Film, TV

Infinity War and the Marvel ‘lack of consequence’ problem

So you’ve seen Infinity War, right?

First of… *clears throat* ‘Holy fucking shit, that ending! Geez, did you just see that…Jesus!’

Right, now I’ve got that out of my system, let’s move on. Oh, and if you haven’t already seen the movie, stop reading and come back later. Unlike the Marvel universe, you can’t use a Time Stone to undo the consequences (burn!) of reading and frankly the film deserves to be experienced first-hand.

Still with me? Well, good, because Infinity War was pretty fun, right? An admirable smashing together of a whole bunch of Marvel properties that by-and-large works very well, assuming you know your Peter Quill from your Peter Parker.

But given that ending, and the various deaths racked up along the way, I want to ask a question. Does Infinity War solve the Marvel ‘lack of consequences’ problem?

 

Accusation: In most Marvel movies, there are very little consequences

The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are so much fun. They’re dependable slices of blockbuster entertainment and even if you don’t love one of the movies, you’ll still probably have a good time with it nonetheless.

This makes it all the more frustrating that the MCU tends to have very little actual consequences. By that I don’t mean exclusively characters dying, although that is certainly part of it (oh, and ‘dead but not really’ fake-outs are the worst – Loki, Nick Fury etc.) No, stories can have huge consequences without it necessarily involving the death of a character. In fact, I would go so far as to argue Game of Thrones has literally used up all its ‘story progression by death’ and has come up unstuck in delivering storytelling not dependent on shock-death.

But the clincher is, the MCU very rarely has any form of consequence. Certainly there are some good character journeys over the course of the films (Tony and Steve effectively switching ideologies being one of them) and some of the solo films are exceptions (Guardians 2, in particular, lands a fantastic character death) but, largely, stakes feel huge but mean nothing.

Let’s go through a few examples. In The Winter Soldier, it turns out that SHIELD has actually been infiltrated by Hydra, an extreme Nazi cult. Doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Ultron ends with a whole country being destroyed partially as a result of the Avenger’s actions, and it’s not really mentioned at the end of the movie. Civil War wants us to believe character relationships are damaged, but backtracks with Steve’s letter to Tony straight away.

None of it matters. Now, on occasion, stuff gets weight retroactively in a latter film – for example, the destruction of Sokovia has a huge impact on Civil War – but that’s not quite the same (more on this latter.) Most movies can’t rely on a sequel to give them meaning, and pretty much all good movies have immediate tangible consequences. That’s what gives them purpose.

So, the question is, in light of Infinity War, has this problem been solved?…

The answer is no, by the way, absolutely not. It actually makes things worse.

 

Is Infinity War the most inconsequential Marvel movie?

After a decade of being terrified to kill characters, Infinity War goes nuclear, killing Loki, Heimdall, Gamora, Vision and then a huge chunk of the other Avengers in one go.

Shit, boy! It’s like Marvel’s Red Wedding…apart from we know a whole load of it won’t stick. Spiderman, Guardians and Black Panther all have movies coming up so they aren’t gone for good. Straight away that undermines the ending. The funeral music credits, so powerful at the time, can’t help but feel like a gimmicky, weightless bit of audience manipulation rather than earned as a result of, you know, actually telling a good story.

The film has stones that can alter reality and reverse time. All the while those stones are around, nothing sticks, even if the film genuinely is committing. Are Loki and Gamora actually gone for good? If so, brave decision, I guess. But the film is crying wolf at the end, and so those deaths feel as temporary as every other.

There’s even a version of events whereby this could become the most inconsequential and pointless Marvel movie yet if it turns out they can rewrite time completely. If all the events of this film are undone then what on earth was the point?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the next movie will require sacrifice (Tony Stark basically has a target on his head the whole time now), but they can’t keep relying on subsequent movies to prop up the significance of the last. It’s bad storytelling.

And here’s the thing. Impossible, unbelievable stakes don’t need to be this empty and, to demonstrate my point, I want to compare Infinity War to an episode of the single greatest television show ever made – Doctor Who.

 

Infinity War and The Doctor

Although the most obvious episode to compare to Infinity War would be ‘The Stolen Earth’ (both stories involve aliens attacking, various different properties coming together and both have to juggle a huge amount of characters) I actually want to compare it to a slightly weirder episode, ‘The Pandorica Opens.’

If Infinity War thinks its stakes are high, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is like ‘bitch, please. You killed half of all life in the universe? Well we’ve literally exploded every star and the universe itself has faded out of existence. Those are REAL stakes.’ Yes, seriously, the penultimate episode of Series 5 ends with the whole universe blowing up. Go big or go home, I guess!

