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.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Haunted Mansion (2023)

I’ve been on something of a cinematic high lately, recapturing the magic of the movies with a few hits right in a row. I have wondered over the last several months whether I’ve outgrown movies, lapped my favorite franchises and genres, yet movies like Mission: Impossible – Dead ReckoningOppenheimer, and Barbie have reminded this moviegoer that it’s not “a me problem.” Movies can still be fun, they can even be great, but lately they just haven’t been.
With Disney’s Haunted Mansion, dear readers, we’re back – back to disappointments at the box office, creaky scripts and undercooked performances designed to cash in on nostalgia, a distinctive brand, or both. This Haunted Mansion is a sight better than the Eddie Murphy foray that preceded it two decades ago, but as bars go that’s a fairly low one to hurdle. 
Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) have just moved to Louisiana and taken up residence in, well, a haunted mansion. An attempt to exorcise the home unites a grieving astrophysicist (LaKeith Stanfield), an off-kilter priest (Owen Wilson), a history professor (Danny DeVito), and a low-rent medium (Tiffany Haddish) against nearly 1,000 ghouls led by the leering Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto).
I was on the fence about seeing Haunted Mansion for a number of reasons. Back in 2003, the Eddie Murphy film of the same name had failed to impress; today, the trailers were similarly undistinguished, and its Rotten Tomatoes rating was less than stellar. Plus, I reminded myself, the whole affair would likely be landing on Disney+ within six weeks. But too much time on one’s hands is a dangerous proposition, and so I plunked down for two dismal hours (not counting a slate of less inspiring trailers) that I cannot in good faith recommend to any but the most thoroughly indoctrinated devotees of the theme park attraction which lends its name and likeness to Haunted Mansion.
The Eddie Murphy take on The Haunted Mansion debuted in 2003, grafting the theme park set decoration onto a fairly boilerplate ghost story about doomed love and spooky manors. But another film was released that year – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – and Disney has been chasing that high ever since, hoping against hope that any of its myriad attractions would prove to be the next bankable franchise. (I loved Tomorrowland, though not everyone did, and the less said about Jungle Cruise, the better.) In my head, Pirates and Haunted Mansion are two halves of the same coin: dense and intricate attractions hung together by a mere suggestion of a story amid a collection of memorable mise-en-scènes. They’re handily my two favorite rides at Walt Disney World, over and against even the thrilliest roller coasters.
They cracked Pirates well enough, wringing the franchise dry to the point that only Johnny Depp’s mountainous legal woes could end the film series. Yet this is the second Haunted Mansion in as many decades, with no less than Guillermo Del Toro trying to make it work circa 2012. (One has to imagine his Crimson Peak shares some DNA with The Haunted Mansion.) This particular Haunted Mansion has only one credited writer (Katie Dippold, late of the beleaguered Ghostbusters reboot), but a litany of voices have contributed to the script at varying stages, to the point where no character feels like they’re in the same film. Owen Wilson and Danny DeVito clown their way through the film, almost a Disney-fied Waiting for Ghost-dot, while Tiffany Haddish’s character is either a buffoon or the world’s greatest psychic, depending on what the plot requires. And then there’s LaKeith Stanfield, who is frankly better than the film deserves, handily carrying an emotional arc that actually manages to move the audience, even if nothing else in the film is clicking.
The film’s greatest mystery is why mega-stars like Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto are anywhere near this thing. Not because they’re too good for the movie, but because their parts could well and truly have been played by anyone, and at least someone slightly less expensive. Curtis is stately and imperious as Madame Leota, but after receiving what amounts to a Lifetime Achievement Award for her role in Everything Everywhere All At Once, she doesn’t need to stoop to a third-rate Eleanor Audley imitation, and her blue crystal ball does more acting than most others in the film. Leto especially makes almost no impression, aside from a brief flashback where we see a Hatbox Ghost pre-decapitation; his ghost face is purely computer-generated, while his voice is run through so many filters that it might as well be Mae West under there. (He gets the “And” credit too, which suggests he made a boatload of money on this movie, which... good for him, I suppose.)
There are a few chuckles in the film, and at least one decent jump-scare, but on the whole the film feels like a collection of bits that don’t exactly work together. It feels assembled by committee, and just about the only thing to justify its existence is the presence of a cacophony of cameos from recognizable props like chairs, stanchions, and wallpaper. While stretching rooms and hatchets in the attic may not mean much to the general moviegoing public – and indeed they mean not much more in context – they’re sure to light up any foolish mortal who knows the Haunted Mansion(s) well. And if I’d been streaming the film at home, perhaps I’d have been more forgiving of this Haunted Mansion. But as it stands, those little cameos and winking nods only made me wish I were on vacation.

And why this wasn't released in October, I'm sure I can't say.

