yet still more highlights from “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch”

Tomorrow, the last installment, for the time being, of “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” will go live on Tor.com, as I do my piece on 2019’s Joker. I have now caught up to real time, as it were, and the feature will become an annual one, as each December, I’ll look back at that year’s live-action feature films based on superhero comics. (There are currently eight on the schedule for 2020….)

I have previously done highlights from the rewatch pieces on the blog here, here, and here, and now I present the final batch (for now) of said highlights…….

Avengers-Thanos-Titan

On Kingsman: The Golden Circle:

The biggest problem is that it doesn’t feel like it follows from The Secret Service at all, even though it very obviously does. By that, I mean that the previous movie ended with a major upending of the world’s status quo. Huge numbers of important, powerful people had their heads blown off, and huger numbers of people beat the shit out of each other for a significant period of time. Yet The Golden Circle starts as if the world is completely the same with no serious changes, and I’m just not sure I buy that.

But even if I do, there are other problems. While I admire that this is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies to actually kill a dog, fridging J.B., Brandon, and the rest of Kingsman (including Roxy, who deserved way better) is a bit extreme. So, for that matter, is killing Merlin in the end, though I love the way his sacrifice is played. Just the fact that this Scots tech guru is a John Denver fan is phenomenal, and hearing Mark Strong sing “Country Roads” in his Scottish accent before blowing himself and Poppy’s thugs up is epic.

 

On R.I.P.D.:

None of this would matter so much if the movie was compelling, but hoo hah is it not. The dialogue is incredibly forced, like someone fed “make them talk like Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith” into a very buggy writing program that was coded by someone for whom English wasn’t their first language. The jokes are awkward and badly timed, and the conflict between Pulsipher and Walker feels utterly manufactured.

Reynolds is capable of being a strong male lead in an action movie—I’m thinking of his performance in Smokin’ Aces in particular—but when he goes full snark without any depth, it’s better suited to either playing a psychopath (e.g., Deadpool) or a supporting character (e.g., Hannibal King in Blade Trinity). It doesn’t work at all here with him as a straight lead, because Walker is all snark without anything behind it.

 

On Cowboys & Aliens:

There are several homages to other movies here, but all they serve to do is remind of movies that are way better than this one. The opening is a riff on the beginning of Silverado; the first appearance of the alien ships as they’re about to attack Absolution is similar to the lightshow from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the bit where they take refuge in the abandoned riverboat is right out of Alien; and Lonergan jumping onto the ship from his horse is from Stagecoach (and about fifty other Westerns).

It’s particularly amusing that they chose Silverado to homage at the top of the movie, because that’s an example of this type of movie done right. The heyday of Westerns was long past by the time Silverado came out in 1985, but it was done as a tribute to them—but it was also fun. Not only that, but Silverado gave you more of a sense of depth of character with one line (“Where’s the dog, Paden?”), followed by sad embittered silence from Kevin Kline, than Cowboys & Aliens can scrape together in its entire running time.

 

On RED:

There’s not a bad performance in the bunch, either. Morgan Freeman is never not perfect, and his dirty-old-man act hides a canny operator. (That he’s killed and also the only African American is an unfortunate look, though it’s slightly ameliorated by the fact that he was dying anyhow and he chose to sacrifice himself rather than be a victim. But only slightly.) John Malkovich is magnificently insane with simply superlative facial expressions as the befuddled, batshit Marvin. Brian Cox’s Ivan is pure laconic charm, and Helen Mirren plays Victoria with a beautiful mix of charming older British lady and deadly assassin. (Even if the rest of the movie sucked, it would be worth it for the visual of Mirren shooting the shit out of the parking garage with the big-ass gun.)

Nobody ever went wrong casting Richard Dreyfuss as a smarmy shitheel, and he smarmy-shitheels the hell out of his role as Dunning, making it ridiculously easy (and fun) to root against him. Nobody ever went wrong casting Karl Urban as anything, and he’s excellent as Cooper, making him a worthy adversary—he’s very obviously set up as what Frank was like in his younger days, and I’m extremely disappointed that he wasn’t brought back for the sequel, given his heel-turn at the end.

 

On RED 2:

At least the rest of the cast is up to snuff. [Neal] McDonough, as I said, was pretty much born to play Horton. Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovich are a delight, both obviously having a grand old time (which makes [Bruce] Willis’s leaden performance even worse, since the three of them spend most of the movie together, and Willis’s somnabulence stands out like a sore thumb). Helen Mirren is her usual magnificent self (I especially loved her calmly dissolving two bodies in acid in a hotel-room tub while talking on the phone to Frank), as is Brian Cox in a too-small turn as Ivan. Catherine Zeta-Jones vamps nicely as Katja, though I never really bought her as a Russian general. She was great as the dusky femme fatale, but when they tried to show her in the Kremlin, she looked more like someone cosplaying a Russian general than an actual Russian general. Byung-hun Lee is fine, but his role feels superfluous—you could remove him from the movie, and it wouldn’t change anything. Honestly, that’s true of Katja as well—both of them are complications from Frank’s past that don’t feel warranted or necessary, though, again, Willis sleepwalking through the movie aids in keeping these two ghosts from his past from landing as well as intended.

The movie is entirely stolen, however, by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is masterful both as the scattered crazy Bailey, then utterly convincing in his switch to the psychopath master planner that he’s actually been all along. It’s a bravura performance, especially since it’s easy to believe that he will spend the entire movie playing this daffy affable old professor, so it’s a genuine surprise when he turns out to be the mastermind behind everything.

