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SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING thoughts (spoilers)

I don’t have the budget to see many movies this summer, but Spider-Man: Homecoming was one I felt I needed to see (even though I’m waiting to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 until the library gets it). And I made enough money on my recent Shore Leave trip that I felt I could afford to spare a few bucks for recreation. Though of course I went on discount Tuesday.

Anyway, I liked the movie, but I didn’t love it. I guess I’m not the target audience for the John Hughes-style teen romantic comedy vibe they were going for — I don’t think I ever was. I got kind of bored during some of those teen-drama sequences, though the young actors were all pretty good. I didn’t dislike it, and it was pretty fun at times, but it didn’t wow me. I dunno, everyone these days seems to be excited about putting Peter Parker back in high school, even though he spent only three years and 30 issues in high school in the comics (well, more like 44 issues counting guest appearances in other books), but I first became interested in Spidey as a college-age character in the 1990s animated series, and I got to know him best when writing about him as a college graduate and part-time high school teacher in Drowned in Thunder. So I guess the idea of making him a kid doesn’t do that much for me.

Still, for what it was, it worked well. It captured the essence of who Spider-Man is, his sense of fun and his desire to help and his commitment to justice even when it screws up his personal life, as it invariably does — just in a more teenagery way than usual. And in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I can definitely see the value of stepping away from all the big important adult heroes dealing with matters of global or cosmic significance and taking a look at what life in the MCU is like for the little guy down on street level. And Spider-Man is a very good character for that, a hero who often hobnobs with superhero royalty but never loses his connection to the streets. (Which was approached fairly literally here. He tended to stay more on the level of brownstones and bodegas than skyscrapers here, and there was a fun sequence showcasing how hard web-swinging is in suburbia. The few times he did get up high, he had trouble coping with it.) Moreover, it was really interesting to see a street-level villain. Adrian Toomes could soar to any height, but he didn’t want to rule the underworld or conquer the planet, he just wanted to make a dishonest living because he blamed Stark and the government for taking his honest livelihood from him. He wasn’t exactly a victim in the vein of your classic tragic Batman: The Animated Series villain — it’s not like he couldn’t have found a different way to make an honest buck, he just chose to become a criminal and occasional killer because he was ticked off at the system — but he still saw himself as just a guy looking out for his family, making him a more nuanced and relatable villain than the MCU usually manages.

Now — spoiler alert — I could say it’s a huge coincidence that that Vulture turns out to be the father of Peter’s school crush Liz (wait, is she Liz Toomes? Liz Allan-Toomes?), but then, that’s the classic Parker luck. The villain always turns out to be either a family member of one of Peter’s friends, Peter’s own beloved mentor, or both. So I can give that a pass. And it plays out interestingly. We’ve seen the beat of the villain deducing the hero’s identity before in superhero films, perhaps too often, but it rarely plays out on such an intimate scale, and with the villain not really wanting to hurt the hero. Although it does get rather hard to sympathize with Toomes toward the climax, as he’s actively beating up a teenage boy and trying to kill him. That felt like too much of a standard action-movie beat being imposed on the characters. I think that Toomes as established through the rest of the film should’ve had more qualms about such face-to-face violence against such a young opponent.

But I love the way it turns out. I’ve spoken before of my dislike of the way superhero movies insist on killing off the bad guys, either by having the heroes kill them or going the “I don’t have to save you” route or having them die by their own actions or a twist of fate. It was so satisfying to see a movie not do that — to see Spidey risk his life to save the villain, succeed, and even get karmically rewarded for it in the post-credits scene. That’s the way I like to see these stories play out. I was worried about how Spidey, a character largely defined by his refusal to kill, would be handled in the MCU, which tends to make its heroes rather less non-lethal than they usually are in the comics. (Seriously, why would Tony even install “Instant Kill Mode” in that suit?) I’m relieved that they’re keeping that aspect of his character intact.

By the same token, I liked the scene with Spidey and Donald Glover’s character (who apparently is Miles Morales’s uncle). Spidey started out trying to intimidate the guy, but it turned out that what did the trick was Spidey’s kindness — he’d invited the bad guys to shoot him rather than Glover, and the latter appreciated that and was thus willing to help, as well as sharing a common concern for their neighborhood’s safety. That’s the sort of thing that really uses the idea of a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and makes it mean something.

I’m a bit disappointed that Spidey ended the film with the same Stark supersuit he started it with. I figured the arc of the film would be that he’d learn that all those gadgets were too much of a crutch and that he preferred something more basic. Maybe that will still be the case, though — maybe he’ll re-enable “Training Wheels Mode” voluntarily. (Although I read a review that pointed out that having the “Karen” AI to talk to was a nice substitute for Spidey’s constant internal monologue in the comics.)

Speaking of Stark, it’s interesting how he has his own parallel plotline sort of running through this movie, even though he’s mainly there to serve Peter’s story as a surrogate father figure and (rather bad) mentor. Even though he seems to treat Peter as an afterthought, he’s invested an awful lot (literally, financially) in this kid and his training as a hero. It matters to him, even if he’s inadvertently following in his own absentee father’s footsteps. One could wonder why he places so much importance on this one young protege, and partly that’s because it’s Spidey’s movie, but it also fits with where Tony is at this point in the MCU. This thing he’s built, the Avengers, has fallen apart. He’s lost almost his entire team, save for War Machine and Vision, and Rhodey’s probably still on the disabled list. So he needs to cultivate new members — not just for the optics or the logistics, but out of his personal need to keep his dream from being a failure. He’s trying not to rush the kid into it, trying to give him a chance to start out small and work his way up, but he’s equipped the Spidey suit with an AI designed to guide Peter’s training and hone him into Avenger material. And once Peter bypasses all that and proves himself by saving the day in his hoodie and goggles, Tony can’t resist jumping forward and offering him the works, just going all-out for the kid the moment he has an excuse. Because he needs this. Not just to rebuilt the Avengers, but because, as he said, he wants Peter to be better than him. He sees himself in the kid and wants to help him be a better man and a better hero than Tony could ever be. It’s interesting how much this film reveals about Tony Stark even though it’s nominally in a different series and even from a different studio. Some might hold that against the film as a Spider-Man story in its own right, but I enjoy the interconnectedness of all this and how unusual it is for movies. I love it that you can put all these individual films together and get an ongoing story running through most of them as a bonus.

