On Avengers: Endgame

When Marvel first announced the intent to make their own movies based on those characters that they retained the rights to, it’s fair to say it was received with a healthy level of scepticism. When it became clear that they had bigger plans of a full-scale shared universe, I think a lot of people fully expected it to be a recipe for disaster.

It’s been a long time since anybody thought that. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a true juggernaut, with their movies not only gathering extremely healthy box office returns, but significant critical acclaim; the worst Rotten Tomatoes score for any of their films is 67%, and nine of the 22 films have a score of 90% or better. A successful shared universe has become something that other studios covet, yet none have really made any convincing progress towards.

Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd movie produced by Marvel since 2008’s Iron Man, has a lot riding on it. It marks the finale of the Infinity Saga, a story eleven years in the making. It has to follow up the massively successful Avengers: Infinity War and wrap up the story there in a satisfying manner, while simultaneously putting things in place to launch Marvel’s franchise on into whatever awaits it. Really, it’s not a surprise that the end result is a full three hours in length. The good news on that front is that it really doesn’t feel like it.

The emotionally-charged finale to Infinity War has left both Avengers and the world in general massively changed and Endgame deals neatly with their attempt to process what’s happened. After a short prologue set a few weeks after the Snap wiped out half the population of the universe, the film jumps five years to a world where everybody’s had to find their own way to deal with it, with varying degrees of success. The surprise reappearance of somebody they thought lost gives them the longest of long shots to undo what happened and the surviving Avengers set out to try to set things right. And that’s all I’m saying about the plot. Marvel have been careful not to spoil too much (probably 80% of the trailer footage comes from the first 15 minutes of the film) and it’s definitely best experienced for yourself.

What needs to be said up front is that Endgame is absolutely not a film for Marvel rookies. What it is is a highly satisfying love letter to the fans who have stuck with the film series, featuring callbacks to many of the previous movies, some small, like the brief appearance of a supporting character, some pretty massive. The nice thing is that none of those callbacks feel particularly gratuitous, and some come as genuine surprises. It’s not essential to have seen every movie, but a pretty decent familiarity with the characters is really going to help.

The film unquestionably has its flaws, primarily with the pacing in the first two acts, which is a bit wonky at times. But when the film slows down, it’s generally to allow for character moments that, in most films, could feel unnecessary, but, as we’re dealing with characters that we’ve been following for a decade, there’s a sense that the film has earned the right to take the time to indulge in that. The film also manages to maintain a delicate balance between the emotional content inherent in the premise and being, at times, incredibly funny, with most of the jokes landing beautifully. The script is generally sharp and the cast universally bring their best to the table. Some of the characters feel a touch underused, but with so many characters to deal with, the film has to make certain choices, and deciding to focus primarily on the original six Avengers makes good sense.

So the film isn’t perfect. But what it is is a pretty much perfect finale to a decade worth of stories. There’s an epic level of fanservice involved, with moments that fans everywhere will cheer, but, as with the callbacks, they feel earned. Some of the plot logic is probably pretty questionable, but the emotional journey is as satisfying as could possibly be hoped for as we follow, and in some cases say farewell to (probably), characters that we’ve followed through multiple films.

To describe a film as “satisfying” seems like faint praise, but, honestly, it’s hard to find a single word that more accurately sums up my feelings about Avengers: Endgame. Is the movie great? Yes, unquestionably, but over and above that, it feels right in the way it handles the wrap-up of such an epic story. The emotional beats hit spot on every time and, if this is the last time we’ll be seeing some of the characters, Marvel have given them a truly fitting sendoff.

On Alita: Battle Angel

Sometimes, I think it can be dangerous to have a pet project. James Cameron is a bit notorious for this; twice now, he’s had a project in mind that he’s had to keep on the back burner, largely because of the fact that, when he first considered doing them, special effects technology simply wasn’t up to the job of portraying the story he wanted to tell successfully, forcing him to go off and do other things until the film industry catches up. In the first instance, the result was Avatar. Whatever you might think of that movie, and it certainly has its flaws, it’s hard to argue with the box office results, as it still tops the worldwide charts ten years after its release.

The second one is Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of the Japanese manga series Gunnm. Cameron’s had this one in his back pocket since at least 2000 and at some points, it was really beginning to look like it would never be made. With Cameron increasingly tied up with the ever-expanding number of Avatar sequels (four, at the time of writing), directing duties eventually passed to Robert Rodriguez and so, after a couple of decades of gestation, the film has finally hit cinemas. With the best will in the world, it’s not going to compete too well with its predecessor.

The story, set about six hundred years into the future and about three hundred years after a devastating war, revolves around a disembodied cyborg with an intact human brain found in a junkyard by a scientist who rebuilds her, naming her Alita after his deceased daughter. Unable to remember her past, Alita swiftly discovers an unexpected proficiency in an ancient martial art and an instinctive tendency towards violence that troubles her adoptive father. With cyborg assassins looking to eliminate her, Alita has to come to terms with her unknown past quickly to survive.

On a surface level, the film is pretty good. Cameron has a talent for world-building, and has a successful manga series to build on, and Rodriguez is a highly proficient director, good with both action and quieter moments. The film duly looks exceptional, with effects work at the top of their game, and a production design that’s visually interesting, most notable being the designs of the many cyborgs that populate the movie. Alita’s unusually large eyes, which prompted a lot of commentary after the first trailers came out, rapidly become a non-issue once it becomes apparent that her whole body is visibly artificial, with only the head, neck and shoulders being covered with skin.

