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Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’

One of the nice things about Marvel Comics, back in the days of my youth, was how diverse they were. I mean this not in the slightly reductionist modern sense, where it is often just a question of ticking boxes during the scripting and casting stages, but in terms of the tone and subject matter of the comics themselves. When I was about seven my mother bought me a discounted three-pack of different Marvel titles as a holiday treat. One of them was about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider fighting an evil magician in an amusement park; the next was a grandiose underwater piece of high fantasy with Namor the Sub-Mariner; and the third was something rather unexpected, a book entitled (in full) The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, which seemed to be some sort of spy adventure with a lot of pulp influences and Asian cultural references.

Master of Kung Fu seemed to be happening in its own little world, completely separate to the other Marvel books (though the character ended up fighting the Thing, amongst other superhero characters), but it seems we have now reached the point where Marvel Studios have already made movies about every other character with any kind of traction, and so even outliers like Master of Kung Fu are now getting the big-screen treatment – Eternals, due out in a couple of months, is likewise based on a book not originally intended to share a universe with Spider-Man and all the others. (I once made a joke about Marvel doing movies based on characters like Squirrel-Girl and Brother Voodoo; it now just feels like it’s only a matter of time.)

And so I found myself in the foyer of a bijou cinema in the depths of Somerset, asking for a ticket for the evening showing of Shang-Chi – and until a few years ago I would have never expected to ever be typing that sentence. The full title of the film is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the director is Destin Daniel Cretton, who got the job off the back of the (rather good) legal drama Just Mercy.

Our hero is played by Simo Liu, who is an amiable screen presence, and when we first meet him he is living in San Francisco and working as a parking valet along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who is there to do the ironic comedy relief. Neither of them have figured out what to do with their lives yet, but destiny (not to mention Destin) gives them a little push when they are menaced on the bus by a gang of toughs led by a chap named Razor Fist (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu). ‘I don’t want any trouble!’ cries Shang-Chi in the time-honoured chop-socky manner, but the bad guys do want trouble, and so it behoves our lad to break out his invincible kung fu skills.

Yes, it seems he is a parking valet with a past: son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), an immortal warlord who is possessor of the ten rings of the title: as well as letting him live for a thousand years, they also make him unstoppable in battle (except when the plot requires it to be otherwise). Shang-Chi was raised by his father’s criminal empire to become the perfect warrior and assassin, but he threw a bit of a teenage strop and ran away to America instead.

But now it seems his dad wants a reunion. Wenwu is seeking to gain access to Ta Ro, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastic sights and mythical creatures (not to be confused with K’Un-Lun from the Iron Fist TV show, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastical sights and mythical creatures, of course, or indeed any of the vaguely similar locales in the other movies), from whence his wife (and our hero’s mum) came from. Wenwu’s children have a role to play in this scheme, but what is it? And why is Wenwu so determined to reach Ta Ro? Could the survival of the universe be in peril, again?

Master of Kung Fu’s nature as a book only tangentially linked to the rest of Marvel’s output was exemplified by the fact it featured characters heavily implied to be the descendants of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, while Shang-Chi’s original father (dear me, only when writing about comic book universes to you end up using formulations like ‘original father’) was the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s diabolical mastermind and racist stereotype as featured in many novels and movies. Then again, at various points Marvel’s sprawling cosmology has included such improbable inhabitants (mostly licensed from other sources) as Godzilla, Dracula, the Transformers, and the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the monolith’s own comic book series was not a big seller for some reason).

These days, of course, you can’t really do a movie with Fu Manchu as the bad guy, to save nothing of the rights issues involved, and so Shang-Chi’s parentage has been tweaked. This has been quite inventively done: the Ten Rings have been a story element in these films since the very beginning, and Tony Leung’s character seems to be at least in part an attempt to placate that small segment of the Marvel audience annoyed with the presentation of the Mandarin back in Iron Man 3. This is done deftly enough that it shouldn’t feel too weird or fussy to normal people in the audience, but I have to say that some of the links and cameos connecting this movie to the wider Marvel enterprise feel rather gratuitous and contrived this time around.

Nevertheless, it eventually becomes very clear that a Marvel movie is what this is – if I were to be reductionist myself, I would say that it’s clearly trying to emulate the success of Black Panther, although using Chinese culture rather than Afro-futurism as its starting point. I thought this was rather a shame – the first act or so of the film, which actually resembles a genuine kung fu movie, is superbly entertaining, with good jokes and inventive action choreography. However, it slowly transforms into what’s basically just another CGI-based fantasy spectacle, becoming slightly bland and heftless along the way. The issue with traditional Chinese culture is that it’s a real thing, and everyone involved seems to have been very wary of doing anything that might cause offence (they likely had one eye on the potentially vast Asian box office returns too), and the film loses a lot of its wit and pop as a result.

Still, a great deal of goodwill has been built up by this point, and Michelle Yeoh pops up to do some exposition as Shang-Chi’s auntie, so the film remains very watchable till the end. But you can see why the film’s not called Master of Kung Fu – there’s not much sign of that in the closing stages of the film, which I was a bit disappointed by. Master of the CGI Special Effects Budget is a less engaging proposition.

This is a fun film and unlikely to disappoint the legions of devotees Marvel have gathered to their banner over the last decade-and-a-bit; the action and humour are all present and correct, and Tony Leung in particular manages to give the film a bit of gravitas and depth (on one level this is another saga of a dysfunctional Asian family) But on the other hand, one of the main alleged weaknesses of the Marvel films, the fact that they are all ultimately a bit samey, is also arguably on display: no matter how quirkily and originally they start out, everything always concludes with a slightly bloated climax slathered in visual effects. But as long as these films continue to make such immense piles of money, this is unlikely to change. Shang-Chi isn’t as distinctive as it promised to be, but it’s still an engaging piece of entertainment.

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When the cinemas started closing last Autumn, long before the second full lockdown, the reason given was the decision by Eon to postpone the release of No Time to Die: a demonstration of how dependent movie theatres can be on a just a handful of huge movies in order to stay open. Not many films pack as much clout as Bond, obviously, but when it comes to balancing box-office power with sheer ubiquity, you could do much worse than look at the Marvel franchise.

Marvel started pumping out three blockbusters a year a little while back, and the delay in the release of Cate Shortland’s Black Widow means that they have been piling up during the period of the pandemic: we can now look forward to (or nervously anticipate) the appearance of no fewer than four films under the Marvel marque before the end of this year, with another four in 2022.

Could this finally be the point at which the brains behind Marvel overestimate public demand for their products? (Bear in mind there are also a dozen TV series either in development or already available.) Well, given Marvel’s success in defying expectations and really altering the way that people engage with blockbuster entertainment, it would be a brave person who predicted their imminent demise – certainly, the appearance of Black Widow (finally) suggests that cinema is on the verge of getting back to something approaching normal.

The fact that it’s a film which makes a couple of call-backs to Bond films of yesteryear (one Roger Moore title in particular) is probably a coincidence. It opens in a very domestic mode, with two young sisters living with their parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) in mid-90s Florida – but all is not as it appears and the family (if such it really is) ends up fleeing the country, pursued by the authorities: they are Russian spies. (The film does its best to skate over the fact that this is a few years too late for it to be Cold War espionage, but there’s still something a bit odd going on here: Harbour’s character is just a bit too much of an OTT Soviet ideologue.) The two girls are removed from their surrogate parents and entered into an indoctrination and training programme designed to produce elite spies and assassins: the Black Widow project.

