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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m not going to beat around the bush – I’m just going to come straight out and tell you this. Julie Andrews, movie legend, international treasure, beloved (it would seem) of millions, has decided to lend her talents to her first live-action movie in nearly ten years. Now, if you had told me this a couple of days ago, I would have said ‘Ha ha! Secret cameo! But of course. It was inevitable,’ in the full and certain knowledge of which film she was coming out of (semi-)retirement for. But I was wrong. She is not in the movie you would expect her to be in. Instead, Julie Andrews is playing a giant kaiju-esque sea monster living in a mystical subterranean ocean in James Wan’s Aquaman. This is one of those facts that causes me to wonder if I am having some kind of psychological episode, or at the very least have eaten the wrong kind of cheese.

On the other hand, it does give you a general sense of the kind of tenor of Aquaman, which is in no way the film I would have expected a year or so ago. With Marvel Studios cheerfully pumping out three films a year on a regular basis, it feels – perhaps unfairly – a little surprising that their rivals at Warner Brothers/DC should basically have taken most of 2018 off, as we’ve seen nothing from them since last November’s could-have-been-much-worse Justice League. On the other hand, the DC movie line has routinely been met with such eviscerating reviews (I put my hand up unashamedly) and use of words like ‘omni-crisis’ that it’s entirely understandable they should take a breather, listen to what people are saying, and rethink what they’ve been doing. Aquaman is definitely a change of gear.

Thirty-odd years ago, lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) is startled to find a woman (Nicole Kidman) in an outlandish outfit washed up during a storm. After  a bumpy start (she eats his goldfish and sticks a trident through the TV while Stingray is showing – clearly not a Gerry Anderson fan) romance blossoms between the two of them. It turns out she is Atlanna, queen of Atlantis, in self-imposed exile to avoid an arranged marriage. The pair of them end up having a kid, before her past resurfaces (sorry) and she is forced to leave them both and return to the underwater world.

The child is named Arthur and grows up to become the definition of a strapping lad (Jason Momoa), who leads a fairly carefree life when not appearing in other movies as ‘the metahuman known as the Aquaman’ (note the addition of the definite article – which I don’t recall ever seeing applied to the comics version of the character – in an attempt to somehow make him seem more mature and portentous), as he can swim at incredible speeds, breathe water, and talk to fish (historically the source of some embarrassment to writers of Aquaman), in addition being very big and tough.

The movie has been practically dancing along so far, but at this point the plot kicks in, which is fair enough – but as much of the exposition is delivered by Dolph Lundgren, with CGI magenta hair, while riding on a prehistoric sea monster, I was rather distracted and not in the best state to take it all in. Basically it goes a little something like this: Arthur’s younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is intent on uniting the various splintered kingdoms of Atlantis and having himself declared Ocean Master. His plan to achieve this is to provoke a war between the people of the ocean and those living on the surface. Already King Nereus of Xebel (Lundgren) has signed up.

However, Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) and Orm’s vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) recognise a mad scheme when they hear one and have a plan to stop it. This involves persuading Arthur to press his claim to the throne of Atlantis and go off on an epic quest to retrieve the magic trident which is one of the symbols of power in the sunken city. Orm, naturally, is not pleased when he learns of all this, and despatches a high-tech pirate calling himself Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to stop them…

Now, I became aware of Aquaman at a fairly young age, along with most of the other core DC characters. At this point he was still a fairly nondescript chap in an orange shirt whose signature ability (talking to fish) didn’t really match up to running at the speed of light, having an invisible plane, or being able to shoot heat rays out of your eyes. Various attempts to make Aquaman a bit more interesting as a character ensued over the years, with the most effective (if you ask me) being the one done by Peter David (credited on this movie) in the middle 1990s – this would be the version of Aquaman with the attitude, the beard, the gladiator vest and the hook replacing one of his hands. Do I detect the influence of the David Aquaman on this movie? Well, Momoa obviously has the beard and the attitude, so maybe, although ultimately they go back to the orange shirt costume, and don’t bother with the hook (someone did point out it would make it difficult for Aquaman to go to the bathroom, although I’ve never been able to work out how the sanitation in Atlantis would function anyway).