 

On 1954’s Prince Valiant:

Prince Valiant is a unique, lush, beautiful comic. Hal Foster’s bold line-work and beautiful landscapes and detailed character work is some of the finest we’ve ever seen. He could draw a regal castle or a ship at sea—but also nobody was better at illustrating two people in a room confronting each other.

Neither of these adaptations are able to capture Foster’s style. The 1954 film tries its best, using second-unit location shooting instead of stock footage in an attempt to look more realistic, and using the bold angles and colors of CinemaScope. Sadly, it’s done in by a flat performance by Robert Wagner in a silly wig as the titular hero, and an even more ridiculous performance by Sterling Hayden, whose Gawain sounds like he’s from the south side of Chicago. The movie feels like the comic strip, moving from set piece to set piece, but with a distressing lack of urgency.

 

On 1997’s Prince Valiant:

There’s no attempt at the grandeur of the comic strip here, instead doing a low-rent riff on all the low-budget absurdist fantasy movies that choked the cinematic landscape in the 1980s. It’s not silly enough to be fun, and it’s not serious enough to be thrilling. Katherine Heigl has only one bullet in her gun—pretty, pouty, haughty person—and she fires it repeatedly here.

 

On 1980’s Flash Gordon:

I like the old-fashioned aesthetic. Every other contemporary science fiction screen production was heavily influenced by Star WarsBattlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, even Superman: The Movie—so it’s nice to see [Mike] Hodges and his cinematographers design this as more of a throwback to the cheap-and-cheesy production values of the Buster Crabbe serials.

And the supporting cast couldn’t be better. Max von Sydow and Ornella Muti are obviously having a great time as Ming and Aura and Peter Wyngarde’s voice is perfect as the armored Klytus. Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed were pretty much born to play Barin and Vultan, and honestly the whole movie is worth it to watch Blessed shout his way through the picture. (“DIVE!” followed by the trademark Blessed square-mouthed laugh…)

Sadly, the acting kudos end there. Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, and Topol are only about halfway to two-dimensional performances as Flash, Dale, and Zarkov. Jones and Anderson play Flash and Dale as completely vacuous, and Topol starts out playing Zarkov as a crazed mad scientist, but suddenly he becomes a brilliant rational and helpful scientist. (And his solution to not being brainwashed is right out of [Lorenzo] Semple’s Bat-toolbox, as that was the sort of thing the ’66 Batman always did to outsmart his opponents.)

 

On 2007’s Flash Gordon:

The biggest problem with this pilot movie, though, is one that would dog the TV show throughout its run, and by the time they fixed it, it was far too late: the show keeps going back to Earth. After spending the beginning of the second half with Flash and Dale on Mongo, getting captured, being interrogated, playing word games with Ming, being made into concubines, and so on, to have them then come back to Earth and deal with Flash’s Daddy issues and Dale’s relationship issues and other mundane concerns is a massive comedown because, well, those concerns are incredibly mundane, and can’t compare to visiting another friggin planet. Nobody wants to watch a Flash Gordon story that takes place in a made-up suburb, they want it to take place on Mongo.

 

On Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets:

It’s amusing that the release of Avatar is one of the things that prompted Luc Besson to go ahead with Valerian, and both movies are pretty much the same: beautiful, gorgeous visuals done in by mediocre acting and a truly dreadful script.

The script honestly feels like it wandered in from 1967, when the comic debuted, from the sexism to the simplistic dialogue to the clunky exposition. Besson can’t seem to make up his mind whether or not he’s writing the later version of Valerian who goes his own way and is a bit of a rogueish maverick or the earlier version who always meticulously followed orders no matter what. Laureline, meanwhile, having been stripped of her comics origin, is instead maddeningly inconsistent, going from ultra-competent and by-the-book to being stupid and hating people who follow the rules.

The running time of this movie is two and a quarter hours, and you feel every excruciating nanosecond of it. I felt like I’d been watching it for several weeks when I checked to see that I was only halfway through.

 

On Sheena:

It all starts so hideously when Sheena’s parents die because her mother is too stupid to know better than to shout in a geologically unstable cave, and it never gets any better. Tanya Roberts has a permanent wide-eyed expression of befuddlement on her face which only changes when she does the goofy-ass summoning-of-animals telepathy trick. At no point is she ever convincing as the chosen one, no matter how many times the shaman—who is the textbook definition of the Magical Negro trope—says she is. Sheena’s “inspirational” speech to the Zambuli is laughably bad, and the chemistry between her and Ted Wass’s Casey is pretty much nonexistent. This is not aided by Wass being almost as bad as Roberts with a completely nowhere personality. At no point does Wass convince me that he’s in love with Sheena, and their entire relationship is an artifact of a script that the actors are seemingly incapable of living up to.

The plot is depressingly paint-by-numbers, and watching it unfold is as exciting as watching that paint dry. The triangle among the king, prince, and countess is a tired trope that the movie does nothing to make interesting, as all three characters are formless, gormless, and boring.

 

On 2015’s Fantastic Four:

It’s funny, one of the reasons for the wholesale changes to the FF’s origin is because a lot of the origin from 1961 is dumber than a box of hammers. Richards and Grimm taking the space flight made sense, but Susan’s insistence on going along just because she’s dating Richards is specious at best, and Johnny’s reasoning is literally, “And I’m taggin’ along with sis—so it’s settled.” And yet, while they gave Johnny and Susan actual reasons to be part of the science project that gives them powers, they fail to manage it with Grimm, as turning it into a capsule that travels dimensions removes the need for a pilot.

