Not the train wreck the advertising made it seem, Morbius is merely a bland superhero retread that reminded me of the early 2000s superhero output like Daredevil and the Tim Story Fantastic Four. Having been delayed almost two years thanks to COVID-19, the film was released on April 1 for full unintended irony, and it’s a silly mess but also nothing worth getting too worked up over. Method actor extraordinaire Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) plays Dr. Michael Morbius who is suffering from a rare disease and finds a solution via a serum mixing vampire bat DNA but it has some consequences. He has super powers but needs to feast on blood every six hours and is dreading the point where he may not be able to resist the allure of feeding on humans. It’s a very Jekyll/Hyde concept, man trying to control his inner demons made literal, and once again we have a villain that essentially has the same powers as the hero. Matt Smith (Doctor Who) play’s Morbius’ childhood friend who also suffers from the same rare blood disease, but Dr. Morbius refused to share the cure because he explains it’s a “curse,” although maybe let the man suffering make that personal health choice. Bless you, Matt Smith, because you’re the only one having any fun with this movie, and that includes in the audience. Leto is actually fine though not much about the Morbius character is really imparted. The action sequences are erratic and the stylistic flourishes, like the “look at me” slow-mo ramps and the inexplicable wispy colorful smoke clouds trailing Morbius in action, hamper the ability to even discern what is happening onscreen. Maybe that’s on purpose after two years delay. The movie establishes a basic structure, series of goals, antagonist, and problems efficiently enough to make it to the end credits after 90 minutes. It’s just that we’ve come to expect better from our super hero cinema by now. As a disposable monster B-movie, Morbius is okay. It’s not recognizably campy, it’s not so-bad-it’s-good, it’s just a generic origin story/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde territory with a lot of dropped subplots and subpar CGI. I have my serious doubts about Sony’s plan to hatch solo movies for all these different Spider-Man villains, and the creakiness of this plan is even more evident with their contrived post-credit scenes trying to awkwardly establish their retinue of villains to confront Spider-Man. Does Morbius know who Spider-Man even is? Morbius the movie and character just feels too half-hearted for anyone to care.
Nate’s Grade: C
Hollywood take note, Spider-Man is the prototype for a summer popcorn movie. It has all the necessary elements. It has exciting action, great effects used effectively, characters an audience can care for, a well toned story that gives shades of humanity to those onscreen, fine acting and proper and expert direction. I recommend movie execs take several note pads and go see Spider-Man (if they can get in one of the many sold out shows). What summer needs are more movies in the same vein as Spider-Man, and less Tomb Raider’s and Planet of the Apes.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a dweebish photographer for his school yearbook clinging to the lowest rung of the popularity ladder. He lives with his loving Aunt and Uncle who treat him like a son. Peter has been smitten with girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) ever since he can remember, but he’s been too timid to say anything.
At a field trip to the genetically altered spider place (there’s one in every town) Peter is snapping pictures when he is bitten by one of the eight-legged creatures. He thinks nothing of it and awakes the next day to a startling change. He has no need for his rimmed glasses anymore and has a physique that diet ads would kill for. He also discovers he can cling to surfaces, jump tall building in a single bound and shoot a sticky rope-like substance from his wrists. Hairs on his palms and shooting a sticky substance from his body? Hello puberty allusion! Peter tries to use his new abilities to win the girl and when that doesn’t work out he turns to profiting from them. He enters a wrestling contest in a homemade costume and proceeds to whup Randy Savage. Following the fight Peter’s Uncle Ben is dying after being involved in a car jacking Peter inadvertently let happen. Haunted by grief Peter becomes Spider-Man and swings from building to building as an amazing arachnid crime stopper.
But every hero needs a villain, and that is personified in the Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), scientist and businessman. Osborn is experimenting with an aerial rocket glider and a dangerous growth serum. When the military threatens to cut his funding and shop elsewhere Osborn haphazardly undergoes the serum himself. What it creates is a duality of personalities; one is Norman, the other is a sinister and pragmatic one. The evil alter ego dons the glider and an exoskeleton suit and calls himself the Green Goblin. The Goblin destroys all that are in his way, and has his yellow eyes set on the pesky Spider-Man.
The casting of mopey-eyed indie actor Tobey Maguire over more commercial names like a DiCaprio or a Prinze Jr. (I shudder to think of a Freddie Prinze Jr. Spider-Man) left some people scratching their heads. Of course the casting of Mr. Mom to portray the Dark Knight likely got the same reaction in the 80s. Maguire plays the nerdish and nervous Peter Parker to a perfected awkwardness with his sensitive passivity. When he explores his new powers with exuberant abandon then begins crime fighting, we as an audience are with him every step of the way pulling for Peter.
Kirsten Dunst was also a surprising casting choice but works out very well. She allows the audience to fall for her along with Peter. Her chemistry with Maguire is great and could be a major reason why rumors have surfaced about the two leads taking the onscreen romance off screen.
Willem Dafoe is one of the creepiest actors in the business (though he made an effective creepy-free Jesus) and delves deliciously headfirst into the cackling menace of Spider-Man’s nemesis. Dafoe, with a face that looks like hardened silly putty and jutting rows of teeth, relishes every maniacal glare and endless evil grin. But instead of being one-note he adds certain amounts of sympathy and understanding as Norman Obsorn. No one could have done this role better than Dafoe.
