Musings from the bleak midwinter … I woke up here in Grey Gardens cranky – the pandemic and life’s obligations weighing me down. I know everyone is feeling it.
But then I saw these little footprints of Hudson’s in the snow which gave me some warmth and perspective. Life continues in beautiful ways.
John Doordashed some unhealthy but tasty and comforting breakfast treats, and I had some lovely NSFW check-ins from my adopted siblings (whether they like it or not) Blaine Fowler and Diane Hill.
I took a much-needed shower (why are we all so averse to bathing in pandemic?) and threw on my new 80sTees.com Mister Miracle shirt (thanks, Kevin Stecko!), which reminded me how much the escapism (pun intended) of comic books thrills me.
Jack Kirby created Mister Miracle (a cosmic Houdini) and the rest of DC Comics’ bonkers New Gods at the height of his most unfettered creativity. Kirby had jettisoned Stan Lee’s reportedly toxic self-promotion from his professional life and let his freak flag fly. This was after already gifting the world Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Thor, the X-Men, Hulk, Iron Man, and so many other incredible characters.
I found kinship in Kirby by inadvertent means. In the mid-80s, Kenner toys released arguably the greatest super hero figures ever with their SuperPowers line: a well-constructed, detailed (for that era), heady mix of characters both popular and obscure. I was gobsmacked when I saw Dr. Fate and Red Tornado hanging on the pegs alongside Superman and WonderWoman at our local KayBee.
But my favorites among all of the figures in the line were the New Gods – Darkseid, Steppenwolf, DeSaad, Kalibak, Orion, and, yes, Mister Miracle. They were day-glo Shakespearean – epic, fun, transfixing. It would be years later that I would learn the New Gods are suspected to have inspired (in part) my other geek love at the time (and still) Star Wars. (Also, an incredible Kenner toy line over which I obsessed.)
So, I put on this shirt, and thought what lessons can I take from King Kirby? How can I live my life as boldly and creatively? And maybe inspire others as he had inspired me?
One of the treasures my dad Don Sexton unearthed these past few months was a beautiful quilt my great grandmother Money had made. (At least I hope I have that right. My mother Susie Sexton is somewhere saying “I KNEW you weren’t listening to me!”)
After brainstorming a bit with dear friend Aaron Latham about the merits and downsides of framing it (ain’t no wall big enough for THAT!), it occurred to me to order one of those plexiglass display cases you find in jewelry stores and trade shows. Thank you, Shoppopdisplays, for coming to the rescue and delivering on Sundays!
I spent far too much time trying to figure out how to fold this damn thing, but I’m thrilled that it is safe and displayed now in our TV room.
That little moment of creative endeavor and honoring the past did my heart good. I’m no Jack Kirby, but this artistic activity – not to mention that quilt’s bold colors and beautiful lineage – will brighten my January/February days.
My crankiness has subsided, and that is all due to family, friends, memories, reflection, and writing (this right here if you made it this far). Food, shopping, and cute dogs help too!
Yes, I overshare, but social media and blogging for me are (as they were for my mom) the perfect combo of bulletin board, journal, and party that never ends. Thanks for being there. ❤️
“The measure of a person, of a hero is how well they succeed at being who they are.” – Queen Frigga (Rene Russo) to son Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
“No amount of money every bought a second of time.” – Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to father Howard Stark (John Slattery)
“You look like melted ice cream.” – Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) to Thor (Hemsworth again) who has discovered a physique-obliterating love of beer, junk food, video games, and sweatpants
Marvel’s Avengers movies are, yes, about superheroes and, by extension, merchandise, theme park attractions, and an infinitely extendable money-minting film franchise. But they are about something else … and always have been: family. Finding one’s family in the most unlikeliest of places and forging new bonds (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor), rediscovering and healing one’s fragmentation with the past (Black Panther, IronMan, CaptainAmerica), or redefining one’s destiny and defying the limitations others’ have unfairly or unintentionally imposed (Doctor Strange,Spider-Man, Ant-Man) are all themes that have defined this groundbreaking film series.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
I would suggest that is why last year’s Infinity War with its (one-year-later spoiler alert!) decimation of nearly half the beloved team struck such a chord (and blow) with the general movie-going public. We comic nerds (and anyone who paid half a millisecond of attention to box office returns or awards season nominations) realized there was no earthly way a character like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was going to remain “dead.” Nonetheless, we were gutted to see newly arrived fan favorites like Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Spider-Man (Tom Holland) erode as pillars of collapsing ash, Sodom and Gomorrah-style, after “Mad Titan” Thanos (beautifully glowering Josh Brolin) snapped his fingers (literally), worked his “Infinity Gauntlet” mojo, and made 50% of all living creatures disappear from the universe. You see, Thanos has an unusual solution for chaos theory and overpopulation: get rid of half of us, re-instituting balance in a world run amuck. I suppose there are worse ideas.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Last year, we viewers were left with the mother of all cliffhangers, and, while Marvel Studios’ unyielding production schedule pretty much spoiled the surprise that the surviving Avengers would find a means to bring their missing brethren back, we didn’t know how and, perhaps more importantly, we didn’t know what this dissolution would do to the Marvel family.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
I won’t reveal the plot of this year’s $1.2 billion (and counting) juggernaut Endgame. To be honest, even if I wanted to detail the 3-hour narrative here, I’m not sure I could unravel the plateful of spaghetti that relies as much on the 21 (!) movies that precede it as it does some rudimentary knowledge of quantum mechanics, bad time travel flicks, and somberly-crafted peanut butter sandwiches.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
And, in the end, it doesn’t much matter. The movie is a marvel (pun intended) because directors the Russo Brothers (no relation to Rene … that I’m aware) are smart enough to pepper the proceedings with brilliant action sequences yet ground the entirety in humanity, heart, and deft character development.
