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One thing which it strikes me as highly remarkable (it may indeed have been highly remarked upon, but I stopped watching the news nearly two months ago) is the fact that the winner of one of the most prestigious Academy Awards this year – indeed, the most nominated film at this year’s ceremony – was a comic book movie made under the DC marque. Given that not all that long ago, any discussion of a DC movie’s popular or critical reception included words like ‘disappointment’ and phrases such as ‘urgent talks are in progress at the company’, the turnaround they have achieved is startling. I still think Joker is an uneasy splicing together of two concepts that don’t really fit very well, but a billion dollars at the box office and considerable awards success speaks for itself.

So, if a Batman movie without Batman has done so well, what next for DC? How about a Joker movie without the Joker actually in it? I am fully aware that this was not the thought process behind the origin of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (Or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – following the sort-of success of Suicide Squad in 2016, this was the film which was selected as the best option for a follow-up – but it could almost look that way. Actually, it looks like a number of things, and one of them is DC’s bad old days, returned with a vengeance.

There are two ideas stitched together in the new movie, as well, but at least this time they seem to have something in common. Birds of Prey is a comic book which started in the mid-1990s, and was basically about a group of masked female vigilantes: the main members of the roster were originally Batgirl, Black Canary, and Huntress (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of some of these characters, it’s quite understandable). Notably not a member of the team, on the other hand, was Harley Quinn, a sidekick for the Joker who actually originated in one of the Batman TV shows and was then introduced into the comics. Nevertheless, most of these characters are lumped together in the new movie, because – well, they’re all women, aren’t they? Stands to reason they would go together. (This is the level on which the new movie operates, I fear.)

More-or-less disregarding the events of Suicide Squad, the new movie opens with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) being dumped (off-camera) by the Joker, which she takes about as well as you would expect from an unhinged, stubbornly wacky homicidal pole dancer. Eventually she gets it together (relatively speaking) and decides to strike out on her own, sending a message by blowing up the chemical plant where both she and her former inamorata had their origins. This has the regrettable side-effect of informing everyone in Gotham City that she is no longer under the Joker’s protection, which makes Quinn a target for a whole army of lowlives and psychopaths, many of whom have very justified grievances against her.

She decides that the best way to save her own skin is to win the protection of a sadistic crime boss known as Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), by locating a diamond of great plot significance he is after. The stone is currently in the possession of a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) – despite having the same name as someone in the comics, this is essentially a new character. Also mixed up in what is a rather chaotic situation are metahuman nightclub singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), tough GCPD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and vengeful assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winsome). Could these five very diverse women come together and kick the asses of some presumptuous chauvinist men before the final credits roll?

Well, this is a modern movie gunning for a youth audience, so it would qualify as some kind of miracle if they didn’t, I suppose. I expect a calculation has been made that, given the popularity of Robbie and/or the Harley Quinn character, and factoring in also the fact that a comic book film with an ensemble female cast is likely to prove resonant and successful just now, a movie featuring a load of mostly-female, mostly-very-obscure Batman characters is likely to do well at the box office. This may very well turn out to be the case: I just wish the film itself was less of a mess.

I mean, I still think Joker has been rather over-praised in some ways, but the one thing that Birds of Prey (etc) does exceptionally well is make it look like a serious, heavyweight movie with interesting things to say for itself. The new film, on the other hand, is just garish and frantic and almost totally superficial. Watching it did my head in. I could go on at some length about the disjointed plot, laboured humour and awkward performances from uncomfortable-looking stars. But I won’t.

Instead, I would like to focus on just one moment from the film (and it’s my blog, after all, so I can do whatever I like). This comes quite early on and features Harley Quinn playfully (and graphically) breaking both the legs of another character, because she is drunk and he does something that annoys her. The makers of the film might argue that this sets up a vital plot point (I don’t see it myself), or, more likely, that the victim of the leg-breaking is a bad person who deserves whatever they get. I think this rather misses the point that it still leaves you with a protagonist for this movie prone to brutal, sadistic violence on a whim: the movie even openly admits that its main character is a really terrible person. She’s also really, really irritating: I have no idea whether or not Robbie deserves actual credit for managing to produce such a gratingly irksome performance: my instinct is to say a firm ‘no’.

The other consequence of the leg-breaking (this moment is just emblematic of the amorality which much of Birds of Prey (etc) so enthusiastically embraces) is that it cuts the film’s own legs out from under it when it attempts to be more than just a lurid cartoon. You want us to empathise and identify with Harley Quinn in her moments of despair? No chance, she’s a leg-breaking psycho. You want us to listen while you make some kind of point about gender politics? No way – not only is your point really facile (given the chance, women can shoot men in the head! Yay!), but you seem to think it’s cool and funny to go around breaking people’s legs. What makes you think you have any kind of moral authority worth mentioning?

I could go on and on about the sadistic violence and awkward political positioning which suffuse the movie, but I think I’ve communicated my concerns. In the film’s favour I will admit that it does rattle along pacily enough, and that some of the action choreography is pretty good in a sub-John Wick sort of way. But honestly, the most alarming thing about Birds of Prey (etc) is that it made me think back quite fondly to some of the films DC put out when it was normally Zack Snyder in the director’s chair. This one undoes many months of hard work, and we can only hope it proves to be a blip on DC’s general upward trajectory.

