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. Here’s some highlights from the June 2020, December 2020, June 2021, and December 2021 revivals of the feature:

On Bloodshot:

One reason why the revelation that Garrison’s entire background is a lie concocted by Eric is such a dud is because said revelation changes absolutely nothing. Diesel’s one-note Garrison is the same guy throughout the entire movie. It’s hard to get too arsed about a character’s crisis of identity when it does nothing to change anything about that identity in the least.

On Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn):

I love every element of Christina Hodson’s superlative script (Quinn giving Lance a hair-tie in the midst of the fight! The sandwich! Cain having a cast, not because her arm is broken, but so she can be a better pickpocket! The sandwich! Bertinelli hating being called the crossbow killer! The sandwich! Quinn firing bean-bag rounds full of glitter! The fucking sandwich, which is so perfect!), but the thing I love best is that she leans into Quinn’s psychotherapy background. She’s constantly psychoanalyzing the people around her just kind of randomly. I particularly love when Sionis has her tied up and she tries to get him not to do the clichéd detailing of his master plan and she sums up his psychoses in about two seconds.

On Faust: Love of the Damned:

At least the rest of the cast is trying. They’re still terrible, because they have to speak the words this script gives them, but you can tell they’re at least putting in the effort. Jeffrey Combs and Andrew Divoff are always eminently watchable, and have both made careers out of taking badly written roles and making them compelling, as both are extremely skilled with facial expressions and both have fantastic voices. Isabel Brook and Mónica van Campen have even worse roles, but they also do their best, with Brook in particular being at least vaguely convincing in all the many modes De Camp is required to be in (compassionate shrink, rape victim, person desperately in lust with Jaspers for no obvious reason, and M’s mind slave), and van Campen is obviously having a grand ol’ time as the slinky seductress/sadist. Kudos also to Fermí Reixach as the police commissioner, who does a wonderful job in his epic rant at M right before he dies.

On The Old Guard:

Director Gina Prince-Blythewood deserves a ton of credit here, as the movie manages that perfect balance between strong character work and powerful action sequences that superhero movies rely on if they want to be any good. The fight choreography is also stellar. The four immortals fight like a well-oiled machine, and Freeman—a combat Marine—mixes in well with them. I particularly like how easy they all make it, and I particularly like how the immortals all fight with more aggression than their opponents, simply because they know they can’t be hurt permanently. (I also like that the filmmakers are aware that guns don’t have an infinite supply of ammunition and need to be regularly reloaded.)

The exception is Theron’s Andy, but not just because she becomes mortal partway through the movie—rather it’s because she’s really so much better than anyone else. It’s so effortless for her, she almost seems bored. I used to do karate with a high-ranking black belt—he’s since left our dojo to open his own dojo in a different discipline—and he is an amazing fighter. What blew me away watching him in sparring tournaments is that he barely moved and just made everything look so easy and effortless as he knocked people repeatedly to the ground and kicked them repeatedly in the head. Theron has that same style about her in her fight scenes.

On The New Mutants:

Occasionally, Boone remembers that he’s doing a movie about teens, like when Illyana spikes Reyes’s tea so they can play, or when they sneak up to the attic. But mostly it’s a horror piece, and to drive it home, Boone and Lee have changed every character’s origin just enough to add murder to it. Sam didn’t just blast out of a coal mine, he killed his father and several other miners while doing it. Roberto didn’t just manifest his powers (which now include extreme heat, unlike his comics counterpart) in front of a bunch of people, he killed his girlfriend while doing so. Rahne wasn’t just condemned by her priest, but she killed the priest, too. And the demon bear is apparently a manifestation of Dani’s fear, and it destroyed her home.

On Wonder Woman 1984:

But then we have the fact that Steve Trevor’s ghost takes over some random dude’s body and life and nobody ever comments on it! Diana’s wish has, for all intents and purposes ended this guy—who never even gets a name—and she never once expresses a micron of concern for him. This is, frankly, despicable behavior, especially given that Diana and Trevor sleep together, so she’s now also raped this person. The actions are appalling enough on their own terms, but to have it be this character in particular is a disastrous misreading of who Diana/Wonder Woman is not just in her previous movie, but in the rest of this one.

