There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.
There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.
This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.
The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.
Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.
Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.
I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.
Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.
Nate’s Grade: B
Mob movies are culturally beloved. I could watch Goodfellas every time I see it on TV. We know these movies, we know this lifestyle, in so much as it’s been demonstrated in our art. A feminine perspective is often the dame, the moll, the panicked wife who worries her husband will never come home and see his bratty kids again. Rarely in mob movies are there roles for women that can be considered three-dimensional. Even Diane Keaton gets shortchanged in The Godfather series. In comes Oscar-nominated Straight Outta Compton screenwriter Andrea Berlof, tackling her directorial debut and adapting a graphic novel about three mob wives fighting the system. It’s about time this under-represented perspective in some of our favorite movies got its due spotlight. It’s too bad then that The Kitchen finds ways to still leave the women behind where it counts.
Set in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City in the late 70s, three mobsters get arrested one evening by the FBI and sent to prison. Their wives are now left alone to raise their families, struggle for employment, and to not be forgotten with the new pecking order of those mobsters left behind. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) think they should take over their husband’s rackets while their men are indisposed. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is more worried about what will happen when her abusive husband comes back from prison. The three women work together to make a stake at their own claim, butting heads against the existing power structure of dismissive men who don’t think organized crime is any place for a woman.
The Kitchen has such potential but it’s too often running off the fumes of other mob movies. Beyond the obvious similarities with last year’s more refined and polished Widows, this is a movie that gobbles its mafia movie clichés like a heaping helping of pasta (more clichés!). The characters aren’t terribly well defined and the story oddly moves in starts and stops, with moments either feeling too long or too short, and especially abruptly transposed, using montage to hurdle through what should have been needed onscreen development. People rightfully complained about the final season of Game of Thrones skipping over needed steps along a character’s journey to get to its intended destination, and The Kitchen is deserving of the same charge. We want to see these women in charge and others afraid, except the movie doesn’t show me any reason why these women would rise in power and what sets them apart from their steely competition. I get that they’re underestimated and they are determined, and that works in a general sense, but by the half-hour mark they’re already successful mobster entrepreneurs and I’m unsure how. Even after their rise, there is little that seems to deter them. Every new obstacle is comically taken care of in such casual fashion that you never worry for their well-being. It feels like Berloff wants to skip through all the hard work and just get to the enjoyable desserts or a life of crime, but moving up the ladder is an essential part of any power struggle story. As a result of the sloppy plotting and pacing, there is an over-reliance on clichés to stand in place, relying upon the audience’s warm understanding of the genre territory and what to expect to relieve the movie from having to do more work. It’s all telling and hardly any show.
The characters are kept as archetypes as well, at least 2/3 of the leads. Both McCarthy and Haddish seem miscast for their roles. Both are splendid comic actresses and have dramatic capabilities beyond what they get credit for, but they seem to rely upon comic instincts to get through their underwritten scenes, which further hampers the lack of tension. Each actress gets one solid scene to open up their character but it’s just so little. Ruby has a sit down where her mom credits beating the “soft” out of her daughter for Ruby’s success. That little glimpse into her past and her fraught relationship with her mother served as a tantalizing hint at what could be explored further with the Ruby character. The same with the fact that she’s a black woman who married into a very rigid Irish-American family set in their prejudices. There’s such dramatic potential to be had there. Alas, she’s tasked with being a hardass and that’s all The Kitchen asks of Haddish, treating her more as symbol than person. For McCarthy, there’s a late scene where another character tries to soft-peddle her involvement in crime, saying she did what she had to for her children, and Kathy corrects, saying, no, she did it all for her. She was tired of being a deferential doormat and wanted to feel important. That degree of self-empowerment through selfishness could be a fascinating character angle to explore, but we don’t get that. She clarifies the lens for us to view her with but by that point it’s far too late. The film is top-heavy with underwritten women and that’s a shame.
The most interesting character by far is Moss’ abused wife-turned-budding killer. Claire is the one starting at the lowest point and the one who takes to the life of crime as means of salvation. These characters are doing some pretty heinous acts but with Claire I felt the most empathy for her plight, bullied by her husband and feeling trapped, more worried about the impending release and her return to being the scared woman cowering in the corner again. She doesn’t want to go back to that life and I believed every moment of Moss blurting out her despair and desperation. That’s why her relationship with another oddball killer played by Domhnall Gleeson (The Last Jedi) was what I cared about most in the movie. You watch them grow together, him mentoring her on how to cut up a body and dispose of it down river, and you watch how each of these two people finds something missing in the other. They may not even be good for one another, enabling their darker impulses and past a point of no return, but it’s the only evolving relationship we were given an entry point to empathize with fully. This segment is also criminally underwritten but it’s clearly where the focal point of the movie should have been. This was the perspective the movie should have been locked into and the character’s journey we follow through every step.
The Kitchen isn’t a bad movie at all. The production design and period appropriate costumes are to die for. There’s always going to be a visceral enjoyment watching the underdogs move ahead and topple their doubters and competition. The ensemble doesn’t have a bad actor in the bunch. Bill Camp (Molly’s Game) shows up with a real sense of veiled menace as a Brooklyn mobster both irritated and impressed by the ladies’ advancement. The soundtrack is packed with Scorsese-riff-approved tunes, including three instances of Fleetwood Mac. There are pleasures to be had. It’s just that the ingredients to a better movie were all there, plain as day. If you’re a fan of mob movies in general, you may find enough to satisfy with The Kitchen, which has its moments but ultimately feels too much like an under-cooked dish you’ve had one too many times before (metaphors!).