Director Sam Raimi was most known for his cult splatter house Evil Dead series, but he’s got a new resume topper now. Raimi was chosen over a field of directors because of his passion for the character and story. Raimi brings along integrity but with a joyous gluttony of spectacular action sequences. He expertly handles the action and daring-do all the while smoothly transitioning to the sweet love story. He has created the movie Spidey fans have been dreaming of for 40 years.
Spider-Man swings because of the respect the source material has been given, much like 2000’s X-Men. The story follows the exploits of the comic fairly well but has some stable legs of its own. The multitudes of characters are filled with life and roundness to them, as well as definite elements of humanity. You can feel the sweet romance budding between the two young stars, the tension and affection between Osborn and son, but also the struggle with Norman and his new sinister alter ego.We all know villains are the coolest part anyway. Isn’t that the only reason the last two Batman films were made?
There’s the occasional cheesy dialogue piece but there is that one standard groaner line. In X-Men it was Halle Berry’s query about what happens when lightening hits a toad. In Spider-Manit was the response to the Green Goblin’s offer to join him, to which he asked “Are you in or are you out?” (Obviously channeling George Clooney). The dreaded response: “You’re the one who’s out Goblin. Out of his mind!” Sigh. Maybe a well placed “freaking” before “mind” would have made the line better.
Spider-Man is the best kind of popcorn film: one that leaves me anxiously anticipating the sequel (which will come out two years to the day the first one was released).
Nate’s Grade: A-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Twenty years ago, 2002’s Spider-Man changed the landscape of studio blockbusters. Since swinging into theaters twenty years ago, we’ve gone through three different actors playing three different Spider-Men in three different franchises, plus an Oscar-winning animated movie, and oodles of toys. If X-Men’s success in 2000 made Spider-Man possible, then Spider-Man’s record-breaking success, the first film to earn more than $100 million in a weekend, made the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the defining chain of blockbusters for our age, possible. X-Men provided a template and Spider-Man was the confirmation for those curious bean counters in studio offices. From there, it was a gold rush to secure their own superhero franchise. Universal launched Hulk. Fox launched Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. Warner Brothers started trying to reboot Batman and Superman again. It was an IP scramble and not every property proved worthy (see: 2004’s Catwoman, or better yet don’t see it). For better or worse, 2002’s Spider-Man ushered in the modern era of superhero mega blockbusters. Now with twenty years of hindsight and influence, it’s interesting to go back to the OG Spider-Man, especially after the nostalgic revisit with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, and see why this movie was so successful.
Created in 1962 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man took a circuitous path toward big screen stardom. He had a popular cartoon in the 1970s, a cheesy U.S. tv show, and Lee even licensed the character into a 1978 television series in Japan that is well and truly insane. The main character is a racer injected with alien blood, from planet Spider no less, who leaps into a giant robot to fight giant monsters (it’s basically Power Rangers before Power Rangers). Legendary genre house Cannon Films bought the film rights and then sold them to Carolco, the studio killed by Cutthroat Island’s bombing in 1995. Carolco reached out to reported king of the (blockbuster) world James Cameron to rewrite an existing draft with Peter in college. He envisioned Edward Furlong as Perter Parker and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. Later, his new Spider-Man script was reset in high school, brought back in a previously absent Mary Jane, and involved Electro and Sandman as the primary villains, and apparently was going for an R-rating with language and an intended sex scene between Peter and Mary Jane on the Brooklyn Bridge, which brings into further question his organic web-shooting inclusion.
It all fell apart when it was revealed Carolco didn’t actually own the full rights to Spider-Man. After Carolco’s bankruptcy and the ensuing legal wrangling, Sony eventually ended up with the rights for a deal that is absolutely brutal in retrospect: a mere $7 million plus five percent of film grosses and half of merchandising. That’s it. For a character that earns over a literal billion dollars a year in merchandise even when there are no movies being released. As of this writing, No Way Home has made almost two billion dollars world-wide at the box-office.
Sam Raimi was picked as director because he was so passionate for the project, owning over 20,000 comic books and knowing the character and his universe inside and out. It’s not like Raimi was some schlub that Sony just drafted from the street in a contest either. The man was a genre visionary from the beginning with the chaotically kinetic Evil Dead movies. When the studios were unsure about tapping him for comic book movies, Raimi decided to make his own with 1991’s Darkman, a gloriously fun, weird, and gory Phantom of the Opera-esque action movie with Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. After that, Raimi expanded his style by directing four very different movies in different genres (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, The Gift), and by that time the studios had come around to embracing Raimi as their trusted shepherd of coveted comic book IP. Director Chris Columbus also turned down the job first, instead opting for the Harry Potter cinematic universe. I don’t know if Spider-Man would have been as successful with anyone else at the helm. Let’s not pretend that the movie would have been a commercial failure with some other director attached (I’m sure, prior to Cutthroat Island, there was a very real chance of “Renny Harlan’s Spider-Man” – that’s right, the hits just keep on coming, Cutthroat Island). But Sam Raimi perfectly encapsulates the combination that has worked so well for other later superhero directors: passion and peculiarity.
