Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Ari Aster’s Hereditary, when it came out in 2018, was that unusual thing: a film which clearly announced the arrival of a major talent despite being rather divisive. Many legitimate critics loved it. We (your correspondent, Former Next Desk Colleague, and Olinka) thought it was fairly risible once the credits had finished rolling, but we were all duly impressed by the queasy atmosphere Aster managed to generate. 2019’s Midsommar was genuinely accomplished – Olinka, who is equally passionate about horror movies and psychotherapy, particularly enjoyed it. I haven’t caught up with her for a bit but I imagine she will flip her chips when she eventually sees Aster’s latest film, Beau is Afraid.

The film opens with Beau himself being born (at least, I assume it’s him), which Aster naturally presents as a nightmarishly traumatic experience. (Tone is thus established.) Beau grows up to be Joaquin Phoenix, and a rather nervous and fragile individual. We see him visiting his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), getting a new prescription, and going back to his apartment. Everything seems calculated to create maximum disquiet and unease, from the violent squalor of the neighbourhood to the fact the building is infested with venomous spiders.

Beau is supposed to be about to visit his mother (Patti LuPone), a successful businesswoman, but a series of bizarre events – basically, his keys mysteriously vanish – force him to cancel the trip. From here, things spiral increasingly out of control, involving mobs of aggressive homeless people, and Beau discovering an urgent family situation he needs to travel to address. Naturally, he ends up running out into the street naked and being hit by a truck.

You know, when I do this capsule synopsis thing, what I’m basically trying is to give you a sense of the initial conditions of the film and then a general sense of where the story ends up going. With Beau is Afraid this is tricky, because this is not a film which sticks to a conventional narrative structure and never goes in the direction you expect it to. There’s something almost (and I hesitate to say this) Kubrickian about the way the film takes the form a number of different episodes, each of them quite different, with no particular connection beyond the fact that they happen to Beau and feature a distinctively grotesque sense of humour. It’s like a very unsettling vision-quest, perhaps, a stream of consciousness journey into everything going on in Beau’s head. The only obvious thing I can compare it to is Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, though it is slightly more measured in its madness, probably conserving its stamina for a truly heroic three-hour run-time.

I’m sure I saw an interview with Ari Aster where he said that, after Midsommar, he would have said everything he wanted to say in the horror genre. This may still be the case, and Beau is Afraid is not genuinely intended as an actual horror film. Or maybe he’s just changed his mind. Certainly he has described the new film as a ‘nightmare comedy’ (also as ‘a Jewish Lord of the Rings‘) and it is shot through with that sense of humour I mentioned up the page – black and twisted though it certainly is. But on the other hand, it’s not what you’d call comfortable viewing – it finds your psychic pressure points and kneads at them relentlessly, and at one point there’s an appearance by a psychosexual monster sufficiently gobsmacking it would even give David Cronenberg pause (probably). You can see why it’s been released as counter-programming to Fast X and The Little Mermaid; what’s genuinely surprising is the fact that anyone honestly thought enough people would want to watch a film this extreme to make a $35 million dollar budget viable.

What makes the film particularly confounding is the fact that it’s very difficult to work out on what level it’s supposed to be functioning. Parts of it are relatively naturalistic, parts seem to be set in a sort of version of the ‘real world’ where certain elements have been heightened for dramatic or comic effect, other parts are so fantastical or surreal that – one assumes – at these points the film has to be operating on some sort of symbolic or allegorical level. And it slips back and forth between these modes without fanfare or signposting. You’re expecting some kind of conclusion where everything resets back to a recognisable analogue of the ordinary, naturalistic world. But it never comes, and after a few final swerves through the realms of melodrama, horror and surreal fantasy the film reaches an end. Perhaps the bizarre wrong-footing-ness of the conclusion is part of the intended effect.

However, this is one of those films which isn’t about what you take away; it’s about the experience of watching it – upsetting, visceral, moving, blackly comic. Most of this comes from a typically committed and intense performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who is on-screen for practically the whole three hours non-stop; the film has come out at the wrong time of year and looks likely to lose money, but this aside it’s the kind of performance that gets award attention. Having already made the comic book movie respectable in terms of being award-worthy, could Phoenix do the same for the horror film?

That said, it is Ari Aster who displays once again an almost casual mastery of composition, sound, and general mise-en-scene. ‘I can’t believe the imagination some people have,’ murmured the only other visible audience member at the screening I attended, as we both sat in the theatre trying to process the experience of the preceding three hours. I’m still not entirely sure of what Beau is Afraid is actually supposed to be about – an exercise in experimental surrealism? A depiction of a mind in crisis as seen from the inside? The answer is not clear, and to be honest the film is almost overwhelming – the sheer length and strangeness of it becomes alienating and exhausting some time before the end. It’s a fascinating experience but also a gruelling and possibly disturbing one. It may indeed be a masterpiece, but I don’t feel qualified to say so with certainty. But it’s definitely a tour de force for both director and star.

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As somebody once said, sort of, if you want to get a sense of the upheavals suffered by American society and culture in the 1960s, all you need to do is look at the career of Dennis Hopper. Early Hopper performances often see the actor cast as a nice, well-brought-up American boy, occasionally troubled or acting out (his aspiring neo-Nazi in The Twilight Zone, for instance), but generally someone who is not a menace to society. And then Easy Rider happens and suddenly he seems inextricably part of the counter-culture in perpetuity.

Given this, the idea of Dennis Hopper as a romantic lead can seem a bit weird or counter-intuitive, but this is what happened in his first lead role. This was in a film called Night Tide, directed by Curtis Harrington. Exactly what kind of film Night Tide is, is a bit challenging to pin down, as we shall see – it shifts about across genre boundaries. The title is drawn from a piece of Poe verse, but it’s not much like one of the Vincent Price Poe films that American-International Pictures were in the middle of at the time – nevertheless, AIP distributed the film (one story has it that Roger Corman intervened with the developers of the negative to ensure the thing got finished at all), and it was shown in a double-bill with The Raven (which must have made for a slightly odd experience for the audience).

To the extent that Night Tide is a horror film, it’s one that owes its strongest debt elsewhere. Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a young sailor on shore leave in California. He is by himself, and clearly wistful and lonely as he wanders about a slightly rundown seafront. Eventually Johnny pitches up in a small bar where a jazz group is playing. Also listening to the music is Mora (Linda Lawson), who is likewise by herself.

You sort of begin to wonder what kind of film this is going to be, as Johnny hits on Mora in the clumsiest, neediest of ways, despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to be that into him, even insisting on walking her back to her lodgings. There’s a name for this sort of behaviour and it’s not a word that turns up in connection with most romances. Nevertheless, Mora agrees for him to come back for breakfast in the morning.

