Belated Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

x-men-apocalypse-oscar-isaac

And, yes, I’m trolling the haters by using this image.

Beware. There are some spoilers, but nothing too damaging.

Let me get this out of the way first: go see X-Men: Apocalypse. If you read nothing else, you’ll be fine. The movie is an X-Men movie, through and through. If you like superhero movies, you’ll enjoy it. If you like X-Men movies, then great, you’ll enjoy this. I actually think I liked it more than Days of Future’s Past. X2 is still my favorite of the series—it has a solid pace, emotional intensity, and does a great job handling the large ensemble cast. But Apocalypse comes close.

Anyway, I try to review a movie on its own merits and leave public perception and outside influences aside, but since this review is coming so long after the movie originally premiered I have to address the critical reception it’s received so far. So, here it is: what are they talking about? Did we watch the same movie? Now, it’s not groundbreaking cinema by any means. And it’s not a surprise like X-Men: First Class was. But this is a solid effort with a fairly uncomplicated story, some standout performances, and fun action sequences. Really though, it’s so in-line with First Class and Days of Future’s Past that I don’t really understand why it was viewed with such disdain.

Here’s the story: back in the days of ancient Egypt, Apocalypse ruled (played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac of “Poe Dameron” fame from Star Wars: The Force Awakens). He had acolytes among the people and four mutant honor guards. But a secret conspiracy struck when he was at his most vulnerable, during a process to transfer his essence into another mutant with a healing factor a lot like Wolverine’s, and his honor guards were killed and Apocalypse was left buried under a pyramid.

In the present, we catch up with characters we know like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Havok (Lucas Till). We also meet some “new” faces like Jean Grey (Sophie Turner – Sansa!), Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). We even catch up with Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) who was in First Class, but sat out Days of Future’s Past.

The world is in tentative peace. Mutants were revealed during the events of the previous film and things aren’t perfect, but mutants are something of a policy question at this point rather than a group politicians are seeking to legislate or restrain. Professor X has gotten over his crisis of faith and has embraced running the Xavier school. But that’s all he’s embraced—helping mutants control their powers and giving them the tools to acclimate back into society. The idea of the “X-Men,” a proactive force protecting mutants and people from mutants around the world, remains shuttered below the mansion.

Mystique, however, has become something of a folk hero among mutants for preventing Magneto from killing Nixon. Mutants (and, indeed, everyone) know who she is and some even have posters of her. She is a dedicated one-woman mercenary out to save and free as many mutants as she can from various circumstances. This is where we first meet Nightcrawler.

Meanwhile, Magneto has assumed a fake name. He’s married with a daughter. And he’s living a very simple life, working at a steel mill (of course he would). He’s starring in his very own 80s action moving opening or maybe The Outlaw Josey Wales fits better—a man who’s left war and violence behind and you cringe while watching it because you know it won’t last. I hope that’s not a spoiler for anybody.

Finally, Alex Summer’s brother, Scott, has just undergone his mutant transformation. He’s brought to the Xavier school where he acquaints himself with fellow “freak” Jean Grey and stands out, at least initially, as the most powerful, but uncontrolled wild card of the bunch.

It doesn’t take long before Apocalypse is awakened and goes about recruiting the most powerful mutants in the world to take it back from “the weak.” His ultimate plan is decent, if not a little convenient. His recruits, with the exception of Magneto, suffer from the over-stuffed ensemble and don’t get much to do other than pose and look threatening. Olivia Munn’s Psylocke came off better than Storm and Angel did and I’m not sure why I thought so, maybe it’s because she had very few lines and otherwise just got to be a badass. Whatever you think of Munn’s acting, she’s got a good “threatening” stare.

The third act gets a little bit frenetic with a lot of things happening intercut with grey men in control rooms providing exposition bolstered by world-destroying CGI, but that’s hardly a complaint limited to the X-Men films. On balance, though, the final confrontation was exciting and satisfying. The X-Men movies never really had “boss” fights at the end of their films, at least not in the traditional sense, but this one does and it actually serves to mean something thematically for the story which impressed me.

The ending maybe gets a little too cute with a couple of knowing winks and nods at the audience that probably rankled other movie reviewers, but I confess that they worked for me, particularly a reference to the original 2000 X-Men movie. And I’m excited to see where the franchise goes from here because the characters are left in a particularly tantalizing place as the movie ends.

What I liked:

  • Quicksilver, of course. He’s back. I didn’t mention him as part of the quick synopsis run-through above because I didn’t want to go too far into the weeds of the plot. But Quicksilver steals the movie again with another fantastic sequence that ups the ante on his capabilities. He also sticks around this time which is only a good thing.
  • A very good extended cameo.
  • For those of us who remember how restrained the first X-Men movie was, black leather suits, unexciting uses of mutant powers, etc., this movie is the culmination of what fans have wanted for years: big, exciting displays of mutant powers like what we remembered from the comics or the various cartoon series.
  • Professor X gets to contribute! The professor is a tricky character because he’s extremely powerful. His ability to control minds would basically end movies before they started unless there’s a way to “block” him or take him out of the story. The first X-Men movie just put him into a coma in the 3rd act, X2 simply had him kidnapped and manipulated by another powerful telekinetic mutant, and X-Men: The Last Stand just killed him (!). First Class was the first film where the Professor got to do some stuff and the story cleverly pitted him against evil Betty Draper (Emma Frost) as well as another powerful mutant who devised the helmet that Magneto eventually wears, but is also just a force who cannot easily be controlled. Days of Future’s Past stripped the professor of his powers as he is basically a drug addict clinging to a medicine that helps him walk, but also suppresses the constant barrage of voices and thoughts to which he’s subjected. Finally, my point: in Apocalypse, Professor X is legitimately challenged by Apocalypse so he actually is a participant in the fight. It’s an exciting element, well executed.

