superhero movie

Wonder Woman

With the quality of the recent DC output, Wonder Woman basically needed to be merely decent and competent to qualify as the best of the bunch. And compared to something like Suicide Squad, Patty Jenkins’s film is an outright revelation, but to someone who’s had their fill of merely decent superhero movies, it comes off as mostly rote and by-the-numbers origin story except that, this time, it stars a female superhero. Which yes yes is a cause for celebration, but I just wish there was more to distinguish this movie other than its femaleness.

If there’s anything in the film I could freely gush about, it’s Gal Gadot’s charismatic, star-making turn as Diana (who is never actually referred to as Wonder Woman in the movie, but nevermind). While I’m undecided whether she’s in fact a good actress, it doesn’t matter when she owns the role in a way rarely seen onscreen, and her acting limitations are in a strange way suited for the character. A protagonist who is pretty much perfect in every way except for their naivety can be a terrible pious bore when done badly, and utterly irresistible when done right; I loved how good, empathetic and earnest Diana was and how the film handled its uplifting message without a shade of cynicism. More than anything else, it’s fantastic to see a female superhero who is also unabashedly feminine. In one of the movie’s most wonderful moments, Diana, who’s just arrived to London, rushes away to coo delightedly over a stranger’s baby – a human instinct that is, more specifically, typically female.

A great lead character however is not quite enough, and the story is where Wonder Woman feels thin. It starts well enough on the all-female island of Themyscira where Diana grows up as the daughter of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and receives training from her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, who is the second-best thing in the film and deserves her own badass prequel). Themyscira is one of the film’s loveliest settings, looking like a fabulous Mediterranean island straight from the Greek mythology, even if the CGI effects make it look a tad unnatural.

Blissfully unaware of the outside world beyond her magically protected island, Diana gets a rude shock when, one day, a plane crashes near the shore bearing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a soldier and spy who tells the Amazons about the devastation of the Great War. Believing the bloodthirsty god of war Ares, the sworn enemy of the Amazons, responsible for corrupting the minds of men, Diana leaves with Steve in hope of finding and defeating Ares. In her innocence, Diana thinks that, with Ares gone, men will be good again and cease all fighting; no prizes for guessing whether this black-and-white view of the world gets ruthlessly shattered before the end.

There’s some nice fish-out-of-water humour in Diana’s encounters with the 1910s London, but this is also where the film shifts the focus to Chris Pine’s character and a subplot involving deadly mustard gas, neither of which are terribly compelling. I enjoyed Pine’s turn as Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek series, but his performance here didn’t work for me: he’s too smarmy to be a straightforward good guy, yet not cocky and smarmy enough to be a charming rogue either. As a result, Diane and Steve’s talky scenes and romance felt rather like a chore to sit through. The forgettable gang of supporting characters Steve recruits for their journey to the war front have their ethnicities to distinguish them (Scottish, Native American and Arab) and little else. Villains are introduced in the form of a barking German general (Danny Huston) and his sinister chemist henchwoman, Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). While the latter has a striking look to her and starts off intriguing (especially as it dispenses with the stereotype of women as uniformly nurturing and compassionate), Doctor’s character unfortunately doesn’t go anywhere interesting.

I’ve seen complaints about the ending of the film turning into the usual overwrought CGI extravaganza, but to my surprise I honestly didn’t mind it, nor the fact that Ares doesn’t get much of a characterisation. While I had some issues with him, Ares worked fine for me as less of a three-dimensional character and more like an obstacle or test for Diana. What bothered me way more is that, for someone who believes men to be essentially good and acting under an evil influence, Diana seems to have zero regret for the many German soldiers she kills during the course of the film. Because this is a summer blockbuster, our heroes must have faceless fodder they can mow down without regrets in a kickass action scene, but I found the use of WWI as a setting for this sort of sequence a tad distasteful, particularly when the movie itself gives the hero a solid reason to have compassion for the slain. Also, the overuse of slo-mo got a bit obnoxious; it was cool when 300 did it but 300 came out more than ten years ago, guys.

