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Smaller studios and mid-budget mainstream films scatter and run for cover as the dominant force in popular cinema makes its presence felt once more: yes, Marvel return with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a somewhat baroque title which nevertheless is certainly appropriate for the film. That said, there are a number of factors which may combine to have some viewers expecting things which aren’t quite there in the movie: given the striking level of ambition some other Marvel productions have shown, perhaps this is only to be expected.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back in leading-man mode as surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, who is generally acclaimed for his role in saving the universe a few movies back but still not entirely happy in his personal life (as is practically obligatory for a Marvel character). The doc is also afflicted by bad dreams, specifically one about a young woman being pursued by malevolent supernatural forces while being aided by a slightly different version of him.

Well, the girl from the dream crashes a wedding reception Strange is at, pursued by a big gribbly demon, and naturally he saves the day and rescues her (with a little help from Wong (Benedict Wong), whom these movies have done an impressive job of making into much more than just a sidekick). She turns out to be America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a unique individual in that there is only one iteration of her in the entirety of the multiverse of parallel worlds, and she has the gift of being able to travel between the different worlds almost at will. Naturally this makes her a person of interest, especially to a powerful and ruthless supernatural being who wants to kill America and steal her power.

Well, Strange and his various allies (in addition to Wong, he goes to the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for help) aren’t going to stand for that sort of thing, but needless to say they find themselves hard-pressed and Strange and America have to flee through a series of other parallel worlds, some of them jarringly odd, others rather familiar. But can they find a way of saving America’s life and defeating their adversary for good?

As noted here passim over the last decade or so, it’s quite rare for Marvel to turn out a movie which is not a solidly constructed and imaginative piece of entertainment – crowd-pleasers are what they do, and anyone who usually enjoys a Marvel film is likely going to enjoy this one too. Expectations are probably higher than usual for this one, partly because it’s directed by Sam Raimi (who has previously made some of the best Marvel superhero films ever), but also because it’s following on the heels of Spider-Man: No Way Home, another film with Cumberbatch which was deeply involved in matters multiversal.

Well, there are elements of Multiverse of Madness which certainly seem to be informed by Raimi’s CV as a director, but rather further back than his Spider-Man trilogy: there’s much more of a horror movie vibe to this film than anything else Marvel have done on the big screen recently. Some moments in the film are unexpectedly grisly and macabre, although I wouldn’t describe it as actually being any more scary than most mainstream films.

The multiversal element of the film is likely to be one of the things that may throw and possibly disappoint especially ardent viewers: following the cameo-stuffed pleasures of No Way Home, there has been a lot of excitable on-line chatter about just who could be turning up in this film. It’s tricky to talk about this without risking spoilers, obviously, but expectation management might not be a bad idea here – the closest thing the film has to a big gosh-wow moment won’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the publicity for it. The rest of its surprises are clever, but you really need to be a devotee to get all the references and jokes, to the point where a Disney+ subscription is almost obligatory. This is certainly the case with a major element of the film’s plot, which is arguably lacking in the dear old objective correlative if you haven’t seen the applicable streaming series.

This is possibly a problem for the film, as it makes a big deal out of seeing alt-universe versions of familiar characters, certainly at the expense of other possible ways of exploring the multiverse concept. Strange is repeatedly asked if he’s really happy, and you might expect the film to explore the possibility of a world which has a Strange-iteration who genuinely is content. There’s dramatic potential here, obviously, but the idea is never really gone into – a typhoon of CGI and fan-friendly death-matches are what the script plumps for.

Long-term viewers might also be inclined to raise an eyebrow at how a character who was originally presented as powerful but not exceptional has, over the course of their last few appearances, become a virtually unstoppable force of reality-warping cosmic power, but that’s what the script here requires, I guess: in the same way, while the comics version of Doctor Strange is so nebulously omnipotent he’s often sidelined, treated as a plot device more than a character, the movie character is much more fallible and limited much of the time. He spends a lot of this film looking worried and running away – but, as I say, it’s all about the requirements of the story.

