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Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’

It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

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‘One of the things that prevents superhero stories from ever attaining the status of true modern myths or legends is that they are open ended… You cannot apply [the concept of resolution] to most comic book characters because, in order to meet the commercial demands of a continuing series, they can never have a resolution. Indeed, they find it difficult to embrace any of the changes in life that the passage of time brings about for these very same reasons, making them finally less than fully human as well as falling far short of true myth… Whether [the story of a hero’s end] will actually ever happen in terms of ‘real’ continuity is irrelevant: by providing a fitting and affective capstone to the… legend it makes it just that… a legend rather than an endlessly meandering continuity.’

– Alan Moore, in his proposal for the unmade Twilight of the Superheroes

It’s a little hard to believe that sixteen years have gone by since the first X-Men film made its debut: that’s a fair chunk of time by anyone’s standards, I suspect, and it’s not as if the owners of the property haven’t been busy – six main-sequence films of somewhat variable tone and quality, two spin-offs focusing on the series’ breakout star, Wolverine, inimitably portrayed by Hugh Jackman, and the rather idiosyncratic (and very successful) Deadpool, a kind of comedic deconstruction of the series. But, it seems, even multi-billion dollar franchises must come to an end (or at least a pause prior to a reboot), and so it is with the X-Men.

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Which brings us to Logan, directed by James Mangold, which could be seen as bringing down the curtain on the current series of films with a distinct sense of finality. The film is set in a dystopian America in the late 2020s, where Logan is eking out a rather grim existence, his two hundred years finally catching up with him and his powers (literally) failing. The subspecies homo superior has almost vanished from the Earth – there are, to coin a phrase, no more mutants – the X-Men have gone, and Logan is trying to care for his old mentor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is frail and partly senile (and, as you can imagine, when the world’s most powerful telepath is suffering from dementia, it opens up a whole new can of worms). Logan’s objective is to keep a low profile, disappear.

Of course, it’s not that easy, for his path crosses that of a young girl (Dafne Keen), on the run from shadowy military-industrial forces led by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). It transpires that she is a refugee from a project to clone mutant soldiers, and what’s more, the source of her DNA is Logan himself, making her effectively his clone-daughter. She is heading for a rumoured haven for the few surviving mutants, somewhere in Canada, but she needs a protector…

It’s relatively easy to make a good trailer for any movie, but I think it’s safe to say that expectations for Logan were raised soaringly high by the first trailer for the movie – also known as the one with the Johnny Cash song. The mournful, elegiac tone of the trailer promised a very different, much more introspective kind of superhero movie, and the obvious question is whether Logan lives up to that promise.

Well, there is a Johnny Cash song on the soundtrack, but it’s a different one, and while this is a much more textured and thoughtful movie than the other ones in the series, the thing that immediately makes it distinctive is that it’s a 15-rated movie (R-rated in other countries), presumably because the success of Deadpool (also a 15) has made the producers relax a bit about the prospect of this kind of film. I mentioned this to my sister, with whom I’ve been watching these movies since they started, and she turned rather pale at the prospect – she was quite right, as the fight sequences that punctuate this movie are stuffed with all the graphic stabbings, dismemberments, and beheadings you would expect from an action film about several characters equipped with various razor-sharp claws. This is a ferociously violent film and I’m a little surprised it managed to scrape a 15, to be honest (there are a fair few F-bombings as well).

That said there is some poignancy as well, most of it courtesy of a touching, vanity-free performance from Patrick Stewart as the ailing Professor X. Stewart manages to find the emotion in the story in a way his co-stars mostly don’t, and I’m tempted to say that this just illustrates the difference between a charismatic song-and-dance man and a RSC stalwart. (Also giving a somewhat revelatory performance is Stephen Merchant, playing fifth-string X-Men character Caliban – Merchant finally gets to put his self-styled ‘goggle-eyed freak’ persona to good dramatic use.)

