Monday, June 10, 2024

Cinemutants - X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.
 
This week, from 2014, it’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past to save their future from mutant-killing Sentinel robots. In 1973, Wolverine has to bring together a despondent Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the incarcerated Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the inventor of the Sentinels.

  1. Securing our future. We can argue about whether this is the best X-Men movie (it’s easily top three), but there’s no debating the fact that this is the most X-Men movie. Two casts, parallel timelines, ready-made comics inspiration, and a continuity fix that only muddles the waters even further: Days of Future Past has everything an X-fan could want. While the change-the-past plot was intended to smooth over any errors in the timeline (or, at least, provide a plausible excuse for them), it only exposes the gossamer of the plot to brutal scrutiny. By the end of the film, just how much of the past has Logan undone? (Director Bryan Singer is at least erasing The Last Stand, but there’s a wink toward expunging X-Men Origins: Wolverine, as well.) You might still need a chart to understand how all the films relate to each other, but I’ll argue next week that, as far as time travel and continuity are concerned, Days walked so Deadpool could run.
  2. Infinite outcomes. Along with being the apex X-Men movie, Days of Future Past provides something so unique that only the superhero genre can do. As incredible as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan were, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender were equally inspired casting choices. And in virtually any other genre, you’d never have an opportunity to put them on-screen together; imagine a Godfather movie that saw Marlon Brando meet Robert De Niro, or a James Bond movie where Daniel Craig teams up with Pierce Brosnan. Another way Days cues up Deadpool is by implying that both versions exist out there somewhere, simultaneously; future films followed both Professors Xavier, and it’s inconceivable that Deadpool & Wolverine won’t see other iterations (or “variants,” in MCU-speak) of recognizable characters. Let’s hope the new castings are just as good. 
  3. It all starts with her. In the comics, Kitty Pryde is the one traveling back in time to warn the X-Men about averting the future; here, though, it’s got to be Wolverine, both for the practical needs of the plot and for the fact that Hugh Jackman continues to be an audience favorite for his literal embodiment of the character. (The movie finds a creative way to keep Kitty relevant to the plot.) Meanwhile, the target of the future remains unchanged; it’s still Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence at the peak of her rising stardom. Two years after her Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook and a year before finishing her tenure in The Hunger Games, Lawrence makes a third-stringer background villain into a compelling and deeply human protagonist. It’s almost hard not to root for her, though Lawrence’s apparent fatigue with the role will become inescapable in the weeks to come. (A third woman, Anna Paquin’s Rogue, becomes an axis point in the “Rogue Cut,” which sees Rogue freed from a mutant prison to help Kitty Pryde save Wolverine.)
  4. In the future, do I make it? It feels like it’s been true for most of these movies, but Days of Future Past really illuminates the paradox of accurately and lovingly bringing characters to life and then giving them absolutely nothing to do. Bishop and Blink, for example, look like they stepped straight out of a comic book, but I’d be darned to tell you why, on the strength of this movie, any fan would care about them. Even Storm suffers from this paradox; as cool as it is to see Halle Berry rocking the closest thing to a mohawk we got from her, Storm’s presence in the film is barely consequential, and the film seems not to have noticed that she is essentially the last surviving faculty member at the Xavier Academy. The X-Men might have the deepest bench in comics, but the movies always seemed to focus on the same dozen or so; next week, we’ll see Deadpool do right by Colossus, who’s had less personality than window dressing in these films.
  5. Is the future truly set? Superhero storytelling is perpetually stuck in the second act; after you get through the first-act origin tales, most of these stories never truly end. (And when they do, like All-Star Superman or Old Man Logan, they’re in alternate realities.) Days of Future Past eats its cake and has it too by giving Logan a cheery send-off while also holding open the door for more stories in the First Class timeline. (Quite where Logan takes place, we’ll consider in a few weeks.) But it does seem a little suspicious – and possibly even sinister – that Bryan Singer’s happy ending seems to erase/retcon only the movies he didn’t direct. Of the beleaguered director’s many sins, this is far from the worst, but this film does seem to promise a new golden age that, more or less, never came to pass. Did the film that was meant to fix the franchise actually break it? The best films to come are the ones that play fastest and loosest with continuity...
Sound off in the comments, true believers: where does Days of Future Past sit in your estimations, and was it really ten years ago already? Up next, second chances all around when Ryan Reynolds gets another shot at the Merc with a Mouth in Deadpool.

Monday, June 3, 2024

Cinemutants - The Wolverine (2013)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.
 