Nevertheless, the movie has a charm and energy of its own, especially in its weirder moments. This is what you hire Sam Raimi for, after all. What’s perhaps a little unexpected and quite pleasing is the fact that – for all its metaphysical extravagance – the impulse driving the plot is firmly rooted in recognisable human emotions and drives. This gives the actors something they can really work with – and while Cumberbatch is as good value as ever at the centre of the film, what’s really eyecatching is a very impressive performance by Elizabeth Olsen, almost certainly the best she’s given in a Marvel movie. The various ghoulies and spectres the film summons up are very insignificant compared to the moment of genuine emotional anguish at the heart of the story. It’s this which holds the film together and keeps it satisfying even when some of its peripheral pleasures threaten to become rather unravelled.

This even extends to the ending of the film, which comes close to being a less-than-fully-satisfying cliffhanger (maybe even more than one). If this latest phase of Marvel films is heading in a particular direction, what that direction is is by no means clear yet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mid-table entry for this franchise (perhaps just a little higher than average), but I don’t imagine the huge audiences Marvel movies routinely attract will be disappointed by it.

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When a film opens with a bunch of characters arriving at a place called the Hill of Death, you can be quite sure that one of two things is on the cards: a film with a potentially smug sense of its own ridiculousness, or something which is going to be painfully on the nose from start to finish. When the main character, a sickly-looking Jared Leto, is told ‘Maybe you should see a doctor!’ and responds ‘I am one,’ any hope that we may be in for Option One quickly fades.

For yes, this is Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius, here to tide over anyone who objects to having to wait four-and-a-half months between proper Marvel comic-book movies. Leto is playing Morbius, whom we quickly learn is a polymathic genius afflicted with a genetic disorder causing agglutination of the blood cells (or something like that, anyway). We even see him getting a Nobel prize for his work on artificial blood. It is also established, without a great deal of subtlety, that he is largely motivated in his studies by his desire to save his best friend (Matt Smith), and that the pair of them have been mentored by the doctor who’s been looking after them since childhood (Jared Harris – this is a good movie if you drew ‘Jared’ in the name sweepstakes).

Well, this being a Marvel movie (even an ‘in association with’ Marvel movie), Morbius’s plan is to pop off to the Hill of Death and capture a load of vampire bats, which in the world of this movie are apparently savage, pack-hunting apex predators, not the mostly-harmless and actually quite altruistic little creatures you and I share a biosphere with. He then decides to inject his own body with vampire bat DNA in the hope it will cure him. What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, it’s not the dumbest superhero origin story in history, but still. Even the fact that the human tests have to take place in secret, on a freighter in international waters, does not lead the brilliant brain of Morbius to clock that this is a bad idea. On the other hand, this does enable a bit of early mayhem as we are invited to assume the freighter crew are all despicable bad guys whom Morbius, now afflicted with the curse of blood-lust (not to mention the curse of being followed around by intrusive CGI swirls), can off with a clear conscience.

Yes, Morbius now has superhuman speed and strength and some of the powers of a bat, though IP law means the film tiptoes very carefully around what the obvious code-name for him would be. He has bigger issues than plagiarism to worry about, however, as the synthetic blood he is using to keep his hunger at bay is losing its efficacy, while his best friend has got his hands on the serum too, and quite fancies all the superpowers and CGI too…

So, just to recap, Morbius has speed and strength and can (somehow) fly, and he has sonar, which soon develops into full-blown super-hearing. I imagine that for most of the film the main thing his super-hearing is picking up is the sound of Sony frantically grabbing at every Marvel character they still have the rights to and shoe-horning them into this film.

For the uninitiated: Marvel Studios (the makers of the ‘official’, and generally pretty good Marvel films) have managed to reclaim the rights to most of their characters, in some cases by simply buying the companies that had previously held them. However, Sony have managed to hang onto the Spider-Man characters, and Spider-Man’s appearances in MCU films have been the result of finicky horse-trading between the two companies. Hence the two Venom films with Tom Hardy, and now this vehicle for Morbius, a character declared by one website to be no less than the nineteenth-best Spider-Man villain.