So, presumably, this should exhibit all the same problems as Infinity War. The universe can’t stay blown up for obvious reasons, it’s going to have to be undone. But, far from feeling pointless, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is a sublime bit of storytelling even before its excellent finale solves everything in a witty and cerebral way.

Why?

Because ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is about a lot more than the fate of the universe. There are important character moments between the Doctor and his companion, and between the companion and her husband that she forgot existed (who is also now a Roman Centurion, and also an evil plastic alien who doesn’t realise it…God damn, I love Doctor Who.)

It hinges on a fascinating question – ‘What monster is so feared in all the universe that it needs to be locked in the Pandorica?’ The answer turns out to be *spoilers* The Doctor. This isn’t just clever and shocking, it’s an insight into the theme of Matt Smith’s tenure – how The Doctor himself, with the best intentions in the world, can be seen by others as a monster and destructive force. Fear of him literally threatens the entire universe.

The episode ends with The Doctor imprisoned, the companion dead, the TARDIS blowing up and the universe ceasing to exist. Even though every single one of these is undone in the next episode, it’s actually about something greater than the obvious stakes – you can’t undo the character development or thematic exploration.

But if I asked you what is Infinity Wars about, I think you’d struggle to answer beyond ‘a purple alien wants to destroy half of everything’. There isn’t time for character development between the main heroes, so it’s a pretty surface level watch. The character explored the most is probably Thanos, and the biggest take away from him is maybe ‘crazy bad people sometimes think they’re justified’…but it’s all very flimsy. It’s relying on the shock factor of its deaths and stakes in a way the aforementioned Doctor Who episode just isn’t.

And the funny thing is, Doctor Who IS a TV series, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ IS a penultimate episode. This form of ‘all is lost’ storytelling is suited for television where you can find out the resolution next week. It sits uncomfortably in a movie that won’t get a follow-up for a year. (Although if Avengers 4 turns out to be a small, character driven piece exploring zany ideas on how to save the universe in the way ‘The Big Bang’ follows up ‘The Pandorica Opens’, all will be forgiven. Just saying.)

 

There are now less consequences

There’s still no evidence Marvel has learned its lesson when it comes to consequences and frankly, that’s becoming increasingly frustrating. God damn it guys, just commit already! If stones can literally alter reality, things feel less at stake than ever.

But if this piece has been overly grumpy, I want to emphasise I had a great time with Infinity War. It’s great, stupid, magnificent fun and a cinematic experiment that we just haven’t seen before. And oh boy has it got us talking and speculating. I’ll be there on opening night for Part 2, so I guess it kind of did its job.

It’s just the lack of consequences that I think the Marvel movies really need to overcome. Without consequence there can be no meaning, and the whole point of stories, even dumb fun ones, is to leave the audience with something beyond pure plot.

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Film, Philosophy

Why is The Dark Knight so damn good?

Ask me what the best superhero film is and I’d not hesitate to answer. The Dark Knight. A modern masterpiece of blockbuster filmmaking that, even ten years later, still feels shockingly unique and unparalleled in the genre.

Given that I’m hardly alone in this opinion, it got me thinking, what exactly makes The Dark Knight so damn good?

And, to answer this, I’m going to take for granted a lot of things that most of us agree on – Nolan is an incredible director, Pfister’s cinematography is beautiful, the acting is uniformly brilliant and the action sequences are spectacular – and answer the question with one word: ideas.

The Dark Knight is a movie about ideological conflict. It’s political. It’s philosophical. Whether we recognise it or not, that’s what makes it so compelling.

But to begin to break down these ideas, we need to address the elephant in the room when talking about what makes this movie work. We need to first look at the iconic character who drives the philosophical discussion of the film…

 

The Joker

The combination of a truly incredible performance by Heath Ledger supported by a great script made The Joker an all-time great screen villain. Did you know, though, The Joker is only in 33 minutes of The Dark Knight, a movie that is over two-and-a-half hours long? It’s a testament to both Heath Ledger and the character that his presence is felt in every scene and dominates our memories of the movie.

The Joker is a huge part of what makes The Dark Knight work, so we need to determine exactly why he is such an incredible villain to understand how he contributes to the film as a whole.

He’s not a typical Nolan character

Christopher Nolan is a genius, there can be no doubt of that, but his work often feels slightly detached from humanity. I don’t mean this in a Ridley Scott ‘Alien Covenant’ kind of way, where the characters are just things to inflict suffering on dispassionately, but in how Christopher Nolan characters tend to speak and behave.

