Fangs ain’t what they used to be

morby1Morbius, 2022, 104 mins, Streaming

I appreciate its not going to happen anytime soon (or even far away, at this point) but isn’t it past time Hollywood came off its addiction to superhero, or in this case, supervillain (albeit it seems the same thing) movies? Morbius probably only exists because Sony is trying to maximise its IP rights to the Spider-Man comics and its unique characters, rather than any real artistic merit for it. I mean, really, can anyone make an argument why the world needs a Morbius movie? I suppose one could say the same about Venom, and I imagine we should consider ourselves lucky we haven’t been subjected to a Dr Octopus film in  which he marries Aunt May (hey, it happened, so its canon, I guess). But where does all this madness end?

Morbius is… well, I always figured he was just a minor villain in the Spider-Man comics, he only appeared in a single story spread over just two issues, way back in 1971 (The Amazing Spider-Man #101 and #102, a story more infamous than memorable because Spidey discovered he had grown an additional four arms at the end of the ‘special event’ #100, and Morbius was Spidey’s key for a cure). Anyway, Morbius seems to have gotten some kind of fanbase, because he then appeared again with Spidey in Marvel Team-Up the very next year and continued in other titles during the ‘seventies (I believe Marvel’s horror comics like Tomb of Dracula were very popular that decade). But Morbius was never part of the Big League of popular Marvel characters. Or at least, so I thought.

So anyway, he now gets own movie, presumably to ensure some tie-in with Spidey in some later movie, the way these movie universes/box-sets work. A post-credits sequence in which The Vulture (Michael Keaton) turns up to further complicate matters/tie things together just utterly bamboozled me, but maybe I’ve missed too many Marvel movies now and I’ll never make sense of it all. Anyway, this is an origin movie and proves a loose adaptation of the comic, at least as far as I can remember. Its kind-of a combination of Frankenstein and Dracula, in which a scientist, Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto, what?!) so desperate to find some cure to a blood disorder via a fascination with bats takes things a bit Universal Horror and turns himself into a vampire. His best buddy since childhood, Milo (Matt Smith)  infects himself too, but he’s not as honest/wholesome as Morbius and becomes a madly over-acting fiend and there’s one of those cartoony big fights at the end and then, er, its The End and the silly nonsense is over, until mid-credits when The Vulture turns up.

Its not terrible. I’ll give it that. But it does seem pointless. All the way through it I was wondering why. Why does this film exist, what is its purpose? What is its original thought, its core spark of originality? I should perhaps stop asking myself questions like that, watching movies. I’ll just keep giving myself an headache.

Paywalls are a Good Thing

As we slide further into a streaming future and an increasing number of providers, more and more shows and movies are becoming locked away behind numerous paywalls and I’m… well, the natural thing to write here is that I’m obviously missing out massively. But I don’t necessarily think I am. I’m beginning to think its a question of liberation, an indication of the increasing irrelevance of franchises I once thought hugely important.

I watched The Walking Dead for several years, but thankfully gave up on it before its final seasons slipped behind the Disney paywall. I quite enjoyed Outlander for a few years, but fell behind before it too slipped behind a different paywall. Star Trek seems to be slipping behind a Paramount paywall, but other than curiosity regards how disappointing  Strange New Worlds probably turns out, I can’t say I really care. They should have probably done me a favour and put Picard behind that paywall so I couldn’t have suffered through its Season Two (unofficial subtitle ‘The Death of Trek’).

I’ve never subscribed to Disney+ so I haven’t seen any of the Marvel tv shows, or Star Wars tv shows, or some of the movies being put on there and nowhere else (except for those few movies that arrive on disc that I decide to take a punt on). It was a bit annoying at first, hearing great things about The Mandalorian, and a Boba Fett series certainly seemed intriguing, but as time has moved on, I’ve realised I haven’t missed them at all, and according to some reviews, I haven’t missed out on too much of any value/worth, either.  There definitely seems an indication that Disney making so much Marvel and Star Wars content risks diluting the value of those properties, and quality control seems to have definitely fallen to the wayside in the drive to ensure fresh new content pops up on the streaming service. And there’s the odd twist that there’s so many Marvel tv shows presumably linking to the films, that me not watching Disney+ makes the film themselves less appealing to me than ever. I understand back in the 1990s many comic fans gave up on the massive comic crossover arcs that required me them to buy comic series they wouldn’t ordinarily touch with a barge pole, if only because they couldn’t afford to buy them all. Is that happening with streaming platforms and franchises? Might it happen to the MCU too? You can watch the films but they will reference to series and events and characters one hasn’t seen and therefore make less sense? As if the MCU wasn’t hard enough to keep track of anyway.

Maybe I’m getting old. I have been increasingly diverted by older movies, such as the film noir that I have been watching and collecting (becoming a substantially large percentage of the titles on my shelving these days). They don’t show too many of those older films on the streaming services. Actually I find it curious, that so much regards these streaming services seems to be about genre shows, which seems oddly niche, considering streamers are after subscription numbers, and I would have thought that meant chasing Mr Average, not the geek sitting in the basement or up in the back room. Or did the geeks inherit the Earth after all, and nobody’s watching soaps or sitcoms anymore? Its just a bit weird. Maybe in an alternative universe everyone’s watching Westerns or cop dramas or something.