Needless to say, they crowbar a reference to Venom into this movie, from which I suppose we are invited to assume that this is set in the same world as they are. There is also some multiversal madness with a late showing by Michael Keaton, well-known for playing another kind of bat man, but here reprising his role as the Vulture from an MCU movie a few years back. It all feels rather contrived and put me much in mind of Amazing Spider-Man 2, which seemed so obsessed with setting up spin-offs and cross-overs it almost forgot about the movie in hand. It is clear that linking to the massively popular MCU films is very important to Sony’s plans, but also that they’re quite prepared to abandon sense and logic in order to do so.

It’s not like Morbius doesn’t have its own problems, not least that he isn’t an especially interesting character to begin with. He laments his fate and broods on rooftops a lot, and frankly it’s been done before, a lot. He gets the line ‘Don’t make me hungry, you won’t like me when I’m hungry,’ which made me laugh if only for its sheer impudence, but apart from that this is a fairly earnest film populated by dull characters who never do or say anything unexpected, saddled with borderline-inept storytelling: great chunks of exposition are handled by more on-the-nose voice-overs.

The biggest problem is that the film’s script serves its structure, rather than vice versa. Stuff happens for no real reason other than to progress the very thin plot – the disposable mercenaries on the freighter is one example of this, Matt Smith’s character deciding to go all in on being evil is another. Police check the surveillance cameras in a car park, but apparently not the ones in a hospital. Even the structure itself is not that great – it vaguely reminded me of Josh Trank’s reviled Fantastic Four movie, in that watching it I had the odd sense of having missed a big chunk of the story – it seems to have part of the second act missing. Suddenly we were in the final battle of the film and I was genuinely wrong-footed, but not entirely ungrateful.

It probably sounds masochistic of me to say this, but sometimes it’s nice when a really bad superhero movie comes along, because it surely makes one appreciate how solidly entertaining the Marvel films usually are just that little bit more. This has a silly story, thin characters that even a good cast can’t do much with, too much intrusively garish CGI, and a general refusal to acknowledge its own daftness. Morbius is definitely not of the first rank, and is comfortably quite as bad as the last couple of X-Men movies. The degree to which it succeeds or fails should tell us something interesting about quite how far the magic touch of the Marvel marque extends.

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It sometimes feels like people have been talking about ‘the return of cinema’ virtually since the moment that cinema sort-of went away, nearly two years ago. One film after another has been touted as the harbinger for the return of business as usual at the box office – first Tenet, then Black Widow (along with a few others at the start of last summer), James Bond, and finally the most recent Spider-Man. You would have thought the massive take of No Way Home would have put an end to this kind of chatter, but no: apparently the fact Covid restrictions were still in place when it came out means that $1.6 billion-and-counting somehow doesn’t qualify as ‘business as usual’ – and so the baton has been passed on again, this time to Matt Reeves’ The Batman. (We have discussed in the past the rather cute phenomenon where the addition of a definite article apparently elevates a film about someone dressing up as a bat to punch crooks to the status of Serious Drama With Gravitas.)

You know me, I’m never ever cynical, but someone who was might offer the thought that most of the people declaring The Batman to be the First True Post-Pandemic Hit are those with a vested interest in seeing it be a hit of any kind. Certainly this is a big, expensive, rather unwieldy movie, which I’m slightly surprised to see getting a release this early in the year – presumably Warners are wary about putting it up against the Dr Strange sequel, which is likely to dominate the early-summer landscape, although this would be a surprising sign of a lack of confidence given it is, after all, a Batman film.

But, you might ask, what’s another Batman film in a release schedule which already includes outings for Morbius the Living Vampire, Dr Strange, the Flash, Thor, Aquaman, Black Adam and many more? A reasonable question, and a Batman film is, self-evidently, a superhero movie on some level. But I’d argue there’s also a sense in which Batman transcends the superhero genre. People have been making films about Batman for longer than any other costumed hero; the 1989 Tim Burton film practically invented the modern superhero movie template.

When you add in the various TV series and spin-off movies – and DC and Warners’ willingness to exploit this particular property with absurd thoroughness has deservedly been the subject of satire, even in their own projects – you reach a situation which is almost unique. Your average person in the street with minimal knowledge of the lore of even one of the big-name Marvel characters will still likely know the name of Batman’s butler, be able to identify many of his regular opponents, and not need to have things like the Batmobile and the Batcave explained to them. In short, Batman and his world have acquired an almost folkloric status as something complete and resonant in and of themselves; they have become archetypal, something which even extends to comparatively minor characters like the crime boss Falcone (played by Tom Wilkinson in Christopher Nolan’s first Batman movie and John Turturro in the new one).