Oh, and speaking of bonuses… Yes, as usual, I was the only one in my theater who stuck around through all the credits and got to see the Captain America tag at the end. It was worth it. (Plus, Michael Giacchino’s score was a good one, so I was happy to listen to the whole end title cue.)

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A pretty good day

Well, at least it was better than it has been for a while. About a week ago, I came down with a dreadful cold and fever. For days, I wasn’t up to doing anything but lying down and watching TV or just napping, and I just felt miserable. I spent more time sitting and lying down than is probably good for me, judging from the twinges I was starting to get in my leg.  Yesterday, I finally felt well enough to go get some much-needed groceries, but it was hard to get up the energy to do it, and my joints were sore afterward. But I also felt more energy that evening. I think what happens to me when I have a bad bout with sickness is that the days of inactivity make my metabolism slow down, and eventually it’s hard to tell whether I’m still sick or just stuck in low-energy mode. I think going grocery-shopping helped get the blood flowing again. So I felt more like myself today, well enough to go for a brief walk in the park and enjoy the sunny day. I felt pretty energetic at first, though it didn’t last long.

But when I got home and checked the mailbox, I was surprised to see my last advance check for Patterns of Interference! I only got notification of the approval 9 days ago, so I hadn’t expected to see this check for another week or two. Needless to say, I was quite pleased. It lets me recharge my bank account just in time to pay my rent and some other bills.  Luckily I still had my shoes and jacket on from my walk, since it let me go right back out and drive to the bank right away.

After that, I went to the library near the bank, and I happened upon some nice finds there — the fourth collection of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s hilarious The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from Marvel, the DVD of Star Trek Beyond (which I’ve been wanting to see again but haven’t found at the library until now), and all four Hunger Games movies, which I’ve been meaning to check out and watch back-to-back at some point (to date, I’ve only read the books and seen the first two films). Although I realized I haven’t gotten vol. 3 of Squirrel Girl yet, so I requested it, but I’ll have to wait to read that. And a couple of the Hunger Games discs look a little scratched, so I just hope they play back well enough for my binge to work.

So overall, a reasonably good day. Still, one thing I didn’t manage to do was to refocus on the story I’m writing, which I need to do now that I’m feeling functional again. I did get an idea for how to handle the next scene, but actually getting it done is another matter. Anyway, I need to get a move on with this and other projects. It’s cool that I got my check, but it’s a reminder that I need to get more paying work lined up soon.

Supernatural TV pilots of the ’70s: Roddenberry’s SPECTRE and Marvel’s DR. STRANGE

Having previously covered Gene Roddenberry’s failed 1970s SF pilot movies Genesis II, Planet Earth, and The Questor Tapes, I’ve finally managed to complete the set with 1977’s Spectre, a supernatural-horror show starring Robert Culp, Gig Young, and John Hurt. While Roddenberry tended to prefer to keep his science fiction grounded and plausible — in principle if not always in practice — he made Spectre with the intent of taking the supernatural seriously, disdaining what he called the Scooby-Doo approach of treating it as a hoax. Which means, going in, that there’s no chance of treating this pilot as a possible offshoot of the Star Trek multiverse as I prefer to do with G2/PE and TQT. I had wondered if maybe there was a chance of treating the supernatural forces as alien phenomena, a well Star Trek went to on multiple occasions, but I doubt that would work here.

Spectre, scripted by Roddenberry and Samuel A. Peeples and directed by Clive Donner, opens with Dr. Amos “Ham” Hamilton (Young) answering an urgent summons from his old friend William Sebastian (Culp), an eccentric criminal psychologist who has now become an expert on the occult, to Ham’s disbelief. Sebastian explains that he was almost killed by a voodoo curse of some sort that’s left him with a weak heart, and he needs Ham to keep him alive as he investigates a case involving the Cyon family in London. He says he was saved by his spell-casting housekeeper Lilith (Majel Barrett, an inevitable presence in any Roddenberry production), who also casts a spell to cure Ham’s alcoholism, which has come close to costing him his hospital practice. It soon becomes clear that Sebastian and Hamilton are modeled on Holmes and Watson, if Holmes were an occult detective and Watson a skeptic (and if they were both womanizers, this being a Roddenberry show).

Sebastian is visited by a seductive woman claiming to be Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell) and telling him that she was mistaken in believing something supernatural was going on at her estate. Sebastian figures out that she’s a succubus and burns her up with a book, though Ham is locked out of the study and doesn’t see it happen. Later, when flying to London in a private jet piloted by Mitri Cyon (Hurt, who looks amazingly young), the jet loses power and almost crashes, in what Sebastian interprets as another supernatural attempt to scare him off. Perhaps these are simply tests of his resolve?

In London, Sebastian takes Ham to meet an occult expert, but his house is on fire and they rush inside, finding him dead just short of the center of a pentacle drawn on the floor. They’re oddly untroubled by the flame and smoke as they examine the scene, then get into the pentacle to evade a demon of some sort that’s driven away when the fire department arrives along with a Scottish inspector (Gordon Jackson) who’s the Lestrade of the piece, I guess. The inspector, Cabell, is investigating a string of murders and desperately does not want the influential Sir Geoffrey Cyon linked to them.