Nate’s Grade: C+
Spider-Man: Far From Home arrives as the tasty dessert to the epic five-course meal that was Avengers: Endgame. It picks up weeks after the events of the climactic chapter, starting right away with the consequences in a clever, albeit light manner. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is excited to go on a class trip to Europe and has big plans to confess his true feelings to his crush, MJ (Zendaya). He’s pulled into hero work by a testy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who needs Spider-Man to stop a group of inter-dimensional elemental monsters. Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), dubbed “Mysterio” by the Italian media, is the last survivor of that other dimension and looking for assistance to thwart them and save this Earth. Peter tries to live a “normal life” and balance his superhero duties, but his secret life is increasingly intruding upon his actual life, especially as the world looks for the next superhero to step up in the absence of Tony Stark. Far From Home is an enjoyable road trip movie that feels like Junior Spy Hijinks for the first half. It’s funny but I definitely felt like the filmmakers weren’t fully engaged in telling that story, so I was left a tad disengaged. There’s a big reason for this and it’s a turn that comes halfway through, and from there out the movie is mostly great. The action sequences are directed with flair and even better visual acuity by returning director John Watts (Cop Car), there are some vivid nightmarish hallucinations that are glorious and disorientating. Gyllenhaal (Nightcralwer) becomes much more interesting in the second half and makes better use of the actor’s comic and dramatic range. It almost feels like some of the staid back-story from the first half is a satirical point of the second half, but you have to get through it all first. This bait-and-switch storytelling structure leads to certain pluses and minuses, and had it gone on much longer it would have more negatively affected the overall enjoyment factor. The first post-credit scene is definitely a game-changer in the world of Spider-Man and has a fantastic character debut that made me cheer and will be big especially for fans of the recent hit PS4 game. Far From Home doesn’t have the polish and brilliant structure of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming but it’s a Spidey sequel that doesn’t lose track of the characters, presents an interesting villain as something we haven’t quite seen before, and has a good sense of humor while still being able to thrill and chill. The MCU is in a different world now after Endgame and with Holland and company leading the way, I could use more of this Spider-Man pronto.
Nate’s Grade: B
Dark Phoenix is the end of the X-Men as we know it. The franchise is arguably the reason that Disney bought Fox, to combine its Marvel properties under one creative universe, and hastened its ultimate demise. The franchise kicked off in 2000 when nobody knew what a Hugh Jackman was. Over the course of 19 years we’ve had ten total X-films (the original trilogy, four prequels, three Wolverine solo films — I’m not counting the two Deadpool entries) of varying quality. Dark Phoenix is longtime series writer Simon Kinberg’s debut as a director and was originally intended for a fall 2018 release before it got pushed back for extensive reshoots. There was even some doubt whether Disney would release Dark Phoenix or shunt it to its new streaming service (that’s my prediction for the long-delayed New Mutants, which released its trailer… in 2017). Ultimately this is the final X-Men movie, as we have known them for 19 years, and it’s the equivalent of a mayonnaise sandwich at room temperature: something nobody really wanted and delivered in a package not designed to satisfy.
In 1992, the X-Men are called upon by the president when the government is left with no other options. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) watches over as shape-shifting Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) leads the younger X-kids, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), into space to save some astronauts. A strange cosmic energy cloud zaps Jean Grey and supercharges her telekinetic powers. At first she feels more alive but is losing control and worrying her friends. After a tragic confrontation, she runs off to find Magneto (Michael Fassbender) while a mysterious alien woman (Jessica Chastain) seeks to gain the “phoenix” powers.
Thoroughly mediocre, Dark Phoenix is a pitiful ending to a franchise that kicked off the superhero era of the twenty-first century. This is a pretty sad ending to a franchise that has admittedly had more downs than ups (I’d say four of the ten X-Men movies have genuinely been good, two were fine, and four have been different levels of bad). What’s even more peculiar is this is Kinberg’s second attempt at the Dark Phoenix storyline, arguably the most famous in X-Men comics, and it doesn’t work — again. At least 2006’s The Last Stand had other storylines that presented topics of interest, like the choice over taking a mutant cure and whether this should be a choice after all. The problem with Dark Phoenix is that it’s nothing but Dark Phoenix with little variation but it doesn’t ever expand on the Dark Phoenix dilemma. Act Two of the film seems to consist of the same scene on repeat, where Jean Grey complains about her power struggles to some character, warns them, doesn’t want to harm people, and then something bad happens and more characters elect to try and murder her. It’s like watching the same TV show recycle the same plot but just changing the characters. It makes for a saggy mid section that loses momentum and cannot regain it. The last act feels like a different movie because… it is. Thanks to late reshoots, the final act is a series of clashes aboard a military train. There are some fun moments of mutant-power action, especially Magneto and Nightcrawler. It doesn’t make much sense to what came before (when questioned why Magneto is trying to save Jean after literally trying to kill her ten minutes earlier, he says, “I had a change of heart”) but the sequence is at least diverting and visually playful in a way the rest of the movie had been missing. By the end of the film, much of it feels rushed and little feels earned, especially the time you’ve spent watching it.
I’m going to declare that the villains in Dark Phoenix are actually the worst in the entire universe of X-Men movies. They’re aliens adopting human form and they talk… so… slowly… and in unshakable monotone. They’re an alien species that wants the powers of the super space cloud. That’s it. That’s all you get. I have no idea what attracted Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) to this role and almost feel like it must have changed at some point. She walks around in a zombie-like daze with a giant platinum blonde wig that makes her look like an albino. At no point are any of these aliens interesting. At no point do they present personalities. At no point does their overall powers become clear. They seem invulnerable to anything, except when the script needs them not to be, and their vaguely defined powers seem limitless. Because of the creative choices with Jean Grey and how she developed her Dark Phoenix powers, extra emphasis is placed on the villains to carry the burden, and they could be eliminated entirely and not be missed in the slightest. It’s genuinely hilarious to watch them walk so stiltedly and then break into a run. The best thing Chastain does is strut in stilettos while taking a dozen blasting firearms to the face.
There are just some weird moments in this movie. Apparently Charles Xavier watches the students have their beer blasts in the woods and also keeps a thermal heat analysis of them during these moments (“That student’s really hot… I mean… getting really hot…, uh…”). That’s so weird and possibly perverted. There’s a running clothing item with blood that never gets changed. You’ll listen to “whose blood is that?” close to ten times. It’s always been inherently goofy watching these trained actors make silly strained faces while pretending to do things with their mind powers. Except this movie it goes a step further. There’s a moment of goofy strain face versus goofy strain face while the actors thrust their arms out, and there’s a scene where Jean Grey only has one arm out and then, to power up, she throws out her second arm. That’s not how mind powers work. There are several character jumps that seem rushed and unearned, like Charles becoming a focal point of disdain amongst his fellow X-people over his catering to public relations. Everyone is so quick to jump on the murder wagon when it comes to Jean Grey, which makes me wonder if they never really liked her and have just been waiting for a good excuse to kill her. The seesawing public support on mutants can be extremely confusing. The action sequences are filmed in a very haphazard way with replenishing bad guys to be disposed. During key stretches of the movie, I didn’t know who was on screen, where they had come from, and what relations they were to one another until punches started being thrown.
