Blog Archives

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The surprise surge of the Oscar season is a German-language remake of the 1929 Best Picture winner, and after watching all 140 minutes, it’s easy to see how it would have made such an impact with modern  Academy voters. All Quiet on the Western Front is still a relevant story even more than 100 years after its events. It’s a shattering anti-war movie that continuously and furiously reminds you what a terrible waste of life that four-year battle over meters of territory turned out to be, claiming over 17 million casualties. I’ve read the 1928 German novel by Erich Remarque and the new movie is faithful in spirit and still breathes new life into an old story. We follow idealistic young men eager to experience the glory of war and quickly learn that the horror of modern combat isn’t so glorious. There are sequences in this movie that are stunning, like following the history of a coat from being lifted off a dead soldier in the muck, to being reworked at a seamstress station, to being commissioned to a new recruit who questions why someone else’s name is in his jacket. It’s a simple yet evocative moment that sells the despairing reality. The movie doesn’t skimp on carnage as well, as long stretches will often play out like a horror movie where you’ll fear the monsters awaiting in the smoke and that nowhere is safe for long. And yet, where the movie hits the hardest isn’t depicting the trenchant terror but with the little pieces of humanity that shine through the darkness. There’s a small moment in a crater shared by two enemies where one of them is dying, and these final moments of recognizing the same beleaguered helpless and frightened humanity of “their enemy” are poignant. Make no mistake, All Quiet is a condemnation on the systems of war where old pompous generals send young men to needlessly die for outdated and absurd reasons like the concept of “maintaining national honor.” A significant new subplot involves Daniel Bruhl (Captain America: Civil War) as a representative of the German government trying to negotiate an armistice when the French representatives are looking for punishment. It allows us to take a larger view of the politics that doomed so many and laying the foundation for so many more doomed lives. The ending of this movie is a nihilist gut punch. The production values are impressive and elevate the artistry of every moment. The sound design is terrific, the cinematography is alternatingly beautiful and horrifying, and the production design is startlingly detailed and authentic; it’s easy to see how this movie could have earned nine Oscar nominations. All Quiet on the Western Front is a warning, a eulogy, and a powerful reminder that even older stories can still be relevant and resonant.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Violent Night (2022)

The movie might feel like a late night joke, but Violent Night is everything you could ask for with its Santa-meets-Die Hard concept as a bloody, junky fun bit of Christmas good tidings. I’ve noticed that 2022 is a year marked by highly violent, pulpy, well choreographed action-comedies such as The Princess and Bullet Train, and I think if you like any one of them, then you’d happily enjoy the others. For Violent Night, the movie smartly lays out its rules and limits and obstacles, and then allows the mayhem. Santa (David Harbour) is an alcoholic nihilist losing faith in the meaning of Christmas, and then through the events of one Christmas night, he’ll re-emerge as the Santa we deserve and need. The movie isn’t overly winky about its outlandish premise with the exception of some ironic catch-phrases that Santa has to drop for maximum attitude. The fights between Santa and the criminal crew are entertaining, well shot and choreographed, and make clever use of supernatural touches, like Santa’s magic portal presents bag and his list that can supply key details on any human. There is a sweet dynamic between Santa and a little girl named Trudy, who chats with Santa through a walkie talkie thanks to the power of belief. She’s the heart of the movie and helps motivate Santa to do better and save her family. The supporting characters are pretty stock and unremarkable but the draw of this movie is Harbour (Stranger Things) and the silly pomposity of its violence. It’s a gory, glory good time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Until just the other day, I had never seen Top Gun. Growing up in the 80s into the 90s, I was familiar with the film as it was a staple in friends’ homes, as was the lousy Nintendo video game, and one of the major pillars of Tom Cruise becoming a superstar, but I was too young when it came out and then it got buried behind other movies I always intended to catch up with. Honestly, as I got older, I just didn’t have much interest in rote military thrillers the likes of Tom Clancy (I dub them “dad movies,” as they’re my father’s long-standing Clancy-loving preference). Then came the 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, and it became Cruise’s highest-grossing movie of his blockbuster career and the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time. I’m probably one of the last few people on the planet to finally catch Maverick and I’m a little befuddled what made this movie as highly praised, to the point where it’s a given it will be nominated for Best Film awards and even stands as populist chance of winning. Maverick is a perfectly enjoyable action movie with satisfying character arcs. It’s an example of what big-budget moviemaking can accomplish when the right artists are aligned. However, let’s not start jumping on any couches and going nuts here. It’s a solid sequel elevated by a great finish.

We follow Maverick, a.k.a. Pete Mitchell (Cruise), as he’s tasked with training the next generation of top guns for a very specific, highly dangerous aerial assault mission to take out a foreign nuclear arms lab. The big issue is that one of these pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller), is the son of Maverick’s former wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in the 1986 original movie. Mav has been denying Rooster senior-level opportunities out of fear of being responsible for the death of father and son, but Rooster will not be ignored and denied, and they’ll square their feelings of guilt and resentment over the course of this impossible mission.

I can see why this movie would be successful. It plops our older hero down in a teaching role which allows the satisfying arc of building a team, gaining his own feet as a teacher, and the two-way transmission of respect. It’s a formula that works. We watch the younger pilots grow and become more capable, we watch Maverick settle into a natural teaching role, reaching out to others, and we also watch him and his team stick it to the naysaying Naval authority with every victory. It’s all there and developed with enough precision by screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Singer Warren, and Cruise-lifeline Christopher McQuarrie to operate smoothly. In the 1986 movie, we had hotshot pilot Maverick learning personal responsibility and teamwork, though much of that original movie was preoccupied with so… many… characters telling young Mav how gosh darn special he really is and how the U.S. Navy needs him so bad. The emotional reconciliation also works between Maverick and Rooster (I guess the name and the mustache are affectionate odes to dear deceased dad) and serves as an effective emotional foundation for old fans and new. The drama works and the legacy elements and cameos feel better incorporated, though the “Great Balls of Fire” piano bar singalong was awkwardly forced nostalgia bait. The romance with Jennifer Connelly’s single mother barmaid even feels a little wiser and more honest rather than setting her up as a good-looking woman cheering our hero onward. Nobody’s going to leave the film citing the prerequisite love story as their favorite part, but it’s at least more thoughtful and less tacked-on than I was dreading. For all these reasons, Top Gun: Maverick has the tools to succeed as a sequel that can transcend its initial nostalgic fandom.

Where the movie really takes flight is in its action photography and the final act. Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Spiderhead) filmed the aerial sequences with IMAX cameras and the in-cockpit perspectives make the action far more immersive and thrilling. The actors were charged with being their own camera operators while flying in their planes, so Kosinski would wait on the ground and then review the footage and then send the actors back up in the air for further takes. It’s a painstaking process, made more so by Cruise’s obsessive insistence on making things as real as possible, and it pays off remarkably. The dazzling footage within the cockpits as they swoop and swerve has an exciting verisimilitude that can’t be replicated by computer effects. The dogfights are easy to understand and follow thanks to the careful visual orientation from Kosinski, smooth editing that doesn’t become jumbly, and clearly stated goals and mini goals within the mission training (McQuarrie is so good at this stuff). It made me wish that they never got out of the air. It also made me envious of the grandiose IMAX presentation.