Haunted Mansion
 is rated PG-13 for “some thematic elements and scary action.” Directed by Justin Simien. Written by Katie Dippold. Starring LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Jared Leto.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Barbie (2023)

Apparently it’s been Barbie’s world all along, folks; we just live and dream in it. In this topsy-turvy summer where the pink day-glo sparkle of Barbie can open on the same day as the portentous and sobered Oppenheimer – and both can make a boatload of money – Barbie ends up being an excellent reminder that we can have both. If Barbie can have it all, so can we, and we don’t need to take ourselves too seriously in the process.
Things are great in Barbieland, a paradise populated only with Barbies and Kens (and Allan, played by Michael Cera). It’s all good until Barbie (Margot Robbie) begins to experience flat feet, anxiety, and cellulite. At the insistence of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), Barbie ventures out into the real world with Ken (Ryan Gosling) to find out why her worldview has gotten so grim – much to the consternation of the president of Mattel (Will Ferrell).
From its earliest trailers and first-looks, it was quite clear that Barbie’s secret weapon was going to be self-awareness. An early trailer cast Barbie in a send-off of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with children gleefully smashing baby dolls, and the hard cuts to the pristine plastic of Barbieland reassured us that director Greta Gerwig knew exactly what we might expect from a corporate Barbie film – and she was steadfastly opposed to creating a two-hour toy commercial. Instead, we get The Lego Movie by way of Enchanted, a film that shouldn’t be this delightful for a movie based on a narrative-less toy. (The antithesis, I suppose, is something like Transformers, a joyless toy commercial mired in its own monastic mythos.)
Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as “stereotypical” Barbie, the ur-doll from which all other Barbies (even President Barbie) draw their inspiration. Indeed, so immaculate is Robbie in this role that even the narrator (Helen Mirren) cannot help but comment on the utter absurdity of her lament that she’s not pretty; “Note to filmmakers,” she opines in one of the film’s many terrific jokes, “Margot Robbie is not the actress to get this point across.” Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling is, if it can be imagined, even doofier as Ken than Michael Keaton was in Toy Story 3. Gosling’s Ken is a true buffoon, a self-described accessory and self-insistent “ten” whose job is “beach” despite an apparent inability to perform CPR or even swim to shore on his own. Together, the two have some of the funniest chemistry imaginable, particularly because of the perennial lack of clarity about the precise nature of their relationship.
Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach are delightfully cavalier about most of the rules that govern Barbieland. Some of this is due to the logic that governs a child’s play, but more of it is in an embrace of fantasy and dreams at large. In two sequences, Rhea Perlman appears (particularly jarring for someone who, like myself, has binged nearly all of Cheers in about four months), and there’s an explanation provided in a hand-wavey kind of way that rolls over the audience like a wave. In another scene, someone ponders the possible differences between Barbieland and the real world, and in asking which difference is key, he receives a unanimous answer, “Yes.” Whether Barbieland is just down the block, like Toontown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, or whether it is a creation of a child’s fictional dreamscape, is the kind of question that only an adult reviewer would begin to ask – and Gerwig’s response is, “Don’t worry about it.”
The film is bracingly unselfconscious, with no one afraid to embarrass themselves or lean into the broad absurdism of playing a plastic doll come to life. Simu Liu is wickedly fun as a Ken consumed with himself (as they all are), a walking/talking competitive vanity incarnate. Similarly, Gerwig is undaunted by the prospect of directing cardboard montages, placing a corporate boardroom on the world’s longest tandem bicycle. It’s peppy and poppy, a little subversive and a little heavy on the ‘message,’ but if anyone’s upset by the film, they’re taking it – or themselves – a little too seriously. It’s a film where Gosling’s Ken is both perplexed and disappointed about the number of horses involved in a “patriarchy,” where Weird Barbie is unapologetic about smelling like a basement. The little nine-year-old boy next to me was as enchanted as his younger sister a few seats over. Their mother, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be enjoying herself, but then again she didn’t seem like a person who enjoyed much of anything. Perhaps she needed a Barbie of her own to inspire her, to remind her that it’s okay to feel joy. 
That message is Barbie’s greatest gift – that it’s tough out there, but it’s okay to laugh, to dream, to blaze your own path forward on tippy-toes, wearing so much more pink than any one retina can handle – just as long as you’re you while you’re doing it.

 is rated PG-13 for “suggestive references and brief language.” Directed by Greta Gerwig. Written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. Based on the Barbie dolls by Mattel. Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Michael Cera, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, and Will Ferrell.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Oppenheimer (2023)