Momoa basically plays Aquaman (or Ah-quaman, as some of the people here pronounce it) as a not-especially-bright bro, a take on the character which works in this context even if it’s not particularly authentic to the comics. It’s a perfectly good, charismatic performance, although I suspect the best he can hope for is a Chris Hemsworth level of stardom, where people will flock to see him only if he’s playing one particular role. Perhaps I’m damning with faint praise, for Momoa does do the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying what’s a big, hefty movie.

Anyone expecting the kind of industrial gloom of something touched by the hand of Zach Snyder will be in for a big surprise, for there is a very different sensibility at work here: this is a light, fun fantasy epic, somewhat influenced by a bunch of other recent blockbusters (and not just ones from Marvel Studios), with its own very distinct aesthetic – there are garishly-coloured vistas throughout, and all manner of unlikely CGI critters (including, and we mustn’t forget this, Julie Andrews). Perhaps they are overcompensating somewhat, for the grim-and-gloomy of the earlier films has been replaced by a tone which is often as camp as Christmas (shrewd choice of release date, guys), sometimes absurdly so, with a rainbow-hued fluorescent colour-scheme.

In the end, popcorn fun results, thanks to a script which hangs together well and doesn’t worry about too many other DC references (there’s an attempted HP Lovecraft in-joke at one point, but they seem to have chosen the wrong book). The film has an interesting, eclectic cast who do good work, on the whole – personally, I can’t believe I’ve turned up to see a major Hollywood release featuring Dolph Lundgren two weeks in a row. His appearance here isn’t as good as the one in Creed II, but could we nevertheless be seeing the start of a Lundgrenaissance? Fingers crossed. I’m not entirely sure what Black Manta contributes to the movie beyond a major second-act action sequence, but then again the character is saddled with an especially silly costume design.

Aquaman is such a change of pace for the DC movies series that I’m genuinely curious to hear what fans of these films make of it – apparently there were a lot of complaints that Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League was just too entertaining and faithful to the comics, and that Snyder’s depressing and misconceived vision should be respected and preserved. We’re off into a whole new world of camp nonsense with this film, and on its own terms it works just fine – I imagine it will do rather well for itself, although this does seem like an unusually crowded Christmas for aspiring blockbusters (in the absence of a stellar conflict movie, everyone seems to be piling in). I’m not sure if this approach will work for any other characters in the DC stable, but then again maybe the trick will be to not worry about the consistency of tone which has been such a mixed blessing for the Marvel films. I don’t think Aquaman has quite the same quality as Wonder Woman, but it’s still a very enjoyable piece of silliness, much better than any of the other recent DC films – fingers crossed they can keep this standard up in future.

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

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

Venom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Even in our experience-intensive modern world, it turns out that people can go through their lives without ever having one of those normal, routine experiences that most of us take for granted. I’ve never ridden a bike, for example (well, to be honest there are many physical-type pursuits which are completely alien to me, mostly due to my total lack of coordination); I know other people who have never had a curry or flown on a plane. Nevertheless, the film-following contingent where I work were surprised to discover that in our midst was someone with a startling secret that they eventually decided to disclose. ‘I have never seen a Marvel Comics movie,’ our colleague announced.

I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? Well, we are a compassionate bunch and rallied round, providing advice and flow-charts about how best to rectify this, which films to watch first, and which ones to possibly skip (tougher than you’d think to decide on this stuff: personally, and I know this is controversial, I think Iron Man 3 is one of the studio’s most entertaining films, but it’s hardly essential to the ongoing meta-plot). It almost goes without saying that when the next Marvel film came around – and , let’s face it, it’s not like the wait is ever a particularly long one, even when the UK release gets delayed, as has been the case here – we took our colleague along to see it. ‘I can’t believe I’m finally going to see my first Marvel film!’ whispered our friend as the lights went down. There was much clasping of shoulders and smiling; we may actually have shared a moment, swept away on a tide of heady anticipation and self-regarding smugness.

