The Tick is a beloved cult comic and TV series, and for good reason. It’s a franchise that successfully lampooned the latent silliness of 90’s comic books while still showing admiration for them. From the gaudy costumes to the absurdity of a superhero-filled world, it poked loving fun at comics with a sharp tack while remaining just as compellingly goofy. Over a decade later, Amazon hopes to recapture that success with the debut of a pilot written by original creator Ben Edlund.
In this The Tick pilot, we meet Arthur (Griffin Newman), a disturbed young man who’s never quite gotten over watching a flying superhero craft crash into his dad. Oh, or seeing superheroes get infected with syphilis, then shot in the head execution-style. He’s a “poor, broken man,” in the words of a side character. This experience with superheroes has left him scarred, and forever in pursuit of Terror (a delightfully nasty Jackie Earle Haley,) who society thinks is long dead. A chance encounter with an unknown superhero named The Tick (the pure dynamite Peter Serafinowicz) makes him think he might not be so crazy after all.
While perhaps nothing can catch the lightning in a jar of the original show or cartoon, The Tick is nevertheless an impressive debut. The atmosphere exudes a sort of grim, gritty energy that the original never had. Some might balk at this, but I think it fits. It feels like a very deliberate lampooning of edgy, dark superhero adaptations, like Daredevil or pretty much anything Zack Snyder touches. Based on this pilot, it seems like Edlund has his finger on the pulse of modern superhero products and is making a concentrated effort to spoof them. Bonus brownie points for the fantastic score, which is jazzy and noir-ish in all the right ways. The Tick doesn’t get too lost in replicating modern superhero adaptations. The spoofing definitely does happen, and it’s pretty funny across the board. The Tick himself is an absolute riot, going on giant rants about destiny and speaking in almost total alliteration at times. That’s not to mention the gut busting one-liners, including Tick comparing his strength to a “a crowded bus stop of men.” There are also hysterical one-off moments, like syphilis missiles or a superhero getting interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg on her talk show. A clear streak of silliness runs through the whole thing, which is pretty crucial for any Tick media to succeed.
Ultimately, this pilot really left me wanting more, in a good way. The performances were all compelling, and Arthur as a protagonist is pretty engrossing and damaged in a captivating way. Plus, the cliffhanger ending definitely made me want to see where the whole thing is headed. While some cheap CGI took me out of the action at times, I have no doubt that will get solved if this series gets picked up for a full run.
I hope it does, because as it stands, this new Tick is the superhero spoof we deserve.
Well, no one particularly liked the “gritty” 2014 reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but audiences spent just under $500 million worldwide deciding that they didn’t like it. So that means that we get a sequel this week.
When the X-Men franchise began in the year 2000, no one was sure if it was even possible to make a watchable movie from a Marvel Comic. Now 16 years later, we have a new one and clearly, Marvel movies do just fine. Fox never stopped making X-Men movies during those years either. Even though there were some stinkers and reshuffles, the mutant franchise has been kicking longer than any with continued (if convoluted) continuity. Yet, somehow the X-flicks still feel like the odd duck out in the superhero race. X-Men: Apocalypse arrives on screens as the biggest blockbuster the franchise has ever seen, but it’s an also-ran to the superhero smash up Marvel and DC movies that just released. On one hand, that’s oddly appropriate given the rejected mutant subject matter, but strange that everyone takes these movies for granted. Not that Apocalypse helps. Truthfully, it’s a bit sloppy and falls square into the middle of the X-pack. It’s totally watchable, just nothing special and weighed down by franchise fatigue. The flick kicks off in ancient Egypt where the world’s first mutant lives like a god. The impossibly powerful and improbably named Apocalypse is introduced by absorbing the corpse of Oscar Isaac along with his seemingly indestructible powers and cutie pie face. Then he’s trapped in slumber and the story leaps ahead a few centuries when he’s revived for no particular reason other than the fact that the X-Men need a big bad guy to fight in the 80s now that the series is jumping decades. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) finally has his School for Gifted Youngsters up and running, while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is hiding out in Poland with a wife and child. Obviously neither dream lasts with a big blue guy named Apocalypse marching around making plans to live up to his name. Fassbender joins Apocalypse’s side along with 80s styled Storm (Alexandrea Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) who barely speak because there are too many characters.
Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is out continuing her quest to liberate mutants, only now she rarely looks blue because Lawrence doesn’t like the makeup. She finds Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and reluctantly agrees to help Professor X battle Apocalypse alongside his new pupils Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who probably fall in love or something. Plus Quicksilver (Even Peters) is back because he was popular in the last movie and Rose Byrne is back because she was popular in the movie before that. And then a bunch of other stuff happens in name of scale and soap opera.
On a certain level, X-Men: Apocalypse is the most faithful adaptation of the comic franchise on the big screen to date. The mixture of epic superhero smash em’ ups and convoluted moaning melodrama is exactly what the comics always were in good ways and bad. It looks amazing, when it isn’t just looking needlessly dark to feel all serious and moody. An oddly casted Oscar Isaac seems enjoy himself as an impossibly evil big baddie. McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrenece remain strong grounding forces as ever. The new kids look cute and fit their parts. The 80s setting allows for some of the colourfully ridiculous X-Men costumes of old to make their big screen debuts. Singer has an assured hand with massive scale filmmaking after working on these movies for over 15 years. It’s a movie that would melt the minds of any 90s comic shop kids magically transported to the future.