The next day everything is sweetness and light, although the breakfast Mora has prepared for Johnny is mackerel, which is not my personal idea of a great start to the day. Suddenly the two of them are walking out together without either seeming to have given the idea much thought – or indeed there being much obvious chemistry. Perhaps it is best to consider Night Tide as some sort of melodramatic fable where some of the usual concerns of characterisation and motivation are not worth worrying about.

Johnny learns that Mora works at an attraction on the seafront, in a sideshow where (with the aid of a fake tail) she pretends to be a mermaid. Her godfather, or so he describes himself, runs the place – he is a retired naval captain named Murdock (Gavin Muir). Murdock claims to have found Mora as an orphaned child on the Greek island of Mykonos, and brought her back to the States to raise. All seems well for the young couple, for a bit at least – but then Johnny starts to see a strange woman in black haunting Mora’s steps, chanting strange incantations in a foreign language, and learns of ominous rumours about the unexplained deaths of her previous two suitors. Finally Murdock admits the awful truth – Mora isn’t just pretending to be a mermaid, she’s an actual siren, fated to lure young men to a watery grave…

The setting of Night Tide is well-observed and atmospheric; the horror-fantasy elements are delicate and ambiguously presented – in the end, it may just be the case that Mora is nothing but a disturbed young woman, subject to the influence of a possessive older man. Or it could be that she really is some sort of supernatural sea creature. You pays your money and you takes your choice – but the overall effect is strikingly reminiscent of the output of the RKO horror unit under Val Lewton, twenty years earlier, even if this is less Cat People and more Octopus Girl.

Still, the mixture of dreamlike, noirish fantasy and more naturalistic sequences is well-handled, and the production is probably wise to follow in Lewton’s footsteps by leaving as much as possible to the imagination – there are a couple of dream-sequences where Johnny imagines Mora first with a fish’s tail, and then transforming into a rubbery kraken-like monster, and these are the only moments where the film is in any danger of feeling camp or cheesy.

This is not a film which is overloaded with incident, so it’s just as well that the direction and incidental detail are as good as they are, and the performances help too. They kind of run the gamut from the earnestly naturalistic (Hopper, and probably Lawson) to the riper and more theatrical (Muir), but again this isn’t necessarily a problem and probably adds to the strange atmosphere of the piece. You can see why Night Tide has become something of a cult movie.

Doing films about actual mermaids (as opposed to people just living under the sea) has a somewhat chequered history – it seems to lend itself more to a sort of rom-com treatment (see Splash and its British antecedents Miranda and Mad About Men), but there has also been the odd full-on horror movie too (there’s a film called Mamula which I believe turned up on the Horror Channel under the title Killer Mermaids). We should also recall the recent kerfuffle over the complexion of the title character in the forthcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid, and there is also the strange case of whatever-happened-to Empires of the Deep, an aspiring blockbuster with Olga Kurylenko, which has been MIA for about a decade. Given all this, Night Tide is probably somewhere towards the top of the heap, in its own little niche. It’s a weird little film, but quite well-made, and not afraid to assume the audience is intelligent. So there are three reasons at least to appreciate it.

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We have discussed in the past the topic of the Optimum Interval Before Sequel. My personal feeling is that anything less than about two years is too short, while thirty-six years is definitely too long (though Tom Cruise may disagree with me, of course). It’s been six years since the appearance of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, which isn’t an inordinate gap, but it’s still hard to shake the feeling that this film has somehow missed its moment. There are good reasons for this, of course: Gunn himself got fired after being twitter-mined and went off to make The Suicide Squad for DC’s movie wing before being rehired to make the film after all, and then there was the awkward business of that pandemic which put a cramp in everyone’s style that probably still hasn’t worked itself completely out.

Even so, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3¬† has the definite sense of being one last hurrah and a chance to tie up some loose ends before Marvel move on from this particular set of characters: many of the actors have said they probably won’t be reprising their roles, while Gunn himself is off to mastermind the next phase of the rival DC Comics movie franchise (has no-one at Warner Brothers seen Brightburn…?). It certainly doesn’t seem to have any connection to the current meta-plot which Marvel have been quietly inserting into some of their recent movies.

Not that the previous meta-plot doesn’t have a beearing on the story, of course. The film opens with the Guardians of the Galaxy settling into their new base, a giant severed bonce floating in deep space (which if nothing else allows Gunn to include the line of dialogue ‘Kill everyone in that dead god’s head!’ at one point). But all is not well, as team leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has gone into a bit of a slump after the love of his life (Zoe Saldana painted green) was killed in her adoptive father’s attempt to reshape the universe, and replaced by a younger version from an alternate timeline with no memory of him or any of the others on the team. Discussions amongst his friends on how to get him perked up again are predictably chaotic and unproductive. (Also back as part of the ensemble are Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan and Vin Diesel – playing, as before, a tree.)

A more serious problem rears its head when the team comes under attack by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who in the comics is the perfect synthetic life form with mystical powers, but here is a sort of omnipotent golden cosmic doofus. It turns out he’s here for Rocket, the uplifted raccoon, as he is a servant of Rocket’s original creator. This proves to be the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who has form in the creation and augmentation of new forms of life. But why does the High Evolutionary want the raccoon back after all this time, and how are the team going to track him down?

So, yes, another movie, another well-nigh omnipotent megalomaniac to contend with. The High Evolutionary’s particular schtick is the creation of servants out of lower forms of life (the character’s debt to The Island of Dr Moreau is perhaps acknowledged in the fact the comic version’s real name is Herbert) and some of the new film’s most memorable sequences are the flashbacks to Rocket’s youth as a lab experiment: some of these are grotesque, bordering on the grisly. Nevertheless, as villains go, he feels like someone we’ve seen before perhaps a few times too often.

On the other hand, some things never get tired, and one of them is Gunn’s talent for adding offbeat black comedy to cosmic superhero fantasy. The Guardians’ inability to actually work together very effectively most of the time is a big component of what makes these films such fun, and the action frequently grinds to a halt while the ensemble bicker at great length about how to operate their space-suit radios or what the proper use for a sofa is. This is the sort of thing which has made these films so beloved, even within the Marvel canon. It’s certainly not Gunn’s mastery of plot structure, although to be fair this one does feel like it’s flailing around less than most of his films: nevertheless, neither of Gunn’s scripts has the same robustness as the one he co-wrote with Nicole Perlman for the first in the series.

If you were to come up to me, grab me firmly by the lapels, and shout in my face that this is just another piece of corporate Marvel product which sticks to the same formula as most of the thirty-one Marvel Studios films which have preceded it to the screen, my response would probably be ‘Please let go of my lapels.’ And then, ‘Well, you may have a point.’ Personally, I don’t necessarily have a problem with a film being formulaic, as long as it’s a good formula, and I happen to enjoy the one that Marvel have cooked up – I know they’ve had a bit of a post-pandemic, post-Endgame wobble, but their films are usually still smart, funny, pleasing to look at and generally well-played and well-directed. Admittedly, some of the new characters they drop in are obscure even to someone with an attic full of comics (Sylvester Stallone has a cameo as someone called Starhawk) and only seem to be present to set up future instalments (Will Poulter gives a fun performance as Adam Warlock, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a burning reason for him to be in the film), but this is par for the course, really.

