely, feels drawn-out compared to the economy of the musical’s telling. The final part was almost quarter-of-an-hour longer than the first five, and I couldn’t help but feel a little more streamlining would’ve helped. Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint amidst what has been a typically excellent adaptation by the Beeb.

In the UK, the whole series remains available on iPlayer for the foreseeable future, while in the US it will air on PBS from April 14th.

The 91st Academy Awards
The 91st Academy AwardsThe run-up to this year’s Oscars seemed to be mired in a mix of controversy and disinterest. The former was provoked by a variety of poor decisions by the Academy, including fiascoes around a Best Popular Film award, over who would host (it was Kevin Hart, then it wasn’t, then it was no one), and over the decision to present some awards during the ad breaks (which was scrapped, thankfully). This whole palaver is part of what fed the disinterest, along with a slate of nominees that was regarded to be generally uninspiring. As it turned out, plenty of people still tuned in (US viewing figures were slightly up from last year) and plenty of conversation was sparked. Other people can dig into it in more depth than me (and have, of course, considering the ceremony was days ago), but I will say I was overjoyed for Olivia Colman (definitely the best speech, although a couple of others were quite good too) and Spider-Verse, was quite pleased Black Panther won Best Score (I don’t know if it was actually the best overall, but I really liked it), and its other two victories (costumes and production design) were also welcome, and Spike Lee’s ecstatic win was another top moment. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, obviously, with Best Picture in particular being an underwhelming result; though I’m not as miffed about Bohemian Rhapsody’s multiple wins as some people (even if its awards for sound editing and mixing were more about “most” than “best”).

The big takeaway from the night should probably be that going host-less worked. Queen’s opening performance was great (because Queen), and the non-monologue monologue from Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler was another highlight of the ceremony. Things still ran smoothly, and there were no stupid asides like bringing normal people into the auditorium or whatever — cutting those time wasters was a much better idea than cutting actual awards. Maybe being host-free is the way forward, though I think they’ll need to continue finding ways to handle the monologue section going forward — the show needs some kind of intro, and a gentle ribbing of the nominees is an appropriate way to do it, I think.

Also watched…
  • The British Academy Film Awards 2019 — The BAFTAs also happened. We gave a better Best Film, but further evidence that maybe a host-less ceremony is a good idea: Joanna Lumley is a national treasure, but her opening monologue was excruciating.
  • Great News Season 2 Episodes 8-13 — The series finale of this cancelled-too-soon newsroom sitcom is titled Early Retirement. So, that’s a nice meta gag to console ourselves with, at least.
  • Mark Kermode’s Oscar Winners A Secrets of Cinema Special — Kermode dissects the formula to make an Oscar winner in this special of his excellent series. It’s available on iPlayer for a few weeks yet.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Umbrella AcademyThis month, I have mostly been missing The Umbrella Academy, as I mentioned at the start. The trailers look good (love a bit of Hazy Shade of Winter), and it seems like critical and audience reaction has been positive, so it’s definitely on my watchlist. I’m also yet to start the new series of Scottish crime drama Shetland, or The Missing’s much-anticipated spin-off Baptiste. I expect I’ll be saving those up for a little while yet.

    Next month… HBO have set the Deadwood revival/finale movie to air this spring, which is, y’know, soon. I watched season one when it first aired, thought it was great, but when season two came around I found myself thoroughly lost and eventually gave up. I imported the US Blu-ray box set years ago (it’s bursting with special features vs. the UK’s completely bare bones release), and it’s been sat on my shelf waiting ever since, like so many non-pressing TV series nowadays. Well, I guess now is its time…

  • 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.

    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.

    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. ^

    The Past Month on TV #27

    A slightly earlier than normal TV review this month, to get ahead of all the Christmas telly — but there’s still plenty to discuss…

    The Punisher  Season 1
    The PunisherThe fourth live-action iteration of Frank Castle, Marvel’s murderous anti-hero (and people moan about Spider-Man reboots), debuted in Daredevil season two and was greeted so positively that now he’s got his own spin-off series. And “spin-off” is not an inaccurate descriptor, because this very much launches out of the events of Frank’s storyline in Daredevil — which makes it all the more annoying that Netflix care not for “previously on”s: Daredevil season two was over 18 months ago; a little refresher would be nice.

    You see, the plot revisits the Punisher’s origins: his family were killed in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out, leading him to kill the criminals responsible. He thinks that mission is complete, but the season begins (more or less) with him discovering new intel that suggests his family’s murder may not have been so random, and it links back to his actions when he was in the military. This also serves as a launchpad for the series to tackle other war-related issues, primarily the psychological wellbeing of veterans. With such serious themes it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s very little here that’s outright comic-book-y here — no superpowers, for sure; not even veiled references to the big names of the MCU movies, which we’ve had in every other Marvel Netflix show. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact the series is so obviously spun out of Daredevil and has the Marvel logo at the start, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a Marvel show at all.

    Some people think this removes the Punisher’s USP. In and of himself he’s just a violent man out for revenge — action cinema is stuffed to bursting with such anti-heroes. What makes Frank unique is he’s that kind of character but in a world where super-powered and super-moral people exist. So would The Punisher have been more interesting if, instead of a very grounded military conspiracy storyline, it had something to do with Frank clashing with superpowered people? I don’t know. It certainly would’ve been a different show. As it stands, this may be a show for people who don’t typically like Marvel shows. So was Jessica Jones before it, but this is for different people who don’t like Marvel shows — people like Jason Statham, maybe.

