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Posts Tagged ‘superhero’

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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Once or twice in the past we have discussed the quaint phenomenon where something gets slapped with a definite article which it had not, generally speaking, possessed – at least not for a long while. This is usually done with the goal of imparting a (probably spurious) sense of maturity and gravitas to something generally regarded as quite silly. The more devoted type of fan is particularly fond of this kind of thing; and, knowing that devoted fans are more likely than normal people to buy multiple tickets and DVD releases for the same film, film producers follow suit, for sound capitalist reasons. Hence the second film about Hugh Jackman’s metal-skeletoned eviscerator was The Wolverine, the forthcoming Robert Pattinson-starring film about a billionaire with an odd hobby is The Batman, Jason Momoa’s character in the DC movie series was occasionally referred to as the Aquaman, and so on. To me it always smacks of a desperate need to be taken seriously, but I suppose it’s harmless enough.

Hence we now have the sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad, named (you guessed it) The Suicide Squad, for which original director David Ayer has been replaced by James Gunn. Fond as I am of Gunn’s work as a director and producer, the words ‘maturity’ and ‘gravitas’ are not necessarily the first ones to spring to mind when considering his previous movies, so this may just have been the easiest way to distinguish the new film from the old one.

The premise remains the same, and is drawn from the comic series created by John Ostrander (who cameos) in 1987: imprisoned supervillains are offered a reduction in their sentence if they agree to go on insanely dangerous missions for a covert branch of the US government, with compliance ensured by the insertion of an explosive device into their skulls. It’s a good premise for a comic book, perhaps not quite such a good one for a movie – I said five years ago that choosing to make a film about a collection of second- and third-string villains from Batman and the Flash when you haven’t actually made a proper Batman or Flash film yet is a really weird choice. And that still applies – I can’t help thinking of that saying about doing the same thing repeatedly yet expecting different results.

But is this quite the same thing? On paper it seems like it is. Convicted mercenary Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is coerced into joining the Squad for a new mission: a military coup in the island nation of Corto Maltese (the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns remains inescapable, it seems) means that a dangerous research project has fallen into the hands of an unstable new junta, and the stated objective is to break into a high-security facility and shut it down.

Joining Bloodsport in this endeavour are various other characters who are also psychopathic, not to mention mostly idiots or profoundly unstable, or both: Peacemaker (John Cena), a man so dedicated to peace he will commit any atrocity to achieve it; Ratcatcher 2 (a new version of an obscure Batman character, played by Daniela Melchior); anthropomorphic selachian King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); and Polka-Dot Man (another new version of an obscure Batman character, this one played by David Dastmalchian). Reprising their roles from the original film are Viola Davis as the ruthless director of the squad, Joel Kinnaman as field commander Rick Flag, Margot Robbie as homicidal pole-dancer Harley Quinn, and Jai Courtney as absurd national stereotype Captain Boomerang, while there are also appearances from a bunch of other minor characters, most notably Michael Rooker as Savant and Nathan Filion as the Detachable Kid (don’t even ask).

Gunn owes his current profile as a director to the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies he made for Marvel Studios; the fact he’s done this one is mainly due to the fact that Marvel temporarily parted company with Gunn after he got twitter-mined a couple of years ago. Looking at Gunn’s record as a director, he doesn’t seem like someone particularly inclined towards repeating himself, but it seems like a safe bet that DC took him on in the hope that he would do for them exactly what he did for their competitors: take an unpromising project about a team of obscure, morally-ambiguous characters and transform it into a crowd-pleasing hit packed with off-beat humour and general weirdness.

Certainly the parallels between Gunn’s Marvel movies and the new film are many and frequently obvious: a gang of oddballs who meet in prison squabble and bicker their way through spectacular set pieces as they find themselves gradually becoming a team, before discovering a latent spark of heroism as a terrible threat emerges. There’s a comedy CGI tank with a limited vocabulary voiced by a big-name star, a rodent, Michael Rooker, and so on, and so on. People who enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy will probably find a lot to enjoy here too, especially if they feel that Marvel movies don’t feature enough scenes in which people are graphically ripped in half.

That said, this is still a film which is as wildly inconsistent and tonally chaotic as we have come to expect when James Gunn is writing as well as scripting. Much of it is very funny, albeit in a ‘this is horrible, why am I laughing?’ kind of way, but the knowing silliness of the film means that the more emotional and serious beats, when they make their rare appearances, often fail to land. On the other hand, he gets good performances out of the leading cast members – it’s fairly obvious that Idris Elba’s character was originally written for Will Smith as Deadshot, but Elba’s underplayed mixture of exasperation and despair at the excesses of his colleagues means he makes the role his own. As for Margot Robbie, she gets shuffled off into her own subplot for much of the movie, which she carries quite well – it’s safe to say that this is the least annoying Robbie has ever been as Harley Quinn. She comes very close to being upstaged by Daniela Melchior, though.