What does make this film a bit distinctive within the canon, apart from all the space weirdness, is the genuine sense of warmth and camaraderie between the main characters. They are fun to spend time with, as well as inevitably bringing back fond memories of some of the previous films they’ve appeared in. The film does have real heart and soul to it – the tone is a bit darker than in previous episodes, as the Guardians begin to contemplate moving on from their somewhat irresponsible lifestyle and figuring out what their different places in the universe are. Guardians 3 gets much closer to being moving and poignant than I would ever have thought possible, which is a sign of real growth in James Gunn as a writer and director. (Maybe those upcoming DC movies really could be something special.) This is a welcome additional facet to what was already a terrifically entertaining popcorn blockbuster.

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When we consider the history of the fantasy film, there are a few things which we have to accept as fact. I suppose I should make clear what I actually mean by a fantasy film, given that anything which isn’t a documentary is technically a fantasy (i.e. made up) – and for me, if we’re going to be reductionist about this, a fantasy film is one which has wizards and/or magic in it. (So a lot of horror movies are also doing double duty in the fantasy genre, not to mention most superhero movies and the Star Wars franchise too.)

You can mock and grumble about the popularity of superhero films, but Marvel Studios in particular have done the fantasy genre an enormous favour by making so many good movies – one of those unfortunate historical facts is that most fantasy films, particularly in the traditional sword and sorcery genre, have been pretty rotten. In fact, with the possible exceptions of Excalibur, the first Schwarzenegger Conan and Krull, I would struggle to name a good sword and sorcery film from the twentieth century.

And then the other day I finally got to watch Hawk the Slayer, a ground-breaking British sword and sorcery film from 1980, directed by Terry Marcel. And it is quite extraordinarily entertaining, clearly setting out the boundaries of the genre for decades to come. It’s also pretty rotten, of course, but it’s an ambitious British film from the dog days of the turn of the seventies, so you kind of expect that.

Top billed is imported American star Jack Palance, rocking a tricky helmet-eyepatch combo as the villainous Voltan. Palance gets proceedings underway by breaking into the castle of his father (Ferdy Mayne). Given the age gap between Voltan and his pa is apparently in the low single digits, something rum has possibly gone on, but this is not dwelt upon. Voltan wants the ‘last Elven mind stone’, which his dad has lying about the place, but it’s a no-no from the elder generation. So Voltan stabs him to death and strops off somewhere. Arriving just too late to confront Voltan, and get the film over in the first five minutes, is Voltan’s brother Hawk (John Terry, whose most prominent roles were probably in Full Metal Jacket and The Living Daylights).

This time Pa does decide to hand over the mind stone, which attaches itself to Hawk’s sword and allows him to summon the blade into his hand through the power of mystic otherworldly forces (and running the film backwards). Hawk dutifully swears to avenge one family member by killing another, but it probably makes sense if you’re there.

One of the few ways in which Hawk the Slayer doesn’t rigorously cleave to genre conventions is in Voltan’s evil scheme – despite seemingly being sponsored by the Powers of Darkness, he’s not out to collect apocalyptic plot coupons, he just wants to get rich by terrorising the countryside. One of his victims, Ranulf (W Morgan Shepherd), turns up at a convent, closely followed by Voltan himself. Voltan decides to take the Abbess hostage, so the other nuns pack Ranulf off to tell the local Abbot. The Abbot in turn tells Ranulf to find Hawk. (Yes, the plotting is a bit long-winded, but there are a lot of guest stars to find parts for.)

Hawk duly turns up to save Ranulf from Voltan’s goons in the nick of time (it might be less of a close call if Hawk didn’t ride everywhere in slow motion) and agrees to help out. At this point the film suddenly decides it is going to be The Magnificent Seven for a bit, as Hawk decides to assemble a team of warriors to help him – not quite seven though (budget issues). Helping him out with this is a witch (a fairly thankless role for Patricia Quinn). So he duly teleports about, recruiting a dwarf (played by someone who is a bit on the short side), a giant (Bernard Bresslaw, who is at least quite tall) and an elf (someone doing a so-so Mr Spock impression, although this itself is probably anthropologically significant). And off they go to rescue the Abbess from Voltan’s clutches.

If all of this is giving you a kind of ‘bog-standard D&D on a night when the Dungeon Master didn’t have much time to prepare’ vibe, then I commend you for your insightfulness – it’s all fairly tropey fantasy stuff, with a distinct whiff of real-ale-drinking New Wave of British Heavy Metal about it (the actual soundtrack is by Harry Robertson, who also produced the film and wrote the screenplay, and betrays a rather closer affection for Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, to my ears at least). It would all be rather dreary stuff under normal circumstances.

Four months after Hawk the Slayer came out, John Boorman’s Excalibur was released, which I think is in its way a great film. These days, despite a budget of $11 million, it all looks a bit clunky. So you can imagine that time has been absolutely beastly to Hawk the Slayer, which was made for about half a million quid. Personally I have to confess to a certain admiration for a film which so fully commits to a range of special effects so reliant on silly string, front axial projection, and trick effects in the editing suite. (The matte paintings used to depict the exteriors of the various locations brought back fond memories of many church pantomimes I attended in my youth.) The sheer brass neck of the film in trying to get away with this stuff is genuinely endearing.

What elevates it, in a certain way, is the fact that the late 70s were a dark time for the British film industry and so lots of proper film stars were wandering about looking for work in a movie – any movie, really. The usual deal at this time was that a famous actor would work for a reduced fee if they were credited as a ‘special guest star’. So it is that Hawk the Slayer ends up with a list of ‘special guest stars’ which is probably longer than the cast list of non-special guest actors in it. Certainly it has an astonishingly good cast for the kind of film it is – apart from Palance and Bresslaw, who are both proper actors, Harry Andrews plays the Abbott, Annette Crosbie plays the Abbess, Roy Kinnear is an innkeeper, Shane Briant is Palance’s adopted son, Patrick Magee plays a priest, and so on. If you’re looking for the missing link between City Slickers and Carry On Cowboy, or indeed Shane and One Foot in the Grave, then Hawk the Slayer is the film for you.

Admittedly, some of these people seem quite bemused by it all, but then if Hawk the Slayer takes you unawares it is likely to have that effect, I’m afraid. Objectively, this is a terrible film, despite the game performances from most of the cast. It’s almost like the type specimen for a certain kind of bad fantasy film. And yet it is so energetic and seemingly unaware of its own shortcomings that it becomes almost impossible to genuinely look down on. I’m not sure the fabled ‘so bad it’s good’ film genuinely exists – but if there are such things, then Hawk the Slayer is certainly amongst their number.

