We’re into the land of diminishing returns with Marvel, it seems, with the novelty of a shared cinematic universe having worn off and the big storyline everything was building to for ten years now over. Of course, another big event is sure to be on its way in another decade, but will we care by then?
Not if Thor: Love and Thunder is anything to go by. Between the thinning appeal of Taika Waititi’s self-satisfied comedy and the uninvolving and lazy plot, characters, and imagery, it’s an unmemorable failure of Marvel’s action comedy formula. Admittedly, Christian Bale makes his Voldemort-esque villain, Gorr the God Butcher, more threatening than you might expect, given his simplicity and lack of screen time, and there’s some fairly charming comic business between Thor and his semi-sentient weaponry. Tough to recommend just for those, though.
Marvel’s invasion of the multiverse is now well under way, and in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness this dense network of alternate realities sets the stage for a race to save – what else? – the world. Which world? Dunno. Our world, the most important one, at least, but maybe all the others too.
While director Sam Raimi has history with superhero movies, having helped to bring the genre to a new maturity with his Spider-Man trilogy, it’s his low-budget horror experience he brings to bear on the MCU – there’s more than a little Evil Dead in here. It’s surprising and invigorating, and the low-rent, rough and ready feel it conveys integrates well with the expensive computer-generated embellishments we’re used to from Marvel. Multiverse of Madness is visually dazzling.
Sadly, it’s not dazzling anywhere else, its plot overstuffed, its thematic through lines unsatisfying and problematic. It relies quite heavily on specific knowledge obtained from previous films and television programmes in the series; the less of that context you have, the less this story will mean to you. And magic and the multiverse are quickly becoming the cheap, mechanical get-out clauses they’ve always had the potential to be, rather than thought-through, coherently applied storytelling elements: write yourself into a corner? Make up anything you like! Magic and multiverse can paper over any cracks your plot might have. The result is a disappointingly joyless experience whose visual splendour can only fleetingly distract from some fundamental issues with the story and themes.
Sony’s Spider-Man Universe has given us a charming Venom origin story, a rather less charming Venom sequel, and now another film about a well-intentioned man inadvertently possessed by something that demands he feed on humans. In Morbius, Jared Leto’s brilliant scientist finds a cure for the blood disease that has tormented him and his best friend throughout their lives – except that it comes with a side of vampirism.
In short, Morbius is not a success. José describes it as what people who claim to hate Marvel, which has produced some very good films, truly do hate. It’s as blunt, CGI-laden and uninvolving as that kind of criticism implies. Mike tries to be fair to it – the hallway bit isn’t too bad – and we agree that there’s one actor to like in it, although we disagree on which one that is. José accuses the film of failing to appreciate that one thing a star should deliver in this type of work is physical appeal; Mike accuses José of shallowness.
But as fun as it is to tease José, Morbius is not a fun film to have to sit through in order to get to do that. One to avoid.
A new day, a new entry in the MCU, and on this occasion we’re introduced to an entirely new set of characters and mythos: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fills us in on the history of a young Chinese-American man and his dad’s magical jewellery. Like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, it’s a film whose connection to the wider MCU is light, establishing characters, a setting, and story elements that are certain to tie in to subsequent films, but free of the obligation to prioritise them at the expense of itself. And like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, that freedom works in its favour – it’s of a piece, interesting, pretty, and entertaining.
We discuss the film’s setting in a Chinese-American immigrant context, comparing it in particular to The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians: all three films dramatise the cultural differences between the new and old country, and the ways in which the younger generation might face challenges in visiting or returning to their ancestral home. Indeed, Awkwafina appears in all three films, and, even in supporting roles, expresses this subject all by herself. We also think about the MCU’s use of the film to address its own past, a character from Iron Man 3 returning: Shang-Chi not only rejects the way the earlier film totally reconfigured him from the comics, but also addresses the Orientalism with which he has historically been associated.