Raimi is a first-rate visual stylist with the comedy of The Three Stooges, and I don’t mean this as a negative. He has a rare, instinctive sense, much like Cameron and Steven Spielberg, about what will play best on the big screen with a packed crowd, those kinds of blockbuster moments. The one thing you can say about any Raimi feature is that they are exploding with verve and energy. The man nailed a camera to a plank of wood and chased after Bruce Campbell in 1980, and he’s been running wild ever since. That gleeful, childlike sense of entertainment exists in a Raimi picture. His horror instincts and influences are readily apparent in his editing, tone, and setup, across all pictures and genres. Horror is such a precise genre, and Raimi knows the ins and outs of developing scares, tension, and payoffs, and he also knows that editing can make everything sing. A Raimi film might be more self-conscious with its antic camera angles, movements, and editing, but this man is a natural conductor of the chaos of moviemaking. He is a natural for big stages and has only made one movie for less than a hundred million in the last twenty years (2009’s throwback, Drag Me to Hell). It’s also a little disappointing that Raimi has only directed one movie in the last 13 years (2013’s failed franchise-starter, Oz: The Great and Powerful).
Raimi’s movies also have a deep sense of humor, twisted and loony, not afraid to get gross or goofy. When I watched Drag Me to Hell, his first film after leaving Peter Parker’s orbit, I was busting a gut as often as my stomach was churning. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 sequence where Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) awakens and his cybernetic arms slaughter the doctors has been repeatedly re-evaluated in social media circles as a nigh perfect sequence. Raimi isn’t afraid to veer to the edges of what is considered conventional; he’s not afraid to be goofy just as he’s not afraid to be sincere. This is a director who embraces his peculiarities but also has a reverence for visual storytelling and blockbusters. With the exception of Oz, I cannot recall a Raimi film that just felt like a slapdash work-for-hire job. The man has a signature style. It was what Marvel insisted they wanted when they hired him to direct the Doctor Strange sequel (now in theaters!). Finding auteurs with peculiar sensibilities, zany humor, and new ideas for studio projects is what has allowed directors such as Joss Whedon (Avengers), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), and Jon Watts (the Tom Holland Spidey films) to flourish.
Revisiting OG Spider-Man, we have two more versions of this universe to compare with, three if you count the animated escapades of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, so some things just seem a little more quaint, like an old story from your childhood. Part of this is because the character and his lore have become as familiar in popular culture as Batman or Superman. That’s why the Holland version skipped the origin part of how Peter Parker got his super powers and lost his dear old dead Uncle Ben (just like we don’t need to ever see Batman’s parents die onscreen again). The first two Spider-Man films still hold up; I re-watched Spider-Man 2 shortly after 2017’s Homecoming to see which was the overall best Spider-Man film, and it was still very good. They’re earnest and cheesy but easily transporting and you feel the passion for those involved. Raimi clearly loves this character and wants you to love him as well, and we do. There are a few moments that just speak to the dated nature of culture from twenty years hence, like Peter Parker cracking an unfortunate homophobic joke about his wrestling opponent. The special effects are still strong throughout and benefit from Spider-Man’s costume lacking exposed skin. The action sequences are a bit tame and especially lacking compared to even later Spider-Man films.
Maguire might even be regarded as the least favorite Spider-Man actor at this time after the successful revamping of Andrew Garfield’s version from No Way Home. He stands out from Garfield and forever boyish Holland. He was 26 when he began playing Peter the high schooler. His prior indie film roles would make him seem more likely to be cast as a moody school shooter than as a clean-cut superhero (I guess it worked for Ezra Miller), and the fact that he pulled it off is a credit to both Maguire and Raimi. Maguire hasn’t been able to escape the long shadow of Spider-Man and he seems to be fine with that, having only appeared in one movie since 2014. The conniving celebrity poker player that Michael Cera played in Molly’s Game is believed to be Maguire in real life. Dunst was maligned throughout the original trilogy and you can clearly see her disinterest in the character. To her credit, this iteration of Mary Jane is fairly one-dimensional. She’s little more than the object of Peter’s desires and a damsel to be saved. Dunst has become a much more interesting actress after shedding the Spider-Man universe with Melancholia, season 2 of Fargo, and The Power of the Dog, earning her first Oscar nomination.
Dafoe had to beat out many actors for the role that seems perfected by him. Raimi intended for Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) to be his Norman Osbourn but the producers worried Crudup was too young to portray a middle-aged scientist. Dafoe’s normal face already resembles the Goblin mask. He demanded to do as many of his stunts as possible, and apparently he was a natural learner with the Green Goblin’s winged glider. Dafoe loved the part so much he begged Raimi to find ways to include him again even after his character died. I grew to love him even more after No Way Home reminded everyone of the mental anguish of Norman, a man torn apart by his demons. Dafoe is so maniacal and vulnerable and indispensable in this role. It’s no wonder they even bent space and time to have him generously visit us once more.