There are not many of the traits we’d necessarily recognise as human – humour, flirting, warmth – and instead the characters tend to speak in the same cerebral way Nolan writes and directs. Often they’re sexless characters who regularly articulate complex philosophical worldviews as if in place of discussing the weather. It’s not problematic, it’s more a stylistic leaning, but it’s certainly not naturalistic.

This can make Nolan’s work feel a little sterile – emotionless is perhaps too strong a word (especially after Dunkirk, which hits pretty hard), but certainly restrained.

So when The Joker walks into this ordered Nolan movie with his crumbling clown make-up and his purple coat, he feels from another universe entirely. The Joker isn’t restrained – he tells jokes, he plays to the room, he performs violent magic tricks. In most movies, when The Joker walks into a party and acknowledges Rachel Dawes with ‘why hello, beautiful’ while adjusting his hair, the moment would be creepy. But in a sexless Nolan movie, The Joker’s sexual recognition feels like an act of anarchic defiance itself. The character’s theatrical demeanour and penchant for chaos feels like it’s tearing apart Nolan’s sterile world at the seams.

Which is not to say The Joker is entirely without Nolan quirks. He certainly philosophises, a lot in fact, and his very existence is more as pure ideological force than actual character. But the tussling of the theatrical clown monster with Nolan’s preference for restrained cerebral characters makes for a truly magnificent concoction.

The Joker is a terrorist

The Joker isn’t a typical supervillain. In him we see not a cartoon caricature of evil but a threat that’s very recognisable. He’s not an alien trying to blow the world up, he’s a terrorist trying to provoke fear. He doesn’t use magic MacGuffins to achieve his aims, he uses bombs, knives and hostage videos.

In this way The Dark Knight is very much a post-9/11 blockbuster. It taps into 21st Century fears of the destructive force of an enemy who cannot be understood or reasoned with, an enemy that can strike at any moment and slaughters indifferently.

‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’ Alfred warns a Bruce Wayne who is taken aback by a villain with seemingly no motivation. The Joker himself actively mocks the idea that he can be explained away by telling two different tragic origin stories. When we come onto the politics of this movie, this might well be part of the reason some interpret it as ‘right-wing’ – to perceive terrorism as a threat that is created and sustained in a vacuum is a slightly problematic idea – but for now let’s just acknowledge how strikingly that chord chimes with audiences of the movie.

 The Joker is an existential threat

But let’s get onto the meat of what The Joker represents. Moral Nihilism. He calls society’s morality a ‘bad joke’ and tells Batman he’s not a monster, he’s just ahead of the curve.

The Joker describes himself as an ‘agent of chaos’, a dog chasing cars who wouldn’t have a clue what to do if he caught one. Alfred compares him to thieves who steal for the sake of stealing.

What’s interesting though is something much more insidious still lies at the heart of what motivates The Joker. He’s not merely interested in causing chaos, he’s determined in proving that deep down everyone is as ugly as he is. It’s best summed up when he tells Batman:

 ‘They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.’

Every course of action he takes is aimed at proving just that. He manages to rile an angry mob into trying to take the life of an innocent man, he pits two ferries against each, hoping one would blow up the other. In Harvey Dent, the face of justice, he sees a target to corrupt. With Batman, a man who already has shaky moral foundations, he desperately wants him to break his one rule – not killing. To The Joker, any moral code is an illusion that needs to be broken.

In our darkest thoughts, it’s hard not to have a nagging doubt that maybe The Joker has a point. Maybe our morality is something of a lie, ready to be dropped the moment it’s no longer expedient. This is what makes him such a terrifying threat. He’s not trying to destroy Gotham as a physical place, he’s trying to destroy Gotham’s soul. He’s making a horrifyingly compelling case for Moral Nihilism, and is inviting the audience to agree with him.

To the extent The Joker actually acknowledges this aim, and to what extent he really does just see himself as an agent of chaos, inadvertently gives layers of psychological depth to the character. He very much is aware he’s playing the role of ‘villain’ in the narrative, but only because it’s a narrative he ultimately rejects.

 

The film’s politics – Is the movie a right-wing allegory?

So having established what makes The Joker so special, let’s glance at the politics of The Dark Knight.

Batman, when taken seriously, is actually a surprisingly problematic character. He’s a billionaire who spends his time acting as a vigilante, beating up the poorest in society. Unlike Superman or Captain America, he symbolises less something that is to inspire and more something that is to be feared. If you’re a criminal, he’ll get you, even if the law can’t.

It’s little wonder, then, that accusations of the mythology being a ‘right-wing power fantasy’ have been levelled. Further still, there are those who see The Dark Knight as a whole as ‘right-wing’.