This week, from 2013, it’s The Wolverine. Years after The Last Stand, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is in exile, alone and haunted by the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Invited to Japan by the ailing Ichiro Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), Logan finds himself entangled in a conspiracy involving Yashida’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and the precognitive mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima). 
  1. Eternity can be a curse. After thirteen years and six outings as Logan (counting his cameo last week), Hugh Jackman gives his best performance yet in The Wolverine. Wolverine has always been a creature of rage, and in this one we get to see that rage turned inward – for the first act, at least. Like any good soldier, Wolverine only needs a mission to turn himself around, something I suspect will come into play in Deadpool & Wolverine, when we meet another Logan broken by failure. But it’s not all heartbreak here, because Jackman also gives us some of the best action sequences with Wolverine, including a sensational fight on a bullet train and (in the extended cut) a lengthy battle with ninjas on motorbikes. And while Jackman is much taller than the Wolverine of the comics, he takes full advantage of that size difference and owns it in this movie.
  2. Kuzuri. In the comics, Wolverine has a long history with Japan, having trained there before his days with the X-Men and drifting back every so often to settle some bit of unfinished business. The Wolverine relocates Logan’s history with Japan into his present, tying him in an arresting opener to the bombing of Nagasaki before setting the bulk of the film in Japan. There’s some question about whether Logan is a kuzuri (an animal) or a ronin (a samurai without a master), and there’s some room to wonder whether Yukio’s gift is a mutation or just a spiritual connection to the future. In some ways, this movie anticipates Peach Momoko’s recent work in the Marvel Universe, which reimagines mutants as yokai (cf., Demon Days, Ultimate X-Men). Done carefully, this cultural crossover enriches the character and keeps him from growing stale.
  3. Everyone you love dies. The Wolverine plays with one of the most stalwart archetypal plots in superhero comics – take away everything recognizable about the hero, break him down to nothing, and build him back up. On a meta level, the film even acknowledges that The Last Stand and Origins didn’t go very well, and so we’re rooting for a redemption of the franchise and its erstwhile protagonist. First Class was a step in a new direction, but The Wolverine had the unenviable task of picking up from an unloved film and playing the X-ball where it lay. (Director James Mangold would tread a similar path with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny a decade later, following on the unpopular Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) So we have a Logan without a team, without a purpose, and even without his healing factor. Who, then, is the Wolverine? It’s immensely satisfying once Logan embraces the mantle that had been used to taunt and torment him.
  4. We don’t all have claws. While I don’t think too many people would thrill at the return of mutant poison mistress Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), I was reminded on this rewatch that we were really robbed of more Yukio. Rila Fukushima would get her superhero due playing Katana for a few years on Arrow, but The Wolverine set up a fun dynamic with Yukio as Logan’s backup, his confidant, and the closest thing to a friend he permits himself (almost reminiscent, incidentally, of the relationships Wolverine has had with young X-Men like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee). We meet a very different Yukio in Deadpool 2 – either due to time-travel shenanigans or just two people having the same name – and Days of Future Past will imply that this timeline doesn’t exist any longer. But since exiles from dead continuities are sort of the TVA’s whole thing, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this Yukio makes a return; someone who can see the future might come in handy if the TVA are pruning timelines. 
  5. Ghosts of future past. I had entirely forgotten that Famke Janssen plays a not-insubstantial role in The Wolverine, which makes me wonder if we might see her pop up in the new Deadpool movie as some multiversal variant of the Phoenix (she stands a better chance, at least, than Sophie Turner, whose Dark Phoenix is less than fondly remembered). There’s certainly a sense of the unresolved in the relationship with Logan, as well as the question of whether she’s just a memory or a spectral vision from beyond. What I hadn’t forgotten, however, was the first-rate post-credits scene which reintroduces Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart into the mix; though we saw them three weeks ago, it had been seven years for moviegoers (not counting Stewart’s CGI cameo in Origins). This is one of those gold-standard teasers, and it had me wanting to cue up Days of Future Past immediately; we’ll have to wait a week for that one.
Sound off in the comments, true believers: is The Wolverine overshadowed by other, better X-films? Case in point, we’ll do the time warp again next week with arguably the franchise’s finest hour, Days of Future Past. (And for those playing the home game, I’ll be watching “The Rogue Cut” this time around.)

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024)

Around ninety minutes into Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, the teenager seated in front of me fell asleep. I’m getting to an age now where you might expect this to be one of those “kids these days” anecdotes, but with Kingdom I couldn’t help feeling like maybe this kid had a point. You won’t find too many moviegoers who love the Apes films quite like I do – one of them is even on my Personal Canon list – but after ten films I’m starting to feel like enough is enough.
 
Three hundred years after the time of Caesar, Noa (Owen Teague) sets off to rescue his clan of chimpanzees from the militaristic Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) when he discovers that he is being followed by a human woman (Freya Allan). On the advice of the spiritual orangutan Raka (Peter Macon), Noa allows the woman to travel with him to Proximus’s kingdom, where the battle for Caesar’s legacy will be fought.
 
Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is the tenth or fourth film in the franchise, depending on how you count, with another two to five being teased/threatened. When I went back and reviewed the original Apes films a few years ago, the thing that struck me was how the series never idled in place, continually reinventing itself from sci-fi fable to fish-out-of-water comedy to race war allegory. The Andy Serkis trilogy from the last decade pushed the envelope of digital technology while finding a new storytelling corner, and even Tim Burton’s swing-and-a-miss was at least cosmetically compelling. With Kingdom, though, the franchise appears to have run out of things to say; its protagonist looks almost identical to Caesar, the premise seems cribbed from previous episodes, and the film is littered with callbacks while dangling morsels for future installments.
 
Case in point, there’s a moment late in the film – and this is not quite a spoiler – in which one of the apes leafs through the pages of a children’s book and makes a startling discovery about the past relationship between man and ape. It ought, we assume, to recolor the dynamic between the film’s simian and human protagonists, yet the film’s finale punts that work of narrative dot-connecting downfield for the probable sequel. Meanwhile, another ape in the same room picks up a baby doll, which cries “Mama” in precisely the same audio track used in the 1968 original film. When Charlton Heston picked up the doll, it managed to warp the entire plot around its gravity; when an ape picks up this doll, it’s meaningless bait on the fishing line of nostalgia. (Or are we meant to believe that this cliffside setting in southern California somehow becomes the New York-adjacent cave where Heston finds the doll?)
 
It’s as if director Wes Ball can be felt reaching through the screen imploring us, “Don’t you remember? Didn’t you like this last time?” Equally striking are the moments when composer John Paesano invokes Jerry Goldsmith’s original score. One cue, airlifted from the first film’s hunting sequence, is a clear one-to-one analogy; when apes hunt humans, evidently they listen to this sonorous horn music. Later, however, Paesano borrows another track from Goldsmith (which I’ll confess, I really recognized because it’s the one looped on the disc menus for the Blu-Ray set). Cribbing Goldsmith, Paesano invokes the same strange mystery of Doctor Zaius’s Forbidden Zone; at the same time, Ball stages the trek to wander past orphic scarecrows without reflecting on their mysteries. Indeed, without Heston’s puzzled narration ringing in my ears, I might not have known these were scarecrows at all.
 