Instead, Grimm comes along because Richards wants him there, which is no better than “And I’m taggin’ along with sis—so it’s settled.”

To make matters worse, Grimm’s pathos is touched on for maybe half a second, and then ignored. Grimm and Richards have maybe two moments of Grimm’s anger at Richards for turning him into a monster—and unlike the comics version (where Grimm volunteered and knew there would be risks), it is 100% Richards’s fault, as he drunkenly dragged Grimm along on his little joyride. For that matter, we see that Grimm has a miserable home life, but nothing’s really done with that, either.

And then by the end of the movie, Richards and Grimm are back to being best friends again with no explanation or justification. In fact, Grimm, of all people, is the one to first use the adjective “fantastic,” even though Richards is no closer to finding a cure and even though he’s still a big orange rock monster.

 

On Marvel’s Inhumans:

Doing all this on a TV budget is just asking for trouble, and Inhumans doesn’t just ask, but begs for it. Medusa’s hair is a) awful and b) shaved off in the second hour so they don’t have to deal with it. This takes all the fun out of even having Medusa there, as part of what’s appealing about doing the Inhumans is getting to see Medusa’s “mood hair” in action. Instead, we see it used to hide Serinda Swan’s and Anson Mount’s full nudity in their sex scene and to lamely throw Maximus against a wall and to fight off security mediocrely, and that’s about it. Either it’s a big obvious wig, or it’s an obvious CGI construction atop Swan’s head. It’s a massive letdown. Swan plays Medusa’s sadness at losing her hair decently, at least, and her righteous anger when she fights Auran is palpable, but it’s still frustrating.

And that’s just the start. Mike Moh looks like he’s wearing a bad Triton cosplay, and he’s also dispensed with before the credits so we don’t have to see how bad his makeup is for long. Auran is changed from a yellow-skinned, large-eared Inhuman who can hear anything to a normal-looking badass who was apparently told to act as much like Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May as possible. (Seriously, she’s got the same attitude, same snarl, same way of carrying herself, same deadpan, and the same haircut.) And while Lockjaw is awesome, we only really see him for a few minutes before he’s locked in a cage.

Attilan itself looks nothing like a grand old lost city, instead having the feel of a mid-level university designed by the architect who gave the lowest contract bid.

 

On Venom:

Brock himself is a total loser, of course. Tom Hardy plays him beautifully, with a manic energy and a doofy charm. (This movie is only watchable due to Hardy’s gleefully immersive performance.) You totally buy that he’s a talented reporter—he’s one of those people who can talk to anyone, and you know that that easy charm is how he gets people to talk to him on the record—but he’s also a jackass. The entire movie happens because he (a) breaks into his fiancée’s password-protected laptop in order to peek at confidential documents (a source he’s incapable of verifying for the record) and (b) disobeys his boss’s direct instruction not to rock the boat in his interview. He violates journalistic ethics and flushes his happy relationship with Weying down the toilet, all for a “gotcha” moment in an interview that he knew going in would torpedo the interview as soon as he brought it up.

It’s not just that he’s a bad journalist, he’s a bog-fucking-stupid journalist. He deserves to have been run out of New York after the never-specified “Daily Globe incident” (like so much of Venom’s background, it connects to Spider-Man in the comics, so the details are left out here in this Spider-less film), he deserves to have lost his “Brock Report” gig, and he deserves to lose his home and fiancée.

 

On Captain Marvel:

Many of the dopey complaints that have been made about this movie (I hasten to add, not all the complaints—there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the film) are pretty much just code for “I don’t wanna watch a movie with a girl.”

“It’s too much like Wonder Woman.” It’s nothing like Wonder Woman except insofar as it has a female lead and takes place in the past. It has more in common with Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Doctor Strange—extraordinary person has to overcome something to become a proper hero, whether it’s their arrogance (Stark, Thor, Strange), their physical infirmities (Rogers), or sexism and gaslighting (Danvers).

“Brie Larson is stiff and boring, and can’t act.” Larson’s acting is subtle—her facial expressions only change a little bit, and it’s brilliant. It’s also easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, have trouble reading facial expressions, or just don’t pay attention to women beyond their surface good looks. (I heard similar complaints about Gillian Anderson’s acting ability when she was on The X-Files, almost always from men, and it was bullshit then, too.)

“Fury doesn’t have enough of a character arc.” Perhaps not, but the movie’s not called Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and funny how these people didn’t complain about how little of a character arc Pepper Potts had in Iron Man or Maria Hill had in Avengers or Jane Foster had in either of the first two Thor movies.

“Captain Marvel isn’t relatable.” Congratulations, you’ve proven yourself ignorant of how half the world feels every day. Every woman I know who has seen this film (not a statistically relevant number for a billion-dollar movie, but still) has related to everything Danvers goes through, from Yon-Rogg’s urging not to be so emotional to the motorcycle guy’s importuning to smile more after being obnoxious to her to the institutionalized sexism of the Air Force in the latter part of the 20th century (“There’s a reason why they call it the cockpit…”). The manners in which she is belittled, both in flashback and in the present-day of the film, are incredibly relatable to many women, and to anyone who actually cares about the mistreatment of women.

 

On Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2:

But as with the first film, the real stars are Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, and especially Karen Gillan. Nebula’s anguish and pain is etched on every blue pore of Gillan’s face, as she perfectly embodies the victim of abuse that she and Gamora both are after being raised by the mad Titan. And Cooper and Diesel continue to be a delight, with Diesel making every (now high-pitched) “I am Groot” meaningful, while Cooper makes Rocket the most complex character—and, yet, still the funniest. He gets all the best lines—in a movie full of great ones—and also has the most pathos and one of the strongest emotional journeys.