I’m not suggesting that streamers are the Great Evil – there are some great shows and movies being made, that I cannot imagine ever seeing the light of day through any other vendor- like Amazon’s The Boys or Netflix’s Stranger Things. But its true that the elephant in the room regards streaming services (and its not just Disney+ at fault here, as Netflix is as guilty as any) – is that to keep subscribers the services have to ensure a steady flow of new content for them to consume before they get bored and turn elsewhere, but it requires so much content that quality inevitably suffers. How many Netflix Originals turn out to be any good, never mind actually great? If Disney just made one Star Wars mini-series a year, would it enable them to make it at least consistently logical and honest to the franchises mythology?  I’ve heard things about that Obi-Wan series, how bad it is, from reliable people I know that have seen it, that are mind-boggling, frankly. Disney would have to pay me to see it, not the other way around.

There are many tv shows I would like to see, like Apple’s For All Mankind series from Ronald D Moore. But what kind of viewing figures does that show actually get, or indeed most any of the shows on these streaming platforms? How many people actually watch Star Trek: Discovery? A generation past made who shot JR or who killed Laura Palmer hugely popular discussions and as everything fragments that seems to be increasingly rare- maybe its impossible now. I’ve watched tv shows and been unable to even find anyone else who watched them at all, never mind anyone to share them with in conversation. Maybe that’s the result of paywalls, but isn’t that making much of its content irrelevant that would usually be what we used to call water-cooler television? Is that really a Good Thing?

Not his Superman

superman78While reading through an old issue of Cinefantastique the other day (the Forbidden Planet double-issue, from Spring 1979, I assume) I came across a capsule review of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie which I hadn’t noticed before, and which, while I’m accustomed to the somewhat po-faced attitude of that mag’s editorials, quite took me aback. With due deference to its writer Robert Stewart, I quote the following:

“The film fails to explore the possibilities of having a new and modernized Superman tackle the real problems of the world in the late 1970s- assassinations, mass suicides, mindf–kers, famine, the CIA, sexism, racism, provocateurs, ageism, unemployment and economic collapse, corporate takeovers, bureaucratic  psychopaths, etc. Instead, he confronts villains not much different from those of the Batman television show…” 

My initial thoughts were that this guy probably loved Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: his review seems more a manifesto for Snyder’s films than anything to do with Richard Donner’s film (clearly Donner’s respectful approach to the original comicbooks went right over Mr Stewarts head). It’s one of those reviews which criticises a film more for what it is not, than what it is.

But it did set me thinking, which was probably the point of the review (so bravo, Mr Stewart, wherever you are now). I’ve noted elsewhere that I’ve really not been a fan of the recent Spiderman films and much of this -and it applies to all three ‘versions’ of the character, the Tobey Maguire films, the Andrew Garfield films and Tom Holland’s films- is simply that none of them have really captured what I loved as a kid growing up reading the 1960s/1970s Spiderman comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. They are perfectly fine films as they are (well, to varying degree anyway) but none of them capture the characters and mood/spirit of those comics, so its inevitable that, for me, they are lacking something. They are probably more faithful to the comics of the past twenty years (that I have never read, although I did read part of the J. Michael Straczynski run of Spiderman comics drawn by John Romita jr. which are likely indicative) which is fine, and I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt there. But my question is, am I being fair? Is it a case though of me disliking films more for what they are not than what they are?

Well, not exactly. I do think there are very real issues with the various films; retconning bad guys to be more sympathetic victims of misfortune than genuine villains is one of my pet peeves, likewise I utterly detest all the various Spidey suits of the Tom Holland films, all that nano-tech/Iron Man rubbish, all that metal arms out the back etc that defy reason, physics and gravity. That’s not any kind of Spiderman I want,  just further evidence of the Marvel films increasingly playing fast and loose with comics canon etc (as far as I know, as it could be something featured in the comics, but I doubt it). Likewise some of the writing feels pretty dire, with some fairly shocking leaps of logic, but that’s something evident in much film and television now; the talent pool is pretty weak now because there is just so much content being produced across film/television streaming etc. And yeah, in defence of writers, maybe its all those producers and executive producers interfering with the material- some films and shows I see now have as many as twenty and more producer credits, and I often wonder if the time will come when the number of producer credits will outnumber that of the cast.

I won’t even watch The Eternals; Jack Kirby’s 1970s comicbooks are amongst my very favourites. They possibly haven’t aged very well in some ways, but they were so bold and imaginative, full of the Chariots of the Gods stuff that excited me so much as a kid and was quite popular in that decade. The film, from what I have seen of it in trailers, has nothing in common with those comicbooks other than name (to be more faithful to Kirby’s work, it surely should have looked and felt more akin to 2017s Thor: Ragnarok film, which really captured the feel of a Kirby strip). I do know Neil Gaiman wrote a reboot/continuation and suspect the film has more in common with that than original creator Jack Kirby’s opus but I may be giving the film too much credit even there. Maybe I’ll get to watch it eventually but certainly I have little if any interest in it; the film was made to be something else, not something faithful to the original comics, and that’s surely true of much current Marvel Studios output.

Which is true, indeed, of what Disney is doing with Star Wars. They are making Star Wars tv shows and movies that are increasingly removed from the original film trilogy I grew up with, and they are as much not ‘my Star Wars’ as anything Marvel Studios films and tv shows are- and the same is true of the current crop of Star Trek tv shows. That being said though, some of these shows, certainly the Star Trek stuff that I have watched, are really woeful, regardless of how ‘faithful’ they aren’t in spirit and subject. The second season of Star Trek: Picard is especially diabolically poor, an absolute nadir for the Star Trek franchise.

