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Posts Tagged ‘superhero’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Warning: I suspect we are about to go even further down the rabbit hole than is customary in these parts. Buckle up.

I have first-hand experience of the fact that you can be quite well-versed in your comics lore and still not really be fully cognizant of the sheer degree of obfuscation surrounding the superhero codename Captain Marvel: a colleague, who knows which SHIELD operatives have metahuman powers and who will happily discuss the provenance of the various Infinity Stones, turned out to be entirely unaware of the clutterbuck attached to this issue – then again, she is essentially a Marvel zombie, which may have something to do with it. The quick and easy version is that there are two versions of Captain Marvel in comic books, although this is really a significant simplification, given there are arguably nearly a dozen characters who have used this name at some time or other, to say nothing of related characters such as Marvelman (better known these days as Miracleman).

The original Captain Marvel first appeared in the early 1940s, boasting vast superhuman strength and resilience, the ability to fly, matchless courage, and so on: he went on to become the most popular superhero of the decade, comfortably outselling all his rivals, even DC Comics’ Superman (whom he was suspiciously similar to in some respects). However, just as Superman’s vulnerability is to Kryptonite, so Captain Marvel’s weakness is litigation – his publishers were sued by those of Superman on the grounds of plagiarism, and by the early 50s sales had declined to the point where contesting the issue wasn’t worth the legal fees. Captain Marvel vanished into comics limbo until DC Comics acquired the character decades later. By this point, of course, the word ‘Marvel’ had acquired a certain resonance in the world of comic books, with Stan Lee’s company trademarking the name and creating their own Captain Marvel character (one iteration of which is, at the time of writing, being played by Brie Larson in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster meta-franchise).

The upshot of this is that while it was possible for DC to publish Captain Marvel stories, they couldn’t actually call the comic Captain Marvel. Apparently this is such a big deal in the world of comics that a few years ago they made the somewhat baffling decision to rename the character Shazam, despite his long (seven decade) history in comics and TV. I am, as longstanding readers may already have guessed, a bit of a stubborn old purist in matters of this sort: this guy’s name is Captain Marvel, no matter what the company may say, and to suggest anything else is silly and does him and his creators a disservice.

All of which brings us (probably not before time) to David F Sandberg’s Shazam!, which is by any rational metric the second Captain Marvel movie in as many months, and the latest entry in DC Comics’ line of superhero movies. The story concerns troubled, streetwise foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), whose essential decency finds himself summoned via an enchanted subway car to the mystic Rock of Eternity, where he encounters an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, whom the attentive will have noticed has done the superhero movie equivalent of winning the double, by appearing in both of this year’s Captain Marvel movies). All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name to be transformed into his champion (Zachary Levi), a vastly powerful superhero known as…

Yeah, well, the awkwardness with which Shazam! tackles this point is undeniably a weakness in the film – Levi is billed as playing someone called Shazam, but he’s never addressed or referred to as such in the film. This itself is not that uncommon in the world of the modern, credible superhero movie – both Wonder Woman and the other Captain Marvel movie do the same – but it’s usually handled much more deftly than it is here. The script even draws attention to the fact, by playing with the idea of giving him various other codenames such as the Red Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. (Shazam is surely a terrible idea as a codename, as it just means he’d never be able to tell anyone who he is. I’m just going to refer to him as (Captain Marvel) and let the writs fly as they may.) Anyway, there are less abstruse things to worry about, as a corrupted former candidate to become the wizard’s champion, Sivana (Mark Strong), is aware of (Captain Marvel)’s existence, and determined to steal his power…

It is, as has been noted, a crowded marketplace these days when it comes to superhero movies, and the main way that Shazam! makes itself distinctive is through functioning primarily as a comedy – partly as a spoof of superhero films in general, but also by playing on the comedic potential of the idea of (Captain Marvel) basically being a young teenager inside the body of a demi-god (it’s a bit like Big, but with superhero battles, something the film tacitly acknowledges at one point).

Now, this idea of the hero being a child in an adult body (perhaps they should have gone with the codename Boris Johnson Man) isn’t quite how Captain Marvel has traditionally been depicted in the comics – there, he’s really a child’s idea of the perfect hero, made incarnate. The problems with this are firstly that it makes him massively uncool, and secondly, that he becomes totally redundant in a comics universe which already contains Superman. Since being acquired by DC, Captain Marvel has only really been allowed to shine in situations where Superman is out of the way for some reason, or when the writers have required a character capable of fighting Superman to a standstill (which, given his effectively limitless physical prowess, he is quite capable of doing). So you can kind of understand why they have gone down this particular route in the movie.

