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 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 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.

On Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

It’s not the first time I’ve used the phrase “difficult second album” to describe the second movie in a series, but it’s hard to imagine a movie that it applies more aptly to than the sequel to Marvel’s unexpected hit Guardians of the Galaxy.   And the end result, well, doesn’t appear to have been particularly difficult at all.

Opening a couple of months after the ending of the first movie, the incessantly bickering Guardians are taking advantage of their new-found fame to hire themselves out as problem solvers to the galaxy at large.   Recruited by the Sovereign race to protect valuable batteries from an interdimensional monster that likes to eat them, things rapidly go sideways when Rocket’s larcenous tendencies get the better of him, and before they know it, the Guardians are on the run again.   Complicating matters are Gamora’s estranged sister Nebula, turned over to the Guardians by the Sovereign as part of the deal, Ravager leader Yondu, facing mutiny from within his own ranks because of his perceived weakness when dealing with Peter, and Ego, Peter’s long-missing father, who comes looking for his son.

At first glance, it’s fairly apparent that writer/director James Gunn has approached the sequel with a fairly sensible “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra.    The ingredients that made the first one such a blast to watch are pretty much all present and correct.   Offbeat action and epic levels of snarkiness are once again backed by a carefully selected soundtrack drawn from the best of the sixties and seventies.    On a basic level, more of the same is the order of the day and, given how well it worked last time, this is most certainly not a bad thing.

Gunn, however, isn’t content to simply cover the same ground and chooses to focus the emotional core of the movie on the concept of family, both of the Guardians themselves as a dysfunctional family, but also Gamora’s relationship with Nebula, who gets some of the more emotional moments as we learn more about their upbringing, and Peter’s contrasting relationships with his newly-found biological father Ego and Yondu, who raised him after taking him from Earth.

The movie is, like its predecessor, a huge amount of fun to watch.   The cast are clearly having enough fun that it seems mildly unfair that they’re getting paid for it and have a solid, if quirky chemistry that carries the film over any weaker patches.    Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana pick up neatly where their characters left off, but both display some development – Peter is trying to be more responsible, while Gamora is doing her best to lighten up a bit.  Dave Bautista’s Drax gets most of the best lines with his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to social interaction, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket is still a loose cannon, but cares far more about others, no matter how much he tries to hide it, and the, frankly, ludicrously adorable Baby Groot gets to headline a couple of key sequences, including the opening credits, and steals most of the other scenes anyway.   Kurt Russell’s roguishly charming Ego neatly handles most of the movie’s exposition without making it feel wearing and both Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker find new depths in characters that were fairly one-note in the original.    Pom Klementieff provides a sweet innocence as Ego’s lonely sidekick Mantis.   Elizabeth Debicki has to cope with a relatively underwritten role as Ayesha, leader of the Sovereign people, but proves an effective enough presence as she pursues the Guardians to get her revenge.   And Sylvester Stallone shows up in a small role as a Ravager leader, who, along with other characters played by Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Michael Rosenbaum and, I kid you not, Miley Cyrus, seems to be being set up for a larger appearance further down the line.

Visually, the film is striking to watch, verging on the psychedelic on a number of occasions.   The effects, as with most modern blockbusters, if we’re being honest, are pretty flawless and Marvel are showing no signs of flagging on that front any time soon.   And the soundtrack is just fun, with such tracks as Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” popping in and out at appropriate moments.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is, in pretty much every way, a worthy successor to the first film.   It doesn’t quite have the freshness of the original, which pretty much came out of nowhere as a surprise hit, but compensates with a greater emotional core and the same sense of fun.   And Baby Groot, who I may have mentioned is absurdly adorable.    If you didn’t like the first one, this one’s unlikely to change your mind.    But if you did, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a blast with the sequel.

Oh, and, as usual with Marvel’s films, don’t forget to stay through the credits for the mid- and post-credit scenes.   In keeping with the Guardians’ usual policy that there’s no kill like overkill, there are five of them…

On Wonder Woman, and female-led superhero movies

So, a new trailer for DC’s latest entry in its fledgling cinematic universe hits and, you know what, Wonder Woman is, so far, looking really rather good.    Period-set superhero movies are a pretty rare beast, but the last time we got one, Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, it was good solid entertaining stuff.    Wonder Woman, featuring the titular character leaving her isolated island home and fighting in the First World War, looks, on the basis of this trailer, to be cut from the same sort of cloth, and that’ll do me nicely.

But what the arrival of the new trailer has produced is a number of negative comments aimed at DC’s primary competitor, the juggernaut that is Marvel’s cinematic universe, and how DC producing a female-led superhero movie so soon in the history of the DCU proves that they’re far more progressive and that Marvel must, therefore, be misogynistic.     I’m not actually surprised to see these comments – the inevitable Marvel vs DC flame wars can be fairly epic – but this certainly seems harsh to me.

So, let’s look back, shall we?

Marvel Studios started making movies with 2008’s Iron Man, the first entry in the MCU.   We’re now eight years and fourteen movies in and there hasn’t, as yet, been a female-led movie on either side of the camera.    I’m certainly not going to dispute that that’s not great.    We have two on the way; Ant-Man and the Wasp, coming out in 2018, taking the first step with a female hero as co-lead, then Captain Marvel the following year, with a solo female lead.    To be fair, on the other side of the camera, Marvel have tried to go with a female director, having originally hired Patty Jenkins to helm Thor: The Dark World.   It didn’t work out – the usual “creative differences”, but both parties have been open in stating that they’re keen to work together, and, last time I heard, Jenkins is among the frontrunners for Captain Marvel.   It’s a start, I guess.

