Superman For All Seasons

I’m not certain there’s a movie from the 2010s about which I have grappled so much more than Man of Steel. I’ve seen it about 5 times in the time since it premiered in the summer of 2013, almost all of which took place within those last two years of my time as a film school undergrad (2013-’14) for various social reasons. Which in some ways makes me grateful that I’ve waited so long to finally drop a review proper ’round these parts, which could have gone either way between mutedly negative or mutedly neutral throughout the years. I don’t know flicked a switch in me what about the rewatch of Zack Snyder’s Superman movies back in March in anticipation of HBOMax’s release of the long-murmured-about Snyder Cut for 2017’s Justice League, but something did the trick in this watch and I finally moved up to strong positivity.

It might have just been the retrospect of where popcorn cinema has gone in the past 5 years, particularly superhero blockbusters, being more and more muted in personality. In 2013, particularly in the wake of the ill-advised attempt at feminism that was Sucker Punch, a Zack Snyder picture was the most unappealing concept for me. A Zack Snyder Superman – especially in the wake of the massive misread of one of my favorite works of literature, comic book or otherwise, Watchmen – was especially an unappealing concept for me. And sure enough, the resultant picture is absolutely emblematic of all of Snyder’s indulgences as filtered by an interest to at least capture that same grounded atmosphere of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, sharing the weaker link of that trilogy’s writers room in David S. Goyer and Nolan, Emma Thomas, and Charles Roven in the producers’ slate with Snyder’s regular producing partner Deborah. Those indulgences being slow-motion, color timing to the point of draining it away, and generally a sense of sound and fury that rivals Michael Bay.

Well, frankly the last few years have made me more and more hungry for indulgent blockbusters, with that 800-lb gorilla that is Disney literally outlawing any semblance of personality in their output. And I do mean this review as a one of a trilogy of documents of my “come to Jesus” moment with Snyder’s Superman trilogy so in spite of all the mean things I just said above and certainly the grievances I do still have with Man of Steel as a picture, I come to praise the film and not bury it.

Starting with its best foot forward: the origin story of Superman begins literally with his birth on Krypton, portrayed as a pulp science fiction planet with flying Avatar dragons and floating Meteora-esque mountains above the clouds bronzed-up just well enough to feel like it comes from the mind of the director of 300 (thought thankfully cinematographer Amir Mokri doesn’t embalm the soaring visuals with that heavy color, especially in a very marine-color sequence during this prologue). Sober scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is explaining to the High Council the environmental doom that Krypton is headed for, except that happens to conflict with the coup that militant General Zod (Michael Shannon) had scheduled on that same day, barging in to kill every council member in the room and insisting on Jor-El’s allegiance. Instead, Jor-El retrieve the genetic codex by which Kryptonian children are bred and hides it within the same escape pod through which he ejects his naturally birthed son, Kal-El, prior to Zod’s imprisonment after the coup has failed and Krypton’s inevitable destruction.

From here, we watch through impressively fractured chronology largely driven by the investigation of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to find out who this mysterious man (Henry Cavill) who constantly shows up to perform feats of bravery and mercy all ’round North America through physical marvels like holding a collapsing oil tanker in hellish heat long enough for the workers to escape. We learn expectedly that this is the same Kal-El, found in the pod by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) in Smallville, Kansas and raised as Clark Kent. And I think it’s particularly in this Rockwellian vision of Midwest Americana that Snyder and Goyer particularly excel. As Clark (who is portrayed as a child by Cooper Timberline and a teenager by Dylan Sprayberry) comes to learn the hard way that he’s not like other kids and his superhuman abilities like x-ray vision and incredible strength and speed, director and writer go all the way in on communicating just how depressed and alone this kid may be while his parents do what they can to ground him back to these earthy roots.

‘Round the time of Man of Steel‘s initial release, a lot of the criticism was to the treatment of Superman as something to be wary of, distanced in his godhood rather a point to aspire to like he is at his most beloved Golden and Silver Age comic book incarnations (there is another major criticism that we will discuss later on). And while I get the criticism, I’ve always found it a bit too closed-off towards a new approach to the character. We have the bright and optimistic Superman of the comics in Richard Donner’s 1987 Superman, which lest we forget is both one of my favorite comic book performances and my absolute favorite live-action comic book movie. If you need THAT Superman, it’s available. Even when I was not a fan of Man of Steel, I certainly found its decision to wonder “how would it feel to discover you are not of this world?” and to engage it in sincere melancholy to be genuinely interesting, even if Mokri and Snyder go a bit overboard on the color correction. Despite that color timing, they constantly find ways to frame Timberline, Sprayberry, and Cavill in emptiness so that the shots can do double duty in making him larger-than-life but also profoundly isolated, amplifying that emotional uncertainty and discomfort that one could argue Cavill’s lack of footing as the titular man of steel actually feels more appropriate to the journey Snyder and Goyer set out for him.

Just as appealing to me is the way that Snyder and Mokri openly ape Terrence Malick just as much as Nolan in their loving shots of wheat fields within that Kent farm that Clark would call his home and with such warm visuals, we understand how that’d be the case too. Malick-inspired movies are about a dime a dozen these days and I’m normally not fond of them (heck, we literally awarded Best Picture and Director Oscars to a Malick rip-off last month), but somehow Snyder’s diving into such a mode with full-on worship that bows its head towards nature similarly to Days of Heaven is very much impressive. Meanwhile, the Kent parents providing Clark with a bit more conflicted and morally dubious suggestions on what would make their son safe rather than fulfill his destiny as a protector of humanity which Costner and Lane successfully deliver as “parents trying their best to help and failing” rather than “adults who would rather see kids die in a bus crash”. Crowe, for his part, shapes this further by playing Superman’s birth father as clearly someone proud and invested in his child’s future but approaches it with chilly scientific interest in stone-faced delivery, like a more matter-of-factly Atticus Finch, and it pushes us to prefer the Kents as figures without disliking Jor-El.

I have made it about 1100 words in spending most of my time on the arguably the first third of the movie, largely because in my eyes… the first third of the movie is perfect. It sets up that grandiosity, that vulnerability, that humanity that makes Man of Steel feel so much more personal and engaged as a story of one guy realizing exactly what he has to be marvelously. But I have no illusions about Man of Steel being perfect and there did come a point in my rewatch where I had to acknowledge “OK, yes, this is why I wasn’t a big fan at first”. It creeps in slowly as the primary external conflict – General Zod’s arrival to Earth seeking conquest, which to Goyer’s credit, ties in well to Clark’s journey to Superman – interrupts Superman’s internal conflict with menace and the threat of 2010s popcorn cinema’s biggest bane, CGI explosion extravaganzas that have not an ounce of the quiet intensity that the Smallville sequences had.

And of course, those sequences pop their ugly head in and take up more space until the climax of Man of Steel turns out to be a colorless gray battle in the ruins of a city that brought up that second famous criticism of the movie, its ostensible lack of concern for collateral damage and the well-being of others (which we will indulge Snyder’s infamous response to on my next review). It not only deals with effects work that hasn’t aged nearly as well as we hoped (though certainly a good amount still survives), but it demolishes the structure of the movie as somehow Goyer determined that Superman vs. Zod was a second feature’s worth of material and added unnecessary further acts and it becomes the obvious point where Warner Bros. as a studio truly mandated Man of Steel resemble as much as any other loud and addle-brained summer blockbuster, especially that there Avengers movie except make it the dark version.