Last week was the fifteenth anniversary of The Dark Knight. It was a seismic and seminal moment in blockbuster cinema, a sort of coming-of-age for me as a filmgoer and for superhero cinema writ large. It was the movie that made comic book movies a billion-dollar business, and after a decade and a half it hasn’t lost a step. But it also made Christopher Nolan a household name – no mean feat for a director to become ostensibly the auteur star of his own show.
Oppenheimer is Nolan’s sixth film since The Dark Knight, which is (for better or worse) the North Star for his entire career. I think you’d be hard-pressed to say that The Dark Knight isn’t still his best film, a perfect diamond absolute of a film, but Oppenheimer is in a way his most ambitious since, precisely because it’s Nolan without his characteristic science-fictional flair, his high concept effects wizardry. It’s still got all his stylistic quirks and puzzle-box structure, but for a director who has been criticized for being impersonal and unemotional, Oppenheimer is a riveting three-hour character study of one of history’s greatest enigmas.
Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of American quantum physics and director of the Manhattan Project, which yielded the world’s first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Nolan’s intricate approach to the biopic catches three distinct moments in Oppenheimer’s life – his path to Los Alamos, his 1954 security clearance investigation, and a 1959 Senate confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), an American bureaucrat who frequently butted heads with Oppenheimer.
Nolan has cited Oppenheimer as “the most important person who ever lived,” which – coming from one of the most important directors who ever lived – is high praise and certainly fair justification for the man who created Inception to turn his camera toward one particular scientific genius. Nolan has become one of those directors whose decisions (and films) may seem initially inscrutable, but like any good magician (cf. The Prestige) Nolan has a way of hiding his endgame in plain sight, only revealing his purpose at the moment when it best suits him. There are many moments in Oppenheimer that take one’s breath away – the Trinity bomb test certainly is orchestrated that way – but the film’s final exchange of dialogue recontextualizes the film by delivering Nolan’s ultimate thesis.
Nolan is both academic and prestidigitarian, technician and artisan, but what’s somewhat surprising about Oppenheimer is the example it sets of Nolan as a friend – of humanity, sure, but of his entire cast of players. Cillian Murphy has been a veteran of Nolan’s company since 2005’s Batman Begins, but his turn as Oppenheimer is a gift any performer would be envious to receive: three hours of, more or less, a one-man show about a living cipher, a man who embodied contradictions and challenged binaries, insisting all the while on neutrality and unreadability. Even his greatest triumph, the creation of the bomb, cannot be rendered in anything but code, as when he tells his wife over the telephone, “Bring the sheets in.”
As his wife, one of the two unwieldy women in his life, Emily Blunt is another performer treated by Nolan with kindness and grace. While the film is nominally her husband’s, Kitty Oppenheimer is given her own moments to shine, her own room to be her complicated self, petty yet resilient, sturdy and yet agreeing with her husband that they are “awful selfish people.” Blunt can do plenty with a steely look, particularly in two impactful sequences late in the film, but she can equally channel that quiet nerve into an explosion of emotion. Meanwhile, Florence Pugh is heartbreaking as Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock, unable to articulate her own desires or her needs from a man who is himself less than forthcoming. Pugh is arguably one of our preeminent scene stealers; case in point, she was the only ray of sunshine in the paint-by-numbers Black Widow, though her work in fare like Midsommar proves she’s equally gifted as a lead performer.
And speaking of Marvel performers, Robert Downey Jr. is already being fitted for a Best Supporting Oscar for his monochromatic antagonist Lewis Strauss. For those of us who are used to Downey as the flawed-yet-saintly Tony Stark, his turn as Strauss is a reminder of how versatile he can be. Strauss is instantly dislikeable, vindictive and self-righteous, and Downey creates an all-time classic screen villain. I can’t recall ever seeing a Downey character as loathsome as this one, but I certainly hope it’s not the last time he plays the heel, because it’s equally apparent that he is having a ball interpreting Strauss’s version of the story.
I did not join with so many of my fellow moviegoers in partaking of the “Barbenheimer” double feature. Truth be told, I was enervated after three hours of Oppenheimer. Not that the film was overlong and stupefying – quite the opposite. The cast is chock full of characters, some of whom are played by quite famous faces in surprisingly small roles, but each of them adds something quite special and unique to the stew. (Shout-out to Gary Oldman in one scene as Harry S. Truman.) But in telling a story out of sequence, as Nolan is wont to do, he takes the audience on a scenic tour through one man’s life, which as it turns out might well be the fulcrum point of human history. But Nolan’s method of delivery is not unlike an atomic bomb itself – a bright flash of light, followed by a roaring shockwave of impact. If you let out a breath as the credits rolled, as I did, it would have been one of recognition, of understanding. And before you draw air again, you’ll have to reckon with a sobering proposition that followed Oppenheimer all his life. And that, dear readers, is the most amazing magic trick of all – that Nolan created a biopic with a surprise ending, an interpretive twist that shouldn’t be spoiled.

 is rated R for “some sexuality, nudity, and language.” Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, and Kenneth Branagh.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, Part One (2023)