Yet, somehow it all feels a little flat. The tone is so relentlessly dour that it can feel both inadvertently comedic and dull. The use of dual franchise callbacks and continuity corrections that proved to be so popular in Days of Future Past pop up again, but it’s not nearly as novel this time. In fact, there’s an overwhelming feeling that we’ve seen this all before. Not just in the countless comic book movies to appear since X-Men’s groundbreaking summertime success, but in the X-Men movies themselves. Do we really need to see Cyclops and Jean Grey meet and fall in love again? Is it really supposed to be a surprise when she shows some “unexpected powers” (gasp!)? Sure, it’s nice to see a reprise of the showstopper Quicksilver sequence form the last movie, but it’s not a good sign when your highlight set piece is essentially a photocopy. Yet, more than anything else, it’s sad to see most of the color, humour, and historical fiction that Matthew Vaugn infused into the series so beautifully in First Class dry up in favour of more of the Singer mutant mopiness that felt a little played out five short years ago.
Still, it’s an exaggeration to say that X-Men: Apocalypse is bad. It’s not. In fact, it’s filled with some pretty spectacular moments that nail the comic’s tone as well as any movie ever has. The trouble is just in the familiarity. This is the third movie this summer about super teams being fractured only to form again and plays out a number of straight-faced genre clichés that Deadpool mocked within this specific universe just a few months ago. If nothing else, Apocalypse proves that superhero movies have to strive to be different, because what impressed in 2011 is already stale. Also, it’s likely time for this series to divert into new areas and new hands. Sure, it was nice to see Singer come back and make X-Men movies on a scale he could only dream of when he invented the series, but it was genuinely X-citing to see Matthew Vaughn and Tim Miller crush the conventions he created and deliver fresh takes on the mutant universe. There will be another one of these, that goes without saying (given the time-hopping in the last few movies, making a 90s X-flick set in the decade that was the peak popularity of X-Men in comics and cartoons is irresistible). Hopefully, the next one is a fresh X-flick though, because it’s sad to see the series that started the Marvel movie revolution continually come up short. Plus, surely the mutant civil rights allegory so central to the series is perfect for our diversity-obsessed age. There is a great X-Men movie left to be made. Now it’s Fox’s job to find the right people to deliver it.
It’s been a long, long journey for Deadpool to make it to the big screen. The character came out of the absurd excesses of 90s comics: hyper-violent, snarky, and sexualized; however, the book was also self-aware in an oh-so 90s way, with the character frequently breaking the fourth wall and the writers gleefully taking the piss out of superhero funny book clichés. Deadpool has been in movies before, but in a horrible botch job in that Wolverine origin movie that everyone rightfully dismisses. For years, sarcasm specialist Ryan Reynolds hoped to bring a proper Deadpool to theatres, complete with the hard-R rating and self-consciousness that the property demands. It didn’t look like it would happen, even though Deadpool cosplay started to take over comic cons everywhere as the cult grew for one of the few marquee Marvel properties not given the blockbuster treatment. Then Reynolds leaked an effects test that nailed the tone on the internet and within 24 hours his pet project got a greenlight. Now Deadpool is here and it’s everything longtime fans could want, as well as something that should be a pleasant surprise for folks who only get their superhero kicks at the cinema. It’s also a puerile, immature, silly, and dumb origin story. But hey! We’re talking about Deadpool here. That book has always been clever entertainment, not art.
Things kick off with a hilarious opening credits parody sequence to set the tone. Over an elaborate extended bullet time shot of a violent action scene, we’re treated to joke credits like “produced by asshats” and “directed by an overpaid tool” along with a few jabs at Ryan Reynolds. Yep, we’re firmly in self-mocking/self-aware land with this movie and the fourth wall is broken so many times afterwards, it’s barely even there. It’s an origin story, but one told non-chronologically. This origin tale is also a revenge tale, so that opening action scene from the credits is the first act of revenge and it’s spread out over the first half of the movie, as Reynolds’ sardonic Deadpool talks the audience through the origin with all sorts of additional silliness.
Before donning the tights, Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is just a highly trained mercenary (with a mouth) who does low-end jobs. He hangs out at a bar owned by his equally sarcastic friend (TJ Miller) and falls in love with an equally sarcastic woman (Morena Baccarin). Then he gets cancer and signs up for a potentially deadly medical experiment to cure it (so no direct Weapon X references, likely to keep a distance from Wolverine). Ed Skrein is on generic Euro-baddie duties as the guy executing said experiment. It’s torturous and leaves Wilson burned up like Freddy Kruger, only with remarkable healing powers. Pissed off about losing his pretty face, Wilson transforms into Deadpool and sets out to kill Skrein. That’s when the flashbacks catch up with the extended opening action scene and things get a bit more straightened out. Oh, and Deadpool also has a tentative relationship with two X-men, Colosus (Stefan Kapicic, plus loads of CGI) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand, plus loads of adolescent cynicism) to loosely connect this whole thing to Fox’s X-Men cinematic universe.