Also as with the first film, the use of music is superlative. ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” is a great soundtrack for a fight against a giant interdimensional hellbeast, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” is the perfect romantic background for Quill’s attempts to move his relationship with Gamora forward, Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son” proves the perfect coda to a movie full of children with serious Daddy issues, and Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is pretty much the theme of the Ego/Meredith/Quill storyline. All these songs are exquisitely utilized, but none more apropos than Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” twice used to superb effect.

 

On 2016’s Doctor Strange:

The characterization of Strange is also problematic. As I said, [Benedict] Cumberbatch makes it work, because that’s his super power, but turning Strange into Yet Another Snarky White Guy (just like Iron Man, the kids’ll love it!) who loves classic rock (just like Star Lord, the kids’ll love it!) feels horribly constructed. The Strange of the comics is a staid, eloquent sort, and I would much rather have seen Cumberbatch play that Strange than a clone of Tony Stark and Peter Quill.

 

On Thor: Ragnarok:

Worst of all, though, is that this movie redshirts the Warriors Three, and would have done the same for Sif if Jaimie Alexander wasn’t too busy starring on a TV show (which is the first nice thing I’m willing to say about Blindspot, which is a really dreadful series). It’s obvious that Hogun’s final confrontation with Hela was originally meant for Sif, and it would have been a truly despicable and horrific end to one of Marvel’s strongest female characters. But even without Sif, this is a contemptible misuse of three of Marvel’s most venerable and delightful supporting characters, who were established in Thor as being his nearest and dearest comrades. And this movie just kills them perfunctorily without even much of a fight, just so they can show how badass Hela is. Except we know how badass Hela is already—she fucking blew up Mjolnir with one hand! Her badassitude was well established, so there was no need to just cast aside Thor’s three best friends on the altar of proving it once again. Especially since Thor never once even asks about Hogun, Fandral, or Volstagg. Their deaths are never passed on to him, he never gets a chance to mourn them, or even give any indication that he gives a rat’s ass about them. The only non-family Asgardian he has any significant interactions with is Heimdall, who gets treated generally way better, I guess because he’s played by a more famous actor.

 

On Captain America: Civil War:

And everyone has their own truth. Stark knows he’s a screwup and needs oversight. Vision agrees, citing logic and mathematics to make his point. What’s especially interesting is the disagreement between Rhodes—a colonel in the Air Force, career military—and Wilson—a sergeant who did his bit and is now a civilian again. Rhodes is much more amenable to a chain of command (which he’s currently at the top of), while Wilson, a grunt, is less sanguine.

Then there’s Romanoff. As usual, she’s the only grownup in the room, as she is a realist. She knows that this needs to happen in order for the Avengers to do their job—but when the chips are down, she’s not going to hurt her friends. She signs without hesitating, but she also knows that Rogers won’t stop, so she lets him go. (I also love that she and Barton are on opposite sides but don’t actually hurt each other.) And in the end, she winds up on the outs with the government, because the path of least resistance hasn’t worked. Romanoff embodies part of what Carter said at the funeral: “Compromise when you can.” She’s the only one who isn’t rigid, who is trying to make the best of a crappy situation.

 

On Spider-Man: Homecoming:

Having said that, the spectre of Uncle Ben hangs over parts of this movie, in three moments in particular: in Tom Holland’s voice when Parker begs Ned not to let May know he’s Spider-Man because she’s already been through so much, in Holland’s face when Stark takes the suit back after the ferry incident, but most especially in Marisa Tomei’s entire performance when Parker comes home after Stark took the suit. That scene in particular is a tour de force from Tomei who has, frankly, been underutilized, though what we have gotten has been excellent. When she enumerates all the things Parker has done that he thought he was keeping from her, like sneaking out to go on patrol, the PTSD from losing her husband is etched on Tomei’s every pore. It’s obvious that she keeps it under control for the most part—and indeed, she does so again when Parker reveals that he lost the “internship”—but in that moment, she’s in several kinds of pain because she’s afraid of losing the one person she has left.

This movie also feels so very much like a New York story. I previously wrote on this site that the makeup of the Midtown School of Science and Technology was much more representative of the demographics of New York than Midtown High was in the comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the early 1960s, but it goes deeper than that. So many great New York moments here, from the neighbors all kibitzing over Spider-Man’s botched attempt to stop a car thief, which quickly devolves into a friendly conversation among neighbors; to the bodega, complete with overfed deli cat, where Parker regularly gets food (and the later bonding over it with Douglas is classic); to the tired cynicism of the teachers (the gym teacher’s response to the state-mandated Captain America PSA is a particular classic). Plus there’s all the classic high school stuff, from Parker’s crush on Liz to the awkwardness of the party to Flash’s bullying.

 

On Black Panther:

One reason why Killmonger comes across as sympathetic up to a point is that he’s actually right. In fact, T’Challa himself agrees with his larger point, as seen by his actions at the end of the film. Ryan Coogler addresses full on the major issue with a “hidden nation” of technological marvels, particularly in Africa, and particularly one that’s supposed to be run by a heroic character. Wakanda stood by and stayed hidden with their hoard of vibranium while all around them other Africans were exploited, the continent itself mined for resources both monetary and human for centuries. And the Wakandans did nothing to help their fellows. That’s seriously problematic, and while Killmonger’s solution goes too far in the other direction—as T’Challa himself says, he’s becoming the thing he despises—that doesn’t change that this is a major wrong that must be put right. Coogler provides a subtle but strong message, sometimes just by picking his locations both physical and temporal—it’s not a coincidence that the first scene in the movie takes place in the year of the Rodney King riots and in the city where the Black Panther Party got started.