On Zack Snyder’s Justice League:

First off, there is absolutely no reason, none, why this movie had to be four hours. Every scene took about twice as long as it needed to, several scenes were utterly pointless and/or repetitive, and the movie is chock-full of unnecessary slow-motion scenes, usually accompanied by some dirge-y rock song or other. Mind you, there are also necessary slow-motion scenes, those being when the Flash is moving very fast, so the rest of the world is in slo-mo to show his perceptions. But the effect of that is severely diluted because half the fucking movie has been in slo-mo up to the point that Barry Allen first shows up.

On Black Widow:

In many ways, this is the perfect Black Widow movie. Most of the MCU movies have been superheroic twists on existing movie subgenres, and the only way to go with the Widow would be to do a spy thriller, à la James Bond or Jason Bourne.

And we very much get that in Black Widow, from the globe-hopping to the car chase in Budapest to the multiple scenes of hand-to-hand combat to the fancy-ass gadgets to the ridiculous bad-guy headquarters. We get a Black Widow Greatest Hits, with her feigning helplessness to get information (Avengers), kicking ass during a car chase (Age of Ultron), disguising herself with a face mask (Winter Soldier), and coming up with clever strategies to solve problems (Endgame). Oh, and her mad computer skillz (Iron Man 2).

Plus, we get a full accounting of her background, after all the hints dropped in Avengers, Age of Ultron, and Winter Soldier.

On The Suicide Squad:

As with the last movie, the performances are superb. Margot Robbie is perfection itself as Quinn, and her every scene is gold. The high point of the film is her post-coital murder of Presidente Luna, especially with her lengthy monologue on the subject of her complicated love life while Luna is bleeding out on the floor. Just an epic moment, the perfect Harley Quinn scene. Her escape from captivity, complete with explosions of rose petals behind her, is a close second.

Viola Davis remains great casting as Waller, even though she’s once again written as a psychopath and an incompetent, neither of which she should be portrayed as. This is a woman who got one over on Batman, for crying out loud (in Suicide Squad #10, one of my favorite Batman moments). One of the few women of color in comics, and one of the most complex and interesting characters as originally conceived and written by John Ostrander in the 1980s is reduced to a cardboard villain once again. It’s more misreading of the source material, as is killing off Captain Boomerang. While Jai Courtney is pretty nowhere in the role (Nick Taraby was so much better as Digger Harkness in Arrow), Boomerbutt has been one of the mainstays of this version of the Squad snice 1987, and to kill him off in the first fifteen minutes of the film is like doing an X-Men movie and killing off Wolverine, or a Fantastic Four movie and killing off the Thing.

On Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings:

I haven’t even mentioned the title character, and it’s kind of too bad that Simu Liu stands out so little from his own movie, but that’s mostly because they surrounded him with so many great actors in Awkwafina, Leung, Zhang, Yeoh, and Kingsley. But Liu provides Shang-Chi with a very straightforward heroism that fits with the character he’s based on perfectly. The original comics character was trying to redeem the sins of his father, as well as those he committed himself in his service, and I like the way Liu plays a person who’s trying very hard to run away from a life he doesn’t want. He’s in a boring job that nonetheless pays the bills, he has a good, fun life. But when he’s attacked on the bus, his first thoughts are to keep the other people on the bus safe, and when it’s over, his next thought is of his sister’s safety. When it matters, he antes up and kicks in, which is what heroes are supposed to do.

On Venom: Let There Be Carnage:

Kelly Marcel’s script is full of some great lines, most of them Venom’s (Kasady’s are mostly pretty bog-standard oh-look-how-cool-I-am serial killer nonsense, but Harrelson delivers them well). And there are so many great bits, from Venom making a disastrous breakfast while singing, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” to Venom at a rave, to Brock mentioning ice cream and Venom complaining that he gets brain-freeze, to Kasady’s plaintive, “That’s bad journalism!” while bitching about how Brock didn’t tell his side of the story.