It’s the final act that really seals the deal from an entertainment standpoint. The team tackles their mission at the 90-minute mark, and it’s thrilling and everything you’d want in an action set piece. The way the mission is structured in well-defined pieces working in tandem reminded me of the Mission: Impossible franchise during its 2010s swing into becoming the best studio action franchise. It makes for a satisfying and thrilling conclusion, and it’s not a real spoiler to say that the team of underdogs defies the great odds and succeeds, but then the movie surprised me. There was still twenty minutes left, and Top Gun: Maverick says, “Oh, you think we’re done? We’re not going to just give you a good climax, we’re going to give you a buffet of action peaks, each somehow elevating the movie even higher while still working with the established character arcs.” It is a feat of deft studio action construction. After the mission, there’s a personal behind-enemy-lines rescue and escape that literally hinges upon a recognition of nostalgia as intrinsic value. I won’t explain the exact particulars, but the characters literally survive relying upon the devices and training of old, surely a reassuring nod to the older generation audience members. It’s like the movie has taken Cruise’s penchant for showmanship to heart and wants to give you everything it can. The results are a good action movie flying off the charts by the end with a fantastic finish.

Still, it’s hard for me to join the cheering masses declaring Top Gun: Maverick as one of the best films of recent years. It’s slickly made, solid in its storytelling and emotional foundation to produce satisfaction, and it’s filmed with visual panache from its commitment to practical effects and realism. The final act is a fabulous sendoff that shows the heights of blockbuster popcorn cinema. Maverick is without a doubt the superior Top Gun movie. The original had its own sense of style from director Tony Scott, one that became synonymous as the visual vocabulary of Hollywood military thrillers for decades. It’s also hard to watch the movie in 2022 and not see the dozens and dozens of imitators that came after, making the movie feel less enticing and more simply the progenitor of a genre formula that isn’t my favorite to begin with. Maverick improves in every way and sheds the worries of being a late-sequel nostalgic cash-grab. It’s a good and effective movie with a rousing and uncommon finish, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe people are looking for something that feels like comfort food done right, and I suppose that could be Top Gun: Maverick for many, as the box-office numbers would chiefly indicate. I might not be in its inner fandom but I can see what others would celebrate, even if I do less.

Nate’s Grade: B+

RRR (2022)

The Indian film sensation that has converted millions across the world has one new convert: me. I’ve been hearing about RRR all year and how outlandish it is, how wild and audacious this three-hour action historical musical can be, and that it’s a celebration of the exuberant possibilities of film, and to every part of that sentence I pump my fist and declare an enthusiastic yes. Think of it as a superhero movie that also happens to be a musical. RRR is set in 1920s India and follows two real-life figures central to India’s independence from Britain. Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Alluri Sitarami Raju (Ram Cgaran Teja) never met in real life, but the movie makes them not just enemies but also the best of friends. Both men are set on a collision course, with Bheem searching for his little sister who was kidnapped into the big city by the British governor (Ray Stevenson), and Raju is working his way through the ranks of the British police and searching to arrest Bheem. What might get in the way is the greatest bromance in years, as these guys don’t just like one another, they will swear their undying allegiance and love for the other. Raju helps his BFF talk to a nice British girl he is crushing on, and he even helps Bheem by leading a dance off between hilariously haughty British elites. That “Naacho Naacho” dance is a shot of pure joy and encapsulates the movie: it’s frantic, frenetic, overpowering, and purely genuine. There isn’t a hint of irony in any of the overzealous 186 minutes here. The lead characters act like super powered gods, or burst into song and dance, complete with cover-worthy poses, but at no point does the movie want you to laugh at it; it wants you to get on board and enjoy how perfectly crazy the movie is. It took me about an hour, but I was won over completely by RRR. There is a man getting whipped who moves the crowd into a revolutionary mob through the power of his song. There’s a guy throwing a leopard at another man’s head. A man kicks a running motorcycle into the air and then uses it as a projectile. It’s got spectacular action with more style than a hundred Hollywood movies. The action is so well choreographed and clear to understand that it’s immensely gratifying to watch. The extravagant wire work adds to the grandiose mythic nature of the movie. The arc that Raju has is more compelling and satisfying than many in even American indies. Not only are these gents buff as hell, and effortlessly charming, but they can and will dance circles around the competition. I won’t pretend I have a deep knowledge of Indian cinema but this seems like an excellent entry for many Western fans to explore the stylistic heights of Indian cinema. This is a wild romp with cheer-worthy heroes, a bromance for the ages, and villains you can’t wait to topple. RRR is a bit exhausting by the end but I was never bored during its different tonal shifts. It might not be the best movie of the year but it’s certainly going to be the most movie you’ll get in 2022.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Emancipation (2022)

There is a question with every new movie depicting the Holocaust or slavery or some other horror of the past, why do we need this still? It’s a suitable question but one that rests upon the fleeting assumption of history being settled upon. “We all agree slavery was bad,” some opponent might say, “So why do we need another movie to convince us what we already know?” One need only look at the last couple years and the diverging controversies over teachers covering the ills of America’s past with clarity, and it’s clear that the idea of settled-upon history is an illusion. There will be people arguing slavery wasn’t as bad as history has perpetuated, that even the Irish experienced something similar as indentured servants (but they were still legally viewed as people). Some will erroneously argue that slaves were there by choice, or that their masters weren’t all cruel, and that even by having a roof over their head and the bare minimum for sustenance that they were “looked after.” There are battles happening all over the country, with one side trying to present the evils of slavery in an unvarnished manner and the other trying to obfuscate, mitigate, or distract from the facts because accepting a reality that your country has made mistakes somehow means being unpatriotic or loving your country considerably less. So to answer the question, as long as we have others denying history for political expediency, then yes, we need more media to remind us that the horrors of the past were indeed horrific. With that in mind, Emancipation is meant to be a rousing spectacle about one man’s incredible fight for freedom, but what it really comes across is a fumbling awards movie as awkward action movie.

Peter (Will Smith), or known as Gordon, is separated from his family and forced to work on the Confederate railroad in 1863 Louisiana. He hears about President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves and believes if he can just get to a Union camp, then he can return to his family. Peter fights back and escapes into the swamps and heads for Baton Rouge, a five-day journey. On his trail is the dangerous slave catcher Jim Fassell (Ben Foster), who will stop at nothing to secure Perter and prove his racial superiority to his fugitive.

