Justice League


Could this be Ben Affleck’s last appearance as Batman?

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Billy Crudup, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ingvar Sigurdsson, David Thewlis, Marc McClure, Sergi Constance, Julian Lewis Jones, Salóme Gunnarsdóttir. Directed by Zach Snyder

 

With the critical and commercial success of Wonder Woman earlier this year, expectations were high that the DC Extended Universe – the comic book publisher’s cinematic arm and their version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – was at last ready to turn around after movies that were disappointing to both fans of the comics and accountants at Warner Brothers alike. That optimism proved to be unfounded as the film, though a hit at the box office was not as successful as the studio execs hoped and after another drubbing from fans and critics alike, the DCEU would eventually undergo massive restructuring. The question is was the movie really that bad?

Well, yes and no. The plot is fairly simple – a cosmic baddy known as Steppenwolf (Hinds in full motion capture splendor) is after three McGuffins called Mother Boxes secreted in various places on Earth. Batman (Affleck), ever the vigilant detective, divines that the Earth is about to come under attack but Wonder Woman (Gadot) is aware that the attack is already under way. With Superman (Cavill) out of the picture, Batman realizes they’ll need a team of superheroes to battle the nearly omnipotent Steppenwolf. He gathers the three others he’s aware of; Aquaman (Momoa) who has dominion over the ocean and those who dwell within it, Cyborg (Fisher) who is learning to adjust to his mostly machine body, and the Flash (Miller), a teen speedster very much unlike the CW version. While the latter is eager to join, the first two are reluctant until they are convinced that they are sorely needed. Massive battle sequences full of mind-numbing CGI follow.

I have to say I found the film entertaining for the most part. Momoa and Fisher make excellent heroes and in their first appearances in anything other than a brief cameo show that they are fully capable of heading up their own films – Momoa’s Aquaman is actually next on the DCEU schedule in December. Gadot and Affleck have proven themselves to be strong screen presences and both know what to do with their material and do it well. The one exception was Miller as The Flash; Snyder and his writers inexplicably went the annoying wisecracking teen route with the character which has already been tried with Quicksilver in the X-Men movies; it worked far better there. Miller is actually a really good young actor but he was sabotaged by the character who is just a jarring note that doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the team.

Snyder has a habit of using a lot of kinetic camera movement and that’s okay but given the massive amount of CGI being used in the movie the effect becomes mind-numbing and overwhelming. It’s visual overload and not in a good way. I would have preferred a little less CGI and a lot more character development but Snyder hasn’t shown the latter to be one of his strengths in any movie that he’s undertaken to date.

For me, the biggest problem with Justice League is Steppenwolf. Not so much in Hinds’ performance capture or his voice work but simply the character as written has absolutely no personality whatsoever and he just felt like a cookie cutter villain who is all like “Oh yes, I want to destroy the world because..” *yawn*

Even with all that going against that I still think that this movie gives some hope that the DCEU can turn things around. As I said there’s been a massive shake-up at the top with a new executive overseeing the franchise – Walter Hamada from New Line who helped build The Conjuring into a multi-film universe that has been as successful in every sense of the word as the DCEU has not been. Although the jury is out on whether Affleck will remain as the Batman for any further films (smart money is that he won’t), Gadot is a proven commodity and it appears both Momoa and Fisher have the ability to take a franchise film and run with it. With the Shazam movie on the horizon as well as a sequel to Wonder Woman there is still something to look forward to in the DCEU. I’m not sure they’re ready to equal Marvel’s cinematic success but there’s no reason to assume that they can’t get there.

REASONS TO GO: The film was reasonably entertaining. Momoa and Fisher acquitted themselves well. Affleck and Gadot continue to impress in their roles. There is still hope that the DCEU can turn itself around.
REASONS TO STAY: Miller’s Flash is way too annoying. The camera is too kinetic and the screen too filled with CGI, making everything look overwhelming and busy. Steppenwolf had zero personality which is a massive problem for your lead villain.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is loaded with action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Snyder’s daughter passed away during shooting; at first he and his wife (a producer on the film) tried to stay on as a way to work through their grief but after two months both decided to step down to spend time with their family. Joss Whedon stepped in and completed post-production as well as overseeing some reshoots
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avengers: Age of Ultron
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Kangaroo: A Love/Hate Story

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X-Men


Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

(2000) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Matthew Sharp, Brett Morris, Shawn Ashmore, Sumela Kay, Katrina Florece, Alexander Burton, Kenneth McGregor, Rhona Shekter, Stan Lee. Directed by Bryan Singer

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies maybe of all time this one, and it had all the ingredients necessary for a monster smash hit; comic-book action, eye candy, a respected director, attractive actors, even a few Names. So is it any good?

Certainly, the movie has a rich storyline to draw from, one over 40 years in the making. There are some differences (a few of them fairly major) from the comic book mythos, but director Singer remained true to the comic’s essential storyline. That’s as well he should, as it is one of the most complex and interesting in comics.

