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Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’

If you look at a typical episode of a Marvel Comics TV show nowadays, it will likely concern some sort of ninja death cult, or high-tech arms dealing, or demonically-inspired parallel world capers about evil androids. But it was not ever thus, and the most successful of Marvel’s shows from years gone by was usually a little more quotidian in its emphasis – sometimes jarringly so, from a modern perspective.

A Child in Need (written by Frank Dandridge) is an episode transmitted as part of the second season of The Incredible Hulk, late in 1978, although it was apparently intended for the first season (held back for behind the scenes reasons). The past is another country, of course, but given the subject matter of this particular episode, it seems particularly ironic that at its start perennial drifter and serial utiliser of transparent pseudonyms David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) has managed to land a job as groundskeeper at an ordinary school in Everytown USA. Personally I would have said that dealing with dozens of children every day was not a good idea for someone with his particular anger management issues, but this is what the plot requires.

Anyway, Banner befriends Mark (Dennis Dimster), a lonely 10-year-old boy, and notices his arms are badly bruised. The school nurse (Rebecca York) casually mentions that Mark falls over and bruises himself quite a lot, which of course sets Banner with his brilliant medical brain to thinking there may be something unpleasant going on in Mark’s domestic situation – he tracks down Mark’s mother to ask her about this, only to find she shows signs of having been beaten up as well.

It is, needless to say, Mark’s dad Jack (Sandy McPeak) who is responsible (although the episode is painstaking in making it clear that responsibility is a relative thing in this situation). He comes from a rough background himself, likes a drink a bit too much, and so on. Needless to say, he does not take kindly to Banner inserting himself into his family’s business, and various confrontations ensue, some of which turn violent and conclude with Banner being pushed over fences and into closets, and generally finding himself in obscure locations from which the Hulk can emerge a few moments later, intent on doing his somewhat simple-minded bit for child welfare.

You might think the episode itself sounds rather simple-minded, but I would rather describe it as heart-felt and it is, as usual, driven along by an exemplary performance from Bixby. You do question quite why Banner finds himself so driven to help Mark with his problems – it’s not just a case of Banner’s usual incorruptible decency, he almost seems to be taking it quite personally. Anyone savvy with the later years of the comic may recall that the book’s Banner was the victim of an abusive, alcoholic father (it was suggested this was to some extent the root cause of his odd condition) and it would be tempting to speculate that Banner sees something of himself in Mark – however, a later episode focusing on Banner’s own family background would suggest otherwise.

As I say, Banner does seem to let his concerns get the better of him, rather – I’m guessing this is not the episode they show to ancillary school staff as part of their induction training. Banner admittedly has his own very good reasons for wanting to stay off the authorities’ radar, but even so, for him to be doing such a Lone Ranger act, spending so much one-on-one time with a vulnerable minor, and even taking him back to his apartment – I normally tune most of the way out during welfare training where I work, but even I know these are exceptionably unwise things to be doing.

But hey, it was the 1970s, and the episode also makes the conspiracy of silence Banner has to contend with quite clear: the school nurse doesn’t want to get involved, fearing she’ll lose her job, and nobody else in the neighbourhood wants to bring down the wrath of Jack on themselves, either. If nothing else, I suppose episodes like this did a valuable service in opening up serious issues like child abuse to general discussion.

This is a solidly written and well-played episode, with moments of directorial ambition, too (director James Parriott has a damn good go at a trick shot where the Hulk changes back into Banner actually on camera, but can’t quite make it seamless). And the Hulk-out sequences are exceptionally effective, not because they’re especially lavish or inventive, but because they work extremely well on a thematic level.

Kenneth Johnson, creator and overseer of The Incredible Hulk, always said that one of the ideas of the show was that many people have to deal with their own metaphorical Hulk – some weakness or problem that sometimes makes them lose control, with destructive results. And that’s never clearer than here – the first Hulk-out occurs when Banner realises Jack is about to start beating up his son (his alarm and frustration about this is what ultimately causes the change) and it’s just as Jack is about to turn violent with Mark that the Hulk smashes through the wall into their living room. The metaphor could not be much clearer. The same is true of the climactic Hulk-out, in which Jack eventually attacks the Hulk, and it’s clear that from his point of view the monster represents his own abusive father. Catharsis ensues; Jack gets the help he needs, McGee (who turns up for one scene, but doesn’t contribute much to the drama) doesn’t get his story, Banner walks off into the sunset with the piano tinkling mournfully.