Cyon Manor is an old abbey, refurbished inside with lots of erotic-themed artwork. Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers) leads an openly hedonistic lifestyle and keeps a household staff of sexy young women, who (among other services) entertain prominent leaders of finance and government from time to time. The real Anitra, looking more “spinsterish” than her succubus impostor, believes Sir Geoffrey is possessed by a demon, though he insists she just disapproves of his lifestyle, and she privately admits to Sebastian and Ham that she may just be jealous of the more attractive women surrounding her, though Ham says he finds her more attractive. Oh, and Sebastian finds the coffin from his voodoo doll in the house (but not the doll), and there are various attempts on their lives including glass shards in the wine and a breakaway balcony railing. Sebastian reads the journal of the dead occult expert, who feared that “Cyon” was possessed by Asmodeus, the Prince of Lechery, though it’s unclear which Cyon he meant. (The mythology presented for Asmodeus has only the most cursory connection to the real lore.) Later, Cyon’s women make a comically exaggerated attempt to seduce Ham, but Sebastian interrupts. He takes Ham to investigate strange wails coming from a small henge called the “Druids’ Firepit,” only to be waylaid by a Creepy Groundskeeper (TM) and his hounds. According to the journal, the Firepit is where Asmodeus was bound by the ancient druids until Cyon’s excavations released him. Sebastian explains to Cabell that Asmodeus takes the form of a dead person whose body has not yet been found, but Sir Geoffrey has alibis for a couple of the murders. (At this point, is anyone not expecting John Hurt to be the demon?)

Still, the movie keeps trying to make Mitri seem sympathetic and Sir Geoffrey look guilty, while arranging things so Sebastian and Ham can discover the underground catacombs where Asmodeus escaped from and prepare magical defenses. But they may be too late — Anitra is reported missing, and when our heroes witness a debauched ceremony in the catacombs below (complete with extra nudity added in the European release), they find not only that Mitri is Asmodeus and Sir Geoffrey is his disciple, but Anitra is their sacrificial victim. Suffice to say that good triumphs and evil is destroyed, and along the way, John Hurt turns into a really silly-looking lizard monster. Then there’s an obligatory Roddenberryesque tag where Anitra shows up at Sebastian’s home and charms Ham with her newly glamorous appearance.

Well, this was a mixed bag. The idea of a Holmes-like supernatural detective had promise, and Robert Culp did a terrific job as usual. But Gig Young was disappointing as Ham, not managing to achieve the same kind of chemistry with his co-star that Shatner had with Nimoy or The Questor Tapes‘ Mike Farrell had with Robert Foxworth. Casting Young would’ve been problematical if this had gone to series — not only was he unreliable due to his heavy alcoholism, but a year after this was made, he killed himself and his new wife for reasons that were never understood. Which makes it creepier to watch him than John Hurt.

The Roddenberry preoccupation with sex got a little tedious too, but by ’70s standards I guess it wouldn’t have been too bad. It’s odd that, both here and in Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (which Roddenberry scripted and produced), Roddenberry portrays characters as licentious as promiscuous as himself as villainous figures. Was that just the only way he could sneak such things past the censors, or did it reflect some ambivalence about his own proclivities? We’ll probably never know. Anyway, the constant debate between Sebastian and Ham about whether the supernatural had a rational explanation was a little tiresome as well, but I suppose that’s because I’m looking back from an age where there are countless series that take the supernatural for granted — and even they generally go through the same beats of skepticism and doubt in their pilots. Ham was fully convinced of the supernatural by the end of the pilot, so that wouldn’t have been an ongoing issue except where guest stars and authority figures of the week were concerned. This could possibly have worked as a series, given a better co-star than Gig Young. But it would’ve had its problems that might have kept it from holding up too well today.

I’ve also finally gotten around to watching the 1978 Dr. Strange pilot movie, the one ’70s live-action Marvel Comics adaptation that I don’t remember seeing. I was curious because it was reportedly more authentic to the source than other contemporary Marvel adaptations like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man (both airing on CBS, like this pilot). Apparently it’s the one project that Stan Lee consulted on most closely. Although it’s still pretty revisionist compared to the recent feature film version. It was written and directed by Philip DeGuere, Jr., who would later head up the 1980s Twilight Zone revival.

After a main title sequence featuring the distinctive Blaster Beam musical instrument, we go to a Steve Ditkoesque dimensional plane where a vaguely seen, multi-eyed stop-motion demon called the Nameless One assigns Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter) to strike at the current Sorceror Supreme, Lindmer (John Mills), before he can pass his power to Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), who works as a psychiatric resident at a New York hospital and is apparently quite the ladies’ man, like most ’70s TV leads. Lindmer sends his aide Wong to locate Strange, whom he knew years before. Wong is played by Clyde Kusatsu, later ST:TNG’s Admiral Nakamura and one of three Star Trek veterans to have played the role (George Takei voiced him in the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon, and onetime DS9 guest Paul Nakauchi voiced him in the 2007 animated DVD movie). The next day, Morgan strikes at Lindmer by possessing a young woman, Clea (Eddie Benton), and pushing him off a bridge. He survives, but is concerned that Clea is now in danger, since such possession has consequences.

That night, Strange and Clea both fall asleep watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (a reminder of the days when there were only a few channels on TV) and share Clea’s nightmare as she relives her possession and is stalked by Morgan. Clea flees into the street and almost gets hit by a cab, whose driver finds her amnesiac and takes her to the hospital, where Strange recognizes her and has her admitted. She insists she’ll die if she falls asleep, so she’s upset the next morning when Nurse Ratched (well, the nearest equivalent) tries to give her a sedative. While Strange argues with Ratched and the uncaring hospital administrator about his more compassionate admissions policies, Morgan tests the wards on the Sanctum Sanctorum (with its iconic window accurately rendered) and Lindmer uses a straight-up Jedi Mind Trick to get in to see Clea. He instead ends up talking to Strange, who turns out not to be aware of him or his world. But Lindmer gets him interested enough that, when the uncaring administrator tricks Clea into taking a tranquilizer that puts her in a coma, Strange goes to Lindmer and gets the expository speech about sorcery. Turns out Lindmer and Strange’s father were friends and worked together to protect Strange from the demonic forces that killed his parents. Lindmer convinces Strange to take a journey into the astral planes to rescue Clea’s wandering soul, and it’s a very psychedelic journey with Strange flying through a 2001/Time Tunnel corridor of trippy lights and fighting a Ted Cassidy-voiced black knight in a blurry astral realm before spiriting Clea’s spirit back to her body.