I was worried that my older review from 2002 was going to be overly flattering, gushing about what the filmmakers had gotten right and a little too pleased with results that haven’t aged as well with so many others running with what Raimi and company established. It’s still a solidly enjoyable movie that moves along at a steady pace and still finds time to have important character moments so that the quiet still matters paired with the spectacle. We’ve had a generation grow up with the Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and for many of us these early superhero films have a special place in our hearts. There’s a nostalgic factor. The first Spider-Man was more successful in creating an exciting kickoff than X-Men, though that film had bigger hurdles in adaptation, and it still has a lasting appeal at its core because of the skill and passion of the filmmakers involved. I’m very curious about revisiting 2007’s Spider-Man 3, where it all fell apart and seeing if it’s due some begrudging respect, though I doubt it (I know what I’ll be watching in 2027). Spider-Man is a little dated but still swings mighty high.
Re-View Grade: B+
Matt Reeves is a director who has found a way to inject soul into blockbuster movie-making, notably shepherding the last two films of the revived Planet of the Apes series. Who would have guessed at the turn of the twenty-first century that the two co-creators of Felicity would go on to helm such monumental properties like Star Wars and Batman? Reeves has reliably proven himself on increasingly bigger stages, and that’s why I held out hope that yet another Batman reboot would be worth the effort under his care. Let’s face it, dear reader, we’re probably never going to be more than three or four years removed from some kind of Batman movie, whether a continuation or another reboot. If we are going back to the Bat basics, I trust giving the franchise over to exciting artists like Reeves. I was hoping for a Ben Affleck-directed Batman after he slipped into the cowl in 2014, but it was not to be even though he was the best part of the Zack Snyder run. After multiple production delays, we now have The Batman, and it’s the next big box-office hope for desperate movie theaters until the oasis of summer releases (some are even charging a heftier ticket price, so consider it a blockbuster tax). As a slick comic book spectacle, The Batman is a three-course meal that could have sensibly pushed away earlier. You’ll feel satisfied, full, a little addled, but if dank serial killer thrillers are your thing, you’ll definitely be hungry for more even after nearly three hours of Reeves’ deep danky dive.
Gotham City is on the verge of a new mayoral election, and it’s also on the verge of a killing spree. A masked man identifying himself as the Riddler (Paul Dano) is targeting the elites of the city with cryptic notes addressed specifically toward “The Batman” (Robert Pattinson), the newfound vigilante trying to instill fear in the hearts of would-be criminals. The key ends up being Selena Kyle (Zoe Kravtiz), a waitress at Gotham’s grungy club that also happens to be a popular market for the big crime bosses. Batman enlists the help of Selena to put together the clues to predict the Riddler’s next target and to uncover decades of corruption infesting the city.
The Batman exists in a specific cinematic universe far more in common with the rain-soaked, gritty serial killer thrillers of David Fincher than anything from the previous DC movie universe. This is a pulpy, stylized movie that feels akin to Seven or Zodiac, and not just in its protracted length. It’s a methodical movie that takes its sweet time dwelling in the decrepit details. The plot is very similar to the serial killer formula of finding that first alarming murder and clue, leading to the next, learning more from each additional target to try and discern a pattern of connectivity, and finally learning that the grand scheme goes deeper than imagined, and is usually personal. It’s more based as a detective procedural than any previous Batman incarnation, including missions where the Dark Knight goes undercover or enlists others to gather intel for his investigation. If you’re the kind of person that’s been dreaming of the quote-unquote world’s greatest detective to do more sleuthing and less typing at magic computers, then your time has come. This is a very dark and very serious movie, though it doesn’t feel too suffocating. Fun can still be had but on its own terms, satisfaction from building momentum, seeing how this world incorporates familiar faces and Batman elements, and deepening the lore of this city’s complicated history. Nobody is going to be making any “I gotta get me one of these” quips. It’s hard to even remember a time Batman had nipples on his chest plate and a Bat credit card.
This is also the first Batman where I can vividly feel the anger resonating from its title character. In this new timeline, we’ve thankfully skipped the origin period (and even more thankfully skipped watching Bruce’s parents die on screen for the sixteenth time or so), and we’re now two years into Batman being Batman. He’s still figuring things out but his effect is evident. Reeves has a terrific introduction of various acts of crime across the city and cross-cutting the criminals staring at the Bat signal in the sky and then nervously looking at a corridor of shadow, fearful that the caped crusader could emerge at any moment. When he does finally arrive, this Batman walks with such heavy plodding steps for dramatic effect (and reminiscent of some Goth club kid). This version of Batman relishes delivering pain. He wallops his opponents with abandon, and the intensity of the physical performance from Pattinson really impresses. This is Batman as a rampaging bull, leaning into fights, and also carelessly blase about enduring damage. You will watch Batman get shot dozens of times and he just keeps fighting, so overcome in the moment with the drive of his own violent vigor. Bruce Wayne hasn’t exactly been portrayed as a stable and well-adjusted man in the other movies, but this is the first Batman that made me a little scared about what he might do to others and how cavalier he was taking all this damage.