There are two competing impulses running through Emancipation that never seem to coalesce, always pulling the movie in opposite directions or at least undercutting its value in entertainment or substance. On the surface, Emancipation looks like an awards-ready spotlight. It’s got Will Smith playing a real-life historical figure who suffered greatly but triumphed in the end, a man whose image lives on in our history books (well, depending upon your state) and contributed to the abolitionist movement. He was a real person who made a real difference during a tumultuous time. I get a strong sense that Smith was following the 2015 template of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant for this project, and especially the Academy-friendly model of physical torment equaling Oscar gold as it did for Leo. It’s hard not to feel like the movie was formulated as an awards gamble, that sizing up all the elements, Smith saw a fast track back to the Oscars (this was in production before Smith did win his first acting Oscar for 2021’s King Richard). Naturally, Smith isn’t the first person to select Oscar-friendly roles for the purpose of earning some serious acting trophies. Nor should he be inordinately penalized for that ambition. All that matters is the end result, and it’s there where Emancipation struggles with its own identity crisis and where its transparency becomes a hindrance.

This movie wants to be a substantive drama that can enlighten us about the perseverance of the human spirit, and for the first thirty minutes Emancipation feels honed from the likes of 12 Years a Slave. Then at the Act One break, Peter and several other slaves break free, and from there the story becomes a tense chase movie for an hour, only to conclude its final half hour as a war movie akin to Glory. It’s a tonal balancing act that doesn’t quite work. I was interested in the first 30 minutes, which establishes the brutality of slavery in a way that feels empathetic but tasteful. It’s a question whether or not historical horrors should be watered down, made palpable to a wider audience, and if in doing so dilutes the power of history, but that’s another debate. When the movie becomes an elongated chase sequence is where my patience began to wane. This is where director Antoine Fuqua really seems to settle in, playing into his background of action movies (Training Day, The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen, The Magnificent Seven). Fuqua’s instincts are for action movies, and that’s what Emancipation becomes, but it so clearly wants to also be Something More and doesn’t quite accumulate into that. The Revenant stretch is reliant upon episodic survival and the final half hour is about a war charge. I suppose one can be generous and say that Peter’s canny survival skills are overt characterization, or that the environmental threats are representative of a larger hostile world, but the action movie parts were pretty to look at but also emotionally inert for me.

I considered the lead character in 12 Years a Slave to be the least interesting person in his own story, but the movie found plenty of space for more immediately compelling figures. Not so with Emancipation, as once Peter goes on the run, it feels like overall characterization is put on hold. Smith is perfectly reasonable as a determined and dehumanized individual pushing back against the monstrosity of slavery, restricting much of his performance to the physical realm. The sheer intensity of his eyes can convey plenty that the script characterization lacks. Smith lowers his voice modulation, adopts an inconsistent Haitian accent, and gives a rather subdued performance given the sensational material. I think it’s because the film is geared more as an action movie rather than as an in-depth character study, so when we’re left with the characters, their limitations emerge.

This paucity also extends to the supporting characters. At first I thought that Charmaine Bingwa (The Good Fight) was going to be relegated as the suffering wife for our protagonist to get home, but then the movie keeps cutting back to her like she’s having prophetic dreams. What is happening here? The check-ins with Peter’s wife all deliver the same obvious information, namely his family misses him. This woman doesn’t even get a storyline of her own in the meantime, a conflict to overcome to keep her family out of further harm in the absence of Peter. The biggest supporting character is the villain, and even he is boring. Foster made a name for himself playing psychopaths in late 2000s cinema and has matured with more nuanced roles in The Messenger, Hell or High Water, and Leave No Trace. He’s one of our best actors, and yet he’s given so little here. His slave catcher gets a monologue that’s meant to provide insight into his admiration for the intelligence of black people. I kept waiting for something more with this guy to define him beyond a stock racist. I guess maybe the movie is saying he’s not as racist because he begrudgingly concedes that slaves aren’t stupid, but he’s still massacring them, so it feels like a minimal distinction of character. He also gets defeated in such an anticlimactic manner. If he’s only a stock villain, at least give us the thrill of defeating him.

The cinematography by Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is at once gorgeous and also confounding. The emphasis is on deep focus, so you can see lots of rich details in elegantly framed compositions. There are sweeping camera movements, especially during the war-torn finale worthy of Matthew Brady, that are breath-taking, again calling attention to its handsomely mounted pedigree. However, the color palette has taken notes from Zack Snyder and drained away all color to the degree of looking monochromatic. Repeatedly throughout the movie, I would comment to myself about how beautifully filmed a scene was… and then complain about how the dour color grading sucked the life out of it.

Emancipation is a genre movie that envisions itself as a high-minded Oscar contender, and when it attempts to be something more than a crisp-looking chase movie, that’s where it exposes itself as lacking the substance it so desires. The life of Peter, or Gordon, is meaningful, the person behind the famous photo of the scarred back that made the cruelty of slavery a vivid picture. The experiences of every person who endured the hell of slavery is an indictment worthy of being told, but the personal story becomes grounded down into familiar B-movie pap. If the production was content to be a thrilling B-movie, that would be one thing, but it’s clearly engineered to be Something More, which is usually adjacent to Something Important. I think following The Revenant as a model was a mistake, and I think giving the reins to Fuqua was a mistake, and I definitely think the limited characterization and color palette was a mistake. Emancipation is a strange movie to watch. It’s about the horrors of slavery, and it’s also at the same time about a man wrestling a gator in the swamp. Emancipation is a movie that wants to pretend to be something it’s not but also won’t fully trust its deeper instincts and impulses.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

It’s hard to talk about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever without first discussing its missing whole, namely Chadwick Boseman. It was a shock when Boseman died during the summer of 2020 of terminal cancer, which he had kept hidden except for a small number of close confidants. I remember hearing the news and being in disbelief, figuring this must be another celebrity death hoax, but then the terrible news was confirmed. It’s one of those celebrity deaths that you remember when you found out, mostly I think because here was an actor in his prime and headlining Oscar-nominated movies and precedent-setting blockbusters. It felt too soon to be gone. It felt wrong. It’s that grief that the characters of Wakanda Forever are also wrestling over. Reflecting real life, the sequel to 2018’s hit Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entry elects to have T’Challa (Boseman) pass away in the movie as well, off screen, and from a cause more human than super, dying from a disease. The movie is knowingly channeling our grief for the loss of Boseman into a story about characters also mourning the loss of this good man. This loss hangs over the entire movie and provides it more gravitas and emotional depth it would have had otherwise. Wakanda Forever is a suitably exciting and expansive sequel, especially following the empowering cultural model writer/director Ryan Coogler followed with the first film, but it’s hard not to feel the loss of Boseman, both in presence and in storytelling.

We open with Shuri (Letitia Wright) diligently trying to save her brother’s life only to be out of time. The nation of Wakanda is in full mourning, losing their champion and king. In the wake of this loss, the outside world sees opportunity. Having come out of hiding, Wakanda is being pressured to share its valuable vibranium mineral resources with other nations, and some are eager to take them by force if necessary. This has inadvertently created a gold rush for vibranium, and the C.I.A. has discovered traces of the rare mineral on the ocean floor. This undersea incursion has provoked a heretofore unknown underwater community into action. Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is a super-powered mere mutant, able to fly with tiny wings on his heels, and able to breathe under the sea just like the inhabitants of Talochan. Namor has declared war on the surface world and seeks Wakanda to be an ally, and if not that, then their first conquest.

