more highlights from the periodic revivals of 4-Color to 35-Millimeter

Once “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” caught up to real time in January 2020, it went on hiatus, to be revived every six months or so to look back on the new live-action movies based on superhero comics. I already presented some highlights from the 2020 and 2021 revivals of the feature, and now here’s some bits from what I wrote in 2022 (and the beginning of 2023):

On It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!:

I grew up in the 1970s, and I love so much about the decade, but the era’s fascination with goofy-ass musicals has always been incomprehensible even to me. This is the same time period that gave us The Star Wars Holiday Special and Legends of the Superheroes and other bits of ridiculousness. This particular production was also done on the cheap, even by the standards of the time. Superman’s flying effects are klutzier than what they did with George Reeves twenty years earlier, and the backgrounds are probably meant to look like comic-book drawings, but mostly just look like they didn’t want to spend the money on properly painted sets.

What’s frustrating is that the basic outline is a story that could work. There’s a very good message about believing in yourself here, embodied primarily in Sydney’s “You’ve Got Possibilities” pep-talk song to Kent and later in Jerry and Joe’s urging of Superman to let his freak flag fly. And the notion of Superman being wracked by guilt because he failed to stop a crime is one that good stories can be built off of (and have in the comics). But it’s buried under a lot of nonsense.

On Mandrake:

This TV movie manages to drain almost all the life out of the concept, to ill effect. Lothar is still African royalty, but he’s no longer super-strong, and doesn’t actually do a helluva lot in the story—his one moment to show off his strength is just him almost getting run over by a car and failing to stop the bad guys. Similarly, Stacy’s one “action moment” is to get hit in the head while Jennifer is kidnapped. Otherwise, the pair only serve administrative functions.

The worst, though, is the treatment of the title character.

For starters, while everything around Mandrake is made less bombastic (and less interesting), they lean into the absurdities of Mandrake’s powers. Instead of inheriting the ability to wield magic from his immortal father, Mandrake instead learns it from Asian monks who take him in after his father dies—basically giving him the Shadow’s origin, wrapping it all up in the worst Orientalist clichés.

On Timecop and Timecop: The Berlin Decision:

Still, these are minor joys in two movies that manage the neat trick of short running times, yet take forever. These have to be the most plodding time-travel movies ever produced. Timecop at least has some fun performances in cliché roles from Bruce McGill as The Put-Upon Supervisor, Gloria Reuben as The Snarky Partner Who Turns On Our Hero, and especially [Ron] Silver as The Scenery-Chewing Bad Guy.

Sadly, those kudos don’t extend to the lead. As an actor, Jean-Claude Van Damme makes a dandy kickboxer. [Jason Scott] Lee is a better actor in every measurable sense, and he’s also got martial arts chops for the fight scenes, but where Timecop is bland, The Berlin Decision is clumsy and awful in its scripting. Though I do like the way the sequel film embraces the loopiness of history changing, with Doc going punk and O’Rourke with the eyepatch and such…

On Spider-Man: No Way Home:

One of the things I absolutely adore about this movie, though, is that it—in a kind, compassionate, not at all mean-spirited way—calls out one of the biggest flaws in the [Sam] Raimi and [Marc] Webb films, which was that most of the villains ended up dead in the end: Norman Osborn (both times!), Harry Osborn (only once), Otto Octavius, Eddie Brock, Curt Connors, and Max Dillon all die. Flint Marko is the only one of the five in this movie who is guaranteed to survive when returning to his universe. And that never sat well with me, especially in movies about a hero who won’t kill.

And this movie pushes back against that tendency—which has been a trope of action movies forever, which has bled over into far too many superhero movies—by having Spider-Man work, not to stop the villains, but to save them.

On The King’s Man:

This is the fifth movie that [Matthew] Vaughn co-wrote and directed I’ve done in this rewatch, but the first where he didn’t co-write the script with Jane Goldman. After watching this film, I think Goldman deserves a lot more credit for the quality of the other four, because this script with Karl Gajdusek doesn’t have anywhere near the same life to it. There are some great lines, mind you, but the overall pacing is wonky at best, the characterization is hit-and-miss, and it feels like so many golden opportunities were passed up or mishandled. Perhaps the biggest example of that last issue is the stunt casting of Tom Hollander as each of the three ruling cousins, a stunt that utterly fizzles, because Hollander doesn’t bring any verve or excitement or distinctiveness to the roles. Indeed, Nicholas, Wilhelm, and George are three of the least interesting characters in the movie, which ruins the whole point of casting the same guy in all three parts.