Wonder Woman is rightly praised for giving the world a charismatic, strong, likeable heroine for the ages (I would so play as Diana if I saw this as a little girl), I just really wish she was in a less formulaic and safe movie.

Catwoman

catwomanI’ve heard so many bad things about this movie over the years I always had a perverse wish to watch it… and yeah it’s as awful as they say. As far as superhero movies go, this is total kitty litter.

I’ve no idea why they tried so hard to make Halle Berry into an action star back in the 00s – yes the woman is drop-dead gorgeous and can turn in a good performance if her Oscar is anything to go by, but she’s got zero presence required for an action-oriented role with her soft face and a soft voice. Here in Catwoman she plays Patience, a shy and sensitive young woman who works as a graphic designer and wears dowdy, aggressively horrible outfits. I can just see the director instructing the costume designer: please give me the most hideous, mismatched, sexless outfit you can think of, so the audience knows this woman is in for a sexy makeover. One day, Patience sees a cat sitting on a ledge outside of her apartment window, and instead of acting like a normal person and, I don’t know, calling for someone with a ladder, she climbs outside like a lunatic and tries to rescue the animal by herself. The cat needs no saving whatsoever, but Patience ends up being rescued by a hunky cop called Tom (Benjamin Bratt), who of course fancies her immediately.

Meanwhile, the cosmetics company that employs Patience, run by the obviously evil power couple Laurel and George (Sharon Stone and Lambert Wilson), are on a verge of releasing their new cosmetics product with a dark secret, which Patience inadvertently discovers one night. She is promptly killed off, but the cat Patience had attempted to rescue shows up with her posse of presumably non-magical felines and literally breathes in new life into her, in a laughably fake CGI sequence (like everything else, CGI in this movie sucks). Soon, Patience discovers her new powers, like keen senses, superhuman agility and reflexes, together with an overwhelming urge to drink milk, hiss at dogs and sleep on the shelves, which looks just as stupid as it sounds. She also transforms into a brand-new badass confident woman who takes no shit from no one, hear her meow! To show just how liberated she is, Patience puts on some bright lippy and squeezes herself into a ludicrous dominatrix costume designed for the benefit of hormonal teenage boys, and goes on a quest of revenge and random jewelry theft, which complicates things with her cop would-be boyfriend.

I should mention the one and only thing I liked about the movie, as a certified cat obsessive, and that’s the stunning silver Egyptian Mau cat that follows Patience around. My friend has a couple of Egyptian Maus and they’re simply exquisite creatures.

Everything else in this movie is terrible: one-dimensional characters, thin semblance of a story, romance with zero chemistry, clunky dialogue, you name it. The worst offender for me though was the editing, which is probably the most shockingly inept editing I’ve seen in a major blockbuster, with pointless zooms and a million random quick cuts in a simple dialogue scene. God it gave me a headache; it’s like the film is so nervous your attention will drift that even when it’s just showing a character talking it will cut to… the same character talking. If anything it makes me appreciate someone like Baz Luhrmann whose frenetic editing might be exhausting at times but feels like something done by a guy who knows what he’s doing. Halle Berry does ok as the meek Patience but her attempts at being all vampy and kickass are rather embarrassing to watch. And while this would not be her only dud role, rubbing catnip all over your face surely has got to be the nadir of anyone’s career.

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-1By and large, Marvel superhero movies always feel like eating candy floss to me: they’re fun and high on in-the-moment sugar hit, but they melt away from memory just as quickly and there’s really not much substance there, even in terms of big blockbuster substance. Doctor Strange is pretty much more candy floss, but at least it’s spiked with some weird and trippy substances, and the rich, inventive, mind-bending visuals do a lot to lift a standard cookie-cutter plot.

Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is basically Tony Stark MKII – a successful arrogant jerk who becomes a hero after going through severe hardships. In this case, Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon with a penchant for only taking on cases that are difficult but not too hopeless so as not to blemish his record. After suffering a horrific car crash that mangles his hands, he decides to put his faith into alternative medicine and travels to Kathmandu. There he discovers a secret society of warrior mystics, led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who have powers of bending space and time and travelling through the multiverse. Of course there’s also danger afoot, with one of The Ancient One’s former students Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) planning to destroy the world… in order to save it… or something… whatever. Other than Loki, Marvel has never really been successful at memorable villains, and Kaecilius is yet another case of wasting a top-notch, uniquely gifted actor in a nothing role.