What I didn’t like:

  • Perhaps the only point some of the critics made, which I partially agree with, is about the pacing. The movie spends a lot of time catching us up with old characters and introducing new ones. I didn’t mind this so much, but I did reach a point where I wondered when things were going to get moving.
  • Apocalypse’s inconsistent powers. This is, again, something not unique to the X-Men movies, but Apocalypse’s power is shown to be great. He literally vaporizes a group of guys at one point. So, it makes one wonder why he didn’t use this power when confronting the X-Men at the end of the movie. Characters like Xavier and Jean Grey, perhaps, can protect against this kind of attack, but people like Cyclops and Mystique have no defenses against stuff like that. It’s kind of the reverse problem of keeping the Professor out of the action because he’s so powerful, Apocalypse is so powerful that he could vanquish some enemies just with a look, but he only does it sometimes and it doesn’t make sense.
  • The movie takes place in the 80s, but it’s not really an influence on the movie like the 70s were in Days of Future’s Past. Other than hair styles and the fashions around the Xavier school, you’d barely know it was 1983. Some characters go to see Return of the Jedi at one point, but other than setting up an audience-winking, meta quip about X-Men: The Last Stand, it doesn’t really impact the movie. Not a major complaint, mind you, but it just seems like they could have done more with the time period.
  • Finally, and I don’t know if this is something that I “didn’t like” per se but, if I’m judging this film on its own merits, it’s a movie that relies heavily on backstory from the previous two movies to inform its story. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are fantastic actors, so you can feel the 25 years of history between these men when they speak or refer to one another, but that’s purely from their performances. The story doesn’t give us much information about their history other than some scattered flashbacks. As much as movies can be sequels or part of larger franchises, they still need to be able to stand on their own. I’m not sure this movie passes that test. I enjoyed it and understood everything I needed to because I’ve seen the other movies and I know the basic character beats from other X-Men media. I don’t know if Joe Movergoer would have understood everything in this movie on its own merits.

In summary, my advice is this: ignore the commentators and the critics slamming the movie. Go and see if for yourself. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised like I was.

Go See “Creed”

RockyAndAdonis

Can’t do much better than Rocky Balboa in your corner.

This review is late, but no less valid now than when Creed came out two weeks ago. If I’ve seen you in person since I saw the movie, I know I’ve told you how good it is. If I don’t see you in person all that often, well: Listen Up.

Creed is a spin-off/sequel/restart (?) in the Rocky series. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is because it follows everything we’ve seen in the previous six Rocky movies, yet follows a new character, Adonis Johnson/Creed (the fantastic Michael B. Jordan aka Vince from Friday Night Lights and Wallace from The Wire), Apollo Creed’s bastard son from an affair. Yet, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, for the one person out there who doesn’t know that) is the film’s co-star and his character arc is the next chapter in his life as if this were a strict Rocky sequel.

I spend a lot of time defending and justifying sequels, re-imaginings, reboots, shared universes, and all other kinds of franchise building efforts. Creed is, quite possibly, the best example of what a sequel (or whatever it is) should be.

The plot is no secret and is pretty plain from all of the advertising leading up to Creed’s release. Adonis Johnson is Apollo Creed’s son by another mother and like his famous boxing father, he wants to fight, but no one will train him. As his last hope, Adonis seeks out his father’s equally famous friend, Rocky Balboa, to train him. Based on the plot concept, this movie had the potential to be cheesy and not very good.

Writer and Director Ryan Coogler punched that idea right in the face, Ivan Drago-style. This isn’t just a good Rocky movie, it’s a good film in its own right. I can’t remember the last time a movie so satisfied everything I wanted it to be. Coogler made exactly the movie that this needed to be given its hybrid story and origins.

You can never overstate how important music is to a film. Creed’s composer, Ludwig Goransson, has made magic by weaving the Rocky films’ score in and out of a beautiful new arrangement, defined by a badass theme for Adonis that I think will become just as memorable as Rocky’s. Even the degree to which Rocky’s theme music is soft and emotional (for the most part…) compared to the dominant bass and trumpets of Adonis’s theme is right on the money—this is Adonis’s movie, but Rocky is his heart and his spirit. It’s just an incredible arrangement.

Now I won’t go into extreme detail, but I’m a big fan of the Rocky series. Even at its goofiest moments in Rocky III (Thunderlips) and Rocky IV (James Brown and Paulie’s robot), the films all have genuine emotional heart. And they’re inspiring, all about spirit triumphing over seemingly impossible odds. As a short man, with limited physical gifts, I identify with that message.