On the whole, however, the story rambles about (this feels like a very long film) without ever quite making the mythic and emotional connections you might hope for. Mangold is clearly interested in the film as a piece of classic Americana – there’s a road-trip through the wide-open spaces, for instance – but his attempts to make it resonate with classic Western themes mostly just result in odd scenes where the character take a break from the story to sit around and watch clips from Shane. The movie itself is too invested in its own violence for Logan’s self-condemnation as an irredeemably bad man to have any dramatic weight.

Still, at least the ending isn’t just another special-effects-powered clash in a soundstage laboratory or industrial site, and the choice of the final opponent for Logan to take on is an interesting one which they perhaps don’t explore quite enough. Having said that, the climax of the film is so focused on action and the resolution of various bits of plot that it doesn’t really have the emotional impact the script is obviously aiming for – what there is mainly comes from the fact that we’ve followed these characters and actors for so many years and so many films. The fact that it’s actually not very difficult to guess how the film is going to end may not help much, either. Hard to say more without spoilers, of course, whether those spoilers are easily-guessable or not. (By the way: save yourself five minutes and leave at the start of the credits, there’s nothing to wait for.)

Is Logan the movie its initial publicity suggested it might be? Well, no, of course not, but then it’s a rare movie which is as good as its own publicity suggests. Nevertheless, this should not distract from the fact that this is an interestingly bleak and down-to-earth superhero action film, with the usual charismatic performance (or should that be performances…?) from Hugh Jackman, a decently-crafted plot, and some well put-together action scenes. If this is the final film in the current X-Men franchise, then it’s one of the better ones, although there are also glimmers here of a much more interesting film that never quite makes an appearance. As it is, this is certainly a film for adults, but that’s solely because of gory content rather than its theme.

 

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You may relax, your calendar is not broken: there are, as usual, two Marvel Studios films on release this year, it’s just that one of them hasn’t come out until now – not quite the first time the studio has done something like this, but not exactly their standard practice either. Anyway, not content to rest on their laurels and do another sequel with an established brand, Marvel have opted to press on with bringing what sometimes feels like their entire catalogue of characters to the big screen (well, except the ones that Fox still have the rights to, anyway). This time, Scott Derrickson has been put in charge of adapting one of Marvel’s less prominent properties, a bit of a cult character from years gone by, if the truth be told. Yes, finally, it’s a movie version of Night Nurse!

Well, not quite, although one of the Night Nurse characters does appear (another one is sort-of in the Daredevil TV show, of course). No, the new movie is Doctor Strange, based on one of the few major Marvel characters not to primarily be a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation – on this occasion Lee worked with Steve Ditko. This was the same pairing which created Spider-Man, so you would think that the omens were good. Well, sort of, but we’ll come to that.

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Stephen Strange, a brilliant but egotistical and obnoxious neurosurgeon, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is probably overdue to be making a major appearance in this kind of movie. (Yes, this does mean that Dr Strange is technically one of those superheroes who operates using his real name.) Strange has sort of nibbled around the edges of a romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – the Night Nurse character to whom I alluded earlier – but having a relationship is tricky as he is really much more in love with himself.

Things inevitably change when Strange is involved in a serious road accident which leaves him with severely damaged hands, thus ending his surgical career. Exhausting his fortune in pursuit of some kind of treatment for his condition, he eventually learns of a school in Nepal where apparently-miraculous cures have been known to happen. (The school obviously isn’t in Tibet, because Marvel want to sell their movie in China.) There, he encounters a mystic teacher known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and rapidly discovers that this is actually a school for your actual magicians and sorcerers…

Well, this isn’t enough to rattle a character played by a performer of the magnitude of Benylin Thundercrack, and so Dr Strange signs on to learn to become a magician, though he is excused the scene with the Sorting Hat and also quidditch practice. What he doesn’t know at first, however, is that a fallen disciple of the Ancient One (played by Mads Mikkelson) has entered into a pact with the dread Dormammu, tyrant of the Dark Dimension, and is planning to conspire in the world’s destruction in exchange for eternal life. Is there a doctor in the house?