Speaking of wasted, poor Rachel McAdams is saddled with one of the most throwaway and thankless love interest roles I’ve seen in movies. Other supporting cast fare better but don’t exactly have much to chew on, though Tilda Swinton’s customary oddness and a way with a cutting remark is always welcome. I understand her casting has caused some controversy since the part was originally that of a Tibetan man, and it’s really hard to see why the filmmakers decided that whitewashing was preferable to a well-worn Asian stereotype. It makes no sense to keep the exotic Asian location and the eastern mysticism, then balk at using an actual Asian person as the leader.

As mentioned before, Strange really does come off as Tony Stark’s doppelganger, even when it comes to delivering Stark-like quips, but thankfully Cumberbatch is too much of a distinctive and enchantingly strange presence (pardon the pun) to be a mere copy. Though he’s always engaging to watch, I thought that Strange’s character arc was rather muddled. He is told repeatedly throughout the movie that he must surrender his ego and that it’s not all about himself, but then the movie pretty much justifies his ego and arrogance when he turns out to be right about far too many things. It eventually does culminate in a gesture of self-sacrifice, but the scene, as amazing and clever as it is on other levels, is played as light and fun which negates the sense of any real stakes or suffering. There’s a moment where Strange’s actions cause a loss of life, leading to a supposed moral conflict with his oath not to do harm as a doctor… which would have worked if there was any prior indication that he took the tenets of his profession seriously. But because the movie’s opening portrays him as a selfish prick who’s only in it for fame and ego, it feels contrived. The movie falls into the trap where a character is written to fit the plot and serve individual moments, rather than to create a consistent and satisfying arc.

The visuals however… oh my the visuals. It’s not just that they’re “pretty” – Doctor Strange has fun with alternate dimensions, time flow, astral bodies and worlds unbound to laws of physics in the most unbridled, joyful way I’ve ever seen in a live-action movie. There’s one sequence that looks like Inception on acid and 50 cans of Red Bull, and others seem inspired by M.C. Escher’s bizarre mathematical artwork and 70s prog rock album covers. There’s a touch of sitar in the final credits soundtrack and I was beyond thrilled to hear a track from Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn during the film. I also have to give the movie mad props for having its hero actually outsmart the villain in an ingenious fashion, rather than ending in yet another boring punch-up, and managing the exposition about all sorts of magical mumbo-jumbo in a fairly fluid way. The sheer visual creativity on display does compensate a lot for the banal plot and undercooked characters, but I hope that, with the origin story out of the way, the writers lift their game in the inevitable sequel.

X-Men: Apocalypse

xmenapocalypseimax-1There’s a scene in this movie where a bunch of young students from Xavier’s school discuss Return of the Jedi and one of them remarks that the third movie is always the worst, a knowing wink to the audience that was probably meant to refer to X-Men: The Last Stand, the much-hated third entry of the original X-Men trilogy. A movie’s gotta be careful with a line like this in case it comes to bite it on its ass, and man does it come to bite, hard. It’s not just the worst film in the trilogy that got started in the 60s with X-Men: First Class, I’m tempted to call it the worst X-Men film ever made, if only for the fact that it was the first time I was bored watching an X-Men movie. This disappointment doesn’t exactly come as a surprise seeing that I wasn’t a big fan of Days of Future Past, the previous offering from the writer Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer, which flattened most of the great character work seen in First Class, wasted or underused most of its cast and was full of dumb contrivances. Still, I had hopes that, with the continuity now reset courtesy of the time travel plot, something new and different will be done with the franchise, but nope, instead Apocalypse feels like a tedious, messy, over-familiar rehash of the elements seen in these series over and over again.

