Simply Amazing

spider12017.63: Spider-man:Homecoming (2017)

This was brilliant. There’s no-one more tired and weary of reboots than I, but this third attempt at bringing Spider-man to the screen just goes to prove the old adage that yes, sometimes the third time’s the charm. More than that, the gap in quality between this film and Justice League, which I suffered through just a few days ago, is remarkable. If Justice League is a lesson in how not to make a superhero movie, then Homecoming is a lesson in how to do it right. It may not be perfect, but it comes awfully close.

Indeed, after so many Spider-man movies during the past decade or two, this should have felt tired and formulaic, but instead thanks to the expert input of Marvel Studios it’s so fresh you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the very first cinematic outing for our favourite web-slinger.

The pace is great, the characters endearing, the fun-quota high, there’s plenty of laughs, plenty of drama, some brilliantly staged action sequences with high-quality visual effects, and it even manages to throw in a decent villain with a great character arc of his own (without making him a tragic villain or something).  And yes, there’s an ending high on action but low on frenzied CGI with a dramatic confrontation between two characters. Yes, no CGI monsters or huge explosions or armies of bad guys, simply exalting instead in a face-off between two characters. So refreshing to see a superhero film dialing it down a little – sometimes less is more.

tinkererIn tieing the events of this film with the aftermath from the New York battle in the first Avengers movie, the writers pull off a fine trick of explaining the origins of two of my favorite Spidey villains, the Vulture and the Shocker, without them feeling dated or silly. And if my eyes don’t deceive me, was that guy re-engineering the alien tech the Tinkerer (he’s an alien disguised as a human way back in one of the very earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-man)?  The way that explains how the bad guys manage to adapt the alien tech and create the Vulture’s wings and the weapons etc, whilst also nodding to the origins of the comic from way back in the early 1960s, is just sheer genius.

There is such a sense of internal logic to this film and its character arcs. Michael Keaton almost steals the film as the Vulture, but of course Tom Holland more than holds his own as Peter Parker and Spider-man (contrast this with DC fumbling the job of portraying both Clark Kent and Superman in the last few DC films). I sincerely hope they don’t bring the Green Goblin into this series and instead bring back the Vulture (particularly as he knows Peter’s secret identity and now has a grudge to settle).

The funny thing is, although everything works so well, it’s telling how different this film is from the original comic. Back in the 1960s comic, Peter Parker was a nerd ostracized by his classmates and nothing ever really seemed to go right for him, every issue ending on a downer, whether it be Spider-man being hated by the public and hunted by the law, or Peter himself failing to get the girl or falling deeper into money problems. Homecoming‘s Peter Parker has a date with a girl, has a close buddy who stumbles upon his secret identity and assists him,  and has a ‘hot’ Aunt instead of the elderly Aunt of the comic. Maybe I should be yelling out “heresy!” but I think all the changes from the comic actually work. It also helps distance this film from the previous films that may have been more faithful to the comic.

Logan Marshall-Green; Photographer select; Tom HollandAt any rate, this film was great fun, the very opposite of Justice League and I really can’t wait for further instalments if they manage to maintain this balance of fun, sophistication and sheer, well, joy.  Not all superhero films have to be dark and serious, and  while I’ve no doubt those future installments will lessen the humor and heighten the drama, Holland’s tenure is off to a great start.  But now I’m starting to sound like a fanboy (I do love the 1960s Spidey comics) so I’ll pack this in. This film may not be high art, but it is great fun though.

 

 

 

Superhero movies ain’t easy

supGood superhero movies don’t come easy, it’s hard, really hard, no matter how effortless Marvel makes it look sometimes- in any case, not every Marvel film has been great (although they are always at least ‘good’). But making a superhero movie, and making it good, is supremely difficult. Just look at Justice league. To be fair to DC, there’s all sorts of superhero capers over the decades that have been pretty terrible. Superhero movies ain’t easy.

Inherently, one has to consider that the idea of superhero movies is ridiculous. They are children’s comics that we should all grow out of, wishful power fantasies in universes that are moral playgrounds of plain good and evil, hardly any shades of grey in the four-colour worlds they depict. I am certain that most adults who love superhero films would never dream of ever reading comics, thinking them silly and beneath them.