Mind, even Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have their fans, I suppose, although those viewers must be especially forgiving of terrible writing, huge plotholes, leaps of logic (and illogic). Indeed I think the shows are fundamentally unforgivable in how crass and stupid they are, and seem to have been written by soap opera and tv sitcom writers rather than anyone actually skilled or knowledgeable of both science fiction or indeed the particular franchise canon (I can’t help but feel this is largely true of the Star Wars and Marvel stuff too, and I don’t know if this is from laziness, ignorance or simply an intent to strike off to pastures new on the back of established IP).

Thank goodness Blade Runner 2049 was sincere and respectful of the original film and extended upon the 1982 original film’s themes and mood thoughtfully, rather than just go the other, easier way, instead making a film about with a Roy Batty Mk.II or an action-based film about a new Blade Runner battling Nexus 7 or Nexus 8 improved, nastier Replicants. After all, it could have been, easily- look how generic the Terminator films became. I may not live to see any more Blade Runner movies, but at least I don’t have to witness what happened with Alien, its Lovecraftian alien creatures turned into spacesuit wearing bald guys in Ridley Scott’s ill-judged Prometheus. The more I think back on Prometheus, the more it actually seems a story about Space Gods akin to Jack Kirby’s 1976 Eternals comics repurposed to fit within the Alien franchise in order to get made (I can well imagine Ridley wanting to make a high-concept Space Gods movie and having to sell it as an Alien movie in order to get it greenlit).

Which I suppose means I should remain absolutely fearful regards that Blade Runner tv series which Ridley is producing. Maybe my luck is going to run out; and certainly, I will feel much more aggrieved regards something spoiling my appreciation and adoration of the 1982 film than I am by some Spiderman film not really being the web-slinger that thrilled me when I was seven years old.

Lost in Space Season Three (2021)

loasts3Attentive readers will likely recall my glowing reviews of the surprisingly good Season One and Season Two of the Lost in Space reboot.  Season Three is the end of the series (kudos to Netflix for letting the show run its course and not cut it short like they have done the recent Cowboy Bebop) so I guess the question is, did they stick the landing?

Well, that’s a tricky one really. There is some weird expectation -maybe its just a general narrative thing, maybe its a Game of Thrones thing- that a series finale has to be some big epic event, a grand conclusion to leave fans buzzing. Its the way they mostly went with Lost in Space, and I’ll be honest, I could have been forgiven during the last two episodes for  thinking I was watching a Marvel movie: infact, it DID occur to me a few times. There are some big climactic moments, particularly during what amounts to a huge battle between good and bad robots across a desolate battlefield of fire and smoke and destruction, where it looked like something from the climax Avengers: Endgame, complete with ‘hero shots’ of human characters posing in essentially slow-motion moments, that felt very ‘Marvel movie’. And sure, for a television show to even approximate that is achievement in itself, even if it is a show made with what I imagine is an inflated Netflix budget. But was that good for the show?

It just made me question why the showrunners felt the need to go large like that, to go so epic. Personally I see so much CGI spectacle now, it quickly gets boring no matter how well its executed, its just a distraction from what should be more genuine drama. There’s a sense that its just a ticking of boxes- bigger explosions, crazier stunts, noisier music- that ruins so many blockbuster movies now. Blockbuster movies used to be a term referring to movies that had crowds queuing around city blocks, like in the glory days of Jaws or Star Wars in the 1970s, but these days its seems to be describing films as loud and noisy as a city block collapsing in an explosion, and its something increasingly infecting television shows all the time too. One of the most depressing things about Star Trek: Discovery (thank goodness I won’t be seeing that show’s latest season since Netflix dropped it) is how much it felt it needed bigger and bigger spectacle, at the expense of actual ideas (or rather it excused its lack of ideas and good writing by blindsiding viewers with flashy vacuous visuals).

To be sure, season three of Lost in Space is visually amazing, as the show always has been. Its production design -sets, costumes, hardware- has always been top-notch, and I’d argue its visual effects have been some of the very best I’ve ever seen on a television show. Its always been a very cinematic series, very strong indeed. But I also think that, some irritating character arcs aside, the series was at its best with regards its characters, especially the dynamic between the young Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) and the Robot, which is something one would certainly expect from a Lost in Space show and one of the reasons this reboot has been so enjoyable. While that isn’t entirely lost in this series conclusion I think it did lose its way, fell out of focus as the show became distracted by trying to become a big Marvel movie. 

Which is why I had mixed feelings as regards season three. It certainly had its moments and the finale largely worked, minus some major plot-holes that irritated me no end which I guess I was supposed to ignore amongst all the CGI and noise. Maybe I should be prepared for more of the same, maybe its just how things are done now. I hear a live-action Blade Runner series is in the works… must say that makes me more than a little nervous, but perhaps much of this is just symptomatic of increasingly poor writing/box-ticking and maybe studio expectations. 