The running time of Endgame never feels gratuitous (other entries in the Marvel franchise have felt overlong and indulgent occasionally). This much airtime is in fact essential to re-engage with our core heroes: Iron Man (Downey, Jr. who started it all with his character’s eponymous debut), Captain America (Chris Evans, long the heart and soul of the series), Thor (Hemsworth who has evolved from pretty dull to pretty comic dynamite), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, by far the best actor in the bunch who always makes every other performer just that much better in their scenes with him), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who, like Hemsworth, found much surer footing as the series proceeded), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, more often than not a cipher who truly comes into his own in this latest installment).
No one is given short-shrift here, with emotionally weighty, at times devastatingly heartfelt, denouement(s) that honor all that has come before and set the entire franchise on an exciting and uncharted path. It’s not all doom and gloom as there is plenty of self-referential/self-deprecating wit, with Captain America himself setting off some of the best zingers in the bunch. The whole enterprise is sweet-natured, entertaining-as-heck, genuinely humorous, and damn moving. Trust me, you will be sniffling throughout the last 20 minutes and downright sobbing at the very final scene.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Possibly for the first time ever, it feels like we can expect nothing but the unexpected from Marvel films going forward. It’s a genius move. For over a decade, Marvel Studios president and executive producer Kevin Feige has teased us with his “phased” master plan, all leading up to these final films. All of Hollywood became covetous of Marvel’s “shared cinematic universe” (less artistic envy, I suspect, than material greed … but c’est la vie). (See: DC Extended Universe, Universal’s Monsters Universe … no, better yet, don’t.) We are at Endgame, and, effectively, Feige and Marvel have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, sun-setting beloved canon while simultaneously thumbing their nose at it. The sky’s the limit, so empty your wallets, moviegoers: who knows what’s next?
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
Based on the classic Fawcett Comics character Captain Marvel, Shazam was acquired by DC Comics in a copyright dispute in the 1950s over the character’s (overstated) similarities to Superman. DC, ironically in turn, lost the rights to use the name (but not the character) “Captain Marvel” to Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and Marvel’s version of “Captain Marvel” had her cinematic debut one month ago. Consequently, DC’s “Captain Marvel” now goes by “Shazam,” which in actuality is the magic word young Billy Batson exclaims to become “The Big Red Cheese” Captain Marvel (but we can’t actually call him “Captain Marvel” any more). Clear as mud? Thanks a lot, intellectual property laws. (It’s all explained much better and in much more detail here.)
None of this matters one whit to your ultimate enjoyment of David F. Sandberg’s film treatment of Shazam (which was also a corny Saturday morning Filmation live action series in the 1970s and a Republic serial in the 1940s). For the casual film-goer, the more relevant comparison is to Tom Hanks’ classic comedy Big as a wish fulfillment fantasy of a little boy lost who assumes adulthood (and superpowers) will solve all his real-life problems (spoiler alert: they don’t). Shazam even offers an onscreen nod to Big’s FAO Schwartz super-sized floor piano keyboard duet.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Asher Angel (think young Zac Efron, but a bit less precious) plays foster kid Billy Batson, ever on the hunt for the birth mother he lost years ago at a winter carnival and who mysteriously never reclaimed her son. Batson bounces from group home to group home until he lands at the beautifully blended foster home of Rosa and Victor Vasquez (warm and earthy Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews). Overeager and lonely foster brother Freddy Freeman (It‘s Jack Dylan Grazer in a dynamite and heartbreaking turn) introduces Billy to the nerdy joys of super hero trivia, and, before we know it, flash-bam-boom!, Billy finds himself one subway stop away from the magical “Rock of Eternity,” imbued with magical abilities by an ancient wizard (an almost unrecognizable Djimon Hounsou).
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
When Billy shouts “Shazam!” (acronym of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury and the respective abilities of each), the young boy transforms into 6’3″ Zachary Levi (Chuck, Tangled, She Loves Me) whose sitcom/musical comedy ethos paired with a physique that now seems to have muscles-on-top-of-muscles makes him the perfect choice for this whimsical hero.