If The Joker represents the terrorist threat, then does Batman represent the Bush administration going above and beyond to heroically put an end to terrorism, when the law, with its hands tied, cannot? Does Batman’s use of the phone system at the end (which spies on every Gotham citizen) represent the necessary temporary curtailing of civil liberties until the terrorist threat is neutralised?

Whilst I certainly appreciate this reading, I’m not entirely convinced by it. In fact, I’m not sure the film has a coherent political vision at all. Instead, quite wisely in my opinion, it opts more to ask questions rather than provide easy answers.

What’s certain is the whole trilogy sees the criminal justice system as flawed. There’s too much corruption and Batman is seen as kickstarting the cleaning up process. This is still a problematic stance but the film fully acknowledges that. Speaking in relation to Batman, Harvey Dent says:

‘When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.’

This is then immediately corrected by Rachel, his girlfriend, who reminds him that the last person they appointed to protect was Caesar and he never gave up his power. Whether this is historically accurate is beside the point, the key is the film is wrestling with how it perceives Batman.

And, for the remainder of the movie, Bruce is hoping to let Harvey Dent, who represents the just rule of law, take over so he can retire Batman. Of course things don’t go to plan, and Harvey Dent ends up corrupted by The Joker’s actions.

Batman knows how important Harvey Dent and the rule of law is, however, and decides to take responsibility for Harvey’s actions so the people can still believe in him. This echoes ‘The Noble Lie’ found in the works of Plato’s ‘The Republic’ – a myth or untruth that is propagated for social harmony. Is that then the film’s message? That the criminal justice system is unfit for purpose but we need to believe in it anyway?

Well that would be odd, because if the sequel ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ has anything to say (and, frankly, it doesn’t say nearly enough for my liking), it’s too refute the idea of The Noble Lie. In that movie the untruths have rotted away at everything and the truth is eventually outed.

This ultimately reinforces my sense that Nolan doesn’t have a grand political vision, he’s just wrestling with these questions in the confines of a superhero movie. The fact it asks these questions at all, however, is remarkable.

 

The film’s philosophy – Is the movie nihilistic?

Much more interesting to me than the politics of the movie is the film’s philosophical conflict. I already highlighted above how I think The Joker is the physical manifestation of Moral Nihilism, which makes Batman’s position representative of Moral Objectivism – there really is such a thing as morality that exists independently of our social structure.

What’s shocking is The Dark Knight goes some way in showing that The Joker really does have a point (this movie has balls – what other superhero movie would blow up the love interest halfway through?!) People do call for Batman to reveal himself, they do attempt to kill the innocent man when a hospital is threatened, Dent is shown to be corruptible etc. So does this indicate the movie ultimately sides with The Joker?

I don’t think so, and that’s thanks to the ferry scene. One of the biggest criticisms of recent blockbusters, and especially Marvel superhero movies, is that no-matter what themes the films are exploring, they’re usually side-lined or forgotten entirely for a big punch-up in the third act. This is not the case with The Dark Knight. Until the very end the film stays focused on its themes with razor sharp precision.

In the ferry scene, The Joker offers two ferries (one carrying convicts, the other civilians) a choice – blow up the other ferry and live, or he’ll detonate both ferries. In The Joker’s mind it’s obvious that, out of fear, one of the ferries will blow up the other. What happens, however, offers us a glimmer of optimism. On the ship full of convicts, one of the prisoners tosses the detonator out of the window, taking the choice out of their hands. On the ship of civilians, they take a vote. Although they vote overwhelmingly to detonate the other ferry, none of them actually wants to be the one to do it. And so both ferries accept their fate. They’re going to be blown up because neither group is willing to murder.

On top of that, Batman never does break his rule. Not only does he not kill The Joker, he actively catches him when he falls out of the building. As The Joker dangles upside down, lost in his own madness, he says ‘You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you?’ It’s a brief and rare admission of partial defeat.

That’s not to say everything else in the film is undone. Out of fear and loss, a lot of Gotham has now done some incredibly shitty things. But by the actions of those on the ferries and Batman himself, we’re offered a reason not to entirely despair.

 

The legacy of The Dark Knight

Many movies have tried to capture what makes The Dark Knight so special but have failed. Some have tried to mimic the serious tone but forgotten to actually have anything to say (I’d go so far as to suggest this is even true of The Dark Knight Rises), whilst others have produced pretentious pseudo-philosophical movies that are a chore to sit through (Batman V Superman!)