The film in question was Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, the follow-up to the same director’s Ant-Man from 2015. Of course, much water has flowed under Marvel’s bridge since then, which the film does a decent job of attempting to accommodate. As things get underway, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, who also co-wrote the film) is coming to the end of a lengthy stretch of house arrest, as a result of his role in smashing up that airport towards the end of Captain America: Civil War. He is estranged from his former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who are on the run from the authorities for providing him with the Ant-Man suit in the first place.

But Hank and Hope are not just quietly hiding: Scott’s visit to the quantum realm of the micro-universe at the end of the first film has given them hope that Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) may still be alive down there somewhere, and having been working on a plan to rescue her. It turns out that in order to do this, they need Scott’s help, and so he is quietly extracted from house arrest and whisked off to assist.

However, it turns out that many people are aware of the potential value of Pym’s shrinking technology and keen to get their hands on it, which will inevitably complicate proceedings quite considerably. Around to help or possibly hinder the trio are Scott’s old cell-mate Luis (Michael Pena), criminal and restauranteur Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), Pym’s old associate Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), and an unstable young woman known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) – she’s not really evil, just going through a phase. Luckily Hank has provided Hope with her own (somewhat more capable) suit, and she has taken up her mother’s mantle as the Wasp…

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Marvel Studios’ twentieth film, although strictly speaking it should probably be the nineteenth: attentive readers may be wondering just how the plot outlined above meshes with the state of affairs pertaining at the end of Infinity War, the previous film in the series. Well, suffice to say that Marvel have got a little bit creative with the chronology of their films, and all is explained before the end of the credits (one can only hope that Ant-Man actually appears in the Infinity War follow-up). Possibly more important is another aspect of the relationship between Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp – to my mind, the first film rather benefited from being released immediately after one of the studio’s less accomplished and purely entertaining films (Age of Ultron), for its breezy lightness was a refreshing contrast. Infinity War, on the other hand, is a great summation of what Marvel have achieved over the last ten years, and surely Ant-Man and the Wasp runs the risk of seeming just a bit small-time and disposable in comparison?

Well, to some extent this is true, at least – there are only a handful of characters with your actual superpowers in this film, as opposed to a couple of dozen (Fishburne does not actually get to appear as Goliath, who’s one of those characters most notable for the circumstances of their death anyway). And, like the first film, this is as close to being a pure comedy as anything that Marvel has released – although, to my mind, the films have generally been getting lighter over the last few years.

In many ways this one put me in mind of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, in that the key change behind the scenes is that different writers are responsible for the script. My main problem with the second Guardians film was that it didn’t feel particularly well-structured or cohesive as a story, and the same is really true here. The film kind of plays out as an extended farce or sitcom, with Scott more than once having to rush home to fool the FBI into thinking he hasn’t breached the terms of his house arrest – it’s much more about overcoming obstacles and minor antagonists than actually defeating a villain. Ghost (quite well-played by John-Kamen) isn’t actually malevolent as such, and may even strike some viewers as being somewhat sympathetic.

Certainly it’s not quite the radical development of the first film that the title might suggest: the movie still feels very much focused on Scott, although the Wasp does get some good action sequences. You might just as accurately call it Ant-Man, the Wasp, and the Wasp’s Dad (who was the first Ant-Man), because Douglas is doing good work in a prominent role. On the other hand, though, there’s a kind of conceptual progression here, building on ideas only touched on in the first film. The film’s plot may be a little underpowered and lacking in focus, but what keeps it very watchable and entertaining is the way in which the concept of things being grown and shrunk to the wrong size is explored. There’s a delightfully fantastical quality to it, particularly in the closing chase, with people, vehicles and even buildings undergoing rapid changes in scale at a frantic pace. And, of course, the film’s more comedic moments are solidly written and performed by people who are simply very good at that sort of thing. A lot of people in Marvel movies have been trying to be funny recently, but none of them are quite as good as Paul Rudd, if you ask me: one can only hope the studio makes more use of him in this respect (the campaign starts now: put Ant-Man in the Avengers!).

So, in the end, is this one of the essential keystone movies in Marvel’s project? No, absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining and very inventive addition to the MCU canon. I’m not quite sure where they can take these characters next, should a third movie prove forthcoming, but for the time being this is a fun, accessible, undemanding film that most people will probably enjoy.