It starts with a concentration camp in Poland, where a young Jewish boy named Eric Lensherr (Morris) is being torn from his parents. The hysterical boy manifests a terrifying power, but it is not enough to save his mother (Shekter) and father (McGregor) from their fates.

Flash-forward to the near future. Mutant children with strange and sometimes deadly powers are manifesting themselves all over the globe. Senator Kelly (Davison) is leading a crusade based on anti-mutant hysteria. Kelly wants these mutants to register themselves as you might register a handgun. Eventually, the senator means to see every mutant locked away in an effort to keep society safe from these potentially dangerous mutants.

Reasonable voices, such as that of respect geneticist Dr. Jean Grey (Janssen) are being shouted down by the hysterics. In the background, the young concentration camp survivor – now an immensely powerful man who can control magnetic fields at whim and who calls himself Magneto (McKellen),  broods and plots. His close friend, the charismatic and immensely powerful psychic Charles Xavier (Stewart), plots and hopes.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta a lonely, frightened teen calling herself Rogue (Paquin) hooks up with a surly, curmudgeonly loner named Wolverine (Jackman). Turns out Wolverine has an incredible regenerative power – he can take a great deal of punishment and heal at an astonishingly rapid rate. With a skeleton laced with a diamond-hard alloy called adamantium and claws of the same material that can shoot out from his knuckles and slice through virtually anything, he can dish it out, too.

The two are attacked in the Canadian wilderness by a lion-like creature called Sabretooth (Mane) but are rescued at the last minute by a strikingly beautiful woman of coffee-colored skin and ivory, silken hair who generates her own weather patterns; she is Ororo Munro, also known as Storm (Berry). With her is a boy-next-door type named Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (Marsden) who can generate devastating force beams from his eyes. The two take Wolverine and Rogue back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, a place where mutant youngsters can learn to control and refine their powers, as well as gain an education in an almost normalized environment.

They are also gearing up for a fight. You see, Sabretooth is one of a crew that works for Magneto that also includes the agile Toad (Park) whose tongue would make Gene Simmons green with envy, and the alluring, shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) whose normal appearance has her with a strange blue skin. Magneto believes that a war between normals and mutants is coming, and that natural selection favors the mutants, but sheer numbers favor homo sapiens, who will kill off all mutants in order to survive.

Xavier believes that humans deserve to survive but that mutants can be integrated into society. He has assembled a group of X-Men to protect humanity and show them that the two species can work together in harmony. Magneto, however, has plans to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders and he needs a powerful mutant to make that happen – and it isn’t Wolverine.

There is a lot more depth to this movie than the average summer action flick. It examines our tendencies to distrust and be fearful of those different from us — skin tones, religion, sexual orientation, whatever. These “mutants” for the most part are no different than the rest of us, externally. What makes them different generally doesn’t manifest except in specific situations which is true of those that society currently does mistrust. “Normal” is really a term subject to broad interpretation, even outside the comic books.

The eye candy is impressive, but it isn’t what this movie is about. A lot of kudos must go to the casting director; nearly every role is perfectly cast, particularly Stewart and Jackman, who physically resemble their four-color counterparts. The script is well-written and thought provoking but never lacking in the action that summer moviegoers crave. The character who are developed are believable.

The trouble is, you would need a 30-hour miniseries to properly develop all of the characters here, so many get short shrift, particularly Storm who deserves more screen time and more background. Also, if you aren’t familiar with the comic as Da Queen is not much of the details are going to go sailing right over your head. You may want to have a 12-year-old boy with you to explain it.

Hugh Jackman ascended to immediate stardom with his performance here. His Wolverine is at the center of the movie, and Jackman carries it effortlessly. Stewart’s Xavier is not that dissimilar to Captain Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation but that’s just fine; the role calls for the kind of commanding presence and compassion that Stewart invested Picard with. McKellen is astonishingly compelling, as much victim as villain. One can’t help but sympathize with him even as he’s doing horrible things – the mark of a great movie villain. Not every actor out there could bring those qualities – which were always evident in the comic book version – to life.

It isn’t exaggeration to say that the success of this movie opened the floodgates for Marvel to re-define the superhero movie and become the industry force that they have become. The X-Men franchise has continued to flourish with two off-shoots starring Jackman as Wolverine and three other feature films and a fourth scheduled for release in May and a fifth already on the schedule for 2016. If a movie can be this entertaining and at the same time promote tolerance, I’m definitely on board for the series continuing indefinitely.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story used to address issues of intolerance and prejudice. Some nice performances, particularly from Jackman, Stewart, McKellen and Berry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too cerebral for those who like their comic book action non-stop. Some purists might complain about deviation from comic book canon.

