After dominating the cinemas for over the last decade, Marvel took 2020 off thanks to that great menace even its own superheroes couldn’t overpower. Now in 2021, we’re eager for those big popcorn thrills of old, of a time before lockdowns and denials and vaccine misinformation. There’s a gauntlet of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies coming down the chute, including The Eternals (November), Spider-Man 3 (December), Doctor Strange 2 (March), Thor 4 (May), Black Panther 2 (July), and Captain Marvel 2 (November). That’s eight movies from July 2021 to November 2022, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings might just be the one that has the least recognition with the general public (I had never heard of him, sorry). And yet, I entered a theater for the first time in two months to see Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster on the big screen, and as the MCU’s first foray into the fantastical world of martial arts epics, Shang-Chi is a mostly agreeable success in the realm of expert face punching.
Shang-Chi (Simu Lei) is the son of a very dangerous and powerful man, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who has lived for thousands of years thanks to the power of ten magic rings that give him tremendous power to annihilate armies. Shang-Chi ran away as a teenager, leaving his sister Xialing (Meng-er Zhang) behind. She sends word requesting her brother’s assistance; dear old dad is on the warpath, and the two siblings might be the only ones who can stop him. Shang-Chi, living as Shawn in San Francisco, is trying to avoid larger responsibility as a valet with his good pal Katy (Awkwafina). However, he cannot ignore the assassins his father has sent, and so he and Katy travel back to China to regroup with Shang-Chi’s sister and face his destiny.
This is the most fantasy-heavy movie of a universe that previously defined the magic from the Thor universe as just another advanced form of science. The entire third act looks like it’s taking place in Narnia itself; legitimately, the color palate and overly lit, CGI-assisted green landscapes reminded me so much of the 2005 adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ novel. Within the extended prologue over the history of the ten rings, the movie is acclimating you toward its larger-than-life universe that it treats with sincerity and graceful appreciation. The courtship of Shang-Chi’s parents is handled in that flirt-fight style reminiscent in classic martial arts films, and the balletic wire work and dreamy slow-motion, set to the soothing flute-heavy musical score, evokes romantic memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Very early on, the work goes into convincing you that Marvel is taking this assignment seriously, and I appreciated that assurance and the follow-through. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, Shang-Chi works as a martial arts action film because it’s filmed and edited like one should be. The camerawork is vividly fluid and consistently roaming around the space of battle to better showcase the choreography and effort of the performers. The editing is also likewise very smooth and patient, with lots of longer takes blending together so that we can see multiple moves and counter moves, and if there are throws, we’ll travel with the fighters to continue the fight. I enjoyed a fight taking place on multiple levels of scaffolding. It all made my girlfriend nauseated in our theater, so you might be affected as well if you have a susceptibility to cinematic motion sickness. This movie allows you in on the martial arts fun.
I wasn’t expecting this kind of leap from co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. This man was responsible for one of the best films of 2013, and the 2010s-decade, Short Term 12, which starred (drumroll please) future Oscar-winner Brie Larson, future Oscar-winner Rami Malek, future Oscar-nominee LaKeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99, In the Heights) and the best-known actor at the time of release, John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom). Wow that cast is an all-timer. This is like the Millennial Outsiders with a cast of up-and-coming actors who have gone on to ascendant and award-winning careers. It’s also a hard-hitting, deeply emotional and upending movie worth your time. Cretton has stuck to adult dramas based upon real stories of people struggling through the justice system (Just Mercy) and parental dysfunction (The Glass Castle). A big-budget martial arts epic I wasn’t expecting, and perhaps the Marvel Machine makes it easy for indie auteurs to plug right in, but it feels like Cretton clearly has an affection and at least a tacit understanding of favorable stylistic genre choices. At this point I shouldn’t discount what filmmakers can make those big artistic leaps with a studio project. James Gunn can go from Super to the Guardians of the Galaxy, and so Cretton can go from Short Term 12 to helming a large-scale, CGI-heavy martial arts fantasy.
Another aspect I found pleasantly surprising was the amount of work put into its primary villain and the ensuring father/son dynamic. I’m not going to say that Xu Wenwu, a.k.a. The Real Mandarin, is one of the more complicated or nuanced villains in MCU history, but he’s given more dimension than a simple “destroy and/or conquer the world” motivation. In fact, that was the motivation for the man before he met Jiang Li (Fela Chen), Shang-Chi’s eventual mother. Real Mandarin (or RN as I’ll refer to him because I’m lazy) was going about the whole conquer and raze kingdoms thing for thousands of years, establishing another one of those all-powerful yet still clandestine and very vague shadow societies pulling the levers of power. He found a person who made him want to reform, to put his old ways of violence behind, and it’s her death that spurs him back to his views of power absolving all conflicts, so the most powerful is the one who can have the most say and protect the people close to him or her. If he had the full power of those ten rings, ordinary gangsters wouldn’t have dared to threaten or harm his loved ones. He trained his son to follow by example, and despite the fact that he sent trained killers after his son rather than a more constructive and clearer message, RN declares his love for his children. He is moving forward to return his beloved back to the land of the living. Being motivated by grief and wanting to see a departed loved one no matter the cost is a relatable struggle and one that brings degrees of nuance that Leung can imbue with his great pained, hangdog expressions. Having a father be the villain but still love his children and be primarily motivated by bringing back his dead wife and honestly assessing how she made him a better person is a breath of fresh-ish air.
Liu (Kim’s Convenience) is easily charming and demonstrates a sharp affinity for the martial arts training and choreography. With the longer takes and clean edits, it’s clear that Liu is performing many of the moves, and he moves with great skill and balance to believably crack some skulls. A fight aboard a city bus is our real intro into seeing this man as he’s avoided, as a well-trained fighting machine, the identity of his father that he’s been attempting to run away from. Liu has a self-effacing charm to him that doesn’t cross over into smug. Awkwafina (The Farewell) is her reliable comic relief asset, though too often the movie resorts to just spotlighting her for a riff or one-liner when the context doesn’t provide the opportunity. It’s rather mystifying why her supporting character, a normal human, would accompany her pal into the word of underground martial arts ninja conspiracy fantasy, let alone that she could take up a bow and arrow and becomes a valuable member of a fighting force. Leung (2046, The Grandmaster) is just movie royalty, so getting him to read the phone book would have been an acceptable start. He sits out for long periods and his absence is noted. He brings such a heaviness, a quiet yet dignified despondency to the character, and there are several instances where he undersells his character’s danger and power, which just makes him so much more intimidating. I feel like Leung is finding connections with the somber, brooding heartache of his War Kong Wai roles, and yes film nerds, I just made that connection for a Marvel movie.
Not everything quite works in this MCU outing. There are several jumps in the screenplay that feel like further revision or clarity were necessary. I don’t really know why Shang-Chi is finally able to take on his father at the end except for some abstract concept of, I guess, believing in himself more. The power of the rings feels a little too unexplored for deserving of the movie’s subtitle. The rings come almost as an afterthought for much of the movie. There are a few moments where I was trying to connect how characters understood what they were supposed to do in any given moment, and I just gave up, which is kind of what the film also feels like it’s doing. There are clear characters included with the sole decision to sell merchandise. I don’t know if the nation’s children will be screaming for a faceless winged furry ottoman but that’s the gamble Marvel execs took and by God, you’re going to get many appearances. The sister addition to the movie feels decidedly undernourished, like she’s drafting from the father/son relationship that’s getting all the narrative attention. It feels like occasionally the movie pans to her to nod and go, “Oh yeah, me too.” The visual color palate is so brightly colored for so long, and then once the big splashy Act Three battle commences between CGI good and CGI evil, the visuals become so grey and murky and definitely hard to keep track of in the scrum. I wish the fantasy rules were more streamlined and explored rather than feeling grafted on when needed and forgotten when inconvenient, but this is their first foray into this sub-genre of action and while Marvel doesn’t need a sliding scale at this point, it’s still a moderate achievement.
Look, this isn’t exactly The Raid or Ip Man or anything that will challenge the most heart-pounding, intense, acrobatic heights of the crossover martial arts epic. Consider it a solid effort at watering down a Hero or House of Flying Daggers and switching over to the typical Marvel formula final act complete with onslaught of weightless CGI. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fun action movie that does just enough right to land it in the cushy middle-of-the-middle for the annuls of the MCU (I would rank it around the level of Black Panther). The fight choreography and presentation, as well as the exploration of the father/son dynamics, are surprisingly refined, which is good considering one provides the entertainment value for the eyes and the other the emotional connection for everything to matter more than flashes of punches and kicks and fireballs. It doesn’t transcend its genre or the tried-and-true Marvel formula, but it’s packed with enough to even keep a casual fan entertained for most of its 130 minutes. It’s more of a one-off that doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the two dozen other MCU titles, so Shang-Chi might be just the right Saturday morning cartoon of a movie to introduce new people to the larger world of Marvel movies.
Nate’s Grade: B
When Disney foolishly fired writer/director James Gunn for offensive past tweets, tweets the studio had already known about before hiring him to helm the first Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movie, the brass at DC was more than happy to pounce. They offered Gunn the opportunity to tackle any of their many superhero properties. Gunn had earned a reputation as a blockbuster filmmaker whose bizarre sense of humor and style made him just as much as selling point as the property itself. Gunn gravitated to the Suicide Squad, though he didn’t want to be beholden to the 2016 film from writer/director David Ayer. The studio gave Gunn free reign. He could do whatever he wanted creatively, which just happened to be an extremely violent, R-rated sequel that also serves as a soft reboot. Gunn was the perfect person to tackle a project like The Suicide Squad and even with all his goofy humor, gallons of gore, and slapdash dispatching of numerous big names, there’s a real affection for these scruffy characters. Not that there was a big hurdle to clear, but this is clearly the superior big screen Suicide Squad.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another team of criminals and has-beens and tasked them with a mission. If they fail, or deviate from their orders, she will detonate an explosive placed within the skulls of Task Force X a.k.a. the Suicide Squad. Skilled marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is extorted into being the defacto leader of a band of squabbling misfits that includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the patriotic warrior Peacemaker (John Cena), the vermin-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and even a giant living shark, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), with a voracious appetite. The squad must destroy a scientific station on an island nation that has undergone a military coup and great political instability. Within that station, run by mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), is a threat that could doom the world. Enter the Suicide Squad, but can they even be bothered to save the day?
It feels like Gunn wanted to take the most ridiculous, pathetic characters in DC cannon and then find a way to make them appealing and worth rooting for. There is a strategy to take the scraps of the comic book universe and to make gold out of them. Case in point, Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a figure easily ridiculed by fans and populating just about every list of the worst villains of comic book lore. Gunn takes the maligned character and says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep his dumb power of flinging polka dots, and by the end, you’re going to care,” and you do care, or at least I did over the course of the film’s 132 minutes. Gunn is drawn to strange, dysfunctional found families, the misfits of society who find an unexpected kinship with one another. You can tell that even when Gunn is at his most irreverent, he still has an acute sense of reverence. The team-comes-together aspect of these sort of movies plays as a predictable but satisfying formula, and while I wouldn’t say anything took hold of my emotions like the best of the Guardians entries, I did come to care about the core of the team. I cared about the father/daughter dynamic between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher. I cared about Polka Dot Man coming into his own as a hero. I cared about King Shark feeling like he had a group of friends. The fact that I typed those last two sentences, which would sound insane absent context, is a testament to Gunn’s strengths.
The climactic villain, whom I will not spoil, is the greatest example of making the most with the least. It is immediately goofy to the point of laughter but still threatening and creepy. Gunn has taken one of the weirdest characters in comics and given it its due. Even by the end, as this villain is vanquished (not a spoiler), the movie finds a small moment to re-contextualize this absurd character as another victim. It was happier before being kidnapped and experimented upon by its devious captors. Even that extra passing consideration is impressive.