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There seems to be a bit of a pattern developing, at least to the extent that whenever I end up writing about The Incredible Hulk TV show it’s more than likely to concern episodes from the fourth season. The reason for this is fairly straightforward – with any long-running, somewhat-formulaic series, most of the episodes tend to blur together and become fairly indistinguishable. The thing about the fourth season of Hulk is that there seems to have been a genuine attempt to push back against the constraints of the existing format, with episodes that break new ground or explore the characters in a new way.

This tendency is there from the very start of the season, which opens with the two-part story Prometheus. This is so radically different from the typical Hulk episode that it almost looks like the series is undergoing a significant reformat – for good or ill, this turns out not to be the case.

The story is written and directed by series overseer Kenneth Johnson, and opens with US military radar detecting an object heading for Earth out of deep space. It must be an asteroid, but… it’s a strangely symmetrical cylinder! What can it be? At least the radar techs are certain where it’s going to come down: northern Utah.

Which is where, naturally, we catch up with our man David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course), who is doing a spot of fishing. This turns out to be rather incongruous, given we later learn he has recently had one of his episodes and is planning to make his usual rapid and discreet departure, but I suppose even irradiated fugitives are allowed a fish supper now and then. Anyway, Banner comes across a young woman who has fallen in the river, and ends up fishing her out as well.

She turns out to be Katie, a recently-blinded pianist who has retired to the wilderness to be alone with her bitterness (even in one of the more genre-oriented Hulk episodes, they find time for some slightly sentimental melodrama, but this is one of the series’ charms if you ask me). Katie is played by Laurie Prange, who clearly specialised in this sort of thing: she played an heiress suffering from hysterical paralysis in the series’ second pilot.

Well, unbeknownst to Banner and Katie, the military are preparing for the arrival of the mysterious space object, although running the show is an equally mysterious agency known as Prometheus. McGee (Jack Colvin), who is in the area checking up on the recent Hulk appearance, smells a story, and starts to poke around.

Sure enough, the meteor enters the atmosphere as predicted – ‘A shallow trajectory! Almost like it’s being piloted!’ says someone in uniform. As you can see, the episode seems to be foreshadowing something highly unusual about the object, possibly even the appearance of a genuine extraterrestrial. But this is all a bit of a red herring: on this occasion, a rock is just a rock, albeit one with some unique properties.

As luck would have it, Banner and Katie are in the area when the meteorite strikes, and – thinking it may be a plane crash, with survivors needing help – Banner selflessly trots off to investigate. All he finds is a big rock – but it’s one that seems to cause him severe discomfort, the closer he gets to it. Being Banner, he ends up tripping over a beehive and turning into the Hulk (Hulk smash bees!). It has to be said that this is an extremely well-done set piece, especially considering that not very much happens.

Katie is less than thrilled when the Hulk bashes his way into her cabin, and frankly non-plussed when he reverts back to Banner. Or does he? Here the episode unveils its biggest new idea: the meteorite is giving off unique gamma radiation which screws up Banner’s body chemistry even more. Banner hasn’t fully changed back; he’s stuck in a transitional form between his human form and the Hulk, with somewhat enhanced strength, limited mental capacities, and a bestial appearance. This Demi-Hulk is mostly portrayed by Bixby under prosthetics, but there are frequent and somewhat instrusive moments where bodybuilder Ric Drasin plays the Demi-Hulk in long shot.

With the army combing the area, Katie decides to take the Demi-Hulk into town where her brother can decide what to do with him – but she ends up wandering past the meteor crater, where the army, McGee, and representatives of Prometheus are congregating. Another big set piece ensues, with the Demi-Hulk going back into his full-on green form, and a full-scale clash between the Hulk and the army on the cards. However, Prometheus has another option, dropping what is called the ‘Alpha Chamber’ (basically a dome made of foot-thick steel) on the Hulk and taking him prisoner (probably best not to worry too much about how the dome works as a piece of machinery). The episode ends with the Hulk and Katie being flown away to parts unknown…

You could probably argue that Prometheus‘ first episode is built around some suspiciously static set-pieces, but the combination of big ideas, lavish production values and excellent direction still make this one of the best episodes of the series. Of course, the second episode has the job of paying off this set-up, and it’s here that the story stumbles a bit.