 

On Ant-Man & The Wasp:

On the Blu-Rays of the MCU movies, there’s an option for an introduction by the director, and while they don’t add all that much to the proceedings, truly, I do like what Reed says in his: that these movies are about family. The heart of these two movies are relationships between parents and children.

And also about sundered relationships. In this movie, the two main antagonists are antagonists precisely because Pym is an asshole. In fact, everything that happens in this movie is because Pym is an arrogant snot. It’s interesting, he’s a completely different type of arrogant snot than Tony Stark, who’s way more narcissistic and self-centered. Pym simply believes he’s the smartest person in the room, and he’s not willing to brook anyone who will interfere with his work. This led to him dismissing and ruining Starr’s reputation and to sundering his friendship with Foster.

For that matter, you could argue that it led to his own fugitive status. The only reason why Lang was under house arrest was because Pym thought it made more sense to recruit a thief ex-con to wear the Ant-Man suit to stop Cross than it was to let his daughter do it, even though—as we see writ large in this movie where van Dyne kicks all the ass—she was much more qualified for it. And then Lang went and hied off to Germany (thanks to a relationship of sorts formed with Sam Wilson when he went to steal something from Avengers Compound on Pym’s orders) and got himself in trouble.

Parents’ love for their children—and vice versa—informs much of the film, from the deep father-daughter bond between Cassie and Lang (the World’s Greatest Grandma trophy is the best thing ever) to Janet’s equally deep bond with Hope seen in the flashbacks to Foster’s taking care of the Ghost to the Ghost herself, condemned to a lifetime of suffering because she ran back into the lab to make sure her Daddy was okay.

 

On Avengers: Infinity War:

What I particularly love is the way the movie’s tone adjusts. The battle in Greenwich Village with Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Wong, Banner, and Spider-Man against Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian feels like an Avengers story—just like Age of Ultron and Civil War, the early part of the film has a straight-up superhero battle, and it’s awesome.

Then “Rubberband Man” starts to play, and we’re watching a Guardians movie. The Russos channel James Gunn (who is an executive producer of this film) beautifully in all the sequences with the Guardians, including the Knowhere sequence, Gamora’s scenes with Thanos, and the stuff on Titan.

The opening bit is very much continuing Thor’s story (more on that in a bit), and the Nidavellir sequences are magnificent, doing, frankly, a much better job of maintaining a balance between comedy and tragedy than Taika Waititi managed in the schizophrenic Ragnarok. The Russos also once again re-create a sequence from the comics beautifully, making it their own, in this case the forging of Stormbreaker. Originally a second hammer given to Beta Ray Bill, who had been deemed worthy by Odin’s enchantment to wield Mjolnir, here it becomes Thor’s new hammer to replace Mjolnir, and the glory of Walt Simonson’s sequence from Thor #339 in 1984 is spectacularly re-created here.

In both the Greenwich Village sequence and especially on Titan, the Russos give us the Inception-on-drugs visuals for Doctor Strange that Scott Derrickson gave him in Strange’s movie, plus we really get Doctor Strange, master of the mystic arts, in this movie. I actually loved Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance more in this movie than his own because he was really playing Strange, not Stephen Strange working his way to becoming Doctor Strange. (I wish Wong had more to do, as him going back to guard the sanctum felt—lame? But there were already plenty of characters to juggle as it was.) Also the term “sling ring” is never spoken, thank goodness, but we do see the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak!

Every time Spider-Man and Iron Man are together, it feels like we’re back in Homecoming again, and it’s delightful. Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr. really do make a superlative team.

And then there are the bits in Wakanda, which continue beautifully from Black Panther—which had only just wrapped when this movie was filmed, so it involved a certain amount of retrofitting. But man, it works, from the Jabari war chant to Shuri completely owning Stark and Banner in science with one sentence to Okoye’s “why is everyone around me so stupid?” expression that Danai Gurira does so well to every single bit with T’Challa’s regal performance. I love that the defense on Earth is left to Wakanda, and I get fucking chills every single damn time I watch the “Yibambe!” sequence. Wakanda forever, goddammit.

 

On Avengers: Endgame:

I also like that, while there is plenty of brute force action against Thanos, that’s a side effect of their heroism, and one they have to deal with, but the actual heroic act they perform initially is to retrieve the stones and restore the dusted half of life in the universe. And to do that, they had to think—first Stark had to work out the time travel theory, then he, Banner, Rocket, and Nebula had to build it, then they had to figure out how best to retrieve the stones. I love the way they thought through it all (while also taking a fun nostalgic look back at the last decade of movies), in particular Romanoff realizing that half the stones were in New York in 2012.

The time heists themselves are tons of fun, from “That’s America’s ass!” to “So, he’s an idiot” to Robert Redford coming out of fucking retirement to reprise the role of Alexander Pierce. (I generally love that the Avengers used their knowledge of Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. to good effect here, as well as providing a belated explanation for how Hydra got their hands on the scepter after the Battle of New York. And seeing Chris Evans whisper “Hail Hydra” was a delightful riff on the recent idiotic storyline in the comics that tried to establish that Cap has been a Hydra sleeper all this time.)