This is a movie dominated by the women of Wakanda, and they bring the fury. Everyone is processing the loss of T’Challa in different ways. Shuri is rededicating herself to her scientific research, as she blames her brother’s death on her inability to solve his ailment in time. T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has been appointed leader of Wakanda and must represent her nation’s interests while still grieving for her son. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) has retreated from the larger world of spycraft to open a school in Haiti. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is supposed to be the chief security officer for Wakanda, and she busies herself with new threats and armor rather than dwell on being unable to save her king. Each character feels the weight of the loss and opens up reflections of grief, as each knew T’Challa on a different level: mother, sister, lover, protector. The attention that Coogler allows for their and our grief allows the movie to work on a communal cathartic level (I teared up a few times myself). Wright (Death on the Nile) has some heavyweight emotional moments, and the movie is structured around her path of healing as well as the wayward detour of vengeance and hate. It’s a conclusion that hits upon the expected spectacle of superhero action but hinges upon, foremost, an emotional arc.

Coogler is two-for-two when it comes to creating dynamic, engaging villains who have strong perspectives that cause the heroes to better reflect upon their own roles. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is one of the MCU’s best villains, and I think it’s interesting that the first Black Panther ends with the hero realizing the villain’s perspective is right and adjusts from there. With Wakanda Forever, we get Namor protecting his people, and his reasoning sounds a lot like the Wakandan leaders who wished to remain separate from the larger world in the earlier film. The background for Namor is completely rewritten by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole and for the better. They’ve invigorated the character by attaching a rich Mesoamerican culture to Namor’s people and history. We have another hidden world of minorities that are super-powered and developed beyond the reach of colonialism. The flashback for Namor, dating back to the sixteenth century, is startlingly effective, establishing his strange origins, the great change for his tribe to being sea-dwelling, and what happens when he returns to the surface world to honor his late mother’s funeral wish. When he returns, the Spanish have built plantations and have captured the indigenous into being their chattel. Namor sees this exploitation in the name of a foreign God and swears off the surface world. This cultural angle imbues the character’s focal point but it’s also just plain neat to watch an ancient Mesoamerican culture given the big screen superhero treatment with reverence and awe. By providing a compelling villain, it also makes the emotional stakes more compelling. We’ll likely side with the women of Wakanda, but you might also be rooting for Namor too. I also think it’s fun that the underwater Atlantean prince character for DC and Marvel is portrayed by a Mexican-American actor and a Polynesian actor.

Where the movie doesn’t work as well is with its introduction of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorn, Judas and the Black Messiah) who is the human McGuffin. She’s a brilliant engineer who accidentally discovers a vibranium detection device, but why does nabbing her matter to Namor? With the device already created, the proverbial horse has left the barn. Kidnapping the inventor after her technology has already been utilized seems too late. There’s no real reason she could not be replaced with an inanimate flash drive except that this establishes the character up for her 2023 Disney Plus TV series. It’s this larger corporate portfolio push that I’ve always worried about with each new MCU edition, now 39 in total, that they will be forced to set up future movies and shows at the detriment of telling a focused and satisfying movie. The MCU movies I’ve generally liked the least are the ones that fall under this pressure the most, like Age of Ultron, Iron Man 2, and Multiverse of Madness. I found the character of Riri Williams to be fun, but her inclusion always seemed like a distraction to the larger story. I’m sure you can make thematic connections, a young brilliant black woman finding solace in Wakanda, but if you were looking to trim down an already overlong movie, I think Riri is the easiest to eliminate.

With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Phase Four of the MCU has officially closed and Phase Five will begin shortly with Ant-Man 3 in February, 2023. In the wake of the conclusion of the multi-phase Infinity series and 2019’s Endgame, this phase felt dominated by closure and exploration. The Disney Plus series provided little conclusive offshoots for many of the original Avengers characters. It’s also been a period of experimentation, with Marvel broadening its tone and scope from martial arts movies, spy thrillers, romantic epics, and familiarizing audiences to the concept of the multiverse with good movies (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and not-so good movies (Doctor Strange 2). And of course Wakanda Forever is the biggest edition yet on fulfilling a sense of closure, though it had never been intended to be before Boseman’s passing. It’s a sturdy sequel with a palpable emotional undercurrent and an engaging villain to boot. I called 2018’s Black Panther as agreeable, mid-tier Marvel entertainment, and I’d say the same for its sequel. However, with Boseman’s passing, it’s naturally elevated. Wakanda Forever is long and overstuffed but also emotional and engrossing and satisfying.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Black Adam (2022)

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been eyeing a superhero costume for over eight years. He’s been attached to a Black Adam project since 2014. The character is best known in DC comics as a villain for Shazam, although the mythology and rules of that universe get some revisions under this new vehicle. Johnson plays a Middle Eastern godlike figure who shuns being a selfless champion of the little people. If you’re an easy sell for superhero movies, there’s enough visual bravura and smash-em-ups to at least sate your appetite for CGI fisticuffs. By the lowered standards of the DCU, this is a thoroughly average movie. It has a certain childlike Saturday morning cartoon appeal that doesn’t try too hard to be taken seriously and goes about its business with a workmanlike degree of efficiency. The action is easy to follow and the obsessive slow-mo style feel like comics splash pages come to vivid life. I liked the warm, golden color palate and Mid-East setting as distinguishing features. There is an audience for Black Adam, I am certain, but it’s also getting harder to just accept average superhero movies given the glut of superhero cinema. The hero’s journey of this would-be villain becoming more a grumpy antihero is rote and predictable, including a really lame villain to make Black Adam look less bad in comparison. I didn’t care about big CGI demon goon fighting for control of a magic throne. The character arc is supposed to be about agency and responsibility, but it gets reduced down to a morally simplistic “I guess I won’t kill all the bad guys all the time” re-evaluation. The plotting and structure is also misshapen; the entire first half of the movie feels like the second half of some earlier movie we missed out on. The fighting can also get annoyingly repetitious. The Justice Society has two major members, Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate and Aldis Hodge as Hawkman, and the rest are afterthoughts, as if the producers leveraged including more big screen debuts in case the central character wasn’t enough of a draw. Anyway, the Justice Society and Black Adam go through half a dozen fights and I just got bored by their bickering. The premise of a Middle Eastern superhero, a champion for the Muslim world, would be a radical idea worth exploring the geopolitical ramifications, especially the fears this could raise in conservative and twitchy Western societies that this could be seen as akin to a superhero arms race. That direction might veer away from the intent of the character but that’s also the far more interesting story. Still, it’s The Rock as a superhero, and his enormous charisma can carry even an ordinary action movie to greater heights.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Bullet Train (2022)/ The Princess (2022)