But it is not all bad: we get to witness a morbid vision of Earth as preferred by Zod, ostensibly action movie moments like Lois and Superman escaping Zod’s ship or Superman engaging the World Engine that actually lend themselves to further play with the classic Superman imagery (even if it is still annoying that Zack Snyder had conflated it with Jesus Christ imagery), and the most controversial moment of Snyder’s Superman ever really is one that I think plays extremely well in this character arc.

Most of all, I’ve saved the best element for last and it’s really telling that the weaker the movie gets, the more bravura it is to carry Man of Steel to the finish line. I am speaking of course of Hans Zimmer’s score for the film, which had already done brilliant work in the first few acts subtly seeding itself within the comforts of Clark’s upbringing but once we see him in the red and blue suit for the very first time… Zimmer’s compositions function as practically an ignition to the movie’s best sequence and the climax to all that wonderful character work it was doing trying to get Superman to become THE Superman, his first flight across the globe at high-speeds where Zimmer’s strings and horns soar along with him and feel so eager and elevating in their stirring bombast that we are right there with Cavill, rising in the skies and excited by our potentials. I wouldn’t dare call it superior to John Williams’ iconic march but it is a lot closer of a race than it has any right to be, possibly Zimmer’s career-best work (barring The Thin Red Line) and certainly a miracle of making us believe a man can fly just as the 1987 picture did.

As far as Zimmer carries Man of Steel, it turns out it doesn’t need to carry the movie all the way to the finish line. The final beats of the movie collect itself from all the brainless colorless anti-spectacle quickly enough to tie off the places Snyder, Goyer, and company all brought their new vision of Superman to and earn a sense of optimism to its final dialogue exchange that feel consistent with what we have seen (in fact, that same dialogue exchange makes me grin like a lunatic every time in its obviousness). Which just goes to remind us of where Snyder’s Superman comes from: it’s no less a figure of hope than Christopher Reeve’s beloved Boy Scout, just one that finds itself working harder to get there. Sure, this is a sad Superman, a depressed Superman even, but he is not a miserable Superman as all the biggest critics of the movie seem to claim and it took me a long minute to recognize that while it is cautious about a man of tomorrow standing among the people of Earth with a sense of apprehension and disbelief and distrust about the character’s presence, it is still no less awestruck at the miracle of him and gives exactly the sort of grand scope that such a character demands, just from a different perspective than we expected. A perspective that felt like the first step in Snyder becoming a lot more agreeable as a storyteller.

X-Farce

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Deadpool 2 is directed by David Leitch and, without identifying him until the closing credits (beyond a pretty funny “Directed by One of the Dicks who killed the Dog in John Wick” at the tail of a an amusing Bond credits gag complete with overqualified self-serious theme song by Celine Dion), you could instantly tell that this was a product of one of the best action filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Almost immediately, we jump into a montage of complex and extravagant combat sequences involving our titular invulnerable red-jumpsuit-donning Merc with a Mouth’s (Ryan Reynolds) growing business as an assassin (apparently only for bad people like human traffickers and drug kingpins). Each in a very distinct color palette like the cold blue pool-surrounded spa and green reflective high-rise bars with frenetic energy that matches the character’s interminable speech, topped off by the very best setpiece in the whole film: a single shot following a man fleeing from the carnage in a beeline while we watch Deadpool wreak havoc and slaughter everybody in the background, jumping around, shooting and slicing indiscriminately, ignoring a man on fire, and stealing a chainsaw until the man escapes into a panic room.

Now, I am not joking when I say that’s the best sequence in Deadpool 2, which sounds unpromising considering it’s only the first five minutes of a two hour movie. And that’s why I am happy to say even then, Deadpool 2 is pretty entertaining and a significant upgrade from its mostly annoying predecessor. I mean sure, it still has the handicap of being a platform for Reynolds (credited as co-writer alongside the returning Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and I wonder how much of that is the Spinal Tap rule of “he ad-libbed so much he may as well be credited”) to deliver unimpressive pop-culture-based quips, make heavy efforts at vulgarity, or call unsubtle attention to the superhero clichés being mocked, thereby dampening the hell out of any true bite in the attempted superhero parodying.

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It’s also a pretty dense movie considering the punchline is just “lol, don’t all superhero movies do this stuff?”. It kicks off with the attempt by Reynolds and company to explore Wade Wilson’s (Deadpool’s true identity) exploration of grief and emptiness (catalyzed by an already pretty infamous story decision) and this is constantly undercut by Reynolds’ dedication to playing class clown under the mask, which IS the point of the character but demands a balance Reynolds is barely capable of providing. It’s improved by the subject of Deadpool’s first “X-Men” mission provided by his persistent recruiter of steel Piotr “Colossus” Rasputin (Stefan Kapičić for voice and face capture with Andre Tricoteux standing in on set for the CG character), the young distrustful Russell “Firefist” Collins played with magnificent effect by Julian Dennison. Dennison’s approach to the character is not all that different from his already charming turn as the contentious delinquent Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a character that had a good amount of pent-up trauma informing his behavior and decisions.

Dennison turns that familiar territory into a sense of nervy hurt from the second we watch him surrounded by cops threatening desperately to kill anyone who approaches him, later on revealing a confused lonely desire for a friend that leads to unleashing one of the film’s surprise antagonists. It’s pretty hard to feel like there’s a more convincingly human performance in the whole movie, even while he’s calling Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) “Justin Bieber” or joking about sneaking pens into the steely foreboding mutant prison The Icebox via his butt. It works because both his desire to appear hardened and his genuinely pain-fueled rage come from the exact same place.

So yes, Dennison is one of Deadpool 2‘s best secret weapons, but I haven’t even finished discussing yet another layer of this overglutted screenplay. For the unsmiling cyborg Cable (Josh Brolin) comes from the future with his own vendetta against Russell, intent on killing the boy before Russell can set aflame to the venal fundamentalist headmaster (Eddie Marsan) that abused him and thus be locked on the path that ends with Cable’s family being massacred*. So Looper except Deadpool and Cable are coming from wildly different tones. Deadpool’s depression and newfound deathwish leads him eventually towards an epiphany that he can save Russell’s soul and move him towards a better path, leading to him being right in the crosshairs of Cable’s artillery requiring the recruitment of a special team of fellow mutants named X-Force.

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So there is a lot going on and Leitch moves through that material like one runs on a shallow lake: trying to rush as fast as one can, but having to push really hard to move one’s feet. That said, a good amount of the character work is pretty well-earned even despite the sloppiness with which they’re set up thanks to an intelligent cast: I’d daresay that Brolin might not be inventing the wheel here, but he’s a lot more interesting than his other big superhero tentpole of the summer. Brolin sells contrivances with sobriety just on the line between outrageous and self-aware so that Cable’s decisions later in the film feel like an evolution that mirrors Russell’s without killing the fun. Morena Baccarin takes a thankless treatment of her character (apparently also self-aware, though certain criticisms of her writing have caused the writers to shamelessly play stupid in interviews – SPOILERS for that link by the way) and turns it into the moral center to Deadpool’s arc, probably doing much more to make me feel for Deadpool’s sadness than Reynolds himself. So Leitch and company’s labored flopping in these plot tangents aren’t for naught: there is a sense of emotional satisfaction at the third act that I can’t recall feeling in a comic book film for a long time and I wasn’t expecting that for a screenplay mostly making me go “oh man, another joke or introduced character”.