 

On Spider-Man: Far from Home:

But I also feel like we’re missing bits of what makes Spidey wonderful here. Probably the most quintessential Spider-Man scene written for this movie didn’t even make the final cut—it’s redone as a short film as a home video extra, “Spider-Man’s To-Do List,” and includes Peter going down a checklist of things he has to do before vacation, including getting a dual headphone adapter, picking up his passport (“Peter Parker here to pick up a passport, please,” and I wonder how many takes that took…), selling some action figures so he can buy MJ’s present, and stopping the Manfredi gang. The banter between Spidey and the cops is epic, and that whole sequence is magnificent from start to finish, and I hate that so perfect a Spider-Man bit was deemed too inconsequential to even be in the final movie. If you’re telling Spider-Man stories, you make room for scenes like that.

The movie does, at least, continue Homecoming’s excellent work in showing the real-world consequences of life in the MCU, whether it’s Peter offhandedly mentioning that Thor went from being a myth to being someone they study in physics class, or the menu of in-flight movies Peter has to choose from: The Snap (with a picture of the infinity gauntlet as the movie poster), Finding WakandaHunting Hydra, an episode of Nova that features Dr. Eric Selvig, and a documentary about Stark’s life called Heart of Iron.

 

On Shazam!:

Zachary Levi does a phenomenal job playing a teenager who finds himself thrust into an adult body. The problem is, the teenager he’s playing bears absolutely no resemblance to the teenager being played by Asher Angel for the rest of the movie. Angel’s Billy Batson is a bitter, closed-off, cynical kid who has a lot of emotional walls that need taking down. Levi’s Shazam sounds precisely nothing like the kid Angel is playing—in fact, he sounds more like Jack Dylan Grazer’s magnificently nerdy Freddy than he does Billy.

It’s a failure of scripting, directing, and acting, as the character voice for Shazam doesn’t match the character voice for Billy. Normally, when you’re doing a superhero—particularly one who has a secret identity of some sort—having the secret ID and the hero have different voices is a good thing. You don’t (necessarily) want Bruce Wayne to sound like Batman or Clark Kent to sound like Superman.

But Billy and Shazam are the same person, and he’s brand-new to it. While Shazam’s attempts to sound adult are hilariously labored, they don’t sound like Billy, who is actually pretty good at communicating with adults when he locks two cops in a pawn shop or talks with the social worker.

 

On 2019’s Hellboy:

The acting is hit and miss. Ian McShane is superlative, as always, Stephen Graham is having a grand old time as Grugach, and Sasha Lane does a fine job with Alice. However, Milla Jovovich and Daniel Dae Kim both are done in by the silly accents they put on, neither of which are particularly good, and both of which spoil their acting work something fierce. David Harbour apparently thinks that shouting is the same as acting, because all he does in this movie is shout. A lot. Very loudly. To no good effect. Mind you, I love Harbour in pretty much everything else I’ve seen him in, he’s a wonderful actor, but he turns in about half a two-dimensional performance here.

 

On Men in Black International:

And the story beats are all irritatingly familiar. We’re four movies in, and every single time, we’ve had some kind of variation on “new person has to have the realities of the crazinesss explained to them.” It was J in the first one, the neuralyzed K in the second, the younger K in the third (in this case, having the future explained to him, kinda), and M here. I’m glad they at least made an effort to differentiate H and M from K and J—H is more Tony Stark than Joe Friday, and M bullies her way into it instead of being recruited—and Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson continue the excellent chemistry they’ve displayed in their Marvel movies together, but it still feels like a pale copy of the chemistry Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones had. Speaking of pale copies, we also have Pawny. I hasten to add that this is not Kumail Nanjiani’s fault—he’s delightful as Pawny’s voice—but the character himself is such an obvious attempt to do Frank the Pug again and it’s wearying.

It’s not a complete disaster. Actually, it isn’t a disaster at all, it’s just dull. But Les Twins are superb as the twin energy beings, using their dancing skills to create magnificently alien body language. But it’s really the only memorable part of a movie that wastes a setup, a setting, and several great actors in a movie that just sits dolefully on the screen.

 

On X-Men: Dark Phoenix:

Artificial conflicts are the order of the day in this movie, as the X-Men confront Grey in full uniform ready for a fight when all she’s done is go to her home. It’s an unnecessarily provocative setup that makes no sense when we’re talking about friends going after friends. (Grey hasn’t proven to be that dangerous yet.)

After that, a single incident in the suburbs in which a few people get hurt and one X-Men team member is killed suddenly leads to mutants being vilified again. It’s too quick a change for not a good enough reason. If Grey had killed a bunch of people, or done something more public and brutal, that would be one thing, and even then, it wouldn’t be an instant process where they go from hot-line to the president to mutant containment facilities in a day.

And then there’s the attack in New York, in which Xavier urges Magneto not to have a big-ass fight in a city because that will make things worse, and then both sides not only fight, but have absolutely no regard for civilian casualties. One expects that from Magneto, but the X-Men aren’t any better in this regard, with Cyclops casually zapping cars and buses and so on.

 

On Joker:

It’s an interesting notion to have Joker be the cinematic/DC universe equivalent of Bernhard Goetz. In 1984, Goetz shot four African-American kids on a New York subway who he thought were trying to rob him. To be clear, the four victims of Goetz’s shooting had criminal records and testified that they were on their way to a robbery. Nonetheless, Goetz took it upon himself to shoot the four, an extreme penalty for asking for five bucks, even if it was a mugging rather than panhandling as the four said at the trial.

It was a cause célèbre here in New York in the 1980s, with opinions on Goetz hugely divided, in terms of extreme response, in terms of the high crime rate in New York in 1984, in terms of it being white-on-black violence, and in terms of vigilantism.

