Aquaman (2018) – Movie Review

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I’ve been big fan of Aquaman ever since I started reading about his adventures in DC Comics (hah, Adventure Comics) when I was a very young kid. I grew up on an island where the ocean was the centre of my universe, its all I knew, so reading stories about heroes fighting crime in these large concrete jungles in parts of the world I’d never visited was completely alien to me. You’re basically telling me tales of people living on the moon, and I couldn’t relate to that. But, heroes that fought crime in the ocean? That was literally my backyard and something that my young mind could wrap its head around.

The other part of the story that resonated with me was Arthur’s bi-racial and bi-cultural background. He had a foot in both worlds, but was treated like an outsider by each one. That was also a feature of my childhood, growing up as a minority on an island without much of a tie to the culture of the majority.

So, Aquaman was my guy.

The thing that impressed me the most about the film was the ambitiousness of the filmmakers. They didn’t hold back at all when making this movie. Given the underperformance and tepid reception of the DCU films to date (with the exception of Wonder Woman), it’s reasonable to expect that the studio would have scaled back the production budget and made a smaller film to reduce their risk and ensure that it turned a profit. But, they didn’t. They fully committed to the project and it shows; this is a very expensive looking movie.

The other thing that impressed me was how closely the film sticks to the source material. Based upon the rebooted DC Comics New 52 series from the creative team of Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis and Paul Pelletier, they changed very little from the book. Inculcating Jason’s Hawaiian heritage into the role of Arthur Curry and changing the sequence of events around Atlanna’s time spent on the surface world with Tom Curry (which is cleaner and works better than the comic book) are the only deviations, the rest is exactly like the source material.

In this day and age where they’re trying to generate broad appeal amongst an audience that has a casual relationship with the character and his world, that’s no small feat.

The filmmakers also give us the viewing audience an extensive look at Aquaman’s universe, taking us from his birthplace in Amnesty Bay to Atlantis and then on to all (or most) of the remaining undersea kingdoms all while introducing us to the main characters from those places. This could have easily caused the film to feel overstuffed, but it doesn’t. It really felt like world building, which is something that Marvel has done very well with the MCU, and that allows them to tell stories beyond the typical origin stories going forward. I think this is really important for the ongoing viability of the character because not a lot of people are familiar with him and his universe.

All that said, it is a bit of a silly movie, but in a good way. At no point during the film did I find it hard to suspend my disbelief. It wasn’t trying to be anything other than what it is; a big, bombastic summer blockbuster tentpole movie. You’re not going to find Shakespeare here, but you will find a superhero fantasy film with a little Greek mythology, Lord of The Rings, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and a smattering of horror elements. It blends together seamlessly and creates something unique amongst the superhero genre, not to mention unique amongst the typical origin story we’ve seen many times.

The bottom line is that this movie is fun and engaging, visually stunning with great action sequences supported by a compelling enough story without leaning too heavily on comic book tropes, all while staying very faithful to the source material.

This is for me the best DCU movie to date and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next installment with James Wan at the helm.

 

5 out of 5 stars

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Captain Marvel (2019) – Movie Review

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There’s been a lot of excitement surrounding the release of this movie with one side wanting it to do well to support their camp, and the other side wanting it to fail to support theirs.

I don’t care about that either way (but I will take this opportunity to be a little provocative and use an OG Captain Marvel image on this post instead of the current movie poster). I just want to be entertained by a good superhero movie which continues the story that Marvel has been telling for the last 10 years. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of the better ones. I found it to be very mediocre and forgettable. And that’s really as charitable as I can be with this movie.

Brie Larson certainly looks the part, but based upon her performance it seems like she was miscast in the role. Her time on screen is spent vacillating between looking indifferent and an unidentifiable expression, which many have attributed to smugness, for most of the movie. Personally I found it to be a bit off-putting and not only was the Carol Danvers character unlikable as a result, it also kept pushing me out of the movie by making it hard to suspend my disbelief.

Unfortunately, it goes downhill from here.

The underlying subtext of the movie is female empowerment, which is fine. Comic books are allegories, and always have been, at least when it comes to Marvel Comics. It’s one of the (many) things I love about comics, but there’s a fine line when creating these kinds of stories. They still have to be relatable and engaging, and ultimately entertaining, which is something that the comic book industry does quite well (for the most part). If you lean a little too far towards the underlying subtext then it looks a little ham-fisted and people perceive it as propaganda. And that’s what happens here; it’s so busy trying to be a feminist film that it forgets to be a superhero movie.

It’s clear that Marvel (and ultimately Disney) is trying to capitalise on the current zeitgeist, which is a bit of a departure for them. Past efforts have been focused more on telling entertaining stories which remained reasonably faithful to the source material. This movie doesn’t do that and as such has a different look and feel than its predecessors. So much so that it doesn’t really feel like a Marvel movie at all.