On that note, Pattinson proves himself more than capable of shouldering the weight of the franchise. Upon news of the former Twilight star’s casting, fan reaction across the Internet was apoplectic and rotten, ignoring the fact that Pattinson has gone the 90s Johnny Depp route and purposely leveraged his good looks to work with an eclectic group of filmmakers and odd roles (see Good Time, The Lighthouse, and The Rover). Pattinson has become a very interesting young actor, and it’s funny to me that ten years after the release of the final Twilight, we have one half of the undead couple playing Batman and the other half nominated for Best Actress for portraying Princess Diana. I would say they’ve proven themselves as legit thespians. Anyway, the Batman franchise has a long history of negative fan reaction to casting, from Affleck to Heath Ledger to even Michael Keaton, that is then rescinded upon seeing the movie, and I expect the same to occur for Pattinson. He actually plays Bruce Wayne something like an atrophied vampire, barely keeping the visage because the costume is the real him. Although, if this is a Batman who prioritizes the night, I think if I was a criminal, I would just start planning on committing all my many crimes during daylight hours (strictly keeping to banking hours).
The supporting cast is as deep and as talented as the Nolan films. Several villainous characters are in their early stages of our conceptions. Kravitz (Kimi) is the real breakout star. While she cannot supplant Michelle Pfeiffer as the top Catwoman, Kravitz makes the role her own. Selena is more a socially conscious antihero trying to fight back against bad men in power abusing that power. Her own goal aligns with Batman’s, and the two become intertwined allies with a clear romantic frisson emerging. This is a Catwoman I would like to see again. Dano (Swiss Army Man) is effortlessly creepy as the morally righteous and unhinged Riddler, more akin to Zodiac or Jigsaw than Jim Carrey’s wacky version. He’s menacing and the tricks he does with his voice are unnerving, except, however, when his voice hits higher pitches and then he sounds like a whiny child needing to go to his room. Colin Farrel (The Gentlemen) is nearly unrecognizable under pounds of makeup that make him resemble a disfigured Richard Karn (one wonders why the movie didn’t just hire Richard Karn himself) and he’s having a ball. Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) has a weary gravitas as a younger Jim Gordon, the only ally on the police force for Batman. Andy Serkis is a welcome presence as the dutiful Alfred, the last familial bond Bruce has, though he spends most of the time off-screen probably due to Serkis directing 2021’s Venom 2.
Reeves might not have the signature Gothic opulence of a Burton, the visual flair of a Snyder, or the zeitgeist-tapping instincts of a Nolan, but he is a supremely talented big screen stylist. There is a deeply felt tactile nature to this movie, from the streets to the alleys to the homes. It feels wonderfully alive and especially dirty. The entire movie feels like it has a visual pal over it, favoring burnt orange, and the cinematography by Greig Fraser (Dune) is ornate and often mesmerizing, begging you to just immerse yourself in the details and compositions. The influence of Fincher is all over this movie, but there are far worse auteurs to model after than the man who elevated serial killer thrillers to high art. I appreciate how Reeves stages many of his bouts of action, including one sequence of Batman taking out a group of gunmen glimpsed only from the staccato flashes of muzzle fire. Reeves is a first-class showman when it comes to introductions. I mentioned Batman’s introduction, but Reeves also delivers splashy entrances for Catwoman, the Riddler, and even the Batmobile, which comes to monstrous life like a kaiju being awakened. The explosive car chase with that marauding muscle car is the action high-point. The movie is further elevated by Michael Giacchino’s pounding musical score. It’s not an instantly iconic Danny Elfman theme but it is stirring in how thunderous it announces itself.
I wasn’t feeling the length of the movie until its third hour, and that’s where my friend Eric Muller cites that The Batman is suffering from a Return of the King-level of false endings. Just when you think it’s wrapping up, there’s something else, and just when you think it’s now finally coming to a close, it’s got another sequence and attached resolution. It’s during this final third hour that I feel like the movie could have been trimmed back. While it ends on a high note and brings characters to the end of their arcs in a clear fashion, part of me really feels like a bleaker ending would have been appropriate for the rest of the movie we had. I won’t specify for the sake of spoilers but you’ll know it when it happens, and it could have ended on a note of the villain more or less winning the larger war on their own terms. It has such a power to it, tying elements together that had been carefully kept as background for so long as to be forgotten only to bring them back to assert the full power of an insidious virus. I think the movie would have been a more fitting ending on this dreary note, with our heroes having lost, but of course the studio wouldn’t want its $200 tentpole to end with its main star bested by pessimism. Again, this is merely my own personal preference, but after two-plus hours of rainy gloom and doom, it feels more fitting to end on a dour note (also akin to Seven or Zodiac) than on inspiring triumph.
This is also perhaps one of the most disturbing PG-13 movies. I might caution parents about taking younger children to watch. The mood of this movie is very dark and somber and the details of the Riddler’s acts of terror can be very horrific to contemplate. There are also intense moments like listening to a woman being strangled to death, twice. It all started making me think maybe Reeves and company could have pulled back and left more to the imagination. I’m not saying the movie’s tone is inappropriate for the material, it just occasionally luxuriates in the grimy details and pitched terror and trauma of its victims that can be unsettling and unnecessary.