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There are a number of ways one could approach the discussion of Todd Phillips’ Joker. One of the best jokes in last year’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies concerned a succession of spoof Batman spin-offs desperately trying to wring every last drop of commercial potential out of the character’s mythology – a movie about the Batmobile, a movie about Batman’s utility belt, and so on – and from a certain point of view the new movie does look like exactly this sort of thing.

Or, one could suggest that the new film comes from the same place as recent successes like the Deadpool films and Venom: there does seem to be a market for dark, morally ambiguous fantasy films aimed at an older audience, and you don’t get much darker or more morally compromised than the world’s most famous supervillain. (If you wanted to be really nasty you could start comparing it to the 2004 Catwoman film, which it likewise bears a passing resemblance to, but that would surely qualify as unnecessary cruelty.)

Then again, you could also view it as the inevitable next step in the rise of comic book movies to complete world domination: superhero films routinely make billions, and are beginning to acquire a certain sort of respectability – Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, and it’s a reasonable bet that Avengers: Endgame will be, too – and Joker looks very much like a calculated attempt at a classy, serious film intent on receiving critical acclaim in addition to its almost-inevitable financial success.

Who knows? Maybe it’s all of these things. What we can definitely say is that it is set in a squalid, 1980s version of Gotham City, where we find Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). By day, he is a white-faced, green-wigged clown for hire; by night, an aspiring stand-up comedian (unexpectedly, pretty much the only joke we hear him deliver is a classic Bob Monkhouse line). He is a deeply troubled man twenty-four hours a day, though, living alone with his mother, obsessed with a TV chat show host and comedian (Robert De Niro), taking seven different medications for various psychiatric conditions, and afflicted with a curious nervous complaint causing him to laugh uncontrollably in stressful situations.

But, over the course of one hot summer, with the city wracked by a financial crisis, those stressful situations keep coming, taking their toll on Arthur’s fragile mental state. The tipping point comes when he is attacked on the subway by three entitled, arrogant young employees of the Wayne corporation: in a matter of seconds his assailants are dead and he realises he feels much more cheerful and comfortable with himself. News reports of a killer clown preying on the wealthy are soon spreading, while it is becoming increasingly clear that a nihilistic force of chaos is incubating within Arthur, only waiting for the right moment to manifest itself…

It may be a coincidence, but films featuring the Joker have a tendency to attract controversy more or less in proportion to the acclaim received by the actor in the role: the 1989 Batman featured one of Jack Nicholson’s biggest turns, and was a very rare example of a film which required the BBFC to create a new certification for it (the 12 rating, should you be wondering). Heath Ledger famously won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in The Dark Knight, but the film was again mired in controversy for supposedly glamorising knife violence. It should come as no surprise that Joker is also getting some commentators hot under the collar, the suggestion being that it may inspire copycats to perpetrate the same kind of violence that the Joker indulges in here.

There is certainly a question to be asked about what exactly is going on with a film like this, and it’s the same one many people asked about the last movie to feature the Joker, 2016’s Suicide Squad: why do a movie about the Joker without Batman in it? Isn’t the whole point of the character that he’s an antagonist and a foil to someone else? One of the many smart things about The Dark Knight was its handling of the unhealthily co-dependent relationship between the two of them. All the word on Joker is that this is a standalone film; any appearances of the character in the foreseeable future will feature the Jared Leto version, not Phoenix’s. So what’s the point of an origin film for a someone we’re never going to see again?

Well, the quality of the film is more than high enough to answer most criticisms along these lines: the depiction of a grimy, seething Gotham is as good as any other we’ve seen in the movies, and the film is built around a characteristically intense and committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. This is quite a long film, with the recognisable Joker persona not appearing until the closing stages of it, and Phoenix takes us through every step of Fleck’s psychological disintegration and transformation. This is the kind of performance that normally gets award nominations when it isn’t in a comic book movie; it will be interesting to see how hard the old prejudices die.

Phoenix works hard to be pitiable and relatively sympathetic early in the film, but by the climax the character has convincingly become a genuinely unsettling and frightening psychopath. The film obviously owes a big debt to The Dark Knight – in both films the Joker chooses to paint his face, rather than having his skin chemically bleached in an accident – but the climax is equally obviously inspired by a sequence from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (probably the single most influential Batman story of all time). It’s Miller’s version of the Joker which Phoenix seems to be channelling.

It’s still the case that the film-makers have made up a new genesis for the Joker from scratch (the Joker’s creators felt that giving him a history would humanise the character too much, something Christopher Nolan later agreed with) and so the decision to make the film about mental illness is a deliberate choice on their part. Again, one wonders whether this is a slightly portentous comic book movie which has adopted some very mature subject matter in order acquire some spurious gravitas, or if it’s a seriously-intentioned drama about the corrosive effects of urban alienation and isolation that’s roped in some of the Batman characters to make itself more commercial. I’m really not sure; the answer may actually lie in the film’s various homages to films made around the time it is set – most obviously King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, of course, but there are also surely references to Network and The French Connection.