The great advantage this gives to film-makers is that they have a lot more creative latitude to work with – they don’t have to bother introducing all these characters every time, and because there have been so many different iterations already, they don’t have to worry about creating some kind of mythical ‘definitive’ version of the comics character. The Batman mythos is uniquely open to being adapted to suit the creative vision of anyone working within it.

So what is Matt Reeves’ take on the material? He establishes quite quickly that Batman has only been doing his thing for a couple of years, as you’d expect given the casting of the youthful-looking Robert Pattinson in the role. (Given he routinely goes around introducing himself by growling ‘I am vengeance’, it’s not surprising several characters start calling him Mr Vengeance instead of Batman.) There’s a nice sequence demonstrating that Batman really is intent on a reign of terror against Gotham City’s criminal element, then we’re off into the plot proper: in the middle of an election campaign, Gotham’s mayor is gruesomely murdered by someone who enjoys leaving fiendishly tricky puzzles at the crime scene; Batman and his ally Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) follow the trail, but find themselves uncovering a conspiracy hinting at festering corruption at the heart of the city’s establishment. But what does the killer really want – and what’s a good name for a villain obsessed with riddles, anyway…?

Reeves’ version of Gotham City inclines a bit more towards Nolan’s than Burton’s; it’s certainly light years away from anything in the Joel Schumacher films. The vibe is very much one of Watchmen meeting Seven – the main point of distinction, really, between this and the Nolan trilogy is the pervasive sense of stygian gloom and incipient horror that’s constantly in the air.

This is certainly the bleakest and most nihilistic movie ever to engage in high-profile cross-promotion with a Japanese subcompact crossover SUV and a brand of cream-filled sandwich cookie (you can imagine Matt Reeves groaning and sinking his face into his hands when he heard about this). In many ways the film takes rather an easy and obvious option in this department, presenting Gotham (and by extension the world) as a relentlessly horrible, nightmarish place, where society is riddled with corruption from top to bottom, and Batman himself is engaged on a futile (and perhaps counterproductive) crusade driven more by an urge to violence than any higher motive. There is occasionally the odd grace note of hope, of course.

To work in this kind of setting, the Batman characters are all dialled down to their most naturalistic settings, in the process losing most of the gaudy whimsicality which is surely what made them so memorable – a fat-suited Colin Farrell is unrecognisable as the Penguin, which has a certain symmetry to it as this version of the character is virtually unrecognisable as the top-hatted and umbrella-wielding villain most people will be familiar with. Something similar goes on with Zoe Kravitz’s love-interest burglar, who is a Woman With Cats, but not permitted to be anything more outlandish. Paul Dano is effective enough as the Riddler, but also essentially unrecognisable – he’s a combination of splenetic InCel and online conspiracy-monger.

Despite all this, the film often bears a surprising resemblance to previous Batman movies – if we’re serious about our thesis that Batman films are their own separate subgenre, then these moments of repetition would be the conventions of the form. The suggestion that Batman has more in common with the villain than he would perhaps be comfortable with gets articulated again, although quite subtly for most of the movie; more prosaically, the unveiling of the new Batmobile is held back until the second act, acting as the prelude to a big action sequence. In the end Gotham City itself – or at least a big chunk of it – faces an existential threat.

It’s a polished, well-mounted and effective movie, that tells a complex tale well, with some strong performances – but I can’t help feeling that the very archetypal quality that enables it to function also keeps it from really being distinctive. The Nolan movies worked so well in part because they were so startlingly different from what had come before them – this film feels more like Batman-as-usual, albeit done to a high standard, and with lashings of extra gloom and oppressiveness. (Michael Giacchino’s score is effective, but his Batman theme is about one modulation away from turning into Darth Vader’s, which I’m sure wasn’t the intention.)