The movie also lets its weirdos have their fun. Watching bad guys, who are somewhat bad at being bad guys, try their hand at being good guys, but badly, or at least not as well, has plenty of comedic possibility as well as setting up the redemption and community payoff. The opening beach assault sets the sardonic and sloppy tone. I consistently enjoyed the contentious banter between the different members of the Squad and the jockeying for position. The gag about Polk Dot Man envisioning every enemy as his abusive mother is enjoyably goofy when visualized from his perspective (Elba’s line reading for “It’s YOUR MOM!” is a delight). King Shark’s dullard nature is a routine source of comedy that almost wears out its welcome. Nothing seems out of bound for him to say or do, whereas the others have more defined comedy boundaries. I laughed out loud frequently though some of the comedy bits feel a bit too stale and juvenile even for Gunn (a 69 joke?). This all feels very much like this is Gunn’s $180-million-dollar Troma movie he miraculously got to make with a studio blessing. The violence is over-the-top, occasionally gasp-inducing and occasionally beautiful. That’s an odd but an adept combination for Gunn as a filmmaker, a man who digs into the grimy bins of exploitation cinema and elevates it upon a bigger stage while still managing to stay true to his own silly style.
Gunn hasn’t dulled the darker reality of his rogue’s gallery either. Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a macho contest of killing foot soldiers in increasingly theatrical and flamboyant ways where their flippancy and hostility toward one another is the joke. King Shark is portrayed as a dumb brute who also tries to eat team members. Many, many characters have similar back-stories where their parent or guardian or captor experimented on them and live with the lingering trauma, trying not to have their pain define them. The 2016 movie wanted you to see the Squad as PG-13-approved antiheroes. The 2021 movie wants you to remember that they are indeed crazy, demented, dangerous, and murderers. Even Peacemaker, meant to evoke shades of the patriotic Captain America, says he will ensure peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill.” Harley isn’t fetishized as a punky pinup in short shorts like in 2016 (digitally shortened), but she’s still a psychopath who makes impulsive decisions. Her recognition about always falling for the wrong kind of man is a mixture of sadness, character growth, and a clear reminder that you should not let down your guard around this woman.
Spending time with these characters is made even better from the superb casting. Elba (Hobbes and Shaw) is the biggest welcomed addition; his character was likely initially intended to be the continuation of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Elba is charismatic and self-effacing and handles the comedy and action with equal measures of confidence. When he loses his patience, or opens up about his hidden phobia, it’s even more amusing because of how it contrasts with how naturally suave he is as a default setting. I wasn’t missing Will Smith at all with Elba and his natural accent. Robbie (Bombshell) was born to play Harley Quinn and should hopefully get many more opportunities. Cena (Fast and Furious 9) is so natural at comedy and slides comfortably into a macho blowhard coming into conflict with the other alpha males on the Squad. I loved the simple visual of him strutting around in vacation shorts for a long period of the second act. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is always excellent and might be the scariest character of them all. There are many joke characters played by actors firmly in on the tongue-in-cheek game.
As a second chance at franchise-making, The Suicide Squad is a brash, bloody, and irreverent retake and the best DCU movie yet from a studio that seems to be throwing anything at the wall to see what potentially sticks. That has its benefits, like allowing Gunn the creative freedom to make a movie this crazy and schlocky and entertaining. It’s a shame, then, that this Squad movie looks like it will make a whopping hundred million less in its opening weekend at the box-office compared to its 2016 predecessor. It’s a sign that the traditional theatrical market hasn’t quite rebounded from COVID-19 (even Marvel’s own doesn’t look like it will crack $200 million domestic). It may also be a sign that audiences are not terribly interested about a sequel to a movie they didn’t really care for five years prior. Beforehand, I would have bet even money that the studio would give a blank check to bring Gunn back for more after he fulfills Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3 for Marvel, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe The Suicide Squad will be more of an entertaining one-off than the start of a new direction for this lagging franchise. Regardless, if anything good came of Disney firing Gunn on dubious terms, it’s the existence of this movie in the interim for the in-demand filmmaker. While not everything works in The Suicide Squad, and the emotional depth is sacrificed for giddy gory bombast, it’s what you would hope for with the combination of James Gunn, wacky superheroes, and a commitment to an R-rating.
Nate’s Grade: B+
If you ask anyone who their least favorite Avenger is, every one of those participants will have the same exact answer: Hawkeye. If you ask that same group who is their second least favorite Avenger, chances are that a clear majority are going to next say Black Widow. The character has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2010 in Iron Man 2, a full decade of idling to gain her solo movie to the point it became a long-running question in the fanbase. Then they killed the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and then also announced she would be getting her solo movie, and the fanbase said, “Wait, now?” Delayed a full year thanks to COVID-19, Black Widow is Marvel’s first theatrical release in almost two years and will likely benefit from some low expectations and eagerness to get back to the big screen spectacle of summer movies.
It’s not Black Widow’s fault that she’s paired with a super soldier, essentially Batman in a flying suit, a nigh indestructible god, and a giant raging id monster. There’s a significant gap between that upper tier of the super powered Avengers and the two non-powered members, Lady with Guns and Guy with Bow and Arrow. It’s hard to compete with all of that, and the glimpses we’ve been given with previous MCU movies haven’t exactly been the most nuanced or dimensional for Black Widow (remember her dubbing herself a “monster” because the state took away her ability to bear children?). We’ve had hints about past troubles and regrets, but it’s never been explored with any significance… until now.
Taking place shortly after the events of 2016’s Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from American authorities. She reunites abroad with her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has recently broken free of the chemical mind control of the sinister Widows program. Yelena and Natasha were living as sisters for three years as a cover family of Russian agents, with Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) as their parents. They were whisked back to Russia, separated, and thrown back into the Widow program where they were trained to be elite assassins by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, barely flirting with a Russian accent). The combative sisters are being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, other killer Widows still under the chemical-induced mind control, and Dreykov’s best hunter, the ruthless Taskmaster, a masked warrior who can learn and mimic the moves from other fighters. Natasha and Yelena decide the only way to stop Dreykov is to reunite their old family once again.
I’m a little confused by the general indifference Black Widow seems to have generated from critics and fans because I thought, while with some flaws, that this is still a good movie that I would say is on the cusp of being above average for the MCU’s already high bar. Perhaps, again, this movie is benefiting from lowered expectations. I wasn’t going in with too many demands considering my personal investment with the Black Widow character was minimal prior to her sacrificial death. I wanted a fun movie that provided further insight into her character, considering this would likely be the last time we see Natasha in the MCU. I was surprised how emotionally engaged I became with her movie. While the action is fine, it was the dramatic parts that really grabbed me. This is the first MCU movie where I was looking forward to the breaks in action more than the actual action. The pre-credits flashback (to mid-90s Ohio no less) sets up this fractured family dynamic that serves as the core of the movie, the question over whether these relationships ever really mattered on a deeper level or whether each person was simply playing their assignment. It makes for intriguing drama about vulnerable characters sifting through the small measures of happiness they’ve had and the difficulty of reaching out to people that are important to you. Natasha is in a delicate yet reflective place considering her isolation. The movie is structured like a Jason Bourne-style spy caper, jumping from one locale to the next, but it’s more of a family drama about hurt people reconciling and reconnecting. On its own terms, it’s a real family movie.
There are some major themes and some serious subjects with Black Widow and they are well handled and tied to the character journeys. The opening titles, set to a melancholy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covers human trafficking. This is a story about the systems of abuse, primarily abusive men demanding control from throngs of women, and it’s about overcoming abuse and establishing support systems. For Natasha, she made some hard choices to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and many others have suffered because of her decision to escape. Many women could not escape their tormentors, and the level of control only became more methodical. Yelena talks about being conscious of everything but unsure what parts of you are really your own doing, and this seems eminently relatable about victimhood. The movie is about breaking free of unhealthy relationships, coming into your own control, and finding healthy families even if they are troubled and a work in progress. That’s why the family moments resonated as much for me. Real attention was given to the supporting characters in Natasha’s orbit.
To that end, the villains exemplify the themes by design, especially Taskmaster serving as a literalization of Natasha facing off against the sins of her past, much like in 2017’s Logan where Old Logan fought young Logan. Fans of Taskmaster from the comics may well be disappointed by the adaptation because the character was very sardonic and, in here, never utters a word (there is a certain Deadpool-in-X-Men Origins: Wolverine reminiscence). More could have been done but the villain represents the consequences of abandonment. I appreciated that even until the final moment, the villain could be redeemed and meant something more than simply another masked heavy to be blown apart. Dreykov, on the other hand, is just a typically awful abuser and his lack of definition fits. He’s a general stand-in for the toxic control of men accustomed to power and the dismissal of female agency. He’s dull but more a designated symbol.
The traveling Black Widow family van is the real draw of this movie. I have been a Florence Pugh fan since her star making turn in 2017’s emotionally disquieting Lady Macbeth, and I welcome her and Yelena into the MCU with open arms. Pugh (Midsommar) is terrific and full of sarcastic wit, at one point criticizing Natasha’s familiar three-point “superhero landing.” She’s also convincing in all the action and gunplay. Even better, there are several dramatic scenes that allow the talented actress to tap into her prowess. She could make me cackle, then the next minute impress me with the finesse of her leg-swinging attack movements, and then the next make me feel something as she tearfully reflects that her cover family was the best years of her life (as the youngest, Yelena had no idea until they ran off that they were all Russian agents). Her combustible yet affectionate relationship with Johansson imbued so much more emotional investment into the Black Widow character for me. Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) is inhaling any available scenery as a past-his-prime Russian super soldier still holding onto his glory days as a communist answer to Captain America (he eagerly asks Natasha if Cap ever mentions him, so hopeful it’s adorable). He’s a regular source of comedy but also has a credible paternal warmth to him as he tries to don the mantle of fatherhood like a costume that no longer fits quite as well. Unfortunately, Weisz (The Favourite) isn’t on screen as much as the other members of the family unit but I still greatly enjoyed watching her finely attuned deadpan delivery.
From an action standpoint, Black Widow will mostly suffice but there is little to really get the blood pumping. The chases and fights are entertaining without delivering anything new. The third act involves an extended set piece with characters plummeting from the sky amid fiery debris. It’s at least visually interesting and the action high-point of the movie. Under director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome), the action is easy to follow even as it escalates into big video game carnage and explosions. The lack of development in the action would be more of an issue for me if the non-action elements, the story and acting, weren’t as involving. I feel like Shortland was hired for the dramatics and performances and character moments, less so the explosions.