And all this is just the pre-credits sequence. Things pick up over twenty years later, with the elder sister, Natasha Romanoff (the splendid Scarlett Johansson) on the run from the authorities following the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (don’t worry, detailed knowledge of Marveliana is probably not required). Her attempts to live quietly in Norway are foiled when she receives a mysterious package from Budapest and is shortly after attacked by a silent, lethal assassin codenamed Taskmaster (Greg Davies).

Naturally, Nat pops off to Budapest to see what’s what, only to encounter her younger ‘sister’ Yelena (the fabulous Florence Pugh), now another graduate of the Black Widow programme. Yes, it’s still going, despite Nat being under the impression she had killed its prime mover, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), many years earlier. After smashing each other into the fixtures and fittings for a bit, the two women decide they both really want to stop Dreykov properly, but to do so will involve reaching out to other figures from their past, as well as evading Taskmaster and the army of Black Widows their enemy has under his control…

So, yes, many moose-and-squirrel accents on display in this one, along with quite a lot of leather catsuits (as befits a film about a character spawned from late-60s spy-fi fantasies). It’s probably worth mentioning that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been in session and Yelena’s Black Widow outfit is notably less… how best to put it? …likely to inspire impure thoughts in the audience; I suspect this sort of thing may prove to be a bit of a hallmark of the latest phase of the Marvel project.

Nevertheless, it’s good to have something as solidly, reliably entertaining as a Marvel film back in the cinema. I suspect that not even the most fanatical fan of either Scarlett Johansson or Black Widow would seriously contend that this is a film from the uppermost echelon of the series, but let’s not forget that even their weaker movies tend to be pretty entertaining.

As usual, they modulate the usual Marvel tone and structure a bit to suit whatever story they’re telling – in this case, a relatively gritty tale of shadowy covert projects, not entirely unlike one of the Bourne films but with extra retired super-soldiers and flying secret HQs – and, also as usual, the producers work their usual trick of hiring distinctive, interesting talents (Shortland, Johansson, Pugh) and then putting them to work making something which is really much of a muchness with the other films in the series. (But hey, this is no-question-about-it commercial film-making, and you can’t argue with a total box office take of twenty-two billion dollars.)

It’s such a consistently enjoyable muchness, anyway, even if the carpentry supporting the rest of the franchise is as visible as ever – one of the film’s jobs is clearly to establish Pugh as the ‘new’ Black Widow who will be appearing in future projects. The plot is deceptively slim this time around, especially for a film clocking in at nearly two and a quarter hours, but the action is rousingly done, and the comedy of Romanoff and her dysfunctional family is very effective (David Harbour in particular is good value as a bombastic, gone-to-seed ex-patriotic hero; shades of The Incredibles here a bit). The emotional subtext is surprisingly effective given the context it’s in.

What is missing somewhat is Scarlett Johansson herself, especially considering this is almost certainly the last time she’ll be playing this role. She’s front and centre throughout, certainly, but given she plays the character very straight indeed she’s prone to get upstaged by anyone else who’s prepared to push the envelope and go big, performance-wise. It’s a bit of a shame, as Johansson is obviously a talented, committed performer – but even the star of a Marvel film isn’t bigger than the larger project.

You’re allowed to revile and detest Marvel movies, obviously (but if you do so while suggesting that anyone else makes this kind of film better, your anchor has clearly slipped from the moorings of reason), and Black Widow is not the film to persuade anyone to get on board who has issues with this franchise. It has many of the strengths of the series, along with most of the weaknesses – business as usual, really. The end result is a solid piece of entertainment the like of which the last year and a half has largely deprived us of. The Marvel project may ultimately be just a grand and implacable machine, but it’s also quite nice to have it back.

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A cynical person, and perhaps even a not-especially-cynical person, could be forgiven for their lack of surprise that one of the first studio movies released now cinemas are reopening is a Marvel superhero film, as it sometimes feels like one of them comes out every few weeks anyway. In the case of Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, however, this cynicism would likely be misplaced. This isn’t Marvel Studios reclaiming their position of box-office supremacy with a confident resumption of business-as-usual. This is one of Marvel’s former licensees basically dumping a film which no-one seems to have a great deal of confidence in.

Initially it’s not obvious why this should be the case. It opens with Native American teenager Dani (Blu Hunt) fleeing a mysterious disaster engulfing her home and killing her family and friends. She finds herself in a remote and slightly decrepit facility, a cross between a reform school and a mental hospital, apparently run by the enigmatic Dr Reyes (Alice Braga). Reyes wastes no time in expositing at her: this is a place where young mutants who are just manifesting their powers are brought, for treatment and evaluation, until they are no longer a risk to themselves or others – at this point they move elsewhere, to another site run by Reyes’ mysterious superior. Also currently banged up in this fairly unpleasant spot are Rahne (Maisie Williams doing a hoots-mon accent), who can turn into a wolf, Roberto (Henry Zaga), whose main power seems to be setting fire to himself, Sam (Charlie Heaton), who can blast himself through the air, and Ilyana (Anya Taylor-Joy doing a moose-and-squirrel accent), whose mutant power is that she has magic powers (er, what…?). There is much sparring and bonding between the quintet, but strange events keep happening: some ominous force is at work in their midst, and none of them may get out of the facility alive..

How’s this for a tale of woe? The New Mutants was filmed in 2017, initially for a release in April 2018. As this would have clashed with Deadpool 2, however, it got pushed back to February 2019. And then August 2019. And then Fox, the producers of the film, were bought by Disney, owners of Marvel Studios, which paradoxically made everything even more complicated: Disney apparently didn’t like it, cancelled the extensive reshoots which had been planned, but still considered retooling it as the film which would introduce mutants and the core X-Men concepts into their own shared meta-franchise. In the end they didn’t bother, though. (The whole thing is so mangled that Stan Lee is credited as an executive producer, despite the marque at the front being that of 20th Century Studios, an entity which didn’t even exist until over a year after his death.)

As a result it’s quite hard to assess The New Mutants fairly, as apparently it didn’t even get the usual pick-up reshoots most movies now get, let alone the major surgery it was in line for at one point. This is almost a first draft or rough-cut of what the finished product should have been, put out into cinemas as a contractual obligation to amortise at least part of the expense of making the thing.

Let’s be clear: this is, on some level, an X-Men film, although links to that franchise have been pared back to pretty much the minimum possible. It’s based on a comic spun-off from the core X-Men title in its imperial 80s phase, which blatantly took the concept back to basics – a soap-opera about a group of teenagers with uncanny powers (the New Mutants title itself has the ring of a placeholder about it). Perhaps quite wisely, the film version feels the need to do something a bit different, and the director and the publicity material are very open about what: this is supposedly a horror film set in the X-Men universe.

Except it isn’t, really – that may have been the director’s original vision, but this isn’t really a horror film. Or at least it isn’t a successful one, by which I mean it isn’t actually scary or creepy or unsettling. Your youth-wing X-Men for the proceedings are Psyche, Wolfsbane, Magik, Cannonball and Sunspot (although Sunspot’s powers seem to be different from the comics), and if those names mean nothing to you then you may well struggle to get especially invested in these characters, as they are quite drably presented. If you do know the characters, on the other hand… well, the script has to do some awkward jigging about, as Dani is taken to a hospital for mutants despite it not being at all clear what her mutant power is. The revelation of what it is she can do is therefore obviously of great significance to the plot… which means that if you’ve read the comic and already know, you’re way ahead of the characters in the movie and the big twist will be a damp squib for you.