On The Batman:

But Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson actually give us the dark knight detective, as Batman has to think his way through a lot of this movie. There’s a great line from the comics, The Question Annual #1 from 1988, written by Denny O’Neil—one of the greatest writers of Batman, as well as one of the greatest editors to work on the Bat-titles—where the Green Arrow says, “I thought you just swung down from the rooftops and cleaned bad guys’ clocks.” Batman’s reply: “Occasionally, I do. That’s approximately four percent of my activity. The rest of it is finding out things.”

Pattinson’s Batman is always finding out things, and it’s great to watch. He’s also a Batman who’s still figuring stuff out, isn’t always together, occasionally makes mistakes, and sometimes bites off more than he can chew.

What I especially like is that Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is young in a way that Christian Bale never was, even when he was doing Batman’s very beginnings. He’s still in seventeen kinds of pain from the death of his parents, and he hasn’t figured out how to balance his life just yet. But he’s working on it. It’s a stage of Batman’s career that we rarely see (though not as rare as [Ben] Affleck’s older version), and it’s a nice change from the prior iterations of Bats on screen. I particularly like the way he evolves from his “I am vengeance” declaration at the top of the movie—an appellation that both Kyle and Penguin make fun of him with throughout the film—to realizing that he needs to be a symbol of hope and justice, not vengeance.

On Morbius:

I will give [Matt] Smith credit for trying his best. He chows down on every piece of scenery he can get his hands on as Milo, and I particularly like his awkward white-guy dancing, showing us how Milo is reveling in being able-bodied for the first time in his life. And at least we know where he stands. [Jared] Leto’s Morbius winds up being neither fish nor fowl. He’s not edgy enough to be the rebel the script tries to portray him as, he’s not noble enough to be the hero the plot keeps trying to maneuver him toward (in particular his mass murder of a boat full of mercenaries is kicked under the bed in the hopes that we’ll forget it ever happened), and he’s not evil enough to be a bad guy (Milo gets to do all the cool bad-guy stuff).

On Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness:

Okay, this is the ninth paragraph of this review, and I’ve hardly talked about the title character at all. Benedict Cumberbatch is never not wonderful, and while I’m still not all that thrilled with his version of Strange taking over the Snarky-White-Guy-With-A-Goatee role from Tony Stark, he’s at least very good at it. Cumberbatch doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves for his comic timing. (If you ever want to be blown away, check out the BBC radio show Cabin Pressure, in which Cumberbatch voices a screwup of a pilot. He’s absolutely hilarious.) I love Palmer’s line to him early on about how he always has to be the one holding the knife, and Strange’s control-freak tendencies are beautifully examined here. It’s something that has been true of the character in all his MCU appearances—even his cameo in Thor: Ragnarok—and [Michael] Waldron’s script does a good job of digging into what that means, and how it affects his personality and his performance as a superhero. We see three alternate versions of the character who pay the ultimate price for that arrogance just to drive the point home. And the question of whether or not he’s actually happy continues to be asked throughout the film, never with an adequate answer.

(Also, I was a little peeved at Strange virtually ignoring the fact that he killed his counterpart late in the film. This is the same Stephen Strange who was livid at being forced to kill one of Kaceilius’ hench-mages in his previous movie and made it clear he would not be put in that position again if at all possible.)

On Barbarella:

Mind you, the movie is terrible, but it embraces its terribleness to a degree that is endearing as hell. It’s pretty much Flash Gordon, with the hero going from weird place to weird place on the alien planet, while fighting to bring down a tyrant. This sometimes results in a very disjointed film, not surprising for a movie with so many credited screenwriters, as well as many scenes that were apparently left on the cutting room floor.

It helps that the movie doesn’t take itself in the least bit seriously. Right at the beginning, you know we’re in something like a farce when Barbarella offers to put some clothes on, and the President tells her no, as this is an affair of state. It’s to Jane Fonda’s credit that she embraces the absurdity, never once winking at the camera or going over the top. A lot of why the movie works is the earnest sincerity of Fonda’s performance, even as everyone around her is hilariously over-the-top—particularly Milo O’Shea’s goggle-eyed lunacy as Durand Durand and Anita Pallenberg’s slinky-seductress act as the Great Tyrant.

On Vampirella:

Director Jim Wynorski has declared this to be the worst movie he’s ever helmed, and the depth of that statement is impressive given the other movies on his resumé: Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre, Dinocroc vs. Supergator, 976-EVIL II, Deathstalker II, and all three (!) Busty Cops movies. Yet he still lists Vampirella as the worst!