And there’s more besides – Tony Leung’s beautiful, evocative performance of a character that nonetheless doesn’t quite work; the quality of the action, much of it a cut above what we typically expect from Marvel; and that classic Disney trick – if in doubt, animate a cute animal. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a promising start to the MCU’s next phase, and we look forward to finding out how its world will integrate down the line, but it’s worth seeing on its own terms.
Marvel’s triumphant return to our cinemas is… a film that fills in a plot hole nobody cared about for a character who not only should have had a standalone film long before now but who has since been killed off. To say that Black Widow feels like a kick in the teeth is an understatement, but still, the MCU is back with us and we see what it has to offer.
And what it presents us with is something much more earthbound than the spacefaring antics in which Marvel has increasingly indulged: a good old-fashioned Russian spy story, and a family reunion of sorts, Natasha Romanoff driven to reconnect with the other undercover Russian agents who formed her surrogate family as a child. We ask whether the theme of family is done justice here, especially David Harbour’s – the father’s – part in its expression. And, among others, we ask questions of the action filmmaking, the lack of humour in heroes, Romanoff’s conceptualisation, how the women are filmed, and whether it’s necessary to eschew edginess in order to pursue a progressive politics.
Black Widow is a film we enjoyed, though on reflection, picking out the reasons why is harder than picking at its flaws – but it certainly hasn’t dampened our willingness to continue following Marvel’s movies.
José returns from a week at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, just in time to see Venice crumble in Spider-Man: Far From Home, the latest injection of plot development to the Marvel series. It hits him in the gut and the film doesn’t recover, José seeing a lack of respect and intelligence that colours the entire experience for him. Mike, on the other hand, doesn’t particularly care for buildings, and finds a lot to like, including one of the more interesting villains Marvel has offered, one that self-referentially comments on image-making and the expanding chasm between what the public is shown and what is actually happening, and a setting – a school trip across Europe – that provides a way for the competing parts of Peter Parker’s life to interfere dramatically.
There’s much up for debate, our experiences differing severely. Two things we can agree on: it isn’t particularly well shot, and Tom Holland’s performance soars. Comme ci, comme ça, as they say in Europe.
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It’s taken ten years but Marvel has finally branched out into films about heroes who aren’t white guys. Following last year’s Black Panther, Captain Marvel introduces Marvel’s first female protagonist, Carol Danvers, a young woman caught up in conflicts between worlds and the mystery of who she is.
José is enraptured by the film’s visual beauty, Mike by its cat. Its mid-90s setting is mined for tons of laughs, as is Samuel L. Jackson’s lively, witty performance. Neither of us is too convinced by Brie Larson, sadly, who lacks the charisma to truly sell her role, but the cast and storytelling that surround her more than compensate. Quite apart from the very obvious gender dynamics at play, other intelligent, interesting themes are brilliantly interwoven into the plot, giving the film real substance and emotional punch. It’s occasionally a little too transparently right-on, some moments of sisterhood rather unsubtle and even cringeworthy, but other scenes intended to inspire female empowerment truly soar.
It’s an intelligent, spectacular film that we hugely enjoyed, and definitely recommend.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Concluding a trilogy two decades in the making, Glass brings together the characters of 2000’s Unbreakable and 2016’s Split in an unconventional superhero showdown. We both enjoyed it, though it’s a bit of a trifle, but it’s enjoyably oddball and features a particularly brilliant performance from James McAvoy. And we appreciate M. Night Shyamalan’s direction, staging and camerawork, which, while occasionally a little stilted and ‘filmmakery’, for want of a better word, is thoughtful and always strives to create interesting and meaningful imagery.