Quite apart from making an unscary horror movie, Boone also seems to be trying to do a gritty psychological drama about troubled teens – something quite downbeat and introspective. Here again the nature of the form seems to be fighting him: you expect a big villain, you expect major set pieces. A movie with only six characters almost entirely set in a single location is… well, going against expectations is one way of putting it. But it still has all the slickness and superficiality of a studio movie aimed at a youth audience: Boone has said he felt creatively neutered while making the film, and this does have the feel of a project where key people involved in production had very different ideas about what the end product should be. It ends up feeling inert: the narrative moves in fits and starts, rather than organically developing.

In the end there are some half-decent performances (Taylor-Joy in particular is working hard to make the best of some fairly ripe material), and the climax, in which the characters finally come together to do battle with a common enemy, is effective on a purely functional level. But this is the point at which it feels least like a horror film and most like another slightly anonymous CGI-slathered superhero movie.

Apparently there were plans for a trilogy, with each film mimicking the style of a different horror subgenre; possibly even appearances from some of the main X-Men characters. But none of that seems likely to happen now, and we are left with a film which doesn’t seem to have had a fair crack of the whip on any level. There seems to have been a concerted effort to keep the director from bringing his vision to the screen from the producers, the initial studio, and now the new owners of the film – although that isn’t to suggest an X-Men horror film is a particularly good idea anyway.

Twenty years is, as they say, a good innings, for a movie franchise at least: thirteen movies in twenty years, many of them decent or better, is an even more impressive achievement. I think The New Mutants isn’t quite as bad as last year’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix, though it’s a tough call (someone at the end of Dark Phoenix shouted ‘That was so bad!’ while the audible cry at the end of this film was ‘Awful! Awful!’) – but either way, this is a rather dismaying end for what was once a genuinely exciting series of movies. Of course, this was never the plan, but it is the reality we’re stuck with. The delay in the release date may have done The New Mutants one favour, in that it does feel very timely – overtaken and undermined by unexpected events far beyond its makers’ control, it does feel so 2020.

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I will not inflict upon you the heavily-vowelled utterance a friend of mine could not contain when he learned that the fourth Marvel superhero movie in five months was about to come amongst us; use your imaginations. Normally he and I are in different camps when it comes to this sort of thing – he would quite happily see the whole genre consigned to the waste-basket of history, whereas I, on the other hand, cheerfully organised the schedule of a recent trip to New York City so we could see Captain Marvel there on opening night. Nevertheless, I was more sympathetic than usual on this occasion – Avengers: Endgame was such a monumental piece of work, carrying such a significant emotional charge, that a lengthy pause in Marvel Studios’ operations in its aftermath would have felt logical and entirely appropriate. Knocking out another Spider-Man sequel to meet a contractual obligation… well, it almost feels like it’s too soon, doesn’t it?

Certainly the opening sequences of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home give the impression this movie has been slipped an almighty hospital pass, for it is almost obliged to try and make sense of the rather confused state of the Marvel movie universe in the wake of Endgame. Half the world was dead for five years, before returning to existence not having aged a day – the film is obliged to acknowledge this, but also has sound dramatic reasons for wanting to handwave it away as quickly as possible and get on with telling a story set in a recognisable version of a world resembling our own. It’s a tricky conundrum the film never really manages to get to grips with, and the way it still seems to feel the need to stress its continuity with the non-Sony Marvel movies doesn’t help much – there are endless references to the other films, much more than you find in any of the ‘real’ Marvel Studios productions.

Still, once the plot gets properly going the film makes an impressive recovery from this dodgy opening section. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his peers are all off on a tour of photogenic European capitals; Peter is hoping for a break from being Spider-Man and a chance to get a bit closer to the girl he likes, MJ (Zendaya Coleman). However, the various antics of Peter and his peers take a bit of a back-seat when the Grand Canal in Venice unexpectedly takes on semi-human form and becomes rather aggressive to everyone around it. A mighty tussle ensues, with the belligerent landmark on one side, and Spider-Man and an enigmatic new superhero on the other. Everyone is impressed with the new guy – ‘He’s kicking that water’s ass!’ cries one onlooker – who is soon christened Mysterio and turns out to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) turns up to make the formal introductions. It turns out Mysterio hails from another dimension where Earth has been devastated by hostile elemental beings. Now these creatures are coming to Earth, and Fury wants Spider-Man – anointed, it would seem, as the chosen successor to Iron Man as the world’s foremost protector – to partner up with Mysterio and stop the elementals from trashing this planet too. It’s a big responsibility for a young man feeling the loss of his mentor, to say nothing of the disruption this could cause to Peter’s school trip…

As mentioned, it seems like the Sony-funded MCU movies really do go out of their way to tie themselves into the wider continuity of the series, and on this occasion that proves to be a bit of a mixed blessing. Like I said, it does force the film to address the odd state of affairs pertaining after Endgame, which was always going to be tricky, and I imagine the film’s repeated use of Robert Downey Jr’s image will ultimately prove a bit exasperating for viewers who get the message quite early on, thank you. On the other hand, this is hardly happening frivolously: the events of Endgame are crucial to the plot, and the film builds intelligently on them to provide motivation for the various characters.

Nevertheless, this is still obviously a Spider-Man film rather than an addendum to the Avengers series, for all that the European setting is a bit unusual for this particular character. Now, you may well be thinking that Spider-Man teaming up with a new superhero to fight monsters from another dimension is a bit of a departure plot-wise too – well, all I can reasonably say on this topic is that you certainly have a point. That said, the plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home is quite a clever one, making some amusingly jaded observations on the ubiquity of superheroes these days and how silly the plots of some of these films have become. It also reinterprets material from the original comics in a convincing and imaginative way. The only problem is that it is very easy to guess which way the story is going, even if you’re only passingly familiar with the characters involved.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy here: this is as much of a quirky comedy film as Homecoming was, and Samuel L Jackson throws himself into the funny lines and comic situations whole-heartedly. The film’s star turn performance-wise, however, is Jake Gyllenhaal, who makes the most of a part which really allows him to show his range as an actor. About fifteen years ago, Gyllenhaal was in the frame to replace Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man himself when Maguire’s bad back threatened to force him to withdraw from Spider-Man 2 – he was also apparently on the list of people considered for the part of Venom in Spider-Man 3. It’s gratifying to see that his arrival in the series (finally) is such an impressive one.

(And if we’re talking about the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, how’s about this for a genuine visitor from another plane of the multiverse – Far From Home includes a cameo from JK Simmons, reprising his role as J Jonah Jameson from those films. Very nice to see him back, of course, and one wonders about the extent to which this opens the door for other stars of non-MCU Marvel movies to cross over into this series. Let’s have Alfred Molina back as Doctor Octopus, for a start, and Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider, and how about Wesley Snipes as Blade? Apparently Snipes and Marvel have had meetings…)

Once the film gets going, it is pacey and consistently amusing, even if it is also knowingly absurd in a number of places. The special effects are as good as you’d expect, and the film concludes with the best set-piece sequence around Tower Bridge from any fantasy film since Gorgo. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the greatest Spider-Man film ever, and it would be foolish to try and deconstruct it in the hope of deciphering what Marvel will be up to next (for the first time in years, they’ve released a movie without revealing what the next one is going to be), but this is still a fun, clever, and solidly entertaining blockbuster.

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‘One ticket for the new X-Men film, please.’

‘Certainly, sir. Somewhere in the middle?’