The film is saddled, as are most comic book adaptations alas, with a “take over the world” megalomaniac antagonist. This time, Mark Strong plays Dr. Sivana, and, in his typical glowering skinny/tall-British-Stanley-Tucci-with-dodgy-dental-work-way, Strong meanders about the film, saying vaguely apocalyptic things and shooting energy bolts from his hands. He’s completely unnecessary.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Thematically, Strong’s primary contribution seems to be to further the film’s exploration of family lost and family gained. Sivana’s father is a Lex Luthor-esque SOB, played by the go-to actor for Lex-Luthor-esque SOBs John Glover (Gremlins 2, Smallville … where, in fact, he played Lex Luthor’s dad) whose brutal parenting style predictably turns his little lad into a grade-A psychopath.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Shazam! works best when the film turns its gaze toward the adorable band of misfits in Billy’s foster home. The child actors are loving, lovable, believable, and kind. The challenges Billy endures embracing his new home and relinquishing his dream of reuniting with his birth mother are poignant and accessible and juxtapose nicely with the comic farce of him learning to be a proper super hero. Levi is an utter delight playing a 14-year-old boy in an (overgrown) man’s body, attempting superheroics when all he really wants to do is gobble junk food and play video games. At one point, Batson in his superhero persona observes, “If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Amen to that. Amen to that.
Thanks to my boss Susan and coworker Megan for this! #wishfulfillment
“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves, just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man.” …So opened the ridiculously ear-wormy theme song to the classic animated Spider-Man TV show from 1967.
And in the past two decades, indeed, here came all the Spider-Men, an army of cinematic treatments and a revolving door cast that rivaled only the Batman and James Bond franchises for the head-spinning number of changes over the years.
Tobey Maguire helped usher in this modern age of comic book blockbuster as Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy in the early 2000s. While we finally had Marvel movies worthy in scope of that storied company’s impressive legacy, I always found Maguire’s take a bit insipid, whiny and cloying. Yet, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, James Franco as Harry Osborn, JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and Alfred Molina (!) as Doctor Octopus? Sheer perfection.
Then, Andrew Garfield swung into the scene as Peter with Emma Stone in tow as Gwen Stacy in Marc Webb’s AmazingSpider-Man pair of films. I thought we’d found our perfect duo, as this real-life/onscreen couple brought a shambling, bumbling, shoe-gazing charm that got us closer to Peter’s time-tested place as the “never can win” anti-Archie Andrews of teen comicdom. The only problem was Garfield and Stone looked like 30-year-olds playing 16 again. We did get another great Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Sally Field and Martin Sheen respectively – I’m sensing a theme here. Maybe those are the roles to play!
Yowza, though, the latest incarnation Spider-Man: Homecoming – directed with gleeful anarchic surety by Jon Watts – gets it just right! The film stars a Peter Parker for the ages – British actor Tom Holland (Billy Elliot theMusical) – in a pitch perfect blend of winsome geekiness, outer New York boroughs cockiness, and sparkling Broadway dancer agility. This movie is an utter gem.
(What is happening Hollywood? Are you finally hitting your stride with these superhero flicks? Between this latest installment and June’s Wonder Woman, comic book movies have truly found their groove, embracing character and humor and fully leveraging the allegorical nature of these icons to celebrate our common humanity and to explore the dire need for compassion and heart in this little world of ours. And both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming feel like movies about, dare I say it, real people! I’ll take it.)
For years, the Spider-Man franchise was under sole license to Sony Pictures (in a deal struck in the late 90s before Marvel Studios as we know it now existed). The magic minds at Disney’s Marvel (chiefly president and creative visionary Kevin Feige) couldn’t get their hands on the web-slinger for their “shared universe” of movies that began with the crackerjack first Iron Man film. Oh, how times change. With the ongoing runaway success of Marvel Studios (and the relative box office disappointment of Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man series), the suits got to talking, a deal was struck, and Spidey made his first showstopping appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Holland’s brief screen time in that flick all but assured us fanboys that Hollywood finally was getting Ol’ Webhead completely right.
And they sure did. Spider-Man: Homecoming sets the bulk of its action in and around Peter’s unashamedly nerdy high school (Midtown School of Science and Technology) and his shaggy band of friends whose brains are their super power and for whom discovery and analysis and LEGOs and adventure and academic decathlons are waaaaycooler than football games and proms.
The film wisely eschews yet another retelling of Peter’s transformation origin story, and just dives right into the action with a quick recap (no pun intended) of Spider-Man’s involvement in the superhero tensions of Civil War, told of course from a starstruck Millennial’s POV as captured in shaky, grainy video snippets on Peter’s cell phone.
As sunny sweet as Peter’s world is, this is still a planet in pain, suffering the everyday strife of uncertainty that a costumed crusader battle won’t erupt overhead (nearly as worrisome as what a real-life president may Tweet at any given moment). And just as in our society, there are those who see opportunity in other’s distress.
[Image source: Wikipedia]
Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (“The Vulture”) whose failure as a legit contractor turns around when he starts stealing and repurposing debris from these superhero battles on the black market. His animosity (and covetousness) toward the one-percenters of the world is evident when he sneers at Robert Downey, Jr.’s visage on a TV screen, “A$$holes who made this mess [Stark’s Avengers] get paid to clean it up [Stark Enterprises’ subsidiary Damage Control].” No one does sad-sack country club-wannabe bitter middle-aged male contempt like Keaton, and this former Batman/Birdman (meta casting if there ever was any) is brilliant in this role. Oh, and, by the way, Keaton sports big scary robot wings … but this is a Marvel movie after all.