All over the country, scientists attached to Prometheus are being activated and brought to the agency’s secret base, in the belief that the Hulk is actually an alien who arrived on the meteorite (there’s a very X-Files/Andromeda Strain vibe going on here). Meanwhile, the (now badly dented) dome is brought in, Katie is whisked off for examination, and the Hulk is placed in an observation area inside a microwave force-field (quite how the Hulk and Katie are separated is, once again, perhaps best not worried about).

Meanwhile, McGee has also managed to infiltrate the complex and is watching what happens with interest. Unfortunately, the Prometheus scientists meet with little success in their attempts to establish intelligent communication with the Hulk, and their bright idea of sticking a chunk of meteor rock into the chamber goes badly wrong when the enraged creature escapes by ripping a hole in the concrete floor and goes on the rampage through the complex…

This is still a very strong and distinctive episode, not least because it is so Hulk-centric – Lou Ferrigno gets much more screen-time than usual, possibly even more than Bixby. And the big new ideas keep coming, with the revelation that Prometheus is a secret government agency tasked with handling possible alien contacts and exploiting any discoveries in the American national interest (a bit like the Torchwood Institute from that other show, in fact). There’s the prospect of a team-up between McGee and Prometheus in order to capture and study the Hulk.

But all of this… doesn’t really go anywhere, unfortunately. The big climax of the episode largely concerns Banner’s relief at discovering that, away from the meteor fragments, he can fully de-Hulk himself. Which is fine, but the Hulk has been the object of so much of the episode, that for it to conclude with him as its subject is a slightly jarring shift.

And there is a lot of padding and filler in the episode – the Prometheus scientists are introduced in detail and at length (slightly sleazily, in one instance), there are endless scenes of the Alpha Chamber being moved about by crane, and so on. Even a scene in which McGee discovers the shady hidden agenda behind Prometheus doesn’t contribute much to the plot.

You almost wish the episode had really gone all the way with the sci-fi B-movie vibe and had the meteorite disgorge some kind of gamma-guzzling alien monster for the Hulk to have a proper fight with. There’s certainly slack in the episode that could be used to accommodate setting this up, and I’m sure it would have been a great climax. There was also clearly a big budget for this episode, so producing another monster suit could certainly have been possible. The series wasn’t afraid to go down this route just a few weeks later with the Hulk-on-Hulk battle at the end of The First. So one wonders why Prometheus doesn’t just go for it a bit more.

In the end, though, everything just resets back to normal come the end, with the exception of Katie being less of an embittered recluse: Banner magically replaces all his stuff and goes back on the road, McGee goes back to hunting the Hulk, and so on. Given the Hulk has just demolished a multi-million dollar base, one wonders why the US government don’t pursue him much more actively from this point on, but that’s TV from this point in time: the episodic format was king, even if it could productively be pushed against sometimes.

This is why I say that Prometheus is only halfway-brilliant – it’s full of potential which never quite gets fully realised. But even a halfway-brilliant Hulk story is still extremely watchable TV.

 

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Here comes the first big catch-up release following the cessation of footballing hostilities for another couple of years – Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2. The first Incredibles came out in 2004, a geological age ago in cinematic terms. In that year, Marvel released Spider-Man 2, which was rather good, and also the Thomas Jane-starring version of The Punisher and the third Wesley Snipes Blade movie, which were not; meanwhile DC brought out the Halle Berry Catwoman, proving that they didn’t need Zach Snyder on the payroll to make terrible movies, and there was also Hellboy, possibly one of the best of the bunch but maybe a bit too quirky to really bust blocks. Along with The Incredibles, that makes six films in the genre in the year, only a couple less than in 2018. People complain nowadays about superhero fatigue but the fact is that these films have made up a big chunk of the landscape for a long time.