It took eleven years, one more thanks to COVID, but Black Widow finally has her starring vehicle and the MCU is finally back on the big screen (or your home screen via Disney Plus and thirty additional dollars). I watched the movie with my girlfriend and cheerfully noted it would be the first theatrical Marvel movie we watched during our year-plus courtship, thus a real milestone in modern geek dating (we’ll have many opportunities ahead as there are six more Marvel movies scheduled between now and summer 2022). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Black Widow once it had reassembled its family dynamic and I hope to see the extended Romanoff family members in future MCU editions. It’s a late but welcomed swan song for Natasha Romanoff and her checkered past. For the first time, I felt for her character, and part of that was the result of enjoying her family nucleus and the pathos they brought. Black Widow is a serviceable action movie with fun characters and potent dramatic interactions with heavy, well-realized themes. I’m baffled by the general critical indifference (I have a lot fewer qualms than I did with 2019’s Captain Marvel). It’s the rare big movie where the quiet moments are the high-points, and twenty-plus movies in, that’s at least something new from the juggernaut that is the MCU.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I feel like we were just here a matter of months ago, another aimless Melissa McCarthy comedy vehicle written and directed by her husband and chief enabler, Ben Falcone. With Thunder Force, McCarthy becomes an accidental superhero and that premise should be enough with this star to power a silly and amusing 90 minutes of entertainment. Once again it’s a dispiriting comedy that feels like it’s just sitting around and waiting for the performers to find something funny in their scenes and family-friendly improv ramblings. The energy of this movie is completely slack, and scenes feel adrift, lacking proper direction or purpose. The whole movie feels gassed and grasping. It takes 45 minutes for McCarthy to train to be a hero and sometimes there just aren’t jokes. Take one instance where McCarthy literally throws a bus, a point strangely referred to multiple times earlier as a setup for this long-desired moment, and then under Falcone’s uninspired direction we don’t even see the messy results. We don’t even see the bus crashing into, like, an orphanage or something that would provide an actual punchline. The comedy malpractice can be staggering. It’s the kind of movie that resorts to characterization where everything is clumsily reported to us, like, “You’ve always been this way since…” The chemistry between McCarthy and Octavia Spencer (The Witches) is lukewarm at best for these longtime friends. The buddy comedy doesn’t even seem like it was developed beyond its initial pitch. The shining light of this movie is easily Jason Bateman (Ozark), who plays a crab-armed mutant criminal that becomes an improbable romantic suitor for McCarthy’s character. If there is anything that made me laugh, it was related to this character (and an ordinary henchman named Andrew who may or may not be targeted as the next to get killed by his evil boss played by Bobby Cannavale). I even loved the simple image of Bateman crab walking off screen with his arms in the air. The sheer weirdness is enough to make you realize what potential could have been tapped with this super premise and with McCarthy, who can be so charming and disarming when she gives into her odd impulses. Just give me a full movie where a middle-aged superwoman tries to make a relationship with a crab-man super villain work. I wish that Thunder Force had more courage to chase its weird rather than settle, time and again, as an action comedy that is middling with its action and middling with its comedy. I think I had more fun with 2020’s Super Intelligence, another mediocre Falcone collaboration.
Nate’s Grade: C
My friend and writing partner Ben Bailey asked me to host an extensive essay he was compelled to write after watching the four-hour Snyder cut of Justice League. I’ve never featured anyone else’s words or opinions on this review blog before, but it’s been so long since he really devoted himself to an artistic analysis, and with such detail, that I felt compelled to publish it on my personal review platform. Behold, a guest essay on the nature of Art, Ayn Rand’s Objectivist theory, super heroes and their appeal, Zack Snyder as a filmmaker and philosopher, and capitalism.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League and The Virtue of Shallowness: An Essay In Search of a Point” By Ben Bailey
All Art is self-indulgent, but not all self-indulgence is Art.
Back in 2010, legendary film critic Roger Ebert famously groused that video games could never be Art. His reasoning was largely an attempt to grasp at the essential definition of what Art is, and how it can and cannot be applied to various artistic mediums in order to claim supremacy for his preferred medium, cinema, over one he pompously scorned. At the time, as a 25-year-old man-baby gamer, I objected strenuously to his argument but not in a way that I could articulate with the same thoughtful presentation with which he made his case. I just instinctively rebelled against the notion that a thing I loved in the same way Ebert loved movies could not be Art like movies clearly are because smart people like Ebert said so. I was still struggling with what Ebert struggled with in his piece, as I hadn’t yet developed a working definition of what Art actually was. Unlike Ebert, who never settles on a definition and just decides to declare himself right, I have since found one that at least works for me, and now in the cold hard light of 2021, I’m forced to conclude that Ebert was sort of correct but not for the reason he thought he was. The vast majority of video games are not Art, just like the vast majority of movies, TV shows, and books are not Art, because Art is something special and pretty hard to achieve in a capitalist society designed to stifle creativity at the altar of marketability.
For me at least, Art has a practical and a poetic definition. The practical one can best be distilled as, “Deliberate creative expression done for its own sake.” Artistic Intent is everything. It has to be something done on purpose, not something retroactively defined as Art by someone experiencing it separate from the Artist. It has to be a creative expression, which is to say something done to reflect the internal life or point of view of the Artist as opposed to something a craftsmen might build to be functional but not intellectually or emotionally inspired (All Art is craft, but not all craft is Art). And most importantly, it has to be done for its own sake, free of any creative compromise. For something to be Art, the Artist has to do it because it is something they simply must do, because it is born inside of them and must be birthed through the process of creative expression so that it isn’t left stillborn inside their soul to rot and kill its host. If it is done for any other motive, for profit or to cater to the whims of a prospective audience, it ceases to be Art and becomes Commerce, a commodity that belongs to the world and no longer to the Artist.
The poetic definition is a bit looser as you might expect: “Art is the process of making your dreams come true.” It is how we physically manifest our imagination into literal reality, recreating what is inside of us to bare our souls to the world, not because it matters what the world might think of them or who might want to buy or sell the product of their representation, but simply because the soul of an Artist burns bright and the fire has to go somewhere. Many things are mistaken for Art because they are created with the same tools through the same mediums. A really entertaining movie you love might seem like Art to you, but chances are, just given the realities of how movies are made in the studio system, it wasn’t created by an Artist or group of Artists collaborating to bring something beautiful into the world from their own minds. It may have started out that way, or that may have been the hope at the outset, but inevitably to get the thing made, money people began to influence what it should be, and test audiences and marketing algorithms ultimately dictated its form. A spatula might be used to make pancakes or spank your lover, but that doesn’t make your breakfast foreplay.
You might have noticed by now that my conception of Art is marked by an almost Platonic ideal of the Artist as Rugged Individualist, perhaps an expansive application of Auteur Theory that would mean almost nothing could be Art if it involves any kind of collaboration. That’s not entirely untrue, as I am trying to say that Art is a very rare and exclusive thing, at least when it comes to the kind of creative works we are typically exposed to in a society built on commercial industry. But to clarify, multiple Artists working together on a shared vision like a film or video game, while always more difficult to coalesce than one person articulating a singular vision like a painting or novel, can still be Art as long as the intent remains pure, or if the idea of purity sounds a bit fishy to you, at least free of external influences from non-Artists. Still, it’s just easier to conceptualize the Auteur as Artist for the purposes of discussing artistic intent, eschewing the messiness of multiple Artists trying to figure out the workable common denominator of their unique perspectives. If Art is a person making their dreams come true, the fact that it is their dream and no one else’s would seem to be the pertinent factor in assessing whether it is true to what it is. You might call it the Virtue of Selfishness. And that is where Zack Snyder comes in.
At this point, I don’t think I need to provide too much on the history surrounding the supposed epic tragedy of behind-the-scenes studio machinations that was the 2017 Justice League film. Suffice it to say if you don’t know, the theatrically released version of the movie was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of two competing visions, one the culmination of original director Zack Snyder’s bleak, realistic take on DC superheroes introduced in two previous films, and the other a studio-mandated effort to re-shape the project to dilute Snyder’s influence and better ape the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) through the inclusion of re-shoots, re-edits, and post production work provided by the MCU’s most notable director at the time, famed garbage person Joss Whedon. The result was widely regarded as mediocre at best, a mishmash of clashing ideas and tones representing diametrically opposing perspectives on what a superhero movie should be. It was assumed at the time that the relative critical and commercial failure of the film meant that it and the cinematic universe it spearheaded was, much like Snyder’s conception of the DC Universe, completely hopeless. And then some weird stuff happened.
A strange confluence of circumstances involving the changing nature of our engagement with modern media, the increasing ubiquity of streaming platforms challenging and possibly supplanting the theatrical model of film distribution, and also a freaking pandemic, led to Snyder getting an incredibly rare second bite at the apple in the form of the Snyder cut. A long fabled, often dismissed as mythical truer version of Snyder’s masterpiece, the Snyder cut had been cruelly torn from him and mutilated beyond recognition by shortsighted naysayers who just didn’t understand the deep and profound things the director of Sucker Punch was trying to say in the movie where Lex Luthor apparently pees in a jar to make a point to a senator before killing her. Or I don’t know, maybe he got his assistant to do it before sending her to die in the explosion he didn’t tell her about? Okay, that’s not the point, but Batman V. Superman is still really stupid. The point is, fans demanded it, and Warner Bros.’ long history of poor decision-making led them to provide a whopping 70 million dollars, roughly the budget of an entire year’s worth of quality Blumhouse movies, to complete a thing that was supposedly already basically done. And now it’s here.
If you didn’t pick up on my reference earlier to the Virtue of Selfishness, consider yourself lucky to have never been exposed to any kind of deep dive into the nonsense of Objectivist “philosopher” Ayn (rhymes with “whine”) Rand. I use “philosopher” in quotes because Rand famously rejected all philosophers post-Aristotle other than herself, most likely because all of modern philosophy might as well be collected with the subtitle: “Why Ayn Rand Is An Idiot,” so her rejection of them was likely a preemptive strike done with the same degree of defensive self-awareness that led her to rail against government hand-outs her whole life only to accept Social Security and Medicare in her autumn years. The Virtue of Selfishness refers specifically to a collection of essays encapsulating Rand’s ethical vacuousness better than I could with any description, so I would say you should just read it, though you really shouldn’t. You could also check out her much more popular and well known novels, the CEO’s on strike fantasy Atlas Shrugged, or The Fountainhead, about a self-described brilliant artist who would rather see his greatest work destroyed than allow it to be altered by the people with the moral temerity to think they had the right to dictate what it should be just because they paid for it. Coincidentally, Zack Snyder has been trying to make that book into a film for years.
Snyder is, by his own admission, a devotee of Ayn Rand and a committed Objectivist, and despite my already established aversion to this worldview, I want to state clearly here that I don’t bring this up to say that Zack Snyder believes in something I find ridiculous and is therefore a ridiculous person. I might think that if I got to know him, but that isn’t the point I’m making here. I have no reason to think that Snyder isn’t a perfectly nice, intelligent person as an individual, at least by the standards that we might judge those things in the abstract. I don’t know the man personally, so I don’t know for a fact that his love of a philosopher who said we owe nothing to each other means he believes the same thing wholeheartedly, and I have no way of knowing how he might translate his conception of Objectivism into his daily interactions with other people. He may be a sweetheart or a total bastard for all I know. As a filmmaker, however, I feel like I can say with some degree of certainty that his Randian worldview is at the forefront of his creative vision. If his movies are any indication of his artistic intent (as one assumes they should be), the Artist’s fire that burns in his soul is one that seeks to burn down the liberal social order predicated on the notion that our success as a civilization requires that we care about each other.
I would submit that the reason Zack Snyder’s approach to superhero movies feels so strange and off putting to so many people, whether or not they can articulate why, is because it lacks empathy. That isn’t to say that a movie or even a work of Art requires empathy, but its absence always feels wrong because art is the language of the soul, and having no interest in appealing to our shared humanity is the spiritual equivalent of gibberish. It feels especially wrong in superhero fiction because empathy is the basis for all superheroes on a fundamental conceptual level. The thing that makes them heroes is that they care about other people and, because of that, dedicate their lives to helping others. The people with similar powers who only use them for personal gain or to hurt other people, because they don’t believe we owe anything to one another, are the bad guys. So when Snyder, a filmmaker who views the world and the worlds he creates through the literal and figurative lens of Randian self-interest, tries to realize the characters of Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, it does not occur to him that anyone like them would ever sublimate their own selfish interests for the good of humanity. He has no frame of reference for altruism, so he can’t relate to characters designed to be the personification of it.
Snyder’s Superman spends almost the entirely of Man Of Steel rejecting the idea that he should use his amazing powers to help anyone, and only begrudgingly takes on the threat of General Zod when he is personally threatened and it is in his interest to fight, famously failing to even try to save Metropolis from the destruction wrought by his battle because civilian casualties were immaterial to him. In the sequel Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the idea that all of this superheroic carnage has any real toll on real people that we should care about is addressed almost as a petty response to the backlash Man Of Steel faced for its callous depiction of the character, with Batman representing the side that at least cares enough to seek revenge, only to be revealed as short sighted in his zeal to defend humanity from this all-powerful alien god after a few common enemies and a coincidence involving their mothers’ names causes him to see the monster as a misunderstood hero. In between this convoluted arc, we have a montage of Superman saving lives that is one of the most morose series of images ever put to film, suggesting its the last thing he wants to spend his time doing. We see Wonder Woman coming out of hiding after decades of refusing to use her powers for the good of anyone, and we also find out that Batman, the billionaire who spent his life and vast wealth defending the innocent from evil, has since broken his oath never to kill and seemingly delights in sending criminals to prison branded with a symbol that almost assuredly marks them as targets for rape and murder.