Inevitably, Spider-Man and the Vulture cross paths (and again … and again), with a number of dizzying aerial battles for the action junkies in the crowd. However, what makes their tension work is that both characters are outsiders, scrambling to prove their respective worth to a society that sees them as invisible. (Not to mention a final act twist that I did not see coming and that raises the stakes – and connection – between these two characters exponentially.)
Peter spends most of the film trying to reclaim Tony Stark’s attention, pretending to his fellow students that he has an “internship” with the famed entrepreneur when in reality he spends every night waiting by the phone in the hopes of getting “the call” to join Stark’s Avengers squad permanently. When his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan, an utter joy as Peter’s hyperventilating wingman) discovers Peter’s secret identity, he breathlessly inquires, “Are you an AVENGER?” Peter looks aside, with sadness in his eyes and embarrassment in his heart, replying, “Yeah … basically …” The film is rife with punchy/poignant character moments like that.
[Image source: Wikipedia]
So, when The Vulture and Spidey clash, it is from a narrative-driven conflict of needs and philosophies. Keaton’s Vulture keeps his criminal enterprise going to “stick it to the man,” to fund the lavish lifestyle to which he’s now become accustomed, and, thereby, to remind the world he is a force to be reckoned with – not to be tossed aside like the refuse he salvages.
Spider-Man, on the other hand, is certain that by stopping these schemes in their tracks, he will finally get the adulation and validation he desperately craves from Tony Stark and the mainstream superhero community. Each fight between The Vulture and Spider-Man is truly a fight for their lives.
That dramatic tension between Keaton and Holland powers the film but never overwhelms it. Admittedly, most of their fight sequences could have been trimmed by three-to-five minutes each, and the film would have been all the stronger for the cuts.
Ultimately, however, the heart and soul of the film is Peter Parker and his love of family and friends.
Marisa Tomei is dynamite as Aunt May (there we go again), never a victim but always cautious that New York isn’t the limitless playground Peter perceives it to be. Her crack comic timing wrapped in a gauze of May’s world-weary worry is the film’s most essential special effect. Anyone who still thinks her Oscar for My Counsin Vinny was in error can go take a long leap off a short pier.
Disney Channel alum Zendaya is a revelation as Peter’s acerbic pal Michelle, who sees through the gangly immaturity of her fellow academic decathletes to the potential greatness they offer. Michelle has never met a social cause she didn’t embrace. Her teacher/coach says to her, when she refuses to enter the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves, “Protesting is patriotic.” Damn straight.
And we get great character turns by Tyne Daly as a tough bureaucrat with a decent heart, Donald Glover as a tough hoodlum with an even kinder heart, and Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) as a not-so-tough bully with pretty much no heart at all. Revolori, in particular, is fun casting as Parker’s legendary rival Flash Thompson, typically depicted as a Nordic bruiser of a football player. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, he is portrayed by an actor of Guatemalan descent and serves as Parker’s chief competition on the academic decathlon team. Nice.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is, ultimately, a love letter to the American “melting pot.” All shapes and sizes – and ethnicities and races and ages and genders – of humanity are proudly on display, relentlessly pursuing their dreams and proudly challenging the status quo. That is what makes America great. And always has.
Oh, and this is a movie that makes a point to show Spider-Man going back to rescue a cat from a blazing convenience store. And to have Chris Evans channeling his adorably goofy comic side as a Captain America who makes earnest public service announcements against bullying in public schools. That’s my kind of America.
[Image source: Wikipedia]
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
“You view the world through a keyhole,” intones an eyebrow-less (and bald) Tilda Swinton (Trainwreck), as the Ancient One – yet another in her long-line of eyebrow-less fortune cookie-philosophizing androgyne Yoda-lite characters – in Marvel Studios’ latest offering Doctor Strange.
Let’s face it, her synthetic ethereality is a lock for movies like this. How she isn’t sitting beside Stan Lee (on a bus, in a plane, on a boat, in a car) for every single one of his corny, ubiquitous cameos in these Marvel flicks is beyond me.
The recipient of her philosophical guidance in the film is one Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game,August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into Darkness), every bit her interplanetary match in the wide-eyed, chiseled-cheek-boned, glacial-foreheaded race for cinematic space alien beauty. Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, an egomaniac neurosurgeon whose egomania is totally justified by his remarkable skills in the operating room. Cumberbatch’s Strange wisely takes a page or two from the Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark “charming spoiled cad” playbook, layering in a welcome dollop or two of dyspepsia, contempt, and petulance.
As in any fairy tale … er … Marvel movie, our hero has a tragic flaw: Strange is a jerk.
He’s punished for it: while driving his fancy sports car like an entitled and distracted prat, Strange finds his elegant surgeon hands crunched to paste in a grinding car accident.
He seeks redemption: under the tutelage of Swinton’s Ancient One, he learns some gobbledygook about not letting fear hold one back, realizing that what gets one here won’t get one there, and identifying who might have moved one’s cheese … or something that sounded vaguely like the counsel of a bad business self-help book one might be forced to read in an MBA class.