On Eternals:

It’s funny, there are a lot of ways that this movie reminds me of Watchmen. The death of one of the main characters drives the plot, we get multiple flashbacks, one of the main characters turns out to be a bad guy, and there are way too may characters to fit in one movie.

Indeed, one of my issues with the Zack Snyder adaptation of Watchmen was that the story was badly served by whittling it down to a feature film’s running time, and the same holds true for this. For this to truly achieve the scope it needs to succeed, for the characters to actually have the space to be characters instead of plot movers, for the breadth and depth of the storyline to really get a chance to shine, this needed to be a six-episode series on Disney+.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: Eternals

The MCU continues its trend toward spotlighting comics characters who aren’t exactly A-list, which worked particularly well with Guardians of the Galaxy. Unfortunately, translating Jack Kirby’s Eternals to the big screen doesn’t fly as well as it might due to cast bloat and a disappointing lack of heroism. The great superhero movie rewatch finishes off this run of movies with Eternals (on the very day it launches on Disney+ no less!).

An excerpt:

There are just too many characters here, and very few of them are well served. Most of the actors are doing the best they can, but there just isn’t space to give them room to breathe. The only characters who really work are Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos and Angelina Jolie’s Thena. The former’s eagerness to aid humanity in the flashbacks and his complete burnout in the present day is beautifully played by Henry, while Jolie invests you fully in Thena’s disturbed state.

Almost all the rest of them are either underused or are too busy serving plot functions to actually be interesting characters. Or both.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Well, it’s better than the first one, though it’s still pretty dumb, but it’s salvaged by some gleefully goofball immersive acting by Woody Harrelson, Michelle Williams, and especially Tom Hardy in the dual title role. The great superhero movie rewatch rings in the new year with Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

An excerpt:

Kelly Marcel’s script is full of some great lines, most of them Venom’s (Kasady’s are mostly pretty bog-standard oh-look-how-cool-I-am serial killer nonsense, but Harrelson delivers them well). And there are so many great bits, from Venom making a disastrous breakfast while singing, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” to Venom at a rave, to Brock mentioning ice cream and Venom complaining that he gets brain-freeze, to Kasady’s plaintive, “That’s bad journalism!” while bitching about how Brock didn’t tell his side of the story.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Suicide Squad

The DCEU takes a mulligan on the Suicide Squad, hoping that James Gunn can bring some Guardians of the Galaxy magic to Task Force X, and he mostly succeeds! The great superhero movie rewatch is much more impressed with The Suicide Squad.

An excerpt:

As with the last movie, the performances are superb. Margot Robbie is perfection itself as Quinn, and her every scene is gold. The high point of the film is her post-coital murder of Presidente Luna, especially with her lengthy monologue on the subject of her complicated love life while Luna is bleeding out on the floor. Just an epic moment, the perfect Harley Quinn scene. Her escape from captivity, complete with explosions of rose petals behind her, is a close second.

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: Black Widow

It’s too little too late in so many ways, but Scarlett Johansson finally gets the spotlight she deserved, a decade after she debuted her version of Natasha Romanoff. Appropriately, her solo film is a spy thriller, with great performances not just by her, but by Florence Pugh and David Harbour as her fake sister and fake father. The great superhero movie rewatch kicks off its year-end revival with Black Widow.

An excerpt:

The movie is tremendous fun, with the fast pace that you expect from a Marvel movie, but also with the strong, honest characterizations. Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh make a superlative double act, and their banter carries the movie. They talk like siblings, and Belova’s pointed commentary on Romanoff’s second life as a hero lands beautifully, as does Romanoff responding the same way she always does: not by talking about it, but by anteing up and kicking in and doing what’s right. The best, of course, is Belova teasing Romanoff about her “superhero landing” pose, which she’s used in pretty much every appearance going back to Iron Man 2, and it’s hilarious, particularly when Belova herself tries the pose. (“That was disgusting…”)

4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Old Guard

The great superhero movie rewatch is back to look at the live-action comic book adaptations from the last six months — all two of them. We start this week with The Old Guard, a superb Charlize Theron vehicle that adapts the equally superb comic book by Greg Rucka (who also wrote the screenplay).