‘Well, from the beginning, ideally.’

Well, it’s not exactly first-rate cinema-queue badinage, but at least it had a bit more upbeat peppiness to it than the conversations I was hearing on the way out at the end of the film (at the risk of spoiling the rest of the review, ‘That was so bad’ was about the gist of it). I think there’s been a sense for a while now that this latest X-Men movie has been up against it – the anticipation for it has been nothing like that for either of the last two spin-offs, with most people looking ahead to the point at which the mutants get folded into the MCU. Perhaps the sheer longevity of the series has also begun to count against it, and there’s also the fact that it’s less than two months since Endgame came out, a movie which I expect will prove incredibly hard to equal, let alone top.

Certainly the advertising for Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix has tried hard to trade on the long pedigree of these films, as well as positioning it as some kind of Endgame-esque grand finale. ‘Twenty years ago, one movie showed us what makes us different makes us heroes,’ chuntered one of the trailers, accompanied by star-studded clips from well-received early instalments. Well, yes, but I feel obliged to point out that the original X-Men came out 18 and a bit years ago – 1999 is, in hindsight, notable for being one of the last years without a heavy superhero presence at the box office – the only superhero movie that came out that year was Mystery Men, which in hindsight looks rather ahead of its time. I’ve digressed again, haven’t I? Anyway: my point is that when a movie starts appealing to brand loyalty, rather than promising an exciting new experience, it is perhaps not the best sign.

Writer-director Kinberg has been knocking about the franchise since the 2000s, his first script being for X-Men: The Last Stand, generally regarded as one of the wobblier episodes. So the fact that the new film is essentially another pass at the same storyline (from Uncanny X-Men #101-138, of course) should really qualify as Ominous Sign Number One. It takes place in the 1990s, not that this influences the storyline in the slightest, nor does the film attempt to explain why most of the main characters have barely aged in thirty years. Things are looking pretty good for Professor X (James McAvoy), as good PR management and wise grooming choices mean his students are now superheroes, adored by the public, with the President having a special X-Phone on his desk so he can call them up in a crisis (yes, I know).

Well, the space shuttle gets into trouble due to a mysterious solar flare, and the X-Phone is duly used: the X-Men (a bunch of familiar characters this time around, but not including the chap with the claws, obviously) are rocketed off into space to carry out a rescue, somewhat against the better judgement of team leader Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The mission is essentially a success, but one of the team – a young girl played by Sophie Turner, whose comics codename is a bit problematic by modern standards so she just goes by ‘Jean’ – is exposed to the flare’s radiation and returns to Earth with her mutant powers of telepathy and telekinesis increasing at an exponential rate.

This would not in itself be terrible news, except for the fact that Jean had a traumatic childhood and was subject to a little discreet telepathic adjustment by the Professor. This is now unravelling as her powers develop, and she heads off in search of personal closure, despite the fact her behaviour is increasingly erratic. The team try to stop her and tragedy results (you can guess what this is if you’ve seen the trailer, it’s not exactly subtly handled); Xavier is forced to confront his own arrogance and hubris, while Jean seeks refuge in a mutant colony led by Magneto (Michael Fassbender). But it gets even worse! It turns out that the solar flare Jean absorbed is actually a primordial force of inconceivable cosmic power (funny, I thought all six of those had been accounted for), and a mob of evil aliens led by Jessica Chastain is also looking to take control of it…

This is, if you include the various spin-offs, X-Men 12, which is a very decent innings for any movie franchise.  What’s even more impressive is the fact that, for a long time at least, I found each new film to be at least as enjoyable as the one preceding it (I am part of the minority that actually thought The Last Stand was a fun romp). That changed with Apocalypse, which was all right but not up to the standard of Days of Future Past – and now, with Dark Phoenix, I fear we are confronted by the first no-two-ways-about-it genuinely poor main-sequence X-Men movie.

It’s not just that this movie revisits the same material as a previous episode, because there’s only one sequence which vaguely recalls the earlier film. The issues run deeper than that, and most of them stem from the script. One thing the advertising for this film does get right is that the previous films were so successful because they presented rounded characters with believable personalities, and credible relationships between them. There was potential here for more along those lines, and yet the script has a weirdly perfunctory quality, seldom pausing for reflection: the film has a slightly pedestrian, obvious quality completely at odds with the fantastical elements it depicts. Even worse, most of the characters are simply thin and forgettable – you hardly care about any of them.

Even normally reliable performers like James McAvoy struggle to make an impact, and the same is true of Jennifer Lawrence – J-Law seems to have negotiated herself a brilliant deal for this movie, by the way: she’s third billed, despite having limited screen-time, and only has to wear minimal prosthetics (none of that full-body make-up this time). The only person who brings any kind of presence to the movie is Michael Fassbender, who is as good as ever as Magneto. I suppose you could argue that one of the ways in which this film innovates is the fact that the bad guy is an actual alien – a new version of a character who first appeared in Avengers #4, in a fine historical irony – but, once again, Jessica Chastain really struggles to find anything to do with her.

There is plenty of well-staged crash-bang-wallop as the film goes on, and much use of swirly CGI, and it would be remiss of me not to mention that there is an impressive synth-heavy score from Hans Zimmer. But none of it feels like it means anything, most of the characters are flat and empty, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before in another X-Men film, where it was probably done better anyway.

No-one would deny the significance of the X-Men movies when it comes to the development of the fantasy genre, and the superhero film in particular. This series genuinely did change the way these films are made. But things move on, and while the genre has continued to develop, it’s starting to look like the X-Men have not evolved along with it (ironically enough). We are promised one more spin-off, then a break before new versions of these characters join the main Marvel Studios continuity. (I suspect it’s worth a flutter that Avengers Vs X-Men will make $3 billion before the end of the 2020s.) Well, that’s fair enough. Have a good long rest, X-Men: you’ve certainly earned it, and more importantly, it looks like you desperately need it.

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Episodic TV was (and perhaps remains) an all-consuming monster, devouring time, talent and money in order to produce 45 or 60 minutes of product every week. People get tired, money runs out, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. So how do TV producers cope? Well, obviously, on ensemble shows you can rotate the cast, so some people aren’t featured so prominently some weeks; other programmes have the option of doing what they call ‘bottle shows’, a money-saving measure whereby an episode features only the regular cast and sets. A third possibility, mainly intended to save time, is ‘double banking’, where two episodes are produced simultaneously (both carefully written to feature largely different sets and characters). The most derided shortcut, however, and one of the most obvious to the audience, is the clip show.

Clip shows are basically thinly-disguised re-runs, where a selection of highlights (or not) are presented once again to the audience via some sort of frame story. Clip shows used to be more common than they are today; Gerry Anderson seemed particularly keen on them back in the sixties. The last live-action instance I can think of is the gruelling Shades of Grey episode of TNG (known in some circles as Riker’s Brain), although I believe The Simpsons still persists with the form.

The Incredible Hulk‘s first contribution to the odd world of the clip show is probably a better example, mainly due to the circumstances which led to it. The episode in question, Proof Positive, came about because Bill Bixby, the show’s star and central presence, was unavailable for filming due to court dates for his divorce. They had all the usual time and money, they just didn’t have a lead actor. So what were they going to do?