I must admit to its credit these jokes got me laughing more often than the first Deadpool, whether a frankly mean-spirited punchline to the X-Force team’s motley of cameos (both of X-Men characters and screen personalities like the always welcome Terry Crews) or a physical gag involving cocaine or really any moment in which Zazie Beetz as Domino has to defend the existence of her superpower, which is being continuously lucky. I feel there’s more misses than hits because Reynolds’ motormouth is firing on all cylinders and T.J. Miller is present, but every once in a while even Reynolds scores a chuckle (Miller never does).

And once again, these are pretty exciting action setpieces on various levels. Leitch brings with him his dream team from 87Eleven Action Design: cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (the latter working with Dirk Westervelt and Craig Alpert though I assume they worked more on comedy or dramatic moments), all three of which know how to work together to give power to every piece of the constructed action and find room for cool money shots. In one scene, we get to watch Deadpool start with nothing but a brick and every face smash crunches on that soundtrack because Cable refuses to give him a gun, ending with the duo casually blasting the faces off their enemies with shotguns simultaneously. This is intercut with a fistfight of two CGI characters that gets momentum just by Sela’s camera movements, as if he’s being yanked around by those giants. Or even a slow-motion rube goldberg machine indicating the truth behind Domino’s abilities as she effortlessly action jumps her way through explosions and wrecks onto a moving van.

It’s certainly the messiest and least Leitch’s so-far three movies, but when you’re following up on Atomic Blonde, you have more than enough room to still deliver an enjoyable and charming enough piece of summer popcorn movie levity. That Deadpool 2 is able to accomplish that coming from such obnoxious material only proves my consistent faith in Leitch and his crew, Dennison, and Beetz. They were the reasons I rushed to the theater on opening night and the result was still a pleasant surprise.

*We do get to see Russell’s evil future self and I am very sorry to say that he is not played by Taika Waititi, which would immediately make this the best movie ever made.

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Some infinities are bigger than other infinities

Eh, I’m not gonna try to spoil the movie, but you’re probably not going to get general descriptions. Anyway, it’s been two weeks… you have seen the movie already.

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10 years down the line of a nakedly pre-ordained order of films of varying quality, nobody gets a cookie for observing how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe registers at this point as an assembly set of products developed to advertise each others’ existence and move us up to the next BIG EVENT picture, like an exhaustive bombarding of tentpoles.

Nor could that be an inherent point against Avengers: Infinity War. It’s hardly the first crossover created on that basis of self-generated hype. It’s not even the first Avengers movie to do that. It IS the first movie since Iron Man 2 to function more of an obligation/trailer sprinkling several references from previous installments (including a scene where the punchline is characters verbally recapping the last movie they were in).

It’s also attempting to trade off the strength of the previous Marvel film that directors Anthony and Joe Russo were involved in, Captain America: Civil War, a fun and breezy exercise in pairing up characters as scene partners and turning up some fun combinations of action and comedy. Which in turn was something the first Avengers accomplished as well on a similar scale. The novelty and fun from that movie didn’t come from any stakes or tension, but from how these different personalities get to collide both verbally and physically.

I can’t say that novelty translates well to Avengers: Infinity War, where it wants to accomplish that levity but demands those stakes are activated like Thanos (Josh Brolin) activates his gauntlet. The result is a tonal juggle between doom harbinging (with most of the characters in one storyline having their lines be some variation on “Thanos is coming, we are going to die!”) and the modus operandi of the MCU’s comedic bathos with extended scenes of snappy banter trying to one-up each other. It is less fun to witness Sorcerer Supreme Master of the Mystic Arts Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and billionaire genius playboy inventor Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) try to see who has the bigger dick than, say, Civil War having Iron Man encourage naïve high-schooler Peter “Spider-Man” Parker (Tom Holland) with him responding in idol worship or Stark and temperamental monster scientist Bruce “Incredible Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) bonding over science and stuff in The Avengers. It feels just like an improv group trying to one-up each other instead and it brings a lot of attention to the fact that most of their characters are some slight variation on the same Whedon-esque egotism with heart.

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In that turn, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely dealt with just two different story strands that were going in the same direction anyway. Avengers: Infinity War trades up from 10 above-the-line named stars in that last film to 19 and now we have four different plot strands going on with one thoroughline between them: the afore-mentioned demented alien despot Thanos, who had been watching in the shadows since the first Avengers, wields the Infinity Gauntlet and seeks the six different cosmic Infinity stones that will power that powerglove enough to accomplish his goal of balancing the universe (read: kill half of its inhabitants). Thanos acquires most of the stones with relative ease but two in particular are in the possession of characters with a lot of fight in them, so…
Plot Strand #1 – Doctor Strange is kidnapped by one of Thanos’ CGI Star Wars henchmen due to his tenacious guarding of the Time Stone, with Iron Man and Spider-Man racing to rescue him.
Plot Strand #2 – Super-soldier Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), spy Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsson), and flight inventor Sam “Falcon” Wilson arrive in time to help reality manipulator Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) rescue Mind Gem-animated android Vision (Paul Bettany) from more CGI henchmen.

Meanwhile,
Plot Strand #3 – The Guardians of the Galaxy are notified by God of Thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) that Thanos is on the hunt for the Infinity Stones. Rocket Raccoon (Sean Gunn mo-cap; Bradley Cooper voice) and adolescent tree-man Groot (Vin Diesel) accompany Thor to grab a weapon that could kill Thanos while
Plot Strand #4 – Remaining Guardians Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Thanos’ adopted daughter assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), literal-minded muscle Drax (Dave Bautista), and psychic empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) try to intercept the remaining stones before Thanos can.

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There is of course the reading that can be made that Thanos himself is the protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War. Indeed, he is introduced into the film within the first few shots (remains until the very last shot) and he gets the brunt of an emotional narrative arc including a backstory to explain his logic beyond the comics explaining “he wanna bang-a Death”. I align with the reading that Thanos is one of the central characters of Infinity War, but I absolutely cannot align with him being THE protagonist. Save for the final shot, we never have him in a scene unless another one of the Marvel heroes are and that’s a lot of movie without his appearance.

A lot of movie especially between those four plotlines where only two of which has any real incident (The Thor/Guardians ones) and the rest leave us with a fractured sense of pacing. We’re jumping between the Guardians trying to stop Thanos in Knowhere cut to Captain America’s crew sitting around trying to decide where to go with little segue. It also means this film is overstuffed with characters having little to do – Captain America and Black Panther King of Wakanda T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) being the most apparent victims of this. And that means a jilting of any dramatic heft for recognizable characters who don’t really get developed within Infinity War itself. Obviously, Infinity War was trying to match the structure of a crossover event comic book, but do you notice how in those events some character’s issues will be shorter than other character’s issues in the comic book world? Yeah.