    Jon BernthalIn the title role, Jon Bernthal is fantastic. You can absolutely believe him as a revenge-driven psychopath capable of killing anyone and everyone, but also as a kind-of-charming strong-but-silent type with a heart and moral code who will definitely do the right thing. I’ve seen some critics and viewers opine that now is the wrong time for a series about a hero who just murders indiscriminately. I say those people definitely haven’t watched this Punisher. Although the plot is a conspiracy thriller, the series invests a lot of time in the emotional world of Frank Castle, making him human and moral rather than just a single-minded murder-machine. Bernthal makes what could be a very one-note role into a plausible human being; one who you believe might be able to find redemption and leave someday. And maybe that makes him even more tragic — he could find it; it’s possible… but likely? There’s the rub. As it’s also trying to engage with issues facing combat veterans once they return home, it makes for a clearly different, more serious flavour for an MCU production. How successfully it explores these weighty issues is more debatable.

    Many of these Marvel shows take their whole first season to fully complete the hero’s origin story, but The Punisher is stuck with the fact that Castle already became The Punisher during his Daredevil appearance. So do they just ignore that story shape? No, of course they don’t — they shift it on to the villain! Therefore any comic book fan who knows what one character will ultimately become (no spoilers here!) is constantly teased with possibilities throughout the season until, eventually, as we should’ve known from the start, the transformation occurs in the finale. Why not really surprise us: do the transformation earlier and then wrap a character up within one season, rather than leaving them dangling for a possible next time? Comic books have to leave things dangling — they will all run for ever and ever; there can be no permanent solutions — but these TV series will end — whether it’s after a single season, or two, or five, or ten, they are without exception finite. That means you’re allowed to wrap a character up and move on to others.

    So, The Punisher is not an unmitigated success, but it does lend another flavour to the Marvel-Netflix landscape. I certainly hope we get to see more of Bernthal’s take on the character in the future.

    Detectorists  Series 3 Episodes 2-6
    Detectorists series 3The third and final series of BBC Four’s sitcom about a couple of mates whose hobby is metal detecting was every bit the equal of the first two runs, which saw the show place on my list of 10 Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years back in February. Its brilliance lies in how perfectly weighted it is: the characters are quirky, but also normal; their problems are grounded and realistic, without being glum and unduly serious; it’s frequently hilarious, but without slipping into gurning ‘Comedy’ territory; it’s kind and gentle, but without being dull; and it’s all very lovely and kind-hearted, without being twee or saccharine. It’s also beautifully put together by writer-director (and star) Mackenzie Crook — the storyline across the series was precisely constructed, and the photography is often a gorgeous showcase for the English countryside. A real gem that will be missed, though at least it came to a perfect conclusion.

    The Good Place  Season 1 Episodes 3-13
    The Good PlaceI only heard about this after its Big Twist was much-discussed online, so starting it was an exercise in knowing there was a big reveal awaiting. Fortunately, that knowledge doesn’t overshadow everything that comes before it. For those who still aren’t aware of it (especially as it’s only on Netflix on this side of the pond), it’s about a woman (Kristen Bell) who dies and goes to Heaven only due to an admin error, so she tries to better herself so that she’s deserving of her place. Other complications emerge as the season goes on, but that’s the premise. There’s a lot of plot for a sitcom — although it’s not necessarily immediately obvious, it tells a 13-episode story; this makes Netflix quite a natural home for it, actually, as it’s not your typical “every episode is fundamentally standalone” sitcom. But it’s also very funny in amongst all that, mining not only the characters and their foibles, but also the uncommon situation they’ve found themselves in. The shocker in the finale is just the icing on the cake. I hear season two has gone off the boil somewhat, but I’ll find out for myself once it’s all wrapped up.

    Also watched…
  • Armchair Detectives Series 1 Episode 1 — Game show in which contestants watch a murder mystery scene by scene and attempt to guess the perpetrator. It’s a fun idea (who doesn’t ‘play along’ while watching a whodunnit?), but it’s hampered by the dirt-cheap quality of the drama. That’s to be expected on a daytime game show budget, but still…
  • Bounty Hunters Series 1 Episodes 3-6 — If you saw the James Corden comedy-thriller The Wrong Mans, this is tonally very similar to that — not quite as elegantly done perhaps, but still pretty decent. If you like comedy-thrillers and haven’t seen The Wrong Mans, watch that first.
  • The Flash Season 4 Episodes 3-6 — After complaints about it getting too grim and self-serious, they’ve endeavoured to return The Flash to the lighter tone of its first season, in the process practically turning it into a comedy. I often find these CW superhero shows kinda laughable anyway, so, a little to my surprise, that’s working for me.
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 9-10 — Sad to (finally) reach the end of this fun action drama. The third series wasn’t quite on a par with the first two (the result of new showrunners, undoubtedly) but it still had its moments. It leaves a swashbuckling void in the schedules that I doubt anyone will bother to fill.
  • Would I Lie to You? Series 11 Episodes 1-4 — Is this the best panel show on TV? Could well be. Its genius lies in the elegant simplicity of its concept, a game anyone can play (and we can play along with at home), plus the sharp and quick wits of regulars Rob Brydon, David Mitchell, and Lee Mack. Almost a dozen series in and there’s no sign of the hilarity waning.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Blue Planet IIThis month, I have been missing so much stuff. There’s been the fourth series of Peaky Blinders on BBC Two (which concludes this week, so we’ll whizz through it sometime in the new year); the second season of The Crown on Netflix (also waiting for the new year now); the same streamer’s first ever miniseries, Godless; the immensely acclaimed Blue Planet II (now available in UHD on iPlayer, too!); and I’m behind on Arrow and The Flash so haven’t reached the four-show Arrowverse crossover. And those are just the ones I can remember right now.

    Next month… is January, but sometime before that I’ll likely review some Christmas TV.

  • Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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

    Thor: Ragnarok

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

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

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

    Not a buddy movie

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

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

    They're not buddies either

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

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

    She's definitely not got any buddies

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    The Past Fortnight on TV #22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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