An unfortunate side effect of this are the changes made to existing characters, both from the source material and the MCU itself. In this movie Nick Fury doesn’t resemble the character we’ve seen over the course of his appearances in 11 of the MCU movies. His character is not bad within the context of the narrative they’re trying to support, but his actions are not congruent with what we’ve seen and know about that character. On the back of that, having him lose his eye to a cat is a disservice to the character and shows that the filmmakers don’t really have any respect for the source material or, I would argue, the fans.

It’s the casual fan base which underwrites the financial viability of these movies, not the fringe elements. When you dogmatically service these elements specifically, on one side or the other, you risk marginalizing the culture we love by forcing out this casual fan base.

Personally, I enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel much more as a female empowerment movie. These two films essentially have the same plot, but the execution of the story, of the allegory, is done more competently in Alita with characters that are more fully formed, coupled with superior performances from the actors. It’s a superior movie in every way and I recommend seeing this one instead and giving Captain Marvel a miss.

 

1 out of 5 stars

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – Movie Review

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The worlds of superhero movies and superhero comics are not as similar as they seem on the surface. Currently, film studios are all about the “extended universe”, seeing how many different titles and characters they can shove into one franchise (Avengers, X-Men, Justice League), making for an easy way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of their lesser known properties. Comics have this as well, of course. However, they also have something modern movies haven’t really tapped into yet: story one-offs, a chance for a storyteller to create a unique tale and not be constrained by the implications on or from the larger universe. Spider-Verse gets to do just that, while playfully taking on the fun (if convoluted) absurdity of extended superhero universes. Listen, I hear you. “How could we possibly need another Spider-Man movie?” Spider-Verse understands that question and has a take on it. Yes, Peter Parker is here. In fact, there are two Peter Parkers. There’s also a Spider-Woman, a Noir Spider-Man, an anime Spider-Girl/Robot, and a Spider-Pig. At the center though is Miles Morales, an Afro-Hispanic Brooklyn teen who must help these other Spider-People get back to their own planes of existence. He fights with his cop dad, he adores his shady uncle, hates being simply the smartest kid in the room, and just wants to do something that matters. Being Spider-Man wasn’t his idea, but hey, when a radioactive spider gives you powers, what choice do you have? Look, I don’t have any sort of hot take on this movie. It looks great, the humor pops with surprises, the voice casting is beyond perfect. It’s simply a stylishly exciting and refreshingly unique take on the superhero genre, and sometimes that’s more than enough.

 

4 out of 5 stars

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Justice League (2017) – Movie Review

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I went into Justice League, DC’S most recent grab at Marvel’s success, with trepidation. Other than Wonder Woman, each DCEU film has left me somewhere between “meh” and “ugh”. Even when Joss Whedon (Avengers) came in to help a grieving Snyder finish the movie, their exponentially different styles worried me, and that worry was mostly justified. Yes, Whedon’s wit does bring a welcome shine to the gloomy proceedings and, unlike Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, keeps this movie from being an all-out slog. Still, it’s an awkward epic that can’t overcome the franchise’s dark doldrums. Just like every other superhero movie ever made, a charisma-less and bland villain with limitless power appears, bent on destroying Earth because of “reasons”. Superman still dead, the world must depend on lesser heroes to save them. Affleck is still a pretty good Batman, Flash is light-hearted fun, Aquaman is kinda cool, Cyborg is dull and dour, and Wonder Woman is still the standout. There are still certainly some interesting moments between the characters, but they’re mostly overshadowed by superhero-ethic clichés, stupid drama, bad CGI, and nonsensical logic (why are these guys such quick allies?) There really is just so much that doesn’t work: specific jokes, bad visuals, interpersonal relationships, muddy action, plot predictability. The main problem, though, is that DC and Warner Bros. think, through their previous films, they’ve given us enough reasons to care about this universe, and they haven’t. The positives here, mainly just seeing these heroes together on-screen, have left me mildly curious about the future of the franchise, but only barely. Otherwise, Justice League is easily the worst superhero movie of the year.

 

2 out of 5 stars

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) – Movie Review

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Director Zack Snyder has proved to be the Kryptonite of this new DC universe. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is classic Snyder: visually adept yet narratively and thematically senseless. With two of the most compelling and popular characters in the world, numerous questions about purpose and responsibility are aimlessly wasted. Throw in resplendent amounts of religious and political imagery, and way too many dream sequences, and what we’re left with is a sad mishandling of what should be a powerful and (ahem) entertaining film. The opening is fantastic, as we watch Bruce Wayne and others reel from the disasters perpetrated by Superman in Man of Steel. Unfortunately from there, things go downhill fairly quickly, as story clichés (Kryptonite) and lame coincidences (Bruce and Clark’s mom have the same name! Wow!) fill a convoluted plot. Worst yet, this “action” film is overstuffed with unending amounts of ethical speeches and monologues in place of actual character connections. DC’s desperation to right their own wrongs in the destruction in Man of Steel becomes embarrassing (“Luckily that island was deserted”). Even when we aren’t being lazily spoken at or having our emotions ineffectively manipulated, the set-pieces are largely insipid and boring. As for the pluses, Affleck is great as Batman, giving a unique turn as a sloppier, older, and angrier Dark Knight. Also, for the very little we see of Gadot’s Wonder Woman, it creates an excited eagerness for her stand-alone film. However, BvS as a whole has less in common with its positives than with Eisenberg’s poorly-casted Lex Luthor: frantic, ill-thought, desperate, and truly awful.