Continuity has never been a thing the X-universe cherished, especially once you started throwing in time travel with 2014’s Days of Future Past. However, Dark Phoenix complicates matters with its disregard for the overall continuity. Firstly, I am not a fan of the idea that these prequel films all take place in separate decades. It worked with First Class which tied the cultural revolutions and changing mores to the characters and their selfI identity, plus the Cold War paranoia. It even worked for Days of Future Past being set in the early 70s, during the malaise of the optimism of the 1960s. That related to the character arc for Raven on her quest for vengeance and the individual versus society. But what did Apocalypse have to gain by taking place in 1983? What does Dark Phoenix gain by taking place in 1992? Plus it means that these characters have hardly aged in 30 years and in less than a decade James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are going to look like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (no offense to McKellen, but that’s quite a sudden, precipitous drop). Let’s even say the older movies are eliminated from the timeline after the reboot of Days of Future Past. Just in the LAST movie they established that Jean Grey had the powerful phoenix spirit and abilities within her, as it was the final push to topple the bad guy.
Allow me to get into more detail why this disregard is so troublesome and erroneous. Judging from the trailers and marketing, I thought Dark Phoenix was going to be an addiction metaphor, with Jean Grey embracing a self-destructive thrill that made her feel good even as it pushed others away and forced her down a darker path. Despite the ads emphasizing this aspect, the actual movie ignores this addiction metaphor for a cosmic illness she contracts. Kinberg and the filmmakers have dropped that Jean Grey had this power within her and have made her a victim of an external force from space. This is far less interesting because it makes the story of Jean as reactive from external forces taking over. Space clouds resembling a pink Parallax (the poop cloud monster from 2011’s Green Lantern) did it all. That’s boring.
Think of the stronger version already within reach that examined the power within her that Charles has been keeping limited thanks to withholding her memories of her parent’s deadly accident. Because she was denied this essential part of her past she was never able to process her trauma and work through it. The man she trusted, the father figure telling her how to best control her feelings and powers has been inhibiting her the whole time and manipulating her. That betrayal could reignite the power already within her, and her journey would be about self-discovery while also confronting the gaslighting by those she trusted. You could even go further and have Charles eventually revealed as a villain for psychically altering people’s memories and minds to his ideal of what is right. That’s the better movie. They might as well have gone all-out and ended with the destruction of the Earth and the death of everybody we know because why not? What we get with Dark Phoenix is a woman who glows a lot thanks to an inscrutable pink space cloud.
It’s hard for these talented actors to hide their disinterest; some have been eyeing the exits since the last film. I challenge every reader to look at the painting of Chastain’s face on the very poster, which to me reads loudly, “Let’s just get this thing done with.” Turner (HBO’s Game of Thrones) is the best thing in the movie and yet the screenplay doesn’t give her an actual character arc with depth. It feels like she has three or four stages in the movie where Kinberg just asks her to repeat the same note over and over. Many of the actors that have been here since 2011’s First Class feel like they’re on autopilot. It’s simply another level of mediocrity that ends up defining this disappointing movie.
If you asked writer/director Simon Kinberg, in private so he could be truly honest, whether he would have repeated what happens in Dark Phoenix as the very last X-Men movie, and I legitimately think he would say no. That’s the problem with the movie is that it’s a double dip that, surprisingly, doesn’t get better. The story is boring and repetitive, the action is bland, the characters are at the mercy of a story that has no interest in them, and the resolution does not provide any satisfying finality. It feels like the close of a weekly television episode that knows more is to come except it’s been cancelled. The X-Men movies have been at their best when they’ve been about something, when they’ve gone inside their characters and the conflicts of living in a society of oppression and prejudice and fear. The franchise lends itself to being more than spandex-clad superheroes fighting each other. The division between the good X-Men movies and the bad X-Men movies is wide and clear; nobody is going to put Logan and Apocalypse in the same grade. It’s easy to tell when the plots connect to character and have exciting themes to go with their exciting action sequences. Coming to a shrug-worthy series conclusion, I think I’d rather rewatch The Last Stand than the second go-round of the Phoenix saga. The X-Men ultimately go out with a whimper but that doesn’t take away from the greatness of the other films. It’s been nearly two decades, and I’m grateful for the ride, but it’s a shame it had to end this way.
Nate’s Grade: C-
This may prove to be the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my twenty years (!) of reviewing movies. How do I ever begin to describe the events of Marvel’s culminating blockbuster Avengers: Endgame without stepping too far into the dark and dangerous territory of the accursed spoilers? I thought it would be difficult talking about last year’s Infinity War considering the shocking plot events and general secrecy, but this concluding chapter to a 22-movie journey is even more secretive (the trailer accounts for only footage roughly from the first twenty minutes). I’ll do my best, dear reader, to give you the clearest impression I can of this unique experience while respecting your need to be un-spoiled. In short, Avengers: Endgame is unparalleled in our history of modern popular blockbusters because it needs to work as a clincher to a decade-plus of hugely popular blockbusters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and boy do they ever stick the landing.
The film picks up with our surviving Avengers picking up the pieces following the events of Infinity War, namely Thanos (Josh Brolin) eliminating half of life throughout the universe. The original six Avengers are all suffering through guilt, depression, and degrees of PTSD following their failure to defeat Thanos. Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) arrives after having spent time in the quantum realm and has a potential solution that will involve traveling through time to correct the mistakes of the past and bring everyone who vanished back to life. The remaining teammates assemble at the behest of Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), including Bruce Banner a.k.a. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and War Machine (Don Cheadle). However Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) needs the most convincing, as he is most afraid of making things even worse and losing more people he feels are too precious to be casualties to their failures once again.
The thing to know ahead of time is that Endgame is not for the casual fan. This is a long love letter to the fans that have pored over all 22 preceding films, not just a scant one or two. Infinity War was accessible to relative newcomers because of the structure and focus on Thanos as the main character, providing a self-contained arc that lead up to his finger-snapping triumph. It also benefited from the fun factor of simply watching a bunch of popular characters interact and team up for the first time in MCU history. Now that a majority of those characters have turned to dust, the emphasis falls back on the original core of the Avengers, bringing things full circle. In several ways, Endgame is about bringing to a close this mammoth project that began with Iron Man, this decade of storytelling ambition that has stretched out into multiple inter-connected franchises. If you love these characters, then Endgame is a movie made specifically for you. There is a long stretch in Act Two that relies upon a decent amount of fan service and sentimentality, but I don’t think either is an automatically negative attribute. Before we reach the finish line it’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come and this goes for the essential characters and their long arcs. There are several fun cameos strewn throughout and the filmmakers even take an interesting tack of trying to reclaim and re-contextualize the MCU movies that fewer people enjoyed. It makes for a filmgoing experience that is heavy in references, in-jokes, Easter eggs, and cozy nostalgia, which will confuse and frustrate those not well versed in this big world.