I have to say that, once the film settled down and got into its groove, I thoroughly enjoyed it: much more than the first one. Partly this is because the jokes and action are generally very good, but also because – well, it starts off looking like this is going to be a movie channelling the essence of the gloomiest period in comic book history, the late 80s and early 90s, when homicidal cynicism ruled the world. But by its end, The Suicide Squad is celebrating the fantastical and garish excesses of the Silver Age of Comics, even as it gently pokes fun at them – the climax features an astonishingly faithful and well-staged portrayal of a classic DC comics antagonist. The film is really in its stride by this point and suddenly it seems as if Gunn has found a way to make this kind of film work without just aping the Marvel template – he makes a lot of the competition’s films look awfully strait-laced and over-cautious by comparison.

As noted, if the definite article added to the title of The Suicide Squad is meant to indicate it is a more serious and grown-up film, then this is false advertising: it’s astoundingly violent and often profane, but it also revels in its own extravagant silliness and thoroughly embraces the craziness of a lot of comic books from many years ago. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but then that’s always going to be an issue with a Gunn script – in the end, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. There is an awful lot to enjoy here if you can take the pace.

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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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It’s always a lovely moment when the first big superhero movie of the summer comes along. Of course, 2020 being a hideous brute of a year, it only really qualifies as such if you live in the southern hemisphere, but this sort of thing shouldn’t surprise us any more.

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 was one of the films still being advertised the day before the first lockdown was announced back in March, theoretically as ‘Coming Soon’. With Warner Brothers having announced simultaneous cinema and streaming releases for all their films next year, I suppose we should be grateful for the chance to see it on the big screen at all – and I feel obliged to point out that while the DC movie franchise tends to get some flak, at least they haven’t battened down the hatches like Marvel or the makers of the Bond franchise. I just hope people respond appropriately and (where safe to do so) take the chance to see a proper, accessible blockbuster at the cinema.

If we’re going to be quibblesome about these things, this movie has a bit of a fridge title, as the lead character is never actually referred to as Wonder Woman and the 1984 setting barely informs the plot – it’s just there to enable a bit of shallow nostalgia and easy jokes about legwarmers and bad fashion, as well as providing a bit of cognitive distance for the film’s more satirical elements to function in (we shall return to this in due course).

The film opens with a rather stirring and well-mounted scene depicting one of she-who-will-never-be-referred-to-as-Wonder-Woman-on-screen’s youthful adventures, during which Hans Zimmer’s score keeps promising to erupt into the full, thrillingly berserk Wonder Woman theme. (But it doesn’t, for a good long while.) As noted, it’s a nice little vignette, which sort of relates tangentially to the resolution of the plot – but I sort of suspect it’s just there because Robin Wright and Connie Nielson were still under contract and they couldn’t think of another way to get them in the movie.

Anyway, the story moves on to the mid-1980s, where Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is working as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute, as well as doing a little discreet day-saving when duty calls (well, as discreet as one can manage when leaping around in red and blue armour lashing a glowing golden rope at people). One of the robberies she foils is that of a mysterious and ancient stone of obscure provenance, allegedly with the power to grant wishes.

Well, something like that can’t possibly be real, so Diana indulges herself in just a little wish. Her new colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who hero-worships her, has a go at wishing too. But it turns out the person the stone is intended for is ambitious would-be tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Lord seems harmless enough, until Diana finds herself reunited with the spirit of her dead boyfriend Steve (Chris Pine) – rather than actually coming back from the dead, he just possesses the body of some poor schmo, a fact which everyone concerned with the film handwaves away just a bit too easily. Diana’s wish has come true – so what about everyone else’s…?

Saying that Wonder Woman 1984 easily qualifies as one of the year’s top two big summer movies doesn’t really mean a great deal, and probably qualifies as too faint praise – it may not seem as fresh and exciting as the 2017 movie, and none of its moments land quite as impressively as the big ones from first time around, but it’s still an efficient and sharply-made movie, with a reasonably coherent plot and some well-written characters.