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One last piece of oddball Arthuriana to close out this particular thread for the time being – not just something I sought out as part of my general research in this area, but a TV show I would actively have watched regardless of the situation, mainly because I have fond memories of its original broadcast back in the summer of 1988. The show is called The One Game, written by John Brown and directed by Mike Vardy, and it resurfaced last year on Armed Forces TV (of all places) before that channel vanished from the EPG (a real shame as it was something of a treasure-trove for slightly culty shows from the 1980s and 1990s).

The show’s setting is very much of the 1980s and it probably constitutes another entry into the yuppie-in-peril genre which was briefly popular at the time. Our main character is Nick Thorne (Stephen Dillane), a successful entrepreneur with a fairly abrasive personal style. He has made a fortune out of computer games through his company, Sorcerer, even if this has come at the cost of his marriage breaking up. (Playing his ex-wife is Pippa Haywood, who must have been making a ton of residuals from AFTV at one point last year – it was also showing Chimera (where she’s a dodgy geneticist) and The Brittas Empire (where she’s the main character’s wife).)

But trouble is brewing, as a shadowy figure from Nick’s past has resurfaced – his former friend and mentor Magnus (Patrick Malahide). It was Magnus’ genius as a designer of games that got Nick started, but Nick discarded Magnus and his ideals when material success arrived, eventually having him committed. But now he is back, determined to destroy Nick – or at least teach him a lesson. His method of doing this is something called the One Game, a ‘reality game’ a bit like a cross between an escape room and LARPing (a very similar concept shows up in movies like The Game and Game Night – the titles are a bit of a giveaway). Magnus hires someone to hack into Nick’s accounts and steal all his money just before he’s due to pay all the people he licenses games from, leaving him only a few days to complete the game and – in theory – rescue his company…

Just for a bit of variety, there are some other storylines going on as well – for added motivation, Magnus has kidnapped Nick’s ex-wife, so we get to see her various attempts to escape (she also gives Magnus someone to talk to). Meanwhile, Nick’s financial advisor (David Mallinson) is doing his best to put together a rescue package to stop the company going bankrupt, which involves apparoaching combative tycoon Lord Maine (a nice role for the great Andrew Keir), a man who treats business as a substitute for war.

You’re probably thinking that this doesn’t sound especially Arthurian, and on paper it isn’t, but when you actually watch the thing it is clearly part of a lineage of shows camping out on the borderline between realistic drama and fantasy – ‘non-naturalistic drama’ is as good a name as any for this sort of thing, I suppose. The opening credits depict characters and scenes in the style of an illustrated medieval manuscript, while (to quote Wikipedia) ‘Welsh-sounding gibberish’ is sung over the top of it. Many of the various challenges flung into Nick’s path have a partly or wholly medieval feel to them – motorbike jousting, for instance, or broadsword fighting.

However, the main giveaway comes partway through the first episode, where the hacker Magnus has hired decides to increase his profit margin by robbing him at knifepoint. Magnus calmly puts his hands up, wiggles his fingers – and the knife vanishes from his assailant’s hand and appears in his own. (Achieved via a very neat practical effect, in case you were wondering.) This comes just after it is revealed that one of the passwords to get into Nick’s accounts is ‘Wizards’, reversed. Magnus is, it is implied, a genuine wizard; one of his allies is named Fay (played by the very easy on the eye Kate McKenzie).

The makers of the series have confirmed that the starting point for the story was ‘what if King Arthur, having achieved the throne, told Merlin to get lost?’, which is a moderately interesting idea – and why not do it as a story set in the present-day computer games industry? There is potential here for the exploration of some interesting ideas, not least the loss of innocence involved in the games industry becoming more successful and corporate – it’s revealed that, back in the 1970s, a young Nick was running a Friendly Local Games store where everyone sat around reading Tolkien and (probably) playing white-box Dungeons and Dragons – a slight oddity to the series is that actual table-top role-playing games are never referenced, mentioned, or even alluded to, which may be because of the Satanic Panic, but then again may be down to something else entirely.

The problem is that we never get a sense that young, poor Nick was in any way a better man than successful, selfish present-day Nick, nor that the process of losing nearly everything and undergoing the various ordeals of the game does much to help him reform as a character. The show is strong on visual impact and quirkiness but the characterisation is clumsy and sluggish, to say the least. Most of the plot is quite linear – Nick goes through the motions of playing one game after another – but it all gets a bit obscure at the end, when it is revealed Nick didn’t just have Magnus put away, there was an incident with a drowning or a near-drowning which he also needs to take responsibility for…

In the end it comes across not entirely unlike a medieval-themed homage to Theatre of Blood, with Malahide in the Vincent Price role, getting his own back through the different games Nick is forced to play. It doesn’t have that film’s style or sense of humour; it’s all played very seriously indeed. Like I say, it’s all very late-1980s. As an earnest teenager I found it quite captivating (the lack of genuine fantasy shows on TV at the time probably also helped its cause) – coming back to it these days, it’s a marginally competent drama which isn’t nearly as stylish or impactful as it seems to think it is. Some good bits, but probably not enough to be worth watching if you don’t have fond memories from the original broadcast.

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My recollection of going to the cinema as a child was that I usually had to pester my dad into taking me to anything I wanted to see, which basically consisted of films like Flash Gordon, The Black Hole, The Empire Strikes Back, and Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (which isn’t even a proper film). The only exceptions to this were when we went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture one rainy afternoon, and another sunny day when – without, I think, giving my sister and I any clue – he took us both to see Richard Donner’s Superman. This can’t have been 1978, when the film was released; she would have been too young – but it can’t have been much later than that, either.

I suspect the reason for this is that my dad just likes Superman. Not in a serious, collect-the-comics kind of way, he just likes the idea of Superman – and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Batman – probably because these are the superheroes who were in circulation when he was a lad. For him, Superman is the only such character who really matters – and maybe he has a point.

Endless TV showings and a couple of slightly iffy sequels may have made us all a bit too over-familiar with the Superman films made by the Salkind family, of which this is the first. It’s back on the big screen for its 45th anniversary (a slightly odd choice), but only about six people turned up to the only showing at the local independent, which was a bit sad, because it really does reward the big screen experience, not to mention your full attention.

The film itself opens by looking back to 1938, and the first Superman comics, in a black-and-white opening sequence which almost suggests this is going to be an exercise in juvenile nostalgia. But then the camera lifts, soaring into the night sky, as the opening phrases of John Williams’ theme burst onto the soundtrack.

And what a theme it is – one of the greatest pieces of music by one of the greatest composers of our day, with that curious double-hook which ensures that if you ask any group of people to sing the Superman theme, half of them will go ‘dah-diddly-dah, dee-dah-dah’ and the other half ‘dat-dah-dah, dah-dit-dah-dah-dahhh’. No wonder that so many other films and TV shows using Superman have stumped up the money to use this theme: there’s a very real sense in which, in live-action terms at least, Superman isn’t Superman unless he’s being soundtracked by John Williams.