Bullet Train and The Princess are two recent releases that could serve as a double feature for all they have in common. Both movies prioritize fun above all else, both of them feature stylized violence and bloodshed, both of them have a perverse sense of humor, and both of them feature young actress Joey King (The Kissing Booth, Wish Upon), coincidentally playing the listed roles of Prince and The Princess. What more do you need for this combo? If you are a fan of Bullet Train, you’ll likely be a fan of The Princess, and vice versa, because both of them are exactly as advertised. They’re wild, whimsically violent, but succeed with nimble action construction, bizarre and engaging characters, and high energy that sparks fun escapist entertainment.
Bullet Train is set almost entirely on a speeding bullet train in Tokyo, and we follow a group of hired killers, mercenaries, and generally nasty people all sharing one very fast locomotive. “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt) is a reformed hitman who only takes snatch-and-grab gigs as he’s trying to better himself with therapy and meditation. He’s meant to grab a briefcase of money and get off the train. Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Onboard the train are “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Hill) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have the briefcase in their possession along with the prodigal son (Logan Lerman) of a scary Yakuza boss known as “The White Death.” Also on board is Kimura (Andrew Koji) seeking to find the person responsible for pushing his child off a rooftop, Prince (Joey King) using her diminutive stature to trick unsuspecting men, the Wolf (Bad Bunny) seeking out the person responsible for the death of his bride, and several other masked killers looking to up the ante. Characters will clash, many will die, and “The White Death” will be appeased by the end, coming to collect a blood debt from all.

Bullet Train was, blissfully, everything I was needing it to be. It’s a universe familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, with colorful and threatening characters with large personalities and quirks colliding in unexpected and violent ways. I’ve seen so many Tarantino knock-offs, and Tarantino knock-off knock-offs, so I appreciate when someone is able to understand what it takes to succeed on this unique playing field. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street: 1978) knows how to sharpen the kind of off-the-cuff banter that makes these movies excel, with space given for the characters to make a sizable impression. There needs to be time to get to know them, their quirks and faults, and then send them all running at one another at cross-purposes, interacting in fun ways that lend to one character screwing something up for another. There’s about a dozen characters dropped upon us, and just about everyone gets a flashback or introduction set piece, sometimes more, sometimes extensions of previous flashbacks, sometimes extensions from alternate perspectives. Part of the fun is just seeing how the different characters relate to one another, so there is a period of time where the mask has to eventually drop, and the reveal needs to be worthwhile. It’s a lot, and Bullet Train gleefully trades in excess upon excess all in the name of chasing after a good time, and if you connect on its zany and breezy wavelength of reckless violence and dark humor, then you shall be happy for the ride.
The movie is constantly reshuffling and transforming, allowing it to hyperextend into whatever shape it necessitates before contorting back to its next phase. This malleability makes the movie far more responsive, sometimes overlapping, and it provides an extra level of energy. It’s reminiscent of Snatch, my favorite of the Ricthie cockney crime capers, where the story zigged and zagged through linear time, providing answers to different stacked questions. I won’t say the characters are as distinct as Snatch, but Olkewicz takes his time to introduce each with relish. Pitt may be the marketable star of the movie, at least as far as advertising is concerned, but it’s really much more of an ensemble, and one anchored by Lemon and Tangerine. Their droll, snappy banter really cements their long-term relationship almost like a screwball romance. They end up becoming, strangely, the heart of the movie, if one were to suggest a movie with an entire wedding party vomiting their guts to death had a beating heart. Their exact connection and genuine affection for one another, even when they’re driving one another mad, is one of the film’s many surprises as it zooms ahead. There are fun cameos, and some unexpected abrupt deaths, but Bullet Train works because of the entertainment of the kooky killer characters. I enjoyed that one character’s obsession, namely likening people to Thomas the Tank Engine avatars, has a personal connection but actually leads to some ironic turns. Not every set-up has the best payoff (Chekov’s toilet snake comes to shockingly little) or resolution (why wasn’t the snooping conductor thrown back in or given a revelation?) but with so many characters criss-crossing, so many goofy asides and cul-de-sacs, and so much bloody mayhem, there’s a steady stream of fun, satisfying payoffs and retribution until the mid-credits sequence.

To me, the water bottle symbolizes Bullet Train at its best and worst. After two hours of multiple characters and their out-of-order flashbacks shuffling for dominance, we get an inanimate object with its own flashback. It’s a goofy and superfluous addition, as the water bottle has served as a plot device but has served its ultimate plot purpose already, so seeing its entire history offers no new information that the audience didn’t already have. However, what it does is show the movie from the perspective of this bottle, and many sequences are reframed from the bottle’s rigid point of view. It made me think about how after they got their shot setups, someone on staff would then call out, “Okay, we need the water bottle POV shot now,” and they would film that. I appreciate the effort for something this fleeting and silly. They didn’t need to put in this flashback or this level of attention to an object that ultimately just gets thrown at a guy’s head. However, it’s the misdirect, the ridiculous inclusion on top of the others, and the ramping of energy that made me smile, even as little else came out of it. I appreciated the showmanship. For me, this is emblematic of the movie as a whole, an overload of style and energy just for the fleeting hell of it.
Under the direction of David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2), the action is as fun and energetic as the colorful characters. Leitch has become one of the best modern directors of action movies. The hand-to-hand combat is refreshing and makes use of close quarter combat demands. I enjoyed that the two participants in a fight are trying to sneak in quick moves without getting caught by an older lady who demands quiet in the quiet train car. I enjoyed the zany flashback where Tangerine and Lemon recount to the camera and dispute the number of men killed on a previous job. With a character cursed with bad luck, it provides opportunities to have fun with accidents and bad timing, which Leitch works into different action set-ups and setbacks. Even when the movie literally goes off the rails and becomes a big cartoon, Leitch finds ways to marry the big tone in such a manner that the ridiculous doesn’t prove off-putting. When characters are swinging samurai swords in slow-mo, while a Japanese version of “Holding Out For a Hero” is pumping on the soundtrack, I just sat back and soaked up the deliciously disposable fun times.