Nevertheless, this is towards the top of the pile of recent DC Comics movies – which means that, the modern world being as it is, two sequels and various TV spin-offs are already in the works. Clearly Warner Brothers are convinced that you can never have too much Batman. I’m not so sure – but a visit to Gotham City now and then has its own special pleasures, many of which The Batman successfully provides.

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With the benefit of hindsight, it’s starting to look like one of the key mainstream films of the last few years was 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Perhaps simply because it was a cartoon, and thus to some extent operating under the critical radar, it felt like it had more freedom to embrace some of the more bizarre and imaginative elements of traditional superhero comic books – the result was a critical response verging on the adulatory and a very healthy box office take.

Normally I would suggest that everyone involved was taking notes and that Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home is an attempt to replicate the success of Into the Spider-Verse in a live-action context, but the startling degree to which Marvel Studios plan their operations in advance – up to ten years, if one believes their publicity – does give me pause. Unless Into the Spider-Verse was intended as a kind of test-bed for the new movie all along, of course.

Superhero movies in general seem to have got a bit brighter and bolder since Into the Spider-Verse, anyway, and this does not appear to have affected their dominance even in the post-viral world. That said, I don’t think that any of this year’s first three Marvel Studios releases showcased the enterprise at its best, while Venom: Let There Be Carnage was possibly even more of an enjoyable mess than its predecessor. (Which would mean that The Suicide Squad was the best comic-book movie of the summer: a surprising thought.) Rather gratifyingly, No Way Home sees the Marvel machine finally slip back into high gear and produce a supremely entertaining, wildly imaginative, and surprisingly touching film.

Great Scott! Even the poster should carry a spoiler alert!

The film follows on more or less seamlessly from the end of 2019’s Far From Home (watch the quibbling between maintainers of MCU chronologies begin!), with Spider-Man (Tom Holland) alarmed to find himself in the frame for the death of Mysterio and his identity exposed, courtesy of a tabloid news service run by J Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films).

This is obviously bad trouble for our lad, not least because it imperils not just him but also the lives of those nearest and dearest to him. Even after his immediate legal issues are resolved (the initiated should not be terribly surprised by the identity of Peter Parker’s attorney), it is clear that the scandal is impacting on the prospects and happiness of his best friend Ned (Jacob Balaton) and his girlfriend Michelle (Zendaya Coleman). It would, of course, be greatly preferable if the revelation of his identity had never been made, but of course that’s impossible. Or is it?

Cue a maximal Steve Ditko quotient as Peter trots off to beg a favour from Dr Strange (originally created by the same artist as Spider-Man, of course). Can Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual) use his sorcery to fix the situation somehow? Unfortunately, Peter’s tendency to run off at the mouth manifests at exactly the worst moment, as usual, and the plan to ensure everyone forgets Spider-Man’s identity does not go entirely as planned…

And how am I supposed to write about the rest of the movie, I ask myself? I suspect there’s a kind of spectrum when it comes to people’s engagement with No Way Home – at one end there are presumably those who’ve only barely heard of Spider-Man and only go along to see the movie because they’re dragged there by friends or family. Then there are people who’ve seen all the trailers and thus have a pretty good idea of what the big conceit of this film is, even if some of the details may come as a surprise. And then there are people like me: I’ve been following the buzz around this film for months, and have been quietly amused by some of the ways it has impacted on other films (certain performers pre-emptively apologising for not being able to answer questions about No Way Home while they’re supposedly being interviewed about something completely different).

It’s almost impossible to write meaningfully about everything that makes No Way Home such a great piece of entertainment without spoiling things that really should come as a surprise, if at all possible. At least, it seems like a great piece of entertainment to me, as someone who has been watching Spider-Man movies on the big screen since the movies themselves were simply repurposed American TV episodes. The standard this last twenty years has been inestimably higher – it seems a little unfair to me that the reputation of the Sam Raimi films has taken a hit simply because Spider-Man 3 wasn’t quite up to the standard of the first two, while I don’t think that either of the films directed by Marc Webb were quite as disappointing as they are now held to be. One of the loveliest things about No Way Home is the way that it unreservedly celebrates the whole lineage of Spider-Man films leading up to this point: I think it will cause a lot of people to revisit those films and hopefully remember just how good some superhero movies were, even in pre-Marvel Studios days.