Once the opening credits (slightly mystifying to those uninitiated in the dark arts of contract negotiations: Superman himself is third billed, while most of those listed only contribute cameos) conclude, we find ourselves on the planet Krypton – an austere, crystalline world, with an almost Kubrickian alienness to it. Once a bit of business with three criminals being sentenced is concluded (something that only pays off in the sequel), we are in the company of leading figure Jor-El (Marlon Brando), who is trying to convince his fellow elders that the planet is about to blow up. But no-one listens: perhaps he should have glued himself to something. (The hidebound, almost reactionary nature of Kryptonian society is neatly coded by the fact that nearly everyone has a British accent – amongst the councillors are Harry Andrews and dear old William Russell.) It’s fashionable to mock Brando’s appearance in this film, for which he was paid a stupendous sum and got top billing in exchange for very little screen-time, but I think it’s a very decent turn, verging on the moving in places. He’s certainly central to whole Krypton sequence, which is entirely credible and establishes this movie is not going to be kid’s stuff.

But, inevitably, Krypton blows up, the only survivor being Jor-El’s infant son Kal-El, who is rocketed off to Earth. All this has been happening in the Earth year 1948, apparently, and the tot’s escape craft crashlands in Kansas after a three-year trip. Here we get many vistas of rolling corn and an almost Norman Rockwell sense of benevolent Americana; Glenn Ford contributes his own very effective cameo as the lad’s adoptive father, whose premature death leaves a great impression on him.

Kal-El, who has been given the Earth name of Clark Kent (of course), goes off in search of his destiny and finds it at the north pole, where a handy piece of kit left in the rocket with him instantly builds a cathedral-sized replica of Krypton. He and Brando’s disembodied head go off on a sort of metaphysical trip together for twelve years or so, after which he manages to land a job at a major newspaper despite not appearing to finish High School (presumably Superman’s inviolable principles still permit the odd bit of CV-padding).

Here the tone of the film shifts again, with the same skill and confidence that it has displayed throughout so far. The Salkinds and their writers seem to have figured out how to make a Superman movie that works for a mainstream audience – which doesn’t mean taking the character wholly seriously. One can understand why they apparently spent months in meetings with DC Comics executives discussing ‘the integrity of the character’. Superman himself is never spoofed or mocked in this film, but this next section is essentially written and played as light comedy, which is a brilliant choice. Superman is, in the best possible way, an absurd character, and the film kind of toys with this fact while never losing sight of the fact that he is also a wonderful creation.

So we get to see Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve, of course, of course – in many ways still the only Superman who really matters) arriving in Metropolis to start his new job (Metropolis looks almost exactly like New York City), meet Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and everyone else, and then soar into action as Superman – rescuing first Lois from a helicopter crash (‘I hope this little incident hasn’t put you off flying,’ deadpans Reeve), then the President from a plane crash, and still finds time to get a cat down out of a tree. It is all so magnificently perfect you want to track down Bryan Singer and Zach Snyder and hit them with bits of wood.

Practically the only misstep the film makes through these opening three movements, to my mind, is the rather unimpressive spoken-word musical item performed by Kidder during her sweepingly romantic flight with the Man of Steel. This is, one suspects, not Leslie Bricusse’s finest hour as a lyricist, and it always makes my teeth itch (not that it doesn’t contain the occasional good line, of course).

But, of course, the film needs to find a moment of real challenge and jeopardy for Superman, and this comes in the final movement of the film, as diabolical genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, really having some fun) sets about a property scam that involves using nuclear missiles to topple half of California into the sea. He also gets his hands on some kryptonite, which only cemented my dad’s belief that Superman, for all his merits, is a flawed creation as you have to keep using kryptonite on him; he has no other weaknesses or limitations. (Which personally I would argue with, but I digress.)

The question, really, is whether the end of Superman lets the movie down – it’s certainly hard to claim it’s one of the strongest parts of the film. Superman stops a flood, prevents a train crash, props up the San Andreas fault from somewhere within the Earth’s crust, and so on, but fails to save Lois’ life. Holding her body in his arms, he screams his loss (a moment strikingly similar to one in the climax of the original Incredible Hulk TV movie, from the previous year), then flies off to…

Well, it’s not entirely clear – either he is flying faster than light and going back in time to change what happened, or somehow rewinding all of history so it never happened in the first place. It’s not entirely a cheat, as in the books Superman was able to travel in time under his own power for quite a while (other weird and obscure powers included having the ability to shoot miniature clones of himself out of his hands and rearrange his own face), and the moment has been foreshadowed throughout the movie, but narratively it begs all sorts of questions, about time paradoxes and more. Beyond that, it may be making an important statement about Superman’s love for Lois, but it’s also clearly implying that Superman is virtually omnipotent and can’t meaningfully be challenged.

Personally, I think the film gets away with it, because two hours of getting virtually everything right means it has generated an enormous reserve of goodwill that a slightly wobbly climax can’t entirely dispel. We live in a world where, obviously, you can barely move for superhero films sometimes, but there is still something special about this one. Perhaps it is because both Superman and the film burst into a world where they are something unique and surprising – the movie is very grounded in reality, apart from the fantasy figure of Superman himself. And yet the film isn’t afraid to treat the Superman story in mythic terms – the story of ‘a perfect man, who came from the sky and did only good’ (and this is before we even get onto the fact that there’s a father somewhere in the heavens who sends his only son to use his miraculous powers to be an example to the human race). It does all of these things and gets them right. It’s tempting to say that this is a template for a different way to do superhero movies, but then it may just be that Superman is special. Whatever the truth, watching this film is a joyous experience even today. DC Comics would kill to make a movie half this good today.

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‘Oh no! Is that still going?’ cried the woman of a certain age in the next seat, dismayed. This was back in January and we had gone to see A Man Called Otto at the local independent cinema, which was preceded by the trailer for Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Amongst Thieves. It was this which so exercised our neighbour. I felt obliged to gently let her know that not only was it still going, but also that Dungeons & Dragons was (and still is) enjoying the biggest boom in its nearly half-century history (hence the release of a new movie).

Admittedly, at the time the game was looking at a potentially disastrous schism between its players and its primary publishers, threatening even a boycott of this movie, but even this was mainly because the popularity of D&D wasn’t necessarily reflected in its profits (which the corporation involved was trying rather clumsily to rectify). This has since all been resolved, in a notable climbdown by the owners, but it still strikes me as rather significant in terms of what it tells us about why D&D is so special.