The fundamental issue for any film is showing a grown adult dressed as a bat without it looking as silly as the Adam West show, a series which at least nailed the absurdity of superhero comics. Someone comes at you dressed as Batman to accost you for littering? You’d either run a mile or call the police. Superheroes transferred to the real-world inherently look like clowns.

spidrBeyond the silly costumes, the superpowers themselves are crazy. When you really think about them, they are plain nuts, no matter how realistically the films portray them. How does someone fly? How does that work? How does someone cling to walls? How does someone shrink to the size of an ant and yet maintain his original mass without falling through the floor? The Flash whizzes around grabbing people stationary and pulls them to safety- if you were standing still and were hit/picked up by someone travelling 1,000 mph, it’d hurt- if he took took you instantly from stationary to 1,000 mph to move you to safety, your brain would be mush, your bones smashed. So some superpowers are more realistic than others, some superheroes easier to translate and suspend disbelief in than others.

I’m a huge fan of Snyder’s Watchmen. I think it was impressively faithful to the original, and most issues with the film are simply that- issues with the original. It’s a dark film with superheroes in the real-world (or at least, a real-world alternate 1980s America), because that’s what the original was- a critique of superhero comics about people who dress up as a bat and asking the question what would it be like to have a superman in the real world? Unfortunately Snyder missed the point regards Watchmen‘s uniqueness and has been asking that same question in all his subsequent movies.

I don’t blame Snyder entirely. Christopher Nolan, coming of his Batman trilogy, was a producer on Man of Steel and his real-world angle from his trilogy constantly impresses on Man of Steel. I’ve no idea how much of this was the studio trying to catch the zeitgeist of Nolan’s trilogy, or Nolan trying to lend the approach to our fave Kryptonian, or if it was just Snyder continuing his approach from Watchmen. But real-world costumed heroes doesn’t always translate across the medium- Marvel may lend some real-world angles to their movies but it’s all superficial, it’s clear their films are not in our world, they are comics brought vividly to life but it’s not Watchmen-style agonising about fitting Captain America in our world or how he impacts on America. It’s a world close to ours, but it isn’t ours. It’s Marvel-world.

Whereas Snyder always seems focused on the DC heroes being in our world, a sense of gritty reality that is constantly at odds with the subject-matter. DC films lose the joy of the Marvel films. It’s fine if you are making Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (although I’d argue the third film was a crushing disappointment that imploded the trilogy, unable to sustain that real-world/comic mythology balance) but if you’re making a Superman movie like a variant of Watchmen you are entirely missing the point. Worse still, this approach infects every subsequent outing. BvS has some kind of God-complex towards Superman, a grimly semi-religious tone that its Batman bristles at and questions/refutes. Our real-world doubts regards the role of America in the modern world, its values and ethics, our doubts and distrust in our leaders, it all infects the modern Superman, who in 1978 represented “truth, justice, the American Way,” an ideal that no longer seems valid. It’s quite daring really as an intellectual exercise, but it’s also very Watchmen.  In anycase, devoid of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ source pages, Snyder seems lost trying to pull it off. It’s also telling that for all its real-world agonising, Watchmen doesn’t take place in our real world, it’s that 1980s alternate-reality.  Snyder’s trying to manage something even Alan Moore wouldn’t dare, a rabbit-hole even he wouldn’t risk plunging into.

A rabbit-hole, unfortunately, that DC has jumped into and are trying desperately to climb out of.

There ain’t no Justice: Justice League

jl.jpg2017.60: Justice league (2017)

Oh dear. This was terrible. I came out of the cinema feeling how Charlton Heston looked at the end of Planet of the Apes, on his knees, fists clenched, screaming at the heavens about the damned fools who had finally bloody well done it; “You Maniacs! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

Yes, they’ve made a superhero film worse than Batman v Superman.