Back in 2019, Snyder directly addressed the criticism of his dark, “realistic” approach to superheroes, and specifically the idea that Batman would kill, by saying “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t fucking lie to America. My heroes didn’t embezzle money from their corporations. My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’ That’s cool. But you’re living in a fucking dream world.” And you know what, he’s absolutely right. It’s a dream world called comic books. You could say the same thing about something like Star Trek, the idea that we could all give up on greed and completely restructure society around the idea of helping each other is pretty naive and will probably never happen, but that’s not the point. The point is to imagine a world where it could happen, compare that imaginary world to our own, and think about what we might need to do to bridge the gap between them. Fantasies aren’t supposed to be realistic, they are supposed to be inspirational and aspirational. Most billionaires do probably embezzle money, and most people given the powers of a god would probably be corrupted by that power and commit atrocities. But what if they didn’t? What if those people were innocent do-gooders who helped other people instead? That would be super, and pretty heroic at that.
Of course, Snyder is in no way obligated to like or care about what superheroes are traditionally meant to represent in order to make movies about them, but it begs the question of why he would want to spend so much of his time and effort crafting an entire series of superhero movies if he doesn’t. A cynical approach to answering that question might start with the dumptruck of money Warner Bros presumably wheeled to his home, and might even posit a sort of trollish pleasure in taking down something he clearly detested through creative deconstruction a la Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Or perhaps his motives were even more insidious. Perhaps he hates the very idea of altruistic superheroes and altruism in general so much that he dedicated an entire film franchise to subverting our love of superheroism so that we would lose hope in the empathetic message they are meant to inspire, and with nothing else left to cling to, fully embrace our Randian dark sides. For the record, I don’t think it’s any of those things, but any one of them would be more interesting that what I think the actually answer is, which gets me to my biggest problem with Snyder’s work overall, and especially his latest magnum opus, the Justice League Snyder cut.
Every single movie Snyder has ever made has been at its core a parable extolling the virtue of selfishness, but none of them were intended to be that because they were never intended to be anything. If Snyder were a political or philosophical polemicist for Objectivism or any ideology, I would at least respect the intellectual exercise even if I couldn’t appreciate the end result, but that’s not what Snyder does. While his visual style is marked by hyper-realism, all slow-motion grandiosity, his storytelling is focused on reflecting the real world as he sees it, and his point of view just happens to be skewed the way it is. Remember, he doesn’t want to live in a dream world of his own making, he wants everything to be like the real world, which he just happens to see as one where nobody cares about or likes each other. Beyond that, there’s no inherent meaning in anything he does, which is insane considering how skilled he is at creating visuals meant to evoke the feeling of deeper meaning. When Aquaman stands on that pier with waves crashing over him and “There Is A King” playing in the background, it certainly feels like its saying something, but what? He’s sad? Angry? Symbolic of… anything? When Superman poses like Jesus, he’s clearly not meant to represent any form of Christ narrative I’ve ever read, but the image is iconic and memorable and just feels important somehow, and that’s all that matters.
Snyder’s shallowness is not in and of itself a problem, even if given his talents it represents a crushing waste of potential. The problem is that when your movie is four hours long and serves as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rectify the injustice of studio meddling as a battle cry for every artist who ever had their work stolen from them, not having anything of importance to say and adding literally nothing of substance to the two-hour studio cut everyone hated is maybe the most disappointing thing you could have done. Obviously, the tragic circumstances surrounding his leaving the project in 2017 and the seemingly shady way Whedon was brought onto the project do not make Warner Bros look good, but if I’m supposed to believe this narrative that Snyder was betrayed and his dream project was bastardized by philistines, I shouldn’t be coming away from his original vision with so much more respect for the mediocre hatchet job. I know the prevailing critical consensus coming out of this is that whatever you may think of Snyder’s version, it’s at least better than the Joss Whedon version, but these people are just wrong.
Comparing the two cuts is apples and oranges. One of them is a movie, created under the auspices of a studio director’s responsibilities to their contract, and the other is a vanity project with no such restrictions. Whedon completed a film that was palatable to a wide audience and within a reasonable running time to be shown in theaters, which is presumably what the studio thought Snyder was going to do too. If we are to believe that what we have now is Snyder’s true, uncompromised vision for it, then what was he going to do when they told him you can’t put a four-hour movie in theaters? What would he have cut to get it to two hours? If I had to guess, I’d say probably almost everything Whedon did, since the stories are so similar that its clear the content Snyder put back in was largely superfluous to the narrative. Most of what Whedon cut was unnecessary slow-mo, call backs to movies we wanted to forget, and setups for movies nobody wanted, and redundant moments already covered elsewhere. All the action scenes are present between the two cuts, except for the completely pointless Flash sequence, but in the Snyder cut they’re all twice as long. Same beats, same information conveyed to get the point across, just longer and less well paced than in the theatrical version.
Is Steppenwolf a more interesting villain now that we know he serves Darkseid because of some past mistake we don’t know about, rather than just assuming he does it because he’s from Darkseid’s totalitarian world where everyone serves him? Does Darksied’s comical incompetence as a despot make him a more enticing prospect for a sequel, somehow forgetting that the thing he devoted his life to searching for was on the one planet he failed to conquer, which just so happens to be the one planet where they left behind all those doomsday devices waiting centuries to be easily activated? We’re told it’s such a shame that we missed out on the great character of Cyborg, and now we finally get to see what could have been, but to quote the black clad Superman at the end of the Snyder cut, I’m not impressed. What more did we learn to deepen his story? Daddy never came to his football games but he still misses him when he’s dead? Riveting! Did we need a six-minute excursion into his mind palace with a voice over explaining all of his powers like we’re children when the original just demonstrated all of them by showing them to us? And what does it all amount to? In the end, he gets to ascend to his rightful place as the least interesting mopey superhero who hates being a superhero with all the other mopey self-hating superheroes. Hooray?
Naturally, you’re probably thinking, it wasn’t all just cuts, what about all that stuff Whedon added in? “What about brunch?” you say. Sure, I’m not going to defend everything Whedon did to make his version work. You’re mileage may vary; I would say about half of his new additions worked for me and half were cringe worthy, but the good half seems even more vital now than it did when we didn’t know the alternative. The brighter color palette alone is a welcome change from the dreary, washed out look of the Snyder cut, and for every bit where Flash wedges his face in Wonder Woman’s cleavage, we get one like Cyborg laughing about his injuries after stopping the mother box, the only moment in either version where he resembles the fun, lighthearted character from the comics and TV shows. The Flash never gets his hot dog-strewn first meeting with Iris West, but he gets a heart-to-heart with Batman about how being a real hero means saving people one at a time that speaks to the greatness of both characters in a way nothing in the Snyder cut does. When Superman smiles in Joss’ version, it’s because he’s saving lives and he’s happy when he gets to do that. When he smiles in the Snyder cut, it’s a menacing sneer because he’s about to lay the smack down on a weaker opponent to show him who’s boss. And then we get that delightful Russian family.
Yeah, I know, you hate the Russian family, and I get it. I hated the Russian family when I first saw the 2017 cut. Why would they waste time showing these characters who don’t seem to have any bearing on the story? The thing is, we only thought that because we were treating this superhero movie like a superhero movie, where we don’t necessarily need to be reminded that superheroes save lives as long as that’s a base-level assumption. But in Snyder’s world, it isn’t. In his cut, there’s no family to save because who cares about saving families? The stakes in the Whedon cut are clear and personal, real people will be hurt if they fail. We are them and they are us. It’s not subtle but neither is anything Snyder has ever done in his life. In the Snyder cut, we know that the Earth is doomed, but it’s all theoretical, our entire planet reduced to the same collateral damage that Metropolis became in Man Of Steel, where the people are there, we assume, but they don’t matter enough to be our focus. And in the end (of the Whedon cut anyway) the villain is defeated by his own fear, because the fear he represents cannot stand up against what the heroes represent in opposition to him: love, for each other and for the world they fight for. In the Snyder cut, they just savagely whale on him, stab him, and cut his head off with terrifying glee in their eyes, and then we cut to a flash-forward into a future world seemingly based on the Injustice video game series where we find out they failed to save the planet anyway.
Again, I would like to stress that I am not making a one-to-one connection between filmmaking style and personal character. I’m not saying that Zack Snyder the person doesn’t care about people, and I know Joss Whedon doesn’t. I assume that before he shot those Russian family scenes, he made sure to make some of his female employees feel like dirt because making women cry is the only thing that gives Whedon an erection. But the real-life context matters. You might be asking why I keep bringing up the Ayn Rand stuff even though I don’t even think he’s intentionally injecting it into his movies. It’s because when I saw the original 2017 cut, I was disappointed but I didn’t hate it. When I saw this new cut, I was incensed, and I couldn’t quite figure out why until that side of it clicked for me. I went through something similar with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. Everybody was loving it but I couldn’t explain quite why I didn’t until it dawned on me that it wasn’t anything about the filmmaking but the larger context, a director who made millions working with Harvey Weinstien, making a love letter to old Hollywood in the wake of the Me Too movement centered around the exploitation of an actress and making the story about two clueless men. It just felt wrong, and I’m finally to the same point with Snyder’s movies.
The 2017 cut of Justice League came out shortly after the election of our fascist, white supremacist, and eventually traitorous former president Donald Trump, a man so comically evil that he literally served as one of the inspirations for Lex Luthor when he was transformed from a mad scientist into an 80’s-style corporate tyrant. His rise to power, or rather the lie he tells people about being a self-made man and not a trustfund baby, is basically a Randian Horatio Alger story, and not just because both men were fabulists rumored to be pedophiles. You might even call him a Randian Superman, and the line from Randian Self-Interest to CEO worshiping Social Darwinism to Trumpian fascist strongman politics is undeniable. This new Justice League, where Zack Snyder tries to turn all my favorites superheroes into fascist action figures, comes out only a few months after a bunch of traitorous right-wing scumbags tried to raid our nation’s Capitol to usurp our democracy at the whims of a would-be king. One technically doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but the images are iconic and the connection just feels like there’s something meaningful there, even if it’s unintentional. I just can’t treat Snyder’s bad politics as just some interesting facet of his directing style anymore. I don’t want it in my polity, I don’t want it in my entertainment, and I sure as hell don’t want it in my superheroes.
So what was the point of any of this? Why start with that long boring excursion into the definition of Art? And what’s more, if Art is the one place where the Virtue of Selfishness makes sense, where does any audience or any would-be critic like myself have any place to question an Artist like Zack Snyder? Why write 20-plus long paragraphs, the Snyder cut of Snyder cut hot take think pieces, if an Artist should never care about what anyone thinks of what they create? That’s where I’ve been the last few days. As you might guess, I find the whole notion of Art criticism to be utterly worthless and without merit. The entitlement that audiences have surrounding the Art they consume is equally abhorrent to me, as if what they think of something should have any bearing on the form it should take. So where does that leave me? Feeling like a hypocritical piece of garbage.
I keep coming back to The Fountainhead (as a metaphor, not the actual book, because I read it once in college and that was enough). The protagonist Roark was hired to design a building and insisted he could blow the thing up if they didn’t let him build it the way he wanted, and when he does, he goes to trial, and makes a passionate plea in defense of his own rights over his creation that wins over all the doubters who couldn’t force him to conform to tradition. I keep wanting to force this narrative where Snyder is Roark and the saga of the Snyder cut is his quest to finally build that eyesore upon the skyline the way he always wanted, but it just doesn’t work for me. Art is deliberate creative expression for its own sake. The Snyder cut is certainly deliberate, and while it was made at the behest of the studio for a profit and an audience, I’m even willing to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t care about either of those things and really did set out to make it for its own sake. But then there’s that middle part, creative expression, something that reflects the internal life or point of the view of the artist. What if there’s nothing interesting about the internal life to reflect, and any apparent point of view is accidental and despicable at that? Is Zack Snyder the architect Frank Gehry, building beautiful sculptures people just happen to live and work in, or is that just who he thinks he is and who we want him to be, and really he’s just a very skilled craftsmen with nothing to say? How boring and uninspired can a work of Art get before it ceases to be Art at all from the sheer weight of its pointlessness?
