It’s been six months since I did one of these — here’s some highlights from “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch,” my weekly feature on Tor.com that looks at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic book. (Here are some highlights from the first year of the feature from August 2017-August 2018, and then some more from August 2018 to the first week of January of this year.)
This particular set of quotes includes my coverage of Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and my entire coverage of the DC Extended Universe through to 2018 (I’ll cover Shazam! later this year), as well as some other bits and bobs.
Each new installment drops on Fridays, usually at noon. This week will be Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
Unfortunately, both [Christopher] Eccleston and [Adewale] Akinnuoye-Abgaje are (a) slathered in a ton of makeup and (b) forced to speak a made-up language, and both factors deter from their performances. Both actors are known for their facility with facial expressions, a quality they’re denied in these roles. Both of them also have great voices—tellingly, many of the actors who do particularly well in tons of makeup, your J.G. Hertzlers and your Tony Todds and your Doug Joneses and your Andy Serkises and your Djimon Honsous, have superlative voices—but this other hallmark is equally muted by the Dark Elf tongue they’re stuck with. It’s not a coincidence that Eccleston’s most effective scene is the one where he kills Frigga, in which he speaks English the whole time and is way scarier than he is exchanging nonsense with Akinnuoye-Abgaje.
On Captain America: The Winter Soldier:
The stars of the movie, though, are Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. The Black Widow continues to be one of the few grownups in the MCU, and Johansson manages a tremendous balancing act here, managing both to provide reveals about Romanoff, yet not really telling us anything. (I also love the way she keeps trying to matchmake Rogers.) Her speech to Rogers about how she thought joining S.H.I.E.L.D. meant putting the KGB behind her is devastatingly delivered.
And Evans remains a rock. He never loses sight of Rogers’s honesty, his nobility, his skill, and most of all his belief in the American dream. When he tells Fury that Project: Insight is like putting a gun to the head of the entire world, he says it with a seriousness that manages to be earnest without being corny. It’s an inspiring, inspirational performance, and you can tell that cynical old spies like Fury, Romanoff, and Hill and tired old soldiers like Wilson gravitate to him because he has a purity of purpose and of belief that they’ve long since lost and would love to get back.
I absolutely adore James Spader as Ultron. Given that it’s a creation of Stark, and given the spectacular smartassery of J.A.R.V.I.S., having Ultron be a version of Stark’s snottiness (by way of Raymond Reddington) makes perfect sense, and Spader’s obviously having such a good time as a sociopathic robot. Mention must also be made of Andy Serkis’s gusto-laden performance as Klaue (which he’ll repeat with even more gusto in Black Panther).
However, as strong as Spader and Serkis are, they aren’t the real villains of this movie—Tony Stark is. It’s his hubris that leads to the creation of Ultron. Yes, he redeems himself somewhat at the end, but still, he’s the one who not only creates Ultron (with Banner’s help, yes, but it’s pretty clear who’s the alpha there—something Stark himself dings Banner for during one of the arguments), but goes to great lengths not to tell the rest of the team because he knows full well that what he’s doing is wrong. If he wasn’t, he’d be okay with everyone else knowing. In particular, of course, he doesn’t want to get into an argument with Captain America, probably because he knows he’ll lose. (Of course, that won’t stop him next time, but we’ll get to that when we cover Captain America: Civil War in the summer.)
There are a number of reasons why it works here, and this is in spite of a script that, when you actually take a look at it, isn’t all that great. Quill saving Gamora’s life in the prison is an important moment, but it doesn’t really feel earned, as Gamora mostly just beat the shit out of Quill. The transition from criminals out for their own gain to heroes who save a planet also never really feels earned, either from the nascent Guardians or from Yondu’s Ravagers. (Well, okay, Quill writes a note to the Nova Squadron saying, “I may be an a-hole, but I’m not a total dick,” which I guess is enough? And it does give us the great line, “They got my dick note!” Also, the moving target of acceptable profanity continues to baffle me, as they can say “shit,” but not “asshole,” apparently.) Gamora says they’re a family more than once, but they’re mostly a family because they got to that part of the script. It’s following a very strict formula, one that’s so strict that Gunn doesn’t even bother to justify the tropes.
So we have a movie that forces Ant-Man down our throats, at the expense of the Wasp. Not only that, the movie itself cops to the fact that the Wasp would be better suited to this, but she’s sidelined because Pym’s grief over his wife’s death is so great. Emily Asher-Perrin put it best on this very site when the movie came out: “Essentially, Janet van Dyne was fridged to give Hank Pym enough pain to prevent Hope van Dyne from being the main character.” In order to justify having this be an Ant-Man movie, they have to kill the Wasp in a flashback (reducing her to a character with no lines cast with an extra, though that she’s in her helmet the whole time means that anyone can be cast in the role down the line, as indeed Michelle Pfeiffer will be—but that’s the next movie, and our issue here is with this one) and sideline the actual capable character.