AND, voila!, he gains magical superpowers (plus, a nifty cape that behaves a bit like the mischievous, yet helpful, mice in Cinderella).
It’s all great fun with just the right touch of solemnity – the latter, no doubt, chiefly a contribution of the one-note, award-winning Brit gravitas that Swinton and Cumberbatch bring to everything they do. Director Scott Derrickson has cast the film exceedingly well. We also have Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) as Strange’s medical peer, confidante, and, yes, sometimes girlfriend (we can’t have everything). McAdams brings spark and wit, fire and intelligence, elevating Strange’s backstory in a compelling and heartfelt way. Mads Mikkelson (who seems consigned to always have black or bloody tears emanating from his unearthly peepers – see: LeChiffre in Casino Royale) is capably understated as Strange’s villainous foil Kaecilius. Benedict Wong (The Martian) delivers wry comic timing as Strange’s tutor/librarian/sidekick Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) successfully counterbalances Wong with ambivalent notes of resentful admiration toward Strange as friend/rival Mordo, foreshadowing intriguing future conflict.
Strange is visually sumptuous, taking the MC Escher stylings of Inception or Interstellar, losing the ponderous Christopher Nolan self-righteous self-aggrandizement, and amping up the kaleidoscopic fun. Skyscraper-lined city blocks fold upon themselves like origami; mirror images bend and twist and deceive; entire galaxies devolve into motes of dust. This movie is trippy, playfully updating, for the Millennial crowd, gonzo artist Steve Ditko’s 1960s psychedelic visuals of Doctor Strange’s original four-color adventures. Like Marvel’s recent Ant-Man, Doctor Strange succeeds by embracing the free-wheeling whimsy in its source material, but grounding the proceedings (and its audience) in our common humanity and the very real consequences of our bad judgment.
I have a confession to make. For the past month or maybe longer, I have not much felt like writing. Or had much interest in seeing movies for that matter. The results of our recent election (not to my liking) have thrown me for a bit of a loop. Additionally (and from a completely selfish perspective), in the past few weeks, I’ve had some heartbreak in my theatre life, we have had some of the mind-numbing/back-breaking “Money Pit” unforeseen distractions that all of us share as middle-aged homeowners, and I find myself looking down the barrel of an impending holiday season that (any more) seems to bring more mania than holly jolly.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Yet, I keep thinking about that line from Swinton’s Ancient One character. Albeit cliched, the line is spot on (as cliches often are): we do view the world through a keyhole, a self-constructed self-pitying sliver of perspective, forcing us to lose the moment and live out-of-sync with our loved ones, with our surroundings, and with ourselves. That is the magic of loud, plastic, silly, allegorical movies like this. Every fable has its very important lesson, and we should never be too old to listen.
Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?
Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier – director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.
Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.
More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.
Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.
Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.
The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.
So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.
It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).
There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.
I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”
The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted by Hollywood a lot. In the next two years alone, we have two live action adaptations on the way, including Disney’s just-released remake of its own 1960s animated offering. There were versions made in the 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, on television, live-action, animated, on and on. Even characters like Tarzan (and those countless adaptations and homages and rip-offs – hello, “George of the Jungle”) likely owe a debt to Kipling’s seminal work about a “man-cub” named Mowgli who is raised by wolves and finds himself at the crossroads of an animal culture war over who the true “king of the jungle” should be.
Like Kipling’s Just So Stories (which I actually prefer), the original format of The Jungle Book (and its sequel) is a series of allegorical tales, recounting Mowgli’s adventures, with anthropomorphic animals serving as avatars for the highs and lows of human culture (e.g. greed, pride, sloth, bravery, compassion, etc.). It is unsurprising, then, that the Mouse House, with its long history of invoking the innocence of our animal friends to teach kid life lessons (see: Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) would return to Kipling’s rich well time and again. (And the merchandising possibilities ain’t half bad either.)
I have to admit that I’m one of few people on the planet who just isn’t that terribly gaga over the Disney animated classic. The Sherman Brothers’ score isn’t as iconic as you might think – really, can you remember more than 2.5 songs from it? “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and … maybe “Trust In Me” (the latter standing out mostly because of Sterling Holloway’s trademark lateral lisp sibilant “ess” sounds). The animation is that regrettably flat Hanna-Barbera-esque style into which Disney fell from the late 60s to the early 80s. And the whole enterprise just seems clunkily episodic and ends on a weirdly dour and kinda creepy note about Mowgli’s burgeoning sexuality. Ewww.
That said, I’m happy to note that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man), while treating the source material and the beloved animated film with reverence, deftly course-corrects for a modern audience. The look of this remake is beyond lush. Building upon the remarkable CGI animal work of The Life of Pi, Favreau’s team gives us a fully realized jungle, teeming with gorgeously rendered, remarkably expressive creatures. He pulls shy of the kind of pandering “kid humor” we typically see in children’s films these days, though I got weary of hearing the word “cool” bandied about, as it was more jarring than inclusive. (Sorry, I can be a snob about stuff like that.)