Proof Positive (written by Karen Harris and Jill Sherman, two of the series’ stalwarts) opens in a manner which quickly makes it obvious this is a very atypical episode. The cold open starts with the Hulk roaming an arid desert, apparently in pursuit of the reporter Jack McGee (an ironic role reversal). The impact of the sequence is somewhat reduced by the fact it’s clear that while Lou Ferrigno is obviously on location (I think this is reused footage from the start of season two), Jack Colvin is filming his contributions in a sandpit somewhere and the two never share the screen. Anyway, the Hulk catches up with McGee, gets ready to do him an injury –

And McGee wakes up in a cold sweat. Clearly he has been letting the Hulk get to him. This would be bad enough, but his obsession with tracking the creature down means he is ignoring all the juicy sex scandals his employers at the paper expect him to cover as well. Trouble is on the cards, especially when the paper gets a new publisher, Pat Steinhauer (Caroline Smith), who wants to take the tabloid up-market and sees stopping publishing Hulk stories as an essential part of this (Steinhauer was the name of the show’s producer – the series has a certain penchant for this kind of in-joke).

Well, Jack McGee takes the news as well as you might expect and threatens to jump off the roof of the building. His editor is quickly on the case, both as a humanitarian and a pragmatist – ‘Call the police and the fire department! And get a photographer out there!’ Quite how much of this is a ploy by McGee is left open, but Pat agrees to let him try to persuade her the Hulk is the stuff of serious news, so he can keep the story.

And… roll those clips! Actually, this clip show works better than most, partly because the clips make up only a small proportion of the episode, and also because they’re quite well chosen to recap the history of McGee’s encounters with the Hulk and their subtly-changing relationship (by this point McGee knows that someone else turns into the creature, he just doesn’t know who). We kind of rub up against one of the limitations of the format, in that Pat seems almost wilfully sceptical about the Hulk even existing (he’s popped up in front of whole crowds of people by this point), but I suppose that’s necessary to make this episode work.

If nothing else Proof Positive is a chance for the writers to develop McGee’s character a bit more, and it’s one which they enthusiastically grab: this may mark the point at which he becomes more of a secondary protagonist of the series, and less of a menace to Banner. On the other hand, this does take a rather melodramatic form – Colvin gets to deliver long, heartfelt speeches about just what his pursuit of the Hulk has cost him, personally. There’s also a rather odd shift in that the episode starts as McGee trying to persuade Pat of the Hulk’s reality, but somehow ends up as a romance between the two of them, chief impediment to which being that he believes in the Hulk and she doesn’t. The problem is that they start talking to each other in highly impassioned terms apropos of pretty much nothing, almost as if a scene has been omitted from the final cut.

Hey ho. In the end there is a quite well-staged Hulk-out in a blast furnace (McGee inevitably falls down some stairs and drops his tranquiliser gun), with Lou Ferrigno running through a pile of foam rubber painted to look like scrap metal, and a pretty good episode results without Bill Bixby having to involve himself at all.

(Although, one has to wonder – did they even consider doing a Ferrigno-centric episode where our hero spends the whole time as the Hulk? Could this have been an opportunity for the story, which Lou Ferrigno was apparently desperately keen to do, where the Hulk develops the ability to speak? I can think of a couple of ways this could have been attempted, but I expect there were very sound reasons for doing a McGee episode instead.)

Then again, sometimes you can have all your stars available, a decent budget to hand, and some interesting ideas, and still end up producing something with the ineffable aura of duffness about it. This brings us to Deathmask, written by another of the show’s lynchpins, Nicholas Corea, which aired in early 1980 (around the time it’s actually set). This episode gets off to an uncompromisingly dark and very atypical start, with a masked killer standing over the corpse of his recent victim, a young blonde woman, who has had a plaster death-mask placed on her face. It transpires that a serial killer is preying on the female students of a minor university – the students are uneasy, with groups of vigilante young men patrolling the grounds after dark and suspicion inevitably falling on any quiet drifters who may have recently arrived in the area.

Stand up, then, David Brent, which is the rather unfortunate and mood-breaking alias adopted by Banner this week. He is working on the campus (and taking the opportunity to do some genetic research of his own in his spare time), and, being the sensitive, charming babe-magnet that he is, managing to carry on at least two low-key romances as well. One of these is with campus figure Joan Singer (Melendy Britt), who in her own spare time runs the women’s self defence club. The local police chief (Gerald McRaney, making his fourth guest appearance in three seasons), who’s a big city cop recently relocated here for a quieter life, seems to have misgivings about this project, suggesting that fighting back may only incite a male attacker to worse violence. He also seems to carry a bit of a torch for Joan, which does not incline him to look cheerily upon Banner.

The Incredible Hulk is a show which is not afraid to head into some unusual territory, but this episode really does feel like it’s pushing the envelope – the tone is dark and sombre, and the script tackles some complicated issues concerned with violence against women head on. It’s still a show from nearly 40 years ago, so don’t expect it to be exactly enlightened, but this is still heavy (and thus interesting) stuff for a Marvel superhero TV show.

However, things go badly wrong round about the mid-point: Banner has just said goodnight to one of his amours when she is attacked by the death-mask killer. Our hero being the kind of chap he is, he charges in, the stress levels rise, and before you know it the Hulk is flipping over cars and both he and the killer are running away from cop cars. David’s young friend is left in a state of shock, repeating his name again and again, the kind of thing you just know is going to be misinterpreted…

The next morning Banner is dragged in by the police, having been a person of interest already due to his studied vagueness about his background. We don’t see him actually being arrested, and the question of why he didn’t just get the hell out of town as soon as he de-Hulked is skipped over; we know this was already his intention. Common sense and logic would suggest that at this point the game is up for Banner, as having his mug-shot taken and being finger-printed would be awkward enough, before we even consider the results of a proper investigation into his identity. (Even before we consider that his companion would surely vouch for his good character.)

But the series cannot allow its format to be shattered in this fashion, and desperate contrivances are introduced to dodge all these points. The local mayor is up for re-election soon and, for somewhat obscure reasons, believes that having the death-mask killer interrogated locally will help his chances of swinging the vote. So all those usual procedural niceties are conveniently waived. And what of the witness who can clear him of the crime? Aha, well she is unable to do so, as she is kept drugged into a coma – this is not even revealed until the last moments of the episode, when it feels like an afterthought.

To be honest, revealing it earlier might have tipped off the resolution of the episode. I’m not sure ‘twist’ is quite the right word for this. The conventions of US TV drama in 1980 mean that the killer has to be caught, but also that he can’t just be some guy off the street; he has to be an established character. There are not many candidates to be the murderer – in fact, there is only one, and this is (spoiler alert, and I use the word ‘spoiler’ in the broadest possible sense) the police chief. A troubled childhood, together with many years on the mean streets of Chicago, have left him as deranged as the current state of British politics, and it is he who has been killing all the blondes.

How do we know about the troubled childhood, and so on? Aha. The scenes in which Banner is interrogated about his obscure background and the selection of fake IDs discovered in his possession are initially quite interesting, but soon – and rather preposterously – turn into the police chief delivering various hollow-eyed monologues about the untrustworthiness of women, striking a rather Travis Bickle-esque note as he does so. Banner, being Banner, seems to be more concerned about helping his captor with his issues than with the fact he could be on the verge of very serious trouble.

More serious than he knows, as disgruntled locals, led by the father of one of the victims, have decided to deliver their own brand of justice by storming the police station and lynching Banner, conveniently doing so just after the killer chief has departed to kill Joan. Yet again the format of the series creaks under the strain: we are supposed to accept that the Hulk is an urban legend, his existence and nature subject to debate: but in this episode Banner hulks out while under a pile of people, and the Hulk smashes his way through at least two walls on his way to rescue Joan. He is a peculiarly solid and destructive urban legend.