Roger Ebert tried to say that video games could not be Art, but really he just didn’t understand them or like them, and for years, similar charges have been leveled at comic books and comic book movies. Whatever I might feel about Snyder or his work, he has been instrumental in lending a degree of legitimacy to comic book storytelling in the minds of a lot of people who otherwise dismissed it. Maybe not as much as the MCU has, but he’s still a part of it, and as a lifelong comic book fan, I can’t ignore that. I feel like I should be right there with everyone else, if not loving the Snyder cut, then at least loving what it represents, that for once the little guy won over the big guy, even if the little guy is usually on the side of the big guy unless he’s the one getting screwed, and he didn’t really win so much as reveal his limitations and give me a reason to say “I have more respect for Joss Whedon as an artist” which is something I never wanted to say again. But I’m not there, and I don’t think that’s what this represents, and really, I just wish that someone else, or really anyone else could have gotten the opportunity that Snyder did. Maybe this release makes that more likely in the future, but I don’t have much hope for that. I don’t have much hope for anything left in me anymore because I just watched a four-hour Zack Snyder movie and I’m pretty sure our future is going to be a Randian dystopian Knightmare. Release the David Ayer cut! Release the Gareth Edwards cut! Release the Lord and Miller cut! Release the Michael Cimino cut! Release all the cuts!
Just try to keep them under two hours, please.
Zack Snyder had a unique situation that many filmmakers would never get close to fulfilling. He departed the 2017 Justice League movie in the wake of a family tragedy, Joss Whedon was hired to direct and rewrite extensive reshoots that totaled an estimated additional $30 million dollars, and the world was given the strange amalgamation of two different filmmakers, along with the nightmare-inducing CGI baby lip to replace actor Henry Cavill’s mustache. The 2017 theatrical release of Justice League was meant to be a significant milestone for the DCU, launching an all-star assembly of superheroes and setting up future solo adventures and franchises. It was meant to be a major kickoff and it was simply a major shrug. The general public was indifferent to the 2017 League, and it seems like the DC brass is positioning for a cinematic universe do-over, retaining the elements they liked (Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot) and jettisoning the other pieces to start anew. In the ensuing years, fans have been petitioning for the fabled “Snyder Cut,” a theoretical version of Justice League that was closer to Snyder’s original artistic vision before the studio intervention and interloping of Whedon. It became a joke on social media and then one day it became real. Warner executives, seeing opportunity with the rabid fanbase, decided to give Snyder an additional $70 million to finish his version of Justice League. It would be an exclusive to their new streaming platform, HBO MAX, and Snyder could complete his version without artistic compromise. The resulting four-hour version, titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is less a movie than a mini-series, and a rare chance for a director to complete the story they wanted to tell without artistic compromise. After having watched the full four hours, along with re-watching the 2017 version again for comparison, The Snyder Cut just feels like the original version only longer. I would actually advise people that if they haven’t watched either Justice League to simply catch the 2017 version. At least its mediocrity is half your time investment.
Once again, months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world and make way for his master, Darkseid. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.
I think it’s unfair to judge the 2017 film to the Snyder Cut as a movie simply because this version never would have been released in theaters. No studio would have released a four-hour version. The two edicts that Whedon was given by the studio when coming aboard the project was that it could not be over two hours and to lighten it up. Imagine what the 2021 Snyder Cut would look like if Snyder was then tasked to cut it down to a more manageable two-hour running length. I predict many of the same scenes being eliminated or dramatically trimmed down. That’s the main takeaway from the Snyder Cut, that there is more room for everything, and quite often too much room. I swear a full hour of this movie might be ponderous slow-motion sequences. Plot-wise, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is pretty close to what was released in theaters in 2017. The action sequences are extended longer (Steppenwolf’s attack on the Amazons has increased from six minutes to a whopping twelve minutes) but I don’t know if they’re dramatically improved. Instead of two punches there’s four; instead of one chase, there’s two. It’s that kind of stuff, filling out the sequences but not really elaborating on them in an exciting fashion that reorients the moment. I liked some additions, like the inclusion of blood during the underwater Atlantis fight because it added a neat visual flair, but the added action is often obscured by visual decisions that dis-empower the experience (more on that later). I found myself growing restless with the movie. All that added time allows some sequences and plot beats to breathe better, but it also allows Snyder to meander to his greater indulgence (more on that later as well, notably on the multiple epilogues). The four hours feel like Snyder’s kitchen sink approach, and with the benefit of years of hindsight from the critical and fan reception of the 2017 version, he’s able to spend tens of millions to correct mistakes and improve a flawed film.
I hate how this movie looks for multiple reasons. The most obvious difference is that the aspect ratio has been altered to a 4:3 ratio more reminiscent of pre-widescreen television. Why is this the case? Snyder has said he cropped his movie to this boxy format so that it could be played on IMAX screens. That’s fine, but why crop your movie now months if not possible years before it will ever play on IMAX screens? When it comes time to adjust for the IMAX screen, adjust then. Why must every viewer see this limited version now on their widescreen televisions at home? It’s just so bizarre to me. It would be like if Quentin Tarantino reasoned that his movies will eventually play on airplanes, so he better get ready and cut back his widescreen into a flat, pan-and-scan mode, and he might as well include alternate takes and scenes to cover for those that would be deemed too profane or intense for the all-ages captive audience of an airplane, and then that version was the one he released to all audiences and we were stuck with it. Snyder had millions of dollars to reshoot his epic and he lopped off the edges, meaning you’re getting more movie but also less (at least the footage predating the new reshoots) in every second because of the framing. The grandeur of the superhero saga is also extremely hampered by the drab color palette. Snyder has always preferred muted colors to his movies but his Justice League drains all life and vibrancy. Everything is literal shades of grey. Color is not allowed to exist in this universe. A sunset is almost comical. Apparently, there’s going to be an official black-and-white version but we’re already practically there. Some could argue the oppressive grey is meant to evoke the grief and heaviness of the picture, and I’ll give you some leeway with that, but the drab colors also nullify the visuals. It’s simply harder to see everything that’s happening even during the daytime, and then you tack on the ugly CGI that makes everything look like a fuzzy video game. For a movie that has cost potentially over $350 million dollars combined, Justice League looks so phony. Maybe that’s part of Snyder’s overall stylized look, he’s never really been one to visually ground his operatic action spectacles, but I feel like the aspect ratio and color palate just make it worse. For those four hours, this is often a very visually unappealing movie to watch.
With the added time, there are definite benefits and characters that are lifted by the extra attention. Chief among them is Cyborg, a character that felt like a Swiss army knife in the original who was just there to perform whatever techno jazz the movie required at a moment’s notice. With the Snyder Cut, the character becomes more engaging and given a fuller arc relating to the relationship between father and son. The father’s placement in the story actually matters and Cyborg has more of a personal journey coming to terms with his new abilities. There is a back-story with his frayed relationship with his father, his accident that caused him to become the creature he is, and a reoccurring theme of a son blaming his father and the father trying to reconnect with the son he refused to part with. I still think Cyborg ranks low on the list of superheroes, but the additional scenes give the character more weight, more tragedy, and more intrigue. Another added benefit is that Steppenwolf’s motivation is improved as well as his look. He’s now outfitted with a herring-bone armor that twitches over his body. It’s a more intimidating look than what he had going on in 2017. I also appreciated that he now has more motivation other than “conquer the universe” because now it’s “conquer the universe to get back in the good graces of the boss.” Steppenwolf is trying to repay a debt and make amends, and that makes him slightly more interesting than his generic motivation in the original theatrical cut.
However, not all the new editions are as smooth or as helpful. The added time with the rest of the Justice League doesn’t seem to have added anything to their characters. Each one’s arc is more or less the same from the 2017 version, except now we have even more scenes of Wonder Woman wondering whether she needs to get off the sidelines and be more involved (the events of WW84 conflict with this timeline) and Aquaman rejecting his call to adventure from the Atlanians. Neither is a richer portrayal and the scenes are redundant. Take Wonder Woman finding out about Steppenwolf’s attack. In the 2017 version, her mother lights an arrow and it sails into Greek ruins, signaling her daughter, who knows what this means. In the Snyder cut, the arrow still lights the Greek ruins, but now Wonder Woman visits the ruins, she gathers a stick, she wraps a cloth around it, she dips it in kerosene, she lights it on fire, she enters a secret room because of the arrow, she jumps down a cliff, she finds a hidden temple with hieroglyphics warning about Steppenwolf and the mother boxes and Darkseid. Even if you really wanted the end where she sees those hieroglyphic warnings, why did we need these many steps to get there? The opening hostage/bank heist scene is given far more attention, with multiple scenes of hostages being terrorized, and then Wonder Woman literally vaporizes the chief terrorist. A little girl looks at her, likely traumatized for life by the whole experience, and says wistfully, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” She wants to be a murderer? In Snyder’s universe, Superman kills people, Batman kills people, so why not Wonder Woman too?
The revised introduction of Barry Allen is also regrettable. He’s applying for a dog walking job and a car accident occurs and he saves the day, but not before slowing down time in a frustrating manner. This is because he seems to be dawdling while the rest of the world is frozen, which makes the event seem less special. His movements seem less urgent than Quicksilver in the X-Men films when he would perform the same memorable slow-mo set pieces. I disliked that the Flash’s big involvement in the final showdown was literally running around in a circle, a repeat of what he had done prior. Also making the slow-mo save introduction less special is the fact that the Flash picks up a hotdog floating in midair for silly reasons. It’s drawn out with interminable slow-motion and the song choice is baffling, a common theme throughout Snyder’s movies. I think he’s been smarting ever since he painfully paired Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with a sex scene in 2009’s Watchmen, and now we must al endure similar awkward auditory pairings. Every song inclusion just feels wrong here. As Aquaman is drinking and walking along a pier, in slow motion, we hear “There is a Kingdom” by Nick Cave, and it just doesn’t pair right, especially in contrast with the hard-rocking guitar riffs from The White Stripes in the 2017 version. For good measure, Snyder even includes another “Hallelujah” cover by the end for good measure, as if he’s still fighting this same battle over musical taste.
And then there’s the barrage of epilogues, each the start of a story never to be continued, and it approaches the realm of self-parody (spoilers to follow). We get three endings, the first an extension of the post-credit scene from the 2017 version where Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) suggests the formation of a Legion of Doom for villains. He even shares with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Well, that could be an interesting next step, but we know it’s not to be so it becomes just a teasing preview. The next ending cuts forward in time to the dusty, apocalyptic vision that Batman had in Batman vs. Superman, and he’s got a crew including an older Flash, Meera (Amber Heard, why does she have a British accent now?), and even Jared Leto’s Joker. They’re facing off against a villainous Superman who has been driven mad by the death of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), which is pretty much the plot of the Injustice games. The Joker is antagonizing Batman with some references to killing someone close to the Dark Knight, and this whole sequence amounts to Snyder basically saying, “Hey, here’s where I wanted to go with things but you’ll never see it.” Then there’s a third ending, because the second is revealed to be another dream/vision for Batman, where he meets Martian Manhunter, a character that, other than diehard comic aficionados, no one cares about and has been given any reason to care about. The guy just introduces himself and Batman is like, “Oh, cool,” and that’s the ending Snyder decides to close his four hours with. There is a literal half-hour of epilogues and false endings to finish with and I was exhausted. I owe Peter Jackson an apology.