Dormammu — err, the Nameless One is mad at Morgan for failing to kill Strange because she thinks he’s hot, so he gives her one more chance. But Strange is still unconvinced even after his mystical journey, walking out on Lindmer — and Morgan uses the old “pretend to be Lindmer’s cat trying to get out of the rain so Strange will carry you across the threshold” trick to get into the Sanctum, strike Wong down, and overpower Lindmer, calling on the demon Asmodeus (oh, hi again, how’ve you been?) to spirit him away. Morgan then interrupts Strange’s date with Clea (now his ex-patient, so it’s ethical, allegedly), sends her back to sleep, and takes Strange with her to the astral plane, where she seduces him with wealth, power, knowledge, and, err, other stuff. But he resists the temptation and finds the power to battle her, rescuing Lindmer and foiling Morgan’s plans. He then accepts the transfer of Sorceror Supreme power from Lindmer to him, under the auspices of an Ancient One that’s just a bright light with Michael Ansara’s voice. And somehow Morgan is back pretending to be a motivational speaker or something, a hook for the theoretical series to come, despite her fate at her master’s hands just minutes of screen time before.

This is very ’70s, but actually pretty good. It’s a decent interpretation of the material, it’s pretty well-written, and the effects are rather good for a ’70s TV movie (although it occurs to me that this was the same studio and the same year as Battlestar Galactica, though a different effects house, Van Der Veer Photo Effects, who did some Star Trek work a decade or so earlier). I’d expected it to go a bit differently, with Lindmer dying due to Strange’s mistake and Strange vowing to make amends. But I guess if CBS’s Spider-Man wasn’t willing to use that origin for Peter Parker, I shouldn’t have expected it here. TV heroes at the time were generally expected to be more infallible and pure than that. And I imagine, given that Strange was a practicing resident here rather than an ex-surgeon, that the intent would’ve been to use a lot of standard hospital-drama tropes, with Strange continuing to clash with his uncaring administrator much like Quincy or Trapper John, and to use that comfortable formula to ground the more fantastic elements and make the show more palatable to the general audience, much like how many genre shows today get shoehorned into a crime-procedural mode. Which could even have worked, with good enough writing, and De Guere did a pretty good job of that. Stan Lee blamed its poor ratings on being scheduled opposite Roots; if not for that, maybe it would’ve gone to series. I doubt it would’ve been as good as the contemporary Hulk series, but it would probably have been better than Spider-Man. Too bad the pilot is all we got.

Thoughts on DOCTOR STRANGE (spoilers)

November 24, 2016 1 comment

I finally got around to seeing Marvel’s Doctor Strange. I hadn’t been in a rush to see it because the reviews have been mixed, with some praising it but others saying it was just another run-of-the-mill Marvel origin movie. But I quite enjoyed it. The formula may have been familiar, but the execution was fresh and engaging in a lot of ways.

I grant that it’s a little hard to sympathize with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange at first. He’s good at what he does, and the opening surgical sequences do a good job of establishing how important the precision of his hands is to him, but he’s also an arrogant jerk, and not as charmingly so as Robert Downey, Jr. But if the goal is to make us want to see him get comeuppance and begin a journey of transformation, it succeeds. Although I wish the movie had done more to give us some indication of why Strange would be chosen as a sorceror candidate, what this great potential was that the Ancient One saw in him. If anything, the lead character himself is one of the least well-drawn figures in the film.

But that’s the film’s strength, in a way. Marvel films have a tendency to focus on the heroes’ journeys and complexities and keep the villains kind of simplistic, which is a shame, because Marvel Comics have long been known for the richness of their villains’ personalities. Here, though, the supporting cast and the villains (both present and future) are nuanced and well-drawn. The main villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) was not what I expected — far from seeking power or vengeance or some standard villain motive, he sincerely believes he’s saving the world and doing good for its people; he’s just been misled by Dormammu’s promises, and is too dismissive of sacrificing individual lives to save the greater number. I was surprised at what a sympathetic figure he turned out to be. And Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is a fascinating character — an ally of Strange and the Ancient One rather than the power-hungry traitor he was in the comics, but one who has harsh and unyielding sensibilities — a willingness to do whatever violence is necessary to achieve his goals, and a rigid adherence to the rules that makes him unwilling to accept it when his allies break the rules to save the world. In an inversion of the original character, this Mordo sees himself as the betrayed one instead of the betrayer. I’m somewhat reminded of Ejiofor’s Operative character in Serenity — an antagonist who stood for law and order and believed that the unethical things he did were necessary to defend a peaceful, orderly system he revered above all else. Although the Operative went from antagonist to ally, while Mordo went the other way. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is a nicely nuanced character as well, taking questionable steps that make Mordo’s sense of betrayal understandable.

