Endgame

end1Last night I finally got around to giving my 4K disc of Avengers Endgame a spin. Regular readers will remember my mixed feelings/downright disappointment with the film when I first saw it during its cinema release. The film proved to be a major success with most people though, and seemed to attract a huge repeat crowd and became the biggest box-office film of all time (inflation notwithstanding, I suppose). Can’t say I’d really seen that coming.

The numbers are frankly astonishing- the film cost over $350 million to make but earned $2.8 billion at the Box Office.

Watching it again though, and so soon after seeing Rise of Skywalker, the differences between the Star Wars and Marvel cinematic universes are boldly apparent. Avengers Endgame is everything that Disney and Lucasfilm felt that Rise of Skywalker should be, a huge climactic cinematic event that seized (for better or worse) the cultural zeitgeist and became the biggest movie of all time. Rise seems to have actually arrived with a frustrated whimper, awkward and uneven, hampered by being part of a dysfunctional trio, dividing its core fanbase or reinforcing present divisions, whereas Endgame seemed to have pleased most everybody in the core fanbase as well as the mainstream.

I still have my issues with Endgame. It seems unnecessarily convoluted, getting lost in myriad time travel paradoxes and finally succumbing to all the worst excesses of CGI bombast spectacle that I personally find boring. But on the whole it works, and serves as a summation of all the Marvel films before it, closing out the arcs of some fan-favourite characters/actors at the same time as handing off to a new generation. If it takes itself too seriously, well you can almost forgive it that considering its, what, the 22nd film in that franchise? Imagine a film being the 22nd in the Star Wars franchise- only a matter of time I suppose.

But watching it this second time I began to realise that perhaps it gets right more than it gets wrong. Or maybe compared to Rise, maybe its successes become all the more impressive. Then again, compared to Rise, most everything any Marvel film does appears pretty impressive. I don’t think Disney should go the Marvel route with Star Wars, although it does appear to be heading in that direction with some of the staff changes going on behind the scenes, but it is clear that the Marvel films have a fairly clear control on the mythology of all those decades of comics. Some of it is counter-intuitive and contradictory, and I don’t think they ever really nailed its most popular character (Spider-Man) in any of its screen incarnations, so its certainly not a successful slam-dunk. I shudder at some of the stuff in Marvel films just as I do watching Star Wars, but the good/bad ratio seems to fall for the better.

 

Spider-Man: Far From Home 4K UHD

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This is Wrong.

At the close of this film prior to the end-credits going up there is a dedication to the memory of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, co-creators of Spider-Man who both passed away before this film was released (I say ‘co-creators’ but it took several decades for Ditko to get his due, and even then grudgingly, I suspect, but Marvel and Hollywood caught up with the comic fans eventually).

Its a fine sentiment noting their passing, but the makers of this film needn’t have bothered, because the Spider-Man of this film has practically nothing at all in common with the Lee/Ditko comic-books of the 1960s. As a reader of the original Spider-Man comics of the 1960 and 1970s, its my biggest gripe with both this film, its predecessor and the recent Avengers films. This ain’t my Spidey. Indeed this film is more National Lampoon than Ditko-era web-slinging.

Before I get side-tracked waxing lyrical regards the miss-appropriation of cultural icons, I’ll happily concede that Marvel Studios is evidently updating the character/s of the comics for the benefit of contemporary social trends and to reflect our modern times. I will point out that to my mind, the best Superman movie is Richard Donner’s 1978 classic, simply because it remained mostly faithful to the original 1930s strips and maintained a sense of olde-Americana that possibly felt old-fashioned even in 1978, and stands far superior to the edgier/darker/slicker takes of the Man of Steel of more recent years. I’d also raise Rogue One as the best Star Wars film of the Disney era simply because it felt most like original Star Wars. Sure, you can move these franchises on, update them, but they should still feel authentic.