The other thing to know, especially if you’re a long-standing fan, is that there will be tears. Oh will there be tears. I lost count of the amount of times I was crying, which was pretty much on and off nonstop for the final twenty minutes. I was even tearing up for supporting characters that I didn’t know I had that kind of emotional attachment for. The film is done so well that the first third actually could play as the MCU equivalent of HBO’s The Leftovers, an undervalued and elegant series about the long-term recovery of those that remain in a post-rapture world. The opening scene involves a character having to go through the loss of loved ones via Thanos’ snap, and it’s brutal as we wait for what we know is coming, dread welling up in the pit of your stomach. The Russo brothers, the returning directing team from Infinity War, know what scenes to play for laughs (the line “That’s America’s ass” had me in stitches), what scenes to play for thrills, what scenes to play for fist-pumping cheers, and what scenes to play for gut-wrenching drama. They allow the movie to be an existential mood piece when it needs to be, actually dwelling on the repercussions of a life post-universe culling. There’s a character who frantically searches to see if a loved one was among the missing, and that eventual reunion had me in tears. With the three-hour running time, the Russos have the luxury of allowing scenes to naturally breathe. This might be the most human many of these characters have ever seemed, and it’s after recovery and grief. Needless to say, the conclusion feels very much fitting but also unabashedly emotional, unafraid of diving deep into its feelings. I sobbed.
I was worried once the film introduced the time travel plot device that everything was simply going to be erased and invalidate the struggles that came before. The worst use of time travel is when it eliminates any urgency or danger, allowing an endless series of do-overs to correct the past. Fortunately, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Civil War, Winter Soldier) realize that in order for there to be a reversal, a glint of a happy ending, there must be a cost or else it all meant little to nothing. There are finite events in the movie that cannot change (as of now) and losses that will be permanent (as of now, if they don’t want to cheapen the journey). People died with Infinity War but we all knew, at least when it came to its dreary conclusion, that it wasn’t going to be too long lasting, which allowed the communal grief to be short-lived. After all, there’s a new Spider-Man film coming down the pike two months from now, so it’s highly unlikely the teenage web-head will remain dead. However, with Endgame, the deaths serve as the cost for resurrecting the MCU, and they will be felt for years. The screenplay provides limitations to the time travel mechanics, though I don’t think the collective hand-wave to the nagging paradoxes was as successful as the movie thinks it was. The film barrels ahead, essentially telling you to forget about the paradoxes and enjoy the ride, focusing on the characters and remembering what is really important.
Suffice to say Downey Jr. is once again his charming, self-effacing, and enormously entertaining self. The MCU began with this man and his contributions cannot be overstated. He is the soul of this universe. Evans is compelling as the straight-laced inspirational figure who takes stock of what he’s sacrificed over the years, Hemsworth showcases a potent mixture of comedic and dramatic chops, Johannson is definitely the Avenger going through the “bargaining” phase to try and make things right and she has some subtle emotional moments that belie her desperation and guilt, and Renner makes a welcomed return in a way that made me appreciate Hawkeye like I never had before. Brie Larson does reappear as Captain Marvel but the movie smartly puts her back on the sidelines protecting the many other worlds in the universe needing assistance because of how overwhelmingly powerful she can become. Larson filmed her scenes for Endgame before her own solo movie, released a month prior, so forgive the different hair and makeup, Twitter nit-pickers. I will say there is one scene that is a bit convoluted how it gets there but is destined to make women in the audience cheer with excitement as the MCU says, “Hey, that whole ‘strong female character’ thing? Yeah, we’ve had all that for years, and here you go.”
How does one properly assess a movie like Avengers: Endgame, a conclusion not just to an Infinity War cliffhanger but to a twenty-two movie prelude over the course of eleven years? The emotional investment in these characters, their journeys, has to come to something to be ultimately meaningful when it’s time to close the chapter on one massively ambitious story before starting the next. And there will be a next chapter; the MCU’s unparalleled financial success assures the fanbase they’ll have plenty more high-flying and wild adventures to come in the years, and more than likely, decades to come. Marvel had the unenviable task of wrapping up a major narrative in a way that would prove satisfying without devaluing the individual films and overall time investment. Hollywood is filled with trilogies that messed up their conclusions. Nailing the ending is just as important as getting things going right, because without a satisfying conclusion it can feel like that level of emotional investment was all for naught. Endgame reminds you how much you’ve grown to love these characters, what fun you’ve had, and genuinely how much you’ll miss these characters when they depart for good. It’s hard not to reflect upon your own passage of time with the ensuing eleven years, how you’ve changed and grown from the MCU’s humble beginnings in the summer of 2008. These heroes and anti-heroes can begin to feel like an extended family for many, and so fans desperately need the ending to do them justice. Avengers: Endgame is the ultimate fan experience.
Nate’s Grade: A
The new Hellboy reboot is utterly fascinating but in a way I doubt the filmmakers intended. The confluence of bizarre, arbitrary plotting, budget limitations, artistic self-indulgences, and tonal imbalances makes for a truly entertaining watch but for all the wrong reasons. A recent apt comparison would be the Wachowskis’ 2015 shining artifact-of-hubris Jupiter Ascending, an expensive and ambitious mess that left me dumbfounded how something like that could slip through the studio system. Right from the 500 A.D. opening prologue of Hellboy I was laughing under my breath, trying valiantly to make sense of what I was watching. It played like camp, ridiculous high-end camp, but I don’t think that was the intent of director Neil Marshall (The Descent) and company. I think they were going for a cocky, carefree sense of apathetic cool and wanted to have fun unleashing an adolescent fantasy of monsters, violence, and droll one-liners. Hellboy is an experience, all right.
Hellboy (David Harbour), child of hell and intended tool for evil Nazi world domination, has been raised by his surrogate father, Professor Bloom (Ian Mcshane), as a valuable asset in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), the fighters against the things that go bump in the night. An ancient evil witch, The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), is being resurrected one dismembered piece at a time. Hellboy and his associates, psychic smartass Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and agent/were-jaguar Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), must track the whereabouts of the Blood Queen before she can fulfill her goal of unleashing hell on Earth.