One thing I did really like about Strange, in contrast to prior Marvel Cinematic Universe screen heroes, is that he has a clearly stated aversion to killing, and shows remorse when it becomes necessary. This is something that’s been standard for the majority of comic-book superheroes since the ’40s, but it’s all too rare in their movie counterparts, since American adventure movies tend to be made within a paradigm that presumes the villains must die. This is something that’s always bothered me about feature adaptations of superheroes, and I’ve always found it hypocritical that the movies’ Tony Stark supposedly gave up the weapons business due to a crisis of conscience but still routinely uses lethal armaments as Iron Man. But it seems we’re finally starting to see a movement toward heroes with more of a resistance to killing. In Ant-Man, Scott Lang was pretty firm about being opposed to violent methods (although there was dialogue there suggesting that the Avengers were presumed to use lethal force by default), and on Netflix, both Daredevil and Luke Cage are firmly against killing (though in the former case that seems to waver where ninjas are concerned) and Jessica Jones avoided it except in one special case. I do find it ironic that the supposedly darker Netflix shows have more non-lethal heroes than the supposedly light and fluffy MCU movies, although that’s going to change somewhat now that there’s a Punisher series in production. But maybe the movies are starting to turn away from lethal heroes somewhat. I certainly hope that’s the case with Spider-Man: Homecoming, at least.

As far as the visuals and the depiction of magic are concerned, I admit I’m not a big fan of the kaleidoscopic urban-origami Inception-ish stuff that’s featured in all the trailers. It’s certainly a fresh way of depicting magic, but it’s just too overcomplicated in its execution, all these pieces of buildings folding over and reduplicating and tessellating. I mean, these are supposedly changes that the sorcerors are making to the environment to benefit themselves and confound their foes. That much makes sense. But it doesn’t seem necessary to make all those thousands of nibbly little changes to the environment to achieve one specific effect, and it’s hard to believe one person could have the concentration to initiate and control all those individual changes at once. So I might’ve liked it better if it had been a little less overdone, less mechanical-looking, less cluttered with detail.

But I really liked a lot of the other things they did. There’s some very clever stuff here. I liked the way Strange integrated his sorcery and his medicine, using his “Sling Ring” to teleport to the hospital and draw on his colleague/ex Christine (Rachel McAdams) for help in key moments. It helps explain why he holds onto the title “Doctor Strange” instead of Master — he’s not giving up that side of himself completely, but is finding ways to integrate the old and the new. There was some clever stuff in the astral-body battle, and the final scene between Strange and the Ancient One was beautifully done, both visually and in writing/character terms. The battle in Hong Kong was inspired, the way they integrated the combatants moving forward in time with the environment moving backward, including some very clever ways of using the time inversion against the villains. I’ve never seen anything like this in a movie before, and it was delightful. The climax with Strange confronting Dormammu was also excellent, and it really showed how far Strange had grown, to the point where he’d finally set aside his ego completely for the good of the world. That was really effective.

I decided to splurge on seeing the movie in 3D, to get the full effect of the visuals, and it did add to the experience somewhat. Still, I’m not sure if the problem is with the theater or my eyes, but I had the same problems with depth of field that I’ve had with other 3D movies, in that things seem to be closer than they should — a lot of things seemed to be right in front of my face when they should be at least a bit further back, and characters in long shots often seemed tiny and close rather than normal-sized and distant. The theater also had a pretty bad sound mix that made some of the dialogue hard to hear, though it wasn’t as bad in the film as in the trailers.

One thing’s for sure — Cumberbatch definitely looks the part of Dr. Strange. And judging from the mid-credits scene, he’s wasting no time involving himself in the business of the superhero community going forward. I do look forward to seeing where he and Mordo go from here. (And Wong. Wong is cool. I should’ve said that.)

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One further thought about CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (spoilers, probably)

I was just reading this article at Forbes comparing the success of Captain America: Civil War to the failure of Batman v Superman y Tu Wonder Woman Tambien at telling the same kind of story about heroes in conflict, and it made me think of something:

Everyone agrees that the big hero fight at the airport in CA:CW is one of the best superhero action sequences ever committed to film, and you know what? It features very little destruction. It doesn’t have whole city blocks collapsing. It doesn’t indulge in 9/11 imagery or disaster porn. The entire airport isn’t destroyed — just a jet and a couple of trucks, maybe. There aren’t a bunch of bystanders screaming and running for cover — presumably Team Iron Man had the airport evacuated in advance. (At least, I think so. Maybe there were bystanders in the part where Spidey was fighting Falcon and Bucky inside the building, but I don’t recall any.) And the climactic fight doesn’t go bigger and indulge in an orgy of mass devastation — it goes smaller, more personal, more concentrated. Once again, it’s someplace where no bystanders are endangered. And that’s just why it works. Mass devastation doesn’t matter without a personal impact. If anything, the smaller scale of the destruction makes the two acts of mass violence we do get — the accident in Lagos and the bombing of the Vienna conference — feel more potent. The death of a few dozen people can be felt and grieved over as the tragedy it is, rather than trivialized in comparison to the destruction of whole cities.

Granted, I’ve always preferred it when superhero stories were about the heroes saving people rather than fighting. One thing that makes the mass-destruction sequences in the Avengers movies work better than most such scenes in modern film is that the Avengers focus so heavily on rescuing innocents. Civil War doesn’t have much in the way of rescuing, now that I think about it (although there is a lot of guilt about their failures to rescue, so there’s that). But movies today have gotten to a point where the spectacle of mass destruction has become overindulged to such a degree that the CGI tends to overwhelm the story and characters. Civil War shows that a movie doesn’t need cataclysms to be powerful. Going bigger doesn’t have to mean wreaking more physical havoc — it just has to mean going for bigger personal, emotional, or ideological stakes. That’s something more filmmakers and studio executives could stand to learn from.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR review (Spoilers!)

I went to see Captain America: Civil War on Saturday morning, then went to the grocery store, and was kind of worn out for the rest of the day, so I thought I’d let my reactions simmer for a while before I wrote my review. I went for the cheapest showing, the early-bird 2D one, and the sound in the theater was oddly quiet, so I had trouble hearing some of the dialogue.