As a super-hero film, Far From Home is okay. Its funny, its efficient, its fairly-well  made barring its excessive reliance on CGI spectacle over old-fashioned drama, albeit unfortunately it has all the tension of an episode of Knight Rider…  Really, its nothing particularly special. Casting aside my chief gripe that it in no way resembles the Spider-Man of my youth, I’d just like to point out that it would be fairer to re title it Iron Boy: Far From Home, regards its endlessly irritating compulsion to reference his mentor Iron Man/Tony Stark, who sacrificed himself in Avengers: Endgame in episode 22 (?) of this Marvel Cinematic Saga (whatever happened to just making single movies?). As in the earlier Marvel Studios films featuring Spider-Man, I’m really bothered by this- in the comics, Spidey never needed a mentor.

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This is REALLY wrong: Spidey never got the girl. That was the whole point.

But hey ho, this is Spider Man 2019. So its funny, its energetic, its… its got more Spider-Costumes than Batman has gadgets in his utility belt. At one point Iron Boy leaps out of plane and a Spider-Chute bursts out of his ass, or something. What the hell has any of this film got to do with what Lee and Ditko were doing years ago? Not an awful lot.

Oh I don’t know. At least Homecoming had a decent bad guy. I’m not sure what this one has. This film’s Mysterio character feels as authentic as its Spider Man to be honest, and I never really accepted him or his team of stooges or the conceit of his staged ‘fake’ monster attacks. I suppose you either buy into all that holograms/drones nonsense (where so the sound effects come from?) or you don’t, and lets face it, modern audiences aren’t the kind to second-guess or think about anything they are watching as long as its big and loud enough to keep them away from their mobile smartphones. Its funny that we have a Nick Fury in this for the whole movie but it turns out he isn’t Nick Fury, as if it was a clever meta-statement on Spidey not being Spidey and Mysterio not being Mysterio. everything is some kind of doppelganger, an imperfect fake.  And don’t get me started on Marisa Tomei’s  ‘hot’ Aunt May, I still can’t get my head around that even after so many movies, nor the romance between her and Favreau’s ‘Happy’ Hogan. And everyone seems to know that Peter is Spider-Man, its almost an inside joke calling it a secret identity, as everyone who knows him figures it out, lessening the shock as it gets totally spilled in the movie’s cliffhanger ending to the general public. 

As regards the 4k UHD disc, the film looks gorgeous, truly spectacular. I may pick many faults with the film itself but I can’t really do so with this really impressive disc. The Dolby Vision HDR really gives the whole film a sense of  depth and the night-scenes in particular really do impress. Its a beautiful-looking film and a major positive for the format. So great disc, shame really about the film. Not a disaster by any means, but it sure as hell ain’t Spidey, not in my book. 

The Umbrella Academy (2019)

umb2Okay, I admit it, I am beyond surprised. I won’t tempt fate by titling this post with ‘Season One’ because we have yet to see if Netflix will greenlight a second season, but surely it’s inevitable, because this series is great- it’s possibly the best comic book show on television I have seen, and lord knows there have been so many over recent years.

Much of my praise is because I am such a huge fan of Watchmen and the movie based on that graphic novel, and the fact that The Umbrella Academy is so close in tone and approach, putting messed-up superheroes in a real-world situation contesting with a looming apocalypse. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but as a Watchmen fan, its right up my street, and may actually have stolen some of the thunder from HBO’s own genuine Watchmen spin-off which is due later (?) this year (on the other hand, I really had my doubts that anyone could pull off something like Watchmen on television, but The Umbrella Academy patently proves otherwise so it’s actually gotten more excited for what Damon Lindelof and HBO might come up with).

The Umbrella Academy is based on a comic book from Dark Horse that I am utterly unfamiliar with so I cannot judge how faithful it is or how many liberties have been taken with the source material. I certainly would not suggest the series is perfect-  it’s a little overlong (eight episodes would have paced it better than the ten we are given) and while most of the cast are great there are a few weak spots, but on the whole its great, with some genuinely interesting characters, some surprising diversions and real scope (it’s an endless surprise to me just how cinematic HBO and Netflix stuff is). The allusions to Watchmen do keep popping up (one characters experiences in Vietnam, another suggestion about the JFK assassination, the apocalyptic denouement at season end, a character’s ability to shift through time offering him an almost Dr Manhattan perspective on things) but I suspect they are in the original comics? If not it’s clear that the shadow of the Watchmen movie looms large (in a good way) with  the series real-world setting (emphasis less on silly costumes and gadgets than on consequences of the powers), the clever use of source music, lots of moody rain, the realistic art direction- and yet at the same time there are sometimes hints of an irreverent, almost Pythonesque tone that is very unlike Watchmen’s very dour, serious approach to deconstructing its genre so I’d say the show maintains a fairly unique identity.

umb1Some of the twists can be seen a mile off but I don’t think it detracts from the show at all- there are some genuine surprises and some intriguing mysteries that are not explained which I hope augurs well for them being delved into in a second season. There are at least three plot points mentioned in the series that I had expected to be developed but weren’t – and indeed one major tease thrown in at the start of the final episode that really wound me up (in a good way).