That said, I’m not sure it really needs to be two and a half hours long (there’s a fair deal of faffing about, mostly concerned with flying around – sometimes in the Invisible Plane, which presumably the Comic-con crowd really wanted to see, or not), and it also falls into the trap of giving the villains all the most interesting things to do: Wonder Woman herself mainly just wanders around in pursuit of exposition. Gal Gadot inhabits the role charismatically, but she’s mostly stuck sharing the screen with Chris Pine, who as usual is – to paraphrase Stephen King – an agreeable-looking absence of hiatus. And while the film hits all the usual notes concerning empowerment and the toxic nature of sexual harassment, its feminist credentials struck me as a little wobbly: the plot is to some extent set in motion by the fact that the biggest personal issue Wonder Woman has to address is feeling a bit sad that she doesn’t have a boyfriend. The same is really true of Barbara Minerva – this is a big, meaty role, which Wiig really does good work with, but on the other hand the character’s major issue is being a bit of a klutz who feels jealous of glamorous women who can walk in heels. I’m not sure this is what Hannah Arendt meant when she spoke about the banality of evil.

Considerably more interesting is the main villain, whom Pedro Pascal likewise does some very good work with. To briefly venture down the rabbit hole, in the comics Maxwell Lord is a second- or third-string villain or supporting character (he also turns up as a substitute Lex Luthor in the Supergirl TV series), sometimes with mind-control powers. Jenkins and her fellow writers do something rather more provocative with him: here, he is a failed businessman, minor TV personality and con man, much given to shouting things like ‘I am not a loser!’ The power he acquires from the wishing-stone isn’t explained especially clearly, but suffice to say it permits him to erect vast (and politically provocative) walls in the twinkling of an eye, and steal the power of the presidency of the United States – one set-piece has Wonder Woman attempting to apprehend him within the corridors of the White House itself. (Playing, by implication, Ronald Reagan is an actor named Stuart Milligan – who ten years ago was playing Richard Nixon in another over-the-top fantasy: there’s a pub fact you can have for free.)

Jenkins has said, apparently with a straight face, that the Lord character as depicted here is not based on any real-life businessmen with dubious tax affairs and TV careers who may have found themselves in the White House. (And if you believe that, she would probably like to sell you a bridge in New York.) To be fair, the film probably does just enough in the way of camouflaging its subtext to keep the cute-red-baseball-cap brigade from getting all huffy and boycotting the movie (the eighties setting obviously helps a lot with this), but it’s still hard to see the film’s subtext as being anything other than a both-barrels takedown of you-know-who.

It’s interesting and rather enjoyable to see a blockbuster with such an unashamedly partisan edge to it, even if that edge is heavily disguised. Of course, events mean that the film is coming out after a certain election, rather than in the run-up to it, so thankfully real-world events have already been resolved without Wonder Woman having to get involved. Still – and this applies to the whole movie, which is a very engaging piece of entertainment – better late than never.

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Just the other week I was observing with a degree of sadness that Joseph Gordon-Levitt seemed to have rather dropped off the radar in recent years: this was, of course, the cue for him to reappear in what I suppose must qualify as a fairly high-profile movie (it’s a streamer, but conventional releases still seem to be on pause while the accountants see how well Tenet and The New Mutants do in the new climate). It seems, by the way, that Gordon-Levitt took a couple of years off to concentrate on raising his family – which is highly laudable, of course, even if the fact he has this option just drives home how extravagant the salaries of Hollywood performers often are. There’s a trade-off, he suggests, saying that the professional options open to him have narrowed compared to what they were before his break.

I wonder if this could be construed as why an actor sometimes to be found in rather prestigious studio productions now finds himself in an original superhero movie made by Netflix? Perhaps I am letting my prejudices show, for I am still wary of anything which seems to undermine the theatrical experience in the way that Netflix’s business model does, while it’s hard to think of an own-brand superhero movie (by which I mean, not based on a pre-existing comic book character) with any real merit. (I suppose some people would argue for Darkman.)

The movie in question is Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The setting is the city of New Orleans, still depicting as struggling many years after the impact of Hurricane Katrina. But now the citizens of the Big Easy have something new making their lives more difficult: a designer drug is being sold on the streets. Known as ‘Power’, the one and only effect of it is to give the taker superpowers. There are some arbitrary genre movie rules attached to this, of course: the powers only last for exactly five minutes, and it’s not like you get a random new power every time – it’s more as if the drug activates whatever potential you have.

(Shame they can’t organise posters like this so everyone stands under their own name. Hey ho.)

So far, so preposterous but at the same time fairly generative as far as story ideas go – but, possibly to try and make it all sound a bit more credible, the writer (Mattson Tomlin) attempts to put some kind of quasi-scientific gloss on this by indicating the drug gives people powers derived from the natural abilities of various animals. Nothing too objectionable about this, I suppose, but the movie rather blows a hole in its own credibility by introducing a character whose power, when activated, is so terrifyingly destructive even he is frightened of it. And what animal has he apparently gained this from? A shrimp. You can’t beat a bit of bathos.