Overall, it was definitely a very effective and well-done movie, an excellent continuation of the MCU saga and one of the most thoughtful movies in the series. I like it that so much of the conflict over the Sokovia Accords was conducted through the heroes talking to each other in meeting rooms and debating the philosophy and emotion of the issues, rather than just hitting or zapping each other. The comics version of Civil War definitely went overboard with the physical conflict and armed rebellion and superprisons and so forth, and though this movie definitely had its marquee fight sequence taking up a fair portion of the second act, it was just the one.

Still, for all the comic’s excesses in execution, I don’t think the film works quite so well in concept. The comic, in principle, was an allegory for real-world concerns about the compromise of individual freedom in the name of security. It handled the issue badly, but the issue itself was worth exploring. And there was a lot at stake, a threat of the loss of freedom for a whole class of people. Here, though, it’s basically an argument over who among an elite group gets to make the decisions that affect everyone else. The stakes don’t feel like they extend much beyond this immediate group of less than a dozen people, and the only character who ever really feels unjustly victimized by the Accords is Wanda Maximoff. It works well as a personal story, but the sense of larger social commentary isn’t really there. I wish there’d been a way to combine the allegorical weight of the original’s concept with the far superior and less excessive execution of the movie.

As far as the issues go, in the comics, I was pretty soundly on Team Cap — and it was hard not to be, given what a caricature they made of Iron Man and the dictatorial extremes he and his supporters went to. (Although I think J. Michael Straczynski wrote Tony with a lot more nuance in The Amazing Spider-Man than other writers did in the rest of the Civil War narrative.) There, it was clearly about defending the rights of the individual against oppression that used security as its excuse. In the movie, though, I tend more toward Team Iron Man. Not only because Tony is portrayed in a far more positive light this time, but because I believe strongly that every powerful entity needs checks and balances to keep it from abusing its power. Cap may have been right that the UN’s agendas couldn’t necessarily be trusted, but the Avengers should have someone to provide a balance to their power, to give them oversight and accountability. (My friend Keith DeCandido pointed out in his review that the comics’ Avengers have had a charter and rules to follow from the word go, and I do recall them having Henry Gyrich as a government liaison for a while.) The Accords may not be the right solution to that problem, any more than the USA PATRIOT Act was the right solution to terrorism — both were policies forged in haste and out of fear, and thus tending to go to more extreme lengths than were necessary or appropriate. But there should be something. I suppose the best path would be somewhere between Tony and Steve on this issue — Team Black Widow, perhaps.

I found Henry Jackman’s musical score a bit disappointing. It was okay, but it didn’t use any of the character themes established in earlier movies. Age of Ultron did a nice job incorporating existing leitmotifs into its score, and I would’ve liked this and subsequent Marvel films to continue that practice. Superheroes need their own themes and fanfares. That’s something only a few MCU movies have bothered with, and AoU had me hoping that was starting to change.

Edited to add: I feel I should comment more on the big airport fight sequence. One reason it worked well for me is that nobody involved really wanted it. For one thing, that gave it emotional stakes — it was sad seeing friends and allies on opposite sides. It also lowered the stakes in another way, because nobody was trying to kill anyone, so we can freely root for the combatants’ skill and cleverness without having to deal with the moral issues that most movie battle scenes gloss over. I’ve never been happy with the MCU movie characters’ use of lethal force, and there was some of that here in the Lagos sequence, it appeared — plus T’Challa and then Tony trying to kill Bucky. But in the airport fight, nobody was interested in causing death, so it was more like the action sequences of the comics and thus could be more unreservedly enjoyable, even with the sad personal aspect. It was downright sporting, really, with a lot of mutual respect between the opposing sides — like that nice Cap-Spidey beat about their proximate origins.

Going through it all character by character:

Captain America: Still the principled man we know and admire, but maybe with a bit of a blind spot where Bucky’s concerned. He was right to stand up for his falsely accused friend, but he was perhaps a bit too headstrong in Bucky’s defense. I don’t see why he couldn’t have taken the time to give Tony a fuller explanation about the threat from the other Winter Soldiers, rather than just going “We fight.”

Tony Stark: Even though this is Cap’s movie by title, I feel Tony made a stronger impression, perhaps because he had more character growth. He really wrestled with the issues and stayed open to both sides, though he did rather lose it in the third act with the whole revenge thing. That part didn’t make sense to me and seemed contrived to force the final fight, since Tony must surely have understood that Bucky was not in control of his actions. There was a game attempt to make it more about his betrayal at Steve not telling him, but that still didn’t quite justify it. Aside from that, though, this is the way Tony should’ve been portrayed in the original.

Black Widow: They’re still doing a good job keeping Natasha front and center, the most valuable supporting player (even though they’re dragging their heels ridiculously on giving her a solo movie). She didn’t have as much to do in this one as in the past couple, but she still made a strong impression, and her fight choreography is fantastic.

Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman was effective as T’Challa, thoughtful and quietly strong. The portrayal of Wakanda mercifully shied away from a lot of the usual African stereotypes seen in plenty of past movies and comics, although it’s a little odd to hear them speaking the southern African Xhosa language while worshipping the Egyptian deities Bast and Sekhmet, from the opposite end of a very large continent. I particularly like it that T’Challa turned his back on vengeance — especially that he actually saved the life of the man he would’ve wanted to kill before. That’s a nice change from all the “I don’t have to save you” or “Take my hand — oops, never mind” endings that too many superhero movies have had. I was actually expecting T’Challa to break up the Steve-Tony fight at the climax and talk some sense into them, and I’m more than a little disappointed that he didn’t.

Vision: Interesting to see more of his evolution as a person, and Paul Bettany does a great job making him thoughtful and naive, gentle and imposing at the same time. Odd that Wanda calls him “Viz” instead of his usual “Vizh” nickname.