I should probably make it clear that I have played D&D, on and off, for something in the region of thirty-seven years. It, and the wider hobby of table-top role-playing games, is something I have always come back to; it has helped me find friends, given me a creative and social outlet matched by nothing else, allowed me to develop the skills I use every day in my job, and quite probably helped keep me sane. Despite all that, I wouldn’t really call myself a D&D fan per se – it’s a solid enough set of game rules, but there are better ones available, and I rarely play it these days. The current boom in D&D is down to many things: name recognition, changes in technology (most of my TTRPG games are played online nowadays), the lockdown, the Stranger Things factor. But I don’t think it’s because it’s the best game of its kind and my indifference may well end up colouring my views on the movie (just so you know).

As we said when we talked about the original D&D movie, it’s an odd thing to adapt into another medium – it’s not like there’s a particular story or set of characters involved. The whole point of D&D is that you get to make up your own stories and characters. So what is it, exactly, that the new film is adapting? (The esteemed games designer Steve Kenson has suggested that the best way of capturing the authentic D&D experience at the cinema would be to stop the film about two-thirds through, at which point everyone present would have to compare diaries and find a date they could all get together to finish it off.) Well, they go for a very generic approach when it comes to the plot and characters, and use one of the major settings (one called the Forgotten Realms, but who exactly has done the forgetting is a bit unclear).

This is basically a cod fantasy setting, which is a bit like late-medieval Europe except that there are monsters and magic and some people have heads like cats or lizards; there is no sense of this place having a history or any principle explaining quite why things are organised as they are – except that it’s presumably cool and operates as a sort of wish-fulfilment exercise for the target audience. There’s something to be said for wish-fulfilment as comfort food for the brain, but I always remember the words of a genre writer I interviewed many years ago, who suggested that novels of complete fantasy were essentially cheating at cards for Monopoly money.

Anyway, it opens with lovable scallywags Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) busting out of the prison they were sent to when their last job went wrong. As a result, Edgin’s daughter is being looked after by their old acquaintance Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) – nearly everyone has names like this – as his wife died several years before the start of the film (a nice easy chunk of back-story). However, it turns out that Forge has betrayed them all, in association with evil – what’s the right word for a female wizard? The thing is that in D&D words like ‘wizard’, ‘sorcerer’, and so on, all have very distinct and specific meanings – Sofina (Daisy Head), risen to a position of local prominence, and is engaged on a lucrative evil scheme.

So they decide to stop him, rescue Pine’s daughter, and resurrect Pine’s dead wife (you can do this in D&D). This involves re-recruiting a semi-competent sorcerer (Justice Smith) and recruiting a competent shape-changing druid (Sophia Lillis) – she happens to have horns coming out of her head, but this is just here as an odd form of fan-service. Rege-Jean Page also pops up as a famous but very literal-minded warrior named Xenk. And there is indeed a dungeon, and more than one dragon, and they press down very firmly on the pedal labelled ‘Romp’…

Close attention has clearly been paid to successful recent comedy-adventure romps, particularly the Guardians of the Galaxy series, as this is tonally quite similar. And some parts of it are certainly successful – there’s some good fight choreography for Rodriguez, Grant does his reliably entertaining tongue-in-cheek villain performance, and there’s an improbably funny sequence about using necromancy to interrogate corpses for information – this even dares to hang a lantern on the strangely specific and arbitrary rules of magic in this world. The rest of it is… well, it moves briskly along, it looks nice, none of it seems likely to outrage or offend the typical sane viewer. But it’s still a map-touring-and-plot-coupon-collecting fantasy adventure in the classic style of the genre. I’m starting to think the success (or otherwise) of this kind of film is really down to the quality of the world – does it feel like a credible, thought-through place that you find yourself caring about?

I’m not all that familiar with the Forgotten Realms’ tabletop incarnation, but the version in the movie just has that arbitrary, slapped-together quality I mentioned earlier, with various factions and whimsical monsters (owl-bears, gelatinous cubes. six-legged tentacled panthers that aren’t where they appear to be). I expect for a lot of people it’s a great place to set a game, but for a more conventional kind of story it doesn’t really feel like anything ultimately matters.

I suspect if it had been a bit less Guardians of the Galaxy and a bit more Monty Python and the Holy Grail – there are certainly twitches in this direction – I would have found it a bit more engaging. But there’s a limit to how much quirkiness you can realistically expect from a big studio movie which is attempting to relaunch a multi-media franchise and also hopefully attract more people to the game itself. Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Amongst Thieves plays things safe and relatively¬† straight, which may be enough to ensure it finds an audience. But I’m not sure it’s that great an advertisement for the D&D experience; it’s certainly less fun than a good game session.

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Normally film studios really go to town playing up the connections between any new movie they release and previous films, no matter how tenuous the link. Releasing an entirely original, standalone film is, after all, just about the biggest gamble you can take in the modern cinema marketplace – if you’re aiming for a commercially successful blockbuster, anyway. And yet one gets the strange impression that Paramount Pictures and their associates are doing everything in their power to ignore the fact that their shiny new action-comedy Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Amongst Thieves is actually the successor to a notable trilogy of films that came out a couple of decades ago – and they’d quite like everyone else to ignore that connection, too. (I have to say that giving the film its own subtitle is possibly a bit of a giveaway in this department, although they could just be planning for the future.)

The reason is probably something to do with the fact that the original D&D movie, directed by Courtney Solomon and released in the States at Christmas 2000, was not only a box office disaster but also, in the opinion of many who’ve seen it, one of the worst films ever made. (We went to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon around the time this film was in UK cinemas and were shocked to be told ‘it’s terrible’ – our waitress turned out to have got her dragon-related films mixed up.) This is not something you want to be associating yourself with. The fact this sucker has the D&D name all over it must have caused a lot of heartache at the offices of Hasbro, current producers of the game.

An executive at the company recently complained that the game was ‘under-monetised’ (this emerged during a brief but vicious conflict between the owners of the D&D game (as in the people who own the legal rights to it) and the owners of the D&D game (as in the many millions of people who regularly play it and have made it such a success)) and the emergence of the new movie is presumably an attempt to fix this. The first D&D film was, one assumes, a similar attempt to raise the profile of the game and draw more people to it; the director recalls that some of the production’s troubles were the result of the game’s owners insisting it be ready so its release would coincide with the launch of a new edition of the rules.

Dungeons & Dragons is set in the land of Izmir, a fairly generic fantasy realm where the young but noble Empress Savina (Thora Birch) is locked in a power struggle with the evil mage Profion, who sounds like the brand name for a painkiller. (Profion is played by Jeremy Irons, who gives an… interesting performance). Currently Izmir is a hierarchical state where the wizards are at the top and everyone else is at the bottom, but Savina wants to fix this. Profion simply wants to steal the throne, he’s just one of those megalomaniac type of villains.