Director Ryan Coogler shares writing credit with Aaron Covington and these two have captured Rocky’s universe as perfectly as if they extracted it right out of Stallone’s brain. But what’s so good about what they have done here is nothing feels ripped off or copied. Every reference to what has come before, both in Rocky’s life and in Adonis’s relation to Apollo Creed, doesn’t feel like pandering; it feels like necessary, organic parts of this story, which only make them more satisfying. Too often it seems like sequels and reboots run away from what made the original film(s) they are based upon so great. Creed doesn’t do that at all. And it’s so much stronger for embracing its roots in the Rocky story and forging a new path ahead of Adonis, who is no Rocky clone, but does share Rocky’s determination and heart.

It would be a disservice to review this film without commenting on the boxing. It’s fast, brutal, and easily the most realistic of the Rocky films. Plus, Ryan Coogler sets up some imaginative shots that really put the viewer in the ring with Adonis. Most of the fighting is shot over Adonis’s shoulder except in a few cases the camera works to jolt you along with him.

I’m a fan of Michael B. Jordan’s work on The Wire and Friday Night Lights, so I’m probably not the most objective person to evaluate him. Jordan’s portrayal of Adonis Johnson (Creed) is simply great. He imbues the character with history, with pain, with sadness, with strength. It’s not inaccurate to compare Adonis here to Rocky in the original movie, but Adonis is wholly a different character. Even as Adonis courts Bianca (Tessa Thompson), it’s clear he’s got a lot more game than good ol’ Rocky had. But that’s OK.

Meanwhile, while Rocky’s boxing fights are behind him, his character still has a fight ahead of him. And I dare you to keep those eyes dry while Rocky confronts the toughest opponent he’s ever faced. I’ve heard talk that Sylvester Stallone might get an Oscar nod for this performance. I hope he does because it’s really meaty stuff and it’s proof that, while Stallone made his career out of bulletproof action heroes, Rocky Balboa is in his heart. This is why the film doesn’t solely belong to Michael B. Jordan.

I thought I had seen the last of Rocky Balboa’s world with 2006’s Rocky Balboa, a fitting conclusion (I thought) to this series of films. But I didn’t realize how much I missed that character and his world. Or maybe it’s just that Ryan Coogler has told such a compelling, emotional story that it breathes new life into the whole franchise. Creed is over two hours, but it flew by and I want more.

Go see this movie and try not to jump to your feet at the start of the last round. I dare you.

I’m on a Podcast!

Hi all!

There’s a great YouTube channel, and Facebook page (!), called “Obnoxious and Anonymous” that populates great entertainment news and opinion. I’ve recently joined as a contributor and I’m fortunate enough to appear on some of the weekly podcasts. It’s exactly my taste (in that we talk about nonsense), so if you enjoy my blog, you’ll probably enjoy the podcasts too.

This week’s podcast includes two members of the YouTube group “The Sausage Factory,” Cole and Orc. They have some great film discussions and “live watches” on their channel. They’re also big 80’s slasher film fans and I’m also a mega fan. TSF has a new episode premiering tonight, so check it out.

But this latest “O&A” video is one of the best and Cole and Orc are a couple of smart, funny guys so we have a pretty good discussion. I hope you enjoy and, if it floats your boat, subscribe to the channel! And this one!

 

Sequels, Reboots, and Shared Universes – Oh My!

Jaws 19

This time it’s really personal.

I know I said I would stop apologizing about not writing enough, but I feel bad that I’m not more up to date. It’s this annoying fatherhood… I mean, like “Change your own diaper!”

Fortunately, I’m feeling the itch to write these days thanks to some contributions I’m making at Obnoxious and Anonymous on video podcasts about a variety of subjects.

I’ve been aching to take on the persistent, knee-jerk cynicism about sequels, reboots, and the relatively new phenomenon of shared movie universes.

On the surface, I get it.

As the writer of my own original independent work (works), I would like room to break in and show people something new as opposed to a 3rd Spider-Man reboot within 15 years of the original film – to say nothing of the fact that the character has been in production for about fifty years of comics and cartoons (let’s not speak of the live action 70s show…). New characters and new stories are necessary. We can’t keep rehashing the same things over and over.

And, more to the point, I think what I, as a fan, sometimes hate about sequels or reboots is how bad they can be, which can spoil the memories and connections I’ve made to the original work. Two examples that illustrate this perfectly for me are the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and The X-Men films. Both series started out with decent first films and then debuted stronger, more complex—more awesome—sequels. Then each series turned out bad second sequels that were not only pretty bad films, but they soured the stories and my memories of the first two films. I would point out, too, that it was largely studio interference or behind the scenes problems that tanked these movies. Not that it makes it better, but it’s not like the ideas were flawed from the start.

But the geek in me—the passionate fan—wants more content about the things I love. More good content. I want these films—or TV shows—to succeed. Sometimes I think I come off as a contrarian when it comes to these things because there seems to be so much vitriol online against sequels that I feel the need to balance the scales and defend them.

It’s not just that, though. The truth is: we don’t hate sequels. Some of our favorite films are sequels. There are the obvious ones: Godfather 2, Aliens, Terminator 2… these movies are not only good by their own rights, but they grew the worlds of the original films and gave us extra dimensions of the characters and situations that only improve the original movies in context.

I would add Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Lethal Weapon 2 to that list as well, by the way.