Just because you can do something, visually with all the tools film-makers have now, doesn’t mean one necessarily should- I think that’s a lesson taught us by George Lucas and his Star Wars special editions back in the late 1990s, but here we are and it still hasn’t been heeded. Character-based drama always wins out, but that relies upon a sophistication of writing seemingly lost to the current generation. An army of Replicants, a series of Spinner-Car chases… is that what Blade Runner in future incarnations is destined to become? Likewise an army of Aliens rampaging the Earth in a mooted Alien series, no doubt. Perhaps Lost in Space got away lightly after all.

The Boys: Season One

boys1This was great. An eight-part series based on a comic book that I’d never even heard of written by Garth Ennis, the same guy behind Preacher (a comic book which I read several years ago via the graphic novel reprints, and which was also turned into a tv series on Amazon). The Boys comic book was published between 20o6 and 2012, so as far as comic geeks are concerned, its ancient history already, but it’s interesting to note its ‘age’ because it possibly informs its approach. Basically it’s a superhero book that is consciously the opposite of all the standard comic book tropes of traditional Marvel/DC superheroes. It takes the premise of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, in postulating that superheroes are real and living in our real world, and what they and the world would be like- basically, what would the world be like if Superman was real? In Watchmen, Superman is Dr Manhattan, a scientist of the Cold War transformed into a being with Godlike powers, who grows increasingly withdrawn and distant from human affairs that unravel in his wake during the cold-war 1980s. In The Boys, Superman is Highlander, a complete and utter self-centered dangerous asshole who feels he is above the law- possibly above any authority in the world. Indeed, the superheroes here are as unaccountable as real-life celebrities appear to be in our world, using their power and wealth to manipulate the media in their favour (no, I don’t like celebrity culture).

Basically, in The Boys all the superheroes have gone Corporate, they are celebrities whose brands are used to sell anything from beers to cereals, and whose popularity and powers have generally corrupted them so that they become reckless and self-centered and endanger the safety of the public and the world at large. The title of both comic and tv show refers to “The Boys”, a clandestine group of ordinary people who are at odds with the superheroes, intent on breaking through the lies and abuse of their powers, uncovering the truth about them, revealing their wrongs and hunting them down… and blowing them up if necessary (or putting a power drill to the test).

boys3Even for someone like me who loves the Watchmen graphic novel and movie (and hopefully the HBO spin-off series incoming this Autumn), The Boys is like a breath of fresh air. It deliberately sets out to undermine the traditions of the genre, full of gratuitous violence, sex and swearing and sending up most every standard trope that is celebrated in most any Marvel or DC superhero movie. We like to imagine that most anyone given superpowers would be like Captain America or Spider Man or Ant Man, you know, basically good and decent and set on ‘doing the right thing’ but the truth is, people aren’t inherently noble, are not generally incorruptible- people are usually greedy and selfish and self-centered, and most people given super powers would as likely be jerks abusing those powers as they would becoming noble, selfless heroes.

These guys lie and kill with wild abandon, and with no supervillains to keep them in check or validate their existence they run amok abusing their powers/position and manipulate public opinion through corporate videos and events. We can recognise the manipulation of social media and celebrity culture and it all looks pretty realistic.

The Boys benefits from coming out of nowhere, I think, as it constantly surprises. I gather many things are changed from the original comic book (some characters have changed sex and race, for instance) but part of the fun remains spotting the representations of familiar superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman, and how The Boys variants are shown as horrible jerks and twisted shadows of the DC counterparts. It can run fast and loose and isn’t at all weighed down by, say, seventy years of comics mythology that weighs down the traditional superhero characters- and as it deliberately intends to shock and surprise it just gets wilder and funnier and, yes, quite disturbing at times. The wanton gory human collateral of the superheroics is a brutal reminder of what the traditional genre movies rather forget- you cannot destroy skyscrapers or cities etc without killing dozens or hundreds of regular innocents, and watching HIghlander gorily cut apart dozens of ‘terrorists’ because they are not American, or leave a plane of civilians to die because he messed up the rescue, can be very sobering indeed. He could be a hero like Superman, but instead he’s an asshole, because he’s only human, afterall. And the Boys need to take him down.

Yeah, great stuff, and very well done. Its gory and violent and funny and quite a surreal commentary on the celebrity-obsessed, social media culture we are living in. The cast and the production design and scripts are terrific and I really can’t fault it at all. I look forward to season two next year.

Last Week: This Matrix may have a score to settle

matrix1Well, Warners are bringing The Matrix back. Its been rumoured before, but the announcement this week seems more official: Lana Wachowski (one half of the Wachowski, ahem, sisters who brought us the original trilogy) is signed up, as is Keanu Reeves and (somehow) Carrie-Anne Moss. Presumably shooting next year for a 2022 release, who knows, there’s still plenty of time for it to fall apart. Keanu is, as the Hollywood parlance goes,  rather ‘hot’ at the moment, with his John Wick films doing so well, which likely explains why Matrix 4 is finally happening. The Wachowski’s have struggled post-Matrix (although I did really enjoy Cloud Atlas) so in some ways it’s a little surprising that Lana is even attached to the project, but I guess it keeps the fans onboard. Speaking as a fan of all three Matrix movies (I actually have a sneaky adoration of the second one in particular, as freakish as that may seem) I’m intrigued to say the least at seeing what might happen next. At their very worst, the Matrix trilogy is odd and confounding and subversive and full of good (and bad) ideas, and I’ll take that over the generic fodder we seem to get lately. I just hope they bring the Architect back.