On the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
CGI had, by 2014, been advanced sufficiently, especially in conjunction with motion-capture, to make the Turtles realistic enough. The problem is, honestly, they’re too realistic. The Turtles are supposed to be a little bit goofy. Indeed, allegedly Bay sent the movie back for reshoots because there wasn’t enough lightheartedness in it, and so they put in things like the beat-music bit in the elevator as they’re riding up fifty-plus flights to confront Shredder. Out of context, that bit is actually a lot of fun, but it feels crowbarred into the story there, since it’s horribly out of place as they’re about to confront a guy who’s trying to poison an entire city. And indeed, the hyper-realism of the Turtles makes them too nasty-looking for the comedy bits to really work right.
The whole movie is like that, shifting from a silly movie about goofy evolved adolescent martial artist testudines to a dark, violent action movie about vigilantes trying to stop a crime wave. The two tones never mesh and are regularly at odds with each other.
On Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows:
The movie also benefits from strong performances from Tyler Perry as the very nerdy, but still dangerous Stockman and by Brad Garrett, leaving no piece of scenery unchewed as Krang’s voice. And I like the fact that Shredder, after casually betraying Stockman, finds himself betrayed in the exact same way by Krang. (I particularly love the dialogue exchange between them. “You betrayed me!” “Actually, I barely even thought about you.”) While Stephen Amell isn’t quite as batshit as Elias Koteas was as Casey Jones, he still inhabits the role quite well, and he actually has chemistry with Megan Fox (who remains mostly harmless as O’Neill). More to the point, he sells Jones’s desire to bring the criminals to justice, as he has something at stake here. Laura Linney also does well as the cynical police chief.
There’s not a bad performance in the movie, which helps immensely. T.J. Miller’s dorky deadpan keeps up beautifully with Reynolds’s rapid-fire snark, Leslie Uggams is superb as the too-old-to-give-much-of-a-shit Blind Al, Stefan Kapičić is hilariously earnest as Colossus, Brianna Hildebrand is stereotypically teenage (but nonetheless compelling) as Negasonic, and both Ed Skrein and Gina Carano are delightfully, unapologetically evil in their portrayals of Ajax and Angel Dust.
But the best performance here is Morena Baccarin, because she has so little to work with. Deadpool’s approach to Vanessa is to take a complicated comics character and reduce her to The Love Interest. She’s marginalized constantly, with Wilson sneaking out of the house to get his super-cure, and never going near her after he turns ugly, not thinking highly enough of her love for him that he thinks looking like the product of two desiccated avocados that rage-fucked will be enough for her to reject him. And then she’s kidnapped, because that’s really all they can think of to have her involved in the plot. Sigh.
But that’s the problem with the movie: it fridges Vanessa.
Every time I’ve mentioned fridging in this rewatch it’s led to at least one or two comments saying, “I’m not sure this is really fridging,” so let me cut that off at the pass: what happens to Vanessa is the textbook definition of fridging. Based on the events of 1994’s Green Lantern #54, in which GL’s girlfriend was killed and stuffed into a refrigerator, the term was coined by comics writer Gail Simone to point up the laziness of far too many comics writers when confronted with writing a female character—too often, they are killed, maimed, injured, raped, whatever in order to bring pain to the male hero. (Ironically, Simone had a lengthy and influential run on Deadpool’s monthly title; she was the one who started Deadpool’s dialogues with the “yellow boxes” of narrative captions.)
Which is exactly what happens here. Vanessa is a great character, a slightly nutsy cuckoo woman who adores Wade Wilson for exactly who he is, and who can keep up with his verbal Jackson Pollocking. And all that Reynolds, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick can think to do with her is kill her off to make Deadpool suffer? Seriously?
This movie in particular is a strong origin. I like that they kept Mike Baron’s use of the likely consequences of running fast all the time on one’s biology, and I especially like that they brought [Tina] McGee over from the comics. Amanda Pays is always wonderful, and her chemistry with John Wesley Shipp is relaxed and delightful. (The same cannot be said for Shipp and the wooden Paula Marshall, whose Iris was never seen again after this.) It’s too bad that Tim Thomerson was specifically created to be killed to motivate Barry (sigh), as Shipp and Thomerson have excellent brotherly banter going on.