I have less patience for so-called reboots, but even there I think there is something interesting in taking an established property and playing with our expectation of it. It may seem like an odd example, but the Friday the 13th reboot is one of the best. The writers clearly had a love for the original material and the film is like a spiritual remix of the first four movies in the “original” series. They even took the opportunity to make sense of the original series disjointed mythology related to Jason’s original drowning and return. More than anything, they got the character of Jason right. He’s not necessarily a complex character, but Jason Goes To Hell is an example of how wrong you can portray Jason Voorhees (including misspelling his last name like JGTH does).

On the other hand, I have a seething hatred for Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot. That’s an example of how not to reboot something. Zombie fundamentally does not understand the characters of the original Halloween least of all Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis, who are pretty important to get right. Zombie said once that Dr. Loomis must have been the worst psychiatrist in the world, which to me is one of the most brain dead things I have ever heard. The point in Carpenter’s Halloween was that Michael Myers was pure evil. No amount of psychiatric treatment would have helped him because he’s not a person. He’s a force. But I digress… I could devote a whole blog to my hatred of that film.

Meanwhile, Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins is another example of how to properly reboot a property. In that case, it almost seems easy in retrospect. After Batman and Robin, there was no way it could be worse. But Nolan didn’t settle for average—Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer crafted a story that explored the character of Bruce Wayne and Batman, which, oddly enough, wasn’t really done in the previous four Batman films; the previous directors put the focus on Batman’s rogues as opposed to the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne, in costume as Batman, doesn’t even show up until around the 40 minute mark of Batman Begins. It’s a strong film and, by the way, followed by the amazing sequel The Dark Knight.

Finally, while sequels and reboots aren’t exactly new, the concept of a “shared movie universe” is less than 10 years old. Birthed by our good friends at Marvel, for those of you living under a rock since 2008, this is when more than one movie franchise exists in the same “universe.” Basically, Tony Stark (Iron Man) can go have coffee with Bruce Banner (The Hulk). What happens in one film happens for all the films in that shared universe.

It makes the most sense with comic book properties because that’s how comic books work. As Spider-Man web-slings around the city he might pass Iron Man or Johnny Storm (Human Torch) flying in the other direction. Crossovers are plentiful. But the standard of believability and reality in a feature film (or TV show) is different from a comic book. Marvel’s shared universe gambit was so bold because of the logistics involved with meshing, say, Thor with Iron Man. Iron Man wears a high-tech suit that flies. While it’s fantastical, it’s grounded in a kind of realism that makes it believable. Meanwhile, Thor is a musclebound god who flies and hits people with a magic hammer that only he* can lift. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been worried, but you can see how there was cause for concern.

But criticisms of the shared universe concept go beyond movie logic. Marketing, particularly by Marvel, has been problematic. Last summer Marvel announced every movie slated for release through 2019. While it was interesting to see the new properties that would debut, like Dr. Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, new entries in existing character franchises were announced as well—not to mention the next two Avengers entries. It’s been argued that this robbed Avengers: Age of Ultron of some drama because if we know that Captain America is coming out next year, then we know he survives the film and is OK. Same with Thor, who also had a new entry announced.

This criticism is fair. But my response is simple. Who actually thinks Marvel would kill off a marquee character like Thor or Captain America when the actors still have films left on their contracts? Besides, death with comic book characters is about as permanent as the Hulk’s shirt.

I love the idea. But I have two gripes. One, studios are tried to do shared movie universes with everything whether it makes sense or not. Universal is working on a classic monster shared universe with Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, etc. Paramount is working on a Transformers universe with spinoff films centered on different characters like Bumblebee. Meanwhile, one shared universe I’m excited about is a Stephen King universe and this is mostly because there is a shared King book universe connected by The Dark Tower series.

My second gripe is aimed at Marvel and DC. Marvel built up to 2012’s The Avengers where all of our established heroes, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye teamed up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight aliens. Awesome! Then Iron Man 3 threw it all out the window. After establishing all of these characters and the connectivity in the greater world, Iron Man effectively faces off against Al Qaeda by another name and he does so alone. One might wonder why S.H.I.E.L.D., the overarching intelligence apparatus that seems to know everything, didn’t appear. I did! The movie never addresses this issue. After S.H.I.E.L.D. was up Tony Stark’s butt for two independent films and then a team-up film why would it suddenly disappear when terrorists fly up to Iron Man’s house and blow it up? Why weren’t they involved in combatting the terrorists up to that point? The movie could have had one line that fixed this and I would have stayed mum: “Oh man, S.H.I.E.L.D. is so busy cleaning up New York they’re undermanned…” or whatever. Problem solved. But the movie doesn’t bother to address it.

Similarly, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Steve Rogers and Black Widow are on the run, they go to Falcon’s house and say everyone they know is trying to kill them. What about Tony Stark? They were even in New Jersey at one point, which brought them close to NYC where Tony and THE HULK were chilling in their Science Bros lab. Again, not really addressed. I would have been happy with a line that explained S.H.I.E.L.D. was monitoring Tony’s phones or Tony wouldn’t respond. Something. Anything! The movie clearly knew that Iron Man exists because “Anthony Stark” is targeted by “Project Insight” at the movie’s climax. I get that each character needs their own films and stories, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of building a shared universe you have to maintain it and acknowledge what you’ve built.