On the whole this was a really promising series and I was both surprised by it and left excited for what may follow. Maybe the comic book future is not wholly in the hands of Marvel Studios despite the best efforts of DC to screw things up.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

supes4I never intended to ever watch this movie. I bought the Superman Anthology boxset on Blu-ray years ago but of all those eight discs, this one was surely the coaster. Although I’m a huge fan of both Superman: The Movie (if not the best superhero movie ever made, its definitely the most important) and Superman II, watching the third film on a VHS rental many years ago rather bummed me off ever watching the fourth film which was, apparently, even worse than that third effort. But it’s Superman. Its Christopher Reeve.

How bad can it get?

Now, well, there’s the loaded question. Goodness knows I’ve directed some ire at Justice League and BvS etc but goodness me, it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Because Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is bloody terrible. Really, it’s a horribly broken movie that was likely (or at least I hope)  made with the best of intentions but was handicapped by a hokey script, woefully insufficient budget and terminally uninspired direction. Its shocking that it was even deemed worthy of release, frankly,  and I think cinemagoers should have had the right to claim their money back. This isn’t a movie. Its a pale imposter. Its a few sequences that put together don’t make any sense masquerading as a movie with utterly charmless visual effects that decidedly lack the prefix ‘special’. I’ve not seen anything quite like it before even in Tobe Hooper’s worst movie.

Which is such a terrible shame, when you consider where it all started. In fact, you’d think someone would write a book about it- ”Superman: The Movie to Superman IV – a Cinematic Tragedy.’ How does something like this happen with such a well-loved franchise so hugely popular worldwide with such talent behind it? Where does it go wrong (there’s a clue in the story about Richard Donner and him being dropped from Superman II)?

Superman: The Movie was a huge expensive event movie with a brilliant cast including big stars like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman- I can remember when it came out in 1978; back when titling something ‘THE MOVIE’ actually meant something. This wasn’t a tv show or a silly comic, this was a serious big movie. And it was brilliant and charming and amazing and thrilling. It had some of the biggest, most brilliant visual effects and the film really lived up to the tagline ‘you’ll believe a man can fly’. It was myth-making on the silver screen. With this, Star Wars, CE3K, Raiders… we had it so good back then.

But here they were a decade later and it’s all gone to hell in a four-colour handbag. Its painful and sad to see Chris Reeve reduced to this, and Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman and all the other stars from that first film slumming in this nightmare production. Sadly, Marvel Studios and even Zack Snyder are lifetimes away, it seems.

The story. Er… is there a story? I don’t think there is. Its just full of ill-judged scenes badly realised. Supes reveals (again) his secret identity to Lois and takes her for a romantic flight (again) although the travelogue scenery suggests he’s whisked her around the nation fast enough to burn her knickers nevermind upset her hairdo, before returning home and causing her to forget his identity with a kiss (again). Later he rescues Lacy (Mariel Hemingway wearing shoulder pads that look like weapons) whilst she’s in space somehow breathing and not freezing/boiling to death.

But there is Christopher Reeve and his simply magnificent Clark Kent. No matter how bad the movie, Clark still shines through and demonstrates the one thing that perhaps no other Superman movie will ever equal- that heartwarming, innocent comedy genius that was Chris Reeves’ Clark Kent, and the gentle chemistry between himself and Margot Kidder. Later films may have had better visual effects (and even actual plots and budgets) but they will never have Reeve and Kidder. So maybe Superman IV is not quite the utter disaster it might have been- oh, ok, of course it is. But it does have Reeve and Kidder. Oh, but they deserved so much better.