Victory in this struggle will likely go to whoever gets their hands on a plot device called the rod of Savrille (one really has to watch one’s spelling when summarising this particular plot) which will allow the wielder to tell red dragons what to do (dragon colour is significant in D&D, you may not be surprised to learn). Shanghaied into helping Savina are two young thieves named Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans), who end up knocking around with a posh young mage (Zoe McLellan) and a ginger dwarf (Lee Arenberg). Chasing after them is Profion’s henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne in white lipstick) and his soldiers. To motivate him, Profion has magically put a monster in Damodar’s head, and so tentacles occasionally come out of his ears in moments of stress.

What ensues is basically a chase around for plot coupons, which takes the form of various sub- and side-quests – for example, they must brave the thieves’ maze of Antius (operated by Richard O’Brien), break into a castle to free someone who’s got captured, keep their hands on a magical map, and so on. At one point they even meet Halvarth, king of the Elves (a very rare late big screen role for the great Tom Baker, who apparently found the whole experience somewhat bemusing – ‘am I not a bit tall for an Elf?’ he supposedly asked the producers at his audition). In the end there is a big fight between the two sides, mostly using red and gold dragons.

And it is pretty much as bad as its reputation would lead you to suggest. To be honest, Dungeons & Dragons is always going to be a tricky thing to adapt into other media – it’s not like a book, or even a normal boardgame, because it doesn’t have a story per se – you make the story up yourself by playing it; indeed, creating your own story is essentially what it means to play D&D (or any other table-top role-playing game). This is the unique feature of this kind of game, and why many of the people who play them become so devoted to them.

Unfortunately, the kind of combined map-tour-and-plot-token-scavenger-hunt which is passable as the basis for a D&D game session is a pretty hackneyed structure for an actual fantasy movie; you really have to do it well for the movie to work, and this seems to be harder to achieve than you’d think (off the top of my head, the only film which really gets away with it is Krull). This is why the traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy film had such a terrible reputation for so many years – most of them were saddled with terrible plots and embarrassing production values. Dungeons & Dragons is a textbook case of this sort of thing: never mind the story, the special effects are appalling – it looks like Ultrasquid Vs Hypercroc, or another of those knuckle-dragging films which endlessly turn up on it’s-still-the-Horror-Channel-to-me.

We should probably mention a few of the special ways in which Dungeons & Dragons is bad, though. Leaping first to mind is Marlon Wayans’ character Snails, who is a cowardly idiot much given to high-pitched shrieking in moments of stress. In short, he is the hero’s comedy-relief black sidekick, and seems to be a holdover from a film from the 1930s. The film’s big moment of angst for the heroes comes when Snails gets killed, but this is such a relief for everyone else that it has no real impact at all, and the revelation at the end that he’s not actually dead is more depressing than anything else. Most of the other acting in this film is quite affectless (though Zoe McLellan is quite winsome and has good hair); Tom Baker is only in one brief scene; and Jeremy Irons… well, actually, he’s better value than you’d think, as he seems to think he’s appearing in a pantomime and takes the opportunity to go roaringly over the top every chance he gets. It’s still an awful performance, but it has a sort of entertainment value sadly lacking from most of the rest of the film.

It’s bizarre to think that within a year of New Line releasing Dungeons & Dragons they also produced the first of the Lord of the Rings films – in fact, it has been suggested that the D&D movie was intended to create an audience for fantasy films that would help Peter Jackson’s trilogy be more successful (another connection is that Jackson tried to get Tom Baker to audition for Gandalf, but the actor didn’t want to go to New Zealand for a year). Tonally, visually, and dramatically they are utterly different – they are as far apart as two films in the same genre can possibly be. Apparently the new movie is rather better judged, in terms of… well, everything, but not least its commercial prospects. I doubt this will do much to salvage the original D&D‘s reputation, or that of its sequels (which are presumably even worse). This belongs in the Temple of Elemental Rubbish.

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I have seen it suggested that what Warner Brothers are currently engaged in with their DC Comics superhero movies is the cinematic equivalent of what I believe is called a fire sale: they’re offloading product which they don’t have a great deal of confidence in. I suppose some of these films are lucky to be coming out at all, given that the corporation cheerfully spent $90 million on a Batgirl movie which they then junked as some sort of tax wheeze.

Then again, this sort of thing is not entirely surprising where the DC movie franchise is concerned, for this has felt like a chaotic sort of undertaking for a long time – they have, in short, been all over the place since Joss Whedon and Zach Snyder ended up doing different parallel versions of the Justice League movie and they hired two different actors to play the Joker. The latest development is the hiring of James Gunn, whose previous DC-adjacent projects include The Suicide Squad and Brightburn: rumour has it he will be sacking most of the established actors and resetting the continuity. The whiff of confusion persists even now – no sooner had Henry Cavill come back for his cameo at the end of Black Adam than it was announced his services as Superman would no longer be required.

Where this leaves everyone connected to the Captain Marvel-related corner of the DC franchise I have absolutely no idea (the last time we discussed this topic I explained why there are compelling historical reasons for calling the guy in red and cream with the lightning bolt on his chest Captain Marvel, so there). The new movie here is Shazam! Fury of the Gods, directed as before by David F Sandberg. The first one came out four years ago and dates back to a point when DC actually seemed to have turned a corner and were routinely making non-sucky films – a sequel would usually be an opportunity to go bigger, more confidently. This sort of proves to be the case, though the results are not necessarily positive.

As things get underway, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and his fellow fosterlings are spending their free time as mystically-empowered champions of justice – Billy’s heroic alter ego, who still hasn’t settled on a name for himself (suggestion: Captain Marvel), is played by Zachary Levi. They mean well, but still end up causing a significant amount of property damage, which naturally impacts on their popularity. The movie’s moral premise is also rather bluntly introduced at this point – Billy has abandonment issues, and is reluctant to give his family the freedom to be heroic in their own ways.

Soon enough they have bigger problems, as three ancient goddesses rock up looking to steal their divine powers and revive the ancient realm of the immortals. These are Hespera (Helen Mirren, 77, long skirt, fairly evil), Kalypso (Lucy Liu, 54, quite short skirt, extremely evil), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler, 21, very short skirt, only marginally evil). A big chunk of Philadelphia is soon sealed inside a magic dome, the family members start having their powers nicked, and there’s even a wooden dragon on the prowl…

And, you know, it’s a functional movie inasmuch as they spend the CGI budget wisely and it occasionally has some good jokes in it and ruptures your ear-drums quite effectively. Even so, you’re always aware you’re not exactly seeing anything groundbreakingly new, and what is here isn’t quite good or charming enough to make you overlook the fact it’s just a slab of corporate product. Unlike the original movie or Black Adam (its closest cousin), it’s a pretty big and unwieldy beast – there are a total of six major and assistant heroes, most of whom are played by two actors (Grace Caroline Currey plays both Mary Marvel and her human incarnation, presumably because both characters fill the hot young female supporting character niche), three villains, the foster parents and the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to be wrangled, so it’s not surprising the plot feels a bit discursive in places. Nor is it really surprising that the moral premise of the movie gets largely forgotten about, but the relative lack of screen time for Asher Angel as Billy Batson is quite unexpected – although this helps keep the jarring difference between Angel’s quite down to earth performance and Levi’s extremely broad comic turn less noticable. Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Billy’s friend Freddy, is really in the film much more (which of course means that Adam Brody, who plays his alter ego Captain Marvel Junior, also doesn’t get much screen time).