Shipp himself generally works. He’s much better when he’s being relaxed, friendly Barry—angry Barry is a bit out of his wheelhouse and he stiffens up when he’s pissed off, making that mode utterly unconvincing. (His “NOOOOO!” when he finds Jay’s body is just sad.) But overall, his Barry Allen is very good. And I’ve always liked Alex Désert—his easygoing charm fits nicely, making him a dandy sidekick. (I always wished they’d just let Mendez learn the truth, as he’d have been as useful in his own way as McGee.)
On Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman:
Lois & Clark is an interesting look at where sex relationships stood in the “post-feminist” 1990s, having gone through the women’s lib movement of the late 1960s and 1970s and the conservative backlash of the Reagan years: to wit, a big ol’ mess. On the one hand, Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane is portrayed as a go-getter, as a hard-willed, takes-no-prisoners reporter who is as tough as any man—tougher, even. On the other hand, we see her alone in her apartment crying while watching a sappy romantic movie, and people around her, particularly her rival Cat Grant and her sister, keep trying to convince her that all she really needs is a man, and her life will be complete. Part of it is, of course, the very premise of the Superman mythos, the “love triangle” among Lane, Kent, and Superman. And it’s not surprising that in the Ally McBeal era of television, we see this dichotomy between the traditional woman who only needs a man to be complete and a woman who’s an accomplished person in her own right and that really should be enough for society, dammit. (Ironically, the star of Ally McBeal, Calista Flockhart, would go on two decades later to play a much more compelling version of Cat Grant than the unsubtle “man-eater” sexually prolific living stereotype played very poorly by Tracey Scoggins here.)
Lois & Clark threads that needle very clumsily, and 25 years on, it’s almost painful to watch.
But this movie reboots Supes for a 21st-century audience by utterly assassinating, not just the title character, but his adopted father as well. Instead of a role model for the greatest hero in the world, Jonathan Kent is instead a paranoid idiot and a borderline sociopath. He considers letting a bus full of children die to possibly be a viable alternative to his son revealing his powers. He considers committing suicide to definitely be a viable alternative to his son revealing his powers. And instead of a hero who considers the preservation of life to be the most important thing, Superman trashes his hometown as well as Metropolis in two brutal battles, his only regard for the innocent lives being endangered is once urging people to get inside in Smallville (not exactly a help, given that it’s probably more dangerous inside than outside in that particular situation), culminating in his killing his opponent because he’s not bright enough to remember that he can fly.
On Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice:
So much that occurs in this movie happens, not because it makes sense, but because it’s necessary for the plot to work, starting with Jimmy Olsen being the only photographer in the 2010s who uses film rather than digital. Why does Mercy Graves let Wayne just wander around near Luthor’s servers twice? How did Luthor manipulate Keefe into sending the checks back when Luthor didn’t even meet Keefe until right before he sent him to blow up the Capitol? Why does Finch’s aide give Luthor everything he wants in order to further his evil plan? How does Luthor know that Superman always saves Lane? (Yes, that’s an old cliché in the comics and in past adaptations, but Superman’s only been around for eighteen months, that’s not long enough for the pattern to emerge.) How does Superman not know there’s a bomb in the Capitol, and why the hell doesn’t he move to at least try to save somebody, anybody using his super-speed and stuff? Why is Martha telling Superman that he doesn’t owe the world anything, beyond continuing the notion that this version of Kent has the worst parents ever? Why is Luthor smart enough to engineer this whole plan but dumb enough to leave unique bullets lying around that would raise red flags if examined? And most importantly, why is the guy who is made completely vulnerable by the spear the one to wield it instead of one of the other two heroes on the scene? Sure, Wonder Woman or Batman might also have died if they wielded the spear, but they have other skills they can bring to bear against Doomsday, while Superman, by the nature of what he’s wielding, has had those skills taken away from him.
The Suicide Squad is a covert ops team. In case we’ve forgotten that, Waller says as much when she’s pitching the notion to the Joint Chiefs. A movie starring them should feel like a Mission: Impossible movie or The Dirty Dozen.
Instead, David Ayer gives us a plot that would not be out of place as the plot of a Justice League or Avengers movie: heroes band together to save the world from a massive threat.
That isn’t what the Squad is all about, though. They don’t save the world from big-ass threats, they protect the country from subtle threats. They work in the shadows, not in big fights in train stations.