The storytelling for the 2019 Hellboy is its biggest hurdle that it cannot get over. I think ninety percent of this movie’s dialogue, and storytelling in general, is expositional, and the remaining ten percent are groan-worthy quips (after kissing a gross witch, Hellboy says, “Somebody get me a mint” — har har). Every moment is explaining the person in the scene, the stakes of the scene, the purpose of the scene, the setting of the scene, the other people in the scene, and then re-explaining one of these elements. Every single freaking scene. Every ten minutes a new character is thrown into the mix and the cycle starts anew; it feels like the screenplay is cramming for a test by the end credits. In addition to these expository present-day scenes, there are five separate flashback sequences to explain superfluous back-stories. Do we need a flashback to explain the motivation behind the pig man, who is pretty much a standard henchman? Would the audience not believe he has a grudge against Hellboy if we lacked a key flashback to set up the history between our protagonist and this unimportant side villain? Does Daimio need a flashback to showcase his military team being attacked by something vaguely mysterious? Or can he just say he was attacked and we reveal later the full extent of his… were-jaguar powers? Did we need an entire segment where Hellboy travels to another dimension to tussle with the imprisoned witch Baba Yaga to find out a location? Did we need an entire Arthurian legend to set up a super special weapon that will kill our villain, or could it have been anything else? Then there are prophecies and counter-prophecies and I was exhausted by the end of these relentless two hours. It feels less like a coherent two-hour movie and more like an aborted television pilot intending to set up weekly wacky adventures and preview a larger realm of potential storytelling avenues. We even get the extended set-up for a hopeful sequel that will all most certainly never materialize.
The bonkers narrative inconsistency and runaway pacing make it feel like anything can happen at any moment, but not in a good way. It makes it feel like very little onscreen legitimately matters because the next second a character could just say, “Hey, here’s that thing,” or, “Here’s a new person that cancels out that previous thing.” It feels like the internal rules of the storytelling are completely ephemeral. I kept shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders, just like the breathless inconsistency of Jupiter Ascending. I was not a fan of the original 2004 Hellboy (if I recall I cited it as one of the worst films of that year) and one major reason was just the sheer number of goofy elements that felt overwhelming to any sense of a baseline of believability for me to gravitate toward. I feel like if I were to revisit the original Hellboy I might be more charitable (I enjoyed the second film), but this 2019 edition is an even bigger culprit because it feels like nothing in any previous ten minutes matters. The screenplay is structured like one disposable video game fetch-quest after another.
You can almost see the movie that Marshall and his team were aiming for, a weird hard-R action/sci-fi film with strange creatures and smarmy attitude. There are moments where you can tell a lot of fun was had designing certain ghouls and monsters, like the hell beasts unleashed that include a spike-legged monstrosity that ka-bobs people as it stomps. It’s moments like that where you see the zeal of crazy creativity that must have attracted Marshall and others to this project. It’s too bad there aren’t enough of them. There’s a sequence where Hellboy takes on a trio of giants that’s filmed in a style meant to evoke one long tracking shot. It doesn’t quite get there thanks to the limits of the budget’s special effects to conceal the seams. This is an issue throughout the movie. The special effects can get surprisingly shoddy, especially a spirit late in the film that shockingly resembled something akin to an early 2000s PS2 game. If the budget could not adequately handle these sequences then maybe there should have been less new characters and excursions and we could have concentrated on what we had and done it better.
I pity Harbour (Stranger Things) for stepping into the oversized shoes of fan favorite Ron Perlman. It’s quite a challenge to follow up the guy who seemed born to play this part, but Harbour does a good job with what he’s been given. The character is a bit more sulky and surly than we’ve seen in the previous incarnations. It makes Hellboy feel like a giant moody teenager chaffing under his dad’s house rules and saying nobody understands him. The practical makeup is great and still allows Harbour the ability to emote comfortably though he always appears to be grimacing. MacShane (TV’s American Gods) is a more ornery father figure than John Hurt, and he seems in a hurry to get through his lines and get out of here. Jovovich (Resident Evil… everything) is an enjoyably hammy villain with her withering sneers and overly dramatic intonations, but she knows what she’s doing here. The same can be said for what might be the most pointless character in the whole movie, a Nazi hunter known as “Lobster Johnson,” played by Thomas Haden Church (Easy A), who plays it like he’s in one of those heightened propaganda inserts from 1997’s Starship Troopers. The actual side characters for Hellboy are the weakest because the film doesn’t know what to do with them. Lane (American Honey) and Kim (TV’s Lost) are both good actors but the movie doesn’t understand that a character foil is more than a bickering, doubtful sidekick.
I would almost recommend watching the new Hellboy reboot for the same reasons I would Jupiter Ascending. It’s rare to see a big screen stumble where it feels like the movie is just being made up as it transpires before your eyes, where the mishmash of tones, intent, and mishandled execution is confusing, disconcerting, and even a little bit thrilling. This might not be a good film for various reasons but it can be a good watch. If that sounds like your own version of heaven, give the newest Hellboy a passing chance.
Nate’s Grade: C
It seems like the secret to the success of the DC movie universe is making fun, lower stakes adventures with the characters the public has the least knowledge about. Shazam actually begun as a “Captain Marvel,” and now comes on the heels of the MCU’s Captain Marvel. We follow Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage orphan trying to find his missing mother. He stumbles into a wizard’s realm and is given a special power whereupon he turns into a square-jawed, broad-shouldered superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying “Shazam.” What follows is like a superhero version of Big and it’s goofy, charming, and reminiscent of an 80s Amblin movie, where children’s movies were allowed to be a little creepy and weird. The movie is light, cheerful, and heartfelt with its doling out of family messages to go along with the slapstick and personal growth. It’s very much envisioned from a young boy’s fantasy perspective of being a super-powered adult, where the first things to be done include buying beer, going to a “gentleman’s club,” in between testing out bullet invulnerability and flight. Levi (TV’s Chuck) is excellent at playing an adult version of a kid. I was initially dismissive of his casting but he’s perfect for this part. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery for Shazam and his excitable foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) that doesn’t get old. The movie is more concerned with how the superpowers are affecting Billy’s relationships and sense of self than any larger, planet-destroying danger. The film even sets up its villain (Mark Strong) by giving him a decent back-story and opening the movie to explain his crummy family. It’s not a three-dimensional villain by any means but the attention given to make him something more is appreciated. The other foster kids in Billy’s new family are more archetypes but amusing, and their involvement in the final act raises the joy level of the finale. Shazam! is a movie where people are genuinely excited to be superheroes or associated with them, and that gleeful, buoyant revelry is downright infectious.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Wonder Woman may have beaten her to the punch but Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, deserves her own share of headlines as the first woman to have her own starring vehicle in the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Her presence was first teased in the post-credit scene of Infinity War. After twenty-one films, Captain Marvel gets squeezed into the penultimate chapter before closing the book on the MCU as we know it for a decade, and it feels like a throwback in both good and bad ways.
Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), or “Vers” as she’s known on the Kree home planet, is part of an elite alien squad of “noble warrior heroes” fighting in a long-running war against another alien race, the shape-shifting Skrulls. Carol Danvers goes back to her home planet of Earth (a.k.a. Planet C-53) in the 1990s to look for a hidden weapon linked to a mentor she can’t quite remember, a woman (Annette Bening) from her past life on Earth as an Air Force pilot. Carol Danvers must try and recall who she is with the help of Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and stay one step ahead from the invading Skrulls.
This definitely feels like a lower-to-mid tier Marvel entry, something more akin to the Phase One years (2008-2012) where the initial franchises were just starting to get a sense of direction and personality. They were also lacking the larger depth of character development, social and political messaging, as well as judicious independence from the overall studio formula that has come to define dozens of superhero blockbusters. It’s not a bad movie, and is fairly entertaining throughout its 124-minute run time, but it’s hard not to notice the shortcomings that, frankly, haven’t been this transparent in an MCU movie for some years now. I had to think back on a comparable MCU experience and I had to go back to 2015 with Avengers: Age of Ultron or maybe even 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. In short, Captain Marvel just feels a little less super in many important areas.
This is the first female-lead superhero film in the MCU (sorry Black Widow) and Carol Danvers has been a character in Marvel comics since 1968, and yet the film doesn’t put together a compelling case why she is the one getting her big screen moment. The character suffers that wonderfully tired movie trope of the foggy memory, so we have a protagonist trying to discover who she is alongside the audience. This would be a fine starting point for her to essentially reclaim her humanity and her agency as she travels back to good ole C-53 and learns more about her past. There’s a core of a beginning theme already present there, the nature of what it means to be human, and how it can be viewed as a weakness by n alien species and how it comes to be a strength for her. Maybe that’s too pat but it’s a start. The problem is that Carol Danvers isn’t seen to be that interesting. She’s somewhat boring and the presentation feels a tad inauthentic; when she’s quippy it feels forced, and when she’s badass it feels lethargic. There’s a personal journey that challenges her to assess her preconceived notions of good and evil in an ongoing intergalactic conflict, but it’s so impersonal. Even when she’s revisiting with friends and reminiscing (what she can) it doesn’t feel like we’re getting that much more insight than we had before. She’s a warrior. She’s upstanding. She definitely doesn’t like men telling her what she can and cannot do. But what else do we know besides her increasingly invincible super powers? What is most important to her that drives her? What are her flaws other than a faulty memory? When she goes full super saiyan it should be celebratory and joyous and instead it feels more weirdly perfunctory.
I love Larson as an actress and have been singing her praises for dramas (Room, Short Term 12) and comedies (21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim) for years, and I kept waiting and waiting to be wowed by her in this role. I was left unfulfilled. Larson is a terrific actress and can be so expressive, resolute, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and I grew frustrated as the movie kept her talents buttoned up for too long. She seems too removed from the action even as it’s happening in the moment. It’s not that she’s too serious (“smile more” chime the denizens of cretinous “men’s rights activists”) because her character should be serious. It’s that she hasn’t been given enough depth and interest a hero deserves.
Jackson (Glass) and Mendelsohn (Ready Player One) were my favorite parts of the movie. Watching a 40-something Jackson front and center looking like he was ripped out from 90s cinema is remarkable. The movie is at its best when Jackson and Larson are working their 90s buddy cop chemistry together. There’s a fun running joke about how Fury loses his eye with some near-misses played for comedy (reminiscent of Crispin Glover’s eventual armless bellhop in Hot Tub Time Machine) and while the film does a disservice to Carol Danvers’ character it opens up Fury even more as a person. Mendelsohn has become a go-to villain for Hollywood and the filmmakers use this to their advantage. He slinks around having a good time being bad, but there’s also a surprising turn that provides unexpected pathos and depth to what could have been a one-note scary-looking bad guy. In a movie that deserves headlines for being the first female-lead MCU entry, the supporting dudes end up having the most depth and success, which is rather odd.
Captain Marvel is missing a larger sense of vision and purpose, which is why it feels more like a throwback to those early days. Directing/co-witting husband-and-wife team Anna Bodin and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) don’t manage to have a feel for the material and for action as a whole. There are some pretty-looking sequences and some moments that strike their intended effect well, but the structure of their movie could use a bit of an overhaul. The first act, the pre-Earth return, is a bit convoluted and could be condensed. This even goes for the Kree Special Forces team (Kree Team Six?), which comprise many differentiated soldiers when really three non-Jude Law members would suffice. The Kree characters are stranded for the middle act and when they come back it’s hard not to feel disinterest. The concluding act brings the various plotlines together better with some good twists I did not see coming and appreciated. However, the climax is missing out on its triumphant jubilation because of the spotty characterization and the haphazard action direction. From the start, the action is unimpressive and poorly choreographed and edited. The chases are humdrum and the special effects are surprisingly substandard at too many turns. It’s hard to tell what’s happening in many fight scenes, and once Carol Danvers gets her full super laser-blasting powers, the screen becomes even more obstructed and even harder to decipher. Bodin and Fleck have showcased a natural feel for visual storytelling but action appears beyond their grasp for now.
Captain Marvel suffers from being asked to do too much, slap together an origin tale for the last essential character for the conclusion to a larger multi-movie storyline, also forging the beginning of the MCU timeline as a prequel for Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D, as well as some connective back-story with the Guardians universe. It has to do a lot of heavy lifting in two hours that the screenplay and characterization do not seem best equipped to handle. The humor is a bit dull and unsure of itself, relying upon certain beats one too may times, notably a cute orange cat tagging along. Even the 90s setting feels like something tacked on for easy jokes about dial-up Internet and references to Radio Shack. It feels like simple nostalgia and that goes to the soundtrack selections as well. This must have been the easiest job the music supervisor ever had for a film, having to do a mere cursory scan of 90s alternative rock for the hits. An action sequence set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” should have more attitude than it does. A dream/trance sequence set to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” should be creepier and more unsettling. By the end, as the credits flash onscreen set to the guitar chords of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” I felt certifiable 90s fatigue.