It may seem a little odd for Marvel to have held Doctor Strange back until eight years into their franchise-of-franchises undertaking, especially when more minor characters (Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy) have already made their movie debuts. Maybe so, but Dr Strange has always been a slightly tricky proposition as a character – Steve Ditko’s extraordinary psychedelic artwork in the early issues from the 60s led many observers to assume that the only magic involved came from mushrooms, while from a story point of view, Dr Strange is often presented as so nebulously omnipotent that he can be very difficult to write for.

So, very nearly full marks to Derrickson and his team for coming up with a movie that is distinctively Strange while still remaining wholly accessible (I would guess) to the uninitiated viewer. (I’m sure casting a very popular performer like Cumbersome Bandersnatch won’t hurt the box office numbers either.) Marvel’s policy these days seems to be to offer up something which is partly very familiar and partly rather new, and it continues here.

I feel I should mention that one of my friends who I saw the film with disagreed, suggesting that every Marvel adaptation sticks close to exactly the same formula, basically that they all end with a city on the verge of spectacular destruction, and that this one is no exception – I should quickly add that he still thought this film was enjoyable. Personally I don’t agree – neither Ant-Man nor Civil War ended that way – but on the other hand, I do think Marvel have played it a bit too safe in the characterisation of Strange himself. At the beginning of the film, at least, he is wise-cracking and self-centred in exactly the way Robert Downey Jr was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, to the extent where they almost seem like the same character. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio were attempting to position things so that Bellyhatch Cummerbund can take over as a mainstay of the series once Downey Jr’s salary requirements finally prove too exorbitant, but even so: for me this doesn’t excuse a scene where the traditionally reserved and courteous doctor calls an opponent a name for a body part which is not normally found in a medical textbook.

On the other hand, this film isn’t afraid to make some slightly eccentric choices, and I don’t just mean using a harpsichord on the soundtrack: there’s a very trippy sequence early on which seemed to me to be very faithful to the spirit of Ditko’s artwork, while the climax itself is considerably weirder than anything comparable from other Marvel movies. The film is well played by a strong cast and visually very striking, rather skilfully repurposing some Inception-style visuals in a more traditional fantasy-adventure context. I can even just about forgive the decision to make much of Dr Strange’s sorcery look basically like CGI-enhanced kung fu. (Not all – by the end of the movie his ability to warp space and time is so developed that one wonders just how they will be able to meaningfully challenge him during future appearances, although as mentioned this is a problem with the comics version of the character too.)

Once again – and by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, how do they keep doing it?!? – Marvel have produced a movie which is very comfortable with its own identity while meshing seamlessly with their wider franchise – although, to be honest, the rest of the world is kept in abeyance, at least until the closing credits. Dr Strange looks like being an engaging addition to the ensemble, and I’m looking forward to seeing Clumsylatch Bandicoot spar with some of the more established faces of the series. No one in the world is making more consistently entertaining and accomplished genre movies at the moment – Doctor Strange won’t change your life, but I suspect you’ll have a good time watching it. A good adaptation of a challenging book.

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So, to the pressing question of the day: is Bryan Singer’s latest film (subtitled Apocalypse) actually X-Men 6 or X-Men 8? [Yes, I forgot about DeadpoolA] It all depends on your attitude to the two Wolverine movies, I suppose, but either way, this is now an impressively venerable series – certainly the elder statesman of the superhero franchise world. However, as any fule kno, you’re only ever as great as your latest movie, so X-Men: Apocalypse has a fair bit to live up to.

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This time around the movie is set in 1983 (so how the characters can be selling broadband in an irksomely ubiquitous set of advertisements I really have no idea, mutter grumble) and the academy for mutants run by Professor X (James McAvoy) is a going concern. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has dropped out of sight to become a legendary activist in the mutant underground. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living quietly with his family in Europe. The population of the world seems to be getting used to the idea of mutants living amongst them.