The Dark Knight really does feel like lightening in a bottle, an example of everything coming together to produce a rare modern classic. It stands atop the superhero heap not because it’s serious or tries to treat comic books as ‘adult’ (in fact I would say most films should avoid that.) No, it stands proud because it’s about ideological conflict and what it means to be human, and that will always resonate no matter how it is packaged – even if the main character insists on dressing up like a bat!

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Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – the best MCU movie so far? (spoiler free)

I’m not ashamed to say I, along with many others, wept at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Yep, I cried during a Marvel movie…the one about talking raccoons and baby trees no less. The general tone of a Marvel movie isn’t hard to predict, largely a lot of laughs and a little bit of ‘that’s awesome’ thrown in, but tear-jerking…I wasn’t expecting that!

Truthfully I’m not really sure what I was expecting. The first Guardians movie is my favourite of the MCU movies largely because it strays a delicate line of irreverent humour and absolute emotional sincerity perfectly, with a tonal dexterity that other Marvels tend not to have. Equipped with a killer retro soundtrack on top of that (which informs the emotion of the film as well as simply being great fun), the original flew its way straight into my heart.

The trouble is, a sequel to a movie that was essentially lightening in a bottle was always going to be difficult. On the one hand, if the sequel simply doubles down on the elements that work well in the original it’ll almost always be met with the accusation of diminishing returns. On the other, doing something completely different might risk losing the charm of the original and alienating the existing fanbase.

James Gunn, however, finds a steady compromise between the two approaches. Vol. 2 certainly does bring back everything people loved from the original (namely the humour, tone and retro soundtrack) bigger and better than ever before. As Baby Groot dances around to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ during the opening as the Guardians fight a big tentacled monster, it’s pretty clear we’re in familiar territory (and, quite possibly, operates as a simple metaphor for the film’s focus throughout.)

Yet Vol. 2 does offer new experiences as well. This time around the team are broken up into smaller groups to pursue their own individual stories, which gives everything a slightly different flavour. It’s also a deeper and more personal movie than the first, with clearer and more thoroughly explored themes. It’s not quite The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II of sequels, but it’s certainly not a simple re-tread either.

It’s helped by different characters taking centre stage. Certainly Peter Quill is still the main character and it’s ultimately his story, but it does feel even more of an ensemble piece this time. Yondu, in particular, is given a lot more to do than in the first movie and I imagine he may well end up being many people’s favourite Guardian after this. New character Mantis is also an adorable addition to the team, forming a genuinely moving relationship with Drax – despite being the complete opposite in many ways.

Speaking of adorable, Baby Groot is insanely fucking cute. He really does steal the movie and just a tiny change in his expression can (and will) break your heart. As Guardians Of The Galaxy does best, Baby Groot isn’t just an opportunity for laughs (and merchandise), but actually works really well with the film’s focus on family and parenting.

The plot could be accused of being a little on the slight side. In fact it’s very much like an early series Star Trek story played out over two hours, but to say much more would be to enter into spoiler territory. I do think this gives us one of Marvel’s better villains, which is admittedly faint praise. It’s not quite Loki standard, but it’s a bit better than a lot of the other disposable villains Marvel has gotten through (Malekith, Ronan, Whiplash etc. )

There’s also mercifully little connection to the MCU at large, in fact I think this might be the most standalone Marvel movie yet. Whereas even the first Guardians movie was burdened with The Collector and explaining the infinity stones, Vol. 2 is given free-reign to tell the story it desires free of interference. Even the five (yes, five!) post-credit sequences don’t really inform on the MCU at large. Ironically, however, the little we do learn of Thanos (the MCU’s ‘big bad’) in a brief but powerful conversation between Gamora and Nebula actually does more to build him up as a horrific villain than all the hints and appearances of Thanos in the entire MCU to date. But this mention isn’t forced, it’s entirely organic to the story and very much important to the theme of family that Vol. 2 orbits.

The film also looks gorgeous. It’s an explosion of vibrant colours, psychedelic and vivid. For those who sometimes think Marvel movies look a bit bland (I mean I enjoyed Civil War, but did it have to be SO grey?!), then Vol. 2’s delightfully garish colour palette will be welcome (and it looks like we’ll be getting more of this beauty in the third Thor outing!)

Vol. 2 certainly isn’t perfect. By breaking up the team and focusing on the individual storylines it loses some of that leanness and simplicity which gave the first outing such a wonderful source of momentum. Equally, a cynical viewer might say some of the scenes exist to serve the soundtrack, rather than the other way around (parts come close to feeling like a music video). I also think a little more could be done with the sci-fi action aesthetic. I know the movie always has its tongue firmly in cheek (there’s an alien race who fly spaceships as if they’re arcade machines) and that’s all part of the fun, but I did sometimes wish for a little more weight to the space battles just so the action set-pieces don’t feel so disposable.