They’re also criminals who are only in it for themselves. Seeing them come together in the bar and decide to ante up and be heroes anyhow doesn’t feel earned in the least. The camaraderie among the team members is utterly unconvincing as well. It’s a good thing Deadshot said he didn’t kill women and children, because it’s the only reason I believe he didn’t kill Quinn when Waller ordered him to. I have a much easier time believing that Quinn would actually join Enchantress in helping take over the world than I would that she’d kill her to protect the rest of the team. El Diablo calls them his family before he sacrifices himself, and I just don’t see it.
With this movie, we finally get a good live-action female-led superhero comic-book movie and a good DCEU movie, and it’s about fucking time. In particular, for the first time in this particular cinematic cycle, we have a movie that remembers that the world has color in it. While Zack Snyder’s fetish for browns, blacks, and grays in his cinematographical choices are easy to blame, it should be pointed out that Suicide Squad was almost entirely in grayscale as well, with most of the action taking place at night, in the rain, or in a city that was covered in a literal cloud of evil. Here, at last, we have colors, and it’s amazing! From the tropical sunlight on Themyscira to the red-white-and-blue of Diana’s outfit—which we don’t really get a good look at until that crowning moment of awesome when she goes over the top—it’s a bright, beautiful movie.
Gal Gadot continues her superlative work. After being one of the few bright spots of Dawn of Justice, here she gives us a Wonder Woman who is strong, passionate, compassionate, a bit naïve (though the movie is about her getting past that), brilliant, and happy. She is a person who takes absolute joy in life, and is fervent in all her passions, whether it’s something as minor as seeing a baby or as unexpected as being able to break stone and metal with her bare hands or as major as walking across “no-man’s land” to save a town.
This movie has craptons of problems, but the biggest one is its very foundation, which is the notion that Superman’s death has caused strife and chaos and misery, seen in a montage at the top of the film (under a rather good cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” by Sigrid), and it is utterly unconvincing. Every single moment of Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice was given over to the notion that Superman was dangerous, that Superman was not to be trusted, and that Superman wasn’t even much of a hero. And even if he did lots of heroic things in the eighteen months between those two movies, it was only eighteen friggin months. A year and a half is not enough time for Superman to have become so incredibly symbolically important to humanity that his death would be so devastating that it would be enough to wake up the Mother Boxes and have them summon Steppenwolf to take another shot at conquering.
Just like in Dawn of Justice, the filmmakers are counting on Superman’s pop-culture footprint to do the storytelling work that they themselves have failed to do, and I, at least, did not buy it for a nanosecond. The Superman Henry Cavill played in the last two movies was no kind of symbol of hope, no matter how many times he told us what the S on his chest meant.
The plot is right out of a quest video game or a role-playing game: our heroes go from place to place and either get clues or have random encounters, eventually working their way to the quest item in order to save the day. When Mera and Arthur are on the boat, you can practically hear the DM say “roll for surprise” before the Trench creatures show up.
My biggest problem with the film upon rewatching it though is something I touched on in my review, and which is even more annoying now. There are two very capable women in this movie, who are two of the three smartest, bravest, most competent characters in the film (the third being Vulko). Yet Mera has to drag Arthur along in order to claim the throne, and Atlanna is stuck in the center of the Earth for thirty years, because they’re just girrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrls and only the One True Penis can lead the seven seas. Sigh.
On the 1940s Dick Tracy films:
These movies are cute little procedurals. They are limited by budget as to how far they can go with Gould’s grotesqueries among Tracy’s rogues’ gallery. As a result, while the opening credits are full of Gould’s drawings of the characters from the strip, the live-action versions are pale imitations. Splitface is just a guy with a scar, the Claw is given ridiculous eyebrows to go with his hook, and Cueball is just a big bald guy. Hilariously, the one who looks the most like a Gould drawing is Boris Karloff, on whom they did no makeup or alterations whatsoever.
On top of that, the pacing is abysmal. The movie is only two hours long, but I felt like it went on for several ice ages. Having said that, Terence Stamp is a delight as Garvin, and Monica Vitti has an impressive physicality in the role—she slinks across the screen magnificently. And eventually, she even gets to be competent. Another of the biggest issues with this interpretation of Blaise is that—until the breakout from Gabriel’s redoubt in the climax—Blaise doesn’t really do very much. Garvin saves her from the explosive on the boat, Garvin and Tarrant save her from being captured by Gabriel’s thugs, Mrs. Fothergill gets the drop on her far too easily, and just in general she is remarkably ineffectual—until the end, anyhow, but by then it’s too late. In the strip, her sexuality was a tool in her work—in this movie, the sexuality is all there is for three-quarters of the running time.