Rosa Salazar does a good job as Alita, acting entirely through the medium of motion capture. It’s very well done, too, as her nuanced performance comes through clearly, neatly balancing the dual aspects of teenage girl and high-tech warrior. Christoph Waltz likewise does excellent work as her would-be father figure. Mahershala Ali provides a mostly restrained performance as the film’s primary villain, with Jennifer Connelly solid as his morally conflicted cyborg expert.

The film’s action sequences are well-handled, particularly a centrepiece sequence when Alita gets roped into a game of motorball, a race through a twisting course where cyborgs do their best to kill each other. It’s a pretty thrilling set piece that the rest of the movie doesn’t entirely manage to match.

Unfortunately, Alita: Battle Angel does have one pretty major flaw, in that it’s far more interested in setting up sequels than in telling a complete story. As a result, there’s a sense that the movie doesn’t so much end as just stop, leaving a huge number of plot threads unaddressed. The film poses a great deal of questions, almost none of which get answers. Several reasonably high profile actors, such as Edward Norton, Jai Courtney and Michelle Rodriguez show up in extremely small roles that, as a result, practically scream that they’re going to be really important later on (the only saving grace being that none of them are instantly recognisable). A brief epilogue, which picks up the story months after the rest of the movie, essentially skips quite a chunk of plot with an “and all this happened, but we’re not going to show you” feel to it, which feels both awkward and a shame, as it covers her later participation in the motorball tournaments that were pretty much the coolest part of the movie. It’s, at least in hindsight, quite frustrating and seems like a misstep, particularly in a high budget movie where the box office required to get a sequel can hardly be guaranteed. Fortunately, mostly due to a strong showing in China, it’s starting to look like it might do well enough to get one.

On a lot of levels, Alita: Battle Angel is a decently made, fun film. It’s probably not going to convert people who aren’t that hot on science fiction, but for those who are, as long as you can set aside a degree of irritation at the blatant sequel setting-up, it’s entirely worth a watch.

On Captain Marvel

Given their dominant presence on the movie making stage, it seems startling to remind ourselves that it was only ten years ago that Marvel, fed up with iffy movies based on their successful characters, decided to take a wild leap into the void and actually make them themselves. Twenty movies on, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe a box office powerhouse that every other studio out there has tried to copy, with largely negative results, they show absolutely no sign of slowing down.

With Phase 3 of their masterplan drawing to a close and various lengthy contracts coming to an end, likely marking the final appearances of those characters in the MCU as their actors move on, Marvel are keen to get new players onto the board, giving them potential to carry on into Phase 4 and beyond, and also, one suspects, having faced some pretty justified criticism, improve their diversity a bit. Possibly starting with less actors named Chris.

With the character already acknowledged to be at the forefront of future plans, Captain Marvel is arguably one of their more important movies and, fortunately for them, they’ve pretty much nailed it.

Unlike most origin stories, where the lead gains their powers over the course of the film, Captain Marvel opens with “Vers”, the name she initially goes by, already in possession of her abilities and a member of an elite Kree strikeforce fighting a lengthy war against the Skrulls, a race of alien shapeshifters. And an unhealthy case of amnesia regarding her past, with some recurring nightmares that she can’t explain. The main body of the film deals with her struggle to figure out who she really is and how she got there. While not exactly ground-breaking, it does make for a pleasant switch from the usual approach.

The script is a good one. The first act comes across as a bit disjointed, which reflects the mental state of the protagonist, then solidifies as Vers crashlands on Earth (in 1995) and begins to discover her past life as human pilot Carol Danvers. The second act properly gets underway once Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, at this point in his history mostly a desk agent, shows up and the film settles into a buddy cop roadtrip for a while. From there it builds up to an entertaining finale that sets things up for a promising future for the character.

With the prospect of being the face of the MCU for the foreseeable future ahead of her, it’s good to know that Brie Larson, at least on the strength of this movie, appears to be up to the challenge. She does an excellent job of marking the character’s journey from the troubled-but-confident Vers, through a period of uncertainty as she begins to put together the truth, before gaining a newfound inner strength as she confronts her past and reclaims her true identity as Carol Danvers. Samuel L Jackson is his usual dependably reliable self as the younger Fury and the interplay between the two is enjoyably snarky throughout. Ben Mendelsohn is excellent as Talos, the commander of a Skrull infiltration team on Earth and Jude Law gets in some impressive scenery chewing as the leader of the Kree strikeforce. Lashana Lynch makes a strong bid for being the movie’s MVP as Carol’s old pilot best friend, with a mostly understated performance that provides some valuable grounding, both for the lead character and the movie as a whole, and Annette Bening gives an interestingly unsettling performance in a small but very key role. Stealing every scene he’s in, however, is Goose, Carol’s former mentor’s cat, who not only provides some excellent comic relief moments (seriously, who’d have pegged Nick Fury as a cat person), but also proves unexpectedly key at certain moments.

As I’ve commented before, with the work effects teams are capable of these days, it’s almost superfluous to comment on the quality of the special effects, and Captain Marvel is no exception. It would, however, be somewhat remiss not to comment on the de-aging work done on Samuel L Jackson to allow him to portray a Nick Fury fifteen or so years younger than we’ve seen him previously. Marvel have done de-aging work before for flashbacks, generally with considerable success, but this is the first time they’ve done it across an entire movie and it’s pretty much flawless throughout, to the point that you very quickly forget it’s happening. Slightly less successful is the work done on Clark Gregg, returning to the MCU films as Phil Coulson for the first time since the original Avengers. While generally fine in his brief appearances, there are a few moments where his appearance slips a bit into the uncanny valley, with a sense that something’s not quite right. But with Fury as the second lead on the film, it’s understandable that they’d put their focus there, and, with him, it totally works.

