superheroes

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.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Yes yes I know I’m three years late to the party with this one. Missed it at the cinemas, was going to watch it on Netflix at my Mum’s for ages before it was taken off, so I finally rented it at my local DVD place. In a nutshell, I thought it was the strongest Marvel movie I’ve seen by a long margin and the first one I could say I loved since the first Iron Man. If you take out all the superheroing stuff, at the heart it’s a gripping political thriller/1970s-esque spy movie tackling themes of national security vs personal freedom, a debate which is rather timely in the world we live in now.

I haven’t seen the first Captain America movie, but The Winter Soldier helpfully summarises its events for the newbies like myself. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is busy adjusting to the life in the 21st century after spending most of the 20th century asleep, concentrating on workouts and special missions, but no dating just yet. Though he can’t see a life outside of S.H.I.E.L.D., he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of secrecy and lies going on in the organization, despite the assurances of boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that such compartmentalization is for the best. However, when Fury himself is locked out of some top-secret files just before the launch of a new defense project that would give S.H.I.E.L.D. the ability to wipe out potential threats with a push of a button, it becomes clear that something rotten is going on. Who is up to the task of cleaning out the poison?

The movie does lean heavily on the usual spy movie tropes, such as the hero on the run from his own organization, but there are also surprises, brutal and grounded fight choreography, terrific action sequences full of nifty little details, and some compelling emotional drama too (I won’t spoil what it is but suffice to say it’s of the variety that’s pretty much guaranteed to move me). Even when it gets to the obligatory big-scale Marvel third act where things go kaboom, it never feels like it’s something the filmmakers shoved in just because every superhero movie needs a big action-driven finale.

Captain himself is an interesting aberration in today’s comic book movies where heroes are supposed to be flawed or anti-heroic and even Superman can’t just be an earnest corny Superman any more. But his staunch old-fashioned decency is what makes Captain America so endearing, plus the perfect casting of Evans who practically radiates all-American wholesomeness (and is nice to look at, I won’t lie). It helps that he gets to have lively interactions with the supporting characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who make the most out of their screen time. The addition of Robert Redford to the cast as the shady figurehead Alexander Pierce lends the movie a seriously classy touch and he underplays the role nicely.

The only thing that truly sucks in this movie is the Winter Soldier’s Russian, which is pretty bad but oh well I’m used to my native language getting mangled by non-Russian speakers. The Marvel quipping is not done to the obnoxious degree, thank god, though I could have done without a couple of one-liners. There was also one gratuitous lingering shot of Black Widow’s derriere that made me roll my eyes. But really, this movie is awesome. If only all Marvel films were as good.

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.

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.