Doing quite well in terms of prominence is Helen Mirren, who isn’t the kind of person you would expect to appear in this kind of film (then again, you could say the same about the Fast and Furious series, and she seems very happily ensconced there – there’s even an in-joke about this). Nearly thirty years ago many people were rather surprised when Nigel Hawthorne turned up in the Stallone headbanger Demolition Man; the explanation was that Hawthorne really wanted to lead the movie version of The Madness of George III, but would only be allowed to do so if he had some kind of proven track record in big Hollywood movies. Is there some fabulously good part that Mirren is gunning for which would explain her appearance in what’s really quite lowbrow fare? I’m not sure, but to be fair to her, Mirren slams various other performers through reinforced concrete with considerable aplomb.

I will be honest and admit I found myself wondering, partway through Fury of the Gods, if I was actually suffering from the fabled superhero movie fatigue. I think it’s more likely that this is just not a particularly interesting movie – it feels very much like the sort of thing that Marvel were doing five or six years ago, though maybe not quite as good – there is action, spectacle, knowing humour, some slightly contrived references to other films in the franchise, and a big cameo at one point, along with the now-obligatory mid- and post-credits scenes setting up future episodes. It’s a proven formula, but by now it feels a bit old-fashioned. And will any of the things this is setting up ever actually happen? I’m not sure anyone knows for sure at this point. The Shazam! films are amiably goofy enough, I suppose, but if this series does fall victim to the Great DC Reset I’m not sure anyone will really be that upset.

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We are living in a world in which the release of a film like Ant-Man 3 (which is what Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania effectively is) qualifies as a fairly significant cinematic event. Personally I’m fine with that, though I know a lot of people who will grumble about it. Even so, the Ant-Man films are one of the prime examples of a phenomenon where the success of the Marvel meta-franchise allows the studio to raise the profile of their more obscure characters, rather than using a well-known property to attract people to the franchise.

Many of Marvel’s recent movies have been examples of this effect – who would have expected films about Shang-Chi, the Eternals, or Black Widow, even a few years ago? You could certainly argue this is all just a demonstration of the same peculiar alchemy which, until the pandemic at least, made the studio the unquestionably dominant force in popular cinema. But it is a fact that the seven films that Marvel have put out since 2021 have often wobbled in a way which would once have been unthinkable. The company seems to have been aware of this, announcing details of crowd-pleasing future projects much sooner than expected, presumably in an attempt to steady the ship. So: Ant-Man 3, directed (as before) by Peyton Reed. How steady are things looking?

Not much time at all seems to have passed for Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his extended family since last we saw them (at Iron Man’s wake, if memory serves), which certainly feels like an attempt at a soft reset. Scott seems happy to rest on his laurels (to be fair, he did save half the universe), but his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton, this time) still wants to set the world to rights and do new and exciting things. To this end she has built a gadget to assist in exploring the quantum realm, the subatomic continuum where Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), the wife of original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), was stranded for decades.

Needless to say, it doesn’t quite go to plan and Scott, Cassie, Hank, Janet, Scott’s girlfriend (not to mention Hank and Janet’s daughter) Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and quite possibly Uncle Tom Cobley and all, find themselves forcibly shrunk and transported back to the quantum realm. This is a weird place full of weird people, weird animals and weird things. Just getting everyone back together and safely returning to San Francisco would be (if you’ll permit it) a tall order.

However, it turns out that Janet hasn’t been completely candid about everything that happened while she was trapped at subatomic size. During this sojourn, she made the acquaintance of another unwilling exile to the realm of the teeny-weeny: a man named Kang (Jonathan Majors), whose origins are somewhat obscure. Suffice to say that Kang is now in charge of the quantum realm and not especially pleased with Janet. Kang and his minions are turning the place upside down in search of the visitors, and ominous things may well happen if they find them…

This feels a bit like the kind of film Marvel do quite often: one which nonchalantly introduces a whole raft of new characters,  concepts and locations, many of which eventually turn out to be unexpectedly significant. Doing this in an Ant-Man film is admittedly a rather odd choice, though Рthe previous two were both cheerfully low-stakes entries, sprinkled in between some of the bigger, more heavy-duty films in the franchise. Then again, this is a rather odd Ant-Man film, at least compared to the previous two, which may explain the rather tepid response it has received from legitimate critics and the Marvel fanbase.

In a lot of ways this reminded me of one of those old Amicus movies from the 1970s, with Paul Rudd filling in for Doug McClure – usually based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story, they were invariably about explorers stumbling into strange new worlds and contending with their outlandish inhabitants. This is all very much like that, albeit with fewer rubber monster suits and (inevitably) rather more self-mocking humour. The quantum realm is realised on a single note of sustained, extreme weirdness, as I suggested – there are some well-achieved moments of outright surrealism, but on the hand the ability to grow or shrink loses a lot of its visual impact when there aren’t any normal-sized objects around to give a point of reference. Also, much of the supporting cast from the previous films haven’t come back, which I believe has also not gone down well with the faithful (personally I didn’t miss them that much).

Alongside all the weirdness and silliness, the notable thing about this film is the much-trailed arrival of Jonathan Majors as Kang – although, as the initiated will be aware, Majors made his Marvel debut as a sort-of version of this character from a parallel universe on MousePlus a couple of years ago. Kang is apparently going to be the arch-villain over the course of the next two or three years’ worth of movies, and it does seem a bit odd to unleash him in a film like this one. Nevertheless, Majors has real presence and paces his performance well, doing a proper slow burn from soft-spoken technocrat to roaring megalomaniac.

The mystery of Kang and his associates is an engaging one and is part of why I’m inclined to cut this film some slack even though there are bits of it which don’t make a great deal of sense and the tone is rather uncertain. It’s fun in a way that most of the Marvel films since Endgame haven’t been – simply because the presence of Kang highlights the fact that we’re back in an ongoing narrative where the films link up with one another, rather than bouncing from one mostly-unconnected standalone to another. Staying for the post-credits bit and then trying to figure out what it means is one of the joys of this series, if you’re a fan; so is trying to work out where all of this is heading. These very real pleasures are present here, after an extended absence, and having them back makes a big difference.

This film has been made with the usual attention to detail and polish, the ensemble cast are on form, and the script has some decent jokes – it’s probably destined not to be anyone’s favourite Marvel film, but I don’t any reason to condemn it as a failure in the way some voices have. In some respects Quantumania may be their most satisfying film in a couple of years, and it certainly promises that some interesting movies are coming down the track. The mighty Marvel machine still seems to be very much in business.

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