I do really like The Incredible Hulk, in a genuine and non-ironic way, but I have to say that Deathmask is one of its weaker episodes – there is a lot of potential here, and there are glimpses of the much better episode this could have been – I’m not sure about whether the whole ‘violence against women’ angle is really a good fit for this kind of show, but someone taking a serious interest in Banner’s identity obviously lends itself itself to some dramatic moments. But in the episode-as-made, the script bangs up against the restrictions of the format and the results of the collision are not pretty. All I can say is that, even when it’s not very good, The Incredible Hulk is at least bad in an interesting way.

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As recent events have perhaps shown into sharp relief, we as a culture don’t build many cathedrals any more. I feel this is a shame, as I love a good cathedral despite the fact I am not what you would call a person of faith. There is something about the sheer scale, workmanship and ambition of these vast spaces which I find tremendously uplifting. But, as I say, cathedral building seems to have gone into decline, and the skills that led to their creation seem to be slipping away too – wheel turns, civilisation rises; wheel turns, civilisation falls. One wonders what flavours of human endeavour will likewise disappear, or at least decline, in the years to come. Certainly many commentators have been predicting the disappearance of the big Hollywood movie as we know it for some years now: we may occasionally hear that box office income is looking healthier than ever, but this is mainly the result of inflation – actual ticket sales have been in decline for a decade and a half. There may be more really big movies than ever before, but there are also fewer medium-sized ones, and it’s questionable how long this situation can remain viable. There are many variables in play, obviously, but it does seem likely that there will be big changes over the next few years, leading to fundamental changes in the kinds of films we see and also how we watch them.

I mention all this because it is always good to appreciate what we have while it is still there. If the traditional summer blockbuster is destined to go the way of the Gothic cathedral, then we should take a moment to consider the skill and ingenuity that goes into making one of these films, especially a really good one. They are a distinct form of art, with their own conventions and requirements – not exactly high art, to be sure, and intrinsically populist, but still a form of art, and one that has brought genuine pleasure to multitudes of people for generations.

I suspect that some people may be rolling their eyes already, especially considering that I am ostensibly here to discuss the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Endgame. I do feel a little silly being quite so solemn in a piece about a film which delivers the purest kind of entertainment, but nevertheless, I genuinely think it represents an unparalleled achievement in the making of popular cinema, possibly one which will never be surpassed, and everyone involved deserves some recognition for this.

It occurs to me there may still be a few uninitiated people out there who may be wondering what I’m on about. Endgame is the twenty-second film in a franchise (or series of franchises) which began over ten years ago. The various films in the series share storylines and characters, build and riff on each other, plant seeds which only much later come to often-unexpected fruition. Just as the people who built the foundations of a cathedral often had only the vaguest conception of how they (or their descendants) were going to finish the roof, so it seems fairly likely that the makers of those first few films had little idea of exactly how the project was going to get to this point. Yet here we are, and the unity of vision and purpose the films have maintained, while not perfect, is still remarkable.

Following a couple of somewhat lightweight entries, the new film picks up shortly after the end of the nineteenth film in the series, Infinity War, which saw the cosmic titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) obliterate half the population of the universe, on sound Malthusian grounds. Left untouched by the cataclysmic finger-click were the founder members of the Avengers, although they were left scattered and traumatised by their failure to stop Thanos. The new film, you would expect, sees them regroup and attempt to either reverse Thanos’ terrible deeds or enact some kind of justice. But is it really the case that no good deed goes unavenged?

There’s probably going to be some more eye-rolling at this point, but that is all I’m going to say about the plot of the new film. I found it to be a delight, and that was largely because of my regime of (mostly) strict spoiler hygiene. Part of the joy of the story comes from the way in which the plot plays out, and the many surprises along the way. I imagine the world breaks down into two camps at this point: people who are just not on board the Marvel train, who won’t really care about the details of this film, and people who are, who will want to encounter Endgame in a state of blissful ignorance.

There are many remarkable things about Endgame, not least its sheer technical proficiency and ability to tell a story with a huge array of characters that still manages to feel personal, but perhaps the most surprising is that it genuinely manages to live up to expectations. Since this is the culmination of a story which has been playing out since 2012, if not earlier, this is an amazing accomplishment. More than that, in so many ways it even manages to surpass expectations – not just in terms of its inventiveness, either. Given the nature of the Marvel project, of which this is a landmark feature but by no means the end, I approached this film with a confident sense of knowing what was going to happen, or at least what the state of play would be at the end. Well, I was surprised by this as much as the rest of the film, for the script is not afraid to make some unexpected, tough choices, as well as providing numerous moments that left the audience of the screening I attended alternately cheering and sobbing.

It is true to say that people who decide to finally take the plunge and make Endgame their first Marvel Studios movie are probably going to be left a bit baffled, for there are not many concessions made to this audience – but this is really only to be expected, it’s the equivalent of opening Lord of the Rings a handful of chapters from the end and expecting to understand what’s going on. And given that this is not the final film in this series (there is one more to come this year, with others no doubt to follow), there are elements of this film’s story which are likely to prove problematic when it comes to scripting future instalments.

Finally, I would say that Endgame is a fantasy blockbuster, and if you don’t like the genre, you probably won’t like this film either. What makes it special aren’t exactly its own merits as a film, anyway, but the way in which it serves as a climax, a summation, a capstone, and a victory lap for the films that have preceded it. It is the boldness and confidence of the Marvel project which has been the most surprising thing about this series of films, not to mention the fact that they have generally managed to keep their standards so very high. In a very real sense this film marks the completion of something unprecedented in the world of entertainment – but it deserves to be recognised for its quality as well as its innovation. One can marvel at the mystery of how it came to be, but not to the point where one forgets to enjoy it.

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One of the exciting prospects of the recent trip was the chance to take the blog’s very infrequent feature New Cinema Review intercontinental – my previous trip to the States was quite rigorously scheduled with not much opportunity to check out the picturehouses of Arizona or Utah. This time around it was much more a case of ‘do what you feel like’, and I certainly felt like seeing if all the stories I had heard about the American cinemagoing experience were true.

I suppose the modern multiplex is essentially an American invention, inasmuch as the commercial cinema industry is essentially the same thing, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the multiplex we turned up to (it was the Regal just off 8th Avenue, should anyone be interested) looked quite like one in the UK. However, we were much impressed by the American way of running the adverts continuously in advance of the film, which was the first thing we noticed – this allows you to get to the good stuff (i.e. the trailers) that much sooner.

On attempting to sit down, I was a little surprised to find we were in extremely plush leather seats with little desks in front of them. As, despite buying our tickets four days in advance, we had got practically the last two seats in the cinema, I had expected to be in cheap and nasty seating, but this was the kind of furniture I had only previously seen in VIP-class premium UK cinemas. These were very nice seats indeed, and I had settled into mine and was thoroughly enjoying it when a helpful Manhattanite a couple of spaces down indicated a button set into the seat arm, which I duly pressed.

There was much humming and whirring and the seat unfolded in a rather surprising manner. I found myself enveloped by the thing and arranged in a posture that suggested I was either about to experience orbital insertion or be the subject of significant dental surgery. Needless to say it was still very comfortable. If all the seats were like this, no wonder everybody there was unexpectedly laid back: I had expected people to be yelling at the screen and generally causing a commotion, but other than a few scattered rounds of applause everyone was fairly genteel.