It should be obvious at this point that my preference was the Guardians side of things – not only for its reliance on comedy and humor (which is the only thing that kept me entertained throughout the entirety of Infinity War, though Holland was a reliable source of levity) – but because the space backdrop was a better atmosphere for the cosmic alien elements than anything on Earth. The effects and design mixed better in a fantastical space. It worked better to see Thanos in these wildly colorful zones than his cronies wrecking shit in Europe. Thanos’ previous connection with the Guardians (his only previous major appearance being in their first movie) means there’s more tension to pull out in their conflict, while the mid-film kidnapping of Gamora actually gives Quill and the crew an active objective beyond “Let me be at Titan/Wakanda by a certain point of the film”.

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They only need to be in those locations to start a fight with Thanos’ forces, leading to a first for a Russo brothers Marvel film: the action is disappointingly bad. There are glimmers of collaborative hero charm within the opening battle in Greenwich Village or the second to last pile-on on Thanos’ home planet Titan (Doctor Strange evidently the most formidable of combatants), but the whole of these fights don’t feel at all as creative or weighty as the stuff the Russos previously brought us in Civil War. It is just much less interesting to watch heroes get punched down by an unstoppable CG mass than it is to watch them fight each other and try to dodge each other’s strengths and be intuitive on the spot. The other major battles are messes: Wakanda feels like it wants to be cross-cut with Titan and yet already shoots itself in the foot by having two theaters between the field and Shuri’s lab. And I can’t tell you what the bloody fuck is going on in the Scotland fight.

Which leads us to the infamous finale and… god, I honestly didn’t feel a thing. For one thing, there’s the impermanence of the whole matter translating from the comics but not as a strength, instead removing any semblance of stakes. Whether you want to hitch on to the fact that we have scheduled movies with many of the characters outside of Infinity War‘s premise or you want to acknowledge how often this franchise effortlessly reversed many of its “consequences” in the past (usually within the same movies!), there’s no denying that nothing lasts in the MCU and that cripples their drama. The decision of whom the finale targets is another problem. While one actor is able to make his exit affecting with a frightened performance (as well as the smart decision to remove any music so that we only hear his desperate last words), most of the characters who are chosen don’t have much response to their fate and what is left is the safest selection of heroes you could have in a movie called The Avengers.

But all of that still doesn’t recognize the movie Infinity War is preceding that finale doing little to make me emotionally invested in this outcome. We recognized The characters that disappeared from their previous movies that we loved, but they were not characters in Infinity War. They were plot devices with little identity or personality or drive that the screenplay gave them. Any emotion you had for them needed to be hitched onto them from your previous encounters with them. Which, y’know, is how a franchise sometimes works…

And here’s the thing: the movie worked for the majority. Not just financially, but in acclaim-wise. That positivity people had for these characters latched on to the movie with ease. They vibed with the premise and everybody in my theater cheered the second almost every character showed up. So, if you walk in with that excited mindset about seeing these characters interact on spaceships, you’re going to be satisfied.

Me, I’m just an anomaly. Between the action’s inability to work out or the characters standing around waiting for a chance to throw hands without being involved in the premise proper, there’s nothing here for me. I certainly had an attachment to most of the characters (if not based on their performance based on their film or comics), but I expected more to be done with them and watching them stand around made Infinity War feel like an infinity to sit through.

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There’s No Place Like Homecoming

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There is a beautiful moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming, perhaps my favorite moment in the whole film where the youngest-looking incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) yet is trapped under a hell of a lot of rubble after a building collapsed on him in an image nearly reminiscent of the famous cover of Amazing Spider-Man #33 (something I doubt was unconscious on the part of the mothership company Marvel themselves finally getting to co-produce the superhero after all of these years). And there’s obviously no way Spidey won’t make it out of here but for once Holland breaks away from his otherwise joyously bubbly and bright performance as the young kid to start crying for help under the weight and selling the threat of his crushing death, before getting to see his makeshift Spider-Man mask under a puddle of water with his reflection filling out half of the watery darkness, thereby recreating another famous Spider-Man image halving Peter’s face and the Spidey cowl as one. And it’s a very inspiring and self-reflective moment for the character that assures both Parker and the audience and gives him the resolve to get himself out of this situation.

And the movie redundantly ruins this wonderful moment with a hamfisted voiceover reprise of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. both literally and metaphorically phoning his performance in) saying “if you’re nothing without this suit, then maybe you shouldn’t have it.” Which is not only a shitty misfire of tone in its condescending wording, even if it’s an attempt to re-establish the message, but it’s also emblematic of exactly how I feel about Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s not exactly a classic in the sense of Raimi’s works, but it’s a movie with its own strengths that could stand on its own if only the Marvel Cinematic Universe would kindly stop butting in every once in a while.

I do have to give Spider-Man: Homecoming (and that title keeps me just shuddering at the unnecessary shade of Marvel Studios towards Sony Pictures) some credit. As would be common sense, producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal, director and co-writer Jon Watts, and the dizzying six man revolving door of the writing team knew that it would be completely unnecessary and redundant to re-establish the origin story of one of the most famous superheroes of all time and yet Homecoming feels every bit like an entry tale for our favorite webslinger. And it wouldn’t be able to do that without the greater context of the Avengers and how Spidey is THIS close to earning Stark’s approval and joining them, but I wonder if it would be a bad thing if we didn’t have that?

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It just feels so ultimately divorced from the truly stellar element of Homecoming: the “friendly neighborhood” aspect. Holland is so boyishly charismatic and engaging within the part that just having him interact with anybody – the people on the streets in which he helps out, the A.I. in the suit Tony Stark gifts to him, the overabundance of high school friends that doesn’t fit my idea of “outsider” Peter Parker but certainly gives us a lot of charming high schooler material – is not only wonderfully entertaining, but reverses the scope of the whole MCU and gives a sense of tactility to the community sense of localized superheroes, a concept that doesn’t really come to play anywhere else in the MCU except their Netflix series.

The entire cast is the best salesman on this premise: Holland wrestles eagerly with this sense of anonymous celebrity, Michael Keaton as the villain Victor Toomes has a sense of frustrated blue-collar workaday escalation to his aggression (his one big EVIL moment where he kills a man on-screen is undercut by him mistaking the weapon he used and I don’t think it’s an accident that Keaton sells that surprise very well). Donald Glover, in a two-scene cameo, essentially delivers the tired inconvenience you’d expect New York would have facing alien forces and consistent destruction. The strength of Homecoming is in the smaller human elements, those touches of a living city underneath (even if it’s Atlanta playing New York City in a conspicuous way). It is no accident that the best setpiece in the whole film is a comical one of Spidey finding it very hard to swing webs in a suburban residential area and forced to superpower-Ferris-Bueller his way around, a wonderful moment of character and geography.

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It is unfortunately the ONLY great setpiece, which is a shame because anybody who has seen Holland at work on stage knows he’s certainly the most athletically capable of all of the screen Spider-Men. But Watts and editors Dan Liebental and Debbie Berman just don’t give him his due, never finding a true rhythm to the moment whether it’s a bank robbery, a jet heist, or scaling the Washington monument and never finding dynamic ways to represent the high-flying physicality of Spidey the way Holland’s hollerings do so, nor does it bother to cover up its CGI much beyond the “night time means no lighting to see it”. And that’s really disappointing for a climax as restrained as this film’s.