As I walked out of the theater for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One (a movie title with far too much punctuation), a woman sitting in the hallway asked me, expectantly and warily, “Is it any good?” With a hasty sigh, I assured her, “It’s fantastic,” realizing only then that the movie had taken my breath away. “Lots of action?” she asked, and I promised, “You have no idea.”
I hope she enjoyed it – indeed, I almost stuck around to see if she had, because as much as I’ve hemmed and hawed with blockbuster movies lately, as much as I’ve been besieged by fatigue and corporate horse-trading, Dead Reckoning is the first theatrical release in a long time that felt like an absolute blast: ten out of ten, no notes.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is back, on the trail of two halves of a mysterious key that will unlock one of the world’s deadliest weapons. His newest mission reunites his old friends Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) with the disavowed MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) against the shadowy Gabriel (Esai Morales), his assassin Paris (Pom Klementieff), and pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell), caught in the middle of a case that goes back to Ethan’s first days with the IMF.
Your mileage may vary on the first two Mission: Impossible films, but there’s no question that the series well and truly hit its stride with 2015’s Rogue Nation, the fifth in the franchise and the first pairing Tom Cruise with director Christopher McQuarrie. Dead Reckoning is McQuarrie’s third outing with the IMF, and if there’s a pocket he’s firmly in it. Since McQuarrie’s arrival, Mission: Impossible has been a racecar in the red, constantly accelerating and delivering consistent thrills that somehow, time and again, find a way to make a tense situation even more nail-biting. What’s not to love about an action film so confident that its first trailer consisted merely of a single stunt and the relentless insistence that, yes, Tom Cruise really drove a motorbike off a mountain? 
And even while we’ve seen that stunt over and over again, there is nevertheless a charm and an intensity in the film finally reaching that moment – and then overpowering it, again and again, in a climactic sequence that protracts the audience’s anxiety by making a certain situation unfathomably worse and worse. As a third act setpiece, it’s a definitional moment for the film, which packs all its character beats and espionage plots into one orchestral symphony of chaos aboard the Orient Express. Agatha Christie, eat your heart out; Poirot’s mere murder inquiry can’t hold a candle to the finale of Dead Reckoning
At two hours and forty-three minutes, Dead Reckoning has a runtime that would make any lesser action movie buckle. Even Dial of Destiny, which I more or less loved, felt a little baggy at two-thirty-four, yet Dead Reckoning clips along, even through preposterous scenes of outlandish didactic dialogue. Buoying even clunky exposition like “The only thing that’s real is this conversation,” what sells the film is the earnest investment we feel between these characters, the genuine care they have for each other. I rewatched the films about two years ago, and even so the chemistry between Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg did more heavy lifting for me than my memory of their friendship in the preceding films. If they’re being playful with each other, we know things will be fine, but the script deftly maneuvers into those moments where conversation becomes deadly serious, raising the ante to a painful degree.
Even in a franchise where anyone could be wearing a rubber mask, where death is often just a fake-out, the tension in this film is almost unbearable. The audience knows that Ethan Hunt – that Tom Cruise – is bulletproof, and yet I found myself wheezing with fear each time he flirted with sudden death. McQuarrie is a master magician in this sense, fully immersing the audience in the cinematic illusion of danger. In my review of Fallout, I had said that McQuarrie seemed constantly to be asking, “But what if it were on fire?” And that impulse to ratchet up the stakes persists into Dead Reckoning; there’s a car chase, yes, but the car has no doors, and its occupants are handcuffed in a way that makes driving a challenge – and, of course, there’s a baby carriage in their way. My audience was laughing and gasping in equal measure, a rapturous burst of applause just when things cleared up, only to reveal the light at the end of the tunnel to be, quite literally, an oncoming subway train.
That pesky Part One in the title gave me some degree of pause. I thought we’d cleared that hurdle back in the days of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and yet we have films like Across the Spider-Verse and Dune taking a year’s hiatus without fully concluding their narratives. There’s so much more to come in Dead Reckoning, Part Two, and yet McQuarrie hasn’t given us half of a story. He’s given us a full film (and then some), albeit with a major door left open for the sequel. That’s not to say that I couldn’t have easily gone another three hours – I could have – but at least this time I don’t feel like my attendance at the next film is taken for granted. Rather, Part One more than earns the right to expect me to come back for more. 
Back when Fallout debuted, I called Mission: Impossible “the little franchise that could.” But after 27 years and seven outings, I think it’s safe to say that it’s the persistent and consistent franchise that shows everyone else how it’s done.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One
 is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, some language, and suggestive material.” Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen. Starring Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby, Esai Morales, Pom Klementieff, and Henry Czerny.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023)

It’s a curious thing that three Indiana Jones films (of five) were conceived to be grand finales for the franchise – from riding off into a literal sunset at the end of The Last Crusade, to a reunion and a wedding in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, now Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny promises that, yes, this finally is the last outing for our beloved fortune-and-glory seeker. While not quite living up to its predecessors, and neither as masterful as director James Mangold’s last franchise elegy, LoganDial of Destiny is still far and away a worthy and fun addition to the Indiana Jones saga.