All the call-backs are respectful and clearly sincere, but they seem to be the main reason why the film is set decades in the past. This is another decision which does have awkward consequences, especially when you consider that Joker seems to want to comment on various current social issues – for instance, the Joker finds himself adopted as the figurehead for an Occupy-style anti-capitalist movement (in line with this, the film features an atypically unsympathetic take on Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen)). None of this feels especially thought-through, though, and the film doesn’t feel like it’s presenting a cohesive thesis. Heath Ledger’s enigmatic Joker was an agent of chaos and madness, demanding the other characters in the film re-assess their attitudes and moral choices; Phoenix’s more accessible Joker is just a symbol of chaos and madness, the film too introspective for him to be anything more.

Then again, in the absence of Batman, he doesn’t really need to be. I suspect that this is a film which is liable to be over-praised for the way it brings a grim, gritty, psychologically naturalistic approach to its comic book source material (ironically, the writers of comic books figured out that going dark and mature was essentially a blind alley over two decades ago). The film is impressively made and Phoenix, as noted, gives a brilliant performance, but it offers little in the way of genuine insight and it runs the genuine risk of taking itself too seriously. Without Batman or an equivalent figure to engage with, the Joker isn’t an especially interesting or significant character. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix are to be commended for making a film which to some extent manages to avoid confronting this problem, but this doesn’t mean they’ve solved it. Joker is very impressive on its own terms, it’s just that those terms are undeniably odd.

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Warning: I suspect we are about to go even further down the rabbit hole than is customary in these parts. Buckle up.

I have first-hand experience of the fact that you can be quite well-versed in your comics lore and still not really be fully cognizant of the sheer degree of obfuscation surrounding the superhero codename Captain Marvel: a colleague, who knows which SHIELD operatives have metahuman powers and who will happily discuss the provenance of the various Infinity Stones, turned out to be entirely unaware of the clutterbuck attached to this issue – then again, she is essentially a Marvel zombie, which may have something to do with it. The quick and easy version is that there are two versions of Captain Marvel in comic books, although this is really a significant simplification, given there are arguably nearly a dozen characters who have used this name at some time or other, to say nothing of related characters such as Marvelman (better known these days as Miracleman).

The original Captain Marvel first appeared in the early 1940s, boasting vast superhuman strength and resilience, the ability to fly, matchless courage, and so on: he went on to become the most popular superhero of the decade, comfortably outselling all his rivals, even DC Comics’ Superman (whom he was suspiciously similar to in some respects). However, just as Superman’s vulnerability is to Kryptonite, so Captain Marvel’s weakness is litigation – his publishers were sued by those of Superman on the grounds of plagiarism, and by the early 50s sales had declined to the point where contesting the issue wasn’t worth the legal fees. Captain Marvel vanished into comics limbo until DC Comics acquired the character decades later. By this point, of course, the word ‘Marvel’ had acquired a certain resonance in the world of comic books, with Stan Lee’s company trademarking the name and creating their own Captain Marvel character (one iteration of which is, at the time of writing, being played by Brie Larson in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster meta-franchise).

The upshot of this is that while it was possible for DC to publish Captain Marvel stories, they couldn’t actually call the comic Captain Marvel. Apparently this is such a big deal in the world of comics that a few years ago they made the somewhat baffling decision to rename the character Shazam, despite his long (seven decade) history in comics and TV. I am, as longstanding readers may already have guessed, a bit of a stubborn old purist in matters of this sort: this guy’s name is Captain Marvel, no matter what the company may say, and to suggest anything else is silly and does him and his creators a disservice.

All of which brings us (probably not before time) to David F Sandberg’s Shazam!, which is by any rational metric the second Captain Marvel movie in as many months, and the latest entry in DC Comics’ line of superhero movies. The story concerns troubled, streetwise foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), whose essential decency finds himself summoned via an enchanted subway car to the mystic Rock of Eternity, where he encounters an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, whom the attentive will have noticed has done the superhero movie equivalent of winning the double, by appearing in both of this year’s Captain Marvel movies). All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name to be transformed into his champion (Zachary Levi), a vastly powerful superhero known as…

Yeah, well, the awkwardness with which Shazam! tackles this point is undeniably a weakness in the film – Levi is billed as playing someone called Shazam, but he’s never addressed or referred to as such in the film. This itself is not that uncommon in the world of the modern, credible superhero movie – both Wonder Woman and the other Captain Marvel movie do the same – but it’s usually handled much more deftly than it is here. The script even draws attention to the fact, by playing with the idea of giving him various other codenames such as the Red Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. (Shazam is surely a terrible idea as a codename, as it just means he’d never be able to tell anyone who he is. I’m just going to refer to him as (Captain Marvel) and let the writs fly as they may.) Anyway, there are less abstruse things to worry about, as a corrupted former candidate to become the wizard’s champion, Sivana (Mark Strong), is aware of (Captain Marvel)’s existence, and determined to steal his power…

It is, as has been noted, a crowded marketplace these days when it comes to superhero movies, and the main way that Shazam! makes itself distinctive is through functioning primarily as a comedy – partly as a spoof of superhero films in general, but also by playing on the comedic potential of the idea of (Captain Marvel) basically being a young teenager inside the body of a demi-god (it’s a bit like Big, but with superhero battles, something the film tacitly acknowledges at one point).