All of this is to say that the movie might be supremely distracting for diehard fans, because the film itself is entirely underwhelming and, dare I say it, more than a little boring. After four movies of this reboot franchise, the razzle-dazzle of motion capture has worn off, and everything looks fine enough. I did find myself asking, in the moments when apes play falconer, whether the birds were real, and extended sequences of soggy monkeys made me recognize that animated water physics haven’t ever really surpassed the mastery of, say, the moment in Pixar’s Brave when Merida’s hair gets wet. (Indeed, Kingdom seems a step backwards in that respect.) But the rival ape factions, the peaceable overgrown vistas, the warmongering gorillas, the humans who know more than they’re letting on... we’ve been telling these stories for fifty years and have already plumbed these depths. And in 300 years, ape language hasn’t progressed beyond broken English? Maurice Evans, eat your heart out. Again, these are minor details that caught my eye because the film at large wasn’t holding my attention.
 
There are ideas in Kingdom that might be worth exploring, but it takes entirely too long to encounter them. The antagonist Proximus Caesar isn’t seen until more than halfway through the film (about the time that the young man in Row K checked out), and the glimpses we get of his reign suggest a more fascinating movie we didn’t get to see. Ditto for William H. Macy, who (in spite of a mildly cartoonish performance) poses a unique moral quandary about human collusion with their ape overlords. Yet Kingdom is overlong and baggy in other less interesting places; while I was intrigued by Raka as the last of the Caesar loyalists (sympathizing, perhaps, with a fellow redhead), the film is much less absorbed with him, focusing instead on Noa, a protagonist as white-bread as anything found in populist young adult literature – fitting, then, for the director who brought us three Maze Runner pictures.
 
Kingdom ends with the audacious promise that there’s so much more to discover, that this film’s MacGuffin was but a plot device to empower subsequent installments in a budding trilogy: to which I call a resounding and unequivocal “Phooey!” (In truth, the word I actually muttered as the credits rolled was a little more unprintable.) Imagine if Star Wars had ended with the discovery that R2-D2 carried plans to destroy the Death Star; picture a Maltese Falcon that concluded with Humphrey Bogart breaking open the bird, only to find a map to the real falcon. Such is the mindset that leads a franchise to declare, after ten movies, that the story is only just beginning. The original Apes pentalogy never knew if another film was coming, so each movie stood on its own, told its own story, and respected its own internal logic while building architecturally on what came before, not after. As for me, I have long since grown tired of franchise teases and narrative bucks being passed; I have lost patience with films that take my repeat attendance for granted. Blessed are the moviegoing meek, for they will inherit more of the same; blessed are the poor in creative spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.
 
Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes
 is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence/action.” Directed by Wes Ball. Written by Josh Friedman. Starring Owen Teague, Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Peter Macon, and William H. Macy.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Cinemutants - X-Men: First Class (2011)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.
 
This week, from 2011, it’s X-Men: First Class. It’s 1962, and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is just beginning his research into mutation when he meets Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a mutant out for revenge on Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who killed his mother. With Shaw manipulating both sides of the Cold War, Charles and Erik recruit a team of mutants, beginning with Charles’s childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). 
 
And so we return and begin again. The reset button is practically a supporting character in the X-Men franchise, and after Origins didn’t quite recapture the magic, First Class goes back even further, both in the timeline and in reprising the actual opening scene of X-Men. (No wonder – it’s still one of the most effective origin stories and one of the best-told ones.) Director Matthew Vaughn is never too showy about the film’s 1962 setting, though a third-act retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis feels a bit like something that belongs in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. As a prequel, however, First Class is reveling in the untold stories, from Henry McCoy’s evolution into the blue-furred Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to Xavier’s occasional quips about losing his hair.
 
Frankenstein’s monster. A huge part of the success of First Class comes from its own secret origin, starting life as a screenplay for X-Men Origins: Magneto. By weaving Magneto’s story into a larger tapestry, we get to skip right to the best scenesalong his quest for revenge, and Fassbender is resplendent in his righteous fury. (Points taken off, though, for the infrequent intrusion of Fassbender’s own Irish accent.) We see all the reasons for Erik’s fall, sympathizing all the while with a man who sees himself as a helpless monster. And when Charles accidentally invokes the Nazi defense of “just following orders,” a chill ran up my spine because of how effectively First Class presents Magneto’s perspective. What Ian McKellen implied, First Class does well to elucidate. 
 
Groovy mutation. On the flip side, James McAvoy is a surprising Xavier, eschewing the austerity of Patrick Stewart’s performance in favor of a Swinging Sixties Charles, not above using his scientific know-how to impress the birds down at the local pub. Still, the shepherd wins out in Xavier as he assembles his first team (not G-Men, the film wryly observes, but X-Men), but more particularly when he attempts to guide Erik’s lost soul toward serenity. Indeed, it’s not hard to see First Class as a tragic love story between two men who could have been brothers; the repeated motif of the chess board, borrowed from the Bryan Singer films, suggests an unspoken bond, though a sunset picnic at the Lincoln Memorial adds a new color to the dynamic.
 
We’re the better men. I usually remember First Class fondly for the Charles and Erik dynamic, but I was surprised on this rewatch to see how many things don’t work at the same level. Kevin Bacon is hammy good fun as the film’s antagonist, but his cabal of villains are either outright boring or, in the case of January Jones’s Emma Frost, wildly miscast. Meanwhile, Hoult’s Beast is a strong supporting choice, but the rest of the team is largely indistinct; Zoe Kravitz’s Angel is a snooze, Edi Gathegi’s Darwin isn’t around long enough to make an impression, and Havok and Banshee don’t quite have personalities of their own. (On those counts, only True Believers will much care about their inclusion.) Then there’s Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven, a far cry from the sycophantic Mystique we met in the foregoing trilogy; she acquits herself well enough (despite some truly dodgy makeup), but appending her to Xavier’s origin is still a strange choice.
 