The key to Deadpool’s success is its sense of humour. Reynolds, Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and director Tim Miller know how familiar audiences are with superhero movie tropes, so they spend the whole movie mocking them, exaggerating them, and dosing them in R-rated excess to make the old tricks feel new. It’s what Deadpool did back in the comic days and it works well on the big screen. There are constant asides to the audience and a mountain of rude n’ crude humour to make it all go down smoothly. Sure, the sense of humour is decidedly adolescent, but it’s Deadpool. That’s the target audience and they’ll get what they want. Beyond all of the filthy funnies, Tim Miller leans into that R-rated freedom with his action scenes. Limbs are severed, blood is sprayed, and entrails fly around the screen. It’s a mixture of hard R Asian action and horror movie splatstick comedy executed on a scale only a superhero blockbuster can receive. The result is a rip-roaring tasteless rollick that adds some nice new flavours to the comic book movie buffet and shows off what R-rated blockbusters could look like in the modern age. God-willing it won’t be the last.
The cast are all rather good, delighting in the film’s irreverent tone. The only exceptions are the villains played by Ed Skrein and a mostly silent Gina Carano. They are essentially generic 80s action movie villains with a few superpowers and feel rather boring. But hey, they get the job done. Despite all of the in-jokes, asides, and R-rated ridiculousness, this is kind of a generic movie. However despite how much fun Baccarin and Miller are on the sidelines or Kapicic and Hildebrand have mocking the X-men universe, the movie belongs to Ryan Reynolds and he doesn’t disappoint. The guy is an underrated actor, a world champion of sarcasm, and blessed with the genetics necessary to be an action figure. If anyone was born to play Deadpool, it’s him. He doesn’t let a one-liner fall flat, gleefully mocks himself, wears buckets of burned skin make-up, and (thanks to a mask) lets some ridiculously talented stunt guys take over to deliver some wild physical Deadpool action pulled straight from comic book panels. If the movie is little more than a giant pilot for a Deadpool franchise, then Reynolds proves that he’s more than capable of carrying it and that he knows the right types of writers and directors necessary to pull it off. Good work sir.
Is Deadpool the best comic book movie ever made? Not really. In fact, I’d imagine there will be at least one better superhero movie this year. However, it is one of the best R-rated Hollywood action movies to arrive in forever and that’s cause for celebration. They don’t make em’ like this anymore and they certainly never made superhero movies like this before. That’s something special. Sure, despite the self-conscious cleverness, it’s just a bunch of vulgar humour, ultra-violence, and parodied superhero clichés. But at least these are all new things to the superhero blockbuster genre and Deadpool makes a hell of a case for why this new franchise deserves a spot at the table. Given that the movie clearly didn’t have the same budget as a Disney Marvel blockbuster, it’s amazing what Tim Miller and his team were able to pull off in terms of pure spectacle. Deadpool is big dopey fun for big dopes like me. Its flaws are forgivable given its strengths and most of them should be set straight in the inevitable sequel. For once, it’s actually kind of exciting to think that sequel is coming. Deadpool’s in-joke premise will get tired eventually, but for now it gives Fox’s Marvel division a filthily distinct franchise in the superhero blockbuster landscape. Disney would never allow a Marvel property to be handled this way (just wait until you see Stan Lee’s cameo) and it’s nice to know that the merc with a mouth ended up at a company that will do the filthy fun character right.
The Fantastic Four were Stan Lee’s first Marvel superheroes and the colourfully neurotic family of superheroes have been pillars of that comic book universe ever since. We now live in a world where Marvel properties have been established so consistently and successfully on the big screen that there are even Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies worth watching. Yet somehow, Marvel’s first family continue to get the shaft. It should be easy to make a FF flick given all of the decades of wonderful stories that already exist through colourful panels. Yet, thus far, we’ve only gotten one Roger Corman movie so brutal it was never released, two dreadful early 2000s blockbuster misfires, and now a dark n’ brooding reinterpretation that admittedly tries out some interesting ideas, but ultimately fails once more (just in all new and exciting ways).
Chronicle director Josh Trank walks audiences through the Fantastic Four origin motions again, only this time with the genre shifted to sci-fi with hints of body horror. We meet Reed Richards as a kiddie scientist who invents what he thinks is a matter transporter along with his buddy Ben Grimm. It doesn’t do much beyond shut down the power in the neighbourhood, but years later Reed gets the machine working and takes it to his high-school science fair. The teacher thinks its BS, but scientist Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) not only knows it works, he realizes that it’s actually a window to another dimension. He quickly hires Reed to come to New York and help him complete his own dimension-hopping project. Reed is then partnered up with the doctor’s adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), her ne’er do well brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordon), and the unfortunately named dark dork Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Together they make a fully functioning interdimensional portal, and after their bosses refuse to let them take it for a test ride, they get drunk and go anyway (along with Reed’s old buddy Ben). Unfortunately things go horribly wrong and Victor ends up trapped in the other dimension while the four others soon find themselves saddled with body mutating powers.