I can’t say it feels less like a product than Marc Webb’s time with the character, but it also is a lot more fun with it. Sure, the aggressively eager-to-please nature of having every character that isn’t Mac Gargan (Michael Mando) be able to perform a quick gag seems kind of insincere, but it’s nothing less than platonic. Spider-Man may have found himself in a new prison confined to being another stepping stone to the next Avengers movie, but he seems to at least be having fun there and he’s got great company, so there’s no big problem. It could be worse.

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Now THAT’s What I Call a Fiasco

Note: Anybody who can tell me what famous Spidey moment the title of this review comes from wins my eternal respeck.

Other Note: This is re-do of a previous review from when I first saw this movie in 2012 because maaaaaaaaan, it’s not only too long, but a godless mess of a ramble.

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Spider-Man, like any comic book icon, is a versatile malleable figure. He means different things to different people, they have a different idea of what his defining trait may be, and many artists and writers have put in different contexts and styles just to twist his imagery around as much as Batman. Now for some people, their idea of Spider-Man’s defining trait is that he is a unrelentingly quippy sort and that means that Andrew Garfield was (until Tom Holland thankfully disabused them) the best screen Spider-Man. And for sure, Garfield might have been able to foreground the sarcasm of high schooler Peter Parker behind the mask (though claiming Maguire’s Spidey wasn’t humorous and full of levity is an outright lie – he was directed by Sam Raimi, the creator of one of the quippiest heroes cinema has been blessed with), but he’s not my ideal Spider-Man because I have a different concept of the defining trait of Spider-Man.

That trait being he’s not a complete piece of shit*.

To be fair, Garfield did not go full throttle on making Spidey a despicable son of a bitch. That happened in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But rest assured, when it comes to his first go in the red tights for Marc Webb’s (a director’s title I’m all but certain feels ceremonial) The Amazing Spider-Man, there is nothing to his performance that feels living beyond his sarcasm and his casual ability to look like him and co-star Emma Stone (as the doomed first love Gwen Stacy) have some kind of affection for each other. This is definitely informed by the fact they were, at the time, in a relationship and not any of the giggling dialogue afforded to them by co-writer Steve Kloves (he focused on that side of the script most while co-writers James Vanderbilt and a definitely begrudgingly returning Alvin Sargent worked out other areas). Beyond that, his Spider-Man is a empty mass of high school cool tropes that seem out of the ordinary for the character except in a desperate attempt to mangle some protagonist to a desperate film.

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The Amazing Spider-Man is not as bad as I thought it was on first watch. It’s clear Webb and his studio puppeteers (this movie and its sequels have studio interference fingerprints all over it) was not flailing around, but it’s a soulless product. Time passing by, especially in the face of all the Sony leaks and the eventual entry of the character into the MCU, has only shown that this was Amy Pascal and company trying to hold tightly to the character by implying the promise of a further movie franchise, with the subplot on Peter’s parents (something that always alarmed me as so dismissive of Martin Sheen and Sally Field’s potential in the roles of Uncle Ben and Aunt May), the deliberately illogical overshadow on a hologram of Norman Osborn, the terribly out-of-place mid-credits scene, and so on. It’s like Iron Man 2 in those self-reflexive attempts of foreshadowing, except less confident and without the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. to guide us through it. And that’s what really gets under my goat about what “universe-building” has done to this decade of popcorn cinema: it leaves us with only half a story.

The Amazing Spider-Man feels like the bare minimum of what you need to create a plot (with half of the beats already done to more emotional effect in Raimi’s first film) where the content goes no deeper than “Peter becomes Spider-Man to avenge his Uncle’s death, battles the Giant Lizard that Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) has become, and courts Gwen.” You’d only need one more sentence to throw in “Gwen’s police captain father George (Denis Leary) is a bigger dick than Spidey and wants to arrest him, because something something vigilante.” Nothing about it has the same explosion of personality Webb’s earlier debut (500) Days of Summer got to have and everything is just calculated to get this movie out in time to hold tightly to the Spider-Man property and make it seem like it’s still relevant.

Actually, there is some kind of tone in it but it’s obnoxiously self-serious. It almost feels as parodic as Spider-Man 3 except without the parody. Underlit scenes in alleys and sewers, attempts to make Parker’s isolation a lot gloomier than Raimi, even the costume went like three shades down in darkness. There’s nothing that gives me less confidence than realizing the aesthetic for The Amazing Spider-Man could go hand-in-hand with Trank’s Fantastic Four and not thank my stars Kevin Feige rescued a sinking ship. The only true moment of inspiration comes from when Parker begins his ascent as Spider-Man and we witness his playground treatment of New York in first-person camera. But that’s the only place for fun in The Amazing Spider-Man‘s world and it’s back to making superhero movies feel like an obligation in one of the most disappointing moments in the genre’s history.

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*There are many defenders of Garfield that sit on the thesis “Spider-Man is supposed to be a dick, Maguire was too nerdy”. Same as the Tobey Maguire crying meme, I flat out ignore such an asinine complaint and suspect they never picked up a comic in their life, let alone a Spider-Man one.

Turn Off the Dark

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There’s a brand spanking new cut of the infamous third and final incarnation of Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire in the suit and Sam Raimi behind the camera entirely authored by Raimi’s regular editor Bob Murawski that’s been making rounds in a new Blu-Ray collection release and I’m kind of upset that I haven’t found time to buy and watch it before writing this review (maybe I might add an addendum to this once I find free time for it). By all accounts, it is a significantly better and tighter version of a film that clearly had a lot of behind the scenes drama that strangled and tattered the final result to the point of the strong hate the film receives ten years later.

I can’t say I don’t see where the hate for Spider-Man 3 comes from. It’s a broken movie, full of flaws and imperfections and absolutely demolishing the portrayal of one of the most canonical and beloved villains in the entire Marvel catalogue. But I’d also be lying if I said that I end up disliking the film, let alone despising it the way the rest of moviegoers seem to. Anyway, let me divert those angry “you’re stupid for liking this movie” comments just for a second to target on the problems I’m sure anybody would acknowledge about it.

The first and most glaring one is Tobey Maguire was miscast for this movie. I’m sorry, he’s still my favorite screen Peter Parker/Spider-Man (now that I’ve seen Homecoming) and you can’t help the fact that he’s been cast two movies ago (and supplied great performances in them), but this is not his material. I mentioned before that he’s an extremely limited actor and one of those limitations is his inability to sell any kind of darkness in a manner that isn’t comical and overwrought even for Raimi’s stylings. And Spider-Man 3 is unfortunately a film that feels like it desperately wants to be dark, incorporating the Symbiote and Venom storyline – where Spidey finds a new suit in the amorphous alien liquid that attaches to his body but affects his attitude so negatively as to turn him antagonistic to everyone around him, before he forces it off of him and the symbiote finds a new host in obnoxious and pathetic rival photographer Eddie Brock (the spectacularly miscast Topher Grace), transforming him into the dark version of Spider-Man known as Venom – demands that kind of darkness. But, Maguire is holding it back in the most severest manner, for reasons not his fault (his face is way too boyish for him to play off the kind of despicable cool Raimi and co-writers Ivan Raimi [who almost certainly added more of the campy elements] and Alvin Sargent want) and reasons entirely his fault (he cannot sell the violence of certain moments).