The period setting (and, yeah, it does feel a bit odd to refer to the 1990’s as “period”) is pretty impeccable. Sensibly the film doesn’t spend too much time trying to show this off, but does get at least one fairly decent gag out of it with what is, by modern standards, a painfully slow computer. The setting does allow them to throw in a pretty well-selected set of songs from the era, which complement a decent, if somewhat unmemorable soundtrack.

In a nutshell, Captain Marvel probably isn’t quite up there with the very best of the Marvel movies to date, but it does come close, and makes up for the rest by being flat-out entertaining for the whole runtime. A strong script is delivered well by a solid cast and the directors have a good eye, both during the action sequences and the quieter character moments. With less than two months until the character returns in Avengers: Endgame, it definitely feels like things are off to a good start.

Oh, and, for the record, if the alterations they’ve made to the Marvel Studios logo sequence for this film doesn’t make you choke up a little, you have no soul. So there…

On Ready Player One…

I’ll put my cards on the table right at the start – I enjoyed the book of Ready Player One quite a lot.    It’s an entertaining trawl through the nostalgia of the 1980’s combined with a story that carries that nostalgia fairly well, set in a fairly well-formed dystopian future.  For the most part, it works and I found it entertaining.   That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have some flaws to it – the story, once stripped of the nostalgia aspect, is relatively slight, the characters lack much complexity and, with the story related in the first person by the tale’s protagonist, there are some issues in how some supporting characters, particularly Art3mis, the story’s female lead, are portrayed, being viewed primarily through the eyes of a rather naive young man.    On the whole, though, it’s an entertaining enough read and the book has attained considerable success, making it prime fodder for Hollywood.

I had certain concerns from the off about a movie version of Ready Player One.   The story, as presented in the book, isn’t overly cinematic for much of the plot’s run time, with the challenges involving the main character completing lengthy computer games and role-playing his way through entire movies (Wargames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to be specific), stuff that seemed unlikely to translate well to the big screen.    There was also a fairly big question about the whole nostalgia thing that drives the novel, namely how much they’d actually be able to get the rights to.   But, with Steven Spielberg settling into the director’s chair, things seemed promising, and, when I got the chance to catch a showing a full ten days before release, it was a no-brainer to go for it.

In Spielberg’s capable hands, Ready Player One is a fun fantastical adventure of the type that Spielberg used to be very much known for, mixing entertaining action with a decent amount of heart, sprinkled with a smattering of moral.   In a story that draws heavily on nostalgia, Spielberg has chosen to conjure up the feelings that imbued much of his own considerable back catalog, giving the movie a somewhat nostalgic sense, even if you don’t get a lot of the many, many references flung at you throughout the movie’s run time.

Speaking of those references, this is going to be one of those movies that does pretty well in the home media market, simply because people are going to want to pause it at regular intervals just to see which pop culture characters have shown up in any given shot.    It may well be the movie that finally tips me over the edge to buying a 4K capable player, just to get that extra resolution to make things out.   Almost any scene set within the OASIS, the gigantic shared network that everybody uses, is full to the brim with detail as myriad characters, mostly drawn from other properties, go about their businesses.   The whole thing looks astonishing, even by today’s standards and the merry disregard for physical laws inherent in a computer generated simulation makes for some spectacular visuals.

The film takes considerable liberties with the story, most of which work very well, particularly for the cinematic format.    The challenges are slimmed down and more action-heavy – the first challenge, for example, is the seemingly unwinnable race seen in most of the trailers.    Some characters are introduced in real life earlier in the tale and some actions taken by the protagonist in the novel are given to other characters, giving them a greater sense of participation within the tale.   The movie wisely ditches the novel’s specific focus on the 1980’s for its nostalgia references, picking and choosing whatever they could get the rights to from pop culture right up to the present day – turns out that, when Spielberg applies his considerable clout, a lot of people are happy to play along.   It’s a sensible move that no doubt improves the overall appeal of the movie to those key demographics who weren’t around during the 80’s, but also gives a wider feel to proceedings (it does also give the odd impression that pop culture pretty much stopped in 2018, despite the story being set in 2045, but you can’t have everything).    The film also feels more personal than the book, with challenges hinging less on an intricate understanding of the pop culture obsessions of deceased OASIS creator James Halliday and more on understanding the man himself and his hopes and regrets.

The cast are generally good in roles that aren’t, to be fair, particularly deep (not, to be equally fair, that that’s overly unusual in big effects films).  Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke have an appealing chemistry as leads Wade “Parzival” Watts and Samantha “Art3mis” Cook with solid work from Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao as their fellow players.   Ben Mendelsohn has a slightly thankless task as corrupt executive Nolan Sorrento, bringing up occasional memories of his Rogue One character.   Mendelsohn does do enough to distinguish the characters, but it’s a shame that elements of the character’s backstory as related in the canonical short story Lacero (penned by The Martian‘s Andy Weir) , that could have fleshed him out considerably.   Simon Pegg does his usual good work as OASIS co-creator Ogden Morrow and it’s a bit of a shame that his screen time has been rather reduced by the changes, as more Pegg is rarely a bad thing.  Mark Rylance is a standout as James “Anorak” Halliday, giving what could be a very stereotypical character a vulnerability that works extremely well.

Overall, Ready Player One is a good, fun, entertaining adventure movie with some spectacular visuals, solid performances, a good score (courtesy of veteran composer Alan Silvestri) and more spot-the-reference moments than quite possibly any other movie in history.   One of Steven Spielberg’s specialities has always been the fun adventure movie and he hasn’t let the side down.    It’s unlikely to set the world on fire, but, for an entertaining popcorn film, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.




On Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It’s always nice to be surprised.   Generally speaking, it’s fair to say that modern blockbusters don’t usually throw too many curve balls in the direction of their audiences, so it’s a genuinely pleasant experience when a movie, particularly a huge one like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, really doesn’t go in the directions you were expecting it to.

The movie picks up pretty much exactly where The Force Awakens left off, with fledgling Force user Rey offering the long-missing Luke Skywalker his old lightsaber, while the Resistance frantically try to evacuate their base before the First Order, having failed to blow the place up with Starkiller Base, show up to do things the old-fashioned way.    And the movie subsequently follows those strands, with Rey dealing with a wary Luke and the Resistance fleet desperately fleeing from the pursuing First Order as they look for somewhere to hole up.

After The Force Awakens mostly flitting between Finn and Rey, it’s with this film that the latter steps up as pretty much the indisputable lead of the new trilogy and Daisy Ridley proves to be capably up to the challenge.   She imbues Rey with a vulnerability that befits both her uncertainty about her family and past and her fear about the rise of the Force within her and what it means for her future, but also gives her a fierce strength that carries her through the trials she faces.    She spends much of the movie opposite Mark Hamill, who has simply never been better as a very different Luke Skywalker.   This Luke, thirty years on from his last appearance, is utterly disillusioned, blaming himself for the fall to the Dark Side of his nephew Ben Solo and his subsequent rise as Kylo Ren.   He’s lost any faith in his ability to make good choices and, having come to see the Jedi as a key factor in many of the galaxy’s ills (an attitude that, from the extensive history of the Star Wars galaxy, is quite hard to argue with), he’s come to the conclusion that the best thing is if the Jedi simply cease to exist.   And so he lives quietly in what remains of the original Jedi temple, effectively waiting to die, and doesn’t appreciate a new arrival looking to learn the ways of the Force.   Hamill is a powerhouse in this movie and sells every last bit of Luke’s lasting pain.

With Rey elsewhere, John Boyega’s Finn get his own subplot as he, accompanied by new character Rose (an appealing Kelly Marie Tran), head out to search for a way to stop the First Order fleet from tracking the fleeing Resistance.   Boyega gives Finn an intensity on his mission, as would befit a former stormtrooper, but also plays him as being more comfortable with his choices – his fear of the First Order remains, understandably given their situation, but he’s come to terms with his decision to face off against them.    Oscar Isaac’s Poe feels rather underused, spending most of his screen time butting heads with the Resistance leadership and, frankly, acting like an entitled dick at times, but Isaac brings his formidable acting ability to bear as his character haltingly moves towards understanding what it really means to be a leader.

In The Force Awakens, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren came across, quite intentionally, as being pretty immature and hung up on living up to the fearsome reputation of his grandfather.   Having severed one link to the past by slaying his father Han Solo, the Kylo Ren we meet in The Last Jedi has changed.   His encounter with Rey has given him food for thought, and now, rather than remaining obsessed with the past, he’s looking to the future a bit more now, considering the possibilities with more calculation than the character previously displayed.

And then, of course, there’s Carrie Fisher, in her last movie role before her untimely death a year ago.   Leia doesn’t get as much screen time as we might like, given that it’s the last time we’ll be seeing the iconic character, but Fisher dominates the screen whenever she’s on it.    Leia’s many pains are never far from the surface, but Fisher gives her the same steely determination that the character has always possessed as she does her best to get the dwindling Resistance forces to a place of safety.   Given the work that she does here, it’s a genuine tragedy that we’ve been denied the opportunity to see how the character would have played out in the final part of the trilogy – all reports suggest that, just as Han was central to The Force Awakens and Luke is central to The Last Jedi, Leia would have been front and centre in the finale.

The supporting cast generally do well.   Kelly Marie Tran is likeable as Resistance tech Rose who joins Finn on his mission.   Andy Serkis gets a much larger role as Supreme Leader Snoke, now present in the scarred flesh and all the creepier for it as he plays Ren and General Hux off against each other.   Speaking of Hux, Domhnall Gleeson does well with a role that’s a bit thankless this time out – stuck between Snoke and Ren, he ends up the butt of rather too many jokes.   Laura Dern’s Resistance Admiral Holdo sometimes seems to be present mostly as a non-Leia senior officer for Poe to butt heads with, but gets some good (and in one case downright awesome) moments of her own.    Only Benicio del Toro, playing an expert slicer (hacker) recruited by Finn to help rescue the fleet, feels almost totally wasted.     And, for fans of British humour, there’s the unexpected sight of comedy stalwart Adrian Edmondson as Hux’s most prominent underling, which is bizarre enough to be a touch distracting.

As with any blockbuster, once the trailers started to come up, the inevitable game of “Guess What Happens” started up around the internet and I’m quite pleased to say that the vast majority of the speculation that I saw around the place was pretty much wrong.  The movie takes a couple of genuinely unexpected turns, leaving things in a pretty interesting place for the forthcoming Episode IX to wrap up.   The script is a solid one, successfully mixing well-handled action with strong emotional beats throughout.   It’s also unexpectedly funny, with some real laugh-out-loud moments – Luke, particularly, has got downright snarky since we last saw him.