After a few films in which the links to the larger Marvel universe (or perhaps we should call it the multiverse now?) felt a bit laboured or tenuous, No Way Home feels like it’s back at the heart of the action without any real sense of contrivance. Chief guest star from the other Marvel Studio films this time is Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange: more than just a cameo, this is a proper chunky supporting role (presumably setting up next year’s Multiverse of Madness). Cumberbatch finds his groove within the more comedic style of the current Spider-Man films very quickly, and manages to make an impression despite a lot of formidable opposition.

I’m aware that the movie-going world tends to fall into two camps: people who are on board with the Marvel project, recognising these films as the excellent entertainment they are, and people who aren’t (whether their response is indifference or outright animosity). The best review in the world isn’t going to persuade members of the latter camp – and it is true that No Way Home is convoluted and stuffed with in-jokes and references mostly aimed at the faithful. But it also has energy, humour, soul, and a real sense of joy and delight. Films like this are the reason why Marvel Studios have become the dominant force in mainstream global cinema.

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With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was always the Eternals who had the most potential to throw a spanner in the works of the mighty Marvel machine. One of the more abstruse debates in the realms of comic book history is the exact nature of the working relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and who, if anyone, was the dominant creative talent. Both men claimed it was them, one way or another; Lee was a more flamboyant self-publicist by far, and had another quarter-century to put his side of the story after Kirby died in 1994, hence his status as the perceived Prime Mover of the Marvel Universe.

Not that this is necessarily untrue. Working together, the Lee-Kirby partnership produced the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, Black Panther and the Silver Surfer. Lee working with other artists, most notably Steve Ditko, created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Kirby working alone, on the other hand… well, he co-created Captain America back in the 1940s, but apart from that – Machine Man, anyone? Devil Dinosaur?

The original Eternals comic-book was the product of Kirby’s mid-seventies sojourn with Marvel Comics, something he wrote and pencilled himself. Heavily influenced by (amongst other things) the ‘ancient astronaut’ books of Swiss hotelier and convicted tax-fraud Erich von Daniken, it was never really supposed to be a part of the larger Marvel universe, being a cosmology separate to itself. It didn’t stay that way, of course, but the grafting of the Eternals characters onto the wider continuity has never quite taken: someone has a go at doing something with the Eternals every few years, which is briefly successful, but then they all get quietly forgotten about for a while, until the next revival comes along (one obscure bit of the lore is that, in the comics, Thanos is technically an Eternal; it’s not entirely clear if or how the movies are going to deal with this).

Will Chloe Zhao’s movie do anything to break this age-old (well, decades-old) cycle? Let us not forget that Zhao has the singular distinction of releasing a Marvel movie in the same year that her previous film (Nomadland – no, still haven’t seen it) won Best Picture at the Oscars. (What was that quote about what Fred and Ginger individually brought to their partnership?)

Well, the film gets underway with the first of several big whomps of exposition to the viewer’s head – delivered by roller caption, no less. It all boils down to a bunch of almost infinitely powerful aliens called the Celestials sending a slightly less infinitely powerful bunch of aliens called Eternals to Earth, to protect the developing human race from some considerably less infinitely powerful aliens called Deviants. (Lots of blazing cosmic power in the mix here, along with Kirby’s gift for rather oddball nomenclature – which the film rather cheekily cocks a few snooks at.)

We get to see the Eternals arriving on Earth in 5000 BCE: there is a nicely understated raid on Kubrick as their black slab of a starship slides toward the planet out of the void of space, followed by some well-staged superhero action in the classic style as they save some primitive humans from marauding, sinewy Deviants. All this stuff in the ancient past with the Eternals introducing humanity to various innovations (agriculture, steam-power, the Mexican accent) takes place in a lyrical-pastoral-mythical mode which I found rather pleasing, to be honest.