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Now, that’s Maguire. The other big problem that hinders Spider-Man 3 is no secret: Sam Raimi did not want to make this movie. At least, he didn’t want to make the Venom movie and it gets in the way of his intended storyline where The Sandman Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) fights for his family and Harry Osborn (James Franco beginning his wack descent into actor I despise), now aware of both his late father and Parker’s secret identities, takes up the Green Goblin mantle to avenge the latter figure in his life. As a Spider-Man fan, I can’t say I disagree with this attitude – Venom does not interest me as a villain, totally the type of work as character and design that the dated Todd MacFarlane could come up with in a transparent manner.

As a result, the parts that Raimi truly feel inspired with – such as the beautiful effects work witnessing The Sandman slowly building himself up again after having been changed into his superself in an experiment gone wrong – have that epic pulp quality that Raimi supplied to every single second of Spider-Man 1 and every possible second of 2. But the parts where he’s clearly disinterested in… well, it shows. In some places, it turns terrible such as every moment Grace is on-screen (and I feel like the casting was one place where Raimi was flipping Sony of) and in others… when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Raimi took the most dismissable facets of Spider-Man’s dark development and turned them into one-part comedy, one-part musical cinema and I would be lying if I said I was not entertained by the infamous dance scenes showcasing how the symbiote has developed Parker into an insufferable prick. He’s never as outright dislikable as Andrew Garfield’s Spidey until the very moment the characters realize something is wrong with him, but he never becomes unwatchable either.

At least, not to me, though I am aware this is a point of hatred for many viewers of Spider-Man 3. Maybe if I didn’t love Raimi’s sense of humor or jazz or musical numbers, this act of clear defiance would make me just as well demand Spider-Man 3‘s execution by firing squad, but I instead admire the idea of keeping the bold color and lighting of Spidey, applying it in a new context, and taking ownership of a movie despite how much the studios wanted to shove in. Some people don’t like lemonade, I guess. I love it.

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Still, there are many areas of neglect. The acting is so much more anonymous here whether Kirsten Dunst as Spidey’s girlfriend Mary Jane Watson or Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy in another love triangle plotline within this overstuffed film, but where a superhero movie counts, Spider-Man 3 holds its own more than we give it credit for. Its spectacle – with an echoing subway battle, an narrow sky chase, and a very coherent three-pronged climax – doesn’t slouch, its themes are clear and delivered (responsibility, moving on, and restraint), and most of all… it feels like a proper close to a story.

Obviously, that ended up the case when Raimi unsurprisingly walked from Spider-Man 4 and Maguire right after him, but there’s a sense of finality in all of the chickens coming home to roost, the consequences of actions all over the trilogy making Spider-Man decide on how he was going to develop for the rest of his and Mary Jane’s lives together. And Raimi sells that more than anything, looking back on how Parker, Mary Jane, and Harry’s relationship have been shifted over three different movies, tying the Sandman to Spider’s origin (albeit in a very unforgivable manner that is my biggest problem with the movie), and the final scene’s decision to sit within Peter and MJ silently deciding to face any other problems together (easily the best acting both actors get to do in the whole movie).

Spider-Man 3 is a troubled film, no less so than Suicide Squad or Fantastic Four, but that didn’t turn into on-screen misery for me. It’s still in love with its characters and wants to carry all of them to the finish line, even Venom gets more dignity than he deserves (as much as you can with Grace). It’s a step down from two all-timer superhero classics but the result is interesting and the tying knot of the last few scenes shot in solemn sunrises and spotlight blacks makes me feel it works as a curtain call to some of my favorite comic book character incarnations on the screen. Raimi’s heart is battered and bruised but still beating. I can’t help being more forgiving to that sort of thing.

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Spider vs. Octopus

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Let’s go back, boys and girls, to a time before 2008 when The Dark Knight nuked the whole cinematic world into a frenzy and remember the last time a comic book movie was close (but not that close) to being as widely acclaimed as the Nolan Batman films. Just four years prior, right on the first rise of the superhero waves, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 came out and had honest-to-God film critics proclaiming it as the second coming of popcorn movie Jesus, most notably when Roger Ebert (who had given the first Spider-Man an unenthusiastic “ok”*) titled it to be the Best Superhero Movie since Superman.

When I saw Spider-Man 2 a little later than the rest of the civilized world in July 2004, I was in Algeria and isolated from all of that noisy celebration. And my response to it was… I didn’t like it. This has changed significantly over the years to which I hold it close if slightly below its predecessor in my esteem, but when I remember the reasons I wasn’t fond of it, I’m not sure I’m entirely ready to dismiss 12-year-old me’s thoughts. The biggest one, as he’d ineloquently put it, is that it “doesn’t have much action”.

As I am now, I’d deviate a bit and say that Spider-Man 2 just doesn’t have that much energy. It still feels like Raimi is happy to return to the web-slinging superhero and help him grow like he’s Richard Linklater and the films are his personal Before trilogy. Spider-Man 2’s script (now by Alvin Sargent) is a lot more grounded in the human drama, expanding beyond the points in which its characters had been left off – namely Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) totally alone of his own volition and his regret for taking up this responsibility so overwhelming that he’s apparently losing his web-slinging and wall-crawling powers alongside his will, struggling actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) tired of waiting for Peter’s call and making decisions on her own terms, and boiling “friend” Harry Osborn (James Franco) who obsesses over revenge against Spider-Man for killing his father Norman (Willem Dafoe) just as their strained relationship was beginning to heal, unaware that Norman was Spider-Man’s foe, the Green Goblin. And while that grounding means the excitement is gone, the drama has more stakes and this allows the cast in on giving fuller performances than they already gave in the original.

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This lack of pizzaz is also reflected in the new cinematographer Bill Pope and his attempt to reel back from the original’s comic book color into providing New York City as a working town backdrop to Peter and Mary Jane trying to figure out where they stand in their relationship.

Spidey’s new foe this time around is also anguishing over the death of a loved one, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), seeing red for his wife’s sudden death during an accident gone wrong that left him under influence of his four metal A.I. tentacles** that earn him the nomiker Doctor Octopus. Octavius begins rampaging his way through Manhattan in movie monster sequences (including his awakening after the accident) of big sound and effortlessly breakable sets. Molina doesn’t have half the dizzying frenzy Dafoe had in his round (and that seems a casualty of giving him that tragic background, which prevents Molina from playing Ock as a total mad scientist monster like he clearly wants to), but he compliments the movie’s balance between soap opera drama and gigantic creature feature nicely, working so well with his co-star tentacle effects (puppets provided by Edge FX) to feel physically one with them.

He’s also the best thing about the movie’s sudden adoption to anamorphic aspect ratio, filling out the screen real nicely with the width and length of his evil robotic claws. Raimi and Pope aren’t 100% sure what to do with that screen space when Doc Ock isn’t eating it up, but every once in a while we get some really inspired moments like the unstoppable train being rescued by Spidey’s might with his exhaustion visually portrayed by his stance (though the idea of all these people knowing Spider-Man’s face REALLY put me off as a kid and I still think the Christ imagery is pushing it more than any scene of New Yorkers throwing trash at the Goblin). Or of course the comic book image of Parker walking away from an alley with his Spider-Man costume in the foreground and in the trash.