I suppose Justice League never had a chance, doomed at birth by the critical and public response to Batman v Superman, but the terrible waste here is just bewildering. Ben Affleck is possibly the best Batman we’ve ever had, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight brought vividly to life, but he’s now been wasted in three bad films, and Affleck looks as if he’ll kill someone to get out of making a fourth. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is possibly the only DC success story, but even she looks tired here; “I’m working with children,” she muses at one point- damn right girl. As for Henry Cavill, I like the guy, I’ve enjoyed him in earlier stuff like The Tudors etc and his Superman should be a great fit, but at this point everyone has to admit it just doesn’t work. I don’t know if it’s the direction he is being given but his Superman just doesn’t work. His Clark isn’t a bumbling alter-ego, it’s a Superman as topless hunk, the same character completely, utterly missing the entire point of the Clark character.

Anyway, Justice League is only just out so I’ll spare any spoilers. But it is terrible. Horrible. Surely a movie based on a comic deserves/needs a story more sophisticated than a children’s comic? The crass stupidity that, what is it, anything north of $200 million has been spent on is just bewildering.  It’s one thing to bring Superman back and explain that ‘miracle’ off to the public, but how does Clark Kent get away with a return from the dead when he turns up for work on Monday at the Daily Planet? This film is so S-T-U-P-I-D. The awful dialogue, the desperate need to give every character their ten/fifteen minutes to shine, the pithy one-liners, the jokes that fall flat, the villain who may yet rank as the worst villain to ever ‘grace’ a superhero movie, some of the shoddiest effects work I have seen in a tentpole blockbuster…. I could go on.

But dear God the abysmal story.  It’s almost part Lord of the Rings in its cartoony backstory/mythology of ancient wars battling ancient evil. I’m not quite sure that didn’t come from some completely different movie altogether, it was so weird. Three glowing rubik’s cubes spell death for humanity.  How long did they spend dreaming that up? It’s so infantile and crude, so many characters come and go for no reason at all, side stories come to the fore then simply disappear. Maybe there is a three-hour cut that will fix everything, there is simply too much movie here for two hours, but a three-hour Justice League sounds right now like a recipe for torture.

Yet this mess will get more bums on seats than BR2049. There is a lesson there. But the DC extended universe is surely in real trouble now. Such a pity, such a waste. Where can it possibly go from here?

Where’s the Wonder?

ww12017.51: Wonder Woman (2017)

Its perhaps unfortunate for  Wonder Woman that it is the first film I have seen since watching Blade Runner 2049 (twice). Wonder Woman is a competent effort, and perhaps the best of the current DC stable, but it is, compared to 2049, woefully generic. It doesn’t surprise at all, rather excelling in the familiar, and while it does seem rather promising at moments, it falls into a terribly typical, noisy and overblown cgi fight-fest finale that  almost derails the entire film. That ending is terrible.

Is it just me, or is it getting increasingly tiresome watching cgi characters thrown into buildings and vehicles and leaping hundreds of feet and walking through fire and explosions without a scratch? Enough already. Its boring me to tears. Likewise the heroic shots of superhero action slowed down ad nauseum akin to almost pornographic comic-frame ecstasy? Get on with it, this is a film, not some motion-comic.

Gal Gadot is excellent as the title character and it’s down to her performance, rather than the annoying cgi character that doubles her in some of the ludicrously OTT action shots, that saves the film. She carries far more nobility and charm than Man of Steel‘s Henry Cavill, and compares well with Christopher Reeve’s Superman- she’s that good. Gadot has the physical presence the film requires and her absence during the cgi stuff is like a huge vacuum. It is uncanny how the cgi Wonder Woman looks so cartoony and fake. Indeed, there seems to be issues with most of the cgi work in this film- something just looks ‘off’, something rather painterly about much of it. Many of the scene extensions and digital mattes look a little sub-par too, but the digital representations of many of the characters don’t convince at all, either.  Maybe it’s the sheer amount of effects shots that brings the quality level down.

In a supporting role, Chris Pine is American spy Steve Trevor, but either he’s a surprisingly limited actor or he’s deliberately channeling his James Kirk personna here from his Star Trek movies, because he’s Kirk here through and through, to the point it rather unnerved me that he was a better Kirk here than he is in those Star Trek films. Really. If his Kirk was this good in those films I’d have cut them more slack.

