Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) movie poster

director Jon Watts
viewed: 07/16/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My kids got back from camp for a brief weekend before other summer travels and I posed to them the idea of seeing a movie. Either Spider-Man: Homecoming or War for the Planet of the Apes. Surprisingly, they agreed on Spider-Man (they never agree on anything), and so Spider-Man it was.

I didn’t have high expectations, despite having liked Tom Holland’s brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War, was it?

Color me surprised. This is probably the second best Spider-Man movie, next to Spider-Man 2 (2004).

They dialed it back down a lot here, letting Spider-Man fight a more localized villain in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. He’s scavenging and stealing alien technology from government clean-up sites and selling the weaponry to small-time crooks. More like old-fashioned Spider-Man comics, the story is more concise and less existential in its threats. Peter Parker is believably a teen (though maybe barely) and the cast around him, particularly Jacob Batalon as his chubby, funny pal and Zendaya shows promise as the next film’s “MJ”.

It’s funny throughout. I particularly liked the Captain America PSA’s.

It’s not great film-making, but it’s more fun than it seems, and then you start to realize that the bar isn’t all that high for Spider-Man movies. It still has other issues and short-comings, but we all enjoyed it, and that is not a common enough result of a movie these days.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) movie poster

director James Gunn
viewed: 05/06/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

In 2014, James Gunn performed a magic trick, turning an obscure Marvel Comics entity into a major Marvel Studios franchise in Guardians of the Galaxy. Shareholders and fans thrilled.

No longer obscure, but rather hotly anticipated (by my 13 year old daughter among many), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes shooting out of the gate of summer fare 2017. Like any sequel, more is more, when it comes to the stuff that fans loved the first time: comic banter, AM radio tunes, stunning sci-fi visuals, and baby Groot.

But as is also common in sequels, more is not always more.

Guardians 2 is more, 136 minutes more.

The real flaw though is in the script. It’s nowhere as sharp and funny as it should be. And then the whole “daddy” or “family” issues theme. It’s heavy handed. It’s cliché as cliché  can be and super-tiresome. And here it really sucks the life out of the movie.

Favorite elements: David Bautista as Drax gets the best lines and moments, nicely paired with opposing counterpart in Pom Klementieff as Mantis. And most of the visual design and character designs are stunning and super-fun.

Least favorite element: Bradley Cooper’s Rocket.

Coming out of the movie, my son was unsurprisingly unimpressed. My daughter was not nearly as enthusiastic as I would have thought, considering she laughed through much of it.

I don’t know if all of the fans will be happy, but I’m pretty sure the shareholders will be.

Logan (2017)

Logan (2017) movie poster

director James Mangold
viewed: 03/05/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My daughter was very excited to see that Logan was to be released on her 13th birthday. And for her birthday, I took her and a couple of her friends to see Logan. It’s a small sample size, but based on my experience, 13 year old girls LOVE Logan. It even brought tears to their eyes.

Surprisingly violent and successfully gritty, Logan takes the Wolverine character as played by Hugh Jackman into the future, the year 2029, where Logan is ailing from blood poisoning, alcoholism, and the bitter, brutal events that led up to the elimination of all mutants. It’s only him and Caliban (Stephan Merchant) left, caring for the very ill Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

That is until his clone daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen) shows up. She’s like him, with those claws, and when she’s unleashed, she’s a killing machine.

The story then turns to a run for the Canadian border, to some safe haven for Laura and her test tube mutant brethren. There is an amazing poignancy in this, with the current state of affairs and the plight of immigrants in the United States at the moment.

The film has some political commentary, but really it’s a character-driven film, with a lot of brutal dismemberment, slicing and dicing. And for my money, not just the 13 year olds in our party, it works well. Jackman and Stewart and Keen derive their pathos.

It’s a superhero film stripped of costumes and magic, humanized, or at least de-superhero-ized. Easily the best film in the series.

Man-Thing (2005)

Man-Thing (2005) movie poster

director Brett Leonard
viewed: 03/02/2017

In researching some other Marvel Comics movie thing, I stumbled on the fact that there was a Man-Thing movie, made in 2005. I follow along pretty well and have kept tabs on how Marvel has evolved its own productions, but I really hadn’t heard at all about this movie. Reading up now on it, it’s not surprising.

Produced by Artisan Entertainment, who had also made that era’s The Punisher (2004), and worked out a deal to license some of Marvel’s more minor characters (before Marvel realized that running the quality control was the key to success), Man-Thing was an Australian production, not keenly over-seen by the parent company, and was not released theatrically in the US.

For me, Man-Thing always held a point of fascination, possibly because it started as a comic book in 1974, when I was 5 and growing up in Florida, land of swamps. I always loved monsters. Especially sympathetic things that looked cool.