So did we, damn it.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

thorragWell I expected it to be good (message to self: why on Earth did you miss this at the cinema?) but I really didn’t expect it to be just this good. I mean, it’s crazy how apparently easy and effortless Marvel Studios make it seem- anybody at DC/Warners will tell you how hard it is to pull off such a naturally organic and enjoyable superhero movie. In a way, this film almost creates its own sub-genre of superhero movie, a sort of action/comedy mashup, in effect. Marvel by way of National Lampoon.

Which doesn’t sound such a good thing. I did wonder going in whether Marvel would be able to pull it off, toeing that awfully-shady line between comedy and farce that could have pulled this superhero caper into a terrible mess, but get away with it they did. Thor: Ragnarok is quite unabashedly wonderful fun, a glorious and somewhat affectionate tribute, visually, to the comic book genius that was Jack Kirby, whilst at the same time being full of knowing ‘winks’ to the superhero genre and the Marvel films in general. In some ways its one of the most sophisticated superhero films we’ve yet seen.

I thought Spiderman: Homecoming was pretty good, and pretty clever in how it revitalised Spider Man in the wake of so many recent films and the rather abortive reboot of a few years ago.  Thor: Ragnarok is of a very similar mould. Both films are light-years away from the foreboding and almost self-loathing of the recent DC movies that were so informed by the Watchmen film and its own graphic novel source. Watchmen is one of my favourite films so I’m not at all aversive to that approach, but it cannot be denied that Marvel are on to something with how it is approaching these movies.

My one note of caution- whilst both Homecoming and Ragnarok are great fun and a welcome breath of fresh air (it has to be said, Captain America: Civil War and the last Avengers movie were pretty dark and po-faced in places) Marvel will have to be wary of going too far down this light-hearted vein of comedy in their movies. They still need to maintain a weight of drama, for instance. Humor is a nice way of letting off steam and entertaining but it shouldn’t be the central crux of the superhero genre, and those films that tread too far into comedic territory risk only amplifying the inherent silliness of the whole genre.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, for some people, Thor: Ragnarok was their least-favourite Marvel movie, purely because of that humour.

But Thor: Ragnarok is just so much fun. Its nuts. Right from the start. Thor is talking to his jail companion, a skeleton, and the skeleton’s jaw drops, literally, at something that Thor says and… well, that was it, I was sold. Sure it’s daft, Sure there’s a lot of hokum and the usual plot contrivances and not every performance is perfect (I still have a hard time tolerating Jeff Goldblum in just about anything, but hey, at least they didn’t cast Nic Cage) but it’s just a pure joy throughout. It certainly isn’t dull. My God, it’s a Jack Kirby comic brought to vivid glorious blockbuster life. With quite a bit of John Buscema thrown in too, if I’m not mistaken. I mean, for that by itself it deserves to be ranked as one of the very best Marvel films.

Well, at the very least, it’s one of the most fun. I think I said that already, didn’t I?

Okay, if I have to be a sourpuss here, I didn’t like how they handled Odin’s passing- twinkly cgi fairy dust flying off into the sky? Please. It was the one miss step that I think the film made. Didn’t care for it at all. And yeah, Goldblum didn’t work for me, but he doesn’t in anything, for me, so that’s hardly this films fault.

It just looks too easy, too natural. I’m certain that these films are incredibly calculated, but at their very best, these Marvel films certainly don’t feel like it. An achievement in itself, I think, right there. At their very best, they feel loose, not contrived.

Now please, Marvel, bring on Howard the Duck. Please. Living in a world where Trump is president, something that surely even Steve Gerber could never have imagined, a Howard the Duck movie makes the most perfect sense in the world, and the guy who just made Thor: Ragnarok might be a good bet for director.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

ca12016.35: Captain America: Civil War (Cinema)

Its fascinating, the thematic similarities between this film and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both films hark back to the central themes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In the Real World, for how long would superheroes be able to run around unchecked before the authorities stepped in? How long would it be until the number of normal humans caught in the crossfire of superhero/supervillain battles become enough to raise the questions of responsibility and blame? When does the body-count of innocents reach a Critical Mass?