It's 1969, and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is feeling long in the tooth by the time his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) pays him a visit. Helena has come in search of the artifact that drove her father (Toby Jones) mad – Archimedes’ Dial, which is said to possess the power of time travel. But hot on their heels is the Nazi fugitive Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), who wants to use the dial to correct the mistakes of history.


Dial of Destiny begins with a roaring twenty-minute prologue, in the style of Last Crusade’s “lost adventure” opener. Immediately, it’s a real treat to see Indiana Jones in his prime, punching Nazis and barely squeezing out of a scrape. It’s at once bittersweet, given that any of us would happily have watched Harrison Ford punch Nazis in fifteen more films, but it is also a reminder that this franchise’s best days are a ways behind it, ensconced in the nostalgia and innocence of its serial pulp roots. All of which is not to say that Dial of Destiny is necessarily bad or even a net negative; particularly in this opening sequence but really throughout, Dial feels like classic Indy, and that aura of impactful crunchy action persists, as when a character’s head is imperiled during a motorcycle chase or when another is impaled by a cart full of timber.


Despite his ‘grumpy old man’ reputation, Ford has done heroic and laudatory work revisiting his old genre standbys, putting Dial in the good company of The Force Awakens and especially Blade Runner 2049. Here, Indiana Jones is worse for the wear and wearier of the world, but he seems not to have lost a step as far as his chippy personality and improvisational approach to action setpieces. He also gets a chance to deliver a fairly emotional sequence aboard a sailboat, and the film’s conclusion is a fitting and proper sendoff for a character as beloved as this one.


Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a snarky delight as Helena, more cutthroat capitalist than proper archaeologist, and Mads Mikkelsen is inspired casting as a seething Nazi holdout. The rest of the cast, though, amounts to a series of extended cameos – a shame for the return of John Rhys-Davies as Sallah and for the advent of Toby Jones as a skittish British professor – which does, I suppose, mean that the film can properly be about Indy, Helena, and Voller. But the greatest return of all is John Williams helming the score one last time. As fun as the film was, Williams provides that emotional core, and I found myself stamping my feet with excitement as he reprised a few of the action cues from Last Crusade’s exemplary sequences. So too for the moments I felt my eyes welling up – that, I promise you, was all Williams.


At just over two and a half hours, though, Dial of Destiny is a good sight longer than the other four Indiana Jones films, and I regret to say that you do feel it. It’s somber in places where it needs to be, and its action sequences are dynamite (once, quite literally), but its third act is a little baggy, and it does take a bit of time to get there. I mean no offense to James Mangold on this one, but the toughest thing about Dial is that it isn’t directed by Steven Spielberg. Few franchises are as inextricably linked to one singular director as this one is, and Dial lacks that precision filmmaking, that gee-whiz enthusiasm that Spielberg brings better than anyone. Mangold was hand-picked by Spielberg to helm the finale, and he’s a solid director in his own right, yet there is something about Dial that never wholly feels of a piece with its predecessors. 


Perhaps I’ll change my tune on that count once I’ve seen Dial at home a few times – because I do intend to see this one again and again. There are some sequences in it that are truly breathtaking, and my personal jury is still out about the film’s big MacGuffin-y climax. Ultimately Dial of Destiny is an exercise in measured restraint everywhere but its action scenes; it’s not as wistfully nostalgic as it could have been, but nor is it as tight and punchy as one might expect from this franchise. Or perhaps it’s just that I haven’t seen it fifteen billion times like I have Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps, once I can quote vast swaths of it in the way that I’ve committed long sections of Last Crusade to memory, Dial of Destiny will become a classic. Yet at the end of the day, it is an Indiana Jones movie, and a good enough one, at that.


Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
 is rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action, language, and smoking.” Directed by James Mangold. Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp, and James Mangold. Starring Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Antonio Banderas, John Rhys-Davies, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, and Mads Mikkelsen. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

The Flash (2023)