But the reason this isn’t a deal-breaker is no-matter how weightless the action may seem, James Gunn realises this and always keeps the characters front and centre – their journeys are what give weight throughout. And I really have to applaud this movie for ending in such an emotional and kind of downbeat way (yes, back to the weeping). When you think about it, nearly every MCU movie (with very few exceptions) ends in a way which could be summed up as ‘the hero’s ready to kick ass in the next movie’. That isn’t the case in Vol. 2, which instead ends on a moment of entirely earned emotional poignancy.

It’ll be interesting to see what the status of Marvel movies will be once the MCU reaches its inevitable end. Whilst most of the movies are good (some, indeed, are excellent), they are a bizarre blend of film and product, the likes of which cinema hadn’t really seen before. Marvel movies can virtually act as advertisements for future installments (Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron being notable culprits for this.) When there is no future, so to speak, will these films stand up as something that can be watched at any time (something I’d feel comfortable replying positively for in the case of The Dark Knight and the first two Raimi Spider-Man movies) or are they so of the moment that they will eventually fade into obscurity, like filler episodes of a TV show?

It’s hard to say, but I do believe that if any of the series are going to standout then it’s going to be the Guardians movies (based on the first two, at least.) They transcend the MCU in many ways, and operate on a total different level of quality. Largely free from the shackles of being an advertisement or having to reference events of earlier movies, they are able to be their own thing and do genuinely feel like the work of a visionary director as opposed to a studio committee. The ending of Vol. 2 really reaffirms my faith that this series has the maturity and freedom to tell its story with absolute integrity to the plot and characters, rather than service a franchise.

The next time we see the Guardians it will be in the eagerly anticipated Infinity Wars, teaming up with the Avengers. Whilst it’ll certainly be a treat to see them there, it doesn’t feel necessary – if the Guardians never crossed-over it wouldn’t matter a bit and that’s why these movies work so well, the continuity connection is an added bonus, not a pivotal part of their appeal.

With James Gunn having just confirmed he’s signed up for Vol. 3, we know these wacky bunch of space misfits are in good hands. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they get up to next.

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‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ – Review

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a charming slice of whimsical magic, beautiful and engrossing from start to finish, and probably my favourite ‘blockbuster’ this year.

Deadpool movie reviewThis surprises me, more than anyone, because I’m not really much of a Potter fan…never have been. I appreciate the movies, don’t get me wrong, and I totally understand why a whole generation fell for them, but I didn’t start watching the Potter series (for various reasons) until film six, which rather left me feeling that I was a bit too late to the party. Plus I always found the stories a little derivative of other fantasy fiction with a few too many MacGuffins for my liking.

Fantastic Beasts is, on the other hand, a different…well…’beast’ altogether. Whilst it certainly expands the Potter universe, it is also very much its own film. There are really obvious similarities to be made with The Hobbit trilogy in that both have a unique story to tell but are also products created for clear commercial gains. Yet whereas The Hobbit trilogy often felt like ‘Lord of the Rings but not as good’, the twenties setting, new characters and general tone of Fantastic Beasts means it doesn’t feel like an imitation of the Potter movies before it, but a movie very much with its own groove.

The similarities between Fantastic Beasts and The Hobbit trilogy also extend to their structure – both have an original story to tell but also surround that story with world building to tie their mythology more deeply into the movies that proceeded them. For Fantastic Beasts, the unique story is that of Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of fantastic creatures.

I’ve heard a fair amount of complaint about Newt, claims that he isn’t really a character and there’s not much too him, but I disagree profoundly. Newt Scamander isn’t provided a tragic origin story, nor is he the ‘chosen one’, he’s just a kind-hearted, slightly eccentric, often awkward character trying to do the right thing because that’s what he believes in. I’m not really that much of a Eddie Redmayne fan, but he completely won me over as Newt and I found myself totally endeared to his character. He’s certainly not devoid of motivation or depth, there are various references to his past that help form his character, but they are refreshingly simple and not overblown. To my mind at least, he’s every bit as fleshed out as Harry Potter himself was in his own movies, if not more so!

This particular story thread also risks feeling kind of slight – ‘his magical creatures have escaped and need to be found’ doesn’t scream high stakes – but Rowling’s screenplay squeezes out every bit of wonder from this concept. The high point is a trip into the magic suitcase itself which reveals the whole world which these imaginative creatures inhabit. The scene is played for full awe and there’s a sense of innocent, imaginative, child-like magic which transcends anything even the early Potter movies could capture. It’s in these scenes that you also get a sense of exactly who Newt is, and just how much he cares for these creatures.