But enough of my moaning. This film cruised to over $800 million worldwide box office so I seem to be in a minority. Sure, I thought it was pleasant enough but it’s not as if this is the first superhero blockbuster suddenly wowing audiences- it is treading a path well-trod by both Marvel and DC, and I’m wondering if audiences will ever tire of this familiar formula.  Perhaps it was the wrong franchise (I hate that word) to expect something radical or new but really, it is rather upsetting to me how generic and formulaic stuff like this gets lapped up while 2049 is utterly rejected. I guess it’s just the world we live in: people just want simple bubblegum movies right now.

But coming off the glorious 2049, this film was something akin to a culture shock.

Marveling at Dr Strange

dr strange12017.15: Dr Strange (2016),  Blu-ray

They make it look so easy, don’t they? It must piss those boys at DC right off, seeing Marvel Studios parading its expertise at putting comicstrip adventures up on the big screen. Its pretty amazing really. When you really think about it, all this superhero nonsense is inherently juvenile, silly nonsense, but its actioned with such earnestness and conviction that audiences just lap it up. Why audiences are so ready for tales reduced to base concepts of good and evil and larger than life heroes and villains, modern mythologies to replace the Gods and Devils of old, I don’t know. I suppose that in this fairly-new millennium these superhero films function the same way as the Bonds and Star Wars of before, perhaps even on a bigger scale. The appeal, after all, is pretty universal- these films are hugely successful worldwide, across all kinds of racial and territorial boundaries. In an increasingly complicated and uncertain world, there is perhaps an appeal to simple heroes and villains.

So yeah, we can go about this review in two ways. On the one hand, Dr Strange is terrific entertainment with an engaging cast and pretty remarkable spectacle. On the other, well, its fairly routine Marvel Studios stuff. The film seldom really surprises and pretty much telegraphs much of what happens well in advance, particularly if you are familiar with Marvel’s output. Of course, that familiarity might be part of the charm of these films- all together they represent the Mother of All Box Sets, and there is an undeniable comfort blanket in losing yourself within this Marvel Studios universe, in just the same way as the comic Marvel universe had an escapist charm through my childhood. Barring a few missteps, those 1960s strips that I read in the 1970s weekly reprints of my childhood have been brought to vivid life- and most of those missteps are a personal thing regards updating 60s strips to our modern world. Yeah, I can’t help that, its just a personal thing- Spiderman’s New York will always be a 1960s Mad Men episode to me; it just feels odd in a modern world of mobile phones and computers seeing guys dressed up in funny costumes.

Heres the elephant in the room of course- its all looking so easy for Marvel, and yet DC seems to be finding it all so difficult. Likely that apparent ease is nothing of the sort and hides some really tricky work in the background, but up to now they have pretty much pulled things off very well. We have not seen Marvel blunder into making an artistic and commercial dud. At this stage, I doubt we will; if Marvel Studios ever does begin to stumble for success, it’s all the more likely it will be from audience fatigue rather than bad movies.

dr strange.jpgSo Dr Strange is a pretty strong Marvel movie and another addition to its roster of cinematic heroes. It isn’t perfect but it is reliable fun. And yeah, when I think about those 1960s strips by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and how so much of them have been transposed to the movie screen here, it is frankly astonishing, how well it comes off without feeling camp or silly. Other than that, I don’t have much to really say, other than I really need to watch it again, as some of those big effects sequences were so busy I sometimes lost track of what the hell was going on- I kept thinking of that line from Jedi – “There’s too many of them!” There was so much going on in some of those mind bending effects shots.

A Bit Late to the Party: Daredevil

dare1I’ve just started watching the Netflix series Daredevil, thanks to having received the season one Blu-ray set for Christmas. So yes, I’m rather late to the party with this one, as the show was particularly well-praised and a second season has already aired. I can imagine most people reading this thinking I’ve just come out from under a rock or something. Its a symptom of the bewildering fragmentation of the television industry these days-unless you are willing to pay for everything (Sky Atlantic, Netflix, Amazon, etc) you simply aren’t going to be able to access everything , not legitimately anyway. Years ago most of the best American shows aired on terrestrial channels, then eventually they started to migrate over to satellite subscription channels,  and now there’s the internet services (and even cable provider Virgin Media) competing with unique content.