Even with the heaviest expectations from the hardest of fans, The Batman is an unqualified success. It’s not in the same category of Nolan’s best but the ambition and execution place Reeves only just outside that hallowed sphere of blockbuster showmanship. It also hurts that The Batman lacks an exciting anchor that can break through the pop-culture clutter, like a dynamic and ultimately Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger or Joaquin Phoenix. It almost feels like a Batman miniseries that you might want to continue tuning into (Reeves is developing a few Batman-related projects for HBO Max). Overall, The Batman is an exciting and intelligent blockbuster with style, mood, and a clear sense of purpose. Reeves remains an excellent caretaker of any pop-culture property and proves big movies can still have souls.
Nate’s Grade: B+
This is going to be a difficult review to write. It’s the third Spider-Man movie in the Tom Holland era, though his sixth Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) appearance as the character, that much can be said. The MCU has been teasing a universe of parallel universes for a while now, even famously in 2019’s Far From Home, the previous Spider-Man film, and which No Way Home opens seconds later to deal with its immediate aftermath. The scuttlebutt with this new Spider-Man movie is that it is the most Spider-Man in all senses, bringing past iterations from the original Tobey Maguire run (2002-2007) and the maligned Andrew Garfield reboot (2012-2014). We know villains from each non-MCU Spider-Man film are making special appearances, and there are expectations for plenty more special appearances, so by that notion, writing a film review about a movie built upon surprise inclusions and secret revelations can be daunting to even be readable without giving too much away. I’ll do my best, dear reader. Spider-Man: No Way Home is not the best Spider-Man movie, in the MCU or prior, but it’s a rollicking adventure that will play like catnip for fans of the series, all iterations, and has some of the strongest moments of any web-slinging blockbuster.
In the wake of Mysterio framing Spider-Man (Holland) and revealing Peter Parker’s real identity, life has not been kind to your friendly neighborhood Spidey. The public has turned on him and even his best friends are suffering the consequences of their personal relationship. It’s enough that Peter seeks out his old pal, the wizard Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), to cast a spell to erase the world’s memory of who Spider-Man really is. The magic spell, naturally, goes wrong, and villains of Spider-Man from other universes begin to appear. These larger-than-life characters are dangerous but also confused; this isn’t their universe, and this isn’t their Peter Parker. Doctor Strange is happy to send them all back to their primary universes, to correct the loose ends of the spell, but Peter doesn’t want to send them all to their fated deaths. He wonders if maybe they can be cured or reformed and if it’s too late to still do the right thing.
First things first, you need to know that this movie is going to play much, much better if you are familiar with, and especially if you’re a fan of, the previous Spider-Man movies. No Way Home almost feels like it was written by a fan who has been nurturing a desire to do right by all past Spider-Man films. This feels like someone who had assembled a list of unresolved issues from different Spider-Man movies for over twenty years and said, “Hey, could I write these characters another ending that can redeem them and provide better closure in a way that is meaningful?” Because of that, each new character that comes through has a definite jolt of fan excitement like an all-star reunion, especially for characters you never thought you would see again. Certainly, some characters have more meaning than others, but I was pleasantly surprised how well integrated and written so many of the villains come across. Returning screenwriters Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna have ret-conned and redeemed the various Spider-Man missteps of old and have given characters more attention and fitting resolution, which makes this a surprisingly emotionally deep Spider-Man in ways you weren’t expecting. There are character reunions and resolutions that I didn’t know I needed, and I was smiling and even battling back tears of my own at various points. If you’re a fan of the recent Holland run, then the movie will still play well, but if you’ve been with Spider-Man from his cinematic beginning (if you really want to feel old, the original Spider-Man teaser involved the World Trade Center) then this movie will feel like a nostalgic blanket to warm you all over.
I think it’s safe to discuss some of the villains that have been prominent in the advertisement and later trailers, but if you wish to skip any character details, then skip to the next paragraph. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the two biggest villains are the ones with the biggest screen time and most allowance at redemption. Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborne (Green Goblin) and Alfred Molina as Doctor Octavius (Doc Ock) are treasures. It’s so good to see them again in these roles and each actor is just as good as you recall from their time 15-plus years ago. I was worried that bringing Doc Ock back could spoil the redemptive turn he has at the end of 2004’s Spider-Man 2, sacrificing himself to save the day from his own dangerous experiment. Little did I know that the entire movie was going to seek redemptive arcs for a veritable Sinister Six-worth of Spider-Man villains. It becomes the backbone of the movie, and I was skeptical at first but the movie found ways to win me over with just about every character’s inclusion. Norman and Octavius are similar in that they are battling other sinister personas in their heads, and when the real versions of each man break through, it’s often in heartbreaking moments of existential confusion and sadness. This is a movie that has time to fit in Spider-Man memes as well as question the moral culpability. It’s fascinating that a huge Marvel movie is so concerned with providing glimpses of humanity and compassion to bad guys from movies that the general public didn’t even generally like.
This is the best acting of Holland’s Spider-Man run. He really gets put through the wringer about the consequences of trying to make the moral choice, both good and bad. His most emotional moments got me each time because of the investment in his character growth over six movies as well as the added investment in the supporting characters too. This is the most integrated and important both Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya) have been to the plot, and they have a platonic hug at the end that sent me into a tailspin of emotions for what it meant. The humor and natural camaraderie of the actors is still there, a hallmark of the MCU Spider-Man series. I laughed plenty, especially with certain characters deconstructing their parallels and connections (“Gotta watch where you fall,” a villainous understatement). However, this is the most emotional Spider-Man likely ever, and the actors all perform ably. I want to single out Marissa Tomei as Aunt May because she’s been undervalued in these movies until now. This is the biggest role Aunt May has played and she serves as the voice of morality to push Peter to do what he knows is right even in the face of outlandish adversity and personal cost.