Aside from some pacing issues and failed attempts at humor, it has to be said that the first half of the new Fantastic Four flick is actually pretty compelling. Trank’s decision to shift genres out of the goofy Marvel superhero fair that’s so popular these days into speculative sci-fi is a clever one. It gives a familiar origin tale a new tone and style. When the gang comes back and find their buddies sullied with stretchy limbs, invisibility, flaming skin, and a rock monster physique, Trank plays it all as painful body horror in easily the best section of the movie. This isn’t Stan Lee’s gang of goofy scientists who accidentally turn themselves into a superhero team. It’s a group of unsuspecting kids going through tragically horrific mutations that just happen to be the same powers of the Fantastic Four.
“To be fair to everyone involved, at least the first half is pretty good before the movie completely flies off the rails.“
If Trank had somehow convinced Fox to allow him to make a purely sci-fi horror reinterpretation of The Fantastic Four that ends with the four potential heroes locked up in abject misery, this would have been a truly unique and bizarre Hollywood movie worth celebrating. Unfortunately, since the flick is called Fantastic Four and superhero blockbusters are the biggest business in La-La-land these days, this thing has to become a standard issue superhero flick eventually. So, after the gang are locked up, they’re slowly encouraged to develop their powers for the government and eventually even fight off a CGI villain in a CGI landscape in a completely disposable finale. It’s hard to tell if Trank simply wasn’t interested in this aspect of the movie or if endless rewrites and reshoots watered down the third act until it became indistinguishable from every superhero movie from the last 15 years. Either way, the movie completely falls apart in the second half. There were rumours of production troubles on this flick and the final product sure shows that. Editing is awkwardly choppy, suggesting radical recuts; scenes from the trailer didn’t even make it into the final movie, and worst of all, it just feels dull after a certain point.
Yep. Sadly, The Fantastic Four have been stuck with another disappointing blockbuster unworthy of the brand name. To be fair to everyone involved, at least the first half is pretty good before the movie completely flies off the rails. There are enough interesting ideas in play to suggest that the filmmakers were on the right path until whatever it was that went disastrously wrong happened. It’s a real shame because the goofy dysfunctional family dynamic of The Fantastic Four is loaded with potential for a great movie and you only need look at Brad Bird’s masterful The Incredibles to see that. At the very least, this frustrating feature is the best attempt at a Fantastic Four thus far. Even the cast is pretty good, so if the movie somehow makes enough cash to justify a sequel, there’s a chance someone could right the ship and give fans the Fantastic Four flick they deserve. Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen though. Superhero blockbuster fatigue has already set in amongst most viewers, so they will likely balk at an FF failure, given that they only have to wait a few months until the next superhero flick anyways. What a shame. This project had potential, but whatever curse was placed on The Fantastic Four by the movie gods clearly ain’t going away anytime soon.
Part 2 of The Top Ten Genre Movies Of 2014, be sure to check out part 1 for #10-6.
Joon-ho Bong (The Host, the good one) has been one of the most fascinating genre filmmakers working out of Korea for over a decade. Working from a French comic book as source material, Snowpiercer was supposed to be his breakout film in North America. He got Chris Captain America Evans to headline a cast featuring the likes of Ed Harris, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton for a trippy sci-fi action blockbuster with a brain. The results were as thrilling, funny, clever, and wildly entertaining as anything that he ever produced. It could have been a big hit. Then the Weinstein Company got hold of it, re-edited against Bong’s wishes for over a year and finally slipped it into a handful of theaters unceremoniously. It was unfair treatment for a frankly brilliant genre movie with scale, stars, smarts, and class. Thankfully, the movie will live forever in home video formats now and should eventually become the classic that it always should have been.
The bad wap on most mainstream horror flicks is that they are simplistic and uninspired. Sure, they are slick and pack jump scares and or gore, but rarely do they tickle the brain or dare to do anything different. Not Oculus. Mike Flanagan’s sophomore effort mixes up flashbacks and hallucinations in a clever, inspired, and above all deeply creepy little haunted mirror tale. Mercifully devoid of found footage trappings and other cheap gimmicks, it’s a skillfully crafted and undeniably effective little horror flick that already feels destined to be a cult classic. Other horror movies may have been flashier or more successful in 2014, but nothing else was as exquisitely constructed or capable of worming its way into memory. This is the type of horror movie that audiences used to be able to take for granted. Hopefully, Flanagan has quite a few more of them planned for a long career.
3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America was always my least favorite Marvel hero and yet somehow Kevin Feige and co. have given me two Cap films that rank amongst my favorite superhero flicks of all time. Borrowing liberally from the style and structure (if not the specific story beats) of Ed Brubaker’s influential Winter Soldier plotline, the movie cleverly contrasts Captain America’s old timey US values against the corruption of contemporary government. It’s a 70s paranoid thriller a la The Parallax View (Robert Redford even appears) with a superhero at the center. That’s a damn witty way to play with Cap in modern times and for good measure the co-directing Russo Brothers also served up the most visceral and physical action scenes of the entire Marvel cannon. It’s one hell of a blockbuster centered around a character who I never imagined I’d like. God damn it Marvel. You did it again.