Its rather unfortunate, as we are living in something of a Golden Age for quality television, that due to this fragmentation of the market, viewing figures are going down, not up.The subscription method largely offsets those diminished ratings, but it does have some effect on, well, the cultural impact of the shows themselves. How many people have seen The Man In The High Castle, or Outlander? What were the viewing figures for Daredevil? Sky TV seems happy for shows like Arrow to number viewing figures in hundreds of thousands, whereas such a show back in the late-70s/early-80s on terrestrial tv would have audiences in the millions.

So anyway, I’ve seen just the first two episodes of Daredevil, but already I can see why there was so much praise and fuss over the show. Its great. The cast are impressive with some great chemistry already, and the take on the character (going for a slow-burn introduction to the character and his origin/world) cleverly profits from the season-long arc and having plenty of screen time to get it right, showing the advantages of the episodic format over a short-duration film. And it’s clear that the artistic and technical maturity and sophistication of television production these days doesn’t necessarily reveal the huge gap between small-screen and silver-screen like it did in the  old days. Television holds up these days, and what television inevitably loses in pure bang-for-your-buck spectacle, it clearly trumps with character development and extended plot arcs.

And yes, binge-watching is clearly a bonus. I watched those first two episodes back to back and will likely do the same with the next two, the 13-episode series likely watched in a week or two, easy. As its my first Netflix show, I have to say I’m very impressed, and it has me considering that Jessica Jones set recently released.

Interestingly, Daredevil is very dark and very violent, and it is clearly showing how that can be done superbly well with a superhero character – a clear lesson that perhaps the DC movie division should have heeded with its Man of Steel/Batman v Superman properties that seem to be struggling with the darkness and ‘reality’ they are aiming for. Of course I’ve only just started the show and will need to see how the season unfolds, but so far they seem to have nailed it. Avoiding all those spoilers/reviews seems to have paid off.

dare2.jpgThe only thing that kept bugging me was where had I seen the actress who is playing Karen Page? Every scene she was in I was distracted by the “where the hell have I seen her before?” brainworm that kept burrowing into me. I hate it when that happens. Eventually, well into episode two I had to resort to a visit to IMDB. The actress is Deborah Ann Wolf, and I’d seen her in True Blood, a show I had watched a few seasons of before giving up on it several years ago. I remember she was one of the best things in True Blood, and it’s  great that she seems to be a regular in Daredevil.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014)

future-shock-pat-mills

2016.30: Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (TV, Film Four)

Now this is brilliant. It’s a documentary about the creation and history of the great British sci-fi anthology comic 2000AD. Basically a talking heads piece in which the comics editors and the creators of the strips reminisce about the making of the comic and its ensuing history, full of entertaining commentary and sometimes acidic rants (God bless you, Pat Mills, I owe you my childhood). With a punk-rock, anti-establishment attitude fostered in the dark dismal mid-seventies and Thatcher’s Britain,  the comic was an incredible culture shock for impressionable young kids like me and incredibly exciting. It certainly lived up to its reputation as The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.

I read the comic from its very first issue up to, oh, the late-eighties, so it was a real joy to see the heroes of my childhood- and yes, these guys were my heroes. Not the strips themselves, it was the  guys in the little credit-box that were my heroes. Guys like Pat Mills and John Wagner and Kevin O’Neill and Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons and Carlos Ezquerra (bless him, I cannot understand a word of what Carlos says in his segments). To see them all now as middle-aged men looking back at those heady days of being young firebrands ripping apart the rulebook of British comics is fantastic. There’s a few notable absentees, like Ian Gibson, and yes I guess no-one would expect Alan Moore to show his face, and sadly he doesn’t. That man Moore is a genius who really should give his fans the Halo Jones saga we’ve been waiting for, but I’m afraid he’s not interested, so Neil Gaiman’s tease about Moore once telling him all the untold Halo Jones stories he had planned was almost painful to watch. Its just one of the many fascinating highlights.

