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Posts Tagged ‘superhero’

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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What can one say about David Yarovesky’s Brightburn? I can only pass on my response to seeing the first trailer for the film, which was to paraphrase what Rudyard Kipling said after first encountering a particularly startling story by Arthur Machen – all I could think of was the sheer audacity of the thing. This is one of those films built around a single breathtakingly good idea, the kind of thing that makes one wonder why no-one came up with it earlier. That said, it is strange to consider how a film which is by its very nature almost totally derivative can feel so fresh and original.

The film is set in Brightburn, a small town in rural Kansas. Almost at once we meet Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a farming couple whose dearest wish is to have a child. But all is fruitless, until one night when a strange meteorite lands in the woods near their home. Investigation reveals that it is not really a meteorite, but some kind of wreckage, and within it they find a baby boy, miraculously unharmed. Their prayers have been answered!

Well, ten years or so skip by and the baby has grown up to be Brandon (Jackson A Dunn), an extremely bright young lad, who ends up taking flak from his peers as a result, as is so often the case. But all is good until something flickers into activity in the wreckage buried under the Breyers’ barn. Brandon begins to become surly and uncommunicative, which his adoptive parents naturally assume is due to the onset of puberty. Kyle takes him off to the woods on a hunting trip and explains how it is perfectly natural to feel certain urges and impulses, and that Brandon shouldn’t be afraid to act on those now and then. This is advice he probably comes to regret.

Tori in particular is as devoted to Brandon as ever, even though his erratic behaviour continues: a girl who has rejected his awkward romantic overtures ends up with a pulverised hand. The sheriff is called, but no charges are proferred – and the sheriff soon has other things on his plate to worry about, anyway, such as a string of mysterious disappearances and deaths (coincidentally amongst people who have ticked Brandon off, funnily enough). But how are the forces of truth, justice and the American way supposed to contend with a killer capable of throwing trucks, melting holes in steel doors and moving too fast to be seen…?

The film makes no real attempt to disguise what it’s doing, which seems sensible because what would be the point? The whole raison d’etre of the film is to subvert one particular story, which even though it’s only about 80 years old has already achieved the stature almost of folklore. For very good legal reasons, Brightburn is very careful about just how closely and particularly it references its source material. It seems slightly perverse that the first organisation listed in the ‘Thanks To’ section of the credits is Marvel Studios, while Warner Brothers (legal owners of that source material) are not even mentioned.

Then again, the producer of Brightburn is James Gunn, and a perverse sense of very dark humour is exactly what we would all have expected from him up until about five years ago. These days Gunn is famous for his work on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but before that he wrote and directed twisted genre films like Slither and Super (an extremely obscure reference to which duly appears in Brightburn). Brightburn is cut very much from the same cloth, because for all of its SF trappings and the references to the superhero genre, this is at heart a gleefully gory and brutal horror movie.

Well, that’s what happens when you couple the almost limitless power of an alien demigod with the psyche of a messed-up boy on the cusp of adolescence, I suppose. This is, obviously, a nightmarish prospect, and the film is energetically inventive in finding ways of illustrating this. It’s only a brisk ninety minutes or so in length, and doesn’t hang about worrying too much about things like establishing atmosphere or deep characterisations; the fact that most of these characters are thinly tweaked versions of well-known archetypes helps in this respect.

Even so, I still feel the film really misses a trick – a particularly brutal twist of the knife, as it were – by suggesting that Brandon is effectively the victim of brainwashing or possession by something from his place of origin. There’s no sense of his inner conflict, of him fighting a losing battle with the temptations presented by his burgeoning powers and finally succumbing to corruption and evil. The film just seems to want to get on with the set-piece horror sequences. As a result he emerges as something of a stock figure from paedophobic horror cinema, obviously a spiritual descendant of Damien from The Omen as well as (possibly) the biological offspring of someone from a planet named after a noble gas.

However, this isn’t an entirely superficial piece of storytelling, either: front and centre for most of the film is Elizabeth Banks, one of those people you underestimate at your peril – I know she is probably best-known as the one with the crazy hair from the Hunger Games films, but she has a CV filled with smart choices (she was in Slither, which may explain her connection with Gunn). Banks gives the film some real heart and a sense of angst, as Tori initially flatly refuses to believe that there is anything amiss with her son, only to slowly realise it may be a mistake to take undocumented space refugees into your family, no matter how cute they may initially appear. David Denman has a slightly less flashy role as the father, but still gets some good moments and really makes you feel them.

It’s also quite impressive that the film manages to stay focused on its concept as carefully as it does, and never seems in danger of turning into an obvious spoof or exercise in tongue-in-cheek humour. This is all done in deadly earnest, which, ironically, is one of the things which makes it feel so fresh and fun. This is not a perfect movie, but (provided you can take the grisly moments) it is a very impressive and entertaining one. It may sound like dark burlesque or subversion of its source material, but in an admittedly strange fashion it honours that source material at least as well as any of the most recent adaptations of it.

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

‘Certainly, sir. Somewhere in the middle?’