One regular criticism (and not an entirely unfair one) of The Force Awakens is that it felt rather too much like a greatest hits revisit of the original Star Wars.   Early trailers for The Last Jedi did raise certain concerns that this tendency might continue and, indeed, there are familiar aspects to the movie that raise the spectre of, primarily, The Empire Strikes Back and, to a small extent, Return of the Jedi.   There’s a walker attack on a planet with a predominantly white surface, the Resistance are on the run, there’s another cantina substitute (a casino is the latest location for the designers to show off their alien creations), and a character visits a reluctant Jedi Master for training – there’s even an equivalent to the Dark Side cave on the planet Rey finds Luke.    There are unquestionably similarities.   Fortunately, while these familiar aspects are present, they’re generally handled so differently to the original that all but the most churlish of viewers should be able to step past them.

The movie is, arguably, a little on the long side (it’s the longest movie in the franchise to date by about ten minutes).   There’s a bit of a sag in the middle section, with the extended side trip to the casino feeling like the main culprit.   While unquestionably plot-relevant and including some impressive visuals, it feels overly padded out; it’s hard not to think that the plot developments involved in the sequence could have been carried out more efficiently and that the main reason for the longer sequence is really to give Finn something to do during the second act.

Visually, the movie is little short of extraordinary to look at.   All the different environments are striking and the effects work is, as one might expect, absolutely top notch – the final solution to the pursuing First Order fleet is particularly jaw-dropping to look at.    Director Rian Johnson has a good eye for a shot and captures action sequences with an impressive flair, making the recent announcement that he’s been handed creative control for a whole new trilogy to follow Episode IX pretty exciting.   The soundtrack is also great, with John Williams doing his usual exemplary work.

Overall, The Last Jedi is one hell of a good movie.   There’s the odd flaw here and there, but nothing major, and the result is a film that can absolutely stand among the best in the franchise.   I’m entirely sure that I’ll be seeing it again, and will be very interested to see where they take it all from here.

On Justice League

Safe to say that Justice League has had something of a troubled upbringing, so to speak.   Previous movies in the series, intended to lead up to the big team-up, have had decidedly mixed receptions, ranging from highly negative (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to the positively rapturous (the genuinely excellent Wonder Woman).    Problems have been fairly wide-ranging, but most of the negative aspects have focused on either a relentlessly grim tone or issues arising from what appears to be an excess of executive meddling.    It’s fair to say that Justice League hasn’t entirely escaped from such issues, plus has had its own share of behind-the-scenes troubles, most notably director Zack Snyder’s departure from the movie in such tragic circumstances, but it’s equally fair to say that, for the most part, the movie manages to rise above the problems and become something that I found enjoyable enough to watch.

The result of all this is a movie that’s an odd combination of some things that have been done very right and other things that, well, really haven’t.

Something that I don’t think I really pictured myself saying after sitting through the butt-numbingly long Batman v Superman is that Justice League could probably have benefited from being a bit longer.    Clocking in at a very trim two hours, reportedly due to a decree issued from on high by the studio executives, the movie does move along quite nicely, but, with three major new characters to introduce, all of whom are expected to headline their own movies in the next couple of years, I came away with a sense that it wouldn’t have hurt the movie to flesh out the newcomers a tad more than we got.   They work okay, but a couple of extra minutes here and there to lift the characters above “boisterous frat boy” (Aquaman), “keen but neurotic dork” (Flash) and “gloomy outsider” (Cyborg) could have elevated things considerably.

I don’t imagine that many people would debate the point that a good superhero movie really needs a good villain and it’s on this front that Justice League spectacularly fails to deliver.    Honestly, Steppenwolf is about as generic as they come – he’s basically a big guy with a big weapon (an axe, in his case) and a handy army of faceless minions for the good guys to beat up before getting to the man himself.   His evil plot is as generic as he is – he’s come to Earth to locate three Mother Boxes, cubic macguffins (why do they always seem to be cubes?) that when put together, will allow him to turn Earth into a facsimile of his own hellish planet in order to conquer it for his unseen master.    It doesn’t help that Steppenwolf, an entirely CG character, looks terrible.    Seriously, he’s about as well rendered as a character in a cut scene from a five-year old computer game and it requires some serious suspension of disbelief not to be ripped out of the movie every time he’s on screen.   And they couldn’t have thrown in a “Born To Be Wild” gag somewhere?    Definitely an opportunity missed.

The plot, as noted above, is pretty basic – bad guy needs macguffins to carry out his plan, so it falls to the heroes to try to keep them away from him while they work out how to defeat him.    The plot feels somewhat disjointed at times, leading to a sense that a certain amount of connective tissue has been ejected in order to meet the run-time edict, occasionally in favour of some oddities – a series of (admittedly short) scenes involving an entirely unremarkable family, for example, don’t really have a big enough payoff to warrant their inclusion.   There’s also at least one occasion where the heroes screw up so stupidly that it absolutely constitutes a plot hole that really needed to have been addressed.    On the whole, though, it’s serviceable enough.

So, having insulted the sketchy characterisation, the villain and the plot, what’s actually left to fall into the “done right” category.   Well, quite a bit, as it happens.

While, as previously noticed, the movie could have used more time establishing the new characters, they do work pretty well.    More importantly, the characters feel right, that they’re how they should be.    Batman’s rediscovered his sense of idealism and is much lighter than previously – granted, he’s still quite grim, but this is Batman we’re talking about.    Likewise, Superman returns from his brief trip to the land of the dead apparently much more at peace with himself (once he gets readjusted, anyway) and with a positive hopeful attitude that’s very pleasant to see – at one point, my wife commented that he didn’t look like himself, to which I commented that it might well be down to the fact that he was actually smiling.     Wonder Woman remains a joy on every level.    Jason Momoa’s considerable charisma keeps Aquaman going and Ezra Miller, while largely shouldering the comic relief role, has the sense of comic timing necessary to pull it off.   Ray Fisher does a solid job as Cyborg, but remains the least interesting of the team for now.   Leaked deleted scenes suggest that a lot of his role was cut out; hopefully this can be restored in a longer cut, or in his own movie.   Most importantly, not only do the characters work well, they work well together.     While, inevitably, there’s squabbling early on, by the time of the finale, they’ve fitted together well and are laughing and joking with each other.