I’ve made my feelings about DC clear in other pieces so I won’t belabor them here. I will only note that the inner-connectivity between Arrow and The Flash is a perfect example of how to do it right. My complaints about DC are more about how they won’t unify all of their TV properties and have separated their films from TV.

Basically, my position is simple. Sequels, reboots, shared universes – make them! But make them well. And if you’re going to develop a shared universe, you need to respect the audience’s intelligence – don’t ignore the fact these characters exist in each other’s’ lives. Otherwise, why are you doing it?

Stop Criticizing Superhero Media

Over-saturation? If they’re bad, yeah.

I’m late to the party on this, but I’ve wanted to address the rising criticism of superhero properties and storytelling for some time. Life interfered. Fortunately (or unfortunately), these criticisms keep coming so it’s just as relevant now as it was a month or two ago when these pieces began to propagate.

The first piece I saw that really struck a chord with me was one in which Simon Pegg said superhero movies are “dumbing us down.” He said they deal with “childish” subjects and take away from “real world issues.” Other than the irony of “Scotty,” from J.J. Abrams’ dumbed down Star Trek films (especially …Into Darkness…) saying this, I think he’s merely jumping aboard a popular train of criticism.

Superhero films are a genre like “action” or “comedy.” Criticizing superhero films for dealing with “childish” subjects is akin to criticizing comedies for making dick jokes. And to that I would say, a good dick joke is funny. So it is with superhero movies, too. X-Men: The Last Stand is a bad superhero movie. The Dark Knight is a good superhero movie (dare I say film). Or apples-to-apples, X-Men 2 is a good superhero movie.

The point is criticizing all superhero movies as “childish” is generalizing. It would be like criticizing Jaws as a “shallow” monster movie. It has popcorn moments to be sure, but the theme of Jaws is “man vs. nature.” It’s about a man with a fear of the water forced to confront a literal monster that lives in the water that threatens his home and his family. So, yes, there is a “monster” in Jaws, but it’s so much more than a monster movie.

More than anything I’m arguing that superhero films, like any other genre, have good ones and bad ones. Criticizing them all as childish—as the same thing—is simply inaccurate. It’s also conveniently forgetting the time before 2000 when Batman and Robin was the only kind of superhero movie we got. We should celebrate the serious and reverent way these properties are adapting to live action. We should even celebrate the quirky, fresh re-imaginings that we get like Guardians of the Galaxy.

We should be thankful that we now get movies like The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. TDK was a movie with a guy who dresses up like a bat, yes, but it was also about self-sacrifice and what it takes to do the right thing. It was about chaos and savagery vs. humanity. TWS was about a guy who wears stars and stripes, yes, but it was also about unchecked government power and the surveillance state. It was about an individual who always believed in the system learning that the system was wrong. Of course, there was a lot of punching and kicking in the midst of these heady themes, but that doesn’t negate the fact these were good movies independent of the fact their protagonists wore outrageous costumes.

But superhero movies don’t need to confront serious issues to be taken seriously. The Avengers was two hours of fun. It’s exciting to see the disparate characters from separate franchises get together and fight a war. And what’s wrong with that? So what if the summer of 2012’s best movie moment was a giant green muscle monster punching a humungous flying alien worm in the face? It was a rousing moment that excited and galvanized the audience.

Superheroes are the Greek gods of the modern era. They tell larger than life stories about issues that matter. Spider-Man teaches us about power and responsibility. The X-Men teach us about discrimination and unfair judgment. Batman teaches us about the difference one man can make and about justice. It goes on and on.

More than anything I think these criticisms are elitism of the worst kind. The content contains costumes and superpowers so it couldn’t possibly have something substantial to say about government surveillance or corrupt institutions, etc. I wouldn’t describe Simon Pegg as an elitist, but I would call him a hypocrite. He’s made his money with comedies about zombies and aliens and super-spy thrillers and I don’t see how that material is any less childish than Iron Man or Batman. In fact, I would juxtapose The Dark Knight against Mission: Impossible 3 (or any of the slew of sequels in which he’s taken part) and argue there is less “childish” content in TDK than in those films.

But you know what? It shouldn’t matter. This shouldn’t be a pissing contest over what movie is less “childish.” When we get into the business of criticizing content based on superficial values rather than what those films are saying or how well the story is told, we go down a dangerous path.

Movies and TV are escapism, but they’re art, too. It’s hard to admit that about something like CHiPs or CSI: Miami, but it’s storytelling at the very least. But Game of Thrones is art. It’s about dragons and giant wolves, but it’s art. The people that put that show together take great care to present a highly visual, dense, visceral show that challenges the viewer. To bring it back to superheroes, specifically, Daredevil on Netflix goes to great pains to present a world of visual and figurative beauty where characters are motivated by their demons as much as their better angels. And yeah, the hero is a blind guy whose other senses are superhuman and he’s kind of a ninja.

If we’re going to criticize superhero films and media, let’s criticize them for when they don’t rise to the high standard that we’ve earned with The Dark Knight or Daredevil. Let’s not criticize them simply for existing based on some arbitrary standard of what’s “childish” and what’s not.

I Was Wrong About DC Comics (sort of)

The Emerald Knight vs. the Scarlett Speedster

If you’re not watching Arrow and The Flash, you’re missing two of the best superhero comic adaptations on TV ever. And by DC Comics, no less!