We are the future. First Class ends up walking a fine line between reboot and prequel. It’s hard to say it’s precisely a prequel to X-Men, mostly on the grounds of what happens in Days of Future Past. But while we have cameos from Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn, we also get a very different Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), a Beast who’s older than he should be, and a Summers brother that throws a wrench into the already murky family tree after we “met” Cyclops in 1979 last week. (Then again, the Summers family tree is notoriously gnarled in the comics, where it’s easy to lose count of who the third Summers brother was intended to be.) It’s all a helpful reminder not to take any of this too seriously, and for all my handwringing here, none of it interferes with my enjoyment of the film, which is somewhere near the top of my X-rankings.
 
Sound off in the comments, true believers: is First Class first in its class? Now that we’ve gone all the way back in time, we’ll jump to the end of the queue next week with The Wolverine, catching up with Logan after the events of The Last Stand.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Cinemutants - X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.
 
This week, from 2009, it’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Learn the secret origin of James “Logan” Howlett, the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), as he enlists in a special military group reporting to William Stryker (Danny Huston). When Logan’s brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) begins hunting their teammates, Logan leaves behind a peaceful life with Kayla (Lynn Collins) and submits to an experimental procedure that gives him metallic claws.

  1. The best there is at what he does. I almost never rewatch Origins unless I’m doing a thorough rewatch, and it’s not exactly because this is a bad movie. It has a few things going for it, but by and large Origins is a colossal bore. Hugh Jackman is trying, he really is, and he’s got the persona of Logan down perfectly – certainly better than in The Last Stand, at least. But it turns out that the mysterious past of Wolverine is much more interesting when we don’t have all the answers; Origins takes the most boilerplate backstory and grafts it onto Wolverine like so much adamantium. Parental issues? Check. Tragic love story? Check. Hamfisted prequel references? See below. And as for those special effects, it’s hard to think of a movie with effects that have aged worse than this one; Logan’s claws are like floating cartoons, all the wrong size, and the third act is dodgy at best.
  2. The kitchen sink. Prequels shouldn’t feel like bullet points, and Act Two of this film reveals that nearly everything distinctive about Wolverine started on essentially the same day: he gets his claws, his dogtags, his motorcycle, and his leather jacket within the same 24-hour period. None of it’s very exciting, and Logan walks into the frame at one point carrying a literal sink in his hands, as if to say they’ve covered it all. But the storytellers have taken the path of least interest to get there, lining the cast with C- and D-list comic book characters as if to trick fanboys into liking the film because of its deep-cut casting. Folks took Solo to task for doing much the same thing, but the key difference was that Solo was fun; it turns out that X2 did Logan’s origins better by refusing to answer all the questions.
  3. Koo-koo-ka-choo got screwed. I’ve seen Origins a few times, but I still couldn’t remember all the mutants – their names or their powers. To be fair, this mish-mosh of characters feels like the detritus of who Fox had the rights to use. Kestrel, Bolt, Silver Fox, The Blob, and Agent Zero... were these never-rans selected to save the interesting mutants for non-prequel films? Perhaps not, given that the film also phenomenally squanders the character of Gambit (played by an uncharismatic Taylor Kitsch) who, let’s be real, you and I both forgot was in this movie. He’s mere set decoration in a third act that also throws Cyclops, Professor Xavier, and maybe/maybe not Emma Frost into the mix for what I can only assume to be their availability for the marketing. (We’ll start thinking about messy timelines next week, but despite playing fast and loose with its cast, Origins doesn’t actually break too many eggs.)
  4. We’re not like them! The one thing Origins has going for it is its casting. Jackman, naturally, isn’t making any missteps, but Liev Schreiber and Danny Huston are playing much better villains than this picture deserves. The film begins with an arresting credits sequence that shows Logan and Victor fighting in every war, the kind of time-skipping montage that Zack Snyder does so well, but that war sequence is the film I would rather have seen. Schreiber is having so much fun as Sabretooth, genuinely scary but also addictively fascinating to watch; it’s a genuine shame that we never saw this Sabretooth again (unless, fingers crossed, he turns up in Deadpool & Wolverine). Meanwhile, Huston plays a young(er) Stryker as the apex of sinister government banality, never quite trying to do a Brian Cox impression but still carrying that same weighty menace. Any time either one of these guys is on screen, Origins very nearly sings.
  5. Take a dip in the ’Pool. Since we’re gearing up for a new Deadpool movie, it’s worth thinking about how the Merc with a Mouth comes off in Origins... and the answer is, really quite badly. In the first act, it’s astonishing how fully formed Ryan Reynolds was as Wade Wilson, how recognizable his snarky charm remained seven years before his solo film proper. But as that third act ramps up, we find that Wade’s mouth has been sewn shut, his swords have been grafted into his arms, and he’s able to teleport and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. Deadpool, this ain’t, and it has a whiff of that mid-2000s self-loathing that comic book adaptations often indulged, pretending that the source material was much too silly for the big screen. Fans hated it, Reynolds kept pushing to do it right, and now fifteen years later Deadpool isn’t a punchline. Well, not like that, at least, but it does become a memorable gag in Deadpool 2, when our Deadpool travels back in time to shoot this Deadpool in the head (and a few other places).
Sound off in the comments, true believers: did we need this Origins? Which X-Men deserved a prequel film? If you thought 1979 was a barrel of laughs, join us next week for 1962, when the whole franchise gets a prequel/reboot with X-Men: First Class.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Cinemutants - X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.
 

