Here we go again. 8 years after Iron Man kick started a blockbuster movie franchise that’s now 13 films in, Captain America: Civil War is less of an event movie than it is “a very special episode” of an ongoing serial or rather the cinematic equivalent of binge-watching a handsomely budgeted TV show in the span of 2.5 hours for all the positives and negatives that entails. After being thoroughly impressed with the last Captain America-centric movie helmed by Joe & Anthony Russo and penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Winter Soldier), this latest installment is less concerned with pushing these films forward the way that one did and more so with keeping things on brand. Despite a strong central concept and thesis, by focusing on “hitting its marks” with little fuss or any guts to do anything but color within the lines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) playbook, Civil War isn’t necessarily a great Marvel movie so much as it is the “Platonic Ideal” of a Marvel movie. It’s the best of MCU and the worst all at once.
At the heart of superhero stories are our modern myths, a way of how contemporary society deals with the real world through easily recognizable pop icons. It’s not about things like continuity or consistency or “rules” or even sacredness so much as the tradition of interpretation and re-telling. Comics writer Alan Moore once had a saying, “This is an imaginary story… aren’t they all?” And that cuts right into what Zack Snyder has done with his messy yet endlessly audacious superhero opera, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, is the 11th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe®, the 2nd big Marvel team-up helmed by beloved nerd auteur Joss Whedon where Earth’s Mightiest Heroes™ must band together, squabble with each other, party together, argue and also save the world from a deadly threat unleashed by themselves. Apparently, The Avengers’ goal was for the world not to need them anymore, but it seems like the world will always need the Avengers as long as the Avengers are around. Which is kind of a metaphor for how this multi-billion dollar franchise of interconnected films has become. 11 films into this series have had their ups (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and downs (Thor: The Dark World) but mostly a lot of it has begun to feel middling (Guardians of the Galaxy). You can really feel the bubble that has been the Marvel superhero films begin to burst, if not strain with this iteration that provides a solid and entertaining time at best, but at worst seems like a 2 & ½ hour teaser for over 9 upcoming films. These films have essentially become their own marketing vehicles. However, there is an impressive spectacle on display here in the ways only a big Hollywood movie can provide, not to mention a fun character playhouse that only a theater-junkie like Whedon can provide when not pulled by the requirements of the ever-insular Marvel movie lore.
At the height of their powers, the corporate overlords of Marvel Entertainment have decided to show that they in fact, have a sense of humor about themselves. The “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” a series of interconnected blockbuster adaptations of Marvel comic and superhero properties, was never truly lacking comedy; however most of these films are built on a foundation of self-seriousness and unwavering devotion to the source material. The comic book studio seems to fear that if the “sacredness” of its fiction isn’t diligently guarded, both fans and the uninitiated may start questioning whether all these fellows in color-coded spandex merit quite so much attention. As such few of the films ever take a risk in terms of providing a welcome spin on the material or using these properties to achieve something a little more ambitious than offering triple-A form blockbuster fun.
Director Bong-joon Ho’s (The Host) 2014 dystopian sci-fi fable Snowpiecer plays as the sort of socio-political manifesto that many genre films strive towards but rarely achieve. Like the angry sci-fi films of the 60s-70s counter-culture boom it is so very much rooted in the era it was conceived and produced. Perhaps in the future, viewers revisiting the film may look back and get a feel for the issues of our time and the attitude towards them. Beyond that the film also tells an exciting, action-packed story with confidence and deft polish.