An excerpt:

It’s fascinating to look at the changes made from the source material, especially because both had the same writer. Some changes are for the better: the movie adds that Copley’s wife died of ALS, a particularly brutal, debilitating disease, thus providing him with a more solid and more noble motive for betraying the team to Merrick. Others are not improvements: Freeman is a woman of many talents in the comic, but that’s toned down in the movie, going so far as to not make her fluent in Pashto as she was in the comic, instead relying on a translator. And others are neutral: in the comic, Andy is a drunk, smokes a ton, has a metric buttload of casual sex, and struggles with modern technology, where Theron’s Andy does none of those things.

The biggest change, though, is that Andy has become mortal, which did not happen in the comics. It certainly raises the stakes of the climactic fight, as Andy, unlike the others, can be hurt. I’m wondering if this was a trap door for Theron in case she didn’t want to keep playing the role once she got into her 50s (she turned 45 this year).

Q&A Wednesday about superhero movies!

From 2017-2020, I did a comprehensive rewatch of every live-action movie based on a superhero comic book.

This coming Wednesday, the 11th of November at 9pm Easter, I’ll be doing one of the Dragon Con American Sci-Fi Classics Track’s quarantine panels, specifically a Q&A about superhero movies. It’ll be live on the Classics Track’s YouTube channel (and also on Facebook and Streamyard).

If you have any questions about superhero movies you’re just dying to hear me answer, you can post it as a reply to this blog entry, or just come join the show Wednesday….

read my stuff while you’re stuck at home, part 3: movie tie-ins

movies
So many of us are kinda stuck staying home a lot, and that means more reading time! Or, at least, time spent reading so you don’t go batshit because you’re stuck staying at home a lot……

As one possible thing to read, how about my writing? I’ve already posted about my various TV tie-ins, including my Star Trek work and my tie-ins to various and sundry other shows, and now we turn to my movie tie-ins. I’ve written both original novels and movie novelizations, as well as short stories and nonfiction, in the worlds of Alien, Blade Runner, Cars, Gargantua, Darkness Falls, King Kong, Kung Fu Panda, Mary Shelley, Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Serenity, and Star Wars.

Alien

Novels:

  • Isolation — a novelization of the 2014 videogame, taking place between Alien and Aliens as Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s daughter, tries to find out what happened to her Mom by traveling to Sevastapol Station where the Nostromo flight recorder has been recovered

Short stories:

  • “Deep Background” in Bug Hunt — a reporter is embedded with a platoon of Colonial Marines, who are sent to a planet for what should be a straightforward mission…

Blade Runner

Nonfiction:

  • “Do Blades Dream of Electric Runners?” in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — each issue of BOOM! Studios’s comic book version of the Philip K. Dick novella had an essay in the back, and mine was in issue #19 and is reprinted along with all the others in the omnibus; I talk about the comparison between the novella and the cult classic movie based on it

Cars

Comic books:

  • Rust Bucket Derby — Tow Mater starts up a demolition derby and Red goes on trial for a crime he didn’t commit

Darkness Falls

Novels:

  • Darkness Falls — novelization of the 2003 horror film about the secret origin of the Tooth Fairy, who preys on children and adults alike

Gargantua

Novels:

  • Gargantua (as K. Robert Andreassi) — novelization of the 1998 TV movie about a family of monsters who menace a tropical island

King Kong

Nonfiction:

  • “‘Twas Stupidity Killed the Beast” in King Kong is Back! — my essay on how it wasn’t beauty that killed the beast, as the famous closing line of King Kong insists, but rather human venality

Kung Fu Panda

Comic books:

  • “Contest of Chompions” in Tales of the Dragon Warrior #1 — an eating contest and a fighting contest are at the same time, and Po must somehow participate in both

Mary Shelley

Nonfiction:

Night of the Living Dead

Short stories:

  • “Live and On the Scene” in Nights of the Living Dead — during the zombie outbreak of the movie, a reporter from WIC-TV in Pittsburgh reports on the strange deaths, which start to hit very close to home

Resident Evil

Novels:

  • Genesis — a novelization of the 2001 movie Resident Evil (given the subtitle to distinguish it from the sequels), released in 2004 alongside the novelization of its sequel Apocalypse, as Alice Abernathy must remember who she is while trying to survive multiple deathtraps and a whole lotta zombies
  • Apocalypse — a novelization of the 2004 sequel, where the zombies take over Raccoon City, and Alice and several new friends must stop them, as well as the creature Nemesis
  • Extinction — a novelization of the 2007 movie, where the world is a wasteland, overrun by the undead, and Alice teams up with a group of survivors to stop the Umbrella Corporation from making things worse

Serenity (Firefly)

Novels:

  • Serenity — the novelization of the 2005 movie that concluded the River Tam storyline from the Firefly TV series

Nonfiction:

Games:

Star Wars

Nonfiction:

comments on the great superhero movie rewatch

I’ve done this before, but — while people are still sometimes commenting on things — with “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” having come to a pause, it’s a good time to see which movies have generated the most (and least) comments.