It will be in some company, what with future Marvel, DC, Star Wars and Avatar movies in the offing over the next decade- it rather makes me wonder where they’ll all fit in on the release schedules. Where will ‘ordinary’ non-genre movies fit in, I wonder?

Mentioning Star Wars, it has likely not escaped anyones attention that the trailer for The Mandalorian, Disney’s new flagship show headlining its November Disney+ launch, was revealed this week. Of course it’s impossible to judge anything from its trailer, but it at least looks ‘Star Wars’. To be honest, I thought it looked like a neat idea for a proper Star Wars standalone movie, like Rogue One, and that its almost a pity its a mini-series rather than a movie. It could be great, but here in the UK we don’t know when we are getting Disney+ anyway, so it becomes something of a moot point.  Sign o’ the times indeed. People get used to downloading/streaming torrents, they aren’t going to be inclined to subscribe when it eventually arrives, especially if its been seen ‘by other means’, but Disney may have a situation in the UK with Sky having rights to so much Disney content. Actually makes me wonder, if Disney pulls all that content, what on Earth will Sky have to actually air?

Not that Sky are unique in that situation, but they are particularly open to some damage there. Content is king, afterall, and as streaming avenues open up and content becomes tied to particular streaming channels, a whole new world opens up and the old content providers, whether it be Sky or Virgin Media, whoever, could be in trouble.

Funnily enough, I’m reminded of when Battlestar Galactica‘s two-part pilot was edited into a theatrical release over here in the UK,  and wonder if Disney would consider launching The Mandalorian over here in cinemas this Autumn if its first episode/s could work as a standalone item. Afterall, it’s all just digital files on hard drives these days, there’s no expense making prints like back then. Might keep the hype train rolling and divert people from those torrents.

So anyway, this week real-life issues got in the way somewhat regards writing posts here. I did manage to watch some stuff though – other than the execrable mother!, or Hunter Killer and Aquaman (three things that I did manage to post about), I did complete Season Three of Glow (which was fine) and watched a few episodes of The Boys (which is pretty great). Also my copy of the Ghost Story expanded soundtrack from Quartet Records arrived, but I haven’t really had proper opportunity to listen to it yet. Its a big, lush, romantic score, quite complex in orchestration and unlike the scores we get these days (it dates, of course, to 1981).

On the subject of scores, as I didn’t mention it in my Aquaman review, I feel the moment is right to point out that Rupert Gregson-Williams Aquaman score was, like the film itself, all over the place tonally. Sometimes symphonic and grand, sometimes it was all ‘Daft Punk’ channeling Tron Legacy, at others it was all Bear McCreary BSG. I suspect we hear the temp track revealing itself. But the source music used was something else entirely… did I hear the most horrible mutilation of Toto’s Africa that has ever been inflicted upon Western Civilization? I actually looked on Amazon and they even included it on the official soundtrack album. Ye gods. I’ve listened to the track (Oceans to Oceans) on Youtube and still cannot quite believe it exists. Isn’t Donald Trump being President enough of a cross for us to bear?

Shazam! 4K UHD

shazam1When I saw the first teaser/trailer for Shazam! some time ago, it certainly looked different- it was either going to be a blast or another Distinguished Calamity (see what I did there? I’ll go get my coat…), it was hard to tell which, but it was clear that this was no typical, formulaic superhero movie. Except of course it was, really.

But, I have to say, and much to my surprise, Shazam! is an absolute blast. Its great. It doesn’t really shake up superhero movies in anything like the same way as Deadpool pretended to (that film’s last third really just falling into standard genre tropes) but it’s genuinely great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it and its easily the best DC film I’ve yet seen. Indeed, it’s so much better than the lackluster and confused Captain Marvel.

Shaking off the darkness of the Dark Knight films or Man of Steel etc, this nonetheless finds what actually turns out to be a very surprising middle ground – sure, its as light as Spider Man: Homecoming or the Ant Man films, but somehow it also manages to have some genuine darkness in the mix. Its a story of two boys (Billy Baxter and Thaddeus Sivana), one of whom is an orphan, while the other might as well be as he is ridiculed and rejected by his father and elder brother. Both boys are summoned by ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who has spent years searching for someone pure of heart to take his place and protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins. Thaddeus, tempted by the Deadly Sins, is deemed unworthy, and by the time Billy is tested years later, the Sins are on the loose (freed by a now-adult Thaddeus, played by Mark Strong) and Shazam, nearing death, is so weakened he has no choice but to pass on his powers and hope Billy will measure up. Billy is no boy pure of heart, living a rough life in and out of foster care whilst vainly searching for the mother who he lost (and actually deliberately deserted him, in another dark twist). Will Billy learn to control and use his powers for Good before Thaddeus, equally empowered by the monstrous Deadly Sins, hunts Billy down and claims the power of Shazam in order for the Sins to wreak havoc on the world?

shazam2Well you can guess how it goes, but the beauty of Shazam! is how it gets there. While young Billy is played very well by (Asher Angel) in a sympathetic and warm performance that grounds the character, his Shazam alter-ego, dressed in an oddly charming retro spandex suit complete with a very strange cape, is played brilliantly by Zachary Levi, who I thought was incredibly good in the tv series Chuck. Levi’s performance is like Tom Hanks in Big, here playing a kid in an adult superhero body and getting great comedy out of it, but genuine pathos too. In many ways he is a vulnerable innocent in just the same way as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in recent Marvel outings, and perhaps to a lesser extent Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman. Shazam spends most of his time with his foster home buddy Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who, thanks to a fascination with superheroes, acts as Shazam’s advisor. Its two outsider kids against the world, sort of, in a rather intimate and personal superhero film with considerable heart.