This week, from 2006, it’s X-Men: The Last Stand. The mutant world faces its greatest threat when a cure for mutation is developed. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have their hands – and claws – full when Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) returns from the dead and allies herself with Magneto (Ian McKellen), who is leading the mutant resistance against the cure.
  1. An age of darkness. It’s generally been agreed that The Last Stand is where the X-Men franchise begins to drop the ball, and in some ways you might say it never fully recovers. At least three of the subsequent films reckon with the legacy of this one, with a snide joke in Apocalypse acknowledging that third films in trilogies don’t always work. After nearly twenty years, this one is strikingly grim, killing off [SPOILERS!] both Cyclops and Professor X before spinning its wheels until a third act that looks staggeringly like a television soundstage. Meanwhile, amid a host of dark plotlines, the film is littered with jokes of an astonishingly dated sensibility, giving one the distinct impression that The Last Stand is a cartoon brought to life by an edgy teenager.
  2. Dark Phoenix rising. Last week I called the Dark Phoenix Saga “the franchise’s Everest summit,” and The Last Stand is a spectacular failure of an adaptation. Where the comics were a sober meditation on absolute power and the ethics of mutantkind’s response to genocide, this film recasts the Phoenix as Jean Grey’s uncontrollable power… only for her to stand around not doing very much with that power. It’s a classic “show, don’t tell” failure, compounded by the confusing decision to subordinate her abilities to Magneto’s will. We’ll see the franchise take one more swing at Dark Phoenix in the film of the same name, which finds entirely new ways to drop the ball, while Jean’s ultimate fate will haunt Hugh Jackman’s Logan for much of the rest of his tenure.
  3. Pyro mania. I was pretty surprised that the Deadpool & Wolverine trailer announced that Aaron Stanford would be returning as Pyro, but that’s because I’d forgotten how the Pyro/Iceman rivalry became weirdly central to this trilogy. After Pyro threw his lot in with Magneto in X2, The Last Stand spends a not-insignificant amount of time teasing his inevitable showdown with Iceman, whose pure ice form is reserved for the pinnacle moment of their big fight sequence. The movie even clears Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) from the deck to make room for Pyro. While I’m sure that there will be no shortage of recognizable faces in the new Deadpool trailer, using Pyro feels like leaning into the idiosyncrasies of dead continuity – which, to be fair, is on brand for Deadpool.
  4. Too much of a good thing. At an hour and forty-four minutes (the exact length of X-Men, mind you), The Last Stand has way too much going on for a coherent story. Its three antagonists – Magneto, Phoenix, and the cure – feel packed together, bulging with superglue to hide the storytelling seams, while new characters like Angel, Beast, Juggernaut, and Kid Omega (in name only) barely get anything to do because almost the entire cast has returned from the last two films. It’s a critical mass of screenplay elements, compounded by the fact that almost nothing interesting happens with any of these new toys (with one exception, below); Kitty Pryde does more running but gets hardly any plot action, while The Juggernaut quotes YouTube videos from the mid-2000s. It almost feels as though director Brett Ratner cut ten minutes from each of 10 different X-Men movies and tried to frankenstein them together here; your mileage may vary on which of the ten you’d have rather seen.
  5. Oh, my stars and garters. The one thing The Last Stand did unequivocally right was casting Kelsey Grammer as a note-perfect Hank “Beast” McCoy. Grammar leans fully into the role, spot-on casting for a mutant of above average intelligence with a supercilious command over the English language. Kudos to Grammer, too, for submitting to the full-body makeup required for his beastly transformation. And in a film that tries to its detriment to cram everything into its abbreviated runtime, there’s a certain thrill in hearing Grammer deliver Beast’s ostensible catchphrase just before leaping into battle. It’s little wonder that, after Patrick Stewart in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Grammer was the second Fox-era mutant retained for the MCU, in a post-credits cameo from The Marvels. We all know what they say about broken clocks.
Sound off in the comments, true believers: has The Last Stand aged like cheese or wine? Was it ever either? Join us next week for a blast from the past with another exceptional casting choice, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Cinemutants - X2: X-Men United (2003)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.

This week, from 2003, it’s X2: X-Men United. After a mutant attempt on the president’s life, the X-Men are scattered when Col. William Stryker (Brian Cox) leads a raid on the Xavier mansion. Logan (Hugh Jackman) leads a group of kids to safety while Professor X (Patrick Stewart) seeks answers from his imprisoned friend Magneto (Ian McKellen). Meanwhile, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) tracks the mutant assassin (Alan Cumming), even as her powers begin to overwhelm her...