I feel like I’m piling on Captain Marvel with complaints and quibbles and presenting the impression that it’s a bad or dimly entertaining film. It’s not a bad experience but it definitely has its share of flaws that hinder the enjoyment factor. As a white guy in his thirties, Hollywood has been making movies tailor-made for me as their default setting. I cannot underestimate the cultural and personal impact this will have for millions of women and young girls who have been eagerly waiting for a big-budget movie with a strong female protagonist front and center. Wonder Woman was a cultural and commercial touchstone that might diminish the luster of Captain Marvel for some, but the MCU is its own unparalleled zeitgeist. Having a woman carry a movie in this special high-profile film universe will mean considerably much to many. I wish it was a better movie, but even lower-tier Marvel is still better than plenty, and that may be enough. I’ll look forward to see how other screenwriters and filmmakers make use of the character in the ensuing Avengers sequel coming out next month. I’ll reserve my final judgment on the character after I see how she fits into the larger picture and with storytelling talents that have shown more aptitude toward the super stuff.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Polar is such a thoroughly unpleasant film experience I was wondering if Lars von Trier had somehow made a comic book movie. I enjoy exploitation movies, I enjoy slick hitman spectacles, and I enjoy audaciously stylish indie films with their own lingering sense of cool, but Polar is gratuitous in every sense of the word and a chore to sit through.
Duncan (Mads Mikkelsen) is the top assassin in an organization filled with colorful personalities with guns. The head of the agency, Blut (Matt Lucas), has a surefire plan to pay off his debts. Rather than pay the assassins their pensions once they hit the mandatory retirement age of 50, he’ll just kill them. Brilliant. Duncan sets off to enjoy his last few days before his big birthday by settling down in a sleepy small town, getting to know his meek neighbor, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens). This quiet new life is interrupted by a team of crazy killers determined to eliminate their colleague and collect his riches.
The tonal disparity with Polar never settles down, which makes it hard to find any sense of a baseline of what is acceptable reality. What is normal here? The film veers from grotesque, brutish, gory violence to cartoonish, grating, juvenile slapstick. The violence is far too gross and brutal for the light tone it wishes to maintain. It’s the kind of violence where every gunshot necessitates a lurid explosion of blood, and why stop at one gunshot when a dozen will do? There’s an extended torture montage that lasts a total of four days when it could have just been a single session if the point is to kill the hero. It’s close-ups of skin peeling and being penetrated, and I’m not averse to gore effects and exploitation elements but when it’s paired with this flippant, nasty tone it cheapens the violence. This is a film that wallows in the grotesque, tittering to itself and trying so damn hard to be so provocative that it becomes exhausting. It’s jam-packed with style-for-style’s-sake choices that further call attention to its overall emptiness. I started counting the number of shots that existed simply to highlight a woman’s butt, and mostly that of Ruby O. Fee (The Invisibles). I swear her entire role seems to be butt-centric. Then there’s one shot composed entirely of butts shaking in Katheryn Winnick’s (Vikings) face. She’s having a phone call and her face is squeezed between two strippers shaking butts just because. It’s hilariously and transparently gratuitous. So many edits, shots, and even scenes exist just to call attention to its supposed sense of cool. However, cool movies, just like people, don’t have to convince you that they’re cool, they just are.
Let’s take the evil assassins that chase after Duncan. They’re the kind of glib movie assassins that all seem defined by one or two quirks and costume styling guidelines. It’s a diverse group of ridiculous cartoon villains who seem reverse-engineered as toy figures. Why are they also working for an employer that plans on killing them all to escape paying them upon retirement? Why would you willfully work for someone who is so open about betraying you? It’s astoundingly shortsighted thinking. Regardless, other movies have utilized colorful criminals to better establish a sense of fun, particularly the early works of Guy Ritchie. These villains bounce from person-to-person tracking down their target, killing with callous indifference mixed with childish glee, but there’s no personality, no menace, so the bloodletting feels gratuitous and ugly. Scene after scene feels like the actors had large trunks of costumes and props and were told to dig around and grab anything they wanted before they began filming. It makes every one of their appearances feel annoying and trite, especially when one scene, again, exists simply to highlight Fee’s butt in jean shorts. The killers’ big plan is to shoot their target while receiving oral sex from Fee’s character. Then the others will bulrush and shoot some more. Or, and I’m not an expert here, they could simply break in while their target sleeps and shoot them in the back? This lame group of hired killers is the big threat… and then they’re taken out with half the movie left. They are removed with such haste that I was shocked. We had spent so much time with these antagonists and then they’re gone. It’s a fantastic waste of time for a group of characters that didn’t even merit one minute. There’s even one scene where Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) shows up and is never seen again.
The supreme villain is played by Matt Lucas (Doctor Who) and it just does not work. It’s like Toby Jones’ second cousin found the relics of Elton John’s closet and decided to try and play a Bond villain. I enjoy Lucas normally for his daft comedy roles and I think he’s trying to adopt a Goldfinger impersonation but it does not work. Once again it’s the entire tonal execution and narrative development at fault here. Blut is an officious dweeb prone to yelling at people and running away. He has no standout scene and poses no real threat once the hired guns and goons are taken care of. He cannot hold his own. This is why killing off the team of assassins with half the movie left relates to a dire misstep.
The only thing that does work in this movie is Mikkelsen (Rogue One), who is doing everything in his power to provide an anchor for the pitiable audience. He is way too good for Polar. He takes everything one hundred percent seriously and is genuinely emoting while everyone else is chewing whatever scenery isn’t nailed down. It very much feels like Mikkelsen is in some other different movie, or is pretending to be in a different, better movie. His interactions with Hudgens are a high point, taking her under his wing and showing small glimpses of sympathy and guilt. Their ultimate relationship is predictable, and she disappointingly becomes trapped as a damsel in distress for the final act. Mikkelsen does have a terrific brawl in a hallway (the location of all film fights now it seems) that is well choreographed and very physical without feeling like he’s superhuman. I wish I were watching the better movie Mads Mikkelsen thought he was in.
Everything about Polar feels unnecessary. The sex scenes are gratuitous, the violence is gratuitous, the style is gratuitous, and when everything feels tacked on for cheap thrills, the movie becomes hollow, calculated, and lazy. The suspense sequences should be exciting or an example of our protagonist’s expertise but little feels clever. There are one or two moments, glimmers of what could have been had more attention been given to developing the sequences. As I was watching this two-hour cartoon I was strongly reminded of the 1990s Tarantino knock-off, The Big Hit, which was an exaggerated cartoon of tiresome depravity. It tried so hard to evoke a carefree hipness when it came to its criminals, their depraved acts, their comedic interactions, the debauched humor, that it all felt like two hours of collective flop sweat. Polar is very much in that same description, a movie that is trying too hard to be a fun, breezy, exploitation movie. Except it feels adrift and phony and unpleasant. Polar doesn’t deserve Mads Mikkelsen and it doesn’t deserve a minute of your time, butts and all.