It might surprise you to know that the cinematic Man-Thing is a horror film, not at all a superhero movie. But it probably wouldn’t surprise you just how bad this movie is.

Australians may be good at a lot of things, but sounding like Cajuns and Creoles is not one of them. Throw in a lot of cheap camera effects that make this look like a SciFi Channel original of the era (it was released as such eventually), and you’ve got a big hunk of junk.

On the positive side, it’s R-rated so an a-typical flash of boobs tells you early on that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Marvel outing. But even as a horror film it’s pretty terrible. And the creature itself, originally meant to be a physical costume enhanced by CGi, winds up being cheap CGi circa 2005, which is a sad fate for any character and far from interesting or terrifying.

But is it bad enough to be good? I’d say it’s close, but I don’t think it achieves even this rather low point of success. Perhaps it deserves its relative obscurity.

Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange (2016) movie poster

director Scott Derrickson
viewed: 11/05/2016 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I actually had to drag my 15 year old son to Doctor Strange.  He’s in full-on revolt against superhero movies.  My daughter, who has been pretty into the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, was a lot easier to convince.  It’s been a dry autumn for movies, so I was more willing than normal to go see the latest superhero fare.

I never had a relationship with Dr. Strange other than to think he was not really my superhero cup of tea.  As a kid I thought he was pretty lame and wasn’t into weird mysticism in my comic books.  As a result, I came to this one rather open-mindedly.

Doctor Strange features an origin story, which is just fine here.  Unlike Superman or Spiderman, whose origin stories we’ve seen dozens of times, it’s worth getting the backstory here.  Benedict Cumberbatch plays the good, if arrogant neurosurgeon, who suffers a horrific crash and nerve damage to his hands, heads to the East (Kathmandu exactly) to find a mystical healing but instead finds magic and expanded realities and superpowers and lots of stuff.

The cast carries this along quite well with Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Benedict Wong.  There was some criticism of whitewashing with Swinton playing a character who in the comics was Asian.  Not familiar with the comics, I don’t know what to say here.  She’s one of those cinematic aliens who is also a very fine actress.

Really, what struck me was that Doctor Strange is sort of the head-trippy Inception (2010) of the Marvel Universe.  Remember all that city folding on itself stuff?  Well what if they did that to the Nth degree non-stop?  Actually my favorite scene was Strange’s immersion into the psychedelic reality of multiverses and uber-reality.

It was fun.  And as Marvel is wont to do, post-credit scenes suggest that we’ll be seeing the magic doctor in the next Thor movie.  The Marvel machine rolls on.

My son was unimpressed.  My daughter liked it.  Dad can’t win.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 06/04/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The X-Men movies keep surprising me.  Rising from the ashes of The Last Stand (2006), the re-booted franchise that kicked off with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) and renewed yet again by Bryan Singer’s surprising return to the franchise that he first brought to the screen in 2000, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this (currently) 2nd trilogy has managed despite odds and levels of narrative complexity, turned out some really decent movies.

Not great movies, mind you, but good movies.  Entertainment.

This series took on the added challenge of a reworked timeline, setting the films in the past:  First Class in the 1960’s, Days of Future Past in the 1970’s (as well as in the present?), and now Apocaplypse in 1983.  Frankly, even trying to get my head around the whole timeline thing is more than I care to strain for myself.

But I think I know why this works, at least to some extent.  The X-Men were always a more interesting crew than Marvel stablemates, The Avengers.  The Avengers were always sort of Marvel’s mainstream, while the X-men were sort of their “alternative culture”.  And ultimately are a more interesting gang of characters.

It’s 144 minutes of mind and butt-numbing action, so incredibly much packed in to this sprawling cataclysmic story.  An almost all-powerful villain Apocalypse (a heavily CGI & make-up-buried Oscar Isaac) rises from nearly 6,000 years of slumber to re-boot the Earth.  It takes all of the X-men to come together to take him and his associates down.

I often think that one shortcoming of the modern superhero story is that every villain is an existential one, every one is bringing an apocalypse to Earth (or even the universe) and the heroes have to “save the world”.  Old school comics had heroes and villains on smaller scale stories that were still compelling.

This story isn’t quite so complicated unless you’re trying to tie it into the prior movie’s narrative (which was complicated and is essentially extended here with the action taking place a decade later — almost 20 years since First Class).

For its broad spectrum of response (seriously “mixed” reviews), Apocalypse hardly seemed like a sure thing.  When I told my superhero-loving 12 year old daughter we were going to it, she said, “Yusss!”  And when I found myself walking out of the movie thinking, “Gee, I really kind of liked that…”   I started realizing that despite the fact that I stopped reading superhero comics around 1983, that I guess the X-men were the ones I liked, far more than a lot of the others.