Sure its not perfect, but it’s really quite close. It doesn’t degenerate into a huge CGI spectacle, there is a sense of reality to it in spite of its daftness, and all the characters are well-written and defined. There is a warmth and sense of fun to the film which is really refreshing, especially for a DC film. It doesn’t take itself at all too seriously, and yet maintains some real tension and drama. Its a great balancing act.

Better still, in 4K UHD, the film looks and sounds phenomenal. Its surprisingly reference material, with absolutely perfect use of HDR giving a sense of detail and depth that can be astonishing at times. The film mostly takes place near Christmas, with lots of seasonal lights outside and inside of homes that really pop, and a finale that takes place at a Winter Carnival that is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous throughout. This is a great Christmas movie (I didn’t see that coming). The CGI is more restrained than recent superhero ‘epics’ and is really photo-realistic in 4K, really benefiting from the HDR and wider colour gamut.

So yeah, thats me quite shocked, to be honest. I really didn’t think I would enjoy this anywhere near as much as I did. It certainly augurs well for the future direction of DC movies- well, I hope so, anyway. There’s plenty of room, surely, for both light and dark approaches to these costumed capers. After the deplorable Justice League I had absolutely zero interest in watching any further DC films, but this one has me turned around. Maybe I’ll have to get to Aquaman afterall.

A surprisingly bland Captain Marvel

cm1There’s something wrong with the structure of Captain Marvel. As origin movies go, its fairly dysfunctional- there’s zero opportunity for growth or what would qualify as  traditional narrative arc for a film such as this. While some might argue thats a good thing, perhaps even a breath of fresh air, in my mind it leaves this film feeling oddly broken- it doesn’t really work.

Maybe they tried fixing it in post- maybe this state of affairs is a result of that ‘fix’ not working, it’s certainly a curio. Mind, looking at those credits, it has two directors, five writers, eight producers, is it any wonder it turns out such a mess? If ever there were an argument for the single-vision of auteurs like Zack Snyder, Captain Marvel may be it.

Sorry, I’m a little sore. I bought this movie. Anyway, lets begin.

Let’s compare Captain Marvel to pretty much any other Marvel hero in their first movie. Vers (Brie Larson) awakens on the planet Kree, a member of her planets Starforce, a military that defends Kree from the evil shape-shifting Skrulls. She’s a self-confident and accomplished warrior with fighting skills and (some) superpowers, right from the start. She is troubled by strange dreams and a loss of memory of anything prior to being brought to Kree as a young adult of eighteen years, but other than that, she is strong and confident. Complete with a sharp-looking rubber superhero costume right off the bat, she’s unfortunately got zero personality under that costume and little room for any growth; she’s a kick-ass warrior maiden, what’s left?

Most other introductory Marvel hero tales start with their alter-ego. Peter Parker as a shy, introverted student, Steve Rogers as a skinny kid who’s deemed unfit for military duty, Bruce Banner who’s a driven scientist, Tony Stark a self-obsessed playboy billionaire. You give them their superpower and the drama is how much it changes them, how they cope with those powers and inherent responsibility. How they grow.

Now, lets try an alternative structure. Let’s show Vers as her original identity of Carol Danvers on Earth, growing up, a young girl struggling to compete and prove herself in a mans world. She tries, she fails, but she always gets up and tries again until she succeeds. Well, there’s your personality and character. She’s driven and stubborn enough to struggle past adversity. I can see the title sequence right there, a period rock song, vignettes of her growing up. Post credits, we open proceedings with her as a young woman, she has a few close freinds, has managed to work her way into the airforce, when in a characteristic act of stepping up to the plate to prove herself, she is caught in a bizarre air battle and ‘dies’ in a crash.

And then she wakes up on Kree, ignorant of her real past. The mystery is how she got there and why, and why she can’t recall her past on Earth- or is this some twin? The plot then drives her back towards Earth and for her to uncover the truth, her true self, and ultimately the true scope of her superpowers. Presto, entertaining movie. Hardly rocket science.

The trouble is, we never really get to know Carol Danvers, the girl behind the costume and the superpowers. By the time the big effects/action spectacle kicks in, we don’t really care. Compare that to the magnificent Superman: The Movie, in which we always care about the title character, always empathise with him, and love Clark Kent, because we know who he is and why he is. Captain Marvel is one big glowing visual effect, and they don’t even think to write her some kryptonite to instil some danger or drama. Maybe that comes in the inevitable second movie, but as origin adventures go, this is one of the worst I can remember. She flies through space, destroying alien juggernauts and beating up alien bad guys, but it’s uninvolving, almost boring. We’ve seen all this CGI spectacle before, and modern film-makers really must try harder, do more. The eye-candy isn’t enough on its own anymore.

cm2Brie Larson, so good in Kong: Skull Island is merely adequate here: she looks beautiful and steps up to the physical challenge, but she’s really hampered by the strange structure of the film that leaves her character hopelessly bland.