2) The Lego Movie
If this list was for “The Most Charming Movies Of 2014” then The Lego Movie would be number one with a bullet. In an age when branded product-shifting blockbusters like Transformers or Battleship are the norm, The Lego Movie should have been a project to dread, another one of those empty wastes of Hollywood resources designed purely to sell products. Thankfully, the movie fell into the hands of the distinctly irreverent filmmaking team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, Clone High). In Lord and Miller’s hands, The Lego Movie transformed into a hysterically funny pop culture explosion that lovingly takes the piss out of the Lego universe as well as an unexpectedly moving exploration of the power of imagination that those little plastic blocks have provided for generations of children. The animation is beautifully plastic, the voice sheer joy on the big screen last year than The Lego Movie. It was an unexpected treat and one that likely won’t be topped for quite some time.
1) The Guardians Of The Galaxy
Finally, there was only one possible movie that could top this list. It’s not often that the highest grossing movie of any given year is also arguably the best. But it’s also not often that a movie a singularly entertaining as Guardians Of The Galaxy comes along. It was a big risk for Marvel, not only reviving a barely popular space opera comic series from the 70s, but handing directing duties over to James Gunn (whose hard R horror and Troma roots are about as far from Disney blockbuster standards as humanly possibly). Thankfully, this is one of those cases where all of the risks paid off. Gunn delivered the closest thing to Star Wars that audiences have seen in a long time. His candy colored aesthetic, oddball casting (Chris Pratt as action hero, Michael Rooker as Disney villain), sardonic wit, and narrative invention delivered a blockbuster so purely entertaining that it should be held up as an ideal example of the form (and likely will be knocked off for quite a while for that very reason). It’s the closest thing that Marvel’s Phase 2 has given us to the unexpected excitement of the first Iron Man flick. A blockbuster that raised the bar for Marvel movies with an obscure property that seemed destined to fail. Pretty good plan, guys. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got coming next.
Afflicted, Birdman, Citizenfour, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, The Double, The Edge Of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat), A Field In England, Foxcatcher, Godzilla, The Guest, The Hobbit: Battle Of The Five Armies, Interstellar, Jodorowsky’s Dune, John Wick, Lucy, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Raid 2, The Sacrament, Tusk, 22 Jump Street, Under The Skin, Willow Creek, Wolf Creek 2
A Particularly Honourable Mention: The Babadook
This masterful directorial debut from Jennifer Kent uses a haunted pop up book to explore deep rooted parental fears and fairy tale monster thrills. The Babadook is a brilliant bit of work, but I left it off the list because it hasn’t yet been released in Canada even though it’s been a massive critical success in the US. Hopefully, that’ll be sorted out in the New Year. This movie will be released in Canada in some form eventually and when it does, do whatever you can to see it.
The Worst Genre Movie Of The Year: Transcendence
Utter trash with no redeeming value. Not even goofy enough to earn camp status down the line. Just drearily, boringly bad and unfit for human consumption.
I love Spider-Man. Like so many kids, the character was my introduction to superheroes and Stan Lee may as well have designed him as the gateway Marvel hero. He’s a dorky kid who’s secretly a superhero and whose daily life is filled with failure, flubs, and tragedy even though he approaches it with the same noble intentions as his crime fighting. Spider-Man is the original neurotic superhero, and in an age of Marvel blockbusters, it should be the easiest character to get right. Yet, we somehow live in a world where Captain America 2 feels like a classic while The Amazing Spider-Man2 is as dull and mediocre of a superhero movie as you’re likely to see on the big screen. It makes no sense. Captain America should be nearly impossible to get right on screen while Spider-Man should be a bunt. However, we also live in an age where the folks who run Marvel Comics are also directly responsible for Marvel Studios film production while the folks behind the Amazing Spider-Man movies seem to have never read a comic in their lives and are making their movies purely because printing Spider-Man on a movie is an easy way to make a billion dollars. Sigh… How did this ever happen?
We catch up with our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man doing what he does best, swinging around the city and beating up bad guys. In this particular case, the bad guy he’s beating up is a Russian mobster played by Paul Giamatti (if you’re wondering why, don’t because he essentially shows up for a cameo). From there we see that Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is still in love with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and he still lives with his loving Aunt May (Sally Field), and he’s still trying to figure out what happened to his dead parents. All of these plotlines are sort of followed, and sort of not by the screenplay cranked out by four different writers who may or may not have even been in the same room while they were stitching this mess together. Most of the screen-time is dedicated to halfheartedly setting up two villains. The first is Jamie Foxx’s Electro, who starts as a nerdy and psychotic Spider-Man fan. It’s a clever idea for a villain’s origin story, and it doesn’t really matter that it ditches comics continuity given that Electro was always most memorable for his glam rock costume anyways. Regardless, all of that is dropped once he gets his superpowers and essentially turns into an electric version of Dr. Manhattan for some reason. Then Harry Osborne shows up, whom we learn was an incredibly important friend in Peter’s life even though he wasn’t even mentioned in the first movie. Of course, based on his haircut and the comics, TV series, and previous Spider-Man movies we know he’s going to turn into a certain goblin of a certain color. It doesn’t really matter though. The plot is just a hodgepodge of loosely connected scenes tossed together to set up the big moments for the trailer.