All this changes when the Professor’s old friend Moira (Rose Byrne, sigh) inadvertantly resurrects En Sabah Nur (a not especially recognisable Oscar Isaacs) , a mutant tyrant of the ancient world, who possesses a usefully vague set of superpowers and likes to be known as Apocalypse. Having speedily got himself up to speed on the world of 1983 (he appears to do this primarily by watching a 1967 episode of Star Trek, which should leave him with a somewhat skewed world-view, to say the least), he sets about gathering a new group of followers and sweeping away the existing world order…

Would you like to know how Apocalypse fits into the existing chronology of the X-movies? Well, I really wouldn’t worry too much, as the series’ continuity got hopelessly mangled two or three sequels ago, and the rebooting of history in the last one only lets them handwave away so much. It is, I suppose, just about possible for two characters in their teens and their late thirties respectively to be brothers, but that doesn’t explain why none of the regular characters seem to have aged since the early 1960s – not just the mutant characters (who could conceivably have some weird metabolic or clockspeed issues), either. The film is forced to acknowledge the awkwardness of this, before hoping to make you forget it simply by throwing bits of plot at you.

The problem is that many of those chunks of plot look decidedly familiar as they whizz past: Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) comes into his powers again, there’s a scene with cage-fighting mutants, flashbacks to Auschwitz, a special-forces assault on the X-Mansion, a trip to a secret military installation under Alkali Lake, someone kidnapping the Professor to exploit his telepathic powers. In the end everyone hops into a plane and flies off to take down the main villain and his lackeys. Cumulatively it all feels like the X-Men movies’ greatest hits, repackaged, and whether that’s the series honouring its past or just showing signs of creative exhaustion is a good question. It does seem like a conscious choice: dialogue from the first film gets repeated, a certain Australian song-and-dance man makes an inevitable cameo (setting up a coming attraction, naturally), and Singer makes a slightly bitchy comment (obliquely, via his characters) about one of the sequels directed by somebody else, which is funny but still asking for trouble given this film is not without issues either.

Singer was apparently determined , while working on the first two X-movies, to make them as non-comic-booky as possible. This was primarily because, back in the late 90s, superhero movies had a toxic reputation amongst the wise men of Hollywood (the past is indeed another world), largely because of the spectacular failure of the neon-hued and ridiculously cartoony Batman and Robin. Well, in some ways X-Men: Apocalypse is the most comic-booky X-film yet – no sooner has Apocalypse recruited someone to his team than he sticks them in a decidedly Joel Schumacher-esque costume, for instance. There are battles and effects sequences aplenty, but none of them really feel grounded in reality and there is no sense of anything really being at stake. (The 1980s setting feels largely cosmetic this time around, too.)

And yet, despite all this, X-Men: Apocalypse still has many of the things you really want from a film in this franchise. The producers are not stupid and do realise that with actors like McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence on board, you want to give them some decent material to work with, so they all get some good scenes – Fassbender is particularly good as a haunted and bitter Magneto. (Evan Peters makes an impression again as a slightly more angsty Quicksilver – then again, it must be hard when you and your sister end up appearing in different movie franchises – but most of the younger cast members aren’t really able to impose themselves on the film.) And the plot does mostly hang together, and there are many good bits, but…

I honestly think that if they’d released a film like X-Men: Apocalypse ten years ago it would have seemed rather more impressive than it does now: it has scale and spectacle, humour and a little depth, some impressive performances and very competent special effects. But the bar has been raised on the superhero movie since then: Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Matthew Vaughn and others have all played their part in making this a genre for which people have high expectations.

In the end, all I can really say is that Apocalypse is by no means bad, but it’s the first main-sequence X-film I’ve enjoyed less than its predecessor. Maybe I’ve just been spoilt. Maybe the X-Men films really are showing signs of franchise fatigue. Or maybe the much whispered-of point of actual superhero movie overkill has finally arrived. Time will tell, I suppose.