The film franchise based on Marvel Comics’ ‘X-Men’ comic mythology (which follows the exploits of “mutants” – people born with superpowers) are the last connections to the time when superhero movies were still a novelty and when lines like ‘What did you expect, yellow spandex?’ were eaten up by fans who were simply happy to see their favorite characters taken seriously by Hollywood. The aesthetic of early superhero films were clearly lifted mostly from The Matrix and Blade. The one thing nobody ever really talks about when revisiting the original X-trilogy is that none of the films are particularly good in purely cinematic terms and they are poor interpretations of the X-Men mythos. They do get a character or concept right on occasion (Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine), but in terms of interpreting the X-Men, they never seize the opportunity to tackle what has been a most interesting and pleasantly soap operatic serial storytelling (the comics being 50+ years ongoing). Four movies into the film franchise, with the critical & commercial flop, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, almost putting the series to whimper of a close, something remarkable happened: X-Men: First Class. The film was conceived as a soft reboot while also serving as a prequel to the previous films and it established a whole new tone and mission statement for the films going forward. First Class director Matthew Vaughn (L4yer Cake) embraced the freestyle camp and soap opera fun of the comics while allowing the mythology’s sense of social commentary to breathe and really come alive.After another fun brief one-off film focusing on the character of Wolverine (who has been the central character for every X-film prior to First Class), fan-favorite Bryan Singer, who directed the first 2 entries in the franchise and produced the rest is back at the helm. Singer has slowly gotten notoriety for not being reverent or respectful of the X-characters and mythology save for Wolverine but it seems many lessons were learned from the success of First Class as this film, X-Men: Days of Future Past is not only a good movie, it’s Singer’s best X-Men movie, and the best X film to date.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2, sequel to the moderately successful 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man film franchise brings the attitude and joy of the modern era Spider-Man comics (particularly the “Ultimate” Marvel Universe book-line) yet fails miserably to come together as a film. Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), returns for this iteration but instead of adhering to his quirky indie-young romance sensibilities that made the previous film such a charming effort (despite some narrative flaws) Webb instead opts to ramp up the blockbuster superhero action. The result here a mixed bag where the effects-laden heroics are grandiose and certainly capture some of the spirit and attitude of the comics but threaten to overshadow any of the film’s human elements. On top of that is a narrative structure that is as confused as it is messy, completely lacking a proper dramatic thorough line to tie and connect its set-pieces and multiple plotlines together let alone come to a cathartic conclusion. This film may be the best AND worst we’ve seen of this character and franchise on screen and that’s a big problem. The pieces of a great Spider-Man story are in place, but they’re never connected and executed in a way that is meaningful let alone cohesively. Much like the previous film, it gets by on the charisma of the cast and sharp production work, but perhaps due to the film’s bloated and inconsistent nature any and all merits of the film are drastically overshadowed by its weaknesses.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier presents the tipping point for Marvel Studios’ labyrinth of interconnected media franchises in the best way possible. This is the first film they’ve produced that is the closest in not being a good superhero film, but a flat out good film PERIOD. Alongside Superman, Captain America is one of the most unfashionable and archaic of all the spandex-clad superheroes that have made their way out of the comics and into movie theaters. In 2014, there’s something bitterly ironic about a living symbol of idealized American might & valor, draped in the stars and stripes of a simpler era. Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger sidestepped such concerns by setting his feature back to his WWII-era pulp-adventure roots in an escapist adventure reminiscent of the Indiana Jones features. However the Marvel Cinematic Universe is continuously growing and changing and a certain superhero team is in need of its old-fashioned veteran patriarch. Now that The Avengers had the genetically-enhanced soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) defrosted on the present side of history, how do creators and filmmakers to confront his dated 20th-century sensibilities to the 21st-century world?
Historical inaccuracies are forgivable in period-set films, especially when they are so clearly more “fantasy-oriented” or anachronistic or just for the sake of enriching the atmosphere, style, story and entertainment value. The problem is that 300: Rise of an Empire just is not much fun or entertaining. We live in an age where trashy rock ‘em sock ‘em “junk food” films have been pretty much perfected. Unfortunately this awkward spinoff to the 2006 Zack Snyder film 300 sort of forgets much of the stylish grindhouse ingenuity of the original in favor of a heavy handed talky/expository affair that is at times jingoistic, misogynistic, mean-spirited and ultimately dull. Whereas Snyder’s film was a macho death-fantasy, this one plays like a derivative cover-band recreation that misses what made the original so special and enduring. The film depicts a war between white (or orange, as per the film’s odd color palate) people who “don’t negotiate with tyrants” and the brown people who hate their freedom. The original film had its fair share of troubling implications but the stylish way in which beefed-up dudes slaughtered one another whilst half-naked made the film far too silly and over-the-top to have its issues be taken seriously. This film however, dumps much of the testosterone power fantasy in favor of…philosophical debates and exposition which all but put a spotlight on the film’s troubles.
With the announcement of a newly rebooted film adaptation of Fantastic Four comes debates as to the merits of such an undertaking. Personally, I see neither the point, nor the merits. Not only were the two 2005-2007 live action features fairly enjoyable and serviceably/competently made popcorn entertainment – we have already gotten the best incarnation/interpretation of that saga in the medium best suited to tell it: a 3+ year comic run written by Jonathan Hickman. Beyond being one of, if not the outright best vision of the Fantastic Four, it’s one of the greatest stories conceived, and one that could only have been done in the medium of comics.