Scarlet Witch: Despite her key role in the emotional core of the film, I found Wanda didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me. Elizabeth Olsen just doesn’t have the same presence or charisma as most of the MCU cast.

Hawkeye: He has such a minor role that I’m not sure why they even bothered to include him, unless it was so they could do the thing with Ant-Man riding his arrow. His relationship with Black Widow was touched on in maybe one two-line exchange. I’ll grant, though, that he was probably the best choice for convincing Wanda to leave, given their history in Age of Ultron.

Bucky: Sorry, Sebastian Stan is just kind of boring. He doesn’t do much except fight and brood. He doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond his role as a plot catalyst.

Falcon: On the other hand, Falcon totally rocks. Anthony Mackie is one of the most charismatic players in the cast, and Sam’s a terrific partner for Steve. I love his fight choreography too, and the Redwing drone is a great addition. I would be totally happy to see Sam Wilson take over as Captain America once Chris Evans’s contract is up, although that’s not looking likely with Sam part of Cap’s Kooky Fugitives and the shield still in the few remaining Avengers’ hands.

War Machine: Rhodey’s still a stalwart background presence, though not as much of a standout as he’d be in a smaller cast.

Ant-Man: A decent supporting role, a nice followup on his debut film. Paul Rudd brought some effective humor to the proceedings,  the callback to his history with Falcon was good, and Ant-Man — I should call him Giant-Man as well — contributed, err, massively to the big fight.

Sharon Carter: Not a bad supporting role, helping out quietly and passing along some valuable words from Peggy Carter. I love how consistent the portrayal of Peggy through her words was with her characterization in the TV series, given that continuity between TV and movies in the MCU tends to be unidirectional. It helps that this movie’s writers are the creators and executive producers of Agent Carter. And I cried at Peggy’s funeral, even though there’s still a chance (though a slim one at this point) that she could return to TV for a third season. Sharon wasn’t nearly as impressive as her aunt, though, and the attempt to sneak in a romance between her and Steve felt cursory and forgettable.

Helmut Zemo: Now, this was weird. The MCU has reinterpreted a lot of comics characters, but while this version of Zemo worked well as the antagonist of this particular story, he’s so completely unlike his namesake that I wonder why they even called him Helmut Zemo. He did some awful things, but he’s not exactly a Master of Evil. As a character in his own right, though, he was nicely handled. The MCU has rarely given any of its movie antagonists any real personality or depth. Zemo is the most nuanced and sympathetic MCU movie villain since Loki, probably even more so.

Secretary Thaddeus Ross: Nice bit of continuity to bring back William Hurt and tie the largely overlooked The Incredible Hulk a bit more closely into the saga, even though Ross here is in a rather different role than before, a role that could’ve been filled by a lot of other characters. It would’ve been nice to see him show a bit more intensity in his comments about the missing Dr. Banner, given that Ross’s obsession with the Hulk is his defining trait in the comics.

Everett Ross: Did they notice they had two characters on the government side who were both named Ross? Anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen Martin Freeman in a role where he didn’t totally steal the show. Partly because he used an American accent, and that always makes British actors less interesting. But he really had very little purpose in this story, although I gather they were setting him up for a bigger role later, presumably in Black Panther, since that’s where the character originally comes from.

Spider-Man: I’ve saved this for last because I have a lot to say. Peter was handled pretty well, and Tom Holland is pretty good, but I can’t gush as much about him as most people are. I actually liked the Andrew Garfield version, and I think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 captured Spidey/Peter almost perfectly even though it screwed up so much else. This was a good portrait of a Spidey who’s just starting out, and I like the way they rejiggered the Tony-as-mentor bit from the comics to explain how Spidey got his fancy threads (and the size-changing eyes are a nice way to bring a cartooning conceit into live action). But I don’t feel this movie captured Spidey’s banter as well as ASM2 did. I mean, sure, Spidey’s a chatterbox, and that’s partly a manifestation of his anxiety and insecurity, but he’s also funny. He’s a nonstop wisecracker, a comic hero in the Bugs Bunny mold. He should be hurling jokes and bad puns and insults as readily as Downey’s Tony does, and then some. And that didn’t come through here, since this Spidey was mainly just geeking out and talking science and chattering nervously. I hope he’s funnier in his solo movie. (And having Tony be his mentor could work nicely if he becomes more of a confident wisecracker by following Tony’s example.)

Also, I felt the Spidey portion of the movie was a bit tacked on. The movie just kind of dragged to a halt in the middle to swerve into a side story introducing this new character, then used him in the fight, then forgot about him until the post-credits scene. Structurally, it could’ve been better. I would’ve preferred it if Peter had been seeded earlier — if Tony’s initial talk had been at Midtown High instead of a university, say, or if we’d seen a bit of Spidey or Peter having a “kid on the street” reaction to the news from Lagos or Vienna or Washington.

I’m also not sure that Peter was worked into the story as logically as he could’ve been. The speech he gave in his bedroom about how something is your fault if you have the power to stop it and you don’t (a reference to his famous origin story, natch) sounded like it aligned more with Steve’s side of the argument than Tony’s. After all, Steve was the one saying they had to act when it was needed rather than letting a higher power tell them they couldn’t. Then there’s the fact that it was kind of a contradiction for Tony to support government oversight of superheroes, yet be totally fine with Peter keeping his identity secret. It works because this Tony has always been kind of a rebel and has only recently come around to the idea that he needs to be kept in check, so that inconsistency is in character. But it does seem that Peter was more naturally suited to Team Cap, and it would’ve been good to see him switch sides as he did in the comics.

So I guess my praise for the film is a little lukewarm. But that’s only because it’s been so heavily hyped as the best superhero movie ever. It is quite good for the most part, no doubt. I just have a few issues with it, ways it could’ve been even better.