Now, this idea of the hero being a child in an adult body (perhaps they should have gone with the codename Boris Johnson Man) isn’t quite how Captain Marvel has traditionally been depicted in the comics – there, he’s really a child’s idea of the perfect hero, made incarnate. The problems with this are firstly that it makes him massively uncool, and secondly, that he becomes totally redundant in a comics universe which already contains Superman. Since being acquired by DC, Captain Marvel has only really been allowed to shine in situations where Superman is out of the way for some reason, or when the writers have required a character capable of fighting Superman to a standstill (which, given his effectively limitless physical prowess, he is quite capable of doing). So you can kind of understand why they have gone down this particular route in the movie.

Still, for all the entertainment value of scenes in which we see (Captain Marvel) knocking over ATMs to fund a trip to a lap-dancing club (as any teenage boy would do, I suppose), I have to admit that I still found myself harrumphing a bit, on the inside at least: probably because turning this kind of film into a comedy feels like the safe and easy route to go down. (I was one of many people quite relieved when plans to do Green Lantern as a comedy with Jack Black were abandoned in favour of a more traditional take on the character (also featuring Mark Strong, of course), but as this resulted in one of the most relentlessly-scorned films in the genre, I’m not sure what the takeaway value of that is.) The problem isn’t just that this is a superhero film with comedic elements, it’s that it can’t stop undermining even dramatic moments by inserting gag after gag, some of them slightly dubious (‘Touch my staff,’ the Wizard commands Billy at one point, which,  if it isn’t a misjudged double entendre, certainly sounds like it).

And yet, somehow, I have to say that the film’s energy and sense of fun is infectious and somehow irresistible, not least because it does work hard to include so many references to the classic Marvel family mythos: Mr Mind appears, there’s a reference to Tawky Tawny the tiger, Billy and his foster-siblings attend Fawcett Central school, and so on. The performances are also excellent: Mark Strong is quite as good as you’d expect in what could have been a fairly two-dimensional role, giving it real heft and presence (let’s go down the rabbit hole one last time and note that his father is played by John Glover, who also played Lex Luthor’s father for a number of years).

In the end, Shazam! does work as a piece of entertainment, although it is certainly its own thing. It gets close enough to the classic version of Captain Marvel to satisfy anyone with fond memories of the character, probably, while it also does enough to work as a comedic take on the superhero movie for audiences not that familiar with him. I’m not entirely sure how it manages this ticklish balancing act, but I suppose it qualifies as an achievement of sorts. This is a solid movie that continues the positive trend in DC’s cinematic output.

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With BlacKkKlansman out of the way, my red-eye odyssey of catch-up cinema continued, somewhere over the Atlantic, with Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath’s Teen Titans Go! To The Movies – something I had actually considered going to see on the big screen when it was originally released, but ultimately decided against based on the somewhat mixed reviews it received – but with the in-flight meal a receding memory and nothing else to do for several hours, this looked like an undemanding way of passing the time.

I’m guessing you either know who and what the Teen Titans are or you don’t (there is admittedly not a lot of room for ambiguity on this sort of point). We are back in the realm of superheroes here, specifically of the DC variety: the Titans (usually Teen but also occasionally New) are the youth wing of the company’s roster, originally composed of the young sidekicks of their most popular adult characters – thus, the early line-up included Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Green Arrow’s ward Speedy, and so on. Later incarnations of the book saw more original characters and a definite attempt to replicate the feel (and popularity) of the X-Men. This movie is apparently a spin-off from the most recent of several cartoons based on the comic; the animation is relatively simplistic and the tone is irreverent and knowing.

The team roster for the movie consists of Robin the Boy Wonder (Scott Menville), along with a bunch of other characters not well-known outside the world of comics: Raven, Cyborg, Starfire and Beast Boy (I suppose Cyborg’s profile has risen a bit since he appeared in Justice League). The movie opens with their home city under attack from the nefarious Balloon Man, and as they try to stop him they are horrified to learn the villain has absolutely no idea who they are.

The team (perhaps correctly) assume that nowadays you haven’t made it as a superhero until you’ve been the subject of a big Hollywood movie, and are alarmed to discover that no-one is intending to feature them in this way – there are, however, advanced plans for any number of scraping-the-barrel Batman spin-offs.

The team decide to fix this, even if it means acquiring a proper arch-nemesis. The best candidate is the villain Slade (voiced by Will Arnett; we will return to the odd question of this character’s nomenclature in a short while), even if he doesn’t seem especially keen on the gig. When an important Hollywood producer informs the Titans that she would only make a film about them if they were the only superheroes in the world, this gives them a possibly-regrettable idea involving time machines and a large amount of retroactive continuity…

Well, as I hope you can see, the makers of this movie deserve at least some credit for persuading DC Comics to let them include some fairly barbed material making fun of not only various well-known characters but also the company’s somewhat chequered recent record when it comes to putting its characters on the big screen (this is the third film I’ve seen in the last year taking a hefty swing at the 2011 Green Lantern movie; perhaps it is time to declare a moratorium on cracks at a movie which really wasn’t quite as bad as all that). Are there an awful lot of superhero films being released these days? There certainly are. Are some of these films the result of creative choices perhaps best described as inexplicable? Once again, it is difficult to disagree. Is this therefore fertile ground for a movie affectionately satirising the current situation? Well, absolutely.