  1. Empire state of mind. You can take a few different tacks with a sequel, but X2 wears its influence on its sleeve when it comes to The Empire Strikes Back. Like EmpireX2 lets the villains win in the first act, separates our heroes for their own journeys, and then reconvenes the cast for a life-and-death third act. It’s also like its sci-fi forerunner in that it’s arguably better than its predecessor, but while you could make a reasonable case for Star Wars over Empire, it’s hard to say X2 isn’t an improvement in nearly every way from the already-strong X-Men. As immediate sequels go, X2 is in fantastic company, setting the bar in a way that nearly every second MCU installment (Winter Soldier aside) misses.
  2. We’re not as alone as you think. The X-Men comics have one of the deepest benches of characters, with so many distinctive faces and abilities across what was then forty years of storytelling. A standout feature of the comics has always been their delightfully soapy quality, with long-running storylines that feel at times more like daytime television. X2 continues the masterful juggling act from the first film and adds in the likes of Colossus, Nightcrawler, Pyro, Lady Deathstrike, and (after a fashion) Mastermind, with expanded roles for Iceman and Mystique. Surprisingly, the film never quite plays favorites; while some performances are stronger than others, there’s an incredibly balanced approach to the disparate plot threads. (Excepting, I think, Colossus, though his inclusion feels a bit like living scenery for the mansion. We’ll see him get his due in surprising fashion in a few weeks.)
  3. The war has begun. While Ian McKellen is pretty safely the best villain the X-Franchise has ever had, Brian Cox is a very close second as William Stryker. In the seminal comic God Loves, Man Kills, Stryker was a televangelist with a rabid anti-mutant agenda; here, he’s the military scientist attempting to exterminate mutantkind, with the added backstory of being the architect of the project that turned Wolverine into Weapon X. Stryker will end up being a subplot that weaves through nearly all of the X-films (often unsuccessfully, as Wolverine’s mysterious origins tend to disappoint the more we tug on that thread). But when you want to anchor a franchise to Hugh Jackman’s performance, it’s helpful to have Brian Cox’s quiet menace lurking in the background, pulling the strings while McKellen gets to have all the snarling, snarky fun befitting a Shakespearean actor of his stature.
  4. Have you tried not being a mutant? While everyone’s suddenly upset of late that the X-Men “went woke” (which incoming comics editor Tom Brevoort recently and smartly dismissed as a meaningless "infinitely adaptable scarlet letter" these days), those of us who have been paying attention know that the X-Men have always had a progressive bent, with mutants standing in as a sliding signifier for any tyrannized minority. Stan Lee occasionally claimed not to have intended the subtext, but it’s hard not to read the series without seeing any myriad of political controversies at play. At roughly the same time that Grant Morrison was exploring mutants as queer allegory, X2 is overt with its gay reading of mutants; Bobby Drake’s conversation with his parents reads inescapably like a “coming out” scene, replete with his mother’s tone-deaf “Have you tried not being a mutant?” At every turn, mutants are persecuted, hunted, and enslaved, and X2 is unflinching in allying itself with the oppressed.
  5. Something bad is supposed to happen. If X2 is the franchise’s Empire moment, the good guys can’t win outright at the end; Magneto gets away, with an X-recruit in tow, and the whole thing concludes with an invocation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” arguably the comics’ most iconic and expansive storyline. In it, Jean Grey succumbs to her repressed powers, becoming a cosmic force of unspeakable strength and annihilating an entire solar system. Nearly all of us knew that the first time Jean’s powers malfunction, X2 was promising that the Phoenix was going to rise. It’s tremendously confident to tease the Phoenix in the film’s final frames (a moment that might probably be a post-credits scene today), but we’ll see that the Phoenix often becomes the franchise’s Everest summit, tempting to approach but perilous to scale. 

Sound off in the comments, true believers: is X2 still one of the best superhero sequels ever made? Or has it aged poorly in the wake of its paler imitators? Join us next week for X-Men: The Last Stand (and it very nearly was).

Monday, April 29, 2024

Cinemutants - X-Men (2000)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.
 
First up, from 2000, it’s X-Men. Caught in a war between Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the villainous Magneto (Ian McKellen), Logan (Hugh Jackman) joins the side of the X-Men, a group of mutants dedicated to saving a world that fears and hates them. Meanwhile, Marie (Anna Paquin) discovers her own unique abilities before joining Professor Xavier’s academy.
 
  1. One hundred minutes and counting. I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count, but I was floored this time to realize/remember that the film is under two hours long. At 01:44, X-Men is incredibly lean and astonishingly well-paced. Some of the expositional dialogue is a little didactic, but the bevy of (uncredited) screenwriters balance a cast of no fewer than ten named mutants with a plot that forces all of them together fairly swiftly. Whatever Marvel does next with the mutants, it’s hard to imagine the storytelling being as efficient and economical as it is here.
  2. What a cast of characters. Last time I did one of these, I mused that Raiders of the Lost Ark had one of the all-time best casts in movie history. X-Men, quietly, might also be in that running. From their first scene together, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen positively crackle, and I’d even argue that the whole thing succeeds on their lofty pedigrees. The rest of the mutants are no slouch; Hugh Jackman might be a foot too tall for Wolverine, but he’s got the attitude and the walk. This time out, I was impressed by James Marsden as Cyclops, playing the unenviable straight man but nailing the boy-scout leadership that makes the comics character such a stalwart soldier. Even Bruce Davison as the smarmy Senator Kelly feels uncomfortably prescient in his role as a fear-mongering politician.
  3. Evolution leaps forward. Even back in 2000, I was aware that X-Men felt like a sea change in superhero cinema. It felt serious, but more importantly it was earnest – it didn’t treat the source material with suspicion or derision. Instead, it mined nearly forty years of rich storytelling for an equally pointed take on issues that have never really left us. Prejudice, political mobilization, and the kinship of found families: these elements have been present in X-Men comics since the beginning, and a one-two punch with Spider-Man two years solidified the new superhero milieu. Put another way, these movies walked so the MCU could run.
  4. What would you prefer, yellow spandex? While X-Men taught us the virtues of treating the source material with reverence, the film had a little less patience for the superficial trappings of superhero comics. Having just gotten over the Day-Glo disaster that was Batman & Robin, perhaps moviegoers weren’t ready for comics-accurate costuming from the X-Men, who notoriously don’t always look like they all belong in the same book. The 1992 animated series crystallized the Jim Lee costumes for a generation, but the movies went for a more subdued black leather palette, leaning into the post-Matrix cool aesthetic. (The comics, as ever, would follow suit the next year, with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men positing a fashion-forward vision of mutantkind.) Having said that, the leather suits are perhaps trying a little too hard, but darned if they don’t look cool, and it’s no wonder that I hoarded the action figures (and still do).
  5. The war is still coming. I remember sitting in a theater in 2000 feeling like everything had changed, but also that everything was just beginning. Part of the success of X-Men must have been its terrific ending, which cues up a number of really interesting ideas for the franchise to come. Best of all, unlike most superhero movies, it leaves its chief villain (and his shapeshifting lieutenant) alive for the sequel, and that image of Magneto jailed in a plastic prison is such a resplendent final tableau. We also get teases regarding Logan’s mysterious past and Rogue’s new life at the mansion, and we’ll see each of those blown into one of the best superhero sequels ever.
Sound off in the comments, true believers: where does X-Men fit into your superhero canon? And where does this one in particular land in your X-Rankings? Join us over the next twelve weeks; we’ll be back next time with X2: X-Men United.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023)

Back in June, my write-up of 
The Flash turned out more sanguine than I had been expecting, partly because the review turned into an elegy for the DCEU. But I had given that sentiment so much space on the page because I had almost entirely forgotten that the dying franchise still had two more in the offing: Blue Beetle (which I could not finish, even at no additional cost on Max) and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, buried so far in the oubliette of the WB release slate that audiences nigh well forgot it existed. (A third film, Batgirl, was obliterated in exchange for a tax write-off.)
 