Lastly, quite as in Days of Future Past, the film’s singular best sequence features Evan Peters as Quicksilver, saving the day in a prolonged time-stretched action scene, here saving the whole Xavier school’s populace from an explosion.  Talk about a character crying out for his own movie.  It’s kind of clear that Singer has made the case for him, perhaps made the case that Singer should make it himself.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America: Civil War (2016) movie poster

directors Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
viewed: 05/07/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My 14 year old son is boycotting all superhero movies at present, but my 12 year old daughter is over the moon about them, in particular those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Myself, I’m somewhere between those polar opposites.  But as a good dad, of course I took my daughter to see Marvel’s latest.

Ostensibly a Captain America movie, this one has even more characters in it than the last Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).  They couldn’t even find space for Spider-Man and Ant-Man on the poster.  There’s only so much room in a $250 million/147 minute flick.

Anthony & Joe Russo return as directors, following Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) in the ongoing saga of…Jeez, I can hardly even remember what that one was about.  The upshot in this one is that after all the destruction brought about in defending the Earth against the likes of Loki and Ultron, people of many nations want to see superheroes managed by the United Nations, rather than acting as free agents.  Willingness to comply with this ultimatum breaks up the good guys into an us vs. them “civil war”.  Add to that mix that old Bucky, the Winter Soldier, is framed for a crime against the U.N. and everybody finds themselves either on Team Stark (pro-registration) or Team Cap (pro-independence).

I’m not exactly sure what the messaging is meant to be here.  Do we want privatized superheroing or do we want the government to control the resources?  Which is right?  Well, it seems that for the time being, the government is looking all corruptible and so therefore we have to trust the incorruptibility of our heroes.  I’m not sure what that suggests?  Smaller government?  Is this a conservative vehicle?

The film’s biggest coup is snagging Spider-Man 3.0 star Tom Holland, currently still a teenager playing a Spider-Man whose voice hasn’t completely broken.  Promising though it is for the next installment of that franchise, his screen time is probably more promise than delivery.

Overall, I found it an entertaining enough movie.  It could hardly be more jam-packed.

My daughter really liked it.  She and her pals are totally into this stuff right now, and though I don’t dig it on that level, I do appreciate being that age and being into something nerdy in a big way.

The Marvel machine rolls on.  Where it stops…?

Deadpool (2016)

Deadpool (2016) movie poster

director Tim Miller
viewed: 02/15/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Deadpool is a breath of fresh R-rated air in highly corporate product genre of superhero movies.  The marketplace is awash in superheroes and looks to stay awash from years to come, but these are products built for the family-friendly PG-13 audience, increasingly mainstream culturally.  And while this is a product of a big studio (Fox) from a comic from a big publisher (Marvel), it is decidedly unlike the norm.

I don’t have a pre-existing relationship with Deadpool, the character.  He was invented after I’d stopped reading superhero comics.  So I can’t comment on what the film gets right or wrong.  How perfect or imperfect Ryan Reynolds is as the man-made mutant mercenary.

It’s not that Ryan Reynolds was born to play the role, more that this is the role that Ryan Reynolds adopted, midwifed and birthed into existence.  He, and the writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, as well as director Tim Miller, put in a lot of effort to get this movie made in this particular way.  And it seems to be a hit with the fanbase.  What that will mean for the genre?  Who knows.  At least a sequel.

Crass and violent, Deadpool earns its R-rating.  Funny and pretty entertaining, it earns some praise as well.  I don’t know if it’s quite as witty as it thinks it is.  Is having a character make a note of “breaking the fourth wall” really innovative or clever?  Isn’t the “fourth wall” really a theater thing and less a movie thing?  More aptly, the film is filled with geek-love easter eggs.

I don’t think I’d be the only person to suggest that Brianna Hildebrand who plays Negasonic Teenage Warhead almost stole the show despite her relatively small role.

The superhero movie is certainly in danger of becoming a victim of its own success at the moment.  The glut of product is really just entering its onslaught phase.  And as successfully as Marvel/Disney have crafted the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC and Warner Brothers are desperately trying to construct their own, we’re going to be drowning in it soon.  And how soon it plays itself out is anybody’s guess.  More and more it seems like “product” rather than actual entertainment.

So Deadpool‘s success… it will be interesting to see if it actually shakes anything up.

Fantastic Four (2015)

Fantastic Four (2015) movie poster

director Josh Trank
viewed: 01/20/2015

Critics love to beat up on a bad movie.  I myself have noted that it’s sometimes more fun to write about a movie I hate as opposed to a movie I love.  And Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four was one for the ages of 2015.  It’s up for a lot of Golden Raspberries and clocks a 9% at Rotten Tomatoes.  It’s pre-planned sequel has been shelved.