I think some have denounced such criticism as sexual politics and maybe the fanboy backlash post-The Last Jedi deserves some of that, but I honestly think its well-founded to some extent. For one thing, the film really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Its never competently explained what Annette Bening’s Kree-in-hiding character was doing researching technologies on Earth for the US Government, or competently explains why one minute its a galactic Kree/Skrull war with the Skrull as omnipotent invaders and then suddenly the Skrull are just misunderstood ragtag survivors looking for a new home and sanctuary from the suddenly nasty Kree- is all the lie simply set up for Vers’ benefit for some odd reason, in which case, are all the Kree in on it? I mean, what’s she even doing on Kree? What purpose does it serve having her think she is a Starforce operative named Vers? We are offered sideways explanations in passing, usually via dialogue, which we are not meant to consider or examine. The whole thing feels broken, a deck of cards ready to fall on closer inspection, completely undermining any of the actors attempts to make it work. Jude Law is almost hysterically bad as Vers’ mentor Yon-Rogg, initially a good-guy with a shady demeanor and then suddenly in a twist so badly executed I thought it was actually a bluff, he’s actually the main villain. He looks great in the part physically but its woefully underwritten and everytime he opens his mouth to speak the film goes clunk.  If your bad guy is such a non-entity, you’re in trouble: they almost absent-mindedly drag in that Ronan character from Guardians of the Galaxy (so forgettable in that movie I just had to look it up to check) for villian support, and that fails, too, unless it’s just to throw in those spaceships for our hero to smash.

On the plus side, it has a nice Stan Lee tribute at the beginning- although if you’re a fan of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and at all familiar with the real history of Marvel, that is just as likely to set your teeth on edge right from the start. With all due respect to Lee, he’s up there with Gene Roddenberry in the curated myths department. But hey ho, that’s the reality we’re living in, it’s easier to attribute talent/genius to one than in it is to a dozen.

 

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

end1A crushing disappointment. I’ll get that out of the way right now. While I didn’t believe Avengers: Infinity War was the slam dunk classic that some, or even the majority of, fans did, I did have hopes that my reservations with that film would be addressed by the second film, that things that troubled me would make sense in hindsight. Alas, the simple truth of Endgame is that it doesn’t – indeed, it just throws more wood into the fire and causes even more consternation.

One caveat here- while I have read loads of Marvel comics from the 1960s/early 1970s era, I know nothing about the original Thanos material in the comics that, presumably, led to an Infinity War saga that crossed over several of the Marvel comics lines. So I have no way of knowing if my issues with it all stems chiefly from the comics themselves and the films being faithful to them. I suppose the film-makers are caught in no-mans land, somewhat, if they are beholden to those comics and keeping faith with them.

But if so, then oh boy, I wish they had gone the other way and trod some other path. Time travel? Alternate timelines, ignoring time paradoxes with some kind of casual “nah, that’s just movies” remark and just doing whatever they please?

Let’s get this right: at the end, for some unfathomable reason they just don’t make clear, while they have dismissed the inherent paradoxes of time travel as nonsense. they maintain that somebody has to go back and return the Power Stones to where they came from in the several desperate time-zones and locations. So Captain America elects to do this, and they send him back – presumably he has some kind of Time Machine Wristwatch so that once he delivers one Power Stone he can then dial up another location/time and deliver the next one and so on, which suggests that perhaps they should have done this in the first place when they originally went back for them- all the heroes together to each Power Stone and then move on to the next, etc. But anyway, conveniently bypassing that particular plot hole, Captain America goes back and delivers each Power Stone, presumably fixing any temporal issues we were earlier told were not an issue. Then he decides to go back to 1940s America and his lost love Peggy Carter and spends his life with her, presumably spending his life in some alternate timeline thus created- and yet ends up on the park bench in the current (?) timeline as an old man. Surely he should be in some other universe/timeline in which he stayed with Peggy, not the one in which he fought in the various Avengers/Captain America movies and Peggy married someone else and…

Its just noise. I know that all it is. Its all nonsense, trying to make sense of it and it’s only a comic book superhero caper, its grown men (and women) dressed up in silly costumes with silly powers that defeat all laws of physics. But surely it could do without all that noise of plot holes and paradoxes and sensical conflicts and fan service?  That first section of Endgame, in which our heroes traumatised by the finale of Infinity Wars unite to track down Thanos and undo the Snap that took out 50% of all life in the universe- surely that should have just been the entire Endgame movie? Just spread it out into some huge interplanetary adventure figuring out where Thanos is and figuring out a way to defeat him and use the Gauntlet to fix everything? I mean, ultimately, it would do without all the Time Travel theatrics, which don’t ultimately really fix everything (we don’t get Gamora back, or the Vision etc) and just give me headaches every time I think about it.

end2.jpgTime travel is real: okay, so we go back and kill Thanos before the events of Infinity War. We’ve established it won’t create any Time Paradox because Back to the Future is just, hey, a movie. We go back, nuke Thanos or flush him out an airlock or decapitate him and presto, everybody’s back, because Thanos didn’t live to get all the Power Stones. Or, let’s go back to every previous Marvel movie that featured a Power Stone and steal it and destroy it before Thanos could get it. Presto, everyone’s back, and there’s no Power Stones or Gauntlet that could ever snap them away. No, instead, let’s go back, steal those Power Stones, then use it to do our own snap (without the Gauntlet?)… er..