I’ve attacked DC Comics’ wrongheaded film efforts many times in the past on this blog as well as to anyone who would listen, but I did so before seeing Arrow and The Flash. Both shows are more than worth your time. In fact, they’re successfully doing on TV what Marvel has mastered in film.

DC Comics and Warner Bros. have been chasing Marvel Studios “Cinematic Universe” for years now. DC’s first genuine “lap” in that race was 2013’s Man of Steel, a new Superman reboot and a starting point for their shared universe. Despite my criticisms, I genuinely like the film.

I am still not sure how Man of Steel stands as the first step in a new shared movie universe, though. It’s Superman done “realistic;” at least as realistic as an alien made invincible by the sun’s rays can be. And it feels embarrassed to embrace its comic book roots. That’s not to say it’s embarrassed of spectacle, because it has oodles of that. To a fault. The foundation of DC’s cinematic universe is built on a film in which Superman introduces himself to the world and then destroys Metropolis in a knockdown drag-out fight with General Zod and his mini army in the same film.

Superman is supposed to be a boy scout, a beacon of hope, and a savior. He did put himself on the line to save humanity, but left a path of destruction behind him that would leave the most optimistic supporters hard pressed to defend him. So, we’ll see how Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice develops this universe further. In my heart, I am a DC over Marvel guy — I love Batman — but it’s hard to defend how badly they’ve treated their properties on film (Nolan-verse aside, of course).

Yet, in 2012 Arrow premiered on the CW as a gritty re-imagining of the laughable Batman rip-off superhero Green Arrow. In the comics, Green Arrow is probably most famous for sometimes shooting people in the face with a “boxing glove” arrow and looking like a Robin Hood rip-off. Although, Green Arrow appeared in the Bruce Timm animated universe, specifically Justice League Unlimited, as a pretty cool character who questioned the league’s authority as a voice of the “common man.” He was also voiced by the guy who played “Scotty” on General Hospital in the 90s… uh, *ahem*, not that I would know much about that.

In any case, Arrow is better than it has any right to be. It plays sort of like Batman Begins with the would-be hero, Oliver Queen, returning from a long exile and setting up his crime-fighting apparatus, complete with a training montage featuring salmon ladder pull-ups which my wife very much enjoys watching. But it’s OK because I ogle Ollie’s sister, Thea, a young woman who never met a shirt that didn’t show her midriff.

The story plays out, at least initially, with “villains of the week” and serialized elements guiding the story forward. Interestingly, Oliver Queen’s crime-fighting persona is not “Green Arrow.” At least not at first. He is “The Hood.” Playing into the Batman Begins comparison, Ollie is not fully baked at the end of episode one. Part of the fun is watching Ollie learn how to wage war on his city’s criminals and learn the ropes of urban vigilantism. As he does, the show’s story and characters expand and become more complex. Even better, the show’s leadership and writers are very comfortable geeking out with DC comics minutiae. For example, Ollie faces off with a version of Batman’s Royal Flush Gang in one episode.

The fight scenes are well done and surprisingly brutal. Ollie is not above filling guys who pose a threat with arrows. The costumes are reasonably good… although as with any superhero property there is necessary suspension of belief after a point.

Arrow eventually introduced crime scene investigator Barry Allen aka: The freakin’ Flash and spun him off into his own show, which introduced the concept of super powers and “meta-humans” into this universe. The Flash has been a fantastic show with an endearing lead and surprisingly good effects for a CW show. It’s also developed a very strong central mystery which has been propelling the story forward.

Since The Flash premiered, it has crossed over with Arrow several times yet both shows have maintained their own stories and arcs. In fact, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by how the shows have maintained ties to each other (whether characters from either show appear or not) and haven’t forgotten that these people exist in the same world. It’s one of few criticisms that I would make of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — once the characters diverged, other than prearranged crossovers, the two worlds were entirely separate. Normally, this would have been OK except that on Buffy the world was ending every year and you’d think that maybe someone would have noticed a flying dragon (Season 5 finale) or the fact that the sun was blotted out in LA for several days on Angel (season 4).

Amazingly, while “kingmaker” Marvel was struggling to give it’s first TV property, Agents of SHIELD, solid footing, Arrow was into its second ambitious season developing a “big bad” that had been foreshadowed since the pilot episode and shaking up the status quo every week. It wasn’t until Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out that Agents of SHIELD improved drastically and made what came before a lot more relevant. But I would argue that Arrow was still the better show even though it was very cool to see how events playing out in the Marvel films affected the wider universe that Agents of SHIELD lives in week to week.

Which leads me to how DC is still screwing this up and lets me explain how I was only “sorta” wrong about them.

After Man of Steel came out there were questions about whether or not Superman and Arrow’s Oliver Queen existed in the same universe. Unlike Marvel, DC doesn’t have a unifying figure like Kevin Feige keeping these things locked down. DC was cagey about the continuity between universes for more than a year. Fans clamored for a shared movie and TV universe like Marvel has, although given the world changing events of Man of Steel it seemed odd that Arrow seemed unaffected by nor mentioned the near worldwide cataclysm. Then in late summer 2014, DC guru Geoff Johns confirmed what fans dreaded: Arrow/The Flash are not in the same universe as Man of Steel. They are “separate universes,” says Johns. The point was further hit home by the casting of a separate Flash for the upcoming Justice League and Flash movies (Grant Gustin plays an exceptional Barry Allen/Flash on TV and Erza Miller will be the movie Flash).