I was particularly surprised by this, as we were there for the opening night of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, the 21st entry in the world-dominating meta-franchise from (of course) Marvel Studios. Regardless of how the movie turned out, given films in this series make billions of dollars almost on a routine basis, I was expecting a bit more feverish excitement, especially as we were in Marvel’s home town. Hey ho.

The film opens in a slightly disconcerting manner, as we meet feisty alien warrior Vers (Brie Larson), who’s a sort of special forces soldier for the Kree Empire (the Kree being a bunch of aliens previously featured in the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy). The Kree are at war with another group of aliens, these ones being shape-shifters called Skrulls, and very soon Vers and her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) are sent off on a mission. But things do not go to plan and soon Vers finds herself falling out of orbit into the atmosphere of an obscure backwater planet known to the natives as Earth…

It seems that the Skrulls have infiltrated Earth and are looking for something that could help them win the war. With reinforcements a long way off, Vers finds herself obliged to forge an alliance with government agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who turns up to investigate reports of a woman falling through the roof of a branch of Blockbuster (it’s 1995). But Vers is also troubled by fragments of memory suggesting she herself has a history on Earth, and a connection to the place…

So, you may be wondering, what has all this got to do with Captain Marvel, whoever they are? A fair question. I should say that this is another one of those movies like Wonder Woman, which shies away from actually calling the lead character by their superhero code-name. The other potentially problematic point is that there have been a large number of comic-book characters with ‘Marvel’ in their name (there have been quite a few just called Captain Marvel), with some labyrinthine character biographies and peculiar creative choices developing as a result. (I expect we shall return to this when the movie about the original Captain Marvel comes out in about a month.)

On the whole the new movie does a pretty decent version of distilling all the lore down into something relatively straightforward and accessible while still keeping the major points of connection with the stuff from the comics. That said, as I mentioned, the film is a little bit discombobulating in its opening movement, though this may indeed be a deliberate choice to play with audience expectations.

Once she-who-will-presumably-one-day-be-Captain Marvel arrives on Earth and teams up with Nick Fury, the film immediately relaxes and becomes a very enjoyable knockabout sci-fi adventure, notably light in tone. Marvel’s films have been hitting this pitch for a while now, but even so it is something of a surprise, partly because this film is setting up Avengers: Endgame (the last Avengers film had a genuine sense of gravity about it), partly because there has been a degree of fuss about this being the first female-fronted Marvel Studios film.

Perhaps quite sensibly, the film doesn’t seem inclined to make a big deal out of this, with Larson opting to give a winningly tongue-in-cheek performance – this is really what the material demands, with Jackson and especially Ben Mendelsohn doing the same kind of thing. If the film has a feminist agenda it seems largely confined to the soundtrack, which includes a preponderance of female-fronted ‘credible’ rock groups (no Spice Girls or Aqua, alas) from the mid-to-late 1990s. (This is really as far as the 90s setting goes when it comes to its influence on the movie, though there are a couple of decent jokes about the technology of the period.)

The downside to all this is that the film does perhaps come across as a bit lightweight and insubstantial – fun while you’re watching it, but not really in the top tier of the Marvel Studios canon. This is honestly a little surprising, considering it not only sets up Endgame but also serves as a prequel to the rest of the series and even ties together the more cosmic and the Earth-bound strands of the meta-franchise (characters from the Avengers films and the Guardians of the Galaxy strand both feature). That said, it does the usual thing of rewarding long-term followers of the series by including a few call-backs, clues, and mysteries to engage and tantalise them.

In the end, Captain Marvel is simply fun in the by-now traditional Marvel Studios manner – the production values are great, the action is well-mounted, the jokes connect, and the movie works hard to deliver on its big moments. (In addition to the traditional, and now quite poignant cameo, there is an entirely befitting tribute to Stan Lee, too.)  I would put it as mid-table in terms of this particular franchise, but that’s not a terrible place to be, and there is a lot of potential here to add to the present-day films. And the good thing (perhaps) is that even if this particular Marvel comics movie isn’t quite your thing, they’re already showing the trailers for the next three. If they are all made to the same standard as Captain Marvel, I don’t anticipate fans of the series having a great deal to complain about. 

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…anyway, while the distaff members of the family and our patriarch were off enjoying Mary Poppins Returns, in the screen next door Young Nephew, his dad, and your regular correspondent were settling down in front of perhaps the most-directed film of the year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman.

This has been an exceptional year at the movies even by Marvel’s standards, and it feels entirely appropriate that it should end with a movie showcasing the company’s most iconic and popular character – all the more so, given that the year has also seen the passing of both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators not just of Spider-Man but also of much of the wider Marvel world, the sheer extent of which is perhaps the raison d’etre of the new film.

It opens conventionally enough, with a brisk recap of the career of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine), super-heroic protector of New York City. But then things switch to the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is basically just an ordinary kid struggling with fairly typical problems: mainly that he doesn’t get on with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who is insisting that he starts a new school, curtails his hobby of making graffiti, and spends less time with his beloved but slightly shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles is out with his uncle one night doing something mildly illegal when he is bitten by a rather peculiar spider, and finds his life becoming even more complicated and stressful.

While coming to terms with his new-found wall-adhering powers, Miles finds himself caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has constructed an ominously big and complicated gadget with the power to blow holes in the fabric of the universe. Spider-Man charges Miles with helping him to destroy the Kingpin’s machine before – and this is probably quite a shocking moment if you haven’t read the publicity for the movie – he is killed in action battling the supervillain and his henchmen.

The city mourns, naturally – and so does Miles, of course, not least because he’s accidentally broken the gadget Spider-Man gave him to save the day. And then things take another left-field turn, with the appearance of another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) at the grave of the one Miles originally encountered. It turns out that this new Peter Parker is a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged Spider-Man from a parallel universe, who has been dragged here by the Kingpin’s machine.

The older Spider-Man basically just wants to leave, before being out of his home universe causes his cells to disintegrate, and initially turns a deaf ear to Miles’ plea that he train him or help in the destruction of the machine before even more damage is done to the fabric of the cosmos. But soon enough that old heroic spirit is rekindled and the duo set out to thwart the villain and save the day. But it seems that the damage to the multiverse is more extensive than anyone has realised, with a bevy of other Spider-People also in the mix…

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded sort of person, not carrying around too much in the way of prejudice or bias – but I have to say that while it would take hospitalisation or worse to make me miss a live-action Marvel adaptation, I suspect there are a large number of parallel universes where I didn’t see Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen, simply because it’s an animated film. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that I’m not alone in this, because this movie is doing appreciably less business than the live-action Aquaman movie, despite being at least as good.

Then again, I say this as a fairly dedicated follower of all things comic-booky, which really puts me into the target audience bracket for this film. I’m pretty sure this is not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made – that title is still surely held by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and it will take something very special indeed to dislodge it – but in one very specific way at least, it certainly challenges for the title of greatest comic-book movie.

Up until fairly recently, most comic-book films were rather conservative beasts, largely determined not to appear silly or childish and keep the mainstream audience on board. The stories inevitably lost some of their colour, energy, and inventiveness in translation because of this, and it’s only in the more recent of the Marvel Studios films that the film-makers have become confident enough to let some of the sheer exuberant goofiness and innovation of the comics creep back in. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a Marvel Studios film, but in the same way it isn’t afraid to trust the audience’s ability to get its head around some new ideas – most obviously, that the whole movie is set in an alternative continuity (or parallel universe, whichever you prefer). This allows the introduction of not just the Miles Morales Spider-Man (a comics presence, initially in Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, since 2011), but also a striking new version of Dr Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn).