The plot of The Princess is as straightforward as Bullet Train is knotty. The Princess (Joey King) of a fantasy kingdom is chained at the very top of a castle tower. Her captor, Julius (Dominic Cooper), has imprisoned her family and plans to wed the princess and become king. The princess, however, has other plans. Thanks to her martial arts and weapon training, she breaks free and becomes a one-woman wrecking crew as she descends the tower floors to freedom.
I was genuinely surprised at how well developed and exciting the action sequences were. The Princess shares more in common with The Raid than anything by the Grimms. The script by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton follows the model of a video game; every new floor is a literal new level with a new boss or new objective to be achieved to advance to the next level. The simplicity of the premise is refreshing, and the movie doesn’t waste any time ramping things up. Blood is shed within the first few minutes and it doesn’t let up. What I really appreciated was how well constructed each new action set piece was. There’s variety and specification that challenges our heroine, who is powerful but still not all-powerful and bereft of vulnerability. Each new encounter forces our protagonist to think through a different application of skills. There’s a situation that involves overpowering a larger and stronger man, a situation trying to wound a fully armored man, a situation battling two men, then even more, a situation with men charging into the battle and having to escape to a safer environment, a situation where she has to swing along the outside of the castle to enter a different room, a situation involving stealth, and many others, but each requires something different and thus each proves to flesh out our main character and her capabilities and problem-solving acumen. It’s always a pleasure to watch smart people overcome challenges in fun and smart ways, and The Princess has this formula down. I was worried the movie might get repetitive with its video game level design, but each new challenge is an opportunity to dazzle and enlighten us about our John Wick-esque fighter.

That’s probably the best comparison, the John Wick franchise, because it’s a series of movies that is defined by the thrills of its fight choreography and action set pieces. That’s it. The world has some interesting flourishes but the draw is the fight scenes and the pleasure of watching professionals operating at such a high level and with demonstrations that allow us to better immerse and appreciate the artistry of the fighting. And it’s good here. The impressive choreography has a really nice A-to-B propulsion, with each move connecting to the next to tell its own story of countermoves and adjustment. I really appreciated how the specific geography of each location is incorporated into the action, whether that be as a hindrance or an assistance to the fighting. It makes the sequences more meaningful and better developed. It’s also a movie that understands that if you give your villains specialized weapons, they better use them in fun or nasty ways. If all you’re looking for is imaginative, bloody, and brutal fighting, The Princess delivers it all. Credit also to King for throwing herself completely into the role. She effortlessly executes complicated fight moves and swordplay during long takes. You can tell she’s having a blast being a badass. Think of The Princess like a feminist version of The Raid or an upside-down version of Dredd (“Instead of fighting up, this character fights her way… down.”).

The Princess could have made more social statements but its very conceit is a feminist reworking of outdated fantasy tropes, so I don’t mind that it’s a streamlined action movie with a blunt yet obvious point. The familiar story tells us that these damsels in distress are the maidens in need of rescuing (“Sorry, our princess is in another castle” and the like), so just having the princess be her own champion is a simple yet satisfying subversion. This is an action movie and less one on politics; however, it’s a movie that cannot help from being political because it’s upsetting the expected social norms, that women are docile and weaker and at the whims of men. The Princess isn’t breaking new ground here. There have been plenty of movies that re-contextualized the feminine roles of old legends and folk tales and made them more capable and strong and fierce. That doesn’t mean there’s any less enjoyment watching our princess take down one leering man after another. It’s the appeal of the underdog who makes men pay dearly for underestimating her. These repeated interactions and bloody comeuppance speak about as well as necessary for this kind of movie. I doubt things would have radically improved if one of the characters broke into a treatise on the misapplication of gender roles. It’s a woman beating the stuffing out of creepy and lascivious misogynists. For this movie, that’s more than enough to keep me watching.

Where The Princess starts to lose itself is once it shifts into its final act and abandons its formula. I can understand wanting to shake things up so the viewer doesn’t get lulled into complacency, but because the sequences were, beforehand, varied, my interest was not lagging. During this final stretch, the titular princess leads a squad to take down the baddies, and the movie becomes any other number of similar fantasy action movies. The enjoyable fight choreography is still present, but it feels like a rush to clear everything in comparison to the methodical floor-by-floor clearing from before. I wish the filmmakers had merely held steady with their plot rather than throwing things out and relying upon a grand team-up revolutionary raid. There’s also a sudden shift that throws out the rationale for keeping the princess alive. The bad guy just shrugs and says, “Forget it, I’ll find a replacement,” and it feels too arbitrary of an escalation. If he could do this, why was he so insistent for the first hour that she not be killed? It’s not a bad ending or one that ruins the movie but it’s definitely a downshift from the action excitement highs from before.

The Princess and Bullet Train are both frantic, over-the-top, cartoonishly violent, while still understanding how to effectively sell their escapist mayhem. We need to be dazzled by the action sequences and have them be meaningful (check), we need weird and interesting characters that we want to root for or watch bumble onscreen (check), we need payoffs that feel rewarding (check), we need an onslaught of style and attitude (check), and we need, above all else, fun and surprises (check). Neither of these movies is going to qualify as one of the best movies of the year. That’s just not the kind of experience either is shooting for. However, they may be some of the best fun you have with movies for 2022, and in a world in short order of fun, that’s plenty.

Nate’s Grade’s:

Bullet Train: B

The Princess: B

The Gray Man (2022)

Two movies removed from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I’m starting to wonder if the brotherly directing duo of Joe and Anthony Russo are absent their own vision. Cherry was an exhausting and annoying experience overloaded with self-conscious stylistic choices that dominated the movie and squeezed it from its dramatic potential. Now we have The Gray Man, based upon the 2009 book by a former Tom Clancy writing collaborator, and it looks indistinguishable from any other big-budget spy thriller. It feels like The Russos doing their version of Michael Bay doing his version of the Jason Bourne series. It’s an expensive movie for Netflix, in the range of $200 million, and it just made me think about 2019’s Six Underground, their $200 million collaboration with Bay where he had creative freedom to make the most bombastic, hyper masculine, and tedious movie of his career. If you’re going to devote a fifth of a billion dollars for a Michael Bay-esque action movie, you might as well hire the real deal again. The Gray Man is a passable action movie, especially in its middle, but it’s wholly derivative and coasting off your memories of better spy thrillers and better characters.

The titular “Gray Man” is a super-secret Sierra agent given the code name Six (Ryan Gosling). He’s been the government’s indispensable tool for taking out bad guy and keeping the world safe for 18 years, working time off his prison sentence. Then it all goes wrong when, of course, his callous boss (Rege-Jean Page, Bridgerton) demands he “take the shot” even if it means the death of an innocent child in the process. Six declines, the covert assignment becomes much messier, and he learns that his target was a former agent from the sane secret Sierra cabal. The dying man gives Six a MacGuffin necklace that the big bad boss really wants. Six goes on the run, with the help of some allies like another agent (Ana de Armas) and his retired handler (Billy Bob Thornton), and the CIA sends every professional killer to get their man. This includes the mustachioed Llyod Hansen (Chris Evans), a ruthless private mercenary who brags about being kicked out of the C.I.A. academy for his lack of ethics and impulse control issues.