The film feels significantly affected by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s influence on comic book movies and their public acceptance; there are things that Glass does, ways it behaves, that are difficult to imagine having made as much sense prior to that series. Indeed, this trilogy is a universe of sorts, with characters from different films being brought together in a shared world.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Woke up thinking about Venom. It’s not been well-reviewed, and with reason. But we found it very entertaining. I particularly liked the look of it, the special effects, the use of San Francisco, the chase scenes. And Tom Hardy’s performance is so original and inventive. He starts as someone madly in love, content, socially engaged; then he does something unethical and is cast out. The rest of the film is him, suffering, shivering, longing, wanting, and then with a body that’s infected and out of his control, a body he’s at war with it and one that gets flayed, shocked, beaten, pierced. If this film had been made twenty years ago I would have taken it, lazily perhaps, as an AIDS metaphor; as is, it’s a most original representation of a masculinity at war with itself. Podcast will follow from Eavesdropping at the Movies.
I was really intrigued by the first two episodes of The Inhumans being released in advance on Imax and saw it as an opportunity to compare the experience and quality of the image with what is shown on TV. But the show is so poor….The image looks just as dense and glossy on a big screen, some of the effects also hold up well, the set seems overly sparse and geometric, but would be less noticeably so on a small screen: the story, acting and all the other production values that go into making a decent-budget film and that are not restricted to CGI are strictly bottom of the barrel. A real disappointment, though not for the reasons expected. The story is far from Best of Marvel.And instead of thinking about the image, the question it left me with was: why is acting on American TV shows often so abysmal?
The best of the comic-book-connected series that I saw last week was Jessica Jones on Netflix. It initially reminded me of Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warchowski novels: a solitary female detective scouring the nights of the city to solve crime, often of a corporate nature, sometimes drinking herself to oblivion, interested in men and sexually active but in a series of failed relations and with a neighbour in the building that appears regularly to comment on the action, provide a change of tone, and not help. Warchowski used to get beaten up a lot in the novels too if I remember correctly.
Jessica Jones is smart. and sexual; she’s not afraid to ask for what she wants. She can take it, she says. Jessica’s drinking way more than what’s good for her, trying to forget something terrible that’s happened which is clearly indicated as some kind of rape though what we’re shown is a mental violation — to the point of physical possession and erasure of will — and with jarring but indistinct sexual overtones. So here we have a woman, just like men in the best noir’s, trying to survive in a dangerous world, drinking to forget someone who’s bruised her beyond repair, doing her best to earn a living, and screwing with whatever looks tasty and doesn’t cause too much trouble: It saves on the drink. The opening line in the series, spoken in voice-over, is a great one: ‘New York may be a city that never sleeps but it sure does sleep around. Not that I’m complaining. Cheaters are good for business. A big part of the job is looking for the worst in people.’
The voice-over, the tone, and the graphics all place us firmly in a noir world, one which interestingly seems like of an inverse negative of the up-to-now more successful DC series like Supergirl and The Flash; Arrow also, for though the latter is visually coded in noir, it’s a noir that looks to light and sunshine.
Jessica seems less mentally strong than Warchowski. In fact she’s been the victim of a man’s mindfuck — he took over her mind and made her do ‘things’– and then the episode reveals, discretely, some superpowers which we don’t yet know the extent of. It has a great noir look too, at least as imaginative at that of Daredevil and is more interstingly polysexual and multiracial than the series on ‘The Man Without Fear’. The object of desire here is who will be revealed to be Luke Cage, a hunky black bartender, made to seem lusciously desirable, who we are shown to have slept with a black woman before Jessica. The series is treading carefully on the politics of representation.
This seems a more complex series than Supergirl,The Flash, Arrow or even Daredevil; it’s less camp than Gotham, and a lot more enticing than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The plot revolves around rescuing a young athlete from the same series of events that seem to have only recently crushed her and has a wonderful twist at the end.
Krysten Ritter has an intriguing look of crumpled intelligence. Her face seems poised in a state of smirky disappointment and can look very beautiful and also quite down-at-heel. Carrie Anne Moss appears as a two-timing lesbian corporate lawyer who sometimes throws crumbs of work Jessica’s way. The first episode moved really well, with the editing evoking a sense of a dangerous past impinging on the present, something that could be a memory but could also be a presence and in either way dangerous. It’s very sexy too, with the sex being a context for an exchange of tough-talking dares that reveal as much as they hide. I look forward to the following episodes.