In my original review of the 2017 Justice League, I wrote, “I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance.” Some of those issues are resolved with the four-hour Snyder cut and too many others still remain. At the end of the day, this is still just a longer, bloodier version of a mediocre superhero movie, except now we get stuff like Batman saying the F-word, so I guess that’s cool. I have more of an artistic appreciation for what Whedon had to pull off to even wrangle this beast into two hours. I’m happy Snyder was able to fulfill his complete vision and that HBO MAX offered a platform that would provide such a rare opportunity of expensive art unencumbered by studio meddling. I can’t say it’s worth your four hours, nor can I say it’s dramatically better than the 2017 version because whatever benefits it offers are weighed down by the extraneous, the redundancies, and the length. As it stands, I feel I have no choice but to grade Zack Snyder’s Justice League the same as the 2017 Justice League.
Nate’s Grade: C
Big, colorful, and brimming with optimism easy to scoff at, Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) is finally here to save Christmas and maybe movie theaters and it’s an escapist treat. It won’t register among the best of superhero cinema but will likely keep a smile on your face.
In 1984, Diana (Gald Gadot) is working at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and fighting crime as her costumed alter ego. She’s never quite moved on from the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) back in WWI and she dearly needs some friends. Barbara (Kristen Wiig) is a mousy co-worker who comes across a mystical artifact, a rock that magically grants wishes. Barbara wishes to be strong like her boss/idol Diana and she gains new intoxicating power. Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) is a wannabe TV pitchman and an empty suit, fleecing investors and barely keeping ahead of his own Ponzi scheme. He learns of the magic rock and wishes himself to become the rock itself, turning him into a living genie. From there, Max’s wishes are spinning out of control, placing the world in greater crisis. Diana is torn because, before Max absconded with the wish rock, she wished for her heart’s desire, the return of Steve. Stopping Max and reversing the effect of the wishes means having to say goodbye to Steve all over again.
The original Wonder Woman was a break from the pallid doom and gloom motifs that Zack Snyder established, and the sequel goes even further with its candy-colored recreation of the 1980s. I was wondering if there would be a good reason to set the movie specifically during the 80s, and it’s mostly for the Cold War and Yuppies. I was pleasantly surprised that Jenkins and company don’t overdo the 80s nostalgia or the fish-out-of-water comedy for Steve Trevor. I thought this was going to be the entire reason for the throwback setting, and this time instead of Diana marveling at a modern world she did not understand it would be Steve. If you’ve watched the film’s trailer, then you’ve seen all of those jokes at Steve’s expense. That’s it. WW84 can manage to surprise you, mostly in a pleasant manner. Its sincerity is its biggest virtue. It’s a movie about plenty of goofy things but at its core it’s about relatable desires and struggle.
WW84 is an improvement over the original in the action department. Returning director Patty Jenkins feels freed of emulating Snyder’s house style and brings a welcomed sense of levity and playfulness to the action. The fight choreography makes significant use of Diana’s lasso, opening up the playing field for her to swing around wildly, at times even literally riding the lightning. At points the lasso seems to have a mind of its own and able to divide into fragments. It’s something that helps separate WW84 from the glut of other superhero movies and it offers pleasing visual variance for the fights. There’s a car chase midway through the film where Diana has to leap from speeding truck to speeding truck, dodging goon gunfire. It’s an exciting and sustained action sequence, yet even across the Middle East, chase clichés will reappear, like dumb kids playing in the street ignorant to any emerging noise like a caravan of speeding vehicles. Jenkins seems even more adept behind the camera for the action, delivering big stunts and memorable spectacle ready to make a splash on a big screen. However, some of the CGI can be shockingly dodgy for a big-budget blockbuster and a final confrontation with a CGI-hybrid creature unfortunately reminded me of the lamentable Cats.
The magic wish rock setup shouldn’t be any harder to believe than, say, a secret island of immortal female warriors or just about anything in the absurd and absurdly entertaining 2018 Aquaman feature film. If I can accept a drumming octopus, I can accept a magic wish rock. WW84 hinges on the concept of the drawbacks of creating your own false reality where every wish comes with a cost and an increasing flood of alarming consequences. It it better to just accept the comfort of lies or accept hard truths? The characters even name-check the classic short story The Monkey’s Paw recognizing the ironic trap. That doesn’t stop characters from struggling with the pull of their burning desires, and it makes for an agreeable return for Steve Trevor. Ever since it was revealed that Pine’s character was returning, I was worried what the possible explanations could have been, pessimistic it would be satisfying. Is he going to be a clone? Reincarnation? The grandson who happens to look identical? The screenplay by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham finds a way to make it work by bringing him back through magic but with restrictions. In a very Source Code sort of style, Steve is operating in someone else’s body, but only Diana sees Steve. It’s a decision that frames the return in a personal way that also reminds us what is eating at her. It’s been 70 years and she hasn’t moved on from the man she loved, which can be viewed as sad, romantic, and unquestionably unhealthy. It’s a familiar character arc, having to move on from a loved one and accept grief, but it still works, and it humanizes this mighty Amazon warrior woman. It’s a worthwhile development that opens up these living gods into emotional, vulnerable beings.
With the wish plot comes some gripes and lingering questions. I kept asking, “Is everyone simply not seeing what’s happening?” or, “Is everyone forgetting what has happened?” The scale of the wish consequences is substantial and very public but it never feels like the world is registering just how fantastic these supernatural shenanigans are. In 1984, Wonder Woman is fighting crime as a hobby but still not a named and identified hero. The world does not seem aware of the presence of super beings and amazing powers living among us. So as Max continues his wish-granting ways there are immediate consequences of huge staggering scale, but nobody seems to register how weird and not normal things are, like a giant 50-foot wall suddenly appearing in Egypt. People should be asking what is going on or what others are doing. Therein lies the lingering problem with setting this movie in the past. Much like the 80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse, the events presented generate questions to why future-set movies seem to be ignorant of these same events. If Wonder Woman comes forward and addresses the world, why is she still hiding her identity in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman? And if she learns more about her own super abilities, why does she not make use of these very helpful skills in 2017’s Justice League? These sound like quibbles, and they mostly are, but the movie would have benefited from being a little more judicious with its rules and applications because I started wondering if everyone was oblivious.
I was genuinely surprised how much screen time and consideration was afforded to the primary villain. No, I’m not talking about Barbara/Cheetah, who could have been completely cut from the film. I’m talking about Max Lord. He’s arguably in the film as much as Diana. He’s a con man trying to be a successful TV pitchman and oil tycoon but really he’s trying to be a “somebody” to make his son proud. The problem is that his goal always seems to be just out of reach no matter what is gained. This part confused me. After successful wishes with power and money, Max seems to desperately continue searching for more. I suppose it could just be a general “power-hungry corruption” explanation but I kept asking when enough was enough, and that’s likely the point. I don’t know if Max Lord is a character deserving of this much consideration, but the approach appeals to the film’s empathetic mentality that no one is beyond reach. Rather than the villain having to be physically defeated, WW84 rests on emotionally appealing to a broken man’s sense of self. It makes for a more intriguing conclusion in a superhero realm than merely out-punching the CGI antagonist, like the clunky, lumbering finale from the prior Wonder Woman movie.
The conclusion of WW84 rests upon millions having to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good, which is a lovely sentiment that we could all use at this point after a dispiriting 2020. However, this year has also proven for me that the conclusion of WW84 is pure escapist fantasy. Throughout a deadly pandemic, the United States has been beset by too many people refusing to endure inconveniences in the name of protecting others and saving lives from COVID-19. The cost-benefit doesn’t add up for many if they can’t see the results, never mind the harsh yet sterile reality of over 300,000 dead Americans and counting aided by this selfish obstinance.
Gadot might not ever escape the long shadow of playing a famous superhero but she’s settled into the role nicely and even gets to flex some untapped acting muscles. I was skeptical of Gadot early when she was hired but became a believer in 2017. She definitely has an unmistakable presence onscreen. Gadot’s best moments aren’t even the punching and kicking, which she does with gusto, but the moments where she has to make grand appeals and hard decisions. There are a few emotional moments where Gadot’s familiarity with the character blends together and she and the filmmakers are not afraid to show strength in other ways other than brawn. Gadot still has a very enjoyable chemistry with Pine (Hell or High Water) that makes them a winning pair. One of the film’s highlights is a personal flight through fireworks that delivers sheer joy for Steve Trevor. His awe about the future and getting one more spin with life itself is heartwarming. Pascal (The Mandalorian) is going big and hammy with his performance that reminded me of the Richard Donner Superman movies. Wiig (Ghostbusters) is the big miss for me. She’s not convincing as a threatening foe and her early scenes as a klutzy, put-upon dweeb feel overdone and yet insufficient. We needed more establishment of Barbara’s life before her wish to better recognize why she would never want to go back. One reoccurring street harasser doesn’t cut it.
Wonder Woman 1984 is fun, splashy, and doesn’t lose sight of its characters and their emotional states even as it elevates the world-annihilation stakes. It’s a movie that seems more confident in its identity than the first film. It accepts that it can be silly, it can be sincere, it can be exciting, it can be smaller and more personal, it can be hokey, it can appeal to your best self. It’s overly long (the opening flashback of young Dianna in the Amazon Games could have been ditched entirely) and not everything works, but the problems are easier to digest and forgive with what does work. It might be the last blockbuster for some time given the uncertain theatrical landscape so I’ll take it. WW84 isn’t the swaggering solo venture the first film proved to be, but I would say it still makes for a mostly satisfying and fun experience that plays to the strength of the creative team.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The story behind The New Mutants is decidedly more interesting than the movie itself, the last of the twenty-year span of Fox X-Men movies. There was a three-year gap in between trailers for this movie, an adaptation of a Marvel comics series and fronted by co-writer and director Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars). It was originally supposed to come out in 2017, and then it was delayed with the rumors that Fox wanted to push for a more prevalent horror angle. There were rumors of extensive re-shoots, possibly half the movie, and then the Disney merger effectively froze the post-production process, and then the rumors were that the film was removing all the elements to tie it into the X-Men universe, to stand on its own. Apparently, all of this speculation and the talk of re-shoots was a lot of hot air and the finished film is what was originally back in 2017, before the X-Universe imploded with the great Disney takeover. Because of the many years of delays and gestating rumors, The New Mutants became a strange artifact of another time and fans began anticipating how bad it might be and whether they might ever really see it. Finally released at long last, The New Mutants is only aggressively mediocre and thoroughly boring.
Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wakes up in a strange asylum. She’s the only survivor from her reservation where something powerful and supernatural attacked. The medical facility is run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) and secluded in the country. It’s also kept under a force field until the mutant patients make breakthroughs on their paths to processing their trauma and controlling their volatile powers. Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) is from Scotland and was hunted as a demon by religious extremists. Illyana Rasputin (Ana Taylor-Joy) was terrorized by Slenderman-like intruders as a young girl. Roberto de Costa (Henry Zaga) accidentally burned his girlfriend alive. Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) lost control in his town’s coal mine and is responsible for several deaths, including his hard-working father. Together, they uncover the sinister forces keeping them trapped and confront a powerful menace from the past to gain their freedom.
Even with years of curiosity and anticipation, once it got started, I found myself nodding off during The New Mutants. This is because the script by Boone and Knate Lee (Kidnap) is predicated on predictability. Of course, you know exactly what will be revealed about this so-called helpful medical facility. Of course, you know who will be revealed to be part of that conspiracy. So then we wait for the obvious plot turns and bide our time for close to an hour with each mutant experiencing their own It-style scary encounter with a trauma of their past. Since we have four additional supporting players, each contributes a PG-13 studio spooky set piece until we reach our most obvious reveal about who is responsible for their worst nightmares coming to violent fruition. Seriously, just having read the above, I guarantee that the majority of you can figure out all the spoilers I’m dancing around. This is the kind of movie that quotes the “two wolves” metaphor (“Inside every person are two wolves…”) though the internal animal is changed into bears to align more with Danielle’s native culture. Makes me wonder if every person has two of different animals fighting for dominance within them (“Inside every person are two really irritable ducks…”). This metaphor is hammered home multiple times so you better believe it’s going to relate to our final climax. Normally, I would cite this as smart screenwriting, layering in setups and connecting theme to a personal confrontation. The showdown though is so goofy and the final villain free of personality, because ultimately the final villain is a symbol, an idea, and that is too vague and prone to basic platitudes on fear and responsibility.