It seemed like a bizarre twist of fate that I saw The Flash exactly ten years to the day after first seeing Man of Steel. (Save your ticket stubs, friends.) So much of The Flash revolves around a sideways retelling of the events of Man of Steel, while at the same time serving as the ostensible finale for the cinematic universe that began with Henry Cavill’s debut as Superman. For this reason – and so many more – it is a challenge to think of The Flash as its own thing, as a superhero movie unto itself. The Flash is by and large a fun time at the movies, but it is so nakedly corporate and so eager to shuffle another franchise off this cinematic coil – and consequently it is difficult for this fan in particular to celebrate and embrace it wholesale.
After the events of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) has unlocked the ability to travel backward in time. Hoping to exonerate his wrongfully-imprisoned father, Barry changes the past to prevent his mother’s murder – but in so doing, he creates a universe with no metahumans to stop the invasion of General Zod (Michael Shannon). With only the fiery Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle), an aging Batman (Michael Keaton), and his own alternate universe doppelganger (Miller again), Barry must either save the present, restore the past, or lose the future.
At the center of whatever you make of The Flash is the cauldron of personal and legal challenges in which Ezra Miller is currently embroiled. A fine enough Flash in ZSJL – and a decent, if overly Spider-Man-esque, variation in the theatrical Justice League – Miller never presented as irreplaceable. And for Warner Bros. to pin their hopes on a film starring not one, but two Ezra Millers, while simultaneously claiming that Batgirl was unreleasable, seemed like such a curious choice. Here again, Miller is quite fun as both Barrys, giving suitably nuanced performances to differentiate the two, but it is equally hard to watch the film and not imagine a less problematic performer in the role.
As if to distract from the Miller of it all, the film brings in scores of old faces and a few new ones, too, and on that count I must concede it works. No matter what baggage you bring to the theater with you, there is an undeniable thrill from revisiting Stately Wayne Manor and seeing Michael Keaton fly a Batplane with Danny Elfman’s score thrumming in the background. Keaton has not lost a step as Batman, reinhabiting his idiosyncratic Bruce Wayne with ease. Meanwhile, the other returning Michael reprises his General Zod, albeit with little of the personality and narrative heft that Shannon brought to Man of Steel. It’s a treat to see his Zod again, but his performance feels a bit like someone bringing a favorite action figure out of the toybox and playing only the hits.
On the flip side, Sasha Calle’s Kara is scratching the surface of a very interesting take on the character, though she has far less to do than the trailers let on. Still, playing up her role as Superman’s older cousin and riffing on the Flashpoint comics, Calle makes a compelling case for being more than just one cast-off universe’s Supergirl. If the reports bear out the Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow film we’ve been promised, I’d say it’s worth giving Calle a fuller shot at the role.
And yet, hard as I tried to watch The Flash as its own one-off film about the Scarlet Speedster, it was so very difficult not to view the film as a kind of living funeral, an elegiac wake for an aborted cinematic universe that I’m going to miss so terribly much. For all that it tries to be a celebration of the DC film universe writ large, it was impossible – at least for me – not to feel an accompanying pang of sadness. This, for example, is likely the last time we’ll see Ben Affleck as Batman, and his performance is so touching, partly because it’s an absolutely wretched way to say goodbye, even while he wrings such effective pathos from the bare minimum that the script gives him to do. Ditto Miller, whose performance is nothing overly special until the final act, which gives us a powerful emotional climax that the film scarcely deserves. If this is indeed the final run for this Barry Allen, what a waste to leave just when things were getting interesting.
I made the mistake of watching the Flash scenes from Zack Snyder’s Justice League the night before seeing The Flash. It was a mistake because that iteration of the character was so fun and so fresh that I couldn’t wait for more Barry Allen. Those super-speed scenes looked crisp, and I still get a little emotional at Barry’s big “Make your own future. Make your own past” moment. By comparison, The Flash is lousy with muddled CGI (which director Andy Muschietti, bafflingly, insists is deliberate) and the loud-and-clear message is instead, “Stop living your past.” It’s advice that the film might well have taken, riddled as it is with cameos, callbacks, and references – only a few of which are actually well-used and not, frankly, ghoulish. 
At the end of the day, though, The Flash is entertaining enough. It’s fun enough. It’s fine. It’s not good enough to merit the extensive discourse around Ezra Miller’s employability. It’s not a great sendoff for the so-called Snyderverse. It’s not an auspicious beginning for the new James Gunn universe – if indeed that’s what The Flash would ever have been. And it’s not even a loving highlight reel for DC Universes gone by, dangling most of its shiny cameos like baubles on a Christmas tree. It’s junk food, albeit junk food that happens to star some of my favorite fictional characters. But if it’s going to leave my preferred interpretations of those characters lying face-down in a puddle, turning them into punchlines instead of paragons, this might just be where I jump off the cosmic treadmill.

The Flash
 is rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action, some strong language, and partial nudity.” Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Christina Hodson, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, and Joby Harold. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Ezra Miller, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston, Maribel Verdú, Kiersey Clemons, and Michael Keaton.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

Five years and one Oscar later, Into the Spider-Verse just happens to be my favorite Spider-Man film. Apologies to Spider-Man 2 and Far From Home, which are the best that live-action Spidey has to offer, but Into the Spider-Verse is such a diamond absolute of a movie, so entertaining in an effortless way that belies its complex juggling act. It was a joy to queue it up the night before seeing its sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, which might have been a bad idea: Across is fantastic, but its predecessor was perfect. 