I’ve been hot and cold over the wave of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings to date (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella), but this one gets it right. To this point, there has been a strange reticence to fully embrace the classic musical numbers associated with these films’ animated inspirations. Favreau cleverly sidesteps that issue, incorporating the aforementioned three numbers (the ones we actually remember) as spoken/sung interludes that flow naturally from the character set-ups and ditching the remaining numbers that would just be goofy and forced. As Baloo is about to launch into signature ditty “Bare Necessities,” he takes a meta-swipe at Mowgli’s assertion that a pledge chanted by the wolves earlier in the film was music: “That’s not a song. That’s propaganda.”
(The three songs – “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Trust In Me” – also make repeat appearances during one of the most intricate and beautiful end-credits sequences I can recall in ages. You must stick around for them – highly entertaining and a lovely recap celebration of the film you’ve just viewed. Good for Favreau – that is a lost art in Hollywood these days.)
The voice casting is spot on with Bill Murray (a lower-key “Baloo” than Phil Silvers’), Ben Kingsley (his “Bagheera”sounding more Daniel-Craig-tough-guy than a typical Kingsley performance), Idris Elba (a hauntingly ominous “Shere Khan”), Lupita Nyong’o (deeply affecting as Mowgli’s wolf mother “Raksha”), Scarlett Johansson (an ethereal “Kaa”), Giancarlo Esposito (a militant “Akela”) and Christopher Walken (being full-creepy-a**-Walken as “King Louie”). Newcomer Neel Sethi is decent as Mowgli, mostly avoiding the adorable ragamuffin traps of the role but totally missing any of the feral survivalism that could have made for a truly transformative experience. Favreau does such a fabulous job immersing his audience in a layered world where wild kingdom danger lurks around every corner that Sethi’s day-at-the-mall pluck just didn’t quite complete the cinematic thought.
Favreau uses The Jungle Book‘s allegorical roots as a means of combating bullying in all its modern day forms. We live in a world where wannabe statesmen wag fingers, brutishly bloviate, and compare hand sizes; where school children bring semi-automatic rifles into the cafeteria and politicians fall all over themselves defending that “right” (such a funny choice of word); where gender, age, race, sexuality, class, species become an open invitation for hate and derision and alienation, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross (with apologies to Sinclair Lewis). Favreau’s film is much less overtly political than those words might suggest, but just as Kipling used his stories to teach children lessons of kindness and acceptance, bravery and tolerance, Favreau (like Disney’s recent hit Zootopia) is challenging the kids (and parents) in his audience to question their preconceptions and break apart the artificial boundaries separating us.
To that end, Favreau jettisons the original ending of Disney’s animated version (no doe-eyed potential paramour carrying a bucket of water this time), offering instead a tableau of an animal kingdom united against their oppressor(s). Early in the film, Akela asks, “How many lives is one man-cub worth?” How many indeed.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: don’t buy tickets to some superhero extravaganza 18 months in advance on the promise of a state-of-the-art immersive experience in the four-color world of funny book lore.
‘Cause a year and a half later, that magical cape-and-spandex fever dream to be? It’s basically Spider-Man Ice Capades … without the ice.
That about sums up the arena-touring Marvel Universe Live! which we had the misfortune of taking in this afternoon at The Palace of Auburn Hills, alongside a lot of gobsmacked kids and their grimacing mothers and fathers.
Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines
Seriously, if we escape this experience unscathed from the stomach flu or an ear infection, it will be a minor miracle.
The show runs under two hours, including an interminable 25 minute intermission, designed chiefly for parents to empty their wallets at the carny-esque merchandise carts clogging nearly every aisle. It is a Disney enterprise after all.
Oh, what have we done …
The plot, or what passes for one, is a hodgepodge of elements cribbed from a decade’s worth of Marvel movies (Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) and a bit or two from the comics (those characters like X-Men or Spider-Man for whom Disney doesn’t necessarily hold the movie rights in Mickey’s four-fingered paw).
The Avengers, or a loose confederation of badly costumed heroes bearing a passing resemblance to said superhero team, are chasing down bits of that damned Tesseract (“Cosmic Cube”) – the boring MacGuffin that has dominated Disney/Marvel’s film output: a glowing device that gets chopped up in a million bits which, if brought back together, will let any number of bad-deed-doers take over the world, monologue an lot, and shake their scaly fists at the sky.
Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.
The show is an enterprise intended for kids, so I should just stop being a jackass and note that, for any child under 10, it will be the. best. freaking. thing. they. have. ever. seen. (I was heartened to see as many girls as boys in the audience, possibly indicating a break in the Disney Princess stranglehold on post-millennial prepubescent gender identity? We can only hope.)
There are motorcycle and aerial stunts aplenty with enough pyrotechnics to make a vintage Van Halen fan weep. The dialogue (the program actually lists a team of writers on this thing, and surprisingly not 18 monkeys in a room of keyboards) is phoned in from somewhere left of the moon, as the poor souls playing these comic book icons are required to lip sync every line. And I thought Britney Spears had it bad … and that ain’t good.
Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death
The costumes are pretty hit or miss. Some folks, like big bad Asgardian Loki, are almost note-perfect, while others, like Wolverine, look like they were garbed in leftovers fished from the remainder bin at Halloween City.
Believe it or not, the show has its standout performers (though for all intents and purposes, the actors remain nameless/faceless entities).
Spider-Man is a hoot, assigned the zippiest quips (not saying much) and imbued with an acrobatic whimsy that comes as a welcome relief from all the paper-doll posturing on-stage. Captain America is a delight as well, with some great stunt work and a bit of the light comedy his eponymous films wring from Cap’s anachronistic circumstances.
Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin
For the true comic nerds in audience? For middle-aged people, like yours truly, who have no business going to a show like this, at least without the cover-story of dragging a niece or nephew or random neighbor kid grudgingly along?
Finale … thank heavens
Well, for geeks like us, the joys are limited. You get to see some random fan-favorite characters like Captain Marvel, Black Cat, assorted AIM Agents (with those silly beekeeper outfits), and Madame Hydra in the flesh, and there are some nifty items in the merchandise booth (the program with commemorative comic book and a few of the shirts are keepers). Otherwise, just stay home, save your moolah, and revisit your old super-favorites the way we always have … by reading.
Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming
So, for us comic book nerds, the fact that an “Ant-Man” film even exists is a remarkable achievement. If you’d asked me at age 11 – the absolute peak of my superhero, four-color mania – whether I could envision a day when a character this seemingly obscure to mainstream America would one day get the big budget blockbuster treatment by no less than the Walt Disney Company (by way of Marvel Studios), I would have passed out in a fit of hyperventilating giggles.
Well, geeks do grow up. And make movies, apparently.
So how does Ant-Man, Marvel Studios’ latest cinematic installment (number 12 in the official “Marvel Cinematic Universe” which began with Iron Man), fare with this now-middle-aged, possibly-more-jaded, arguably-cape-and-spandex-fatigued comic fanatic?
Blessedly, its off-kilter quirks ultimately outstrip its more pedestrian corporate intentions, culminating in a zippy fourth-act that marries Marvel’s trademark frat boy jollies with a more subversively refreshing sense of play.
So, said with less pretension, I (more or less) dug it.
The film began life in the hands of celluloid anarchist Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) who eventually walked away from the picture, no doubt when the oppressive merchandising hounds at Disney likely felt things were getting too gleefully weird. In stepped director Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down with Love – wtf?!?) and screenwriter Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) to bring the film to completion.
Strangely, what we all predicted would be a stylistic train-wreck works better than it should. The bro culture of McKay, the TV-movie pacing of Reed, and the middle-finger-to-the-sky of Wright have yielded the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of superhero films: a little salty, a little sweet, utterly predictable, and pleasantly forgettable.
For the uninitiated, Ant-Man is a character from the early days of Marvel Comics, and his claim to fame (other than being one of the founding members of The Avengers) is that he can shrink to microscopic size and command an army of friendly ants to do his bidding. Now if that isn’t a natural fit for a multi-million-dollar motion picture, what is?
Fortunately, Wright was savvy enough to cast Paul Rudd in the lead role, Rudd’s shaggy dog Gen X entropy having calcified in his 40s into chiseled leading man cynicism and loopy dyspepsia. Rudd’s skewed charms work beautifully in this minor epic, stitching together the otherwise meandering script and giving the proceedings a wide-eyed, mischievous sparkle.
The film is less save-the-planet-from-obliteration (though no film in the genre can totally escape that cliched trope) as it is bonkers heist film. Rudd’s Scott Lang, recently released from prison on a burglary conviction, falls back into old (bad) habits in the hopes of catching up on child-support payments for his estranged daughter. Lang’s ex-wife, portrayed by Judy Greer (again, criminally underused in a big budget tent-pole), is playing house with a cop (Bobby Cannavale – why is this ham still cast in anything?), and Lang takes up with his old gang of misfit toys (led by a preciously addled Michael Pena) to try to set things right.
Eventually, their hijinks lead them to scientist Henry Pym (Michael Douglas being all Michael Douglas-y … boring) and his daughter Hope (a luminous – but tragically bewigged – Evangeline Lilly). Y’see, back in the day, Pym invented the Ant-Man suit to fight big, bad Russkies in the Cold War (or something); Lang steals the suit to make a quick buck (’cause Pym secretly wants him to … of course); and then they all set out together to defeat the real big bad Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, all meaty, glistening sleaze), Pym’s former protege who has taken over Pym’s company and wants to make teeny tiny super soldiers to take over the world.
Good googly wooglies, that is a convoluted plot to try to synopsize. Definitely a script written by a schizophrenically focus-grouped committee.
Regardless, there is more goodhearted fun in any five minutes of Ant-Man than in the entire bloated excess of Avengers: Age of Ultron (a film, by the way, which I didn’t hate … but I don’t remember liking very much three months later either). Ant-Man‘s cast (with the exception of Douglas who just comes off stiff and constipated) is all loose-limbed fun, reveling in a succession of tart and tasty character moments and never taking one damn bit of it too seriously.