Much of the problem lies with the titular character of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant who is awakened from his rest in the 80s and decides to destroy the world… for some reason. The character is a disaster in every respect: terrible design with ridiculous rubbery facial make-up, lack of presence and clear motivations, powers that are never clearly defined, dialogue that consists of pompous villain speeches and empty platitudes. He comes off less like an intimidating foe and more like a cheesy villain-of-the-week from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s also never clear why exactly he needs to recruit a posse of mutants that come to be known as Horsemen and include familiar faces like Storm and Magneto, and why they would join him on his destruction quest. This guy is the biggest waste of top acting talent in a villain role since Spectre.

Speaking of Magneto, as much as I loved his origin story in First Class, I had wondered what they were going to do with a character whose story was essentially over in the very first film. My worries proved to be correct, because Kinberg and Singer clearly have no idea how to move the character forward in an organic fashion; instead he is basically reset at the start of every new film according to what the plot requires. Here, Erik starts off the movie by living a quiet life in Poland with an adorable wife and young daughter and their equally adorable fluffy chickens. How did a fiery, militant mutant leader with supremacist views come to have a (presumably) human wife and abandon his life’s cause? Your guess is as good as mine. Bottom line is, the writers wanted Magneto to have a sympathetic reason for joining Apocalypse, and you can easily guess what’s going to happen to his wife and daughter. It’s a shame that this is all so contrived, because Michael Fassbender does some fine work in these early Magneto scenes. As soon as Magneto becomes Apocalypse’ henchman however, you can practically see the light go out of his eyes and boredom set in.

The tense, complicated relationship between Magneto and James McAvoy’s Professor X was the heart and soul of First Class but it’s become increasingly sidelined and stale since, and here it’s reduced to a couple of scenes with McAvoy and Fassbender reciting the same dialogue we’ve heard from these characters million times before. For some reason, Singer also decided to resurrect the barely-there romance between Professor X and Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert, which results in some cringeworthy scenes with Professor X reduced to a giggling schoolboy. Other First Class mainstays don’t fare much better: Nicholas Hoult’s Beast hasn’t progressed anywhere since the first film and has precious little to do here; while Jennifer Lawrence at times barely hides her disinterest in playing Mystique, the shape-shifting mutant whose character arc here is a repeat of First Class (Mystique hides her true shape because…. reasons, then comes to embrace her true blue appearance).

It’s a pity that the movie doesn’t instead spend more time with the new additions to the series, because the new cast playing the younger versions of the familiar characters – Jean, Scott, Nightcrawler – are easily the brightest spot of the film and have nice camaraderie when the movie lets their characters breathe a bit. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, who was the best thing about Days of Future Past, has a bigger part and is still delightful, even though his super-speed sequence here feels too much like a calculated rehash of the similar, genuinely inspired scene in the previous film, and Quicksilver’s mugging rather undercuts the seriousness of the situation.

The film has a weird structure where it spends ages setting up the multiple characters and jumping between various storylines (lessening the impact of each as a result), before rushing straight to the climax without a second act in between. What could pass for a second act here is a bizarre detour that has nothing to do with the main storyline, and feels instead like a clumsy attempt to shoehorn in a brief pointless cameo from a much-loved character. The final climatic battle – because every superhero movie has to have one – is an unremarkable CGI-fest where presumably millions of people die and major landmarks get destroyed (goodbye, Sydney Opera House), with minimum emotional impact. It’s impossible to feel the global stakes when the movie makes it look like it’s only ten or so people you’re supposed to feel concern about. The social commentary that had always distinguished the series is virtually non-existent here, and nothing much is made of the 80s setting other than the fashions and a track by Eurythmics.

In the end, I wouldn’t write off these series yet, as the acting talent involved is enormous, but what it badly needs is a decent screenwriter and a director who can bring a fresh vision to the franchise and its characters. I’ll always be grateful to Singer for X1 and X2 and unleashing the hotness of Hugh Jackman upon the universe, but it’s really time for him to go.

The Wolverine

The_Wolverine_(film)_poster_001Watched The Wolverine yesterday on regular TV; I really forgot how annoying the ad breaks are. Luckily a mute button was there for me to make things a little bit better.