The action is generally well-handled.    Most of the team have their specialties (the Flash is fast, Cyborg does tech and so forth) and the action plays to that in logical fashion.    It’s mostly easy to follow and Snyder keeps his trademark slow motion reasonably in check.    And it’s great to see the team working together in those sequences.     There are some other good action sequences in the movie, too – early scenes involving Steppenwolf going after the Mother Boxes guarded by the Atlanteans and Amazons are good and a flashback to his previous attack on Earth is quite something to behold as an alliance of humans, Atlanteans, Amazons, Greek deities and even some Green Lanterns take to the field against him.

I have to give a nod to the soundtrack as well.    Danny Elfman takes on score duties and does a great job with it.    He successfully follows up the soundtracks from the previous movies, while sneaking in sequences from his own 1989 Batman soundtrack and John William’s iconic Superman theme.   The result is a little eclectic, but totally worked for me.

Overall, I enjoyed Justice League rather more than I expected to.   It’s certainly not a great movie and even calling it good could be considered debatable, given the considerable flaws that permeate the film.   But I did find it enjoyable and that’s a good start.    If subsequent movies can build on the characters as they’ve been set up here, we could finally see DC’s Extended Universe movies start to live up to the potential that’s mostly been squandered up until now.     And that could be a very good thing.


On Blade Runner 2049

Sequels, it’s fair to say, are not easy propositions.   When the movie you’re trying to follow up is considered an undeniable classic of its genre, the whole project has to be a daunting project.    An thirty-year gap can’t exactly help, either.

Fortunately, Blade Runner 2049 has some serious pedigree behind the scenes to help.   Ridley Scott vacates the director’s chair this time out, preferring to serve as a producer, leaving the seat open for Denis Villeneuve, who’s been making a bit of a name for himself lately with such critically acclaimed movies as Sicario and Arrival.   Original movie scriptwriter Hampton Fancher returns, this time paired with Logan writer Michael Green.   Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins takes on director of photography duties and visual futurist Syd Mead, whose designs made the original so striking, returns to update the world that he visualised for a new era.   And prolific composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch get to channel their best Vangelis to follow up one of the classic movie scores.    Oh, and Harrison Ford’s back, too.   But you knew that.

Normally at this point I’d discuss the storyline a little bit, but it would almost seem wrong to do so to any great degree, because whatever you thought the story was going to be based on the trailers, that’s not it.   Which is a pleasant change, to be honest.    It focuses primarily on Blade Runner KD6-3.7, a Nexus-9 replicant, several generations on from the Nexus-6s seen in the original.    With older model replicants outlawed due to their potential for rebellion, K, as he’s generally known, is a hunter of his own kind, something that he takes no particular pleasure in.    The movie opens as he locates a rogue Nexus-8 living on a protein farm outside the city, but what he finds there will take him on a quest that will have him questioning the nature of his very existence.

The original Blade Runner is, by modern standards, an unconventional movie.   It’s quite philosophical, asking questions about the nature of humanity and the value of life.   There’s surprisingly little action for a movie about a police officer hunting down rogue replicants and what there is is quick and brutal.    It would be understandable, given the commercial concerns inherent in being a studio executive, if the sequel chose to veer much closer to a standard action movie dynamic, so it’s to the credit of all concerned that Blade Runner 2049 is very much a worthy companion piece to its forerunner.   K’s investigation takes time, both the straightforward police work and the philosophical quandaries that it leads him to, leading to a slow pace.    Also like the original, the movie doesn’t wrap things up neatly, with many plot threads unresolved.   While this is no doubt at least in part with a potential sequel in mind, it also reinforces the point that, really, the questions of memory, identity and humanity that are posed by the film do not have simple answers.

I have to admit that I don’t really get Ryan Gosling.   He’s been serviceable enough in the stuff I’ve seen him do, but I’ve not really rated his performances, as a rule.    Here, though, his stoic and rather understated style (I’m diplomatically avoiding the word “wooden” here) fits the character of K extremely well and he performs admirably in the lead role as an entity searching for an impossible truth.    Harrison Ford is on formidable form as the older Rick Deckard and is given some real meat to work with.   Deckard’s life has not been a particularly happy one since the events of the original movie, and Ford capably shows every last iota of pain on his face.

The supporting cast generally give strong performances.    Robin Wright is great as K’s hard-drinking superior in the police department, neatly juxtaposing her distrust of replicants with her respect for K’s skills.   Ana de Armas is terrific as Joi, K’s holographic companion / girlfriend.    She’s by far the nicest character in the movie and the strange romance, such as it is, between her and K is oddly touching.    Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks is appropriately menacing as the Terminator-like Luv, primary henchman to the movie’s main villain, corporate head, and creator of the new generations of replicant, Niander Wallace.   Unfortunately, Jared Leto as Wallace is something of a weak link.   In a movie where most performances are layered with subtlety, Leto sets out to chew the scenery with a series of monologues that, to be fair, are well written, effectively showing off the character’s god complex.     As per usual, Leto went full method in embracing the character (Wallace is blind, and Leto had contacts to completely cut off his vision), but, also as usual, the net effect is that all you can really see is Jared Leto trying really hard.