Fourteen years is a long gap between films (it would have been even longer, had the production period on Incredibles 2 not been unexpectedly cut by a year), and with it comes a significant level of expectation. In this case, the expectation seems to have been that it will contain some kind of commentary on either the superhero genre or our current fascination with it – it’s a Pixar movie, after all, and this studio does have a reputation for making very, very clever films.

The action picks up pretty much where the first film ended, with the Parr family of superheroes – consisting of mighty brick Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), invisible girl Violet (Sarah Vowell), and speedster Dash (Huck Milner) – taking on the villainous Underminer, despite the fact that overtly superheroic activity has been banned for many years. That their encounter with the Underminer does not go entirely to plan, does not help the situation much, and leaves the family in somewhat dire straits financially.

However, it’s not all bad news, for the senior Parrs, along with their friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson), are contacted by the Deavours, a wealthy brother and sister who are desirous of having the superhero ban lifted. The Deavours’ plan is to get superheroes some good press, for once, and their first step in doing so is to relaunch Elastigirl, mainly because she is likely to cause rather less property damage than her husband. But can the family cope with this change in their dynamic, as Elastigirl heads off to fight crime and Mr Incredible stays home to look after the kids, each one perhaps doubting the abilities of the other…

This is, as noted, a Pixar movie, so it almost goes without saying that it is almost supernaturally beautiful to look at and inspired in its design, retaining the retro sixties-style aesthetic of the first. It also handles the various tropes of superhero fiction with confident deftness, introducing a number of new characters and staging some brilliant set pieces and action sequences. From an aesthetic point of view, this film is another huge achievement for Pixar’s artists and animators.

However, that said – anyone looking for a subversive new take on the superhero formula (such as it is) will not find much meat to chew on. The film retains the same resemblance to Marvel’s Fantastic Four that caused the makers of the 2005 FF movie so many headaches (the two families of superheroes have largely the same power set), while the idea of the superhero ban (surely derived from Watchmen) is also central to the tale. But it doesn’t really do anything new in this respect, perhaps because Pixar and Marvel Studios are both ultimately subsidiaries of Disney, who – one would guess – don’t want to risk appearing to diss a genre which has earned them billions of dollars just this year.

Instead, the film’s central idea is basically the one of gender role reversal – Elastigirl goes off to fight crime, and finds herself caught up in the machinations of a supervillain called the Screenslaver, while Mr Incredible has to contend with various domestic crises, including the baby of the family unexpectedly developing his own superpowers. And, you know, as concepts go it’s okay, although it’s a bit less radical than you might reasonably hope for – early on there’s an interesting scene touching on some quite topical issues, such as how much you should accept the various injustices of the world, and the correct response to unfair laws, but none of this is really developed. Instead we get the Elastigirl-as-a-solo-heroine storyline, which is quite engaging and contains some stunning sequences, and the sitcom stuff with the rest of the family, which is consistently fairly amusing.

The thing is that it never quite sings, with the two plotlines continuing in parallel and not really informing one another much; obviously the stuff about a working mum (and a superheroine to boot) chimes quite well with the Unique Moment, but one has to remember that the long lead times on films like this mean that this is most likely a piece of serendipity more than anything else. It certainly doesn’t feel like a film making a big statement about feminism, or indeed anything else.

As I say, the production process on Incredibles 2 was cut short by a whole year when the film’s release date was brought forward to allow more time for work on Toy Story 4 – I can’t help wondering how much it has suffered as a result. It is, as I say, an incredibly beautiful and well-made film, but it does feel very saggy around the middle, possibly overlong, and it never really engages the emotions in the way that Pixar’s best work does – the supporting film, another wonderful little short called Bao, is much more successful in this respect.

Once again we find ourselves considering the extent to which a film studio can become a victim of its own success – Incredibles 2 is, by any objective standards, a very good film in many ways – often funny, well-played, with a brilliant aesthetic and strong opening and closing sequences. But as a Pixar movie, and especially as a sequel to The Incredibles, it’s just not quite up to the standard that I was expecting. A very good film, but not really a great one, and anything less than great coming out of Pixar really is slightly disappointing.