I love Hugh Jackman and I love the character, but I skipped the movie during its theatrical release. I still had the foul aftertaste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine in my mouth, a legitimately shitty movie if there ever was one, and the trailers just didn’t look inspiring enough. While The Wolverine is not anywhere as terrible as Hugh Jackman’s first solo outing, it’s still nothing more than mediocre. It’s not exciting enough as an action/thriller and much too superficial to be a thoughtful, mature character study it was obviously aiming to be. In fact the best thing about it is this rather cool Japanese-style poster.

It starts well enough with a gorgeously shot prologue sequence set during World War II, in which Logan saves a Japanese soldier from annihilation during the Nagasaki bombing. Cut to the present day, Logan is a depressed bum living somewhere up north, tortured by the memory of killing Jean Grey at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand. Which is where my big problems started: it’s not exactly this movie’s fault, but I just never bought the idea of Jean being Wolverine’s One True Love. I love X2, but that scene near the end where Logan starts to blubber “she’s gone” honestly makes me cringe every time. As a result, all the angst over her death in The Wolverine fell flat despite Hugh Jackman’s best efforts. The “hero finds himself in the darkest place and must rise” arc can be effective, but if the setup feels phony to start with the whole thing falls apart. I had exactly the same problem with Dark Knight Rises.

Anyway, Logan mopes around until he is tracked down by Yukio, a young Japanese martial arts expert who explains to him that her employer, Ichiro Yashida, the same Japanese man who Logan had saved, is dying and wishes to say goodbye. Once in Japan, Yashida reveals to Logan that he wants to make him a parting gift and make Logan mortal, so that he could have a chance at normal life. Logan also meets the other members of the Yashida clan, including Mariko, Ichiro’s granddaughter, who (duh) immediately catches his eye.

The theme of immortality and its burden is pretty intriguing, even if it’s already been explored in dozens of vampire movies, though I’m not sure why it would be a burden to Wolverine since, being an amnesiac, he can’t actually remember most of his past life. But ok fine, the thought of immortality could be pretty depressing I guess. However, the movie then immediately dumps this theme in favour of Logan getting involved in the intrigues of the Yashida family, and getting all protective over Mariko. Also, the minute the dying old man tells Logan that his powers of regeneration can be transferred to someone else, I immediately figured out where this was all going. Let’s see, is there a character in this movie badly in need of regenerative powers? Why I believe there is! From then on, it’s just about sitting through the family machinations and chases and fights and a lame romance and more fights until everything is revealed in a very silly third act. I suppose the makers of the movie thought it would be fascinating to take Wolverine’s healing powers away and make him more vulnerable, but it doesn’t amount to much. I never felt like the stakes got higher or that Logan was ever in genuine danger.

You can tell that Hugh Jackman is 100% committed to the role, but flashes of laconic humour aside, Wolverine is stuck in the one-note, brooding, glowering mode here, and is nowhere as compelling as he was in Singer’s first two X-Men movies. His romance with Mariko is absolutely lifeless; I’ve been harsh on the Logan/Jean romance just before but at least it had some palpable chemistry and flirtation. Here, Mariko and Logan kiss simply because that’s the spot in the screenplay where characters are supposed to kiss. Far more believable is Logan’s growing friendship with Yukio, who turns out to be a close friend of Mariko’s and also has a gift of seeing into the future. The actress who plays her is a striking girl with almost stylized looks – red hair, huge eyes, triangular face – and if her line delivery is a bit stilted at times it actually adds to the oddness of the character somehow. It’s funny that Logan’s platonic relationships with women in these movies (Rogue and Yukio) are so much more convincing than any of his romances. The most ridiculous character in the whole movie is Viper, a physician employed by Ichiro Yashida, who is also a mutant with snake-like powers. The Russian actress who plays her seems to be under an impression that she’s really playing Poison Ivy in Schumacher’s Batman & Robin; her over-the-top campiness is completely out of place.