Disheartening news. DC had an opportunity to build off of a fantastic existing property, Arrow, and tie it to its big movie franchises and they have shut it down. Worse yet, CBS is developing a Supergirl TV show and there is a question as to whether or not that will be part of the same universe as Arrow and The Flash. Would it be part of the movie universe? It’s own thing?? It’s not clear yet and that, in of itself, is proof of DC’s shortsighted, bad planning.

Now, let me be clear about one thing: I actually would not mind, in principle, if the DC TV universe and the movie universe were separate entities. Let the movie world be one thing and the TV world be another. Sounds fair.

Except it’s not.

The DC movie universe has free reign to use whatever characters and properties it wishes (assuming licensing rights aren’t an issue, of course), but DC TV does not. For example, Batman and Superman are off limits. I don’t think I’ve seen it expressly stated anywhere, but I suspect that Wonder Woman is off-limits, too. Junior Varsity Batman villains are OK (Deadshot, Clock King, etc.) but not the Joker or even Harley Quinn for that matter (brief Arrow easter egg aside, that is). Now, it probably wouldn’t make much sense to have the Joker without Batman anyway, but my point remains: TV is limited in what characters it can use while the movies are not. This doesn’t make sense to me. If the universes are “separate” why does it matter if there’s a TV Batman and a movie Batman? Hell, at this point, there’s a TV Flash and a movie Flash; so why are we holding back on the characters that fans want to see?

DC has been schizophrenic about this for almost 15 years. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited were victims of a so-called “bat embargo” that gradually prevented the usage of Batman characters and villains on the shows for… reasons. In the linked article, it’s suggested that because of the Batman Begins reboot in 2004 DC was sensitive about confusing people with multiple versions of the same character. It’s also noted that because Aquaman appeared on Smallville (ugh), he couldn’t be used on Justice League anymore either. What is DC’s deal??

Anyway, I’ll drive myself insane trying to understand why DC is contradicting itself. But if you take anything from this post, it should be WATCH ARROW AND THE FLASH! They’re fantastic. You have to do it in chronological order, though. Watch the first two seasons of Arrow and then watch The Flash pilot and then trade off Arrow and The Flash episodes after that.

Interest in Reviews?

Now, keep in mind Mike can’t control when movies begin or end…

Someone asked me last week if I’d be reviewing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I didn’t want to see the movie much less review it. But if you guys would be interested in reading them, I’ll take that bullet.

I’ll try to work more in should you want them. I’ve actually been toying with reviewing Hannibal from the beginning to gin up interest in the show before Season 3 starts in February. I may eventually review Twin Peaks episode by episode, too, but again those projects were meant to be on my own time, at my own pace.

Let me know in the comments (or on Facebook) if anyone would be interested in more reviews, both movies and TV, on here.

 

Batman v. Superman – Dark Knight Details? (Spoilers)

A storied career

Some details about the characterization of Batman in Batman v. Superman may have come out in a few reports originating on BadassDigest.com and perpetuated on Ain’t It Cool News and IGN.com. They’re encouraging! At least I think so.

Devin Faraci’s reports:

…when BvS opens Batman has existed for close to thirty years, which would place Wayne in his 50s (which is why I expected more grey in Affleck’s hair). In this version Batman is still an urban legend, a creature of the night, and no one has ever taken his picture. But he’s had plenty of adventures, and the Batcave includes a memorial centered around a tattered Robin costume.

It goes on to note similar information about Wonder Woman in that she has also been operating in the world already. There is no timeframe indicated for her, though. It does say that she is known in the world in some way while Batman has been under the radar.

This information gives me hope. I stand by my criticisms of DC and Warner Bros. bungling of its cinematic adaptations, but this report is nothing but good. For years, I’ve argued that we need to stop with all of the damn origin stories for Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man. We get it. Batman’s parents were killed, Superman is from Krypton, but grew up in Kansas, and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben died because of his carelessness. Established.

Instead, tell good stories about these characters and broaden the universe. Go deeper. Batman is a good example of this. Not all of Batman’s stories need to be a full-blown action-drenched ride with car chases and explosions and the fate of Gotham at stake. Those stories are good, don’t get me wrong, but The Dark Knight can play in a few genres. For example, you could make a psychological thriller where Batman hunts a serial killer like Mr. Zsasz or the Holiday killer. Or you could tell a horror story where Batman hunts a creature like Man-Bat or one of the many supernatural creatures against which he’s faced off. Or you could do a straight-up mystery where Batman’s detective skills get put to good use. Unfortunately, we never see these kinds of stories in movie form because the damn franchise reboots every 10 years.

So, while I recognize that Batman v. Superman is, again, going to be another action-packed, blockbuster, “the world is ending” type story, I appreciate that we’re not starting Batman at “square one” again. He’s been Batman for 30 years and he’s had adventures and fights and investigations. In fact, I rather dig the “urban myth” aspect of his back story. That’s how Batman wants to work–in the shadows, under the radar, as something dark and terrible for criminals to fear.

I’m still not completely sold on this movie, or on DC’s ill-prepared plans, but news like this is more encouraging than not.