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I have occasionally commented in the past on the meatgrinder nature of episodic TV, the constant need to find new and interesting ideas and situations that work within a particular format. Sometimes you can tell that people are just grabbing concepts from different places and slapping them together – when this works, it can produce really interesting material. But when it doesn’t, quite…

Which leads us to Deep Shock, an episode from early in the fourth season of The Incredible Hulk, originally broadcast in late 1980. The show was sixty episodes in by this point, so perhaps it’s understandable that a) the series should feel a little formulaic by this point and b) the makers should be trying to shake things up a little bit. We find ourselves at the Tres Lobos power plant, which is currently being converted to automatic control, something causing no end of grumbling amongst the workers who suspect they are conniving in their own redundancy by making the alterations. Also helping out, which if nothing else proves there was a major shortage of labour in the early 80s, is our man David Banner, employing one of his trademark wafer-thin alibis (‘David Benton’ this week).

Well, Banner finds himself co-opted into helping the gruff-but-caring shop steward Edgar (Tom Clancy, but not the famous one) on a tricky part of the job – but it turns out that Edgar has an undisclosed heart condition and things do not go according to plan. Soon a high-voltage cable is spitting sparks everywhere, endangering both men. Despite the fact the episode has only just started and it’s really much too early, Banner turns into the Hulk and saves Edgar’s life – but in the process he is exposed to a massive burst electricity, enough to flatten even the Hulk.

After a day or so in a coma, Banner wakes up in hospital, where the attending physician (Sharon Acker) is pleasantly surprised by his resilience (Banner stays deadpan about this). But she is also concerned about his mental state – apparently being electrocuted can have strange side-effects, and she’s also noticed that his brain contains a high level of a chemical associated with split-personality syndrome – does he have any history in this department? (Banner stays deadpan about this too.) I’m not sure the neuroscience in this episode is really up to much, even by the standards of 1980.

Banner checks himself out and moves in with Edgar, just in case he does have any side-effects, and also to progress the plot. Edgar is about to be forced to retire, because of his heart, but there is still the future of his guys to resolve! And also the issue of how safe the plant will be when it’s run solely by machines. The heartless suits who run the place just don’t seem to care.

Meanwhile, Banner finds himself suffering from tinnitus, and something more – apparently, and this really is the plot, the Hulk’s electrocution has given Banner temporary precognitive powers, and now he has visions of the future (just for this episode). It’s not at all clear, but they seem to involve some sort of crisis at the power plant, with the Hulk on the rampage at the heart of the complex. Maybe it’s time to get out of town and start listening for that piano music…

It doesn’t work out that way, of course, and the episode concludes with the Hulk tearing through the odd wall and smashing up a few consoles, after Edgar basically hijacks the plant in an attempt to show how vital human involvement in managing the place is. It all feels a bit contrived, and an attempt to do the end of The China Syndrome on TV with a rather low budget (The China Syndrome was in movies the previous year, around the time of the Three Mile Island incident – I will just mention again that Banner is working at the ‘Three Wolves’ power plant). Also, with the first Hulk-out shifted to the start of the story, the episode feels like it has a rather flabby middle, with arguments about industrial relations and the usual low-comedy business with Banner and McGee just missing each other in hospital lobbies not doing much to help.

In fact, other than the movie pastiche and the slightly odd structure, the most distinctive thing about Deep Shock is the Banner-becomes-precognitive element, which is certainly a curve-ball and quite atypical of what’s usually a studiously down-to-earth programme (or as studiously down-to-earth as a programme about a green gamma monster with an infinite supply of jeans can be). I can’t help wondering if the whole psychic-powers element of the story was a late addition to pep the rest of it up. It doesn’t really impinge on the main storyline and could easily have been cut without too much difficulty. In any case, it produces an episode which is ultimately distinctive without being especially distinguished.

I’m not entirely sure the same isn’t true for the next episode, Bring Me the Head of the Hulk (not something anyone says, or seems likely to say, in the story itself), for all that it regularly pops up in ‘Top Ten Best Hulk Episodes’ lists. This is yet another shake-up-the-formula episode; the start of season four had a lot of these. I suppose it is especially noteworthy for being directed by Bill Bixby, the star of the series. You would have thought that a consummate actor like Bixby would have been a shoo-in to direct one of the more character-driven episodes, but this is almost pure action-adventure stuff.