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The concept of Raimi and Pope’s visuals being able to compliment both the action and themes of the film is an aesthetic bilingualism that polishes Spider-Man 2 as possibly the most mature work in Raimi’s whole output, which again turns back to all of the dialed down Raimi-esque silliness (it’s there in teaspoons: Hal Sparks and Joel McHale both have comic cameos – Sparks’ is more farcical in the slightly extended and slightly inferior Spider-Man 2.5 cut, as well as the addition of J.K. Simmons hopping around his office in Spidey’s discarded outfit, and my single favorite bit of acting in Maguire’s turn as the character giving a passenger on the doomed train who’s criticizing his efforts a great big “are you fucking kidding me?” look). But the tonal groundings give more breathing space for Dunst, Franco, and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May to get to tease out their characters’ internal conflicts and have their little subplots as visible as the superheroics. Maguire himself meets up with most of the emotional arcs and stakes of the film, but seems to put up more of an effort than he should have to in this film, which only makes me turn once again to preferring Spider-Man.

At the end of it all, though, Raimi’s still having a ball of a time. The horror movie awakening of Doctor Octopus, the grandiose battle between Ock and Spidey on the Clock Tower followed by the train battle and rescue, these are all inarguably more interesting setpieces than any of the fights in the first movie, full of velocity and impact and opening many opportunities for the CGI Spidey to strike comic book poses like the final shot of the original film. The melodrama feels genuine and sincere, somehow having a few layers too many but propped up by a cast willing to justify all of them. And the saga of Spider-Man himself growing from outsider to big time hero continues to evolve thanks to Raimi’s sense of pace and utter love for the material he gets to hash out.

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*Indeed, this “meh” attitude to Spider-Man was literally my first encounter with a review by Ebert and given I was a child who loved that movie, it got us started on the wrong foot.
**Shout out to D.M., whose criticism of the film comes down to “1. How the fuck are people more impressed by this failing sun project than the invention of functioning, personality-full Artificial Intelligence? and 2. Why the fuck are they automatically evil robots who want to rob banks?” If anybody would ever come close to murdering my enjoyment of this movie, it’d definitely be you.

Darkness! No Parents!

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There’s something that I wanna give The Lego Batman Movie a lot of awesome credit for right out the gate and that’s being the first theatrical Batman movie since Tim Burton’s 1989 film to introduce a new incarnation of the Dark Knight himself and yet not feeling obliged to have to recreate his origin story (Even if you consider Burton’s and Schumacher’s films to not be the same series, Batman Forever has a recreation of that fateful alley scene). I’m sure Thomas and Martha Wayne are being tired of being shot to death outside of theaters. The Lego Batman Movie has enough trust in its audience to figure they know the origin story of arguably the most popular superhero movie came from.

There’s also a lot more to give The Lego Batman Movie credit for in its writing, but sadly not as much as I want to and that’s from a very distinctive authorial voice being replaced – the genius duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writers of the first Lego Movie (along with Dan and Kevin Hageman). Lord and Miller had already made a career out of turning can’t win high concepts into wholly creative and entertaining comedic filmmaking (especially on the animated side) since their wonderful television show Clone High came about (apropos of nothing, Lord is a Miami-native like yours truly and I’ve heard it rumored he actually went to the same middle school as I did, but I can’t really confirm that). With The Lego Movie, they turned an idea that sounded like an product placement scheme into an ode to imagination and ingenuity and teamwork.

Turn around to The Lego Batman Movie, which follows specifically the already primary character of Batman (voiced by Will Arnett in the most appropriate usage of his GOB voice and persona since Arrested Development) and focuses more on his own inability to connect with anyone, and we have Lord and Miller replaced by a rogues’ gallery of names that promise rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Admittedly 4 out of the 5 names on the writing credits – Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington – ring no bells in my head, but one particular name Seth Grahame-Smith (who is credited for the overall story) made one post-modern novel I enjoyed when I was in high school (and I’m not sure I’ll have the same sentiment on a re-read) and promptly went on to write nothing that impressed me. Not only was it a downgrade from Lord and Miller’s genius, it was an alarm.

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Fortunately, The Lego Batman Movie pleased me and not necessarily in spite of its script. The humor is not as energetic and fun as the others and it happens to abandon a sort of gleefully jolly on joking about the Batman franchise by its halfway mark (in fact, the middle twist of the movie is a clear sign that Grahame-Smith and co. may have been more eager to abandon the resources available to them simply from the source material), but the story of Batman learning to stop being an island with the help of his trusty butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), the accidental adoption Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), and the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), is a touching and impressively drawn one. It’s not reinventing the wheel about isolation turning into teamwork turning into family, but it’s aided by four fantastic cast performances (and a fifth by Zach Galifinakis voicing the most down-to-earth version of the Joker yet) and has a heart that sneaks up on us once the movie stops deciding to be about BATMAN the property and focus on this Batman as an individual. So yeah, well done, motley crew of writers.

There is another great big authorial presence that has been abandoned in the development of this film that can’t be ignored and that, indeed, is Phil Lord and Chris Miller – the directors. For obviously, they directed the first Lego Movie and moved on later to bigger things like making a Han Solo solo movie. In their replacement is a kind of unknown named Chris McKay, who was already attached to the previous film as an animation co-director for the Australian company Animal Logic. And while McKay isn’t a match for energetic humor and visual comedy, what he clearly is an upgrade in is outright beauty. You wouldn’t think there’s a way to massively improve an animation aesthetic that’s deliberate rigid and simple in movement and surfaces, but McKay clearly wants you to remember just how distinct the physicality of the characters and settings, even in the uniform toy world of Lego, can be. And that’s without even touching on the lighting effects which are so fluid and jaw-dropping in their illuminating rays that I couldn’t help but wonder if they physically had lights moving around Lego playsets, especially in a scene at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude involving lasers and party lights. And that’s just on top of the mapping of Batman’s more ambitious fight scenes, namely the opening round-up of all his famous villains to a metal earworm by Patrick Stump.

Anyway, it’s phenomenally animated and sincere, even if it’s nothing eye-popping beyond that. I’m not sure I can even say the humor is all that fresh against the Dark Knight since Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders came out last year, but that’s also one of the throwaway Warner Bros. Animation Straight-to-DVD films. The Lego Batman Movie is a straight up feature and a hell of a promising animation debut that happens to be a worthwhile time. Even if my expectations on a sequel to The Lego Movie and a new Batman film were a bit too high, nothing about The Lego Batman Movie‘s first 3/4 is dissatisfying in the least and the finale is quick enough to bow out before everything ends up ruined. Batman knows how to make an exit after all. He’s Batman.

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We Can Jack Up Our Prices on Two-Time Galaxy Saving.

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I’ve been struggling to write my pained angry review of Beauty and the Beast partly because I have no way to not turn everything all around to the injection of Daddy Issues and that is, at best, just a couple of scenes.