 

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Spring 2016 may well go down in history as the point at which the superhero movie phenomenon became so all-pervading that the heroes themselves ran out of villains to fight and started beating each other up instead. We have already seen DC entering the fray with their Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, while right now Marvel are striking back with the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War (there may well end up being a colon shortage as well as a supervillain drought).

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Civil War comes out at an odd time for the Marvel Studios juggernaut: their franchise-of-franchises seems to be as popular as ever, with a huge slate of movies planned over the next few years and even a goofy and obscure character like Ant-Man capable of scoring a significant box-office success – but, having said that, their last lynchpin movie, Age of Ultron, received only a lukewarm response from critics and did rather less well than the first Avengers movie. So the new movie has something to prove, even if it’s only Marvel’s ability to consistently make this kind of huge spectacle genuinely entertaining rather than simply an exercise in storyline management.

Things get underway with Captain America (Chris Evans – the other one) leading the Avengers into action in Lagos, taking down the high-tech mercenary Crossbones. However, in the process there is significant collateral damage and a number of civilian deaths. This only chimes with the somewhat gloomy mood of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who is still struggling to deal with being responsible for the near-extinction of the human race in the last movie he appeared in.

It turns out the UN agrees and proposals are drawn up to place the Avengers under close governmental supervision, unable to go into action without official sanction. Obviously, this sits better with some members of the team than others, and the situation is only exacerbated when the meeting to ratify the new arrangement is bombed, seemingly by the Captain’s childhood friend-turned-cyborg hitman Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Needless to say, Cap can’t stand by and let his old pal be hunted down like a dog, which puts him and his latterday partner Falcon (Anthony Mackie) on collision course not just with Iron Man and his officially-sanctioned team, but the vengeful African superhero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)…

You may already be thinking ‘Wow, for what’s supposedly a Captain America movie, there are a lot of other super-people in this film’. Well, you’re not wrong there: in addition to all of those guys, the rest of the current Avengers line-up – Black Widow, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and War Machine – also make significant contributions, while Hawkeye comes out of retirement too. Paul Rudd steals practically every scene he’s in as Cap recruits Ant-Man for his squad, while the film’s most heavily-trailed innovation is the introduction of Tom Holland as yet another new version of Spider-Man, on Iron Man’s team.

This is, to be fair, somewhat indulgently done, with Marvel clearly doing a lot of the prep work for their first Spidey film, due out next year. Spider-Man’s youth and chattiness are really dialled up to the point where it’s almost slightly ridiculous, but by this point the film is on such a bombastic roll that you either go with it, and most likely have a good time, or don’t.

The Russos pull off the neat trick of making a film which, in its initial stages at least, looks and feels rather like their previous film, 2014’s Winter Soldier, before escalating rather considerably to become something much on the scale of one of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies. If you were one of the people moved to sheer ecstasy by those sequences where the Hulk fought Thor (neither of whom appear here, by the way), or the big green guy took on Iron Man’s Hulkbuster suit, then this movie will be right up your street as it features full-scale superhero action on an unprecedented scale: Hawkeye vs Vision! Ant-Man vs Black Widow! Spider-Man vs Winter Soldier! It all kicks off and then some, and the colossal battle which concludes the second act of the film will take some topping.

It’s not entirely surprising that the actual villain of the piece, Zemo (played by Daniel Bruhl), rather vanishes into the background, but then the whole point of the story is that this is a guy who knows he has no chance of taking on the Avengers in a fight. To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely convinced that this story actually hangs together all that well – Zemo’s plan seems to be one of those entirely dependent on random events going in his favour, and characters behaving in very particular ways. Isn’t it all just a bit too convoluted and machiavellian to be plausible?