Still, for all the entertainment value of scenes in which we see (Captain Marvel) knocking over ATMs to fund a trip to a lap-dancing club (as any teenage boy would do, I suppose), I have to admit that I still found myself harrumphing a bit, on the inside at least: probably because turning this kind of film into a comedy feels like the safe and easy route to go down. (I was one of many people quite relieved when plans to do Green Lantern as a comedy with Jack Black were abandoned in favour of a more traditional take on the character (also featuring Mark Strong, of course), but as this resulted in one of the most relentlessly-scorned films in the genre, I’m not sure what the takeaway value of that is.) The problem isn’t just that this is a superhero film with comedic elements, it’s that it can’t stop undermining even dramatic moments by inserting gag after gag, some of them slightly dubious (‘Touch my staff,’ the Wizard commands Billy at one point, which,  if it isn’t a misjudged double entendre, certainly sounds like it).

And yet, somehow, I have to say that the film’s energy and sense of fun is infectious and somehow irresistible, not least because it does work hard to include so many references to the classic Marvel family mythos: Mr Mind appears, there’s a reference to Tawky Tawny the tiger, Billy and his foster-siblings attend Fawcett Central school, and so on. The performances are also excellent: Mark Strong is quite as good as you’d expect in what could have been a fairly two-dimensional role, giving it real heft and presence (let’s go down the rabbit hole one last time and note that his father is played by John Glover, who also played Lex Luthor’s father for a number of years).

In the end, Shazam! does work as a piece of entertainment, although it is certainly its own thing. It gets close enough to the classic version of Captain Marvel to satisfy anyone with fond memories of the character, probably, while it also does enough to work as a comedic take on the superhero movie for audiences not that familiar with him. I’m not entirely sure how it manages this ticklish balancing act, but I suppose it qualifies as an achievement of sorts. This is a solid movie that continues the positive trend in DC’s cinematic output.

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With BlacKkKlansman out of the way, my red-eye odyssey of catch-up cinema continued, somewhere over the Atlantic, with Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath’s Teen Titans Go! To The Movies – something I had actually considered going to see on the big screen when it was originally released, but ultimately decided against based on the somewhat mixed reviews it received – but with the in-flight meal a receding memory and nothing else to do for several hours, this looked like an undemanding way of passing the time.

I’m guessing you either know who and what the Teen Titans are or you don’t (there is admittedly not a lot of room for ambiguity on this sort of point). We are back in the realm of superheroes here, specifically of the DC variety: the Titans (usually Teen but also occasionally New) are the youth wing of the company’s roster, originally composed of the young sidekicks of their most popular adult characters – thus, the early line-up included Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Green Arrow’s ward Speedy, and so on. Later incarnations of the book saw more original characters and a definite attempt to replicate the feel (and popularity) of the X-Men. This movie is apparently a spin-off from the most recent of several cartoons based on the comic; the animation is relatively simplistic and the tone is irreverent and knowing.

The team roster for the movie consists of Robin the Boy Wonder (Scott Menville), along with a bunch of other characters not well-known outside the world of comics: Raven, Cyborg, Starfire and Beast Boy (I suppose Cyborg’s profile has risen a bit since he appeared in Justice League). The movie opens with their home city under attack from the nefarious Balloon Man, and as they try to stop him they are horrified to learn the villain has absolutely no idea who they are.

The team (perhaps correctly) assume that nowadays you haven’t made it as a superhero until you’ve been the subject of a big Hollywood movie, and are alarmed to discover that no-one is intending to feature them in this way – there are, however, advanced plans for any number of scraping-the-barrel Batman spin-offs.