Not without reason, mind you. Talisa Soto was considered a terrible choice by most comics fans when her casting in the title role was announced, especially since her resumé was mostly leaden turns as a Bond woman in Licence to Kill and Kitana in Mortal Kombat. Vampirella’s iconic look was changed to what was probably a more comfortable outfit for Soto to wear, but which still made her look mostly like a low-rent stripper. And her performance here was just as wooden as it was in every one of her other roles.

In her defense, it’s not like anyone else in this movie is any good. Roger Daltrey’s a really good actor—he’s done Shakespeare! (No, really, he has! He played both Dromios in the BBC Shakespeare production of A Comedy of Errors opposite Michael Kitchen in 1983.) And he was superb in his recurring role of Hugh Fitzcairn on Highlander: The Series.

But holy crap, is he terrible here.

On Sparks:

The overall plot is generally fine, but the details are head-scratching to say the least. Probably the most confusing aspect of the whole thing is the spectacular inability of the title character to figure out that he has regenerative powers until he sees film of himself getting shot in the head. This is a guy who’s already survived hanging himself (he was in the noose for ages before his landlord found him), falling from great heights, and what look like at least second-degree burns all over his body, and he still doesn’t realize that he can’t die? And that’s just the biggest of the many plot holes, from the lengths gone to set up firebombing the hotel when they can just, y’know, firebomb the hotel, to there being absolutely no payoff for the revelation that Sparks’ mother was pregnant when she died, to the utterly unconvincing full recovery of Heavenly from being shot.

On Thor: Love and Thunder:

The movie put a bad taste in my mouth right from the start when Korg is providing exposition about Thor’s previous MCU appearances, specifically mentioning who has died in his life. Frigga, Odin, and Loki are referred to lovingly as his mother, father, and brother, and then the Warriors Three are fobbed off as three other people who don’t get names or listed as friends, just “that guy” and “whoever that is.” Then, neither Natasha Romanoff nor Tony Stark nor Steve Rogers are even mentioned as friends he lost for some stupid reason, and then we see that he’s back in fighting shape after Endgame in a cheap-ass training montage.

While I had some issues with aspects of how Endgame dealt with Thor’s PTSD (specifically the unnecessary fat jokes), in general it and Infinity War did a good job of showing Thor’s pain at losing Asgard and so many of his dearest friends. Here, it’s just him sitting beatifically on a planet wishing he had love, which feels reductive.

On Samaritan:

Unfortunately, I saw the big revelation at the climax coming a mile off. In fact, I saw it coming from the very top of the movie when Sam’s voiceover established that Samaritan and Nemesis were twins who both had the same powers. From that moment, I figured that Joe was Nemesis, because that was the obvious “twist,” and twenty-first-century dramatic fiction writers are never happier when they’re pulling a twist out of their posteriors.

It soured my entire viewing experience, unfortunately, because I was wondering why it never occurred to anybody that Joe could be Nemesis. After all, every argument that he could be Samaritan also applies to him being Nemesis, including guilt over being responsible for the death of his brother causing him to give up his costumed identity. I mean, it’s probably better that they established that they were twins right off, as saving that fact for near the end of the movie would’ve been even worse, but still, one wishes for a way to make that revelation less blindingly obvious.

On Black Adam:

But what absolutely makes the movie are the performances of Aldis Hodge and especially Pierce Brosnan, who knock it out of the park as two of DC’s most venerable heroes. I first noticed Hodge in two episodes of Supernatural he guest-starred on, and he has since gone on to be amazing on Leverage and City on the Hill and any number of other places, and his Hawkman is superb. And that’s as nothing to how perfectly Brosnan inhabits the weary sorcerer. I especially like the rapport between the Hawkman and Fate—you immediately realize that these two have been friends, colleagues, and teammates for a very long time, and the comfortable bond they share is a joy to watch.

If only it was in service of a better movie.

On Black Panther: Wakanda Forever:

Finally, we have [Angela] Bassett, and what the hell were they thinking killing her off? I was wondering for four movies why Ramonda wasn’t the one who took over ruling Wakanda when T’Chaka died, and this movie just proves that I was a hundred percent right to ask that question, because she’s phenomenally good at it. In fact, she’s demonstrably better at it than any of the other four members of her family we saw in the job (T’Chaka, T’Challa, Killmonger, and Shuri). The scene where she owns the UN, punctuated by the Dora Milaje dropping off the zip-tied mercenaries, is truly epic, her ranting at Okoye for losing her other child is devastating, and she generally brings a tremendous gravitas to the proceedings.

Killing her off doesn’t even make story sense, because the last thing Namor would want is a martyr. He wants to demoralize Wakanda, not piss them off. And then they gave Bassett a (deserved) Academy Award nomination, making the decision to kill her even stupider, in retrospect.

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