Since James Gunn announced his takeover of the DC cinematic universe in January 2023, DC and WB released four more movies in what Gunn had already announced to be a dead franchise. It turns out that audiences gave up, with diminishing box office returns for Shazam! Fury of the GodsThe Flash, and Blue Beetle, before this latest Aquaman movie ends the series not with a bang but with a paint-by-numbers whimper, a superhero outing that might have been the best superhero movie of the year, had it been released in 2004.
 
Torn between his duties as a land-dwelling father and as regent of Atlantis, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is bristling under the mantle of Aquaman, even as Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) rallies his forces for revenge against the hero who killed his father. His deep-sea excursions have uncovered the Black Trident, an ancient relic connected to unspeakable evil beneath the waves, and only Aquaman’s imprisoned brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) knows where to find him.
 
After some blunt narration that insists vociferously that yes, Aquaman is cool, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom begins with Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and absolutely zero sense of irony about deploying what might be one of the most overplayed songs in movie history. (Never mind the fact that Aquaman fought an entirely different Steppenwolf in Justice League.) It’s as though the film has forgotten that this Aquaman made more than a billion dollars last time around, and we certainly don’t need to be bludgeoned with insistences that Arthur isn’t a joke. Insincere postmodernism is a deadly sin for the superhero genre, but here the overeager earnestness comes off as a little desperate. 
 
One senses throughout that the corporate editors have been overgenerous with their pruning shears, taking out anything that isn’t rocketing toward the next action setpiece. Case in point, Amber Heard’s Mera, who has been virtually excised from a movie that ought to be about her son, the newborn prince of Atlantis. The first film had a particularly arresting sequence in which Mera used her aquatic powers to weaponize a wine cellar; here, Mera is relegated to waterbending her son’s urine into Aquaman’s open mouth. Her own legal troubles notwithstanding, every time Heard reappears on screen, one has nearly forgotten how her character fits into the plot, and it almost seems like Dolph Lundgren (as her father, King Nereus) has been skinned into the film in her stead. Similarly, it’s been documented that director James Wan shot footage of Ben Affleck’s Batman, then of Michael Keaton’s Batman, only to exclude them both from the final cut, supposedly so as not to confuse audiences. (Never mind that audiences got no fewer than three Batmen and two Wonder Woman cameos this year alone.)
 
Indeed, the only confusion on the part of the audience is why a decade’s worth of movies is ending here, limping toward an untimely grave. After sixteen movies (of which, maybe seven were good-to-great), I stand stymied at how badly the studio bungled things, beginning with the equally overedited Batman v Superman and spiraling from there. Although given the fact that this is the same superhero franchise that released a literal exquisite corpse in the form of Joss Whedon’s nightmarish Justice League, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that its subsequent releases have come in uneven fits and starts.
 
Of those false starts, James Wan’s work felt the closest to the Zack Snyder aesthetic while still remaining its own thing. Wan had a knack for deep and brisk world-building, indulging in those Snyderesque slow-motion shots to turn the cinematic frame into a comic book panel. But between the editorial excisions and the draconian exclusion of all things Snyderverse (including an off-camera death that feels both capricious and superfluous), it is hard to see some of that Wan charm. Where the first Aquaman felt fresh and energetic, Lost Kingdom is only serviceable if almost entirely forgettable. We do feel the unique Aquaman flair with the unapologetic inclusion of seahorse Storm, cephalopod Topo, and a piratical hideout that feels like both Jabba’s Palace and the Mos Eisley Cantina all at once. Ditto the downright gonzo casting choices that give us no less than Martin Short and John Rhys-Davies as grotesque fish monsters.
 
Meanwhile, Momoa seems to be phoning it in, playing himself as much as anything. He’s spent about half of the meager press tour (without so much as a red carpet premiere, in case you hadn’t noticed) conceding that this is very probably his last outing as Aquaman, imploring all the while for someone, anyone, to cast him in James Gunn’s new utopia. Nicole Kidman reappears, contractually obligated and about as enthusiastic as that sentence implies; her appearance in the AMC Theatres promo reel is more expressive, more emotional than her lifeless Queen Atlanna. Patrick Wilson is doing a better job than this movie deserves, while Yahya Abdul-Mateen is underserved by a revenge plot that gets derailed by demonic possession. (His Black Manta, though, still wins a best-in-show prize for a costume design straight out of the comic book pages.)
 
Even at two hours and change, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom feels a little too long for its own good. Its action sequences are efficient and entertaining enough, colorful without the typical CGI dark muddle to obscure things. Yet the superhero genre has come so far that Lost Kingdom feels almost like a throwback; if this were the only superhero movie this year, it might have felt sweeter. As it stands, I lost count of how many times the film dramatically cuts to black, how often the plot spun its wheels to introduce some exposition via narration-heavy flashback, and how frequently urine ends up in Jason Momoa’s mouth. (I stopped at three.) At times the film feels like it is blissfully unaware that it is the ostensible swan song for the DCEU.
 