Anyway, the actual plot concerns a trio of characters: maverick cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), who has taken to using Power in order to allow him to stand a chance against criminals who are using the drug; teenage drug-dealer and aspiring rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback), who is his supplier; and the Major (Jamie Foxx), an ex-military drifter who has blown into town and is determined to find the source of the drug for reasons of his own. Can they sort out their various differences and work together to get the drug off the streets?

It’s almost inherent in the superhero genre that the premise of a story is going to be fairly unlikely, and once you factor this in the premise of Project Power does not look entirely un-promising. There is the potential here for all the requisite action and crash-bang-wallopery, but in a slightly more gritty context than usual – it’s clear from the script that the writer intended to make points about the various injustices of US society and engage in other bits of social commentary too.

Well, I suppose in the end the movie’s higher aspirations are all still present, but you have to look quite hard for them as they sort of vanish into the background. I do wonder if I am unfairly prejudiced against some of these streaming movies – it’s possible that if I’d seen a movie like Project Power on the big screen, I might have been more impressed by the fact it is trying to be a bit more intelligent and thoughtful and engage with social issues as well as being a special-effects action movie. The film’s advantage in that setting would have been the faculty-numbing effect of a giant screen and huge sound system (this is all part and parcel of the theatrical experience I mentioned earlier). Watching it on a small-ish TV or laptop, it just doesn’t have the effect the makers are presumably hoping for.

In the end you are left with a movie built around lavish special effects action sequences, and while they look pretty good they are an essentially superficial pleasure. The very nature of these set-pieces and the way they are presented is really at odds with all the other things the script is trying to do: if you’re trying to make a film which has serious points about America’s drugs problem and its underprivileged citizens, you surely want to make something which is fairly gritty and naturalistic, not just another slick and glossy Marvel-style entertainment. That really would have been something new and interesting in this genre. As it is, the film’s noble intentions just seem like a fig-leaf to justify CGI overload and a lurid, colour-drenched visual style.

I could gripe about a few other things – the film can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head with pop-culture references, for example – but that is its main problem. That said, as this kind of film goes, I’ve seen much worse, and it has some visually impressive fights and chases (I should mention there are some rather grisly moments along the way). The presence of charismatic leads like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt is also, obviously, a plus, while everyone seems to agree that this film features a potentially career-launching turn from Dominique Fishback – I can’t argue with this, though I wonder if that career will be as an actress or a rapper (let’s face it, in today’s media landscape, probably both). In the end, though, this feels like another piece of slickly assembled and packaged Netflix product rather than anything genuinely interesting or exciting.

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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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The gravity of the current situation didn’t completely sink in with me until this weekend just gone, especially when I made one of my regular visits to the cinema. Everything was ostensibly the same as normal, but it had all changed, especially when it came to the trailers for coming attractions: there was something very detached from reality about studios boldly promising their next blockbuster would be coming out in April, May or June; even the ones offering a less-specific ‘Coming Soon’ seemed hopelessly optimistic. As previously mentioned hereabouts, some big movies are being pulled from the schedules and it’s hard to imagine others won’t follow suit, even if the cinemas stay open. Even Marvel Studios may finally have met their match in the coronavirus; whether this results in a fender-bender of their unreleased films piling up on top of each other remains to be seen – at the time of writing, they seem intent on hanging tough and sticking with a May date for Black Widow.

Universal, on the other hand, are being ultra-cautious and Fast and Furious 9 has been pushed back by a whole year (and this follows its release date being delayed to accommodate last year’s spin-off). Never mind the pandemic – what is the world to do without its regular fix of Vin Diesel driving crossly and quickly? Well, this particular sub-crisis could be potentially be ameliorated by the fact that Vin has had another go at a non-F&F movie (what’s that quote about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results…?) and it is available to view in cinemas now: Bloodshot, directed by Dave Wilson, a co-production between the often badly-named Original Film Company and  Bona Films (which sounds like something out of Round the Horne).

Diesel, resembling as ever a cross between Telly Savalas and a Cape buffalo, plays Ray Garrison, an elite US special forces soldier whom we first encounter shooting some bad guys with great aplomb in Kenya. That all sorted out, he heads off for a holiday in Italy with his lovely wife (Talulah Riley). This occasions various scenes of Vin trying to play the romantic lead, which finds the big man some distance from his comfort zone, and could be considered a gruelling experience for the audience, too.