The team decide to fix this, even if it means acquiring a proper arch-nemesis. The best candidate is the villain Slade (voiced by Will Arnett; we will return to the odd question of this character’s nomenclature in a short while), even if he doesn’t seem especially keen on the gig. When an important Hollywood producer informs the Titans that she would only make a film about them if they were the only superheroes in the world, this gives them a possibly-regrettable idea involving time machines and a large amount of retroactive continuity…

Well, as I hope you can see, the makers of this movie deserve at least some credit for persuading DC Comics to let them include some fairly barbed material making fun of not only various well-known characters but also the company’s somewhat chequered recent record when it comes to putting its characters on the big screen (this is the third film I’ve seen in the last year taking a hefty swing at the 2011 Green Lantern movie; perhaps it is time to declare a moratorium on cracks at a movie which really wasn’t quite as bad as all that). Are there an awful lot of superhero films being released these days? There certainly are. Are some of these films the result of creative choices perhaps best described as inexplicable? Once again, it is difficult to disagree. Is this therefore fertile ground for a movie affectionately satirising the current situation? Well, absolutely.

The problem is that Teen Titans Go is not that movie – or at least, not entirely. It does benefit considerably from being attached to the DC Comics brand, and makes full use of the company’s extensive back-catalogue of well-known characters. There’s relatively little Batman, presumably because he’s already so heavily used in the somewhat similar Lego movie franchise, but many of the other big names are prominently on display here. (I must confess I did think the succession of fairly cruel jokes about the Challengers of the Unknown was overdoing it a touch, while there’s also an odd moment where it appears to depict the original Captain Marvel having heat vision, which of course was never the case.)

I must confess to being slightly bemused at first by the decision to name the main villain of the movie Slade, but then this is a character who has struggled with naming issues throughout his career: he started off nearly forty years ago with the code-name Terminator, and was then kind of obliged to switch to using Deathstroke following the release of the Schwarzenegger movie. You can’t call a character in a kids’ cartoon Deathstroke, apparently, hence the choice of Slade. There are some fairly good-natured jokes about his (considerable) resemblance to Deadpool, but the film doesn’t really elaborate on the very reasonable point that Deadpool is the knock-off and Deathstroke the original (Slade preceded Wade), presumably to keep Marvel sweet. (Marvel seem to have been fairly indulgent towards this movie, also letting them include a Stan Lee cameo and so on.)

Much of Teen Titans Go is, then, very clever and a lot of fun, in addition to being steeped in the lore of one of the great comic-book universes. The problem is that the bits that are not, are really not very good at all. Some of this will probably be a question of personal taste – I have a bit of an issue with the characterisation of the main characters, as it is so totally unlike the ‘straight’ version, but I am aware that other people won’t have a problem with this. I was also really not impressed by how puerile and bodily-function-obsessed many of the jokes in this film were. However, I suspect that most people would agree that this film isn’t of the same quality as others which it is clearly aiming to duplicate – the songs aren’t as good as the ones in the Lego movies, and it’s not as consistently inventive in its jokes as either of the Deadpools. You can spot moments and whole sequences where the film-makers ran out of inspiration and just decided to go with the first idea that occurred to them, no matter how weird or disconnected it was.

Being brilliant for five minutes at a time is not easy and we should not underestimate how good and timely some parts of Teen Titans Go are. However, the film really does throw into sharp focus just what an achievement it is when a film is consistently brilliant for an hour and a half or two hours. This movie passed the time enjoyably enough, and I was never in danger of falling asleep, but it’s a quirky little satellite to more substantial movies, rather than being really significant itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is there a dodgier proposition in the whole of movie-dom than the double-duty sequel? I speak of when film-makers, usually to prop up flagging franchises, decide to continue the ongoing story from two or more previous films in a single new movie, often with ‘Meets’ or ‘Vs’ in the title. As far as I can work out, this sort of thing got started with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the genre (if that’s the right word) has gone on to include such dubious recent pleasures as Freddy Vs Jason and Alien Vs Predator.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that the double-duty concept is synonymous with worthless film-making, for interesting and entertaining films can result – many of the better Godzilla films certainly qualify, if you bear in mind that some of the Toho monsters started off by headlining their own movies and then meeting Godzilla in a later instalment. And you could certainly argue that Marvel Studios’ whole success has been built on the principle of this kind of shared fictional world.

Whether M Night Shyamalan’s Glass is more inspired by the old-school horror mash-ups or the Marvel project is not immediately clear, but this is certainly one of the more intriguing double-duty sequels of recent years. Shyamalan’s 2016 film Split seemed like a perfectly competent horror-fantasy movie until an electrifying final twist revealed it took place in the same world as his 2000 movie Unbreakable. The implication – that a confrontation between the main characters of the two films was inevitable – was an undeniably exciting one, certainly enough to make most people overlook just how spotty Shyamalan’s record has been as a writer-director.