This storyline is also helped by three great supporting characters; Tina Goldstein, her sister Queenie and Jacob Kowalski. The sisters complement each other because one, the good-natured Queenie, is very much defined by her femininity whilst the other, Tina, is more conservative and geeky (that’s probably too strong a word, but she’s certainly a ‘focused’ character.) Jacob is another great addition because he’s a muggle (or nomaj) and is able to offer a completely human pair of eyes to the strange workings of the wizarding world. What’s particularly refreshing about this group of characters is there is nearly no ‘wisecracking’ at all. In today’s superhero dominated landscape, heroes seem to fall into two categories; ‘constant wisecracks’ or ‘brooding’. These heroes, on the other hand, are neither, they are chipper but behave like people, not gag machines. They all, particularly Jacob, essentially feature as Newt’s companions throughout the film.

And I use the term ‘companion’ quite particularly because there’s no denying Newt Scamander’s story shares a considerable chunk of its DNA with Doctor Who (which, if you don’t know, I absolutely adore.) Redmayne’s eccentric British Scamander smacks of Matt Smith’s magnificent Eleventh Doctor (my personal favourite incarnation of the beloved Time Lord) and his suitcase that is bigger on the inside can’t help but bring the TARDIS to mind. I’ve always thought Potter and Doctor Who have a similar lineage, both are full of British eccentricity and world build in a way that avoids taking themselves too seriously…apart from when they need to. But Fantastic Beasts has more similarities still, heck even the eventual fate of Jacob feels distinctly Doctor Who in its execution. There were rumours that director David Yates was interested in making a potential Doctor Who movie and, whilst little more has been said on that, this is the closest we’ve got so far to a big budget Doctor Who movie.

The second plot thread is the one that must do the world building and is considerably darker in tone. It involves the Magical Congress of the United States, The Second-Salemers and Grindelwald. Whilst the Newt story is breezy and light, this plot thread explores child abuse and the terrible effects of suppression and denial of one’s own identity. This thread is probably the one that’s going to provide the momentum for the four (yes, four!) sequels to the movie and will almost certainly bring in a younger Albus Dumbledore not too far down the line. Thankfully this ‘B plot’ doesn’t jar with Newt’s, but instead provides the film a tonal dexterity that enriches every aspect of it.

It’s certainly this part of the movie, however, that brings the flaws that Fantastic Beasts does have to the table. There is a twist at the end involving Grindewald (and an actor who is fast becoming infamous) which both fails in execution and cheapens the development of one of the film’s main characters. It’s also the threads of this storyline which take over for the film’s third act and provides a largely consequence free, CGI laden final showdown which rivals some of Marvel’s laziest efforts and mostly sidelines Newt.

Yet, much like Doctor Who, Fantastic Beasts get so much right and is so endearing that it largely bypasses my critical faculties. On several occasions this movie made me feel, not just sadness (the ending has just the right kind of sentimental ‘farewells’ for my liking) but also awe at some of the amazing creatures and the imaginative ideas behind them. Sure, you feel the studio pressure now and then, but it’s still tangible that Rowling is passionate about these stories and still loves telling them, a passion which is infectious.

Fantastic Beasts ultimately benefits from not being based on a book, paced more like a film without a long middle which has largely nothing to do with the first or final act, a problem for most of the Potter movies.  Rowling’s first screenplay is a real triumph and proof, if proof is needed, that the Potter universe still has plenty of magic left up its sleeve. It also achieves the impossible and makes the prospect of a further four films not just seem bearable, but something to look forward to. If the future films in this saga are as fun, charming and magical as this one, then consider me a full convert to the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

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Film

Are critics really too harsh on the Transformer movies?

The performance of the Transformer movies raises an interesting point about the relationship between movie critics and the paying audience. Each movie gets a critical slating and is an opportunity for reviewers to sharpen their vitriolic insults to impress each other with just how well they hate the movie. The paying audience, on the other hand, flock to the cinema to see giant robots punch each other in the face. The latest installment, Age of Extinction, is no exception, rating a pathetic 17% on Rotten Tomatoes yet already earning more than $575 million globally.

This has caused some people to conclude that the critics are just out of touch. While reviewers might wish that the modern audience were in love with the latest art house movies, viewers really just want to watch something that is fun. Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura said pretty much the same thing in a recent interview with MTV, arguing that critics are reviewing Transformers as if it is a 1970’s Scorsese movie rather than a fun film like Jaws or Star Wars.