The implosions behind the film are worth noting, and it’s worth reading Anthony Breznican’s article on EW.com for the scuttlebutt.  It’s also worth noting that Marvel Comics cancelled the Fantastic Four comic book series prior to the release of the film.  Speculation had it that Marvel didn’t want to build up a franchise whose rights belonged to another, in this case Fox.  The thinking was that if this thing tanked and Fox didn’t make a sequel, the rights would revert to Marvel/Disney and well, whatever happens then…who knows.

Could this property have been more beleaguered?

Marvel sold the film rights for the Fantastic Four initially for a relative song, which resulted in the notorious and obscure Roger Corman-produced flick from 1994.  Those rights were eventually parlayed into 20th Century Fox’s mitts and brought forth the two Jessica Alba movies of 2005 and 2007.  And it’s been since that time that Marvel went from scrapper to powerhouse to Disney acquisition, controlling their own product and developing what’s come to be known as the MCU (the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

How much do you think Marvel wants all their stuff back?  They got Spider-Man back last year in a partnership deal with Sony.  It’s probably much to their chagrin that the X-Men continue to thrive at Fox.

My daughter has become quite the fan of the MCU, and even though Fantastic Four is outside of the MCU, she was still pretty into seeing it.

It’s a strange resultant film.

It’s an origin film, re-worked from the comics, putting the four together with Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) getting spattered with weird energy from a trip to another dimension.  This is in part where the film has its best qualities.  I liked the casting of all the key characters Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Miles Teller, and Kebbell too.  Making the characters younger, straight out of high school, more or less, gave them something a little different, vaguely fresh.  And up through the point where they become blasted with powers, the film moves along quickly and pretty well.

At 100 minutes, it’s one of the shorter movies out there, definitely one of the shortest superhero movies, which would be to its credit.  Except right after they get their powers, the story switches over where Teller’s Mr. Fantastic runs off by himself for a year, the others work for a quasi-government organization, and then decide to go after the other dimension again, where they find Doom, who got stuck on the planet and went crazy.

By the time it’s time for the showdown, there is no time left in the film.  The climactic battle is so mercifully short that it feels weird.  And the ending comes quick and embarrassingly glib.

It’s true, it’s a mess of a movie.  Who knows what it might have been.  Who knows to whom the blame belongs, on Trank or the studio.  Who knows what will become of the cinematic Fantastic Four.

Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man (2015) movie poster

director Peyton Reed
viewed: 12/12/2015

Two phases deep into the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” I can tell you one thing for sure:  My 11 year old daughter is hooked.

From my vantage, the MCU is seeming more and more like the massive corporate marketing entity it is rather than its not so discrete products, specifically its films over the past 7 years.  From the earlyish days of Iron Man (2008), I felt you had to be impressed with the massive marketing/product build-up that Marvel invested in, toward the (at the time) seeming totality of the first Avengers (2012) movie.  It was on a scale heretofore unheard of.  It was kind of interesting to watch build.

But now, in the looming shadow of the future Disney Star Wars world, it feels naive to have seen much of anything but the massive corporatization of once deeply adored entities: the comic books, the original Star Wars series, the characters.  Sure, there has always been a marketing of Marvel comic characters, and certainly we have George Lucas to thank for the breakout in productization of movie junk unheard of before the original Star Wars movies.  But the MCU is the test case that has charted our corporate movie future for the foreseeable future.

Ant-Man may well be the true case in point.  Originally developed by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish for Marvel/Disney (which adhered to their early direction of hiring successful creative teams to helm their films), Ant-Man hit a pretty public snag when Wright jumped ship quite late in the game and Marvel handed to reins to director Peyton Reed.  This seemed to suggest that the quirky uniqueness and vision of a particular director (one who had championed this moderately obscure character into a major motion picture) broke too much with a bigger “universe-building” that the studio/corporation dictated.  And perhaps never again (at least in the MCU as currently envisioned) will such creative control be sought or offered.

When Ant-Man hit the cinemas this summer (somewhat an afterthought following Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), the true culmination of MCU Phase 2), critics were not particularly kind.  For me, personally (especially with my kids out of the country at the time), it meant we could wait for home media.  Critical disappointment might have been more wishful thinking.

The movie, while neither great nor awful, is actually entertaining.  I liked it more than I supposed I would, whatever MCU fatigue I might be invoking here.  Paul Rudd is a likable if unlikely-ish character/hero in the movie.

My daughter, on the other hand, really enjoyed it.  She’s super psyched up about next year’s Captain America: Civil War and 2018 & 2019 Avengers: Infinity War movies.  She and her friends talk (apparently) a lot about the superheroes, including the X-men movies (outside the MCU).  And from my vantage (again from my vantage), I withhold my cynicism to an extent.  If this is their Star Wars (so to speak), and these are tween girls I’m speaking of here, let them enjoy and be excited and be crazy for.

It’s also worth noting that they wish their was a Black Widow movie, more of Scarlet Witch in Avengers, and questions about Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in those X-men movies.  We’ll see what the corporate entities decide to green-light.