Yeah, only the Gauntlet can harness and control the powers of those Power Stones, I think that was established earlier, so what the frak does Iron Man do at the end of Endgame? When he and Thanos are having that wrestling contest, Iron Man somehow comes out of it with the Power Stones without Thanos sussing what he’s done in a split second of wrestling masterclass brilliance, and no, I don’t remember if he’s actually wearing the Gauntlet having somehow undressed Thanos of it like some kind of party trick Paul Daniels would be proud of, he’s just in his Iron Man suit and somehow he performs a Counter-Snap anyway? WTF? The grand conclusion of the saga has me scratching my head about what the hell actually happened- a clever twist or terrible storytelling?

I realise they filmed both Infinity War and Endgame together, back to back, but it really feels as though they shot and released Infinity War, and then had to figure some way out of it with Endgame, to fix it all back. “How do you fix the problem of Infinity War?” seems to be a question they didn’t already have an answer to, which for me feels weird, because presumably they had all this mapped out before they even started shooting any of Infinity War, nevermind what Endgame became. I mean, they did, obviously, because this is how they made the two films but it doesn’t feel like it, it doesn’t feel inherently sound or whole. Which is what disturbed me the most about Endgame.

Repeat viewings may answer some of my concerns and may make more sense of it all, but I rather doubt it. I think Endgame (and it’s a bit of a shame, but that also includes Infinity War before it), is rather a miss-step for Marvel. The box-office seems to be beyond spectacular so I’m likely in the minority as usual, but hey, box-office billions in no way reflects upon actual quality. It just possibly reflects upon the gullibility of fan-boys and a general public clamoring for the next big Event Movie. From my one current viewing, I’m of the opinion that Endgame was pretty poor and a crushing disappointment.

And next week I’m watching the grand conclusion of season eight of Game of Thrones, another saga that threatens to collapse under the weight of fan expectations and several years of build up and hype and popular-culture hysterics. I sense a pattern emerging and its not particularly pretty…

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

verse1Some have described this as the best Spider-Man film yet. I’m not so sure about that- I suppose that really depends upon your own history with the character, which has been in print now for over fifty years. For myself, well I read the run from 1963 through to the late ‘seventies, from the Ditko years through to the Romita and Andru years and all had their own pros and cons. For myself, the definitive Spider-Man would be one set during the 1960s, like an episode of Mad Men sprinkled with Ditko’s noir-ish sensibilities, full of period songs and stylish fashion and design. Something like the Batman tv show but done all adult and serious. Clearly, thats never likely to happen, and Spider-Man films are made for today’s readers carrying all the baggage of the 1980s run to the present, which I’m utterly ignorant of (hence my rather clueless bemusement of the Venom film and a strange distance from much of what goes on in recent Spider-Man films- a young ‘hot’ Aunt May? Wtf?).

But you never know- if there’s one thing that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse demonstrates, anything can happen.  Quite a few times while watching the film I had to ask myself if this thing was real, where it had possibly come from. Its an exciting, exhilarating, breathlessly entertaining and imaginative slice of comic-book joy. Its an absolute blast. Back when the film was announced, I wondered what the hell they were thinking of (maybe my thoughts were shadowed by memories of that awful cheesy Spider-Man animated show of the 1960s) but this thing… well, it’s quite gorgeous, and it has a witty script… its great, a real treat. Its a slice of genius really, how it manages to press some kind of ‘reset’ button on everything that’s come before it, and make everything seem so new again- it does make me wonder, infact, where the live-action Spidey movies go without seeming old-fashioned and almost redundant. I’m quite ignorant of the character of Miles Morales having his own comic-book series but I gather he does, no doubt part of all the mythology in the comic I’ve missed since I stopped reading it decades ago. I have the feeling that I had the Spider-Man of my generation, that we deserved back then, and it’s somebody else’s now. I’m fine with that, and while I’d not really be interested in reading the current comics, it’s fun to watch something like this and get a glimpse.

I’d also love to read a Spider-Man Noir book (at last Nicolas Cage is brilliant again, who’d have guessed his true destiny was self-deprecating voice casting? His career could be revitalised for years). This guy deserves a spin-off movie… but then so does Spider-Gwen; it’s part of the genius of this film, how it can appeal to so many different groups of people not naturally ‘into’ the usual Spider-Man.

Did I say it was gorgeous? Its like one of those old Motion Comics (remember them? I tried watching the Watchmen one and retired to the original book in confusion), but on steroids. Its breathtaking really, riddled with all sorts of clever touches, whether it be squiggles or comic panels and lettering, different styles, as if somehow a comic-book drawn by different artists was brought to animated life by some kind of Frankenstein cine-sorcery. I’m sure having only seen it once there’s all sorts of touches/details/geek easter-eggs (I spotted a few) that I’ll pick up on repeated viewings. Its wild and nuts and beautiful.

Its funny, DC could have done something like this with its Batman series- have the old matinee-serial b&w Batman meet up with the Adam West Batman and the Michael Keaton Batman etc. Its a funny thing how even the movie mythologies of these comic-book characters are as convoluted as the original comic ones are. I guess it’s all those years, decades going by.

Into the Spider-Verse almost makes all those reboots and remakes make sense. Maybe it’s making some kind of commentary on the industry and how all these franchises twist and turn in an effort to keep themselves relevant and topical, and, er, make lots of money. I suppose a sequel would be almost an afront, like selling-out almost..