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is proving to be a tougher time as it is loaded to the brim with Daddy Issues and, while this was a shocker even before the trailers with Kurt Russell’s reveal as Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt)’s father Ego showed up (given Yondu’s very last lines in the first movie), I’m not 100% certain it felt organic to the film. Largely because Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 means backpedaling a lot on the relationship growth between the central group: Starlord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, motion captured by James’ brother Sean Gunn, who also gets a live-action role as a space pirate Ravager), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are almost all pushed backwards into feeling more like people who just met each other than a team who had their fair share of trials together. This is most severe on Rocket, whose retrograde is how the plot kicks off, but it’s also lessened by the fact that Cooper is just a fantastic voice actor in the role and sarcastic and biting things to say are like a second language to him. Can’t say the rest about most of the other cast members – the energy in both Pratt and Bautista’s comic element seems to be draining, but they put up a good fight and Diesel’s voice is at this point so altered he feels like a practical non-entity. Saldana at least gets more to work with in Gamora’s continued feud with her cyborg adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) (with its own amount of ties to daddy issues), but it’s tough to keep yourself engaged in that story when one of the characters is a stern and terse figure and the other is written as a one-emotion character of rage. Which is not to see Saldana and Gillan can’t make their arc work, but it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.

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That’s a lot more words than I intended to open with ragging the hell on a movie that I actually walked out enjoying and liking. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may have not known the proper way to bring back its characters, but it’s actually some of the most impressive visual work Marvel has done since the first movie came around. The bold and bright color palette design of the first movie is now bolder and brighter and yet still balanced by the hands of Scott Chambliss, even when it’s complete blocks of one shade like the gold of the Sovereign throne room and the wonderous kaleidoscopic fauna of Ego’s… well Ego’s home world, I will stick to in order to avoid spoilers for people who aren’t fans of the comic. And this in itself is home to some wonderfully kinetic comic book framing by Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham, which in turn lends themselves to the most creative fight scenes the MCU has brought us this side of Captain America: Civil War. A zippy arrowflight shown via closed-circuit television, an opening monster battle out of focus in the background as Baby Groot dances along to the best soundtrack he could. Yep, there is now a second Awesome Mix with songs I am compelled to say I overall prefer to the selections in the first movie’s Awesome Mix – Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” (which was on the soundtrack to my high school angst), and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” – but I’m not so sure about how its used in the film. A lot more inorganically (like the character developments) and sometimes blatantly recycled or out of place (“The Chain” appears in one scene it doesn’t need to and the movie cuts the song before it reaches its awesome climax) and yet there are moments like the aforementioned arrow battle that it works like magic or Rocket’s ambush of Ravengers using traps and guerrilla tactics. Basically as an aesthetical delight, this movie delivered some and more on feeling like the trailer to Thor: Ragnarok thought it was gonna be the first zany and bouncy MCU film.

And then there’s still the fact that not all of the characters are a wash. Sure, Michael Rooker is not playing Yondu, but instead a version of Space Merle, but the extended screentime in the presence of Space Merle and the new ties he has with the Guardians (and chemistry with Rocket) is wonderous thing (generally, getting a closer look at the Ravagers culture appeals to the punk in me). Kurt Russell has moxy enough to believe that he and Pratt could be related while turning his charm levels up high for when the movie is expects him to about face as a character. And Pom Klementieff is the best possible new discovery as Ego’s cute socially awkward empath Mantis, who seems to have stolen all of Bautista’s oblivious humor and yet is generous enough to make the two actors a perfect odd couple to share the screen with together. Yeah yeah yeah, she’s a Born Sexy Yesterday, but a fun and unsexualized version.

It’s weird to admit I was dreading this as a simple retread (and it IS) and sure it does not earn its 130 minute runtime, but it is the most fun you could have being recycled another storyline and isn’t it enough to ask we have a good time? If Marvel can keep things at that level like Vol. 2 and Ragnarok promise, I can see myself getting tired of the “same-old comic book movie” criticisms.

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The Best There Is At What He Does

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I don’t know why I held that torch out for so long but ever since the marketing for director/co-writer James Mangold, producers Simon Kinberg and Laura Shuler Donner, and star Hugh Jackman’s farewell to the beloved X-Men character Wolverine titled Logan after his common (but not birth) name, I really really thought we’d be going for a father-and-daughter road trip type of movie like Alice in the Cities (really most Wim Wenders pictures) or Paper Moon. And indeed Logan is on the run alongside a young ward by the name of Laura who shares his abilities (Dafne Keen) and a now older and more jaded psychic Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, who also announced this would be his final turn in the role) broken by Alzheimer’s and it does have a sort of focused on the tired American landscape that makes a lot of sense for the film to receive all the comparisons to a Western that it has been getting (and kind of fishing for given how often Shane pops up as a plot point). But that means nothing! Nothing at all when Keen – wonderful as she is in the role – is not anywhere near verbose as Tatum O’Neal.

Unfairly stupid expectations aside, Logan is absolutely the best of the Wolverine solo series that begin back with 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green accomplish that by pulling the same “Steal Mark Millar’s general idea but leave his shitty plotting and writing behind” strategy that made Captain America: Civil War a decent movie and the sparseness and restraint of that attitude makes it the most grounded film since X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The crux of the story is that in 2029, the X-Men are no more and mutants are nearly extinct. Logan takes care of the mentally deteriorating Xavier with the help of mutant sensor Caliban (Stephen Merchant) when Laura falls into their laps with Xavier’s invitation and a squad of mercenaries named the Reavers headed by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) come bringing hell back into their lives in their hunt for Laura. Logan begrudgingly agrees to take Laura halfway across the country and while there is a bit more mythological fleshing-out (especially round the third act) than I am letting on, I don’t think that matters.

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This is essentially a better version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to me, sharing all of its strengths like an interest in trying to make the film a solo story (without the weakness of being afraid to give Logan the main anchor of the story) or the absolute restraint and low-key design of the whole film (without the weakness of looking boring or indistinct). And what really sells it to me on its R-rating (even despite more f-bombs than I think necessary and a moment of nudity that’s totally gratuitous for the sake of “hey, this is an R”) is how it’s also willing to function as a modernized version of that aforementioned Shane as Logan attempts to express to Laura the regret and weight that his violent disposition has brought to his soul. This is something Jackman and Stewart are able to jump unconsciously given how long they’ve spent inside the skin of these famous characters and, from the reactions I’ve heard before even catching the film, fans are only more willing to give gravitas to the finality of this movie’s existence to tie up the Wolverine story. And as contrived and cliche and predictable as the revelation of Logan and Laura’s connection is, the two work together so well in energy and tandem that it just seems right to find out the things we find out. Keen could easily steal the show and yet somehow opts to stay in the back of Jackman’s own development of the character. And the violence is intense and harsh enough to push Logan’s world-weariness to the edge. Hell, the movie is even stopping during its long road movie structure to have a subplot function as Wolverine’s personal Shane moment helping a family of modern homesteaders against the angry armed land barons (albeit the end of that particular subplot is extremely mean-spirited even by the standards of Logan as a film).

I guess, what I’m trying to say is when Logan, Xavier, and Laura are on the road (and it does feel more like “on the road” – thanks to Stewart’s persuasive performance being on the leisure side of the trip – than “being chased” like they truly are) is when the movie is at its best and I could have done with another hour of that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last as its third act and climax turns more towards the superhero movie tropes it spent 2 hours desperately avoiding by giving YET ANOTHER PERSON involved in Wolverine’s experiments and having a very poorly edited battle. It is the very worst sign when I have all my eyes on the screen and yet completely miss the moment the main antagonist was killed. And yet the movie is wise enough to utilize its last few shots to end the saga on its best note and to lay it to rest in a manner that your mind is precisely on that final beat and the mood it sets in you as you walk out the theater.

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