The weird thing about these Amazing Spider-Man movies is how needlessly confused and convoluted they’ve turned out to be despite the fact that the hero at the center is the most simple in the Marvel Universe. Marc Webb and co. continue to do narrative backflips to set up some pointless conspiracy plot tying Peter’s dead parents into the origin of the radioactive spider, despite the fact that it adds absolutely nothing to the mythology. Now, there’s nothing wrong with changing and massaging source material for a film adaptation. In fact, that’s what should be done. However, when you change things around just for the sake of making changes without any thought or reason then it’s a problem. The new backstories for Spider-Man and Electro do nothing except slow down a movie that is already perilously too long at 2.5 hours. Then in their place, material that would actually add to the story is sacrificed. Sally Field’s Aunt May has nothing to do despite being at the core of Spider-Man’s character. The Harry Osborne plot is so rushed that there’s no sense of betrayal or tragedy. The fact that Dane Chronicle Dehaan was a perfect choice for the role means nothing when he’s given so little to do (seriously, Dehaan’s haircut gets a more of character arc than Harry). This is a big messy movie made by people who don’t understand the appeal of Spider-Man and probably wouldn’t even bother seeing a Spider-Man movie if their name wasn’t in the credits. At a time when superhero movies are peaking, to waste one of the most iconic characters in the comic book medium is a tragedy for geeks everywhere.
And yet, much like its predecessor The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t a complete disaster, which is perversely even worse than if it were. To explain, were this flick a Batman & Robin level turd, at least it would bomb and the world would cry foul. But it’s not. Andrew Garfield remains a perfectly cast Spider-Man who is able to communicate the charm, neurosis, tragedy, and power of the character even when the screenplay doesn’t. His pairing with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is dream casting and their scenes together have spark. When they share a certain iconic moment in the Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy story in this film, it has an emotional power in the moment, but doesn’t really work overall given that the story around that scene is such an awkward mess. Likewise, the special effects team was given a damn near limitless budget and deliver some fantastic Spider-Man slinging sequences. So, the casual superhero movie audience gets the most basic things they want from the movie, and that’ll be enough to make it a hit, even though most viewers won’t realize how much better it would be if the movie surrounding Garfield, Stone and Spider-Man was worthy of those elements.
What’s most deeply frustrating about these two failed Amazing Spider-Man movies is the fact that they replaced a franchise that was already working (well, except for Spider-Man 3, but let’s just pretend that’s not a thing). Sam Raimi’s take on the wall crawler may have been a little too goofy and old fashioned for some people, but at least he knew and loved the mythology. His bright, colorful, and canonical Spider-Man movies pulled the cinematic superhero genre out of an era of dark shadowy comic book movies that were merely copying what Tim Burton did with Batman. Raimi’s Spider-Man series paved the way for the Marvel movie era. In theory, the franchise should be peaking right now in the centre of the superhero blockbuster renaissance. Instead, thanks to hiring director Marc Webb based purely on his last name (he’s said repeatedly in interviews that he had no interest in the franchise and signed on purely for the money/opportunity), The Amazing Spider-Man movies feel like relics of the 90s. They’re dogged by all of the problems that are no longer an issue in most superhero movies: too many villains, pointless celebrity stunt casting, poor writing, and a complete ignorance about the legacy of the character they’re representing. It’s a real shame because with Garfield and Stone at the centre these movies have potential that they consistently fail to reach. Hopefully one day Marvel Studios and Sony can work out a deal to return the prodigal son to his rightful home and give the fans the Spider-Man movie they deserve. These $300 million Spidey teases are getting tiresome. It’s time for the real thing.
Before getting into my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a confession is in order. Back in my snotty-nosed and comic-clutching youth, I hated Captain America. “Too boring,” said I. Later I used words like “propagandistic” and “passé” both before and after I knew what they meant. When Kevin Feige and Marvel announced their Avengers cinematic roll out, it was the Captain America film series that I dreaded the most. Then the unexpected happened. Somehow, the Captain America turned out to be the most consistently entertaining and unpredictable non-Iron Man Marvel franchise. Feige and co. have approached the series with an understanding of the characters’ pitfalls as much as his strengths. The first Captain America movie openly satirized Cap’s propaganda origin and silly costume. The Avengers turned his dated ideals into a running gag. Now Captain America: The Winter Soldier has not only pitted Cap against America, but transformed the series into a 70s-style paranoid political thriller a la Three Days Of The Condor (that Robert Redford stunt casting is no accident). It’s as if Kevin Feige knew how much I hated the character and went out of his way to make me love Steve Rogers. Of course, I’m not nearly narcissistic enough to believe that or consider myself the only person with Cap skepticism. It’s just been a pleasant surprise to suddenly find myself desperately anticipating the next cinematic adventure of a character that I mocked mercilessly as a teenager.