Then again, at other turns, the film seems hyper-aware that it is the finale for a divisive, often unpopular decade of DC movies that began under the auspices of one idiosyncratic auteur, dethroned and given a second chance while the franchise fell down around us. Staggering toward an inevitable reboot, the film launches this motivational speech at its hero, who might seem to be standing in for Zack Snyder as the torch passes from one king to the next:
You’re not as bad at this as you think. The people of Atlantis are lucky to have you. You were everything I was not. You do the right thing when doing the wrong thing is much easier. You’re willing to ask for help, even from your worst enemy. I know it may not feel like you know what you’re doing sometimes, but keep trusting your instincts. If you lead, Atlantis will follow.
 

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi violence and some language.” Directed by James Wan. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, James Wan, Jason Momoa, and Thomas Pa’a Sibbett. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park, Dolph Lundgren, Temeura Morrison, Martin Short, and Nicole Kidman.

Monday, November 13, 2023

The Marvels (2023)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the nonfiction book MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios by Joanna Robinson, et al, and rewatching a few of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest hits (Iron ManThe Winter Soldier) – all while keeping current with the second season of Loki and, yes, even the colorized version of Werewolf by Night on Disney+. And if you’ve been reading my reviews long enough, you’ll have sensed my genuine fatigue with all of this – not in keeping track of the superhero genre but in keeping up. I haven’t reviewed the Marvel shows because it’s too much content to watch and digest; to be honest, most of it elicits an “It’s Fine” shrug from me. There’s just so much of it these days, and very little of it is actually great. It’s beginning to feel a lot like homework.
 
And this weariness is Robinson’s whole point. In MCU, she and her co-authors observe that the low points in the 15-year franchise have been when the movies lose sight of what made Iron Man such a roaring success – not its CGI smash-fests or its breakneck sprint to a bigger picture, but the quiet character moments that “let us experience who they are as people and not legends” (352). In short, let superheroes be fun, let them be human, and make the world-building afterthought, not a forethought. (In other words, stop trying to make Kang happen.)
 
With this whirlwind reminder tour fresh in my head, I plunked down for a ticket to the 33rd MCU film, plugged my ears from the noisome and tiresome culture wars, and just prayed to God and Kevin Feige that The Marvels would be fun. Maybe prayers do get answered, because The Marvels is breezy and bright, weightless in a way against which we’ve been inoculated, and I smiled most of the way through.
 
Thanks to some super-quantum cosmic entanglement, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) finds herself physically switching places with her niece Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and superfan Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan (Iman Vellani). The unlikely trio soon learn that their predicament comes at the hands of Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton), who is tearing worlds apart in a bid to restore the Kree Empire to its former glory.
 
While in one sense the Marvel Cinematic Universe set an unbeatable bar with Avengers: Endgame, its more recent outings have simultaneously lowered the bar. From the incoherent plotting of Spider-Man: No Way Home to the downright dismal proceedings of Thor: Love & Thunder, right up through four years and ten seasons of television shows, there’s very little of it I want to rewatch – and the very notion of a soup-to-nuts rewatch is so exhausting that I can barely stomach the sentence. In a world of Spider-Verses, who needs more Quantumania? So I went into The Marvels with my expectations fairly lowered, and the hurdle it needed to clear was whether I would begrudge it the time I spent with it.
 
The Marvels is far from perfect. It’s brief and a little thin, and its villain is the very definition of undercooked; Dar-Benn is not unlike her predecessors Ronan or Malekith, and the fact that you are likely rushing to Wikipedia says it all. Marvel has sometimes (often?) struggled to make its one-and-done villains sing, and Dar-Benn is no different. Her motives are clear enough, but the film doesn’t give Ashton much to do beyond scowl and brandish a hammer – a shame, since there is something at the core of this character worth exploring beyond a tepid and compulsory flashback sequence.
 
Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris are fine, too, getting to cut loose a bit more than they had in their respective debuts. The film truly shines, though, on the capable shoulders of Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel. Where her Disney+ miniseries felt bogged down by cosmic nonsense and lifeless enemies, The Marvels wisely plays into Vellani’s unabashed affection for the genre and the giants with whom she shares the screen. When she squeaks with delight, we get it because we too would feel starstruck in the presence of Samuel L. Jackson (whose Nick Fury is so much more entertaining here than in the limp Secret Invasion). And in the film’s final scene, Vellani gets to riff on an iconic MCU moment, so effortlessly cool and nerdy that I literally applauded for how perfect it was for this character, this performer, to reenact that moment.
 
Indeed, the film is aptly titled The Marvels because it is that rare three-hander that gives the team a perfect balance of screen-time and responsibility for the plot. (The fact that it is handily stolen by Vellani is a testament to her dynamism as an actress.) An early action sequence introduces the dizzying effect of the three women swapping places, a unique setpiece that simultaneously moves the plot forward and the quickfire change of setting is brisk and – most importantly – entertaining. Much has been made of the film’s 01:45 runtime (the shortest in MCU history), and I have to say it felt refreshing; there wasn’t much bloat in the film, with very few moments that overstayed their welcome. 
 
When we rank all the Marvel movies, The Marvels isn’t at the bottom, but it’s nearer to the bottom of the middle. There was something alchemical about those early movies, especially the unsurpassed best, The Winter Soldier. No, The Marvels is nearer to something like Thor: The Dark World, meat-and-potatoes superheroics largely unconcerned with the wider tapestry. It’s fine, but it’s fun. It is not a film that I will rush to see again, but if we assess the MCU entries in terms of how long I smiled and how many times I laughed, I suspect The Marvels would register somewhere near the top ten.
 
The Marvels
is rated PG-13 for “action/violence and brief language.” Directed by Nia DaCosta. Written by Nia DaCosta, Megan McDonnell, and Elissa Karasik. Based on the Marvel Comics. Starring Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, and Samuel L. Jackson.