Sixteen months after becoming his world’s Spider-Man, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is still juggling his responsibilities to his school, his family, and his city. But a surprise visit from his not-so-secret crush Gwen “Spider-Woman” Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) forces Miles to reckon with his place in the Spider-Verse, an interconnected multiversal web of superheroes under attack from the villainous Spot (Jason Schwartzman). Miles finds himself teaming with old friends like recent dad Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and new allies like Spider-Man India (Karan Soni) and Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya) – all led by the humorless Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), who understands Miles’s great responsibility better than anyone.


Across the Spider-Verse goes big. It’s purportedly the longest animated film in American cinematic history, and it’s packed to the gills with more spider-people than most comic books can accommodate. Across begins with an extended sequence set on Earth-65, home of Spider-Gwen, and it’s such an engaging bit of table-setting that one fairly wishes the whole movie had been Gwen’s; the scene looks like something out of a Robbi Rodriguez comic, and the film might very well have been Gwen’s wholesale had the second act kept her front and center. (Fear not, true believers, Sony has already promised Gwen will be leading a spin-off film and, we can reasonably assume, next year’s Beyond the Spider-Verse.)


Indeed, my second-biggest gripe with Across – albeit far from a dealbreaker – is that the film struggles to be a two-hander between Gwen and Miles. It reminds one of middle chapters like The Empire Strikes Back and Infinity War, both of which interposed their antagonists as protagonists while splitting up the good guys on parallel narrative tracks. The first and third acts of Across belong to Gwen, but the middle act is solidly Miles, still plucky and earnest with his tongue firmly in his cheek. In the first film, he managed to turn the theory of relativity into a cheesy pick-up line, and here he’s fully inherited the uniquely Spider-Man brand of goofball sarcasm. Across never quite balances them the way that Empire so gracefully did – we lose Gwen’s plot when we see her through Miles’s eyes – but if Gwen is this film’s Leia, Miles is still squarely its Luke. 


Like Luke Skywalker, Miles enters into a much bigger world in Across, serving also as the audience’s gateway into the larger realm of the Spider-Verse. These sequences on the densely-populated Earth-928 are going to be ripe for a home video audience to freeze-frame and analyze, loaded with cameos and references from the last sixty years of Spider-Man content. But amid all these homages and single-frame appearances, the creative team have not forgotten to anchor it all to compelling story arcs for the primary characters – their longing to belong, their fears of commitment, and their rebellious wonderings whether they’re able to write their own stories. This, after all, is what made Into the Spider-Verse such a roaring success – that we managed to meet no fewer than five new Spiders and parallel versions of villains like Doctor Octopus, all in under two hours without shortchanging any of them.


The makers of Across have more time to play, but paradoxically it seems they didn’t have enough time, because the film speeds along for two hours and twenty minutes before slamming on the brakes. To be fair, ending a story with “to be continued” is one of the oldest and noblest traditions in comic book history, and it does solidify the film in conversation with Empire Strikes Back and Infinity War. Yet while I’m a little rankled that the film stops rather than ends, I think my principal complaint is actually the fact that I don’t have more of this film already being injected directly into my eyeballs. The principal story arcs have mostly concluded, and the characters have made choices that show how far they’ve grown, but there is still something shamelessly corporate about mandating my attendance at Beyond the Spider-Verse by withholding the end of the story until March 2024. (Don’t worry, guys, I was already planning on it!)


I never check my watch during a movie, and so I had thought the third act was just ramping up when Across flashed those three cliffhanger words across our screen. And so, if that’s actually the beginning of a brand-new first act, I’m legitimately excited to see what happens next. I’m equally thrilled to see how the creators deepen the world one more time; the introductions of Spider-Man India and Spider-Punk are so compelling that we forget that we haven’t seen Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham, or Peni Parker this time around. Which other spiders are waiting for us just beyond Beyond? If the third installment in the trilogy is as breakneck and beautiful as the second, we might have to rethink whether we let other franchises get away with the cliffhanger ending.


Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is rated PG for “sequences of animated action violence, some language, and thematic elements.” Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson. Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham. Based on the Marvel Comics. Starring Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Bryan Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, and Oscar Isaac.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3

It wasn’t until very late in the film – midway through the first post-credits scene, in fact – that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 finally clicked for me. It is not spoiling very much to mention that a band of characters sits around and listens to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” mutually agreeing that it is one of the greatest songs in history. It’s an unapologetic lure on the fishing line of nostalgia, made all the more hollow by the fact that many of the aforementioned characters we’ve only just met. (Certainly none of them had been there for Peter Quill’s opening dance number in the first Guardians film.)

While this post-credits scene ostensibly points toward a future for the franchise (including, it pains me to say, one particular inflection that reminded me all too much of the dismal Thor: Love and Thunder), it is also trying desperately to serve as an evocative coda to a trilogy that hasn’t held together as well as its finale would like to pretend. Writer/director James Gunn is juggling too much, straining like Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man to hold it all together, and while the film is competently told and engaging enough, it is overlong and baggy, and it serves more as a love letter to itself than anything else. 