The problem is that Teen Titans Go is not that movie – or at least, not entirely. It does benefit considerably from being attached to the DC Comics brand, and makes full use of the company’s extensive back-catalogue of well-known characters. There’s relatively little Batman, presumably because he’s already so heavily used in the somewhat similar Lego movie franchise, but many of the other big names are prominently on display here. (I must confess I did think the succession of fairly cruel jokes about the Challengers of the Unknown was overdoing it a touch, while there’s also an odd moment where it appears to depict the original Captain Marvel having heat vision, which of course was never the case.)

I must confess to being slightly bemused at first by the decision to name the main villain of the movie Slade, but then this is a character who has struggled with naming issues throughout his career: he started off nearly forty years ago with the code-name Terminator, and was then kind of obliged to switch to using Deathstroke following the release of the Schwarzenegger movie. You can’t call a character in a kids’ cartoon Deathstroke, apparently, hence the choice of Slade. There are some fairly good-natured jokes about his (considerable) resemblance to Deadpool, but the film doesn’t really elaborate on the very reasonable point that Deadpool is the knock-off and Deathstroke the original (Slade preceded Wade), presumably to keep Marvel sweet. (Marvel seem to have been fairly indulgent towards this movie, also letting them include a Stan Lee cameo and so on.)

Much of Teen Titans Go is, then, very clever and a lot of fun, in addition to being steeped in the lore of one of the great comic-book universes. The problem is that the bits that are not, are really not very good at all. Some of this will probably be a question of personal taste – I have a bit of an issue with the characterisation of the main characters, as it is so totally unlike the ‘straight’ version, but I am aware that other people won’t have a problem with this. I was also really not impressed by how puerile and bodily-function-obsessed many of the jokes in this film were. However, I suspect that most people would agree that this film isn’t of the same quality as others which it is clearly aiming to duplicate – the songs aren’t as good as the ones in the Lego movies, and it’s not as consistently inventive in its jokes as either of the Deadpools. You can spot moments and whole sequences where the film-makers ran out of inspiration and just decided to go with the first idea that occurred to them, no matter how weird or disconnected it was.

Being brilliant for five minutes at a time is not easy and we should not underestimate how good and timely some parts of Teen Titans Go are. However, the film really does throw into sharp focus just what an achievement it is when a film is consistently brilliant for an hour and a half or two hours. This movie passed the time enjoyably enough, and I was never in danger of falling asleep, but it’s a quirky little satellite to more substantial movies, rather than being really significant itself.

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I’m not going to beat around the bush – I’m just going to come straight out and tell you this. Julie Andrews, movie legend, international treasure, beloved (it would seem) of millions, has decided to lend her talents to her first live-action movie in nearly ten years. Now, if you had told me this a couple of days ago, I would have said ‘Ha ha! Secret cameo! But of course. It was inevitable,’ in the full and certain knowledge of which film she was coming out of (semi-)retirement for. But I was wrong. She is not in the movie you would expect her to be in. Instead, Julie Andrews is playing a giant kaiju-esque sea monster living in a mystical subterranean ocean in James Wan’s Aquaman. This is one of those facts that causes me to wonder if I am having some kind of psychological episode, or at the very least have eaten the wrong kind of cheese.

On the other hand, it does give you a general sense of the kind of tenor of Aquaman, which is in no way the film I would have expected a year or so ago. With Marvel Studios cheerfully pumping out three films a year on a regular basis, it feels – perhaps unfairly – a little surprising that their rivals at Warner Brothers/DC should basically have taken most of 2018 off, as we’ve seen nothing from them since last November’s could-have-been-much-worse Justice League. On the other hand, the DC movie line has routinely been met with such eviscerating reviews (I put my hand up unashamedly) and use of words like ‘omni-crisis’ that it’s entirely understandable they should take a breather, listen to what people are saying, and rethink what they’ve been doing. Aquaman is definitely a change of gear.

Thirty-odd years ago, lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) is startled to find a woman (Nicole Kidman) in an outlandish outfit washed up during a storm. After  a bumpy start (she eats his goldfish and sticks a trident through the TV while Stingray is showing – clearly not a Gerry Anderson fan) romance blossoms between the two of them. It turns out she is Atlanna, queen of Atlantis, in self-imposed exile to avoid an arranged marriage. The pair of them end up having a kid, before her past resurfaces (sorry) and she is forced to leave them both and return to the underwater world.

The child is named Arthur and grows up to become the definition of a strapping lad (Jason Momoa), who leads a fairly carefree life when not appearing in other movies as ‘the metahuman known as the Aquaman’ (note the addition of the definite article – which I don’t recall ever seeing applied to the comics version of the character – in an attempt to somehow make him seem more mature and portentous), as he can swim at incredible speeds, breathe water, and talk to fish (historically the source of some embarrassment to writers of Aquaman), in addition being very big and tough.

The movie has been practically dancing along so far, but at this point the plot kicks in, which is fair enough – but as much of the exposition is delivered by Dolph Lundgren, with CGI magenta hair, while riding on a prehistoric sea monster, I was rather distracted and not in the best state to take it all in. Basically it goes a little something like this: Arthur’s younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is intent on uniting the various splintered kingdoms of Atlantis and having himself declared Ocean Master. His plan to achieve this is to provoke a war between the people of the ocean and those living on the surface. Already King Nereus of Xebel (Lundgren) has signed up.

However, Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) and Orm’s vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) recognise a mad scheme when they hear one and have a plan to stop it. This involves persuading Arthur to press his claim to the throne of Atlantis and go off on an epic quest to retrieve the magic trident which is one of the symbols of power in the sunken city. Orm, naturally, is not pleased when he learns of all this, and despatches a high-tech pirate calling himself Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to stop them…

Now, I became aware of Aquaman at a fairly young age, along with most of the other core DC characters. At this point he was still a fairly nondescript chap in an orange shirt whose signature ability (talking to fish) didn’t really match up to running at the speed of light, having an invisible plane, or being able to shoot heat rays out of your eyes. Various attempts to make Aquaman a bit more interesting as a character ensued over the years, with the most effective (if you ask me) being the one done by Peter David (credited on this movie) in the middle 1990s – this would be the version of Aquaman with the attitude, the beard, the gladiator vest and the hook replacing one of his hands. Do I detect the influence of the David Aquaman on this movie? Well, Momoa obviously has the beard and the attitude, so maybe, although ultimately they go back to the orange shirt costume, and don’t bother with the hook (someone did point out it would make it difficult for Aquaman to go to the bathroom, although I’ve never been able to work out how the sanitation in Atlantis would function anyway).

Momoa basically plays Aquaman (or Ah-quaman, as some of the people here pronounce it) as a not-especially-bright bro, a take on the character which works in this context even if it’s not particularly authentic to the comics. It’s a perfectly good, charismatic performance, although I suspect the best he can hope for is a Chris Hemsworth level of stardom, where people will flock to see him only if he’s playing one particular role. Perhaps I’m damning with faint praise, for Momoa does do the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying what’s a big, hefty movie.

Anyone expecting the kind of industrial gloom of something touched by the hand of Zach Snyder will be in for a big surprise, for there is a very different sensibility at work here: this is a light, fun fantasy epic, somewhat influenced by a bunch of other recent blockbusters (and not just ones from Marvel Studios), with its own very distinct aesthetic – there are garishly-coloured vistas throughout, and all manner of unlikely CGI critters (including, and we mustn’t forget this, Julie Andrews). Perhaps they are overcompensating somewhat, for the grim-and-gloomy of the earlier films has been replaced by a tone which is often as camp as Christmas (shrewd choice of release date, guys), sometimes absurdly so, with a rainbow-hued fluorescent colour-scheme.

In the end, popcorn fun results, thanks to a script which hangs together well and doesn’t worry about too many other DC references (there’s an attempted HP Lovecraft in-joke at one point, but they seem to have chosen the wrong book). The film has an interesting, eclectic cast who do good work, on the whole – personally, I can’t believe I’ve turned up to see a major Hollywood release featuring Dolph Lundgren two weeks in a row. His appearance here isn’t as good as the one in Creed II, but could we nevertheless be seeing the start of a Lundgrenaissance? Fingers crossed. I’m not entirely sure what Black Manta contributes to the movie beyond a major second-act action sequence, but then again the character is saddled with an especially silly costume design.

Aquaman is such a change of pace for the DC movies series that I’m genuinely curious to hear what fans of these films make of it – apparently there were a lot of complaints that Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League was just too entertaining and faithful to the comics, and that Snyder’s depressing and misconceived vision should be respected and preserved. We’re off into a whole new world of camp nonsense with this film, and on its own terms it works just fine – I imagine it will do rather well for itself, although this does seem like an unusually crowded Christmas for aspiring blockbusters (in the absence of a stellar conflict movie, everyone seems to be piling in). I’m not sure if this approach will work for any other characters in the DC stable, but then again maybe the trick will be to not worry about the consistency of tone which has been such a mixed blessing for the Marvel films. I don’t think Aquaman has quite the same quality as Wonder Woman, but it’s still a very enjoyable piece of silliness, much better than any of the other recent DC films – fingers crossed they can keep this standard up in future.

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Many questions could reasonably be asked of the film we will shortly be considering, namely Justice League. Given the generally lousy track record of DC movies over the last few years, will it destroy all the precious momentum generated by Wonder Woman and torpedo that movie’s chance of a genuine Oscar run? Why is all the publicity material treating the presence of Superman in this movie as some kind of well-hidden surprise, considering that Henry Cavill (who plays the Kryptonian on the big screen these days) is second-billed in the cast list? Just how much influence did Joss Whedon exert over this film, given that Zach Snyder retains the sole directorial credit? Why, given Snyder’s take on the DC mythology strains so hard to be dark and edgy and ‘realistic’, have they gone with a title as corny-sounding as Justice League in the first place? And why, given it contains a whole bunch of popular and iconic characters, are so many people approaching this movie with a general feeling of ‘Please don’t let it be as bad as I’m afraid of’?

justice-league-poster

Hey ho. With Superman still dead (I really don’t think this counts as a spoiler any more), planet Earth has been thrown into something of a state of trauma. Batman (Ben Affleck), however, fears that worse is yet to come, especially when he encounters an alien scout on the prowl in Gotham City, and this impels him to step up his attempts to find more gifted individuals to protect the planet. Chivvying him along in this, somewhat, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). On their list of people to see are the Flash (Ezra Miller), who can run at close to the speed of light, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is, um, a cyborg, and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). (Just why, in the context of the film, Batman is so keen to recruit someone whose only powers appear to be the ability to swim really fast and an impressive skill at fishing is not really explained.)