Hey ho. I must confess that while I was watching it, none of this really occurred to me, although even then I found myself wondering just how wide an appeal Civil War is going to have: for the many people who’ve been following the Marvel movies over the last eight years, and are heavily invested in these characters and their relationships, this will likely be an enthralling and impressive movie – but for everyone else, I wonder if it isn’t in the end just a bit too introspective and downbeat for its own good. How are they going to include the kind of massive collateral damage that characterises their movies from now, given that Civil War establishes that innocent people caught in the crossfire do get killed?

Nevertheless, this movie does everything you want from a Marvel release, and very little you don’t want. It works on its own terms as a spectacular action movie, with a serious core but plenty of crowd-pleasing action and humour (Anthony Mackie gets most of the best jokes), and also teases and sets up a couple of future movies in the series – it seems virtually certain that Spider-Man: Homecoming will be a massive money-spinner, and if Black Panther looks like less of a sure-fire hit, I’m intrigued so see what they do with the character. Some people are murmuring to the effect that we are reaching saturation point when it comes to superhero movies, and that people will soon start to lose interest: however, as long as Marvel keep hitting this standard of quality, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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There’s a school of thought – which I think has some merit to it –  arguing that you can trace the death of comic books as a truly popular, mainstream medium to the middle of the 1970s. It sounds rather odd to suggest this, given that there are four Marvel and two DC movies coming out this year alone, but the theory goes that no-one has invented a truly popular new character since the 70s (one that non-comic book readers could recognise) and that while movies based on characters from the 80s and 90s have been produced (Elektra, Steel, Spawn), none of them have been artistic or commercial successes. (This of course invites the riposte that it wasn’t that long ago that the majority of comic-book movies were strikingly awful and frequently flopped, but I digress.)

Well, history may be being made in a small way, with the release of Tim Miller’s Deadpool, a movie based on a character who first appeared in 1991 – practically the day before yesterday in comics terms. Deadpool first turned up in a book called The New Mutants, which, under the arcane terms of the various licenses governing the film rights to Marvel characters, means his screen version belongs to Fox, makers of the X-Men films.

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The thing about Deadpool, an enormously popular character in comics terms, is that he to some extent is a parody or subversion of a typical superhero character. To some extent the character is a combination of two other very popular heroes, having a costume (and inability to shut up) reminiscent of Spider-Man, but a power set and worldview more like that of Wolverine. Then again, the guy is covered with swords and guns, which couldn’t be much more early-90s-comic-book. Above all this, though, is the conceit that Deadpool is aware of his own identity as a fictional character and frequently addresses the reader directly, and his various books mock and undercut those of other characters.

How are you supposed to put this in a movie? Well, when the X-Men movie people first had a go, in 2009, they didn’t much try. Deadpool sort-of appears in the first Wolverine movie, played by Ryan Reynolds, but the character is largely unrecognisable. Reynolds is back for this second attempt, and the only reference to the 2009 film is a predictably tongue-in-cheek swipe in passing.

The actual plot of Deadpool is very, very straightforward – Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, an ex-special forces soldier turned general-purpose underworld heavy, whose life changes when he falls in love with beautiful night-time-lady Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). And then it changes again, when he discovers he has terminal cancer.

In desperation, he turns to nasty British scientist Francis (Ed Skrein), who injects him with plot-device jollop and tortures him in order to activate any latent mutant genes he may possess. This works, and Wilson is left cured, with immense regenerative powers (and, it would seem, enhanced agility and reactions), but also a horribly scarred appearance. Not best pleased with Francis, Wilson adopts the masked identity of Deadpool and sets out in search of revenge…

I suspect you may hear people proclaiming that Deadpool is a radical new invention of the superhero movie that takes the genre to new and exciting places. As you can see from the plot, however, there is nothing especially innovative going on here, and – some structural inventiveness notwithstanding – the plot is ultimately procedural, with action sequences and big special effects moments in all the places you would expect.