Vol. 3 finds Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) wounded in a battle with Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), leading to the revelation, finally, of the horrific circumstances that created Rocket. Peter Quill, the Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and his ersatz band of Guardians team up with the Ravager Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) to break into the vaults of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) in search of Rocket’s salvation.


If I’m daydreaming or almost falling asleep, there’s something very wrong with the movie. And while I should have been trying harder to separate the movie from off-screen drama, vast swaths of this bloated movie failed to hold my attention. (It wasn’t, however, as dire as Black Widow, the only Marvel movie where I’m not convinced I didn’t nod off.) And so it was that I found myself wondering how many moviegoers had seen last November’s Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, which already introduced the concept of the Guardians defending Knowhere alongside the revelation that Peter Quill and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) were half-siblings. I wondered if we were still in trilogy territory, and then I remembered that the Guardians trilogy had a significant detour through Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, which looms quite large over Vol. 3


Here, Gunn has to accommodate the time-travel shenanigans that killed off Gamora but restored her from a decade-old past, and Gunn never quite figures out how to fit Gamora back into the franchise. Moreover, the film takes time to air Gunn’s own grievances about the way “his” characters were handled by the Russo Brothers in the third and fourth Avengers films (a complaint no one else shares); in one of my least favorite superhero movie tropes, Star-Lord has a long monologue about the unfortunate and nonsensical circumstances that have led to his current state of affairs. It’s a scene that is meant to play for laughs, but the joke is on the source material and on the fans for taking any of this seriously; in short, it’s another iteration of Gunn’s “comics are for bozos” mentality, and of his bizarre insistence that only he understands these characters. (See also his recent claims that Star-Lord would never have lost his temper in the fight against Thanos.)


Indeed, throughout the film, Gunn is trying to play the hits, his hits, as in the Redbone sequence, but all of it feels simply like thumbing through a scrapbook – which the end credits actually bear out, showing still photos to remind us of the foregoing entries in the franchise. But each echo misses what made the originals special. The first Guardians film was a breath of fresh air in a genre that was beginning to take itself too seriously, and it was a welcome treat to see on-screen interpretations of characters that even comics fans thought too ludicrous for primetime. Even the second film, which hasn’t aged well in my estimations, overly reliant on emotional insincerity and crude humor, still had that Marvel heart when it came to the idea of family. Never mind the iconic soundtrack of the films, mashing up unlikely oldies with shots of spaceships and laser blasts; here, however, none of the songs is really very memorable, and the gag about swapping a Walkman for a Zune seems to have yielded only a paucity of good tunes. (Even the Guardians fanfare gets short shrift in this one.) Here, however, Vol. 3 is an ending that doesn’t have the heart to end, striking a false chord in the final twenty minutes, which consist of (as Neil Gaiman would put it) people standing around saying good-bye to each other.


In the middle of it all, though, is a very compelling performance by Chukwudi Iwuji as one of Marvel’s better villains of late. His High Evolutionary is a far cry from the cosmic source material, but Iwuji’s version is fantastic, entirely unsympathetic and intrinsically evil without needing to twirl a mustache. As great as he is, though, there’s a beat where Star-Lord cuts short his supervillain soliloquy with snarky remarks about why villain monologues don’t work and whether the High Evolutionary’s mother loved him enough. Iwuji barrels on, almost as if he’s sick of these jokes too, and one almost wishes that this spine of the film had been its own Rocket Raccoon feature – inspired by, or perhaps plagiarized from, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3 comics about animal experimentation. (Floor the Rabbit is, at least, plundered wholesale from We3’s Pirate.) In fact, Iwuji’s performance is so engaging that one wonders if he shouldn’t replace the beleaguered Jonathan Majors and retroactively enroll the High Evolutionary as one more ageless Kang.


Look, I’m no fan of James Gunn, but I went into this thing with an open mind. I did, after all, love the first one! Vol. 3 is not, thank God, the nightmarish brand of misanthropy we saw in The Suicide Squad – a film that I’m still convinced would like nothing more than to shove me into a locker – and it’s at least effective on an emotionally manipulative level. The action scenes aren’t anything special, and the script is working overtime to resolve too many concurrent plots. But it lacks sufficient grounds for me to be able to say it’s a bad movie; it’s just not as good as it ought to be, nor as good as it hopes, striking an indelicate balance between ridiculing its characters for having emotions and then expecting us to play along when those same emotions are played sincerely.


Vol. 3 is, in short, attempting to eat its cake and have it too, but it’s a cake with a hollow center that tries to convince us that it’s a better, earlier cake. Worse, this particular cake smacks of self-congratulation, yet at the end of the day, I’ve eaten 32 slices (plus whatever the television shows are in this analogy), and I’ve come too far to quit just yet. 


Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3
 is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references and thematic elements.” Written and directed by James Gunn. Based on the Marvel Comics. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Chukwudi Iwuji, and Will Poulter.