 

2 out of 5 stars

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X-Men: First Class (2011) – Movie Review

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After two disappointing instalments, X-Men fans needed some heroes themselves, people who could revitalise the series and luckily, we got that with the director of the first two films and the man who was originally picked to direct X-Men: The Last Stand. The Bryan Singer/Matthew Vaughn combo was able to give the series the kick it needed, making a fun and action-packed film.

In 1962, the privileged Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has graduated from Oxford University with a PhD in Genetics and has a very close relationship with his adopted sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). On the other side of the coin is Erik Lehnsherr (the always awesome Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust surviving, hunting Nazis around the world, overall badass. Both are recruited by CIA agent Moira MacTarget (Rose Byrne) to help stop the Hellfire Club, lead by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his group of powerful mutants; Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez). As the Hellfire Club manipulates the United States and the Soviet Union towards nuclear war, Charles and Erik go on their own recruiting drive to train mutants for their team, including Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Alex Summers (Lucas Till), and Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz).

From what should have been a disaster of a film, Vaughn pulled it out of the bag and made a really fun summer blockbuster. Compared to Singer’s whose X-Men movies were dark, in both story and style, Vaughn made his X-Men film a lighter and more colourful film, with a strong mix of drama and comedy, very much like Spider-man and Iron Man. Because of the quick production time some of the CGI is a bit ropey, but Vaughn proves himself a talented director with a great visual style, from his montages that interject comic book visuals to his action scenes. Vaughn ensures that there is plenty of mutant versus mutant action and just like in the Singer films, mutants use their powers logically. Some of the comedy is predictable, but still funny and the action scenes were tense, unlike Brett Ratner’s approach in X-Men: The Last Stand who broke up action sequences with humour.

The plot itself is very similar to the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, since it comes down to an outside force trying to start a war for their own ends. Continuing with the Bond film there is a certain feel in the early part of the film with Erik’s global travelling and the scene with Moira in bra and panties, which was very much like something from a Bond or even Austin Powers movie.

X-Men: First Class is a film that focuses on characters and relationships, a strength of any good action film, or as I see it, an X-Men film with action in it. There are strong ideologies being formed with Shaw taking the place of Magneto in this world. There are also ideas about how government circles and intelligence agencies would react to the discovery of a new breed of humanity. The Nazi Scientist was very much like the Emperor in Star Wars, pretty much saying “let the anger consume you”.

What X-Men: First Class needed in order to be successful was a strong chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender, which we got. They have a yin and yang relationship as they share a goal but have two different ways about how to achieve it, yet you can still believe they are friends. Many of the supporting cast members were strong, Bacon is of course, intelligent and powerful with a sinister Southern accent and capably assisted by the beautiful January Jones. Some of the characters were sidelined, but I am sure they will be developed in the sequel.

As a fanboy, I could make a list of things the filmmakers got wrong from the comics and continuity with the first three films, but it was so well made as a stand-alone movie it doesn’t really matter. Really, it’s just as much a reboot as it is a prequel. There are also plenty of cameos that will keep fans happy. X-Men: First Class is the best X-Men film since X2: X-Men United.

 

4 out of 5 stars

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Movie Review

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I love time travel science fiction; however, I’m wary of sequels based in traveling to the past in order to wash away problems created in previous films. The storytellers need to have a strong sense of purpose, some stylish originality, and a good amount of self-awareness in order to pull it off (think Abrams brilliant “Star Trek” reboot). Luckily, Singer has nailed it with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Granted, it teeters on convolution and an over-abundance of comic-lore, but the story plays out gracefully and the characters are a blast. Add impeccable sound design and some top-notch sci-fi action, X-Men:DOFP is a tight and fun superhero romp. X-Men:DOFP follows Wolverine, sent to the past by old Magneto and Professor X to meet up with young Magneto, Professor X and other X-Men in the 1970s, in order to stop an event that sets a course for world war which destroys all mutants and much of civilization itself. Confused? Don’t worry, the Inception-like levels of plot are better focused within the film, and the emphasis is more on the socio-political themes of the first two X-Men: equality, weaponry, freedom. On top of this, the period pieces look outstanding, and the performances are great, especially Fassbender, Dinklage, and Jackman, who is a Godsend as Wolverine. The ultimate selling point here is the action, which while a bit overly violent for its rating, is stellar, especially with some truly unique use of bullet-time slow motion. This helps us overlook the silly and unnecessary over-explanation and exposition spewing. With strong direction, impressive visuals, and taut enthusiasm, X-Men:DOFP is the best X-Men yet.

 

4 out of 5 stars

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