Also, in the time it took me to write this post, Warner Bros. announced that Batman v. Superman is moving its release date up to March 25, 2016. That also moves it away from Captain America 3, which is a good idea. The last thing Warner Bros. needs is a black-eye by releasing their massive, franchise-inducing tent-pole movie and having it be defeated at the box office by Marvel’s 13th movie.

Marvel’s “Villain Problem”

I’ve had a vision of a world made free from magic tricks.

*LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*

Marvel Studios, for all its great decisions and fantastic vision, is not doing its villains justice. It’s the only area where DC is supreme.

Mike Cecchini at Den of Geek has written a fantastic piece, with which I completely agree, about how Marvel’s cinematic villains aren’t up to snuff. There have been 10 Marvel movies now and, of them, only one memorable villain who headlined in two of those films. I’m referring to Loki, of course, in case you’re blind. Mr. Cecchini even makes the rather damning point that Captain America: The First Avenger wasted Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. He’s right.

Alternatively, the Warner Brothers’ DC films have done its villains justice. Of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were great for their characterization of the man himself, but the villains were also given a great deal to do. Even Man of Steel, which I’ve criticized in another post, has a formidable villain in General Zod played by Michael Shannon. Zod has real motivation and a point of view, that while we don’t necessarily agree with it, we can understand. Plus, since his goal (essentially terraforming Earth into a new Krypton) is something that Superman struggles with as one of the last beings of his race in the universe, the conflict between them takes on added weight.

In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul wasn’t just a monologue spewing evil machine — he had real objectives and beliefs and the threat of force behind his actions that challenged Batman physically as well as philosophically. In many ways, Ra’s and Batman have the same objective. They just have radically different methods for attaining it. The drama of their conflict is borne out of their similarities and, indeed, the bond of mentor and student shared at the beginning. It also doesn’t hurt that Liam Neeson is amazing.

So much has been said about Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight that I can hardly say anything new. He was brilliant and terrifying and funny. It was the ultimate depiction of the character on film because everything he did, he did through action and motion and violence or the ever-present threat of violence. You cringe to watch him in some scenes while not daring to look away. Performance aside, the Joker is the yin to Batman’s yang. And in The Dark Knight that was literally true because, thematically, the Joker was a consequence of Batman’s escalation against criminals. The Joker even thanks Batman for it. While he claims to have no motive and no goal, that’s not true and we see it play out over the course of the film. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Ledger’s performance as Joker and of his role in The Dark Knight, is that a truly good villain truly shows us the hero in a new light. The Joker tests Batman and tests the police and forces them to stand by their morality or not. Because of Joker, we learned a great deal more about Batman’s character and his resolve than we did in the previous film.

Finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, realizing that no one could compare to Heath Ledger’s psychological performance as Joker, Nolan and team went a different way: position Batman against a foe that’s not just a philosophical threat, but one who can physically match and surpass him: Bane. While lacking some of the thematic value of Ra’s and Joker, Bane’s presence as a physical threat played into the idea of a Batman past his prime who could no longer cut it. Bane was young, muscle-bound, and powerful, while Batman had been off the streets for years, walked with a cane, and was unbalanced. Again, it was another prism through which to see Batman and bring out more aspects of his character. The film is not nearly as perfect as The Dark Knight, but still a pretty satisfying portrayal of Batman as well as a villain with real menace.

Unfortunately, none of the Cinematic Marvel villains have the weight of the DC villains — even Loki. He’s a great foil and is a good villain, but Tom Hiddleston’s performance is 99% of the reason that is the case. What does Loki tell us about Thor or the Avengers? Nothing, really. He’s just a foe, presenting a challenge, which the heroes must defeat. It’s a shame because in the comics Marvel villains are usually more nuanced and human than their counterparts in the DC Universe (Batman’s rogues aside, of course).

I can hardly fault Marvel for putting so much love and attention into their protagonists because we are seeing some really good comics-to-screen adaptations. But I can’t help but think that Iron Man and Thor (as well as the actors who portray them) would be better served by facing off against fully-realized villains that challenged their very souls as opposed to just some scheme or plan or MacGuffin that everyone is after.

Mr. Cecchini gave faint praise to Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its villains. I’d like to respectfully disagree and say that those villains were worthwhile foes that presented a genuine threat to Captain America as not just a challenge to overcome, but they made him confront who he is, what he is doing, and in what he believes. I suppose that the overall situation provided this threat, but even still, Captain America is a “white bread,” boy scout. He’s immovable in his honor, courage, and beliefs, so to wring drama out of him you need to put him against a philosophical threat that doesn’t neatly slot into “good” or “bad.” Plus, the Winter Soldier provided a physical challenge to the Cap that not many villains faced thus far have as well as emotional resonance in his relationship to him. Think of how successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier was — I would argue that it was great for its rich story and compelling villains as much as the spectacle of its set pieces.

Overall, Mr. Cecchini’s article is spot-on. Marvel is clearly building towards Thanos as the super villain our heroes will have to face either en masse or through proxy battles (probably both) and he deserves respect. They’ve already cast Josh Brolin to play him–which is a good start to invest in talent–but if all Thanos is going to do is make menacing faces and give monosyllabic responses, Marvel may be building up to its first genuine disappointment in an otherwise masterful cinematic adaptation of its properties.