Well, anyway, here we are: things are more or less how they stood at the end of Split, with a serial killer known as the Horde (James McAvoy) on the loose – so known because of his multiple personality disorder, one of those personalities being the superhuman Beast – and terrorising cheerleaders like it’s going out of style. However, on the lookout for him is David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the near-invulnerable hero of Unbreakable, who has apparently spent the last 19 years working as a vigilante with his now-grown son (Spencer Treat Clark). (Even after all this time Dunn has yet to land himself a proper superhero code-name, usually being referred to as the Overseer – which hardly pops – or the Green Guard, which is just rubbish.)

Sure enough, Dunn manages to track the Horde down, but the confrontation between them remains unresolved as the authorities, led by psychiatrist Dr Staple (Sarah Paulson), swoop in and rush them both off to the local laughing academy, where they are held in conditions designed to neutralise their so-called super-powers. Staple announces that her mission is to convince them that they are not superhuman but simply disturbed – and her patients include not just Dunn and the Horde, but also Dunn’s former friend Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), better known as the brittle-boned mass murderer Mister Glass…

There’s obviously a certain amount of fun to had with a premise like this and to begin with Shyamalan mines the potential well, setting up the encounter between Willis and McAvoy and reintroducing various characters from both the previous films (perhaps the first warning sign in the movie is when it becomes obvious that the director has yet to break his habit of giving himself pointless and ostentatious cameo parts). At least you know what’s at stake here and how the movie seems likely to play out.

Once everybody is in the mental hospital, however, the movie collapses into a saggy and self-regarding mess in the classic manner familiar to anyone who’s sat through the collected works of M Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan seems to assume that everyone else will find his characters as intrinsically fascinating as he does, and the result is many windy scenes that don’t go anywhere as the director meditates on the situation he has created. Scenes outside the hospital with Dunn’s son and the last girl from Split (Anya Taylor-Joy) don’t add much, and basically the story loses most of its momentum. Sarah Paulson has the thankless task of playing a character who initially seems to be stupid, as she keeps declaring that superhuman beings don’t exist (we as the audience obviously know otherwise, or this film would not have been made), and the fact that Samuel L Jackson barely appears in the first half of the film is also an issue given it’s supposedly about him. The actor certainly carves himself a thick slice of ham when he does eventually show up in earnest, while James McAvoy turns in another bravura performance as the Horde’s various identities – but, again, the result of this is that Bruce Willis (never the most demonstrative of actors) kind of vanishes into the background as a result. (The film also has the issue that Jackson is visibly and distractingly older than Charlayne Woodard, the actress supposedly playing his mother.)

The whole film is stricken with this awkwardness and lack of balance, suggesting one thing and then actually delivering another. And the tone of it is odd: by most metrics it certainly qualifies as some sort of superhero fantasy – Jackson’s character is obsessed by the tropes of the genre and ends up trying to orchestrate a return engagement between Willis and McAvoy – but it is filmed and directed like a horror film. For all the film’s lofty ideas about human potential and gods walking amongst us, it’s the grittier, more downbeat style that wins out – we are teased with the prospect of a cinematic superhero battle, but what we end up with is a clumsily-choreographed wrestling match between two men in a car park. The substance is weirdly at odds with the portentous way in which it is presented.

So, very much a return to form for M Night Shyamalan, by which I mean it is wildly and frustratingly uneven. Just to confirm he’s sticking to his usual playbook, Shyamalan wraps the film up with not one, not two, but three half-assed plot twists. In theory that should equate to a satisfactory one-and-a-half-assed plot twist, but apparently these things are not cumulative. (If nothing else, at least the director appears to have discovered an interesting new field of mathematical enquiry.)

I couldn’t help feeling that Glass was a huge missed opportunity, but Olinka – who came to see it despite not having seen either of the prior films – found it to have some interesting ideas about the tyranny of normalcy. I still think she is being too generous about it. It does seem to lend weight to the idea that it’s M Night Shyamalan’s good films which are the anomalies, not the ropey fare he usually seems to produce. This film, certainly, is a waste of talent and potential.

 

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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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