At the centre of the film is an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spidey, which is handled with immaculate deftness and storytelling skill. But going on around it, and really making the film sing, is a very different kind of story, basically just celebrating the boundless imaginative palette of comic-book storytelling in general, and super-hero stories in particular. Miles Morales and the initial pair of Peter Parkers are eventually joined by a parallel-universe Spider-Woman who turns out to be Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and also a manga-influenced version of the character who’s a teenage Japanese girl from the future, not to mention the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (secret identity Peter Porker). Perhaps most joyously entertaining of all is the appearance of a hard-boiled black-and-white version of Spider-Man from a pulp-inspired universe, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage in his own inimitable style.

The film’s defining visual conceit is to animate each of these extra-dimensional visitors in a different style, even when they’re all in the same scene – Spider-Ham always looks like a Looney Toons character, the Japanese character is presented in an anime style, and the Cage Spider-Man comes from a noir universe where the only colours are black and white (there’s a lovely running gag about him trying to make sense of a Rubik’s cube). The result is a dazzling visual treat, before we even reach the bravura climax where the different dimensions collide with and collapse into one another.

The script manages to do full justice to the potential of the concept, and – unsurprisingly, because this is a project in which Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had a hand – is also immensely clever and funny. I was still a bit unsure about whether my decision to come and see this film had been the right one as it actually started in front of me, but one of the very first things that happens is a gleeful gag at the expense of Raimi’s somewhat less-than-wholly-beloved Spider-Man 3, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

Into the Spider-Verse is filled with good things and inspired bits of invention; the moment at which Lee and Ditko are given due credit is especially moving, of course. Despite its relatively modest box-office take so far, apparently the film has done well enough for a slate of spin-offs and sequels to already be in development. We have been here before, of course, with Sony’s arguably over-ambitious plans to diversify its Spider-Man series following The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the end that just led to Spider-Man being leased back to Marvel Studios on a sort of time-share basis, and also the distinctly so-so Venom movie (which doesn’t explicitly mention its links to the parent franchise). Hopefully this time things will be different, for Into the Spider-Verse shows that there is potential for a really interesting series of films just focused on Spider-Man himself.  This is the best non-MCU Marvel movie in ages.

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You could probably argue that the world, or at least that part of it concerned with cultural matters, tottered off some kind of precipice a couple of years ago with the release of Suicide Squad, a film largely concerned with Batman and Flash villains, sent out into a world which had yet to receive a proper Batman or Flash film from the same producers. We seem to be skipping straight to the spin-off, which probably says something about the pace of life in the modern world – or maybe it’s just that people are more interested in bad guys nowadays, which says something else rather different and somewhat more worrying.

Are we dealing with the same sort of thing when it comes to Ruben Fleischer’s Venom? Part of me wants to say yes, for I am of that generation for whom Venom (the character) is essentially a bad guy from the Spider-Man comics. Doing a whole movie about a character who is basically a demented pool of alien slime who spends most of his time lurking down dark alleys planning how to eat people also strikes me as… well, I can’t deny it has a certain originality, but I would argue that we’re losing our grip on the essential moral core of the superhero story in this case. But, on the other hand, this character has a seriously dedicated fan-base. ‘This is the first really popular movie in a while,’ said the person on duty at the cinema (their job was to hand out not very good free comic books based on the film). I had to admit to a certain degree of anticipatory curiosity myself: which voice was Tom Hardy going to use in the role? Bane? Ronnie Kray? The Welsh accent? Patrick Stewart?

Venom

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a loose-cannon investigative reporter living in San Francisco, who at the start of the film manages to torch his own career while investigating Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a tech magnate with a surprisingly diverse portfolio. Brock’s use of sensitive material pinched from his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams) to make some unsubstantiated allegations results in him losing his job, his apartment and his relationship, which is all rather unfair as the film makes it clear that Drake really is up to some dodgy stuff, specifically bringing back samples of alien life for use in biological testing.

Well, I say ‘samples of alien life’, they look more like ‘splashes of multicoloured CGI vomit’. It turns out the aliens are symbiotes which have to bond with a local organism in order to really survive on Earth, and Drake has terrible trouble trying to find compatible hosts from amongst the local population, winding up luring in homeless people under false pretences.

As chance would have it, the now washed-up Brock hears about this and decides to investigate once more, sneaking into Drake’s facility and – wouldn’t you just know it – coming into contact with one of the symbiotes, which immediately takes up residence in his system. Drake wants the alien back. The alien doesn’t want to go back. Brock isn’t quite sure what he wants, but the ability to shoot tentacles out of his armpits probably isn’t it. But there are bigger issues afoot, as another symbiote is on the scene with a diabolical plan of its own – could it be up to the Brock-alien fusion, calling itself Venom, to save the day?

I still can’t quite get my head around the idea of doing a Venom movie in which Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned, any more than I could doing a movie about Bizarro without mentioning Superman. Venom is basically a kind of Bizarro-Spider-Man, with extra late-80s dark kewlness: the whole point of the comics version of the character is that he was, not to put too fine a point on it, Spider-Man’s costume for a number of years, losing the gig when it was discovered he was actually a living organism (a kind of idiot’s version of this story formed part of the plot of 2007’s Spider-Man 3). Still, if you’re going to give Venom his own independent origin story, this one’s about as good as any, and the whole issue of ‘how come he can stick to walls and do whatever a spider can?’ is somewhat obfuscated by the fact that this version of the character seems to have a usefully vague set of powers.

Actually, there are lots of things about which the movie is usefully vague, although perhaps I am being just a bit too generous here (yes, it’s not like me, is it?). Perhaps ‘vague’ is not the word so much as ‘conveniently inconsistent’. There’s a big plot point early on about the symbiotes only being able to fully bond with certain individuals, which is later completely forgotten as Venom and the antagonist, Riot, hop between hosts as the whim takes them. At one point we are told that the Venom symbiote is devouring Brock’s internal organs to sustain itself. Until it’s not, suddenly. Character motivations are likewise subject to unexpected and somewhat arbitrary change. Things that the film really should mention early on – like the fact that Drake has his own rocket-launching facility tucked round the back of his biology lab – never get told to the audience. In lots of ways, this film is a confusing mess.

The thing that makes Venom more watchable than most of the bad late-90s comic book movies it often resembles is Tom Hardy. I have to confess, I do like Tom Hardy (not as much as many young women of my acquaintance, but I digress), and he is very good in this part, both in terms of the physical portrayal of the conflicted Brock, and of course his two vocal performances. Considering this is a movie about a cannibalistic alien monster, Hardy finds an impressive amount of comedy in the role and he certainly earns his star billing (and fee).

Despite that, the weak script and uninspired visuals of the movie really mean that Venom is not up to the standard of the average Marvel Studios film. The question, of course, is one of how closely the makers of Venom are looking to align themselves with that particular project – there has been a lot of enthusiastic chatter about a potential Spider-Man/Venom team-up movie in future, even though this film has been made by Sony as a completely separate undertaking from the recent Spider-Man films (which are now made by Marvel Studios).  The exact relationship, in terms of who shares a universe, remains unclear. Once again, I think this is probably useful vagueness as far as the film-makers are concerned, for they seem intent on exploiting their connection to Marvel as much as possible without necessarily giving anything back. In that sense, while Venom the character may make a big deal about being a symbiote, not a parasite, Venom the movie is on much shakier ground.

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