Superman-GeorgeReeves

  1. 204 — Avengers: Endgame
  2. 188 — Captain Marvel
  3. 173 — Avengers: Age of Ultron
  4. 170 — Black Panther
  5. 169 — Man of Steel
  6. 168 — The Dark Knight Rises
  7. 142 — Captain America: Civil War
  8. 133 — Captain America: The First Avenger
  9. 121 — Iron Man 3
  10. 121 — Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  11. 119 — X-Men
  12. 116 — Ant-Man
  13. 110 — The Dark Knight
  14. 108 — Superman, Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
  15. 108 — Watchmen
  16. 106 — Doctor Strange (2016)
  17. 104 — Superman Returns
  18. 104 — Iron Man
  19. 103 — Ant-Man & The Wasp
  20. 103 — Avengers: Infinity War
  21. 102 — Deadpool 2
  22. 98 — Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
  23. 98 — Shazam!
  24. 96 — The Amazing Spider-Man
  25. 93 — X-Men: The Last Stand
  26. 93 — Thor: The Dark World
  27. 91 — Justice League
  28. 89 — Wonder Woman (2017)
  29. 88 — Avengers
  30. 86 — Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
  31. 83 — Suicide Squad
  32. 82 — Spider-Man (2002)
  33. 81 — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
  34. 80 — Flash Gordon (1980) and Flash Gordon (2007)
  35. 79 — Thor
  36. 79 — X-Men: Days of Future Past
  37. 76 — Spider-Man 2
  38. 76 — Guardians of the Galaxy
  39. 76 — Fantastic Four (2015)
  40. 74 — Daredevil
  41. 74 — X-Men: First Class
  42. 74 — Joker
  43. 73 — Deadpool
  44. 73 — Spider-Man: Far from Home
  45. 72 — Spider-Man 3
  46. 71 — Batman Forever and Batman & Robin
  47. 70 — Mystery Men and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  48. 69 — Thor: Ragnarok
  49. 68 — Batman Begins
  50. 68 — The Incredible Hulk (2008)
  51. 65 — X2: X-Men United
  52. 64 — Modesty Blaise and My Name is Modesty
  53. 60 — Batman (1989) and Batman Returns
  54. 60 — X-Men: Apocalypse
  55. 58 — Kingsman: The Secret Service
  56. 57 — Aquaman
  57. 57 — Sin City
  58. 56 — Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
  59. 56 — X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  60. 54 — V for Vendetta
  61. 52 — Judge Dredd and Dredd
  62. 52 — The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  63. 52 — Green Lantern
  64. 52 — Men in Black, Men in Black II, and Men in Black 3
  65. 51 — The Incredible Hulk (1977) and The Return of the Incredible Hulk
  66. 51 — The Rocketeer and The Phantom
  67. 50 — Blade, Blade II, and Blade Trinity
  68. 50 — Iron Man 2
  69. 50 — Dick Tracy (1990)
  70. 50 — Marvel’s Inhumans
  71. 49 — Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
  72. 49 — Venom
  73. 48 — introduction post
  74. 48 — Fantastic Four (2005)
  75. 48 — Spider-Man: Homecoming
  76. 47 — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  77. 46 — The Spirit (1987) and The Spirit (2008)
  78. 44 — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III
  79. 43 — Logan
  80. 42 — Captain America (1990) and Fantastic Four (1994)
  81. 42 — The Wolverine
  82. 41 — The Punisher (1989), The Punisher (2004), and Punisher: War Zone
  83. 41 — Prince Valiant (1954) and Prince Valiant (1997)
  84. 39 — Swamp Thing and Return of Swamp Thing
  85. 39 — Red Sonja
  86. 37 — Spider-Man (1977) and Doctor Strange (1978)
  87. 36 — The Return of the Incredible Hulk, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and The Death of the Incredible Hulk
  88. 36 — Hulk
  89. 36 — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
  90. 36 — R.I.P.D.
  91. 35 — Generation X and Justice League of America
  92. 35 — Catwoman
  93. 35 — Ghost Rider
  94. 34 — Howard the Duck and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  95. 33 — Captain America (1979) and Captain America II: Death Too Soon
  96. 33 — Steel and Spawn
  97. 33 — RED
  98. 32 — Jonah Hex
  99. 32 — X-Men: Dark Phoenix
  100. 31 — The Crow, The Crow: City of Angels, The Crow: Salvation, and The Crow: Wicked Prayer
  101. 31 — The Flash
  102. 30 — Barb Wire and Tank Girl
  103. 29 — Superman and the Mole Men and Batman (1966)
  104. 29 — Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  105. 29 — Cowboys & Aliens
  106. 28 — Sheena
  107. 28 — Men in Black International
  108. 27 — Kingsman: The Golden Circle
  109. 25 — Dick Tracy (1945), Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome
  110. 24 — Wonder Woman (1974), The New Original Wonder Woman, and Supergirl
  111. 24 — The Losers
  112. 22 — Witchblade
  113. 22 — Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
  114. 21 — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
  115. 20 — Elektra
  116. 20 — Man-Thing
  117. 19 — Hellboy (2004)
  118. 17 — Hellboy (2019)
  119. 16 — Kick-Ass 2
  120. 14 — The Mask and Son of the Mask
  121. 14 — Kick-Ass
  122. 12 — RED 2

spider-man-far-from-home

While the list in the abstract is no surprise — the top four slots, and eight of the top ten are Marvel Cinematic Universe films, all the Batman and Superman films released in my lifetime have 60 or more comments, the top 33 spots are all occupied by either Marvel or DC characters — there are some unexpected placements here.

I was rather stunned to see that the highest-placed movie that wasn’t Marvel or DC was, of all things, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (followed by the two Flash Gordon movies, which was less of a surprise).

I expected there to be more comments on the Hellboy movies, a lot more comments on Dark Phoenix (the only X-Men team film to not reach 60 comments), and a lot fewer comments on Mystery Men and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the two Modesty Blaise films.

It’s odd that the first and third Iron Man movies broke 100 comments, but Iron Man 2 only managed 50. It’s interesting that, of the three Thor movies, The Dark World (generally considered the redheaded stepchild of the trio) got the most comments.

Most of the top ten are utterly predictable, though I would’ve expected more comments on Infinity War and The Dark Knight and fewer on Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3, but whatever.

Also, nobody really wanted to talk about The Mask movies, the RED movies, or the Kick-Ass movies much, did they?

 

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.