The main new things that Deadpool does are superficial. Firstly, it drops any pretence of being made for a family audience, being chock-full of so-called mature content – heads explode, effs and jeffs are effed and jeffed, Reynolds takes his trousers off a lot, and so on. (Then again, this is far from being the first superhero movie to get a 15 certificate in the UK.) This loss of the kiddy buck seems to have spooked the studio, which is probably why the movie was made on a relatively low budget, but I suspect it’s going to do rather well.

Secondly, proceedings are brightened up considerably by the inclusion of a lot of very snarky and knowing humour, much of it at the expense of the other X-Men films (Hugh Jackman is a particular target). I laughed very hard at a lot of Deadpool, but I would also suggest that some of the jokes will be a bit impenetrable to anyone not into the comics. Deadpool talks to the audience, the shortcomings of the budget are mocked, and the conventions of the genre are ferociously spoofed.

It’s all good fun, and the film is solidly entertaining – as you might expect of a movie with Gina Carano in it. On this occasion Carano gets to have a ding-dong fight with Colossus from the X-Men (who is presented as a preachy bore on this occasion) – Carano could probably do that in real life, come to think of it. But it doesn’t figure out a way to square the circle of being post-modernly knowing and tongue in cheek on the one hand, and yet also be a properly involving story at the same time. And, one has to ask: does poking fun at your own movie for including a lot of cliches really excuse the fact that your movie includes a lot of cliches?

Deadpool will probably do very well, as I said, but I think its combination of violence, profanity, shallow cynicism, and delight in its own cleverness means it will be most enjoyed by teenagers. It’s a very cleverly and competently assembled movie, but ultimately I think it’s a lot less subversive and unconventional than its publicists would like you to believe. I enjoyed it, but if every superhero movie was like this, I think there would soon be a lot fewer of them.

 

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While I’m waiting for the next DVD box set to arrive (keep your little fingers crossed, it should be here some time next week) I thought I would go back and look in a little more detail at some of those episodes of The Incredible Hulk which I singled out as being particularly noteworthy just the other day. The logical place to start is with the pilot movie, and so, uncharacteristically, I have decided to start by looking at the pilot movie.

The rippling of Lou Ferrigno’s abs and the flexing of his triceps and delts are as nothing to the colossal, some might even say desperate efforts this movie makes to be as un-comic booky as humanly (or superhumanly) possible. Kenneth Johnson, the writer/producer/director, is very open about the fact that he didn’t want to do The Incredible Hulk; and indeed what he actually ended up making is a sort of Americana-inflected variation on Les Miserables where Jean Valjean swells up like a balloon twice an episode and knocks his way through a wall now and then.

Certainly, even the opening font and title card of The Incredible Hulk are more like the stuff of Masterpiece Theatre than a typical action TV series, and the pilot opens with, of all things, a flashback montage, shot in soft-focus: a pretty brave choice, especially considering it concerns the soppily happy marriage of David Banner (Bill Bixby). However, things take a more ominous turn as the sequence goes on – Banner and his wife are in a car accident; he is thrown clear, she is trapped in the wreck. He tries desperately to lift the car and free her – the flames leap higher – and the widowed Banner awakes from his recurring nightmare, ten months later.

In what some might call an unwise career move, given his personal issues, Banner and his colleague Elaina (Susan Sullivan) are researching cases of people displaying phenomenal strength or resilience in moments of extreme personal crisis. What’s largely left unsaid, of course, is that Banner is still consumed by grief and guilt over his failure to save his wife, and is not trying to find an explanation for his subjects’ miraculous strength but his own weakness.

Anyway, it turns out that everyone they investigate was subject to a rare combination of a freak DNA mutation, coupled to an abnormally high level of atmospheric gamma radiation (sunspots, or something) at the time of the crisis. Banner has the DNA mutation, but gamma levels on the day of his accident were unusually low.