Visually, the movie is jaw-droppingly spectacular – honestly, I can’t see there being a better looking movie this year.    The dystopian Los Angeles is just as striking as before, if even more run down than previously – there are hints throughout about catastrophic events that took place between the movies.   The huge adverts, now holographic in nature, flying cars and monolithic buildings are all present and correct and look amazing.   Unlike its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 moves outside Los Angeles, spending time in the farmlands surrounding the city and paying visits to San Diego, now basically a massive junkyard, and a deserted and near-derelict Las Vegas.    Each environment is very different, but all are remarkably rendered and lit to beautiful effect.   Crucially, despite their obvious differences, all still feel like they’re part of the same battered and bruised world as the characters move between them.    Even in a Hollywood where great effects and attractive vistas are the norm, Blade Runner 2049 stands out and that’s a huge tribute to all concerned.    It sounds great, too, with Zimmer and Wallfisch doing a great job of creating a soundtrack that fits well with its predecessor.

Following up Blade Runner was always going to be a difficult task.   Fortunately, the team behind Blade Runner 2049 have proved to be more than up to the task, producing a movie that fits beautifully with its forerunner and can stand beside it without feeling like a poor relation.    In a nutshell, it’s a triumph.

On Thor: Ragnarok

Thor Odinson, Prince of Asgard and God of Thunder, has, from his first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, been one of my favourite Avengers.    Probably the driving force behind that has been Chris Hemsworth’s ability to take on what could be a very one-note character with, on occasion, some pretty bizarre lines, and sell it with a surprising level of sincerity.    Thor was a well-constructed origin story with a decent character arc that launched the character well – that it also got to launch Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, easily the best villain/anti-hero (delete as appropriate) in the MCU to date, was very much the icing on the cake.    Thor: The Dark World was somewhat less successful; somewhat ironically, it was hampered by Loki’s breakout success as a character, leading the filmmakers to add additional scenes with the character at the expense of the movie’s actual villain, who suffered badly by comparison.    Thor: Ragnarok aims to get things back on track and they have a secret weapon, Hemsworth’s excellent comic timing.

After his scene-stealing performance as Kevin, the spectacularly dim receptionist in Ghostbusters, it was quite obvious that Hemsworth knows how to sell a joke, and that’s something that director Taika Waititi mines for all it’s worth in what’s pretty much the flat-out funniest entry in the MCU to date.

Since we last saw him, Thor’s been roaming the universe, looking for clues relating to the Infinity Stones, with pretty much no success.    What he has picked up on, however, is that things are not going as they might back in Asgard and so he heads home to find that Odin is acting spectacularly out of character.    It’s pretty obvious what’s going on, so, unmasking Loki and dragging him along for the ride, Thor heads back to Earth to locate his father.    Unfortunately, with Odin out of the picture, certain entities that he was able to keep locked away are breaking out of their confinement and the very worst, Hela, the Goddess of Death, is coming back, armed with an epic-sized, and, as it happens, entirely justified grudge against Odin and, by extension, those who follow him.    When their initial encounter with Hela goes horribly wrong, Thor finds himself stranded halfway across the universe, fighting in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of the crowd without his hammer, without allies and without a clue what Hela might be doing to his home.

A story that deals with such issues as gladiatorial combat, attempted genocide and the actual end of the world seems like an unlikely choice for an action-comedy, but Waititi fires up the humour from the first scene and gives it every chance to shine with a script that moves along fearlessly, never afraid to throw in some snark to lighten the tone.

The cast, for their part, are clearly having a blast.   Hemsworth and Hiddleston settle back into their characters with a relaxed ease, their easy chemistry making any scene with the two of them a highlight.     Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, now sporting quite the vocabulary (if not the grammatical skills) after two years solid Hulking, has an entertaining odd couple type dynamic with Thor, as does Bruce Banner, understandably confused after spending two years locked deep within the Hulk before emerging to find that not only is he on another planet, but, worse, the only available trousers are Tony Stark’s ridiculously tight ones.

The newcomers to the franchise don’t let the side down either.   The ever-excellent Cate Blanchett chews every bit of scenery she can get her hands on as Hela.   She’s a force of nature and eminently watchable, whether carving her way through her opponents with ease, or practically purring how much she missed it afterwards.    Jeff Goldblum is a surreal joy as the Grandmaster, sitting high above the fights in the arena that he arranges.    Waititi wisely gives him free rein with an extremely eccentric character and Goldblum runs wild with it, hitting hitherto unseen heights of Goldblumliness as he happily riffs on whatever situation presents itself.   Reportedly, something like eighty percent of the movie’s dialogue was improvised and you’d have to think that all of Goldblum’s stuff was, making it entirely plausible that the occasional confused looks on other characters when the Grandmaster is speaking are, in fact, completely real.    Giving both a run for their money, however, is the movie’s primary scene stealer, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie.   Or former Valkyrie, anyway, as the last surviving member of that proud group is now a hard-drinking bounty hunter working for the Grandmaster who wants nothing to do with Asgard any more.   By turns aggressive and sarcastic, she throws herself into any battle, physical or verbal, with a real “don’t care” attitude, but ultimately agrees to help out.

Visually, the movie is a real treat.   Asgard has always looked gorgeous on screen anyway, but Sakaar, the gladiatorial world where Thor and Loki end up, is no slouch either, albeit in a very different way.    It almost feels redundant to say that the effects work is top notch, but it’s fair to say that the effects teams really pulled out the stops on this one.   The Hulk has far more screen time than in any previous movie and he’s not the only major character in the movie to be fully CGI.    The environments of Sakaar are also astonishingly complex, as much of the planet is, effectively, a trash pile, picking up items from all over the universe, and I suspect that the eventual home media releases will prove to be a mine of Easter eggs spotting odd items that the effects wizards have thrown in there.