Things kick off with some good old-fashioned butt kicking as Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) break up a big boat hostage situation with fists, guns, and a certain iconic shield. However, the fact that Widow had a secret info-grabbing mission that Cap didn’t know about concerns our trusty hero. So the man with the shield demands some answers from the man who runs SHIELD, good ol’ Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). Turns out that Fury is supervising a new international defense initiative that involves a fleet of heli-carriers floating around the planet to monitor and analyze every citizen without them noticing and taking machine gun action to prevent crimes/terrorism before they happen. It’s a Watergate-era paranoid fantasy with Edward Snowden contemporary cred, organized by Robert Redford in slimy liberal politician mode. Cap doesn’t take to kindly to the idea and rather quickly, SHIELD doesn’t take too kindly to him. Soon Cap n’ Widow are on the run, pursued by a fleet of government operatives and a super-powered masked missionary named The Winter Soldier. If you’ve read the comics or pay attention to the face-slap foreshadowing, you’ll know who that Winter Soldier is and will also smirk out a smile once the words “Hail Hydra” are uttered. The movie is just as littered with comic book in-jokes and references as every previous title shot out of the Marvel Movie canon, but this time the action feels more gritty, ground level, and “realistic” with little brooding.
As always, Kevin Feige hired unexpected filmmakers to helm this sequel and they ended up being the perfect choice. The sibling-directing duo of Anthony and Joe Russo previously worked exclusively in comedy on films like Welcome To Collingwood and TV shows like Arrested Development and Community. Yet, despite sprinkling in liberal doses of humor, their focus is on relentless paranoia, suspense, and action that never lets up. The political commentary at the film’s center is well handled (pitching exaggerated contemporary US surveillance issues against the old timey values of Captain America was pretty ingenious) and Redford classes up the picture a notch by doing all the heavy lifting in that area. However, that element never consumes the movie. It’s merely backdrop. This is primarily a rip-roaring action movie with Cap and the Widow at the center. The Russos’ focus on foot chases, choreographed fights, and car carnage that work like gangbusters. If the first Captain America movie offered wartime hero nostalgia, this one hinges on spy and paranoia thriller nostalgia in just as satisfying a way. The cast is strong and it’s a bullet train of entertainment even with a saggy 138 minute running time. Weirdly, the film’s primary weaknesses arrive when the movie serves the Marvel Movie Universe rather than its own needs.
Much of The Winter Soldier’s running time is dedicated to establishing new franchise regulars and removing (or at least temporarily derailing) one of the lynchpins of the first phase of the Marvel Movie Universe. Thankfully, this isn’t as distracting as it was in Iron Man 2, but definitely slows things down. Oddly, the titular Winter Soldier is the least developed central plot thread. It’s clearly all been left vague to leave open doors for sequels, and that’s fine. But why make that the title if it’s not the focus? Still, these complaints and any others (like some distracting Scarlett stunt doubling or the useless post-conversion 3D) qualify as piddling and nitpicking at best. It might not be perfect, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier ranks in the top tier of Marvel productions and thus far is the finest hour of Phase 2. The blockbuster is smart, funny, dramatic, relentlessly action-packed, and moves the grand Marvel narrative forward in a few key steps. To satisfy all those threads requires a lot of juggling that the Russos pull off with an ease that deserves applause. This is a big win for Feige and Marvel that proves not only is their production conveyer belt still working, but the team still has quite a few surprises up their sleeves. My teenage self would be disgusted to learn that Captain America is now one of my favorite movie superheroes. This tricky franchise has been handled brilliantly so far, and at this point I’ll be approaching the initially head-scratching Guardians Of The Galaxy movie with giddy excitement. What once felt like a risky project now feels like brilliantly ballsy one and it’s hard to imagine that Marvel is going to drop the ball any time soon. Certainly not with the next Avengers moviecoming next, anyways.
Of all the Marvel heroes comprising The Avengers, Thor was always going to be the trickiest to translate to the screen. After all, the Norse god with formal speech and a celestial backstory doesn’t exactly pack the same simplistic punch as his “explained in their names” buddies Iron Man or Captain America. The last time Thor got a movie, director Kenneth Branagh got around those weaknesses by poking fun at them through camp humor. It worked well enough for audiences to ignore the fact that the plot was a remake of the 80s Masters Of The Universe movie, and now that it’s sequel time, much has changed and much has stayed the same. The film remains laced with winking referential humor as is a Marvel movie staple and this time it’s also filled with massive CGI action that wasn’t in the budget of Thor 1. In the end, Thor: The Dark World is meaningless pulp that essentially throws a bunch of stuff at the screen and leaves the heroes in roughly the same place they were when it began. However, Marvel Studios has turned into such an impressive entertainment factory that it works. The film is more amusing than last week’s Ender’s Game despite the fact that it offers none of the intelligence or meaning. As far as cinematic cotton candy goes, you could do much worse.