Cue a jump forward to the present day, where Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan), who has vast cosmic powers and never ages but still apparently can’t grasp the concept of an alias, is working in London. An immense earthquake is followed by the emergence of a new strain of Deviant (whom the Eternals figured they’d killed off centuries ago, after which they went their separate ways). Her old flame Ikaris (Richard Madden) turns up to help out, and they decide it is time to get the band back together. When it turns out that one of their number has already been slain (the awkward bit of comics lore where Eternals are literally immortal and indestructible has been dispensed with for the film), the scene is set for the revelation of the truth about the Eternals’ true nature and that of their mission on Earth…

So, a bit of an outlier as Marvel movies go: so much so that you can almost imagine Eternals working better as a standalone film with no ties to the rest of the franchise (in line with Jack Kirby’s original concept). The links that do make it in feel more than usually contrived; Marvel seem to feel obliged to cram obscure characters into each new film at this point, to say nothing of a voice cameo by… ah, I shouldn’t spoil it. (There are also a couple of references to DC Comics characters, who are apparently part of pop culture in the Marvel world. One wonders if the DC movie adaptations are any better over there.)

On the other hand, the fact the Eternals are such an obscure property – I could only have told you the names of a couple of these guys – means that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been very free to come in and give them a proper seeing to, retaining the names and (to some extent) power sets of the characters but changing ethnicities, genders, and almost everything else, regardless of Kirby’s original conception or indeed whether it even makes sense on the film’s own terms. But then this is the nature of modern culture, as is the appearance of a disagreeable trope, the nature of which would be another spoiler.

There are still a whole bunch of Eternals, though, which means many of them inevitably spend a lot of time in the crowd scenes just standing around in the background – one main character is completely absent throughout the climax and I honestly didn’t notice he wasn’t involved. Who manages to cut through? Well, Madden does okay as Ikaris, as does Salma Hayek as the matriarch Ajak; Angelina Jolie undeniably makes an impression in a rather secondary role as mentally-fragile war-goddess Thena. There’s an interesting role for Kumail Nanjiani as an Eternal who’s become a Bollywood star – however, as ostensible lead Sersi, Gemma Chan is amiable but essentially affectless.

And the result is… well, the film certainly has scope and a sort of visual majesty about it, even if some of its ruminations on the nature of belief and free will and destiny aren’t anything like as profound as the film-makers were probably hoping for. It’s all a bit like a galleon under full sail: deeply impressive and beautiful to look upon, and maybe even rather stirring, but at the same time hardly agile and not exactly what you’d call sparky fun, either. (Some might say this gives it the authentic feel of one of Jack Kirby’s solo projects.) It may well be that this is the best adaptation of Eternals one could realistically hope for, but at the time of writing this is the worst-reviewed film in Marvel Studios’ history (‘the script is a load of hooey’ is the considered opinion of one writer on a major British paper), and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, it’s hard to think of another film in the Marvel meta-franchise which is less obviously a crowd-pleaser.

That said, a healthy crowd turned out for the first showing at my local multiplex (what can I say, I needed to get out of the house to avoid the cleaners), and the two evening showings that day were close to selling out, so it would be foolish to declare Eternals to be the death-knell of the whole Marvel project. But this will be a considerable test of the brand’s ability to retain an audience, I suspect. Future plot developments may prove otherwise, but for now this looks like the least essential Marvel movie in ages.

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I like Tom Hardy; he’s a talented guy. I also like Andy Serkis, for the same reason. I like Woody Harrelson, Naomie Harris, and Reece Shearsmith too, and I suppose I don’t have a beef with Stephen Graham or Michelle Williams either, now that I think about it. An enviably talented bunch, that lot, with some really impressive work behind them.

Quite what they’re all doing making Venom: Let There Be Carnage together, I have no idea, but I suspect the siren song of an $850 million box office return for the original film may have something to do with it. That is a slightly baffling figure for a not-especially-good film where (essentially) a pool of brain-eating slime is the theoretical protagonist and lots of things don’t actually make a great deal of sense. But here we are, with a sequel touted as featuring ‘one of Marvel’s greatest and most complex characters’.

(Yes, we are back in the realm of Marvel Comics-inspired movies yet again, though – for anyone not versed in such matters – this is not an actual Marvel Studios production, but one made ‘in association with Marvel’ – basically, Marvel sold off the rights to the Venom character years ago to Sony, who know a promising bandwagon when they see it and are pressing ahead with their at-a-slight-remove franchise of Spider-Man characters, tangentially connected to the Marvel Studios juggernaut.)

