Tag Archives: Marvel

The surprising link between Black Panther and X-Men

14 Feb
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Welcome to Wakanda: the key cast of Black Panther

Black Panther has tapped into an audience normally uninterested in superhero blockbusters. It was striking how, at the first night’s screening at the Brixton Ritzy, the usually overwhelmingly white crowd was majority black.

For my part, I went with my young niece (actually first cousin once removed, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’ll just go with niece). She doesn’t know her Marvel from her DC, and thinks she might have seen Thor but on second thoughts maybe it was Troy, so you can safely say she’s not usually first in line for such films. Black Panther is different. Black Panther is a cultural event, the first mainstream, massive-budget superhero film to feature a largely black cast. As the joke circulating Facebook goes, the only other actors are Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, who both featured in The Hobbit, which makes them the Tolkien white guys.

Does it work? As a film, not altogether. There are huge gobbets of exposition shoved into the first act, all of it daft – a crashed meteorite has left a deposit of “vibranium” in the small African nation of Wakanda, a metal which somehow accelerates technological development and even heals wounds, creating a highly advanced civilisation hidden from view of the wider world. The special effects are occasionally hokey. The filming feels excessively studio-based. The pace lags in parts, as origin stories tend to.

On the plus side, the performances are top-notch, notably Letitia Wright as Black Panther’s sassy scientist sister, and Michael B. Jordan as Black Panther’s rival – more on that in a second. The production design, too, is magnificent. Some of the set pieces and battles are thrilling. Four stars, if I were to reduce it to a score.

But as a seismic cultural event, it’s a very big deal. It shows (hopefully!) that a black cast can find a mass audience. It presents a futurised ideal of African culture, without any attempt to dilute it for a Western audience: from the superb music curated by Kendrick Lamarr, to the fighting styles based on African martial arts, to the set design, costumes, hair and accents. It even has strong (if a tad one-dimensional) female roles.

Before the film, my niece pondered the irony that Hollywood, the biggest propaganda machine for the Western capitalist system, now seemed to be selling revolution. But notwithstanding Black Panther’s huge cultural impact, it seems to me to have a much less radical message.

The central conflict in the film turns out not to be between Black Panther and Andy Serkis’s pantomime villain with a plasma gun for a hand, but instead with a figure from Wakanda’s past who challenges Black Panther for the throne. Black Panther wants peaceful rule, perhaps opening up his kingdom slightly in order to help the poor and the oppressed in the outside world. His rival wants to smash the system, arming the disenfranchised with Wakandan technology to slay and overthrow their rulers across the world. The film clearly presents this as A Bad Idea, and a benevolent, non-democratically-elected king as A Good Idea – so not so revolutionary after all.

As my niece said, one is effectively Martin Luther King, while the other is effectively Malcolm X – which, intriguingly, is the same dynamic that powers all the X-Men films, by pitting Professor Xavier against Magneto.

 

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Benedict Cumberbatch is Strange, but not strange enough

2 Nov
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Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts

“By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, I say thee nay!” I was looking forward to hearing Benedict Cumberbatch wrap his Shakespearean diction round that catchphrase, at once ridiculous and sublime, but the new film of Doctor Strange failed to deliver – just one of several disappointments.

Doctor Strange was always an oddity in the Marvel Universe. Even Thor and his fellow Gods of Asgard sat better with the costumed superheroes than the dimension-spanning, spell-uttering, Eye of Agamotto-wielding Master of the Mystic Arts. The film goes to unnecessary lengths to shoe-horn him into that world, focusing overlong on his progression from man to mystic. Doctor Strange just is, all right? And if it gets weird, well, deal with it.

Given that Doctor Strange was the trippiest of all comics, first published in 1963 and doing as much as the Beatles to define the lysergic beat of that generation, it’s a pity to see its vaulting imagination muted. Worse, it’s derivative.

Strange’s apprenticeship in Kathmandu is like Batman’s in Batman Begins [interestingly, in real life the roles were reversed. As I wrote in my interview with Cumberbatch both on my blog and for  Canadian Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar, he was once a teacher to Tibetan monks]; the bending space performed in the sorcerers’ battles is merely a more elaborate version of the folding cities of Inception; and if it was dumb when Superman turned back time in 1978 as an overly convenient climactic plot device, it’s much dumberer now. Even the most powerful scene in a particularly trippy journey into the astral plane is familiar from a YouTube video in which fingers sprout hands, whose fingers sprout hands, and so on.

An hour after the film, I found myself struggling to recall a truly memorable scene, original idea, or killer line of dialogue. Overall it was… adequate. I enjoyed it. There were good bits. It was well acted. But c’mon, Marvel: next time, take your foot right off the brake. Guillermo del Toro was once down to direct: now that might have been worth seeing. For a sequel, please?