Running nearly two hours, this thing could have been three hours long and it wouldn’t have bored me at all (indeed, film-makers, I want the three-hour director’s cut!). Its almost like a chat in the pub with the coolest dudes ever. These guys lit up my childhood and later saved Marvel and DC comics when the Americans pulled them across the pond to make Watchmen and so many other strips. That exodus of talent is related in the doc, and the resultant problems on the comic that nearly sank it (it’s no coincidence that I stopped reading the comic during this troubling period). There’s the inevitable discussion of creator rights and some horror stories of what happened to some of the gorgeous original artwork. There’s also a look at the two Judge Dredd movies and the influence of 2000AD strips on films and culture in general. The doc brings things up to the present day with the comic on a surer footing.

Still, it’s those early days that live loud and bright in my memory. Me and my mate Andy to this day can sit together and chat about the old strips we used to love- Robo Hunter, Dredd’s Apocalypse War, Nemesis the Warlock, so many others. Reading that comic back then was like a rite of passage. Sometimes I pick up a current copy in a newsagent and flick through it- it looks interesting but I haven’t bought 2000AD in awhile. I had a spell buying it again a few years ago, but I mostly buy collected editions these days. It doesn’t feel like my old 2000AD to be honest, the early stuff was fairly brutal and raw and yes, mostly black and white on cheap paper. The current comic is on better paper, mostly colour, the strips look slick but it feels… well, I’ll no doubt buy it again in future but it isn’t really the 2000AD of my childhood. That was a long time ago, after all.

But this documentary is fantastic stuff. I honestly think it’d be rewarding even for those unfamiliar with the original comic. There’s really a very human story behind the comic and the times that created it, the sensibilities behind it. 2000AD could only have come out of Britain, and its cultural impact would surprise many who aren’t at all familiar with it. For those of us on whom it had such an impact, hell, this doc is brilliant. These guys are heroes.

Its not the Bat costume… its the self-assembly kits.

IM3Its a guy (or lady) who dresses up in a funny costume and solves societies problems not by tackling world hunger, social inequality or even corrupt politicians, but rather by beating bad guys up. Of course modern films make it look very realistic and grounded in reality, but superhero films are inherently, well, silly; childhood daydreams and fantasies brought to $120 million+ life. A billionaire dresses like a bat and beats up poor people who have been forced/compelled by circumstance to turn to crime, or genuine certifiable nutters who dress up like penguins or scarecrows or clowns and try to have a good time by being both mad and bad. Daft, but the films are made with such sincerity and sophistication we just seem to accept them and they are often received with such praise and huge box-office.  It just makes it difficult really to criticise them.

My question is this: Where to draw the line with superhero films? There is a line, surely. Come on,admit it, its there somewhere. Even the most hardcore Marvel/DC fan knows what I’m on about. I mean, ignoring the inherent daftness of radioactive spiders or Norse gods or big green men with anger issues, where exactly does one draw the line and say, “beyond this point this film must not cross, otherwise I’m standing up and screaming NO! NO! NO! at the screen”. There has to be some point at which the natural laws of credibility finally snap.

For me its IRON MAN 3 and the flying suit parts that reassemble all by themselves, parts that fly 842 miles at one point, if my incredulous ears got it right, to save the day. Did the parts ‘see’ where they were going/turn round street corners/fly around unwitting pedestrians/cars/buildings as they sped to their owners aid? Parts that leap onto the hero and snap into place without quickly crunching bones or breaking spines. Why, after seeing everything else in that movie, it was the self-assembly Iron Man kit that delivers Anytime Anyplace Anywhere that finally crossed the line I don’t know. But it did. I could even accept him collecting all those unfortunates who fell out of Air Force One at thousands of feet, or those On Demand Auto-Iron Men that make our hero Tony Stark redundant, or those glow in the dark super-villains with an unfortunate habit of exploding taking buildings out in an instant. But those flying self-assembly Iron Suit bits… just, well…