Luckily enough, the two of them are soon kidnapped by some bad guys out for revenge, led by a character named Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell). Kebbell comes on and does a little dance number to ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads, just to make it quite clear he is a psycho killer. He proves his psycho killer credentials by killing not just Vin’s missus but Vin himself (this barely qualifies as a spoiler as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet).

Well, it probably will not come as a shock to you if I reveal that it takes more than being killed to keep a man like Vin Diesel down, especially when his body is donated to private industry by the US government. That mighty carcass falls into the hands of cyber-boffin Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), who brings Vin back from the dead by replacing his blood with robots (look, I just write this stuff down). Now he is super-strong, heals like Hugh Jackman, and his new robo-blood can log onto the internet and do all kinds of improbable things. Harting wants Vin to join his team of cybernetically-reconstructed forces veterans (Eiza Gonzalez plays the obligatory ass-kicking babe), but Vin is having trouble getting his shiny head around all of this, not least because dying has given him amnesia. He wanders off by himself a lot and sits looking aggrieved, occasionally putting his head in his hands (viewers of the film may be doing the same by this point).

But then someone plays some Talking Heads on the radio and it all comes back to our man. Off he trots to exact a violent revenge on Kebbell, making full use of his robo-blood and other special faculties. But isn’t this all just a bit convenient? Could there be more going on than Vin is aware of…?

Yes, I know: the world is gripped by a pandemic, with everyone encouraged to exercise social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel, and this is the movie I spend my Sunday evening watching: not just a non-prestige superhero movie based on a comic book even I have never heard of, but a Vin Diesel vehicle to boot, and one with a very silly name. Well, what can I say: every trip to the cinema is a potential gamble nowadays, and I never was very good at knowing when to fold ’em and when to hold ’em.

Of course, in this case the odds get rather longer, because Vin Diesel’s record outside of the F&F franchise (and, I suppose, his work with Marvel, such as it is) is so variable he has pretty much given up on making other movies. This is his first non-Toretto, non-tree lead role since The Last Witch Hunter five years ago – a film which made a small profit, but was critically reviled. Quite what attracted him to this project I don’t know – but the fact it potentially gives him a chance to be in at the start of another proposed ‘superhero universe’ based on comics from Valiant (no, me neither) must have had something to do with it.

I did turn up to Bloodshot expecting not just junk, but bad junk, but I have to say this movie is not quite as poor as one might reasonably expect (someone in the theatre audibly said ‘Let’s see just how **** this movie is’ as it got underway), nor as it probably sounds from the synopsis. This is mainly due to things that happen in the second and third acts of the movie, which would really count as spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. There are some interesting ideas in the mix here, mainly connected to Vin’s unreliable memory and the way in which this affects his character. There’s something almost existential about this – if you don’t trust your own memory, how do you make any kind of decision? – and while the film certainly doesn’t dwell on the notion or explore it more than strictly necessary, it was still a touch more thoughtful than I was expecting.

In the same way, while the revenge vendetta element of the plot may sound hackneyed and predictable, there’s almost a suggestion that this is intentional – that this is a narrative intended to function on a number of levels, as a predictable, no-brainer action movie, but also as a knowing deconstruction of this kind of story. Unfortunately, mainly due to a clumsy script and direction that seems more interested in always getting to the next action sequence as fast as possible, this falls a bit flat: the whole movie is hackneyed and predictable, just not on purpose.

There are other problems too: some of the supporting performances are rather over-the-top, and there are places where the tightness of the budget just can’t be hidden – a foot chase with Vin being pursued around central London has clearly been filmed in suburban South Africa, and it’s absurd that anyone thought for a second this substitution would work.

That said, the meat-and-potatoes action stuff is reasonably well-presented. Vin Diesel is kind of an odd outlier as an action star, as he doesn’t seem to have any kind of wrestling or martial arts background (when his peers were off at the dojo, Diesel was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons) – his signature move, if that’s the right way to describe it, seems to be to hurl himself bodily at his opponents and crush them with his sheer bulk (something which perhaps achieved its apotheosis in the ‘dolphin’ headbutt demonstrated in Fast & Furious 6). Nevertheless, he is reasonably effective as the relentless human bulldozer of vengeance the story here requires.

In the end, though, this is not a great movie, for all that it ticks all the boxes and passes the time in a reasonably diverting way. If it feels particularly disappointing, that’s because there are signs here of a film with genuine wit and intelligence that never got made – instead, it’s just very routine genre stuff, aiming low and just about hitting the target, possessed of a belief that lavish CGI is a good substitute for a proper script. Who knows, we may see future appearances by Diesel as this character, or further movies in this setting – but I don’t think we’ll be missing much if they never happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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