As I say, perhaps not the kind of kick-ass thrills you get on Netflix nowadays, but (a few dubious moments excepted) it is an extremely well-made episode which sets out to cover a serious issue in a serious way. In some ways its very earnestness is what makes it so effective as a piece of drama.

The next episode, Another Path, doesn’t quite feature a ninja death cult, but it’s still likely to feel much more familiar to modern viewers. Nicholas Corea’s script gets underway with Banner finding himself locked in the back of a refrigerated truck with an elderly Asian man who is deep in a meditation trance. This is a fairly improbable situation for someone to find himself in, and Corea doesn’t bother trying to be clever about it – indeed there’s something almost admirable about the no-nonsense way he bulls through the set-up.

Well, in a bit of a deviation from the Hulk formula, being trapped in a refrigerated truck is enough to bring on one of Banner’s episodes very early in the episode, and he and the old man bust out. His companion proves to be Li Sung, a blind Chinese philosopher, teacher, and martial arts expert, who has spent the last couple of years exploring the USA. Striking up a friendship, Banner and Li Sung realise that a few meditation techniques might help no end when it comes to keeping the Hulk under control. (The elderly Chinese character is played by Mako, a Japanese actor who was only about 45 when the episode was made. But it was the 1970s, and Mako was one of those guys who seemed to spend most of his career playing much older than his actual age.)

The two men eventually end up in San Francisco, because Li Sung founded a school here some time earlier, and he wants to see how it has been getting on in his absence. However (and here the plot kicks in), Li Sung’s old pupil, Silva (Tom Lee Holland), has fallen to the dark side and the school is now a front for a protection racket. When they realise this, Banner (quite sensibly) urges Li Sung to go to the police – but this has become a matter of honour for the old man, to be settled face to face…

The slight oddness of this episode becomes apparent very early on, with one of the Hulk-outs done and dusted inside the first ten minutes or so. You almost never get more than two Hulk-outs an episode on this show (they’re the single most expensive part of the programme), so this means it’s a very long time between appearances by Lou Ferrigno. This just adds to the sense that the episode is at least as much about Li Sung as it is about Banner. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course – it’s a tack The Incredible Hulk goes for more than once. But it is a bit of a change of pace and tone. (A sequel to this episode was actually intended as a backdoor pilot for a martial-arts themed action-adventure show, and you wonder whether they were thinking along those lines even at this point.)

And, very unusually, the climax of the episode concludes with Li Sung himself taking on Silva and his followers, kung-fu style, with the Hulk himself in a very subordinate role. Still, the martial arts stuff is reasonably good – I’d say it works as well as the fight choreography in Iron Fist, not that this is necessarily saying much – and it’s really just a case of expectations not being met. This is a show called The Incredible Hulk, after all, not The Deadly Hands of Li Sung. In the end it’s all good knockabout fun, with no particular depth or insight to it, and a winning performance from Mako. Not quite a Hulk episode of the first rank, though.

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I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that to cast one actor as Spider-Man is a sound commercial decision, to cast a second might be seen as a little questionable, but to give three people the part in the space of only about fifteen years is arguably labouring the issue. And yet here we are, with another ingenue web-slinger in the form of Tom Holland, starring in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yup, it’s yet another comic-book movie, but try to keep your fatigue at bay, for this one has a number of points of interest.

The Spider-Man rights are considered to be such a sure-fire guarantee to make money that the $709 million made by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014 was somehow decided to be a bit of a disappointment. Holder of said rights, Sony, decreed that better must be done, and – in a move that brought wild excitement to many people who should arguably be old enough to know better – re-opened negotiations with Marvel, publisher of the Spider-Man comics and producer of their own series of wildly popular movies. Basically, the deal they cooked up is as follows – Marvel Studios are now making Spider-Man films for Sony, which Sony is financing and distributing. In return for this, and of course various hefty fees, Marvel now get to insert Spider-Man into their own movies, which is indeed what happened with his extended cameo in Civil War last year.