[Todd] Phillips was very obviously inspired by the Goetz case, though he hedges his bets by making his victims wealthy white guys who are sexually harassing a woman, so you have a much easier time watching them get shot.

And that’s just a cowardly way to approach it. Joker’s supposed to be a villain. That’s the whole point of the character. Why not make his victims a gaggle of poor African-American kids? Instead, they’re “safer” victims, members of the 1% against whom the poor of the city already have an animus. They’re easy targets, and they also are yet another attempt to make Fleck/Joker into a sympathetic victim, which is a problem for a mass murderer.

 

Tuesday’s dead

This past weekend was a delight, if exhausting. Saturday was our annual Twelfth Night party, which was a huge success, despite a large number of people cancelling at the last minute due to illness. (This cold that’s going around is brutal. My parents have all had it, and Wrenn has it right now.) Even with that, though, we had thirty people over the course of the afternoon and evening, the party itself lasting about 11 hours all together. There was yummy food, good drinks, fantabulous desserts, and great conversation. Everyone had a great time.

The prep was tiring, though, as Wrenn, as I said above, has The Cold that’s going around, so most of the physical work of getting the house ready for company fell on me. But it was worth it. It was especially fun to see friends of ours from different aspects of our lives come together and meet and enjoy each others’ company.

kenshikanji

Then Sunday morning was our dojo’s annual Kagami Biraki. I’ve talked about the traditional new year’s workout on this blog before, and this year’s was just as awesome, with about forty people once again, ranging from white belt to fifth-degree black belt, with people from ages 12 to 65. It was a good start to what should be an excellent year at the dojo, as (among other things) we’ve got a big international tournament happening at the end of June. I’ll be talking about that a bit more closer to the event.

Sunday afternoon, I was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the U.S.S. Avenger Star Trek fan club. It was a small, but enthusiastic crowd, who asked really good questions and enjoyed my reading. (I read a bit from the 1969 portion of my Supernatural novel Heart of the Dragon.) I even sold a few books!

Monday was recovery, relaxation, and finishing the final great superhero movie rewatch piece, which is on Joker.

Today has been the prep for the world’s worst 50th birthday present: a colonoscopy! My first doctor’s appointment after I turned 50 last April included my GP telling me that it was time for this, and she gave me a referral. This was the earliest I could get, amazingly enough. (It was so long between setting it up and it happening that I’ve changed insurance in the interim…) I’ve spent the day subsisting on chicken broth, ginger ale, black coffee, and the gunk you have to drink to get, ah, cleaned out. I’m almost done with the latter as I type this, and man is it awful.

With luck, everything will come out okay (…sorry…) tomorrow, and all will be well.

See y’all on the other side!

 

from the archives: Seminar is awesome

In 2012, the late great Alan Rickman starred on Broadway in a play called Seminar, which was about a grand old writer who gave expensive workshops to up-and-coming writers. Here was my take on it. We miss you, Mr. Rickman, very much…..

Seminar

We went to see Seminar at the Golden Theatre on Broadway today. It stars Alan Rickman as a cranky, past-his-prime literary writer who teaches exclusive ten-week writing seminars to any aspiring writers who can pay the $5000 to take it. His students are four young people — a pretentious ass with minor talent who has a famous uncle (played by Jerry O’Connell, late of Stand By Me, Sliders, and Crossing Jordan), a rich young woman who’s been working on the same short story for six years, a broke young man who has written a ton and shown it to no one, and a young Asian sexpot who thinks about sex pretty constantly…

Rickman’s character is magnificently snotty, but he also speaks the truth, even if that truth hurts (and it often does). It’s simply a brilliant performance from one of our finest actors, as his character is at once awful, tragic, hilarious, bitter, and miserable. O’Connell perfectly plays the pretentious ass (he opens the play by waxing rhapsodic about a writers retreat in the most ridiculous manner possible). The rest of the cast is equally excellent, particularly Hamish Linklater as Martin, who is just as pretentious (if not more so) than O’Connell’s character, whose pretentious he routinely decries.

What amazed me about this play was that it was the first piece of dramatic fiction I’ve ever seen that was a 100% accurate portrayal of writers. I’ve met and known all five of the writers in this play, seen all those behaviors, all those types. The writer who keeps revising the same story over and over rather than moving on, the writer who refuses to show his work, the writer who thinks he’s hotter shit than he actually is, the writer who only thinks in terms of getting ahead, and the writer whose career is on the downslide.

(A friend asked which of the five writers I was, and I pointed out that these were literary authors. I’m a genre author — different animal, same zoo.)

There wasn’t a single wrong note in this script, nothing that rang in any way wrong to me after two decades in publishing. Deftly written, very well paced, and with a lovely set design. The latter was especially spiffy — most of the play is in an upper-west-side luxury apartment that is tastefully hideous, and then the last scene is in Rickman’s character’s more dilapidated place with floor-to-ceiling books all over. But for the wide spaces dictated by being on a stage, they’re perfect old NYC apartments of two totally different types. (The film has several moments that place it firmly in New York, including a great conversation where the students force one character to telling them what her parents pay per month for the apartment that’s rent-controlled back to the stone age.)

Michael Glitz of Huffington Post wrote a scathing review of the play, in part due to several bits that he viewed as unrealistic and ridiculous — except everything he points out is quite typical and normal, whether it’s judging a work on the first few pages (standard practice for every professional editor in the world), or a writer spending five grand on a seminar that he then never submits anything to (not even close to the strangest thing I’ve seen in a writing workshop), or someone writing a novel in two weeks (I’ve done it, and so have many of my colleagues). Those are not the cheats that Glitz assumes them to be, but rather signs of verisimilitude. That he thinks this is lazy writing is just adorable…

from the archives: John Carter is pretty terrific

In 2012, I reviewed John Carter on my LiveJournal, and I thought it’d be good eight years later to reprint it here. This movie wasn’t perfect, but it was tremendous fun and deserved so much better than it got….