The film ends with a Tex Avery high-wire-act of a fight sequence, mining all the comic tension possible from having a hero (and antagonist) who can hide among carpet fibers. You will never look at Thomas the Tank Engine the same way ever again. I only wish the filmmakers (any and all of them) had been so creative, so brave for the entirety of the film. Maybe the next set of Marvel Studio focus groups can offer that feedback for the inevitable sequel(s).
Avengers: Age of Ultron is all you might hope it should be. And that’s part of its problem.
I feel in writing this review that I may as well be discussing a plate of really fabulous spaghetti: so much tasty sameness, so many empty carbs, no discernible beginning/middle/end, satisfying a craving that I didn’t know I had, leaving me a bit bloated … and yet I will happily eat it again after my sense-memory has recovered.
Joss Whedon, beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer architect and director of the first Avengers, returns to helm this sequel. This will be blasphemy to some of my geek brethren, but Whedon is no auteur. (I hold out hope that Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors The Russo Brothers will be the ones who finally deliver The Godfather of superhero genre flicks. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was close but a bit too pompously high-falutin’ for my tastes.) Whedon carries an episodic TV sensibility to his film projects. And that’s ok, but, once you’re aware that he seems to work in 28-minute long “beats,” you start to feel the clock ticking.
And, wowzers, does the clock tick with Ultron. With trailers (and the need to get there so early that you aren’t sitting on the front row gazing up Chris Hemsworth’s flaring Asgardian nostrils), your rear is in a theatre seat nearly three hours. The film is straining at the seams with just so much Marvel muchness that you wonder if a cleaner, clearer narrative had been focus-grouped into this orgiastic merchandising hydra by the good folks at Disney.
Regardless, the film offers much to delight both comic book loons like myself and the average Marvel moviegoer who doesn’t know Ant-Man from an ant, man. (Sorry.)
Whedon wisely knows that the audience for these cinematic beasts adores brightly-lit four-color action peppered with jazzy comic asides and a healthy dose of soap-opera-lite character beats. He also (with the help of super-producer Kevin Feige, who really should be in the movie marketing hall-of-fame at this point) realizes that the perfect ensemble, gifted with acting chops that exceed the material but with a keen sense of wit and gratitude to enjoy the ride anyway, turns a workmanlike summer blockbuster transcendent.
Mark Ruffalo continues to steal the show as beautiful loser Bruce Banner (Hulk), with just the right hint of Bill Bixby’s gloom married to his own shaggy twinkle. Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) gives as good as she gets in her cat-and-mouse flirtation with Ruffalo, and, while I’m sure most of the audience was squirming/snoozing as they awaited the next CGI-encrusted battle sequence, I really enjoyed those quieter moments.
Similarly, Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), who came off as a glowering dullard in previous installments, really gets a chance to exercise his comedic action chops and soulful humanity. I won’t spoil the cinematically invented back-story they layer on Hawkeye, but this fanboy for one was a fan of the fairly significant change the filmmakers made from long-standing comic canon. Hawkeye suddenly becomes the heart and soul of a franchise that hitherto kept him far on the periphery.
The rest of the cast is solid and fun as expected. Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Hemsworth (Thor), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man) are frothy delights, offering as much banter this time as they do alpha-male action. Downey is blessedly restrained, offering a hint of unintentionally gleeful malice – an ominous note of what may yet come to the franchise. He is counter-balanced nicely by Evans who telegraphs the audience’s own mounting anxiety over a planet that is quickly becoming overstuffed with people/creatures/beings with too many abilities/too few ethics.
Newcomers include twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who weirdly enough played spouses in last year’s Godzilla reboot) and The Vision (Paul Bettany). They are all fine in rather under-written, slightly confusing roles. While it’s fun to see these Marvel legends in the flesh, they really weren’t necessary and detracted from the other characters we’ve come to know and love. This is the danger with all of these comic book movies – how do you keep the nerds (myself included) happy and sell lots of toys without devolving into carnival kitsch? The film skates a fine line and nearly goes over the edge.
Finally, though, this Marvel entry gets its villain so very right (not unlike the oily charisma of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki). Ultron, as voiced by slippery eel James Spader (I’m starting to wonder if Marvel films are where all smart aleck ex-Brat Packers go to die?), is frightening, ominous, charming, and essential. He intones early in the film, “How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t eeeeevooooolve.” (Darn right, brother – I need that needle-pointed on a pillow, stat).
Of course, robotic overlord that he is, Ultron – created by Stark himself as a means of creating “lasting peace” – asserts that the only logical way to create lasting peace is to render all of humanity extinct. Now there is an allegory for our fractious times. I won’t spoil the adventure on how he gets there (I’m not even totally sure I followed all the muddled machinations myself), but I got quite a perverse kick from Spader’s Ultron and his well-intentioned sociopathy.
(I should have never admitted that last bit, I suppose? Maybe Marvel will need someone to play the villain in their next summer opus? Sign me up!)
Go to Avengers: Age of Ultron for the Marvel-fied comfort food … but stay for the dark bon-bon (Spader) at the film’s anarchic core.