It begins with a Hulk-out already underway, with the creature demolishing another laboratory before vanishing into the night. But news of this latest Hulk-sighting is delivered to Paris, France (stock footage from the Universal library duly sets the scene), where psychopathic mercenary La Fronte (Jed Mills) seems to be tracking the Hulk’s appearances. ‘Another genetics lab,’ says his (apparently) faithful lieutenant, Alex (Sandy McPeak), seemingly unsurprised.

The thing about Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is that it does rather ignore all the conventions of the series as established up to this point – that the Hulk is an urban legend like Bigfoot, primarily. Here it’s strongly implied the Hulk goes around wrecking genetics labs on a fairly regular basis, and that this makes it into the media somehow or other. If so, why aren’t the police and army hunting the Hulk, instead of just the lonely and quixotic McGee? The episode also implies that working out the Hulk’s real identity is not that challenging either.

Well, anyway, La Fronte goes to the offices of McGee’s paper and promises to kill the Hulk for them, in exchange for a truckload of cash. McGee demurs, partly because he has come to realise the Hulk is essentially benign, but also because he knows the creature is also a normal person most of the time. So the mercenary heads off to the paper’s competitor, who agree to bankroll his Hulk-killing scheme.

Here we do step rather a long way from credibility, if you ask me. La Fronte’s cunning plan is to set up his own genetics research lab, advertise for staff, and then give preference to hiring people who match his Hulk profile. If he’d talked properly to McGee, he’d know just to hire people with the first name David and a surname beginning with B, but I digress. Needless to say, Banner (using the cunning pseudonym David Bedford) applies and makes it onto the shortlist of Hulk-suspects, together with five other guys.

(Really? There are five other people with the same skill set and a history of being in town when the Hulk shows up? Who are these people? What must they think of their sheer bad luck? There’s potential for a whole episode here that barely gets touched on.)

Banner ends up as chief assistant to Dr Cabot, a geneticist known for her interest in phenomena such as werewolves and other odd transformations. She is played by Jane Merrow, a British actress who appeared in The Avengers, plus various Hammer horrors and other British genre movies; the kind of person who’s a fixture of the heritage section of this blog, if we’re honest. Needless to say there is a lab accident, leading to our first proper Hulk-out of the episode, and the confirmation for La Fronte that his plan is working. But with McGee on the verge of tracking down La Fronte’s operation, he may have to force the issue if he wants to get the Hulk in his sights…

Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is, obviously, a rather different episode: it has three Hulk-outs (well, two and a half, at least); it has someone actively pursuing the Hulk, with considerable success; we actually get to see Banner on the phone applying for another of the endless jobs he drifts through (and his interview technique is so dreadful it’s a miracle he ever gets work); we get to see McGee actually saving the Hulk’s life, for a change. But is there quality to match the novelty?

Well – I’m not sure, like I say. La Fronte’s plan works so quickly and perfectly that you do wonder why McGee, supposedly a brilliant investigative reporter, hasn’t managed to catch up with Banner yet. And La Fronte is such a one-dimensional loon that it does kind of hurt the credibility of the episode. This series doesn’t often do full-on villains, and La Fronte isn’t in the first rank of them – he doesn’t convince in the same way as Sutton from The Snare, or Frye from The First. (Being French can only excuse so much.)

And, to be honest, I kind of miss the down-to-earth naturalism and character stories which this series usually does so well. The closest we get to that here is a subplot about Alex and Banner becoming friends, leading the somewhat world-weary mercenary to question his allegiance to La Fronte. It’s good stuff, well played by McPeak, but rather peripheral here. The main plot is so atypical and busy that everything else gets squeezed out – this might have worked better and had more space to breathe had it been a two-parter, but this season already had two of them – the brilliant The First and the nearly-brilliant Prometheus. As I say, it’s hard to keep this kind of series fresh, so I suppose the makers of The Incredible Hulk deserve credit for trying so hard. In the end I would have to say that Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is the better of these two episodes by far, but is it a classic? I’m still not sure.

 

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