Anyway, things get urgent with the ‘awakening’ of an otherworldly cube, immediately followed by the arrival of a dangerous alien warrior in unusual headgear. (At this point I was wondering if Joss Whedon had done any actual work on this movie to earn his writer’s credit, or whether it was just there to acknowledge how much of his script for The Avengers was being ripped off here.) The newcomer is Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has come in search of a set of plot coupons that will allow him to recreate Earth in the image of his apocalyptic homeworld. Can our disparate bunch of heroes unite to stop him?

All right, so there are (as usual) some baffling creative decisions on display here – not the least of which is the decision to keep Superman’s presence in the film out of all the publicity. And there are some aspects of the plot which just plain don’t make any sense whatsoever. That said, I can only assume the decision not to give Whedon a full co-director’s credit must be down to some complicated technical criterion, for his influence on the movie is clear. Apparently one of his decisions was to cut the thing down from nearly three hours to only two; once, the temptation would have been to say he’d only gone a third of the way to fixing this movie, but no longer, for this is a big improvement on Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, even if it doesn’t match the standard of Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure time: I’m probably more a fan of the DC characters and mythology than Marvel’s universe (not that it wouldn’t be a close-run thing if I were forced to choose). So there’s a sense in which I’m absolutely the target audience for this movie, at least inasmuch as I know who all the characters are, not to mention the associated mythology. It does occur to me that anyone new to this might find all the casual talk of Atlantis and Parademons and the Speed Force and Mother Boxes to be utterly baffling; I don’t know how good a job they do of keeping the film accessible.

On the other hand, I’m also not the easiest person to please. This movie clearly owes a debt to the rebooting of the Justice League by Geoff Johns from a few years back, not least in the way it attempts to incorporate Cyborg as a core member of the team. I am of the generation for whom this guy is a member of the Titans, not the League, and the absence from the film’s version of the team of any Green Lantern, not to mention the Martian Manhunter, is inevitably a disappointment – although there is a tiny cameo by a Lantern at one point. (Shame they didn’t draw much more from the Morrison-Porter incarnation of the group, but then Johns is producing the movie.)

We’re still in a slightly odd world where Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and even the Justice League itself are barely referred to by those names at all (just not credible enough, I guess), but nevertheless the film works very hard to include lots of crowd-pleasing moments to satisfy both casual viewers and the die-hard faithful – from the Flash’s look of panic at the unprecedented realisation that a hostile, amnesiac Superman can actually see him coming, to the decision to incorporate classic elements of the soundtracks of the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman into this film’s score.

This is not to say this is a great film, simply one which has its moments. Again and again you realise that this is a film stuffed with charismatic performers who just aren’t being given the material they need to really shine. You never get that sense of the characters coming together as the iconic team they are; they just sort of bump into and hang around with each other. Going with an all-CGI villain like Steppenwolf is arguably a serious mistake. And there’s a point in the second act at which the plot goes off on a frankly bizarre and very wrong-feeling tangent, which the film really has to work hard to recover from.

Still – and bear in mind that, as I say, I’m inclined to be generous here – this is still quite watchable stuff, with all the various quips and one-liners (courtesy of Whedon, one presumes) making up for the tendency towards CGI-slathered heavy metal gloom (courtesy of Snyder, one is quite sure). I still think DC and Warner Brothers have a lot of work to do to turn this into a viable long-term franchise of the mighty Marvel kind, but – and in the context this really isn’t the faint praise it sounds like – on the whole, the thing to bear in mind is that Justice League could really have been much, much worse.

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If we’re going to head off the beaten track, cinematically speaking, it occurs to me that Bollywood movies and the like are really just a first step. There are lots of much weirder, more startling films out there in the world, as I discovered at quite a young age – you can imagine the astonishment which resulted when I first encountered masked Mexican wrestling horror movies, for instance. The problem, such as it is, is that some of these foreign treasures are just a bit too strange to be really accessible to a western viewer. Striking some kind of balance between being recognisable and having the sheer utter capacity to smack gobs is the twilight world of Turksploitation movies.

You what? is a perfectly reasonable response. I speak of the charming Turkish habit, in years gone by, of taking popular American blockbusters and doing a local remake, without bothering with trivial little things like the legal rights to characters and stories. Needless to say, these films were often cobbled together on tiny budgets, using performers highly unlikely to ever get the call from Hollywood. And yet they sometimes have an exuberant charm of their own, as well as a entertainment value born of their sheer crudeness.

As a case in point, let us consider Süpermen Dönüyor (aka The Return of Superman), a fairly representative Turksploitation movie, made in 1979 by (stop sniggering at the back) Kunt Tulgar. I suppose the closest thing to this kind of film being made today are the ‘mockbusters’ plopped out by The Asylum, the crucial difference being that Asylum movies are carefully tweaked to avoid lawsuits – I speak here of the likes of Snakes on a Train, Transmorphers, and Sunday School Musical – whereas the Turkish films just totally ignore the dubious legalities involved.

We open in deep space, which is realised using a selection of Christmas tree ornaments on a black blanket, while a voice-over fills us in the history of planet Krypton (which closely resembles one of those shiny bauble thingies). The title card with the Superman S-shield on it appears (apparently painted by an eight-year-old), while John Williams’ famous fanfare plays. Then abruptly the music changes to something with more of the flavour of the souk about it while the rest of the credits roll.