The characters are also a major flaw for The New Mutants. It feels like somebody was trying to follow a formula of popular teen movies and sticks with the stereotypical stock roles but gave it a slightly modern twist. Our lead character is indigenous. There’s a chaste lesbian romance. There’s a level of diversity here even if fans of the comics also have expressed insult at possible white-washing of a Brazilian comic character’s ethnicity. At its core, the characters are still the same high school cliche roles: the Mean Girl (Illyana), the Outcast (Rahne), the Tomboy (Danielle), the Jock (Roberto), the Poor White Trash (Sam). It’s not too difficult to imagine The Breakfast Club faces being reapplied into these familiar roles onscreen. They even have a cheesy “cutting loose” montage when their authority figure is away that might remind you of that John Hughes classic. Worse, the characters just aren’t that interesting, each defined by their past that figuratively and then quite literally haunts them. This leads to some intriguing moments of them reliving horror but no sequence makes any character more interesting. The fears don’t provide further insight. Illyana might be the most annoying character of the group. She’s immediately pushy, malicious, racist, and her combination of powers just doesn’t make any sort of sense (teleportation and a disappearing arm sword, huh?). The boys are boring but Danielle is just as boring as our lead. The only character with a spark of possibility is Rahne and her push against religious harassment. If you’re going to be trapped in a contained thriller with a group of super-powered teens, could they not be more interesting than this sullen lot of underdeveloped high school cliches?
For a movie that was supposed to be something different, it’s the flashes of horror that made me wish the extensive Fox re-shoots had been real. As a mystery or an action movie, The New Mutants isn’t going to be able to compare to the highlights of its fabled franchise. The action at the end feels rushed and sloppy. However, it could have found a tidy place for itself as a more adult horror movie within the broader X-Men fold. The spooky set pieces don’t have much to them because they’re meant as passing torment, reminders of negative feelings rather than extended sequences. They can be eerie and made me wish we could dwell further with this. A horror movie in a confined space with teenagers with powers they didn’t fully understand or couldn’t control, I can see the possibilities there aplenty. That’s what makes it all the more disappointing how predictable Boone and the filmmakers go with their one-off genre riff. The creepy Slenderman creature design is actually good, though I don’t really know if they are real in this world or a figment of Illyana’s childhood imagination. I don’t really know much about the rules of The New Mutants, so when it takes its turns, I was mostly shrugging and saying to myself, “Well, okay then.” Why do these super powered and angst-ridden teenagers never attempt to overthrow the one woman who patrols this otherwise empty facility? I watched Roberto repeatedly wash a giant soup vat in the empty kitchen when he could have been plotting escape. Who is consuming that much soup on a regular basis between the six of these people?
In short, The New Mutants was not worth its unceremonious three-year wait. It’s a middling super hero movie with flashes of potential, especially when it could have been something so different and new than any of the previous X-Men flicks. The movie is so easily predictable that I’m shocked more effort wasn’t put into its scary set pieces to better compensate. There are more twisted accents in the movie than genuine twists and genuine scares (your ears may bleed). It’s barely 85 minutes long and you feel like it’s gasping for breath by even that modest run. It never quite feels like the concept of a horror movie set with super heroes was ever really well imagined. If this is the actual preferred version Josh Boone always had in mind, it still manages to feel incomplete and underwhelming in execution. It’s not exactly a good comic book movie, or a good horror movie, or even a good movie. Thus ends The X-Men. Rest in peace.
Nate’s Grade: C
The appeal of Project Power is immediate with its premise, which stirred a bidding war before finally ending up with Netflix. Take a pill and become a super hero for five minutes. Every person has a unique power and won’t know what that entails until they swallow that pill. However, there is also a risk that your body has a negative reaction of the exploding kind. I can see why studios would be all over that, on top of the fact that it plays into established popular cultural tropes, it still gets to be an original property. The finished film, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired, and I’m convinced that this hot commodity script went through a gauntlet of rewrites and producer interference, each new obstacle dimming and diminishing what made Project Power an exciting and compelling idea from inception. Well the concept is still interesting, and its relatively grounded sci-fi world has genuine potential, but the movie falls flat and is far too generic to be special.
Drug dealers are flushing New Orleans with a super pill that activates fantastic powers, though only for five-minute integrals. Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a local police officer who secretly keeps a stash of the pills for himself, to juice up to take on the escalating criminals. His supplier is Robin (Dominick Fishback), a teenager looking for a better life, who comes into contact with the mysterious and volatile Art (Jamie Foxx). He’s a man on a mission and working his way across the streets to go from supplier to supplier, working his way up the criminal food chain until he can confront the authority behind the super pill creation and distribution.
The premise by debut screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (The Batman) is tantalizing and makes every pill its own “what if?” scenario. I’m unsure whether or not the risk of bodily explosion occurs for every person or simply those whom the drug doesn’t agree with. I think it would be more interesting if every person stood some chance of risk. I talked about it with my girlfriend, if there was a pill that granted super powers but it also ran the chance of death, would you take it? We both answered, “Of course.” Who wouldn’t want to be a super hero, even if it’s only for five minutes? Naturally, much like within the X-Men universe, not every super power is on the same level of being useful. There’s a guy who grows extra bones, which serve as spikes attached to his body. I guess that’s something. It reminded me of the unfortunate mutant in X-Men 3 who could grow porcupine quills from his face (he even managed to coax someone near him to kill them). With such a momentous shift in human evolution, and through the angle of drug addiction, you would think Project Power would be the early steps of a complete re-examination of a changing society and the forces falling behind to try and catch up. This should be a big deal, and yet it never feels that way in this world. Super-powered criminals aren’t running rampant. One invisible guy robs a bank naked and it’s comedy. Nobody seems too panicked or bothered. It weirdly feels like everyone has already not only accepted this reality but compartmentalized it. If one city has a new super drug, would it not stand that others in neighboring cities and states and countries would also desire it? Should this not be dominating the news?
The characters are remarkably generic. Our heroes include a beat cop who “doesn’t play by all the rules” and goes on a secret mission to root out this drug conspiracy, a young black woman who wants to be an aspiring rapper while she’s slinging drugs, and a military veteran who was subjected to experiments and is desperate to find and save his kidnapped daughter. We’ve seen each of these archetypes in a thousand other action thrillers, and the fact that Project Power doesn’t give us any more than this is stunning. With some minute personal details, I have laid out everything we know about the three main characters in this movie. That’s it. It’s like each character was checking an archetype box and then was forgotten to be fleshed out. The worst is Art, a character that is coasting on Foxx’s attitude and charisma but is otherwise completely vacant. The kidnapped daughter storyline is maybe the most boring motivation that a protagonist could be saddled with. He might as well be a video game character from 90s-era titles, a military man who was betrayed by his government, experimented upon, given dangerous new powers, and now he’s striking out to save his daughter. It’s so bland and generic and boring. None of the major characters exhibit an interesting personality quirk, flaw, desire, or a point to make them more interesting than if a new nameless character had suddenly taken over from the background.
This extends to the villains as well. Their evil schemes are too vague and they’re just as generic and bland. The villains are also far too easily defeated, which drains any threat from their machinations. Without memorable or effective villains, Project Power limps to a finish, lacking the needed payoffs of our heroes triumphing over their foes. Does anyone care when Art defeats a secondary antagonist that is introduced far too late in the final twenty minutes? It’s too late to be introducing a Big Bad in the movie that is meant to be savored when vanquished. It’s not satisfying when the bad guys are dumb or nebulous or too easily beaten. I felt more antipathy with a bearded henchman than I did with any of his superiors. This is such an easy thing to do, establish a worthy opposition with personality and menace, a force that an audience will feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment over their eventual defeat. Make the villains matter. Regrettably, the villains in Project Power are just as generic and underdeveloped as the heroes.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have dabbled in many genres, first documentary (Catfish), then found footage horror (Paranormal Activity 3 and 4), then youthful thrillers with social media satire (Nerve), and now super hero action cinema. The versatility is to be commended, and they certainly infuse plenty of energetic style into Project Power. The special effects are pretty good when the powers are somewhat visually chaotic, like a drug dealer who becomes the Human Torch, running through ignitable room after room, while the camera zips along, lovingly documenting the rippling flames and embers. The camerawork and lighting can definitely provide jolts of excitement and engagement when the storytelling falters. However, there are moments that should have been avoided, like violent acts presented in unclear ways, perhaps trying to avoid a harsher rating that it ultimately got anyway. Another sequence is from the point of view of a dying woman trapped inside a container, and the action from the other side of the glass is almost completely obscured. The woman’s suffering seemed so overboard that it reminded me of that poor assistant lady who had a more gruesome death in Jurassic World than its actual villain. It’s a misplaced stylistic touch. A villain takes the drug and turns into a giant CGI troll, like something from 2002’s Chamber of Secrets and is goofy and misplaced. For a movie that is trying to be gritty and somewhat grounded, a giant CGI troll is a blunder. Joost and Schulman are currently attached to write and direct a Mega Man movie next, and I imagine this was a trial run for super-powered androids blasting one another to dust.
The Project Power playbook is pretty familiar and underwhelming in its creativity and development. The concept is there but the movie too often feels content to settle for less, trading in stereotypical heroes, vague villains, and muddled action sequences goosed with flashes of style to mask their lack of personal stakes and imagination. The scope of the movie is too frustratingly myopic and under-developed, like a nascent pilot for a TV series that provides impressions with a latent promise of getting back to storylines later. Except later will never arrive. Project Power (even the name is generic) is a super hero movie that feels like everything you’ve already seen before. It’s far less than super.
Nate’s Grade: C
Take a storied franchise that has long been the backbone of Marvel comics and develop it into a feature film where the last superhero movie was the purple-spandex-in-the-jungle The Phantom and you’re just asking for trouble. A nation of fans is breathing down the neck of the film crew nitpicking every fine detail. Studio execs want the film done as fast as possible and under budget regardless of the numbers of effects needed. Despite what would seem like a cataclysmic set-up, X-Men proves that Hollywood can occasionally take a comic book and get it right. For the most part.
X-Men is basically the pilot for a movie franchise. It sets up characters, conflicts, origins, but periodically forgets its audience. Numerous people are introduced and then given a grocery list sized amount of dialogue to read. Some even have atrocious John Watters-like wigs they are forced to wear. It’s a good thing then that the film centers mainly around Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), the three most interesting characters.
Often times the action in X-Men is surprisingly lackluster and contained. The battle royale finale atop the Statue of Liberty might induce more than a few eye rolls. I can’t help but hope that with all the groundwork laid out with this film that the eventual sequel will be more efficient with its action set pieces.
For the most part the dialogue in X-Men is passable and it even has a few rally snazzy sound bites. However, there is that ONE line delivered by Ms. Berry (“You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightening? The same thing that happens to everything else.”) that is groan-worthy and destined to be notorious.
It may sound like I’m coming down hard on X-Men, but for a comic adaptation it got a whole hell lot more right than wrong. I want to congratulate director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) for the amount of pressure he had looming over his head and what he pulled through with. X-Men is no campy nipple-plate festival but an attempt at possibly serious drama with tortured characters. The whole mutant/racism metaphor may be a little bludgeoned at times but for the most part is handled very well. The best aspect X-Men has is its patience. The film is in no rush and takes its time even if it is only like an hour and 40-some minutes. Still, it’s a welcome change in the summer action.