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Despite a pathetic marketing campaign, and a legion of journalists who condemned it as a flop before the first weekend’s box office tallies were made, John Carter is actually a good movie. Based on the 100-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs stories about a Confederate captain who finds himself on the world he calls Mars and the natives call Barsoom, director Andrew Stanton has done an amazing job bringing the Carter tales to life.

First off, the movie looks like a Frank Frazetta painting. The scenery of Mars (really Utah) is gorgeous, and the makeup, costuming, set design, CGI work, and sets all are perfect. Lynn Collins is a superb Dejah Thoris, kicking ass and taking names and magnificently embodying one of the great female characters in early 20th-century science fiction (for which, admittedly, the competition is not fierce). Some other great actors are in this — Mark Strong, Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, Willem Defoe, Polly Walker. (I joked on Facebook and Twitter that you gotta love a movie that has Detective McNulty and Sinestro going up against Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.)

The weak link in the film is Taylor Kitsch, who is only adequate in the title role. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it, either. Of course, Carter is supposed to be the POV character, reacting to the amazement around him the same as we are, so there’s something to be said for him being fairly generic.

The movie honestly feels exactly like a Pixar film — and that’s not a complaint. (Also not a surprise from the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E.) It follows many of the same beats and has a lot of the same style as many of Pixar’s movies — but since Pixar has made some of the best pure movies of the past 20 years, that’s a huge point in its favor.

Sadly, John Carter has been a victim of bad marketing, studio sabotage, and a director who reportedly thinks that John Carter is as well known to the general public as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and so apparently made some assumptions about the public’s reaction that were optimistic at best. It all starts with the world’s most nondescriptive title — but a Walt Disney Company that was burned by Mars Needs Moms (not realizing that it was the “Moms” part that was the problem) and who probably noticed that the last Mars-focused movie to be a success was Total Recall in 1990, took the word “Mars” out of the title. (And of course, they can’t call it A Princess of Mars, the novel on which it was based because Disney movies with “princess” in the title means a whole ‘nother thing…..) Nor did they take any advantage of the director’s past work, or the fact that its based on novels by the same guy who created Tarzan (who actually has a Q-rating among the great unwashed).

I’m not surprised that the movie hasn’t received the best notices in the world, as most people have seen this plot before — because genre adventure stories have been inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs for years. In particular, the oeuvres of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg owe one helluva lot to ERB, by their own admission. But to a 2012 audience, especially one that has not been told by the marketing campaign that it’s based on a beloved 100-year-old set of stories, it just looks like a story they’ve seen a thousand times before.

Pity, as I’d love to visit Barsoom again……

talkin’ A Singular Destiny on Literary Treks

LiteraryTreks293

I’m back on Literary Treks on Trek.fm, in episode 293 talking with hosts Dan Gunther and Bruce Gibson about my 2009 novel A Singular Destiny. It’s a very wide-ranging discussion and it doesn’t even get through everything we could have — I barely mentioned the Klingons and the S.C.E. But we talked a lot about the structure of the book, it’s genesis and production, how I’m always cleaning up Dave Mack’s messes (and that’s just our pub crawls), and President Bacco and Sonek Pran and the rest.

Check it out!

 

Short Treks: “Children of Mars”

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After spending the last several Short Treks looking back, this one looks forward, serving as a prelude to the upcoming Picard series. A predictable plot, but it works thanks to fine directing and very strong performances. My take on “Children of Mars.”

An excerpt:

The subtlety and skill of the performances overcome the simplicity of the plot, as does the very notion. I haven’t actually seen Picard yet, but I’m sure that it won’t present the destruction on Mars as anything other than an abstraction, a bad thing that happened in the past. Too often, dramatic fiction goes for the big event without really examining the human cost in any but the most general of terms.

“Children of Mars” puts a humanoid face on the destruction of Mars before we’ve even seen what impact it will have on Jean-Luc Picard in the future. (An image shows Admiral Picard’s response to the attack, which means it takes place some time in the interregnum between Nemesis, when he’s still a captain, and Picard season one, when he’s retired.) It’s not just an abstraction, it’s not just a vague tragedy, it’s an event that has consequences to at least two people in whose lives we’ve become invested in a very short time.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: X-Men: Dark Phoenix

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The X-Men movie series revolutionized superhero films in 2000. In 2019, that series came to an ignominious end, as they took a mulligan on adapting the Dark Phoenix storyline and still hit it into the sand trap. The great superhero movie rewatch is disappointed by X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

An excerpt:

As with the previous films, the ten-year jump proves (again) to be utterly unconvincing. Aside from being bald, James MacAvoy doesn’t look like he’s thirty years older than he was in First Class, and Michael Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult don’t even have that going for them, they just look a few years older, not three decades. Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all act exactly the same as they did in Apocalypse, with no indication in looks, body language, or personality to indicate that they’ve aged ten years since the last movie.

The worst, though, as I feared from her lackluster performance in Apocalypse, is Sophie Turner, on whom the movie pretty much hinges. Unfortunately, she’s awful. The script calls for her to be tormented, but she mostly just looks constipated, with the glowy eyes and fiery veins attempting to show her turning evil because her performance just is not up to the challenge.