This view seems to me, however, to be misguided and it is frankly ludicrous to mention any of the Transformers movies in the same breath as Jaws or Star Wars, one being a masterclass in suspenseful direction and one damn near inventing the modern day blockbuster. If Bonaventura is right then all blockbusters should come in for an equal slating but, of course, they don’t. This year saw Captain America: The Winter Solider get a lot of praise from critics and, at this moment in time, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has got near universal acclaim from critics. Transformers movies aren’t criticised because of old fashioned film criticism, they are ridiculed because they are the worst kind of blockbuster; dumb, cynical, utterly pointless and even offensive.

Let me clarify, I am as far from a movie snob as you can get. I love superhero movies, I have adored Star Wars since I was a child (yes, even the prequels) and I have owned every single James Bond film on VHS, DVD and blu-ray. Heck, my favourite film of all time is ‘The Dark Knight’, a film about a guy who dresses up as a bat to fight a clown! Yet I cannot, for one moment, understand a fraction of the appeal that the Transformer movies have. Even with the Twilight franchise, which I detest with every fibre of my being, I can understand how it appeals to a certain demographic to whom intense young love is a reality. But Transformers, I just can’t see it.

Take the latest installment, Age of Extinction. It is a noisy, boring film where pretty much nothing of note happens and it goes on for an agonisingly long 165 minutes. The single positive I can bring myself to say about this movie is that Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager (a common name) is a slightly easier character to emotionally invest in than Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky. At a push you could praise the film for spending enough time introducing the human characters in the first act that you kind of just about care they don’t die.

Everything else is mind-numbingly dull. The plot of the film is both convoluted and stupid and rarely bothers to make sense. Transformers are now being hunted and destroyed by the US government because of the destruction caused to Chicago in the third movie (fair enough really) but the government isn’t distinguishing between Autobots and Decepticons (if you’re thinking this may have some thematic power, don’t get your hopes up.) This is because the CIA wants to assist Transformer bounty hunter Lockdown capture Optimums Prime who now has a price on his head. Throw into that mix the company KSI who are building their own Transformers and the revelation that the dinosaurs were actually made extinct by the Transformer ‘creators’ and you have an over-packed plot that still feels too slight.

I can only assume the main appeal of the film is the huge action set pieces where Transformers level entire cities fighting each other. The trouble is there is absolutely zero tension and investment in watching giant robots slugging it out. There is no thematic weight to their conflict; Decepticons appear to be straight up assholes that simply need to be destroyed while the Autobots are all basic hero caricatures who I could not care less about. In fact the single moment of actual investment for me as a viewer came not during a free-for-all brawl but during a smaller moment where Cade’s daughter has a gun placed against her head and is given ten seconds to live unless Cade tells the agents where Prime is. Prime, meanwhile, is hiding and is remotely interesting as a character for those few moments because he actually has something resembling an internal conflict; reveal himself or let the human die. The large scale battles are just headache inducing noise. Compare this to the final action sequence in Avengers Assemble, which is both well directed and complete with characters we can care about, and I simply don’t understand why Transformers needs to exist anymore.

The script is also embarrassing. One agent when confronted for not having a warrant replies, ‘my face is my warrant’…what? Plus, to add salt to the wound, the whole thing is borderline offensive. The Transformer Drift, for example, is an Asian caricature which makes absolutely no sense in the Transformer universe. But worst of all is the sexist way the film handles Cade’s daughter Tessa, played by Nicola Peltz. There is no denying that Peltz is a stunning screen presence but she is there purely as eye candy. She is continuously in danger and continuously yelling ‘daaaaaad’ (in one instance, when agents are approaching her home, she yells ‘daaaad’ as if she is a human siren rather than an actual character). At best she enables the men in the film to save the day and the way she moves from the protection of her dad to the protection of her boyfriend is damn right creepy. Of course this is nothing new, Megan Fox wasn’t in the first two movies because of her acting, but the fact that Peltz is so young and playing the main character’s daughter makes it all the more uncomfortable when the camera leers at her body.

Ultimately I think it is quite unfair to argue critics are out of touch and prejudiced against blockbusters. Transformers movies are not given a hard time because they are mainstream, they are given a hard time because they are dumb, cold, witless, cynical and offensive. Why we as an audience keep flocking to see them, I don’t understand. It isn’t my place to tell people what they should or shouldn’t like, but I think the film critics have this one right; we really are handing over our hard earned money to gorge on garbage. But what do I know? Film goers have spoken and there’s another two Transformers heading our way…lucky us.

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