Greatest? Well, that’s a matter of opinion – but ‘most complex’? Venom’s a pool of brain-eating slime that started off as a gimmick costume for Spider-Man, so let’s not get delusions of grandeur here – we’re hardly talking about Othello or Hamlet. Thankfully, the film has little truck with this sort of pretentiousness, cheerfully chucking it out (but presumably failing to notice that things like characterisation and plot coherence were apparently packed in the same box).

Tom Hardy, who also co-wrote the story and co-produced the film, once again plays Eddie Brock, a whiny loser of a journalist who is still sharing his body with Venom, an alien symbiote with various bizarre powers, an egotistical personality, no moral compass whatsoever and an insatiable appetite for brains. (The dynamic between the two of them is oddly reminiscent of that of Rod Hull and Emu, although with more CGI.) For reasons mainly to do with the requirements of the plot, Brock is summoned to meet with imprisoned serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson).

This whole plot element is epically fudged, to be honest, but the upshot is that Kasady is sent to death row, for which he blames Brock. (Forget all those years of appeals and pleas for clemency you often see in movies and documentaries – on this occasion, from sentencing to execution seems to take about a day and half.) However, Kasady also manages to eat part of the Venom symbiote (don’t ask), which fissions off into an angry red blob with severe daddy issues called Carnage. Pausing only to bust his crazed girlfriend (Harris) out of an institute for mentally unstable people with mutant powers, Carnage sets off to destroy Venom, Brock, and everyone close to them…

(Yes, it is very odd that, in a film set in a world where there isn’t a superhero on every street corner and Venom and Carnage appear to be the only unusual inhabitants, someone randomly turns up with mutant powers, but no-one makes much of a fuss about it even though it feels like a stretch for this particular movie. But the whole issue of the relationship between the different Marvel franchises is a live and dynamic one right now, and this film is likely to be discussed a lot with particular reference to a moment which will presumably end up being blamed on Lokiette nuking the Sacred Timeline.)

I thought the greatest value of the first Venom movie was as a stern reminder of just how bad a lot of superhero movies were, X-Men franchise excepted, in the late 90s and the early years of this century. This one is, objectively speaking, at least as bad and quite possibly worse – it’s a toss-up as to whether the plot makes more or less sense this time around, but there’s also an undistinguished performance from Harrelson, who is perhaps a bit swamped by all the CGI, and Harris frantically chewing the scenery as an almost totally one-dimensional character.

And yet, and yet… oh dear. I have to confess that I really enjoyed a lot of this film, although I did feel a bit embarrassed about it even at the time. This is mainly because the movie isn’t afraid to really engage with the potential silliness of the relationship between Brock and the symbiote and play it hard for laughs. The bromance between the two of them and their various squabbles over who is in charge, are actually quite sweet and funny, and Tom Hardy gives a genuinely accomplished comic performance, both in terms of physical slapstick as Brock, and vocally as Venom. (Never mind Patrick Stewart or Ronnie Kray or Bane, the Venom voice is probably the most impressive in Hardy’s repertoire.)

Perhaps one of the problems of the film, for Woody Harrelson in particular, is that Carnage comes across as a slightly tedious single-issue version of Venom, with essentially the same powers and a boring personality – if Harrelson had found a way to differentiate between the two characters more effectively, the rest of the film might have been as engaging as Tom Hardy’s comedy schtick.

In the end it is really just an exercise in simple charisma and incidental pleasures; the film is paced like an absolute bullet, presumably to ensure no-one has time to think about exactly what’s going on in front of their eyes – most of the time you’re bombarded with decent gags frequently enough to keep the weaknesses of the film from seeming too obvious. (That said, the climactic CGI battle is, as usual, 10-15% too long.)

I wouldn’t bet against Let There Be Carnage’s mixture of CGI-boosted grisliness and slapstick turning out to be just as big a hit as it was the last time around, but it’s difficult to see where they can go next with the character without repeating themselves – beyond the obvious alternative, which is to do a team-up with one of the other characters they have the rights to. That would certainly be interesting. Putting Venom into a bigger world might do both him and it some good; as it stands, this film is likely headed for cult guilty pleasure status.

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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 say 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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