With all this out of the way, we meet Tayfun (Tayfun Demir), a young man in a pair of Elton John’s old specs, who is just about to start making his way in the world when he receives a shocking revelation from his parents – he is adopted! Apparently they found a ‘rocket-like machine’ in the garden one day, with him inside, along with a sort of greeny-grey rock. Tayfun takes this extraordinary news with superhuman stoicism (either that or he’s a terrible actor – hmm…) and sets off to follow his destiny. This turns out to be to go into a cave, where he is confronted by the ghost of his father, Superman, leader of the planet Krypton, a world of supremely advanced science in all areas but dentistry (judging from the state of Superman’s mouth, anyway). Tayfun is to carry on the legacy of Krypton by being the new Superman of Earth, using his special superhuman powers in a surprisingly low-key and cost-effective manner.

Having learned all this, and adopted the traditional red-and-blue uniform (possibly the most impressive and expensive-looking thing in the movie), Superman flies off in search of adventure, and also to get a job. The scenes of our hero in flight are realised by – well, not to put to fine a point on it, sticking a doll in front of back-projected helicopter shots of famous Turkish landmarks. The results are breathtaking, one way or another.

Tayfun lands a job at what seems to be an extremely small Turkish newspaper (there only appear to be three other people on the staff), just in time for the plot proper to kick in – The Return of Superman is a (some would say blessedly) brief 68 minutes long, so there’s less of the hanging about you get in the Richard Donner version. Scientists have discovered the mystical ‘Krypton stone’, which will either provide an unlimited supply of cheap, clean energy (seriously, given this is a maguffin in so many superhero movies nowadays, The Return of Superman is way ahead of the curve here), or allow unscrupulous types to transform base substances into gold and get rich quick.

Any tiny remnants of credulity left in the audience will be cruelly squished when it turns out that that the professor in charge of investigating the Krypton stone is the father of Alev (Gungor Bayrak), Tayfun’s co-worker and love interest. Cue many opportunities for Alev to be menaced and repeatedly kidnapped by the mob as they attempt to get their hands on the Krypton stone, and for Superman to race to her rescue in his understated Turkish way (faced with a runaway truck, for instance, Turkish Superman does not plant himself in its path or grab it and bring it to a halt, he climbs in through the cab door and steps on the brakes – not exactly spectacular, but it saves on special effects).

In the end the villains are defeated, Tayfun has revealed his secret identity to the smitten Alev, and everyone asks if Superman will stick around to fight for truth, justice, and the Turkish way. No, he announces: he’s off to look for Krypton, which he lost ‘seven light years ago’ (according to the English subtitled version, anyway).  The End – and it certainly feels like it.

As an unauthorised foreign language rip-off, I expect it goes without saying that The Return of Superman is a terrible, terrible movie by any rational standard – the acting is awful, the subtitled dialogue is awful, the direction and editing are awful, and the special effects are awful. Normally I might even have some strong words to say about the dubious ethicality of this kind of undertaking, but given that DC Comics’ own treatment of Superman’s creators was hardly exemplary, I’m inclined to give them a pass. But seriously – is there any reason to spend an hour of your life actually watching this?

Well, for the first few minutes at least, the sheer primitive incompetence of The Return of Superman makes it utterly hilarious to watch, but one becomes habituated to this with surprising speed, and only particularly striking moments really register: for instance, Superman’s suggestion to the professor upon rescuing him is ‘There’s a car outside – run away with it!’ There’s also a wholly tonally wrong sequence in which Tayfun uses his x-ray vision to check out a passing woman’s underwear – although I should say that, on the whole, this movie’s depiction of Superman is at least as authentic as that of the average Zach Snyder movie – while Superman does appear to kill a guy at one point, the actor reappears five minutes later, but this may just be down to the awful continuity. It’s not like he goes around wantonly snapping necks or allowing himself to be manipulated into picking stupid fights with people, anyway.

Probably the most fun to be had while watching The Return of Superman comes from playing Name that Tune. The makers of this movie clearly realised the importance of music to a proper cinematic experience, but couldn’t afford an original soundtrack for their film. So (and you may be ahead of me here) they went away and nicked bits from various popular American and British films and TV series. Quite apart from the 1978 Superman (of course), unwitting donors to this movie’s (un)original soundtrack include From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Westworld, and Space: 1999.

It is frequently laughable, especially when the music is slapped on randomly over a wholly inappropriate moment (one of John Williams’ more up-tempo action cues accompanies a bafflingly long and entirely dialogue-free scene depicting Tayfun packing his suitcase). But in other places you are reminded of just how important a good soundtrack can be to the success of a movie – moments which should be absurd actually acquire a vestige of emotional or dramatic value when the film-makers get their act together and dub the right piece of music over the top of their tosh.

For this reason, if no other, I find it a little hard to dismiss The Return of Superman quite as comprehensively as it probably deserves: the people who made it may have been an underfunded bunch of pirates, but they do appear to have had a genuine affection for and understanding of both Superman and cinema, and that makes up for a lot. Not enough to make this film any more than a bizarre and deservedly obscure oddity (it’s currently available to view on YouTube, if you really must), but if it teaches us anything, it’s that sometimes you just have to make do with what you’ve got.

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