I also feel that it’s worth noting, as an aside, that Marvel have something of a disadvantage in that most of their high-profile female characters are tied up in the X-Men franchise over at Fox, making them inaccessible to Marvel for their own films.

Alright, we’ve covered Marvel, so let’s consider DC.     DC’s cinematic universe is currently only three movies old, with Wonder Woman being number four, but the situation, in their case, goes back further.   DC Comics have been owned by Time Warner since, I think, 1989, giving Warner Bros full access to their entire portfolio of characters.     We’re not talking a licencing situation here, where certain characters are licenced out as Marvel have done with the X-Men (to Fox) and Spider-Man (to Sony); Warners pretty much have full access to every comic DC have ever done, and have had that access for 27 years, three times longer than Marvel Studios have been in operation.

So what have they done with that?     Seven different Batman films, Superman Returns, Green Lantern, Watchmen, The Losers, Steel, Constantine, Jonah Hex, V For Vendetta and one female-led movie, Catwoman, which was a) absolutely terrible and b) was not based on the comic book character in any significant way.    That’s prior to the DCU kicking off, which currently has three movies, two featuring Superman, one featuring Batman and one, Suicide Squad, that could, at best, be considered to possibly have a female co-lead in Harley Quinn.     Nineteen films in quarter of a century, one female lead, in arguably the worst superhero movie in recent years.    Not really an impressive record either.

Wonder Woman, almost without dispute, can be considered the most prominent female superhero.   She’s been enjoying an almost unbroken run of appearing in comics since 1941 and boosted her profile considerably through a successful and fondly-remembered TV series that ran for five years in the late seventies, a show that elevated Lynda Carter to the status of geek icon that she still occupies today.    That it’s taken this long for them to actually get the character into her own film is a pretty large blot on the DC/Warners copybook.

So where, in my usual overly verbose and rambling fashion, am I trying to go with this?   I guess what I’m saying is that neither studio has exactly managed to cover themselves with glory on this one.    Yeah, we should have seen female-led superhero movies before now and it’s a shame that we haven’t.     But this isn’t about Marvel vs DC, one good, one bad, any of that stuff.     Mistakes have been made and both companies are taking steps to rectify them.   Hopefully they’ll both nail their respective films and we’ll see a whole new wave of good films coming.     It’s not great.   But it’s better late than never.

On Doctor Strange…

Like the world its protagonist comes to inhabit, it’s safe to say that Marvel’s fourteenth entry in its on-going cinematic universe exists on more than one level.

At its most basic level, Doctor Strange is a straight-forward and frankly formulaic origin story.    A wealthy and arrogant genius suffers a grievous injury, the solution to which results in his gaining not only fantastic abilities, but a new outlook on life and sense of responsibility.   You can’t even distinguish Stephen Strange from Tony Stark by facial hair.    That being said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking to a formula, what matters is how well that formula is executed, and that’s where Doctor Strange steps up.

The movie clocks in at a relatively compact 116 minutes, with the result that the plot shifts along nicely, with minimal extraneous material.   Benedict Cumberbatch delivers well in the lead role, catching Strange’s initial arrogance, subsequent desperation and eventual growth with some aplomb.   The supporting cast backs him up nicely, most notably Chiwetel Ejiofor as rule-bound fellow student Mordo and Benedict Wong as taciturn drill instructor / librarian Wong.   Tilda Swinton largely transcends accusations of whitewashing with her enjoyably mercurial turn as Strange’s instructor, the Ancient One (and may well have saved the character from a bad case of stereotyping).    Rachel McAdams feels a little under-served as Strange’s fellow surgeon (and former girlfriend), but provides helpful grounding for a decidedly mystical character.   Finally, Mads Mikkelsen’s antagonist Kaecilius is unlikely to go down in history as one of the great villains, but nevertheless proves compelling as an intelligent and capable man, secure in the righteousness of his cause, all driven by Mikkelsen’s own considerable charisma.

As far back as its first issues in the early sixties, the comic book has been noted for madly trippy visuals depicting the various adventures that the good Doctor finds himself on, and the movie pulls no punches in following suit, leading to some quite remarkable visuals as buildings fold, shift and turn, gravity and time become options and otherworldly dimensions are visited.  It’s easily Marvel’s best work in this area, with only Guardians of the Galaxy maybe coming close, and has the side-effect of making this one of the rare movies where seeing it in 3D is something I would actively recommend.

The movie deals with some fairly dark material in places; unusually for a Marvel origin story, which normally deal with relatively small and personal stakes, the end of the world is in the offing, but the script builds in enough humour to offset this, with most characters getting some snarking in at some point.    For a Marvel movie at this point in their ongoing masterplan, it’s also unusually standalone; while the Avengers are mentioned directly and a couple of asides appear to reference other aspects of the MCU, nobody from any prior movie appears in the main body of the film.  Not that much of a shock, given that this is the first movie to step into the mystical side of things, but it gives the movie a certain freshness.

For my money, this is one of Marvel’s best movies, combining a solid script, strong performances, extraordinary visuals and some genuinely inventive action sequences.    I can’t see myself not seeing this again at least once, and would strongly recommend it to anyone with any vague interest in the genre.