The plot is a bunch of incidental gobbledygook designed to facilitate as much CGI action and brotherly bickering as possible. We start with a prologue setting the stage for a Dark Elf (Christopher Eccleston unrecognizable under prosthetics) who has beef with those Asgard folks and wants to plunge the universe into all-consuming darkness. To do so, he needs a weapon called The Aether and a special time to attack when all the realms of the universe align. Guess what time in the space charts this movie takes place? Back on Earth, Natalie Portman’s Thor-loving astrophysicist is struggling to date London dudes who aren’t Norse gods, semi-working with her intern Kat Dennings (who now has her own intern because that’s HILARIOUS), and listening to her scientist crazy boss Stellan Skarsgard babble about planets aligning. She also discovers some sort of inter-dimensional portal in a derelict building (don’t ask) that inexplicably transports her right to where the Aether is hidden and infects her with the universe-shattering weapon.
Back on Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has created a land of peace and is reluctantly planning to take over the kingdom from his father (Anthony Hopkins). Loki (a never-better Tom Hiddleston) has been imprisoned and is all bitter about it, desperate for revenge. All Thor can think about is Natalie Portman though, so when he finds out that she’s been infected with an apocalyptic weapon he races to her aid. She comes to Asgard, making Thor’s Xena-lite warrior love interest (Jaimie Alexander) jealous and causing Eccleston’s Elf to show up and declare war. Battles ensue and eventually it becomes clear that not only will the final battle to decide the fate of the universe conveniently have to happen on earth, Thor will have to team up with Loki to pull it off. So yeah, it’s a lot of convoluted nonsense overstuffed with characters (I haven’t even mentioned Thor’s battling buddies The Warriors Three, who also suck up screen time even though you can tell the team of writers didn’t really want to use them). The good news is that the plot doesn’t matter that much. It’s just material used to stitch together scenes in which Hemsworth and Hiddleston can ham it up once more and the filmmakers can make big things go boom.
One of the more telling aspects of the film is the fact that directing duties were passed from Branagh to Alan Tyler. For better or worse, Branagh was a filmmaker with a distinct style who left his campy touch on the original. Tyler, on the other hand, hasn’t made a movie in ten years, instead directing-for-hire on television shows like The Sopranos and Game Of Thrones. Now, Tyler certainly has talent, and he’s done great work for television. However, he’s a director who is hired to work within a house style at all times. Marvel has become such a massive movie factory that at this point, they don’t need a filmmaker with a point of view to guide their projects. They’ve got a collection of comic book artists and the best effects team in the biz to design the massive action sequences as well as a staff of writers headed by Joss Whedon to nail the tongue-in-cheek tone. More than any other production before now, Thor: The Dark World feels very much like a Marvel Studios movie over any particular filmmaker’s vision. Obviously, that’s not ideal. However, in this case, that’s perfectly fine since no one knows how to make a Marvel movie better than Marvel Studios.
Thor: The Dark World hits all the beats you’d want out of a Thor movie and then leaves before tedium can set in. Hemsworth doesn’t have as many comedic opportunities as last time, but still does the stomping superhero routine with ease. Natalie Portman brings a pretty face, sarcastic spunk, and a light touch to her damsel in distress routine. Skarsgard gets big laughs as an idiot scientist in his underwear. Anthony Hopkins poses and shouts, as he’s wont to do (though sadly he isn’t hilariously given a new eye patch for every scene this time). Then, of course, there’s Tom Hiddleston who clearly has a blast returning to the role of Loki that he’s completely made his own. Hiddleston is one of the secret MVPs of the entire Marvel Universe whose dry British wit, delightful evil grin, and classically trained acting chops are always a joy to behold. He is the star villain of this universe and the sequel gives him plenty of opportunities to steal the show. On the sidelines, the Warriors Three are still underdeveloped and underused while Kat Dennings’ wisecracking 20something routine is quickly turning into the Jar-Jar Binks of the Marvel Universe. However, with so much stuff going on and so many characters competing for attention, at least she’s less of a distraction than last time.
Ultimately Thor: The Dark World is a more consistently entertaining experience than the original, even if Branagh’s campy mockery is missed. The action is more visceral and executed on an Avengers-style scale. The dialogue zips and quips. The plot fires along without the overlong set-up and periods of tedium from the original. The stars shine and the explosions shine brighter. It is exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel movie and the studio knows how to give the fans what they want. Like the original Thor, this is still on the low end of the spectrum of Marvel movies. They’ve yet to give Thor a classic solo film like Iron Man or even Captain America and given the difficulty of the subject matter, they probably never will. Making a Thor movie this breezily entertaining is difficult enough and we should all be grateful that the studio has yet to deliver a Thor-sized disaster. It may all be meaningless fluff, but no one is better at providing meaningless fluff to the masses than Marvel Studios. It’s still an excellent popcorn-crunching crowd pleaser that’ll tide over fans until the next Marvel movie epic. Expecting anything more would be greedy. The flick could and should have been so much worse, and if this is as bad as Marvel movies get, then it’s a damn good time to be a fan of superhero movies.