You’d think that would have resolved it all, but Banner has his eureka moment late at night and, as often happens to me when I have a good idea late at night, goes a bit mad about it rather than getting some sleep and reviewing it rationally the next morning. In true Marvel Comics fashion he decided to test his hypothesis by – oh, Banner! – blasting his own brain with gamma radiation and seeing what happens. This sequence is well-mounted and Bixby’s performance is, as usual, immaculate, so much so that you happily overlook how hokey and more than a little contrived it seems. It leads into Banner’s interrupted journey home, when a recalcitrant flat tire in the middle of a thunderstorm results in a written-off car and the first in a very long line of ruptured shirts…

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This first Hulk-out leads Banner and Elaina to move to a more secluded lab, but also draws the attention of reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), a guy who they’ve been giving the brush-off to for ages as his newspaper is just too downmarket for them. McGee is intrigued by the testimony of the first people to see the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, though you can just make out original performer Richard Kiel in one shot), and quickly figures out the boffins are hiding something (to be fair, they’re pretty bad liars).

Banner has his recurring nightmare again, which leads to a second Hulk-out and a terrifically well-mounted sequence in which the Hulk smashes his way out of a reinforced observation chamber before being placated by Elaina. This convinces the duo to try and find a cure for Banner’s condition, but before they can get very far with this, McGee sneaks into the lab and accidentally starts a disastrous fire…

Watching the pilot for The Incredible Hulk, you’re not really surprised that this show went on to run for nearly five years (as Johnson has noted, the most successful show of its kind): there’s really very little wrong with it at all. All you can really criticise it for are some of the dodgier moments of the Hulk-transformations, and even these were state-of-the-art back in 1977. The rest of it is an extremely polished and intelligent production, made with considerable skill and thoughtfulness.

Its success is largely down to Johnson’s script and direction, both of which are serious without being overly earnest or too po-faced, and the performances of the leading actors: a large part of the film is composed of a series of two-handed scenes between Bixby and Sullivan, and they succeed in creating a couple of believeable, sympathetic characters. You kind of know from the start that Elaina probably isn’t going to make it to the closing credits in one piece, and Sullivan does such a good job of making her intelligent, caring and likeable that you’re still rather saddened when she eventually meets her end.

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Rather less sympathetic than he would later become is McGee, who for the purposes of this movie is essentially the bad guy, sticking his nose into Banner and Elaina’s business for his own reasons. McGee is notably sleazier and less scrupulous than in later episodes, and his motivation for pursuing the Hulk is left unsaid. Had the show ever had a ‘proper’ final episode, one hopes they would have addressed the issue of McGee’s own culpability in the death of Elaina Marks and the disappearance of David Banner – because, ironically enough, it’s all quite clearly his fault! As it is, no-one ever wonders much about the exact cause of the climactic fire (although they do have other things on their minds).

On David Banner’s mind, one might guess, is Guilt; something that features as a bit of a motif in some of the weekly series’ most memorable episodes. He starts the movie consumed by his failure to save his wife, and it’s clearly this which is driving his research. Perhaps it’s this sense of failure which makes him so stress-prone, in which case the Hulk is birthed as much by guilt as by rage. There’s no ironclad reason given on screen for Banner to go along with everyone’s assumption that he’s dead and begin his lonely existence as a drifter searching for a cure, but it is entirely in keeping with his characterisation in the rest of the movie. Feeling responsible for one death turned him into the Hulk to begin with; it’s not surprising that a second might provoke such an act of self-chastisement. You really do feel for the guy: in an almost too-poignant final twist, Elaina confesses her love for David – who’s Hulked-out at the time – with practically her dying breath (Lou Ferrigno portrays the Hulk’s confusion and grief extremely well, by the way), but it’s later revealed that he has no memory of her telling him this.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into what is, after all, just a TV pilot about a slightly absurd superhero, but the quality and tone of Johnson’s Hulk is such that it invites this sort of speculation, and you don’t feel ridiculous for thinking about it in these terms. Although this was made for TV, it got a theatrical release in Europe – and if you judge it as such, then simply in terms of its success as a piece of drama, this is still the best Hulk-centric movie ever made.

 

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