Nate’s Grade: D+
It’s hard not to talk about the fledgling DCU without grading on a curve. Wonder Woman was a great success and a definite step in the right direction but it still had clear Act Three problems. However, when your previous movies are the abysmal Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman, anything in the right direction is seen as enlightenment. There are currently no planned Superman films, no planned Batman films, and it looks like the teetering DCU is banking its future on the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. If you had told me that the future of an interconnected series of franchises would rest upon the shoulders of a man who talks to fish, I would have laughed. Enter director James Wan, best known for the Conjuring franchise and plugging into Furious 7 without missing a beat. Warner Bros. desperately wanted Wan’s stewardship to get a notoriously difficult comics property to float in the modern market. The early marketing was not encouraging but I held out a slim degree of hope that Wan would make it work. While Aquaman as a whole has its share of problems, Wan has done it. He’s made a big screen Aquaman movie that is fun, visually immersive, weird, and packed with great action. I was just as surprised as you, dear reader, but the smile on my face was evident.
Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is heir to the undersea throne of Atlantis. His mother (Nicole Kidman) fled her arranged marriage and had a son with a human lighthouse keeper. She retreated back into the ocean to prevent further harm to her shore side family. Arthur is approached by princess Meera (Amber Heard) to return to Atlantis and claim his birthright to the throne, currently occupied by Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). The reigning king is planning to unite the seven sea kingdoms to launch an attack against the surface-dwellers. Arthur must go back to the people who reportedly killed his mother and challenge his half-brother for supremacy. Along the way he’ll have to venture across the globe with Meera for a series of adventures to reclaim lost artifacts, while also dodging Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate gifted with underwater technology who swears vengeance against Arthur for letting his father die.
Make no mistake, there is definitely a ceiling capped for Aquaman. The characterization is pretty standard stuff with little added nuance. It’s a dash of Chosen One destined to bridge communities, a dash of Prodigal Son outcast trying to make amends and duty, and there’s the general pledged vengeance that reappears again and again for motivation. The plot is reminiscent of a video game, structured so that Arthur and Meera have to travel from one stage to another, finding an important artifact and then going to the next stage. Sometimes there are mini-bosses at these various video game stages. The antagonists are acceptable but without much in the way of depth or charisma. You might even find yourself agreeing with King Orm as far as his pre-emptive strike over mankind (the latent racism of “half-breeds” maybe not as much). The leads are also given little. Momoa (Justice League) is a naturally charismatic actor but his range is limited; he basically has two modes, off and on. This might have been one reason why the screenplay resolves to merely push him toward his “call to action,” which I thought was his Justice League arc. Still he’s an affable and handsome presence even with lesser material. Heard (London Fields) is struggling to find her character’s place in the story. She’s a romantic interest, quest cohort, and there are attempts to push through more feminist agency but it’s too murky. It feels like she’s trapped by her character and her giant Halloween store red wig. If you cannot get over these deficits, it’s going to feel like a relentless 143-minute video game.
And yet the movie works thanks to the talents of Wan and the overall abundant sense of exuberant fun. Wan has become a first-class chameleon, able to adapt his skill set to whatever genre he attaches himself to, be it high-octane car chase thriller, slow burn horror to grisly torture porn, or now splashy superhero blockbuster. Early on, I knew we were in good hands when Wan showcases a destructive fight scene between Kidman and a group of aqua storm troopers in long takes and wide angles, letting the choreography speak for itself and allowing the audience to fully take in every smash and crash. The action is consistently interesting and filmed in ways to highlight its best points. An underwater brotherly battle takes the movement within water into account, adapting fight choreography to add this new dimension. That’s what good action movies should be doing, applying their unique settings into the action development. There isn’t a boring action moment in the film. Even when we get to the big CGI armies duking it out, Wan instinctively knows to pull back to avoid overkill. Even the otherwise normal hand-to-hand combat is clever and consistently entertaining. The highlight of the movie is actually on land, an extended chase through the villas of Tuscany. Arthur and Meera are battling Black Manta but they’re also divided, and Wan’s camera will zoom back and forth between the two, connecting each on their parallel tracks. They jump from tiled roof to tiled roof, escaping danger. There’s one super aqua storm trooper who takes a more direct approach and just runs through room after room, and the camera follows him on this direct line of destruction. There’s even a payoff where Meera uses her powers in a wine shop to her great advantage. It’s moments like this where Wan is clearly having fun and demonstrating that he and his team have put good thought into their action.
The visuals are wildly immersive and amplify the sense of fun the film has to offer. There are plenty of cinematic reference points of influence here, from George Lucas to James Cameron, but Wan and his team do an excellent job of making this universe feel full. We visit many different undersea realms and people, including seahorse people, crab people, and just taking ownership of the weirdness without irony is refreshing. With the exception of Momoa’s need to undercut moments with quips, the film feels genuine and proud of its old-fashioned mentality, taking the ridiculousness and treating it with sincerity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t campy and absurd moments that are enjoyable precisely because of their camp and absurdity. There are people riding great white sharks and battling crab people to the death. How can that not be silly? There’s one group of creatures that feel plucked from Pitch Black, a band of feral monsters vulnerable to fire. There’s a fun and effective sequence where Arthur and Meera must dive to escape with their lit flare and we see the full totality of their situation, a literal sea of these monsters breaking apart just so as they dive. It’s a creepy moment made even better by Wan’s visual choices, which always seem to correspond to what’s best for the experience. The special effects are uniformly great and the attention to the undersea worlds is pristine.
Ultimately your view of Aquaman will come down to what you’re willing to forgive in the name of fun spectacle. Its best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) equivalent are the pre-Ragnarok Thor films. There are definite deficits with the minimal characterization and the familiar hero’s journey plot arc, but the execution level and the sheer energetic entertainment are enough to rise above. The action sequences are routinely thrilling, eye-catching, and wonderfully alive and clever thanks to Wan. They’ve found a way to make Aquaman cool and fun, which is what rules the day when it comes to the film version. Aquaman is another step in the right direction for the notoriously gloomy DCU. If Wan was attached for a sequel, I’d genuinely be interested. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of movies (just now underwater), it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating or emotionally involving, and yet the sheer success of the visuals, action orchestration, and the sense of fun override the rest of the detractions for me. It reminds me of the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care a lick for any non-Rock/Statham characters; I’m just there for the physics-defying stunts and set pieces. It provides the goods when it comes to action spectacle, and so does this movie. If you’re looking for a 90s throwback to big, fun action movies, then take the dive with Aquaman.
Nate’s Grade: B