At least it gives us a good lead. Alexandra Staden is a strong, smart, capable Blaise, clever in her manipulations of Miklos, and also able to kick ass when it’s called for. I’d love to see her do the role as it’s meant to be played. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is smarmily evil as Miklos, and Fred Pearson and Raymond Cruz do very well as Blaise’s mentor and mentee, respectively. The script has some gems—I particularly like Blaise’s colloquy on stakes when she convinces Miklos to play roulette for something—but it’s too bad that the movie pretty much feels like a movie made on the cheap over eighteen days in Eastern Europe. This is mostly because it was made on the cheap over eighteen days in Eastern Europe. This also damages the film’s attempt to be a Modesty Blaise film—whatever its (many) failures, the 1966 film looked like a big, bold Blaise adventure. My Name is Modesty is too claustrophobic.
As an adaptation of a comic book, this may be the most perfect one ever done. Rodriguez and Miller do an amazing job of re-creating the Sin City comics stories, not just in terms of the heavily stylized visuals, but also the noir tone of the original. This isn’t just Zack Snyder soullessly using the comic book as a storyboard the way he did with Watchmen and his adaptation of Miller’s 300; this isn’t Mark Steven Johnson trying to recapture Elektra’s death in Daredevil #181 and failing or Taika Waititi trying to recapture Skurge’s death in Thor #382 and failing.
No, Rodriguez and Miller have made a movie that is still works as a movie while being 100% faithful to the source material in a way rarely seen before or since.
It’s just too bad the source material isn’t all that great.
On Sin City: A Dame to Kill For:
But the whole thing is just so repetitive and so tired. The “A Dame to Kill For” segment has the exact same story beats as “Nancy’s Last Dance,” down to both protagonists recruiting Marv to help them out. Mickey Rourke is having a grand old time as Marv, just as he was last time, but he’s pretty much a plot device in this one. (Hilariously, Johnny doesn’t recruit Marv and ends up dead. A lesson in that, maybe?) Marv, Dwight, Johnny, Hartigan, and Nancy are all, basically, the same person doing the same things. Eva Green is perfectly cast as Ava, and she’s very nice to look at, but it’s a particularly repugnant role. (And her seduction of Chris Meloni’s Mort is utterly unconvincing, especially frustrating because Green and Josh Brolin play the Ava-Dwight relationship so well. I bought Ava and Dwight’s tempestuous tête-á-tête, but I didn’t buy it with Ava and Mort in the least.) Jamie Chung is adequate as Miho, but not as good as Devon Aoki was. Rosario Dawson is again having a grand old time as Gail, but the role is less interesting this time. Just in general, the acting is as good as possible given the awful dialogue, which isn’t any better than it was last time, but there’s only so much even Green, Brolin, Dawson, Rourke, Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, et al can manage. (Worst is Stacy Keach, slathered in latex in order to look like Miller’s grotesque Wallenquist for no good reason.)
But the worst change, the thing that makes this movie the most awful, is the ruining of the character of Aisha. In the comic, Aisha is the badassiest of badasses, who spends her spare time rescuing women from oppressive regimes and helping them start over in the U.S.—and also keeping an eye on them when they’re in America to make sure they’re not exploited further. She’s also a CIA asset, trying to bring the company’s mendacity down from within.
While she’s still a badass in the movie, it’s been severely muted, and they’ve swapped out her helping exploited women to her being Clay’s love interest so Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Zoë Saldana can have a couple of sex scenes. As pretty as they both are, this is not an improvement.
On Kingsman: The Secret Service:
It all goes to hell, unfortunately, with the second exception, which is when Merlin sets off the implants, thus killing hundreds of people (including the president of the United States, who is very obviously supposed to be President Obama), and it’s played for laughs, with the explosive effects looking more like colorful fireworks than the beheading of hundreds of human beings, and with people not even reacting to the people around them having their heads blown off. (If it all happened at once, it would be one thing, but they seem to go off in sequence, yet none of the other people in the room react to the people across the room from them being decapitated, even though they have time to before their own decapitations.)
In both these cases, the music makes it much much worse. The church massacre is done to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” and the implants blowing heads up has “Pomp and Circumstance” playing, making it impossible to take either scene completely seriously. In the former case, it mutes the effect of what’s happening; in the latter, it’s repugnant, combining with the goofy effects to try to make mass murder amusing.
Coming up on the rewatch after Kingsman: The Golden Circle this week are R.I.P.D., both the 1980 and 2007 Flash Gordon, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the 2015 Fantastic Four, Venom, and then Phase 3 of the MCU, followed by all the remaining 2019 releases.
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