If you’re just looking for an action vehicle that provides enough bang and sizzle, The Gray Man can suffice. I’ll champion the highlights first before equivocating on them. There’s a recognizable blockbuster elan to the movie with enough energy to keep your attention. There is a significant uptick in the middle that gave me a false sense of hope that The Gray Man had transformed into a better movie. Again, this occurs well into an hour into a slightly under two-hour movie, but credit where its due, there is a nicely developed sequence of substantial action. For being a spy thriller, a majority of the movie takes place in and around Berlin. Six is handcuffed by German police to a park bench in the middle of an open square. Lloyd sends in vans of powerfully-armed goons that take out the police and then set their sights on Six. He’s trapped to the bench but still mobile, to a point, but he’s also unarmed. Watching the character react to these limitations and adapt is greatly pleasing. This is the stuff of good action cinema; supermen get boring without having to overcome legitimate obstacles and/or mini-goals. He’s able to escape and thwart his attackers and hides in a tram. This then becomes the next level of our action, and he has to utilize close-quarter combat to tease out his new attackers. And then a speeding truck with a rocket launcher shows up. And then de Armas shows up with a sports car for Six to try and leap into. And then both of those vehicles do battle while Six climbs atop the speeding tram and uses the reflection in a passing building to line up his shot to take out a goon inside the train underneath his feet. This entire middle action set piece is top-notch. It’s exciting, stylish without being too derivative, and there’s a clear set of cause-effect escalation. This is good action writing, and it’s a shame that this is also the peak with still 40 minutes left.

The beginning and closing of The Gray Man blunt whatever enjoyment I could gather. The film is oddly structured and uneven from reliable screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Avengers: Endgame). The opening scene watching Thornton recruit Gosling in his jail cell seems completely superfluous as something that could have been explained in passing, or needed no setup, but it’s at least short. There’s also a lengthy flashback in the middle of the movie that sets up Six’s allegiance to Thornton’s niece (Julia Butters, the little girl from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) as he babysits and saves her from kidnappers. Again, I don’t think we needed to have a set up why our protagonist would deign to save a child, but even if the movie wants to add more emotional heft to their relationship, why drop this in the middle of the movie? Why not even have this open the movie instead of the jailhouse recruitment? I like their scenes together. It reminded me of 2016’s underrated The Nice Guys. It’s just not enough to hang onto because there is no heart to this film; it is all quips and speed and flagging genre imitation. Just re-read the plot description. The genre cliches are all there, and we even have the old chestnut where the villain monologues that they and the hero are not so different.

There’s also a questionable series of shorter flashbacks of Six as a kid surviving his abusive father’s rigorous “training,” including burning a kid’s arm with a cigarette lighter or dunking his head underwater. Again, I doubt we needed to visualize these scenes when Six could have explained his traumatic upbringing with Gosling’s acting. I was worried, and I’m still not dissuaded, that The Gray Man was establishing the parental abuse as having trained Six for these unique circumstances, that dear old bad dad somehow saved his adult son’s life. Do we need a flashback of his dad holding his head underwater to convey that Six, as his head is held underwater by Lloyd, does not like this? It reminded me of 2017’s Split when Shyamalan questionably had his character survive her captor because he recognized that she too had been abused. Did her trauma save her? The needless jumping around in time feels like The Gray Man attempting to be cleverer, or perhaps aping more of the genre expectations from an action movie of this size. The finale also lacks either the emotional catharsis or action climax that can serve as a satisfying conclusion. The last act is a compound assault set piece but it’s really just a series of interconnected gunfights and explosions. The mini-goals and engaging cause-effect escalation from before is absent.

There are a few commendable moments or choices among the blockbuster cruise control. I enjoyed that this was not just a Knives Out reunion between de Armas and a villainous Evans but it was also a Blade Runner 2049 reunion between de Armas and Gosling. I think de Armas deserves her own spy vehicle, especially after being one of the highlights of 2021’s No Time to Die (granted, it helps having Phoebe Waller-Bridge writing your character). I liked a hand-to-hand combat scene where Six utilized flares both to obscure his presence as well as an offensive weapon. Evans is fun to watch as a preening peacock of a villain, though there’s so little to his character beyond a bad mustache and smarmy attitude. There are some decent drone shots, though the dipping of the camera makes them feel more like point of view aerial assault shots. The Russos really, really like their drone shots in this movie (how much of the budget did this suck up?). However, the drone shots just made me think of the better drone shots from 2021’s Ambulance, Michael Bay’s newest movie, and it further cemented The Gray Man feeling like a clunky combination of other movies and artists. If you’ve seen any espionage action movie of the last ten years, you’ve seen enough to recognize all the key pieces of The Gray Man, and while its competent enough to satisfy the most forgiving of genre fans, it’s really just more empty noise.

Nate’s Grade: C

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Thor: Love and Thunder reminds me a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, admittedly a film I’ve come more around on since my initial viewing in 2017. When Ragnarok was released later that same year, it was an irreverent blast, a breath of fresh air for a franchise that didn’t really know what to do with its hero, and under director Taika Waititi’s sensibility, the character had new, witty life. A similar response occurred with the original Guardians of the Galaxy as the world fell in love with the offbeat characters and storytelling and style from writer/director James Gunn. Before 2014, we didn’t know what to expect with a Guardians movie. When the sequel was released, we had a template of expectations, and the follow-up didn’t feel quite so fresh, quite so lively, and falling back on repeating too many of the same moments or jokes because it’s what was expected. It felt a bit burdened with the creative shackles of upholding these expectations. The same feeling of same-ness permeates Love and Thunder, and to be fair that’s also because the success of Ragnarok raised our expectations for a Waititi MCU movie.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is trying to find his way after the events of 2019’s Endgame. He’s gotten in shape, spent some time palling around with the Guardians of the Galaxy (returning in 2023!), and reconnected with the love of his life, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). She’s been chosen by Thor’s old broken hammer to be its new wielder, granting her superhero status. Except in her human status, she’s dying from stage four cancer. Just as Jane comes back into his life, Thor might have to come to terms with losing her all over again.

This movie just doesn’t feel like it has the same natural prankish energy of Ragnarok, though part of this again might be myself acclimating to Waititi as a filmmaker and storyteller. Prior to Ragnarok I had only known him for the delightful vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and since Ragnarok Waititi has become his own industry, winning a screenwriting Oscar, lending his name and acting to hit TV shows, including a version of What We Do in the Shadows, and even Disney wants his mark on Star Wars. In short, the man is everywhere. In 2022, we now have a much better idea of what to expect from a typical Waititi project. Love and Thunder is recognizable to the man’s omnipresent brand, and still a fun movie with some solid gags, but it also feels a bit sloppy and repetitive.

I kept thinking about all the powerful dramatic potential in the different storylines that are barely explored because the driving plot is a universe-hopping caper to save a bunch of kidnapped children (yes, the children represent something, the next generation, renewal, legacy, but let’s carry on). Tackle the pathos of Jane Foster, who in her normal human state has her body betraying her. She feels weak and incapable of the greatness she feels burdened to still accomplish with her declining time. With the power of Thor, she becomes a superhero, and with super swole arms. However, this power trip also has its own ironic downside. Every time she powers up, the magic hammer is actually draining more of her life force, meaning she’s actually speeding up her terminal illness. Here is a character given a dire situation and an escape and yet that escape only worsens the illness. There’s such powerful drama there to explore as she comes to terms with how to spend her final moments, among them reconnecting with her super ex-boyfriend. This could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from her perspective.