No Way Home works better thematically than as a well-constructed plot. The solutions to the villain redemption are laughably convenient, and while it’s not as expressly magic as Doctor Strange’s spells, it’s pretty much the equivalent of technological magic. That’s fine, because it’s less the struggle of invention and more the choice that matters for each character. The mechanics of the ending also feel overly convenient and tidy (you could have just done this the whole time?). When Doctor Strange is chastising characters for hasty decision-making, it’s the movie calling attention to its own cheats. The movie splits so much of its time across multiple villains and drafting off of your old feelings. There are other narrative shortcuts taken and abbreviated, especially Strange’s involvement. He’s left out of much of the movie for the same reason Captain Marvel was left out of much of the final battle with Thanos in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame: he’s too powerful to have on the board. I’m not saying the screenwriters made the wrong choices on what to emphasize. The emotional beats of this movie hit strongly, and if they have to rely on a few cheats and nit-picky hand-waves to get there, then so be it.
From an action standpoint, I think this might rank last for me in the series. Returning director John Watts has never wowed me as an action director. He’s not bad at staging the big moments but he seems more present in zippy tone than in style on a big stage. The added wow factor of seeing the various characters assembled on screen will compensate for much of the action feeling contained to dank sound stages. I think this was done as a cautionary measure to keep the secrets from being leaked, but it also shortchanges the action possibility. There’s nothing in this movie, from a pure action standpoint, that rivals the Venice or London sequences in Far From Home. The movie utilizes portals, and it got my hopes up for clever action inventions, but it serves as more plot device than action complication. There have been some artistic sacrifices, narratively and visually, to accommodate the Spider-Man Movie All-Stars approach, and while I think the filmmakers have emphasized the correct parts, it does still feel like there are some nagging shortcomings to an overall experience that plays exuberantly.
Finding a comfortable medium between fan service and creative constriction, Spider-Man: No Way Home is not the best Spider-Man movie but at the same time it just might be. It serves as a salve to the rest of the franchise, five iterations across two different runs, and because of that level of attention and compassion, the past movies get a little bit better, with more added resolution, more character moments, and second chances to correct miscues and blunders. Who among us wouldn’t want another opportunity to correct our mistakes? While ostensibly setting up the troubles ahead for the MCU (the trailer for 2022’s Doctor Strange: The Madness of the Multiverse is the final post-credit scene), the movie feels entirely backward-looking, rewarding fans of the character and resolving to do better where other films had gone awry. Maybe (Disney)Fox could do something like this for the bad X-Men movies? I don’t know if the same punitive charges of being slavishly nostalgic will hit No Way Home like they’ve done for the new Ghostbusters and Star Wars. It’s definitely still accessible for newer fans but plays best to the people with the longest investment, but isn’t that every continuing movie series? No Way Home is a rewarding cinematic experience of many highs and fun surprises and cameos as well as a humane redemption for the sins of Spider-Man’s past. It’s not the best superhero movie but it might be the most joyous one yet.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Chloe Zhao is the biggest name Marvel has gotten yet for its cinematic universe (MCU). Sure, they’ve had major directing names before like Kenneth Branagh and Ryan Coogler, and successful populist genre filmmakers like Jon Favreau and Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon and Shane Black, and quirky auteurs like James Gunn and Taika Watiti. However, Zhao is the first Academy Award-winning director to jump into the Marvel sandbox. Zhao seems like an odd fit for something as mainstream and successful as the MCU, but she was excited to tell a big story with the biggest studio operating in Hollywood. Eternals (no “The”) is just as much about the question over what it means to be human as Zhao’s Best Picture-winning Nomadland, and it’s a lot easier to watch with one hundred percent less Frances McDormand pooping in a bucket in her van (granted, she did win an Oscar for that performance). Eternals has received the lowest critical rating of any MCU film in its thirteen-year history and I’m trying to figure out why.
Thousands of years ago, the Eternals were created by the Celestials, powerful beings that are responsible for birthing new galaxies into the universe. The Eternals were sent to protect the inhabitants of Earth from the Deviants, terrifying tendril-heavy monsters that will consume and overrun a world. The Eternals are instructed by their masters not to intervene in human conflicts; only to intervene to save them from Deviants. Now that the last Deviant has been dead for over 500 years, the Eternals have settled into comfortable lives among present-day humans. Then the Deviants return, evolving with added powers and posing a new threat to humanity and the Eternals, but the real threat might be outside the confines of Earth.