With a bang, not a whimper: X-Men Apocalypse

21 May

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It’s the end of the world, and I feel fine. X-Men: Apocalypse is a toweringly enjoyable addition to the Marvel canon, despite having been met with less than universal raves from critics. It may not have the sheer pizzaz of Deadpool, but it has its funny and self-aware moments (“the third movies always suck,” says one, coming out of Return of the Jedi): and you’d be hard-pushed to beat the bravura sequence in which Quicksilver rescues his fellow mutants before a gigantic explosion hits, still finding time to strike cool poses along the way.

The action set-pieces are the equal of any Marvel film, but it’s not all fights and explosions: there’s plenty of time for some quality emoting from the universally excellent cast. More than that, Bryan Singer conjures some marvellously cinematic moments from the turmoil – unlike with Zak Snyder, slo-mo is used for beauty and awe rather than violence.

I dunno, am I raving too much?

My body says no: a couple of times I realised I’d been sitting on the edge of my seat, jaw dropped open. I laughed out loud a few times.

My head says maybe yes: the plot is pretty stupid, when it’s not non-existent; the villain is cardboard, despite Oscar Isaac’s best efforts; and the ending a little deus ex machina.

But frankly my dear, I had a blast.

Captain America: Civil War has a little help from your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man

29 Apr

 

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Did Harry Hill cause all this? Friends become foes in Captain America: Civil War

Early reviews of Captain America: Civil War have been such raves, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment. Certainly at the IMAX 3D five-minutes-past-midnight screening I went to last night in Leicester Square, the crowd whooped and stayed in droves till the Easter egg at the end of the long, long credits, despite it by then being long after 3am. And certainly it’s a lot better than Batman V Superman, whose premise it uncannily emulates: humans fear superhumans, try to put the dampeners on their tendency to destroy tall buildings with a single bound, and inter-superhero struggle results.

 

But I miss the light touch Joss Whedon brought to the first Avengers movie – an uncannily sure blend of focused plot, mighty action sequences, sparky dialogue, and sometimes unanticipated characterisation. The villainous plot behind Captain America: Civil War is, in the cold light of day, so contrived, silly and unreal to any genuine motivation as to be not remotely worth explaining. And though there are jokes, and thrilling action sequences, there’s little that feels really original or fresh.

Am I asking too much? It’s a sign of Marvel’s extraordinary output that I’m even expecting all these things in a comic-book blockbuster. Definitely it’s terrific fun and definitely it’s worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing; a four-star sort of rating. It takes off big time after a couple of hours, when some unexpected Marvel characters join the clash of clans – including a little help from your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, back with Marvel Studios at last and paving the way for yet another reboot of the franchise in 2017. It’s delicious seeing how each uses his or her special powers to counter the others’.

But to say it’s the best Marvel movie yet (© Empire magazine)? Let’s hope Marvel Studios have more tiger still left in the tank. 

Get On Up: James Brown’s got a brand-new movie bag

20 Nov
Like a sex machine: Chadwick Boseman stayed in character as James Brown through the Get On Up shoot

Like a sex machine: Chadwick Boseman stayed in character as James Brown throughout the Get On Up shoot

Another week, another musical biopic: hot on the Cuban heels of the Hendrix biopic comes James Brown, the trouser-splitting Godfather of Soul. Hollywood seems to love the genre. Stars thus immortalised include Elvis, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Liberace, Ian Curtis, Sid Vicious, the Jersey Boys, Bob Dylan, Notorious B.I.G., Charlie “Bird” Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. Projects in development include Janis Joplin (already played in fictionalised form by Bette Midler in The Rose), Elvis again (by Baz Luhrmann), Kurt Cobain and Freddie Mercury (with Sasha Baron Cohen no longer attached).

Why so? They arrive with existing “brand equity”, ie a previously recognisable name, saving a fortune in marketing. Stars love them: it’s a chance not just to slip into someone else’s skin, but show off their singing and dancing, too. Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash) and Angela Bassett (Tina Turner) were both Oscar-nom’d; Jamie Foxx won as Ray Charles. And these biopics all come with a ready-made arc, the same one as in sporting movies such as Rocky or Raging Bull: youngster triumphs over adversity to find success; throws it away again, along with their friends, through the pressures of fame and the ravages of drug abuse; and eventually (though occasionally real life conspires against this ending) finds redemption.

But that’s also the great problem with them: they are familiar and predictable; the ending is known. So kudos to Get On Up, the James Brown biopic that opens in the UK tomorrow, for at least attempting something different.

As scripted by the brothers Butterworth, Jez and John-Henry, the time periods leap all over the place: Brown’s dirt-poor upbringing with parents who both abandoned him; his time in jail; his trip to play to the troops in ‘Nam; the rampant narcissism that alienates his band; his troubles with the tax man. We slip back and forth more bewilderingly than Mathew McConaughey inside a black hole, with only ever-changing hairstyles to guide us.