Singer’s direction is smooth and well executed. The casting of the movie is near perfection with some minor exceptions. Stewart and McKellen were born to play their dueling think tank leaders. Jackman is an exciting breakout in a role that was supposed to be occupied by Dougray Scott (thank you MI:-2 delays). I look forward to more from this actor. And does anyone know when young Oscar recipient Anna Paquin became so attractive? Someone buy this casting director a fine steak dinner.
X-Men may have its flaws, one of which is an absolute mundane score, but the film is one of the better summer entries into the world of explosions and noise. I just hope the sequel(s) will be a tad better.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
It’s hard not to understate just how eventful the first X-Men movie was back in 2000. Beforehand, the public’s conception of super heroes was that they were kids’ stuff, fed by recent duds like Batman and Robin and Steel. Then came X-Men and it changed everything. There wouldn’t be a Spider-Man without X-Men. There wouldn’t be a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), arguably the defining cultural franchise of the twenty-first century, without X-Men. It was an immediate hit with audiences and would go onto spawn two sequels, four prequels, three direct spinoffs, and two indirect spinoffs (Deadpool) over the course of 19 years. It’s a franchise that has made over $6 billion dollars worldwide and will soon be intermingled into that MCU, re-imagined with new actors filling out the famous names for the first time in decades. I can recall the importance of the X-Men in my own maturation and love of comics. I grew up adoring the animated series in the early 90s, and this began my relationship with the Marvel universe. I have boxes filled with old comics and I even started one of my own in my junior high school years (it’s unfinished and about 160 pages). I fondly recall seeing X-Men opening weekend with my pal Kevin Lowe and both of us just being relieved. A big studio had done it justice. They got it right.
Twenty years later, one must remember how different X-Men was with the super hero landscape. The more grounded, more political, and more reverent take on splash pages and spandex was in direct contrast with the cheesier, dumber, and more slapstick-heavy comics movies. Sure, you’d have your occasional hit like Blade, but the vampire genre inoculated it from larger scrutiny as a “comic book venture.” Director Bryan Singer wanted to make a brooding, serious version of the X-Men, a fact bolstered by his opening a summer super hero blockbuster with a Holocaust flashback. The mutant metaphor inherent in the X-universe has always lent itself to broad social commentary, easy to apply to any disadvantaged and targeted group for simply being different. It had men and women, and aliens and robots and more, doing amazing feats of derring-do, but it also featured these same characters fighting for equality with a public that increasingly feared and despised them for their gifts. Singer recognized this greater political allegorical relevancy and wanted his foray into blockbusters to be more meaningful than another disposable punch-em-up to consume mass quantities of popcorn. The X-Men franchise might not have ever been as successful without Singer’s early vision, and of course, many years later upon its demise, the producers might wish differently given the director’s righteous career reckoning.
But let’s talk about the movie first before we get into the controversy of the man in the director’s chair. I haven’t watched the original really since the superior X-2 came out in 2003, and I was amazed at how patient and assured the movie plays. For a super hero action movie, there really isn’t that much action until the final act. There are confrontations and what I would call “action beats” but nothing lasting longer than a minute in conflict. In its place is a patient movie that takes its time to establish its world, its ideological counterpoints, and its characters and their relationships. We have two entry point characters with Wolverine (High Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) being hunted and taken in by Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Even though the final movie is barely longer than 100 minutes, it doesn’t feel rushed in its pacing. It has a lot to do in establishing a new world but by grounding it with a scared runaway and a lonely drifter followed by trouble, the movie taps into Western archetypes to act as a helpful surrogate guideline. Fortunately, screenwriter David Hayter (and un-credited writers Ed Solomon, John Logan, Christopher McQuarrie and a heavily rewritten Joss Whedon) anchors us with the most interesting characters who have the most to fear and rebel. Wolverine and Rogue are an excellent pair and Jackman and Paquin have a real nurturing onscreen connection that provides an emotional investment. By taking its time to set up characters and their internal conflicts, X-Men makes a wide audience care about what’s to come.
When it does transition to action, you can see the beginnings of something great tempered with the growing pains of staking out new territory. The special effects are still relatively good, especially Rogue’s life-draining powers on the human body. That’s another thing the screenplay does well is finding ways to demonstrate and then incorporate every mutant’s special ability. We learn about Wolverine’s metallic claws through him being antagonized, and his healing ability from going headfirst through a windshield after Rogue admonishes him about wearing his seat belt. Later Rogue uses her powers to tap in Wolverine’s healing ability to save herself, setting up the Act Three climax where she is the key to Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) evolutionary-charged scheme. One more note on that (I apologize for the deluge of digressions) because Magneto’s big evil scheme is really about empathy. He plots to turn the world’s leaders into fellow mutants so they can understand the plight of a subjugated minority class, and yes, sure, some of them will not survive the genetic re-calibration, like the prejudiced firebrand Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), but it’s not like Magneto wants them all dead. He wants them to understand (at least until the next sequel where he welcomes an opportunity to kill all non-mutant humans). Thanks to Singer, the movie has plenty of dynamic visual compositions and a few wow-moments to pack a trailer. I was reminded what an excellent visual artist Singer can be as he stages his scenes. The placement of figures, the depth of focus, the fluidity of his camera movements. He was certainly one indie darling ready for a bigger stage, at least in an artistic sense and not necessarily a personal one.
It’s impossible to think of any other actor than Jackman as Wolverine but it almost never happened. Dougray Scott was in place but because of Mission: Impossible 2 delays which themselves were previously affected by Eyes Wide Shut delays, the role had to be recast already weeks into filming. Jackman entered the picture per a suggestion from Russell Crowe, to our collective pop-culture elation. Jackman is rugged, rebellious, funny, gruff, secretly warm-hearted yet clearly still the enjoyable F-You anti-hero, and watching him inhabit what, in comics lore, was a short, stout, hairy Canadian grump is a reminder that you can still recognize star-making performances when you see them. He fully inhabits the character and brings him to startling life. Jackman would become indispensable to the X-Men franchise and earn three spinoff movies, culminating in 2017’s R-rated and Oscar-nominated neo-Western, Logan. It’s only a matter of time before the MCU reboots this character because he, like Batman, is simply too valuable an IP to keep on the sidelines. It feels like heresy to consider another actor in this role, much like it will if anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. steps into the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man. This is a role defined by its signature actor where possible early choices now seem offensively wrong (like Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, or Christopher Walken as Harrison Ford, or John Travolta as Forrest Gump).
The ensemble was extremely well cast with Oscar-winners and nominees past (Paquin, McKellen) and future (Halle Berry, Jackman). Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) was born to play Professor X, enough so that when he first viewed X-Men comics he said, “What am I doing on this cover?” McKellen brings a gravitas to his villainous role as well as a smirky flair that makes him hard to hate. He had his shooting schedule re-arranged to accommodate the Lord of the Rings shoot in early 2000. Most people can only hope for one generational, pop-culture defining role, and McKellen had two after the age of 60. Paquin was making her transition from child-actor to adult, which was further solidified with HBO’s bloody and steamy vampire series, True Blood. Marsden was filling out his fledgling leading man potential, though he’s always been more appealing to me as a charming comedic actor (27 Dresses, Enchanted). Supermodel Rebecca Romijn (Femme Fatale) made a favorable impression as the shape-shifting Mystique thanks to low expectations and a costume made of 100 scales covering her nearly nude body that took nine hours to apply. The only real miss for me was Berry (Monster’s Ball) because I always envisioned Angela Basset (Black Panther) as my Storm. This is also the only X-Men where Berry adopts her character’s Kenyan accent.
Looking back over 19 years of movies, the wonky timelines of the X-Men world begin to break apart if given even cursory contemplation. Given what happens in the prequels set in the 1970s and 80s, including Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) launching all of the world’s nuclear missiles, it certainly seems like the worldwide perception of mutants would be more pronounced. Then there’s characters being alive, like Mystique, when she dies in the 1990s in the last X-Men film, 2019’s Dark Phoenix. The back-story of Jean Grey (first Famke Janssen, later Sophie Turner) and her Phoenix powers got two big screen showcases that also happen to be two of the worst movies. The biggest issue was the prequels arbitrarily following a movie-a-decade model, hopping from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2011’s X-Men: First Class to the 1990s three films later. That means that somehow within less than ten years that Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and James McAvoy (Split) were going to resemble old men McKellen and Stewart. Do they get exposed to radiation? The conclusion of X-Men: Days of Future Past was meant to rewrite the timeline miscues, erasing the bad X-Men movies at that point from existence (2006’s Last Stand and 2009’s first solo Wolverine). Instead, the producers then followed with two more of the worst films of the franchise. You tried.
And now it’s time we discuss the controversy that has followed Singer for decades from film set to film set. There have been uncomfortable rumors and allegations that have surfaced ever since 1998’s Apt Pupil when Singer filmed a high school shower scene and insisted two underage actors be physically naked during the onset filming. Seems pretty questionable, right? This was eventually settled out of court, as were other allegations of abuse. According to a revealing Hollywood Reporter article, the teen who played Pyro, Alex Burton, was personally flown from L.A. to the Toronto X-Men set. This is quite bizarre considering he doesn’t have any lines and the part is a glorified cameo. Burton said he was held hostage by Singer and his wealthy friends for months and was repeatedly raped. Singer has been out as a gay man in Hollywood early into his career, and he would host regular all-male parties that reportedly descended into lurid bacchanals. Ironically, his status as a prominent and out gay director in the industry might have afforded him an aura of perceived protection, the idea that any journalist snooping too closely would be accused of homophobia or a double standard. It wasn’t just Singer but also the company he kept. Several associates of Singer have been accused of sexual abuse and against underage men that have led to undisclosed settlements.
These allegations of abuse continued when Singer rejoined the X-universe again in 2014’s Days of Future Past but he weathered it out, and then again during the filming of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and this time he wouldn’t be able to weather it out. He was fired with a month left to film and Dexter Fletcher (Rocketman) was brought onboard to finish directing the eventual Oscar-winning and shockingly successful Queen blockbuster (nobody seemed to cite Singer by name in their acceptance speeches). Singer also built a reputation of showing up to his sets extremely late, sometimes impaired, and for sudden and unknown disappearances. It’s amazing that with all of this chronic misbehavior he was still getting big studio offers, but the man kept producing hits, including the long-running TV show House, and so his shady behavior was overlooked until, finally, it wouldn’t be in a post-Me Too world. Even after he was attached for a Red Sonja remake for a time until another round of accusations made him too radioactive for the time being. I would not be surprised if in a few years some production company happily offers him another project. Singer seems like a new test subject as far as what can be forgiven for the hitmakers.
So, what do we as viewers do with this damning profile of Singer? It’s become a regular habit now of re-examining an artist’s legacy in light of new or old allegations of wrongdoing. I personally have no interest in ever listening to a Bill Cosby comedy album again or watching any of his many heralded TV shows. I feel different listening to Michael Jackson’s music now. I wince when I watch Kevin Spacey in performances now and try to only see the character instead (Spacey won his first Oscar for 1995’s Usual Suspects, directed by… Bryan Singer). Can you watch the early X-Men films, or the later sequels, and still enjoy them knowing that Singer has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct including against minors? I have no answer. This is a deeply personal call for every person. I have too much personal attachment to 1999’s American Beauty to cast it aside, and that’s a movie that prominently features Spacey lusting after an underage girl. I’ll never look at the film the same but I cannot discard the whole. X-Men might mean too much to too many to disregard as well.
Looking back on my original review in 2000, I’m genuinely a little stunned because it’s almost word-for-word my assessment upon re-watching in 2020. It does feel more like a pilot to a franchise, laying the groundwork for the world and character relationships. The action is surprisingly contained. The “toad struck by lightning” dialogue line did become notorious. The casting was marvelous. The score was weak, greatly improved by the addition of John Ottman as editor and composer in the sequel (that Nightcrawler assassination attempt scene is a matserclass of editing and shot design). I even note the patience. I even think my original grade is fair. The original X-Men is a perfectly good movie but it led the way for great movies to come.
Re-View Grade: B