Eternals feels like a different kind of Marvel movie in that stretches feel like it’s a Stanley Kubrick movie, or a Terrence Malick movie, or a DC movie. The plot structure and tone even reminded me of Watchmen. Don’t get me wrong, the standard Marvel elements are recognizable, but this is a much slower, more methodical, more cerebral, and more challenging movie that really feels like a distillation of Zhao’s humanist indie naturalism and the crazy cosmos from Jack Kirby’s trippy source material. I can understand why some people would find this movie to be boring and poorly paced. There are extensive flashbacks and setup. It definitely doesn’t need to be a staggering 157 minutes long, second only to the three-plus hours of Endgame. Granted the movie is introducing a dozen characters, their relationships, their powers, their histories, as well as a new history for the universe that doesn’t relate to anything that came before it. There are assorted references to Thanos and the events of Endgame, bringing half the population back, but this is more a standalone movie that can serve as an introduction for those less well-versed in two dozen movies’ previously on’s. I knew going into Eternals it was going to be slow, and I knew several friends that outright hated it, but I think pacing is more to its benefit and detriment. The scenes feel like Denis Villenueve (Dune) is pacing them, where moments are given more time to breathe and where characters are given space to reflect and absorb. Like a Villenueve film, Zhao wants her audience to take in the grandeur of the moment, but she also wants the characters to be able to take in the drama of their circumstances. Some people will find it all too boring, and while there were points that could be trimmed, I was enjoying myself because of the attention to character perspectives that are given precedence over splashy beat-‘em-ups.
I was drawn in by the character reveals, their conflicts, and the time Zhao allows to examine their emotional and philosophical states. Look, it’s still a big, action-packed Marvel movie with plenty of monster fights and a world-saving cataclysm climax, and while those are agreeably executed, I was more taken by letting the characters pontificate on their problems. There’s Sprite (Lia McHugh), an eternally looking child who can never live an adult life she craves. There’s Druid (Barry Keoghan), a man with the power to control the minds of all humans on Earth but is explicitly instructed to remain hands-off with their conflicts. He is severely torn and emotionally wrecked over watching them slaughter one another and knowing he has the power to intervene and resolve genocide, prejudice, and poverty. That’s the eternal question over why a loving God seemingly chooses to be hands-off, all rolled into one character. There’s Thena (Angelina Jolie), a legendary warrior of physical renown but whose mental state is fracturing and who poses a potential lethal threat to her family. There’s her partner, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who would rather watch over his love as she suffers and potentially declines than have her lose her identity and erase herself. There’s Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a man who only wants to help the humans with his technological skills but regrets his contributions and declares humans as unworthy of their keep after Hiroshima. Then there’s a reveal halfway through the Eternals that loads a needs-of-the-many sacrificial debate that positions different characters on different sides of the divide for the final act. I enjoyed that even the villains are presented with their rationale and are tortured over their choices they deem to be necessary for the greater good.
I’ve written a lengthy paragraph all on the meaty character conflicts, and none of them revolve around the goal to gather a magic item or learn a special power. I didn’t mind Zhao’s movie taking its sweet time to allow these conflicts and struggles to be felt because they were evocative, and Zhao’s storytelling shines when she focuses on the noble and often tragic struggles of people being complicated, contradictory, and confusing. Even the big dumb beasts evolve and have a perspective that has an understandable complaint. The final confrontation doesn’t come down to a giant sky beam and an endless army of disposable CGI brutes. It rests upon character conflicts and a romance that spans thousands of years where empathy is the secret weapon. Early on, you think it’s going to be a love triangle, and the movie just teleports out of that trope. I found myself more invested in the ending, even if I could already predict the conclusion. I was more interested in what the conflict was doing to the Eternals as a family fracturing under the weight of their destinies and the consequences of defiance. The film ends on a cliffhanger with significant fallout, and I don’t know how the rest of the MCU is going to square what we learned and accomplished here. This seems in sharp contrast to everything down the road.
Eternals is also an often beautiful-looking movie with Zhao’s penchant for natural landscapes and magic hour lighting. The editing and photography feel nicely matched and allow the viewer to really soak up the natural splendor and the impact of the battles. The action is kept at a human level with the camera tethered to the characters even when in flight. There is the occasionally eye-opening shot of a landscape, or Zhao’s use of visual framing, or the special effects revelations that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s certainly not the most breezy, action-packed movie in Marvel’s lengthy canon of blockbusters, but it’s not devoid of spectacle.
So then why has Eternals scored so low with film critics and a significant portion of general audiences? Some wonder if the level of diversity and inclusivity of the movie is a factor; we have many non-white characters including a deaf character and a gay male character in a committed relationship, with a genuine and loving onscreen kiss no less (your turn, Star Wars franchise), and that seems like a trigger point for certain fans that grumble about “woke culture.” I’m sure for some that’s a factor. I think the length will be a factor too. I think the elevated emphasis on emotional stakes and philosophical conflicts might be another factor. This doesn’t feel like any Marvel movie that has come before. It’s much more comfortable with silences, with patience, and with cerebral matters (again, not to say the dozens of other MCU entries were absent these). This one is just different, encompassing the directing style and humanist attentions of Zhao and looking at a far larger scope of drama than toppling one super-powered being. I saw this in theaters with my girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter and her friend and they both said they enjoyed it, so I won’t say it’s too mature or impenetrable for younger viewers. Eternals might be too boring for some, too long, and too different, but I was happy to endure it all.
Nate’s Grade: B
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.