Though I applaud the ambition, I can’t say it’s totally successful. The lack of a clear narrative arc, together with Brown’s habit of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, are disengaging. It would take an auteurial vision on the part of the director stronger than Tate Taylor can manage – a Nic Roeg, say – to pull this time-shifting off. The whole thing feels rather stagey, not surprisingly given the Butterworths’ origins as playwrights. The lighting and cinematography are more TV than movie, and there are a few too many lines that play to the gallery: “Don’t tell me when, where or for how long I can be funky”, he tells an officer in ‘Nam who tries to cut his show short; and when his plane gets shot at, “Do you want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”

Get On Up is always watchable and occasionally thrilling, however, both for the music and the extraordinary central performance by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman. He sings, he dances, he does the splits; at one stage during production he had to play a teenaged Brown in jail in the morning, and switch to Brown in his sixties on the same afternoon. He kept in character throughout the shoot. To me, Boseman never quite goes beyond impersonation and into inhabitation of the character – Dan Ackroyd as his kindly manager gives more of a sense of an inner life behind the eyes – but it is an astonishing tour de force. He’s destined for blockbuster fame as the Black Panther in Marvel’s superhero flick, slated for November 2017.

Young Gunn: how I “discovered” the director of Guardians of the Galaxy

7 Aug
Director/writer James Gunn on set of Guardians of the Galaxy

Director/writer James Gunn, now 44, on set of Guardians of the Galaxy

Giving a $150 million movie such as Guardians of the Galaxy to a relatively unknown writer/director was a huge gamble, as I wrote here. James Gunn is a graduate of the Troma school of schlock (see here for my meeting last year with Troma head Lloyd Kaufman), and his chief writing credits previously were on Scooby-Doo. But I’d like to think Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, somehow read my review in The Times a decade ago.

Scooby-Doo 2 did not find favour with most mainstream critics in 2004. It languishes in the IMDB with a pitiful 4.9 rating. But to me, James Gunn’s script fizzed with energy. Here’s an extract from my Times review:

“On the way, something unexpected happens. The film acquires a life beyond the formula. ‘Oh no!’ cries Shaggy, as the monsters begin taking over the town. ‘They’re turning Coolsville into Ghoulsville!’ And, excusing himself from Velma’s potentially criminal boyfriend: ‘We’ve got to make like your personality — and split!’

“In fact, the film is almost too good, piling sensation on to sensation and chase on to chase, until the overall effect is deadening. But all credit to James Gunn, a young veteran of the low-budget Troma studio who also wrote the fine Dawn of the Dead remake, for creating that rare beast — a sequel that improves upon the original. And all credit to the audience for demanding better. Because they might have just remade it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids.”

 

Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel rolls the dice, and…

7 Aug

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Playing poker, like making films, is all about taking calculated risks. Last night I called a £200 re-raise with just a pair, to someone who was representing a straight, because I sensed he might be bluffing. I was right, and doubled up.

Hollywood seems to know all about the calculation, but has forgotten about the risk. This summer’s blockbusters are, yet again, all franchise sequels (22 Jump Street, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Expendables 3) or properties with existing brand recognition (Hercules). So when a new film by a relatively untried but hugely talented director (James Gunn) gets a mammoth budget, forgive us jaded viewers if we go a bit ga-ga.

Guardians of the Galaxy, currently scoring 8.8 on IMDB, is every bit as fun as people say it is: brash, colourful, irreverent, risky, and both incredibly smart and incredibly dumb at the same time. As a tiny example, Stan Lee gets a Hitchcockian cameo in every Marvel movie. Usually it’s something pretty innocuous, but here the revered 91-year-old founder of Marvel is shown talking to a pretty girl young enough to be his great-granddaughter, at which a wise-cracking alien raccoon comments: “What a Class-A Pre-vert.” Or this: the climactic battle scene turns on a moving plea from the roguish leader of the Guardians: “I am an A-hole but I’m not 100% a dick.” If Shakespeare were alive today – and smoking a lot of dope – he could surely do no better.

Yes, there are spectacular action scenes and spaceships and explosions and aliens and strange new worlds. But it’s the left-field dialogue and characters that really sing. The closest comparison might be Avengers Assemble, also brilliantly scripted. But that was based on established, well known superheroes who had already been set up over the course of multiple movies. Guardians was not a comic many people read or knew about; the film seems to have come out of nowhere.

All credit, then, to Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios. In 2008, I interviewed Feige for The Times on the eve of the biggest gamble of his career. Instead of licensing their comics to studios who barely understood them in return for a fee, he reckoned Marvel could do better. So he bet the company’s future on a $550 million loan to fund an initial three movies. It worked. The first, Iron Man, took over half a billion dollars worldwide; Avengers Assemble, which in 2012 brought all their different superhero movies together, made over $1.5 billion.

With figures like these, it would be tempting to stick with a sure thing. But Feige rolled the dice once again, pitting the full might of Marvel behind a much quirkier, edgier, cultish sort of film. It’s paid off in spades: Guardians of the Galaxy had by far the biggest August opening in Hollywood history, taking $172 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

So c’mon, execs. Lighten up a little. Take some risks. Give us something fresh. And who knows? You might just get another franchise to milk out of it. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is already slated for summer 2017.

See also: how I “discovered” the young James Gunn