The action in the movie was very hit-and-miss. The bullet train sequence was lots of fun, but many of the fight scenes are shot in confusing close-ups and aren’t as exciting as “Wolverine vs. ninjas” sounds in theory. In fact, the scene with the ninjas, which ends with Wolverine walking around like a living pincushion with dozens of arrows in his back before toppling over in a Christlike pose, is unintentionally hilarious. I did like the Japanese setting, and my favourite piece of set design was the old man’s bed which automatically moulds itself as he sits up or lies down. In the end though, I’m glad I saved myself twenty dollars.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

avengers-age-of-ultronI’m a bit over superhero movies to be honest but I was in a mood for a big blockbuster and they don’t come any bigger than this. Unlike most people it seems I wasn’t a fan of the original Avengers, which, in hindsight, had a lot to do with hype and expectations. It got great reviews, it was written/directed by Joss Whedon, so I was all pumped up to see it expecting something special. Granted, the super team-up concept was special and something we’ve never seen before, but otherwise I thought it was deeply average in all respects and not even particularly fun, with thinly sketched characters, simplistic plot and all the warmth and soul of a business summit. Expectations really make a difference – I went to see Age of Ultron with no expectations whatsoever and ended up enjoying it a great lot more. It had many of the same problems as the first movie, but there was also a whole lot more to like about it.

Ultron is the classic case of technology-gone-wrong, created by Tony Stark in order to keep the entire world safe; needless to say that backfires in a big way as Ultron decides that in order for world peace to happen humanity needs to be wiped out for good. I gotta say, Ultron’s moving mouth was a terrible character design decision. Why on earth would you go to the trouble of creating a big scary robot with the creepy James Spader voice, only to undo it completely with that goofy moving mouth? Same goes for Ultron’s never-ending quips; yes the movie points out that Ultron mirrors his creator which I guess could include Tony’s constant snark, but again, it’s completely at odds with the look of the character which is clearly meant to inspire fear.

Speaking of quips and snark, maybe I’m just a bit over Whedon’s style in general, but they rarely got a chuckle out of me here, and the constant barrage of one-liners and would-be witty responses got well and truly obnoxious in the final battle. Way to undercut tension and pathos; the characters even quip before they die for god’s sake. It reminded me of a Buffy episode in Season 3 (and I’m a big fan of the show) which made me want to scream, could you please cut out the witty crap and just talk like normal people for a bit?

On the plus side, I enjoyed the main characters much more this time around; now that we’re done with introductions and getting-to-know-yous and everybody had settled into the team, it’s fun to watch the Avengers’ interactions and quiet moments. The party scene in which everyone has a go at lifting Thor’s hammer was hilarious. There will probably come a time when Tony Stark feels as stale as Jack Sparrow, but it hasn’t yet and Robert Downey Jr. is still entertaining to watch. Thor is still just kind of there and Captain America doesn’t get that much to do either, but whatever, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans are pretty. Hawkeye was a bit of a nothing character in the first movie, but here he’s given a lot more depth, which was a nice surprise. The Beauty and the Beast romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner sorta comes out of nowhere (and the eventual kiss was rather cheesy), but the actors make it work. As a random aside, somebody please make a 1940-s set noir movie with Scarlett Johansson as the lead.

I loved Paul Bettany’s Vision, an enchantingly strange and angelic creation who is a gamble that initially brings the team to blows. I also liked Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch (despite the rather dodgy Eastern European accent), and while this movie’s Quicksilver is not as much of a showstopper as Evan Peters‘ in Days of Future Past, he worked reasonably well. I was happy not to see Nick Fury as much this time around. Samuel L. Jackson is awesome but I just don’t think he’s a good fit for playing authority figures. He was a bore in Star Wars prequels and I find him bland as Fury as well.

I liked the story much better than in the first Avengers; technology-gone-amok is nothing new but it’s still heaps more interesting than a bunch of boring aliens with vague motivations. There were still heaps of problems though. Everything is way too rushed. The movie throws in some intriguing strands and ideas that are covered with a couple of lines of dialogue and never get explored any further, because the plot has to plot. Also, I am getting tired of the whole franchiseatis and movies setting up things for other future movies. I don’t even get why they bother – am I really going to remember a couple of brief scenes three years later when the next movie comes out? It’s just all unnecessary flab. Still, I look forward to the final two-parter in this series a lot more than I thought I would.