The new movie recaps Spider-Man’s trip to Berlin and shenanigans with the quarrelling Avengers, before moving on to pastures new. Spidey’s alter-ego Peter Parker (Holland) is still very young and keen to impress his mentor in all things superheroic, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) – he chafes against Stark’s insistence that he take things easy and go slow and careful for a while. In short, he is in a big hurry to grow up.

However, staying low to the ground, as it were, brings Spider-Man into contact with someone else very keen to stay off the radar of Iron Man and the other Avengers – Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage engineer put out of business by Stark and the government, who has taken to scavenging alien materials and other miracle technology and using it to build high-technology super-weapons which he sells on to anyone who has the cast. Toomes has also built himself a set of jet-powered antigravity wings, because, hey, you’ve got to have a gimmick, I guess.

So, if going to your typical American high school, complete with stressful social rituals and ceremonies, wasn’t demanding enough, and trying to meet the exacting standards of billionaire genius playboy philanthropist didn’t make life totally unbearable, Spider-Man now finds himself forced to contend with the winged menace of this high-tech vulture. What’s a boy to do?

I have to confess I was less than overwhelmed with joy when the news of the Sony-Marvel deal came through – all right, it’s nice to have a version of Spider-Man in the MCU (the shared continuity of the other Marvel Studios films since 2008), but we have had some very good Spider-Man films already in the not too distant past, while there’s still no sign of a decent take on the Fantastic Four or Doctor Doom. Or what about another solo Hulk movie? Or Devil Dinosaur: the Movie? That said, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a top piece of entertainment, certainly outclassing the Marc Webb movies, and perhaps rivalling the standards of the best of the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire films from a decade and more ago.

The at-a-slight-remove conditions under which the Marvel Studios people are working seem to have paid off, for while this film has a distinctly different look and feel to it, compared to the likes of Doctor Strange and the Avengers movies, this is by no means a bad thing – it has a lightness of touch and sweetness that is totally disarming. Much of it is written and played as pure comedy, and it is consistently very funny indeed, in a disarmingly oddball way.

I was a bit dubious about the fact the film is called Homecoming, mainly because it seemed like it was only there as a crashingly unsubtle way of emphasising the fact that Spider-Man is now back in the MCU along with all the other characters, which at times seemed like the movie’s sole raison d’etre. This shared continuity is rammed down your throat at very regular intervals in the course of proceedings: the very first shot is a picture of the Avengers. The first scene takes place in the shadow of Avengers Tower, and is set shortly after the climactic battle from the first Avengers movie. Scenes from Civil War are restaged, Downey Jr appears in both his Stark and Iron Man guises, Jon Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan from the Iron Man films, Chris Evans cameos as Captain America, and another star gets an outrageous fourth billing considering they’re only in the movie for about two minutes. Marvel’s own movies take much less of a broad-brush approach to this sort of thing, but in the end it does kind of work, because a lot of the in-jokes and mickey-taking of the other films is spot on (this extends to some witty choices of voice casting and a brutally funny joke at the expense of the Cult of the Post-Credits Sequence).

One slightly ironic thing about this film that no-one has much commented on is the fact that Michael Keaton’s status as a ‘hot’ actor is largely down to his role in Birdman. Birdman was a film which gave its own sardonic commentary on the phenomenon of serious actors spending all their time in superhero movies, and yet Keaton has used it to get himself to this position, as a serious actor in a superhero movie – and, what’s more, playing the Vulture: someone who is, of course, essentially a… oh, work it out for yourselves.

All that to one side, Keaton is the film’s star turn when it comes to acting performances (although this is a notably well-played film throughout). We are quite a long way down from the pick of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, and the Vulture suit in this movie is a rather unwieldy piece of design, but Keaton manages to create that rarest of things – not just a great villain in an MCU movie, but a blue-collar supervillain is who both a plausible character and genuinely menacing. You really wish Keaton was in the movie much more – also that the MCU people start to create characters with this sort of presence and depth for their own movies.

I would say that the climax of the movie is arguably a little weak, but in every other respect Homecoming gets the mixture of comedy, pathos, and exhilarating action you’d expect from a Spider-Man film pretty much spot on, with the film’s insertion into the wider Marvel universe a real bonus too. How many movies in a row now, without a serious misstep from Marvel Studios? You would have to be a very brave person to bet on their hot streak ending any time soon.

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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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