The movie does have one flaw, I think, and, ironically, given how much fun the humour is, it’s that sometimes it goes for the gag too quickly.    While the movie often feels like a rather light-hearted action piece, there are dark dramatic moments here that have a major effect on the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, changes that will have certain repercussions in later movies.    There’s a strong argument that such moments should be allowed a certain amount of time to sink in, to make their impact apparent, but the movie tends to almost immediately go for a joke, leading to multiple instances of mood whiplash and a sense that the story is less consequential than it actually is.   Still, too much humour is a pretty low level complaint in a movie that’s just good fun all through.

In the end, I loved Thor: Ragnarok.   It’s easily the best of the Thor movies and has a strong case to be among the best of Marvel’s releases to date.    Thor, along with several of his supporting cast, will be returning in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, but it remains to be seen whether the character will get to headline another movie.    If not, at least he’s gone out on a major high.

On Spider-Man: Homecoming

It’s probably been a bit annoying to Marvel for some years that the movie rights to arguably their most prominent single character, Spider-Man, have been tied up at Sony for years.    Fortunately for both them and us, Sony’s own Spider-Man movies haven’t really been setting the box office alight lately and so, after what were no doubt some very complicated behind-the-scenes discussions, the two companies are teaming up to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When we first saw this particular incarnation of Spider-Man, he was being brought in by Tony Stark to help fight Captain America and his recruits during the events of Captain America: Civil War.    After a brief prologue set shortly after the Battle of New York (as seen in The Avengers) and an entertaining and offbeat recap of the events of Civil War, courtesy of Peter’s video diary, Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up after Peter’s return home from his first taste of large-scale superheroics and follows him as he tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do now.

Peter’s main problem, as the movie opens, is basically boredom, going back to the smaller scale crime-fighting after going into battle with the Avengers.   He phones up Stark on a daily basis wanting to know when his next big assignment’s coming – unfortunately for him, Tony, who’s clearly less than comfortable with the whole mentor thing, has passed him off onto the long-suffering Happy Hogan, who tends to either cut things short, or just ignore his calls altogether.    Neglecting his school activities to focus on crime-fighting, he runs into a group of crooks using highly advanced weaponry.   Eager to prove himself, he sets out to track down the source of the weapons and, inevitably, gets in way over his head.

With this being the third iteration of Spider-Man to hit our screens in the last fifteen years, Marvel and Sony had to make this a good one and, fortunately, that’s exactly what they’ve done.    Introducing the character in Civil War was something of a masterstroke, giving us a look at him early to boost excitement for what is, when it comes down to it, a reboot, something that audiences are prone to shying away from these days.

Their other best move was casting Tom Holland, who’s genuinely pitch perfect in the lead role, in a way that previous portrayers Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield never quite managed to reach.   It helps that he’s by some distance the closest in age to the character of the three, but he absolutely nails both aspects of the character, the would-be hero and the enthusiastically geeky young man behind it all.

Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark was, somewhat understandably, extremely prominent in the advertising campaign for the film, leading to a degree of concern that he might rather overshadow proceedings, but, fortunately, he’s only in the actual movie for maybe ten to fifteen minutes.   He gets some meat to play with, as Stark wrestles with the self-created problem of what to do with Peter, whether to encourage him or not, and Downey Jr handles it well.    Michael Keaton takes on villainous duties as Adrian “The Vulture” Toomes, who starts out in the prologue as an honest man running a salvage company who get the contract to clean up the mess after the Chitauri assault on New York, investing heavily in new equipment to do so.   When the contract is snatched away from him by the newly-formed Department of Damage Control, a collaboration between the government and, inevitably, Tony Stark, leaving him in financial ruin, he and his workers start to use the salvaged Chitauri technology to build advanced weapons to sell for profit.   While unquestionably a villain, Toomes is portrayed throughout as a man whose main goal is to provide for his family, which gives him an unusually sympathetic air which is quite welcome.

Quite a bit of the movie focuses on Peter’s interactions with his schoolmates, to the extent that the movie occasionally feels like an homage to John Hughes.   Most prominent is Ned, Peter’s best friend and confidante, played winningly by Jacob Batalon in only his second movie role.    He and Holland have terrific chemistry, making their scenes something of a highlight.    The rest of the school ensemble are strong as well, working well to make their scenes an integral part of the movie, rather than a distraction from the main events.

What the movie doesn’t focus on, quite sensibly, is any attempt to retell the character’s origin story.   Vague hints are dropped here and there without ever feeling blatant, but the filmmakers are clearly well aware that most of their target audience likely have a reasonable awareness of his origin and that, for the purposes of this movie, it doesn’t really matter, to say nothing of the fact that including it would badly disrupt the film’s well-judged pacing.

It almost goes without saying at this point that the effects work is terrific and the action sequences well thought out.   Some helpful realism also creeps in occasionally – while previous Spider-Men never seemed to have any difficulty finding something to swing from when needing to travel, there are moments here which acknowledge that not everywhere has a conveniently high building around, leading to Peter occasionally having to run through parks to get to where he needs to be.   It’s a nice touch, and rest assured that there’s plenty of webslinging the rest of the time.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is another in a long line of solid, fun movies coming out of Marvel.   There really aren’t any major flaws that I felt the movie has, making for a very entertaining viewing experience.    After his brief but highly effective introduction in Civil War, the new Spider-Man has really hit the ground running, and hopefully there’s lots more to come from him.