Anyway, where does the MCU stand now? The Sokovia Accords are still in effect (and we’ll see some of the impact of that on Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night). The only still-active Avengers seem to be Iron Man, Vision, and War Machine, who’s on the disabled list. Spidey’s an ally, but not quite ready for the big time — but will he have to register? T’Challa’s still an independent party, though sympathetic to Steve. Bucky’s back on ice. Cap, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and probably Black Widow are wanted fugitives. Things don’t look good for the superhero community. I wonder if so many of them were removed from the board to clear the way for the spate of new characters coming up in Phase 3. Over the next couple of years, we have Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok (co-starring the Hulk), and Black Panther before we presumably see the rest of the Avengers again in Infinity War in 2018. (Hey, Netflix, this would be a great window for a Black Widow miniseries, ScarJo willing.) So the current state of affairs is likely to be a dangling thread for some time. Honestly, that’s part of why my reaction to the film is a bit lukewarm. It ended at kind of an uneasy and unresolved place, and I’m a little dissatisfied with the situation, if not with the execution of the story.

But then, this is Civil War, and wars very rarely leave things better at the end.

Fall TV, Week 2 (spoilers)

First, a couple of updates, since my second looks at a number of shows have caused me to reappraise them:

Minority Report: I’m afraid episode 2 didn’t work as well for me as the pilot. There was some nice tech futurism (the microbiome analyzers were interesting, and the future version of a tablet is nice), but it wasn’t matched on a cultural level. All that pickup artist stuff and people using slang like “negging” and “booty call” is way, way too present-day for a show set 50 years from now, and that really damaged the credibility of the story and the world. It felt like a script for some ordinary, present-day cop show that was rewritten for this show. Which I doubt it really was, since it was written by the showrunner. But it doesn’t bode well for the quality of the mysteries — or the worldbuilding — going forward.

Some decent character work with Dash and Vega dealing with the aftermath of Dash killing the bad guy last week. I’m glad they addressed that instead of dismissing it. But I’m finding Stark Sands rather underwhelming as a lead. And the stuff about his inept attempts at detective work is getting old really fast.

Blindspot: I gave this one more chance, after reading an interview with the showrunner saying that there would be some major revelations this week.  I think I’m getting a little invested in it now, or at least curious enough to stick with it for the moment. Jaimie Alexander is definitely the main draw. Although it’s kind of nice to see Ashley Johnson — or rather, to hear her, since I know her mainly from her animation roles such as Gwen in Ben 10 and Terra in Teen Titans.

It’s occurred to me: We now have two series on the air, Dark Matter and Blindspot, that revolve around characters who’ve had their memories wiped and are wrestling with the question of whether they were good or bad people in their previous lives. And they’re both created by veterans of the Stargate franchise — Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie for the former, Martin Gero for the latter. Is there some causality there, or just coincidence?

The Muppets: I’m out. I was open to a more adult and “edgy” version of the Muppets, getting back to their roots in late-night TV, but last night’s episode was something I don’t think the Muppets have ever been before: mean-spirited and cynical. Kermit has become an angry, neurotic jerk, Fozzie is committing felonies, and the characters are just being generally nasty to each other, with no sign of the affection that always underlaid their squabbles in the past. It didn’t feel like a story about the Muppets; it felt like a generic modern sitcom plot acted out by the Muppets. Which is lame. If the Muppets are going to do something in the vein of a contemporary TV trend, they should be spoofing and subverting it (Veterinarian’s Hospital, Pigs in Space), not just playing it out by the numbers. More importantly, it just wasn’t very funny. In the pilot, I laughed a good number of times, but very little amused me here.

The one good point is that Pepe the King Prawn, the most annoying Muppet ever, was more subdued and less obnoxious here. But he was the only Muppet who was less obnoxious. And maybe it’s just symptomatic of the general out-of-character writing.

And now to the new stuff:

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays, ABC): Pretty solid opening. Things have ramped up to a new level. More superpower action, new threats, new status quo for various characters. Daisy (formerly Skye) is looking pretty good in her action gear and new haircut. And a passel of movie references — nods to the alien attacks on New York, London, and Sokovia (though Ultron was kind of indirectly alien), an appearance by President Ellis, even a nod to “the Pym Technologies disaster.” (Which is perhaps an overstatement given that nobody died in that.) And the lines about the laws of man catching up with the laws of nature could be foreshadowing Captain America: Civil War.

Sleepy Hollow (Thursdays, FOX): This just screamed “soft reboot.” Last season ended with the core foursome reunited and standing together; now suddenly we learn they all went their separate ways and are only grudgingly coming back together, with Irving gone for good. That’s kind of an awkward transition. And the episode was so much about setting up the new status quo that it’s hard to get a sense of what the season will be like.

But while the core cast was still fun to watch, the episode felt like it was going through the motions. The Horseman was swept aside very cursorily. Abbie was given a new grizzled mentor figure to suffer a predictable, telegraphed death at the hands of a demon, like Sheriff Corbin 2.0, but we didn’t see any emotional aftermath to the event, any reaction from Abbie once the scene was over. Crane and Abbie cursorily reasserted their friendship, but the sense of deep warmth and connection between them wasn’t as strong. Crane was given a new Colonial-era love interest in Betsy Ross, but without the depth of feeling and need he had for Katrina — and so far, the only impressive thing about Nikki Reed in the role is that she makes Katia Winter seem interesting in comparison. And Jenny was just there to help out and make wisecracks. Before, it was the depth of feeling behind the characters and their relationships, the underlying passion, that made the show engaging and grounded its insanely silly plotlines. There didn’t seem to be any passion here.

Also, how is it that an experienced demon-hunter and FBI agent like Abbie can run into a woman named Pandora, who’s into ancient history and lore and who’s just arrived in Sleepy Hollow at the same time a new evil descends upon the town, and not immediately suspect that it’s the Pandora? That’s just dropping the ball.