‘Well, from the beginning, ideally.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film-making is not an exact science, and the exact length of the Minimal Acceptable Period Before Remake is one of those subjective things: it used to be at least twenty years, but recent developments have seen this being cut down quite considerably – Dino de Laurentiis took considerable stick for making two versions of Red Dragon only fifteen years apart, but the response to Sony doing Spider-Man’s origin twice in barely more than a decade received much more muted grumbling. Equally open to debate is that other cinematic figure, Optimum Period Before Sequel, although here there seems to be more of a consensus – two or three years is generally considered to be the ideal, although Disney have taken up something of an outlying position here, what with the 54 year wait between films about their supernatural dominatrix.

All of which brings us, more or less, to Neil Marshall’s Hellboy, which began its development as a sequel to the two films about Mike Mignola’s hell-spawned superhero made by Guillermo del Toro in the mid 2000s. The producers eventually decided not to ask del Toro back to complete his planned trilogy (good move, guys, I mean – it’s not like he’s done anything worth mentioning in the last couple of years, is it?), at which point the film was switched to being a remake, or relaunch, or reimagining, or whatever the buzzy word for doing a new version of something well-known is these days.

It almost instantly becomes obvious that del Toro’s studiously subtle and quirkily atmospheric sensibility has not survived into the new film, as we are plunged into a flashback to the Dark Ages – known as such for a ‘****ing good reason’, according to the narration – where King Arthur is battling an army of demons and monsters, led by the sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich – ignore that sound you think you can hear, it’s just alarm bells starting to ring). The film’s extravagant fondness for lavish CGI gore becomes apparent as King Arthur dismembers his opponent and has the various bits entombed in secret locations across the British isles – ‘this isn’t over!’ cries Jovovich’s severed head as it is thrust into a box, and as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet, it’s hard to argue with that. (Suggestions that the new Hellboy shares a fair chunk of its plot with The Kid Who Would Be King seem to me to have some truth to them.)

Then we’re back in the present day, where Hellboy (David Harbour) is taking part in a Mexican wrestling match with a luchador who’s actually a vampire, which sets up various plot and character points. Any thought that this might actually be a continuation of the del Toro films is finally put to rest, as Hellboy’s adopted father is alive again, and this time played by Ian McShane. For no particularly credible reason, McShane decides to fill Hellboy in on his origins, as he has apparently not bothered to do so in the previous 75 years and Hellboy has seemingly never thought to ask. With this flagrant slab of exposition out of the way, Hellboy is packed off to the UK to assist an aristocratic bunch of British occultists deal with an infestation of man-eating giants. But there is more afoot than the giant feet of the giants! Someone is gathering together the various bits of Milla Jovovich, and if they can complete the set, she will rise again and unleash a terrible plague upon the world, possibly even worse than the Resident Evil movie series…

Apparently the main idea that Neil Marshall brought to this project was the idea that it would straddle the horror and superhero boundaries. (This may explain the weird mish-mash of superhero, fantasy and horror trailers running before Hellboy, which included the same trailer for The Curse of La Llorona twice.) Well, hmmm. I have to say that I have always felt rather indulgent towards Neil Marshall, as his films tend to have a great sense of fun and energy, even if they are often wildly OTT gorefests. And he has made one genuinely great horror film, 2005’s The Descent, a wrenchingly tense and scary movie. Generally speaking, though, he just doesn’t seem to have the patience involved in creating the right kind of atmosphere to properly frighten an audience, and settles for just grossing them out with blood and guts spraying across the screen. This is certainly the route that his version of Hellboy takes, and I’m not really sure how it helps the project much: it doesn’t exactly broaden the appeal of the movie, just reinforces the impression that it is primarily aimed at heavy metal fans.

Of course, this was the movie that drew controversy before production even began because of some of its casting choices were considered to be ethnically inappropriate – the actor initially cast as Hellboy was not actually a demon, thus depriving representation to performers who were genuinely from the abyssal realm. Then everybody sat down and had a good think and realised that a) you’re never going to please everyone when it comes to this sort of thing and b) once someone’s in the Hellboy make-up, you can’t really tell who they are anyway, so it’s best not to get stressed out about it. So they went with David Harbour anyway. Harbour is okay at playing the sulky teenager elements of the role, but struggles to do much more with it; his great good fortune is to be acting opposite Milla Jovovich, who makes most people look good in comparison. Jovovich’s contribution sets the tone for most of the acting in this film, by which I mean it is by and large quite lousy; McShane phones in a decent performance, though, and there is some amusing voice work from Stephen Graham as a fairy with the head of a pig.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the actors can only work with what they’re given, which in this case is a fairly ropy script seemingly more concerned with lurching from one gory CGI set-piece to the next, with clunky exposition and iffy dialogue filling in the gaps. The saving grace of the new Hellboy is not that it brings us an important message or makes a great deal of sense, or even a small amount of sense, or even any sense whatsoever; it is that Marshall is clearly having a whale of a time smashing all these very disparate ideas together, doing so with great energy and even the occasional shaft of genuine wit (to pass the time before she is constituted, Nimue’s henchman piles her various body parts on a sofa, where she passes the time watching reality TV – it certainly provides motivation for her desiring the apocalypse).

The new Hellboy is not in the same league as either of the del Toro films, lacking their charm, subtlety or attention to detail; as mentioned, the actors are not well-served by the script, either. But I would be lying if I said it does not provide a certain kind of entertainment value. You really do have to indulge it a bit, though, and it may be that many people just won’t be prepared to do that. Which is fair enough. I don’t think any sane observer would claim that Hellboy is a great movie, but it’s a reasonably fun bad movie.

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