Then there’s Gorr the God Butcher, gloriously played by Christian Bale like he’s in a James Wan horror movie. Here is another example where the villain doesn’t just have a sympathetic back-story but where they are correct in their aims, though maybe not in their methods (think Killmonger arguing Wakanda should do more). Gorr is tired of the gods crushing the little guy with their general entitlement, indifference, and selfishness. These fancy deities aren’t worthy of worship. The power structure needs upending. It’s easy to get behind Gorr’s plight and see connections to our own imbalanced world. This too could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from his perspective. Now, things could have gotten even more interesting and complicated for Jane, because she’s not officially a god unless she’s yielding Thor’s hammer and joins those rarefied ranks. It would pose another question of whether wielding this power would be worth her remaining time, especially with a heat-seeking missile coming for her on a righteous quest of vengeance that is slowly eating him alive. Both are dying but can they fulfill their goals?

If these storylines had been given careful development and the necessary time to breathe, Love and Thunder could have been one of the most interesting movies in the ever-expanding MCU cannon. Instead, it’s galloping to work so hard to stick to the Waititi brand expectations, to reignite our feelings of Ragnarok, and so these promising elements ultimately get shortchanged by hit-or-miss comedy bits. I liked several of them even despite myself. The set piece where Thor and Jane and friends travel to Omnipotence City has such imaginative heights. Russell Crowe is having a grand time as a hilarious Greek caricature of Zeus that is more concerned about the upcoming company orgy and brushing feta crumbles from his beard. I loved the almost Lego Movie-esque zany sight gags of the cohabitation of gods from different religions (Korg’s god sits on an iron throne of scissors, its own visual joke). It’s such a fascinating concept that I wish we could have spent even more time here. Let’s see the Egyptian gods mingling with the Sumerian gods while pranking some weird alien deity. The set piece serves two narrative purposes: gathering a powerful magic weapon, and learning the gods are sitting out the battle with Gorr for their own short-sighted self-preservation. It’s mostly a pit stop. Again, there was more pathos that could have been explored here as people meet gods, but this is my cross to bear. The general banter is amusing and has more hits than misses even if the hit percentage is lower. I laughed every time the magic axe would silently pop onscreen in jealous judgement. I even enjoyed the screaming goats even though from their first moment they are the exact same joke. Regardless, whenever Thor and company would travel to a new place and I heard that familiar goat scream, it would make me giggle despite my reservations.

I also had my qualms with the concept of Eternity, a magical place located at the center of the universe but destined to grant a wish to whomever gets there first. It’s too transparent as a plot device and its very existence this far into the MCU creates too many nagging questions. In the history of the universe, no other creature successfully reached this wish-granting locale? And if this existed at least to Thor’s understanding, then why didn’t the characters think about this as an option to thwart Thanos and his universe-halving finger snap? I know the answer, because it wasn’t written into a movie until now, but this is the drawback of throwing ultimate power plot devices without more careful context. Eternity could have been a secret just to the inner circle of the famous gods, unknown to all but a few, but even that strains some credulity. If Zeus is such a carousing hedonist of legendary status, I’m sure he would have either blabber-mouthed its existence or sought it ought for his own gain. I genuinely liked the set piece at Eternity, a small planet that sucks all color from existence, making the imagery even more striking like the inky panels of a comic. The same question happens when Thor shares his power late in the movie. Couldn’t the Avengers have used this too?

I fully acknowledge that my criticisms are butting against the movie Waititi wanted to tell. I’m pushing for its inherent dramatic potential while it wants to be a more comic and romantic adventure about the power of love. I think by the end it gets there, and the dramatic confrontations have some emotional weight to them, especially about the idea of what we leave behind for others after we’re gone. Although, even this is mitigated by the general stakes-lowering reality that death never seems so permanent in the world of comics and monetarily useful IP. It’s a joke how many times Loki has been brought back from the dead and Thor doesn’t even know that his trickster brother has been brought back from the dead again (again again). We’ve now established time travel and an emphasis on the multiverse of alternate universes, which means at a moment’s notice, any meaningful death or sacrifice has the possibility of being undone. This is also the reality of a moneymaking machine that has dominated the movies and pop-culture landscape for 14 years. No death is ever going to be for real in this environment so why should I put so much emphasis on the dramatic potential of what losing a loved one, or your sense of self, can have? I can sit back and enjoy the lesser, but still enjoyable, Waititi quirk on display for two hours of silly.

Hemsworth (Spiderhead) is so sharply skilled at comedy that I feign to remember his previous existence as a dramatic actor. He’s still on the same sublime, charismatic yet blithely self-effacing vibe he was with Ragnarok. Portman (Annihilation) comes back after close to a decade for a clear reason to leave her mark on what had been an otherwise forgettable character and giving her a renewed sense of power and direction and agency. Bale (Ford v. Ferrari), as mentioned, is fantastic. I appreciate that his character isn’t physically huge and bulky. He looks quite the opposite, like he’s wasting away, like somebody slathered an ashy coat of paint from living-skeleton Bale after The Machinist (yes, also the obvious Voldermort comparison). He is relishing every teeth-stained syllable as a nightmare creature living from the shadows. The prologue with his character is heartbreaking and yet understated (and truth be told, having young children in my household, it hit me more personally), and I turned to my fiancé and said, “I’m supposed to not like this guy?” I wish the opening credits were then a montage of Gorr seeking and slaying wicked gods. Bale is playing his role like he’s definitely not in a Waititi movie about goofy screaming goats; he’s playing Gorr like a tragic hero of myth. This is why I would have been happy had the whole movie been told from his perspective. The new characters from Ragnarok suffer the most and become sidelined as “Others Along on the Quest.” For Korg, this is fine, but for Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, I mourn her absence. Also, both characters are definitively queer now, though Korg might be more a question, making Love and Thunder the gayest movie in the MCU, and just after Pride Month, so take that for what you will, folks.

As a fun matinee, Love and Thunder will amuse and brighten, even if its comedy highs don’t quite hit as high this time under the burden of franchise expectations. Love and Thunder is a movie that will be best known for Portman and Bale, both of whom elevate the scattershot material with their dedication and professionalism. It might even be known for Crowe’s hammy scene-stealing, or the super-powered cadre of cute kiddos, or even the screaming goats. It’s a movie more of moments and ideas, too many underdeveloped or lacking the gravitas they deserve, especially concerning Jane and Gorr. I feel like a grump bemoaning that the big superhero movie should have more time spent on a woman contemplating her own existential demise as well as man’s relationship and fealty to our gods. Still, it’s Waititi doing his signature brand of quirk with $200 million of house money from Disney. Thor: Love and Thunder is a lesson in diminished returns but when you have Ragnarok as your starting point, it’s at least guaranteed to still be worth your two hours once and deliver some chuckles and smiles.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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