Typically of Marvel, such dark and rather sober thinking doesn’t drag Civil War into the same operatic agonising that Batman Vs Superman (or Man of Steel before it)  descended into. Yes its action-heavy with a lot of allegiances and friendships stretched and broken and there are far-reaching consequences at films end, but somehow a lightness persists.

In hindsight, Civil War is the inevitable consequence of all those huge conflicts that occurred in Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the two Avengers films in particular. The body count of civilians is awfully high by this point and plenty of cities laid waste. Naturally the world and its politicians are nervous of the legality and accountability of the Avengers. The opening sequence of Civil War, in which members of the Avengers chasing down  bad guys are involved in the deaths of innocents caught in an explosion,  is the tipping point. A treaty -the Sokovia Accords- signed by the leaders of over a hundred countries is designed to block the Avengers from going into action without United Nations authority. The Avengers are divided- surprisingly Tony Stark (mindful of the loss of life in Sokovia at the end of Age of Ultron) thinks it is the way forward- Steve Rogers however is against it, wary of being controlled by the whims of corrupt politicians and nations with their own agendas- he believes the Avengers should be independent, not held to account by any nation or possible vested interest.

Battle lines are drawn. Divided, the Avengers battle each other while events are secretly orchestrated by someone manipulating things in the background with far more subtlety than Lex Luthor or Loki ever managed.

This is a great comic-book movie. There are big ideas here and big action sequences but the lightness of touch that persists through so many of these Marvel Studios movies dominates the proceedings, stopping the film being as bogged-down Batman vs Superman was. The consequences of those climatic events of the two Avengers films lends a weight to the film that makes it more interesting, and enables the film to raise itself above the one-liners and posing that scuppered much of Age of Ultron. And yet the central plot regarding the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes and his friendship with Captain America/Steve Rogers, something that runs through all three Captain America movies, makes this much more than an Avengers 2.5; it makes it a genuinely great trilogy.

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Indeed, I’m of the opinion that this might be the best Marvel film yet. The film has an elegance and sophistication that is quite astonishing. Pacing is terrific, the fights interesting and varied, the character moments satisfying. These Marvel films make it look so effortless, particularly in ensemble films such as this, how they somehow juggle all the heroes and their superpowers with consummate ease. The appearance of Tom Holland’s Spiderman is terrific and promises a great movie of his own next year- indeed he almost completely steals the show in the scenes he appears in. All the more astonishing when you think he hasn’t had his own film to establish the character or his character beats yet. Likewise the antics (sorry, couldn’t resist) of Ant Man are another highlight. Batman vs Superman stumbled so badly trying to establish its Justice League, here Marvel shows how it should really be done.

Its a great superhero movie, and yes, possibly Marvel’s best. Until that famous webslinger comes into town, anyway.

 

Spidey to suffer ANOTHER reboot?!

Oh, No! Not AGAIN!!!
Oh, No! Not AGAIN!!!

Well it seems a surprise but maybe it shouldn’t be. Rumours seem to be circulating that Sony is intending to give Spider-Man another reboot. The fact that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 made less box-office than its predecessor seems to have gotten the executives nervous.

For myself, well, I had problems with the film (as my review last month will testify) but there was still much to like in the film, particularly Andrew Garfield’s performance and the films take on Spidey in action (especially in the first half). The problem with the film was its mad fascination with franchise-building, simply unnecessary back-story and seeding numerous villains for a Sinister Six spin-off. If only Sony had tried to just make a single good movie rather than a launchpad into other films/stories. No doubt they were enviously looking at what Marvel Studios have been up to and wanted more of the same. This is the most irritating thing about trilogies/sagas- if they end up aborted (Golden Compass, I’m looking at you) then it undermines the individual films and all that went into them.

I find it extremely irritating that rather than own up to their mistakes and make a good ‘proper’ Amazing Spider-Man 3 with maybe one genuine villain (Dr Octopus, please stand up) and the good things from the second film (i.e. Garfield), it looks like we are going to be getting another reboot, complete with yet another tiresome origin story and romance arc (this time Mary Jane again?).

Nothing has been confirmed as yet, but signs do look ominous for anyone who wanted to see what happened next after the second Amazing film. Maybe a Spectacular Spider-Man trilogy instead? Poor Spidey- he deserves so much better…