FAMILY MATTERS: As is necessary for most comic book adaptations, there is a surfeit of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman started his tradition of beginning his day with ice cold showers whenever he is playing the role of Wolverine on this film. He had jumped into the shower at 5 AM, not realizing that there was no hot water. Not wanting to wake up his wife, he just tolerated and had an epiphany that this was what Wolverine felt all the time – wanting to lash out and forced to hold it all in. He uses these cold showers to get into character and has for every film featuring Wolverine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release had a wealth of features including an Easter Egg scene involving a well-known Marvel superhero who doesn’t appear in the film (but would later get a franchise of his own), a Fox-TV special called The Mutant Watch that is centered around the Senate hearings on Mutant Affairs, an interview with Singer by Charlie Rose and Jackman’s screen test. There was also a method of integrating deleted scenes into the place in the film where they would have been by means of hitting the enter button on your DVD remote whenever an X-Men logo appeared on the bottom right of the screen. A special edition DVD, known as X-Men 1.5 was also released and while it had an entire second disc of special features, most were of the standard production diary sort which were strangely lacking from the initial release. Most of these are also available on the Blu-Ray edition released in 2009.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.3M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

 

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Phantom

Mystery Men


Skull bowling has never really taken off as a recreational sport.

Skull bowling has never really taken off as a recreational sport.

(1999) Superhero (Universal) Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell, Greg Kinnear, Wes Studi, Lena Olin, Eddie Izzard, Artie Lange, Prakazrel Michel, Claire Forlani, Tom Waits, Emmy Laybourne . Directed by Kinka Usher

If you have had enough of brooding Dark Knights, angsty-but-noble Spider-Men or of Too-Good-To-Be-True Men of Steel, here are the other guys, the kinds of heroes that would probably show up to save OUR day.

Mr. Furious (Stiller), known for his legendary rages, leads a trio of what local cops contemptuously call wannabes, rounded out by the Shoveller (Macy), the straight man who says modestly “we just fight crime…call it what you will” and the obtuse Blue Raja (Azaria), who speaks in a phony British accent and has not a speck of the color blue in his costume. He throws silverware with uncanny accuracy, although he has trouble flinging knives which is one the things that makes Mr. Furious so hopped-up mad.

When this trio of do-gooders attempt to save an old-folks home from robbery, they wind up having the crap kicked out of them only to be rescued by Captain Amazing (Kinnear), Champion City’s legitimate superhero. It seems Amazing has done his work too well, and there are no real battles left for him to fight. So when his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Rush) is released from the asylum, Amazing hopes for the kind of apocalyptic battle that will bring the Captain’s sinking stock back to the fore. So when Amazing is captured by his mortal enemy, there’s nobody left to save the day except…you guessed it.

Realizing they are woefully overmatched, they try to recruit some additional firepower (which leads to the Superhero Audition, one of the best scenes in the movie). They wind up with the Spleen (Reubens), whose incapacitating gasses are best left undescribed, the Invisible Kid (Kel Mitchell) who can only turn invisible when nobody’s watching, the Sphinx (Studi) who utters semi-mystical phrases of meaningless babble (sample; “If you do not master your rage, your rage will master you”) and the Bowler (Garofalo), who keeps her father’s skull in her bowling ball and carries on conversations with her departed dad that blur the line between neurotic and psychotic but settle into a kind of Jewish angst.

The odds are against them as they find themselves some weapons (which mainly don’t work) and get themselves some snazzy new costumes which do. However, with their backs to the wall they still refuse to walk away, knowing that this fight could very well be their last.

Usher tries way too hard to turn this into a roller coaster ride of comedy and action, winding up with something that tain’t one thing nor t’other. There are car chases and fight scenes, but mostly played with a wink. The set design is memorable, sort of a cross between Gotham City and the overlooked sci-fi flick Dark City. There are a lot of terrific running jokes; only Mr. Furious seems to notice the remarkable resemblance between Captain Amazing and his alter ego, for example. Note the corporate sponsorships on the uniform of Captain Amazing, for another – sort of like a European soccer uniform or a NASCAR suit.

This is definite eye candy, highly entertaining eye candy at that. The action sequences aren’t half bad although they are played with a definite wink.  The cast is formidable, with some of the most underrated talents in Hollywood. Superhero parodies have not traditionally sold well in the comic book store, and this one certain didn’t bust down the box office bank. Still, if you want to get away from the usual suspects of Marvel and DC superheroes, here is the kind of movie that will keep the parents entertained without having their kids squirming in their seats.

WHY RENT THIS: Magnificent eye candy. An alternative from the usual superhero fare. Some fine performances, particularly from Macy, Stiller, Kinnear, Studi and Garofalo.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Comedy and action sequences sometimes clash. A little neurotic in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some rather crude jokes and a bit of comic book violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The comic book from which this originated was began as a spin-off from the Flaming Carrot comic books but only Mr. Furious, the Spleen and the Shoveller made it from the book to the film (the Bowler, Invisible Kid and Blue Raja are all new characters developed for the film). The Sphynx is a Golden Age character in the public domain and Captain Amazing is a substitute for the Flaming Carrot whom producers thought was too bizarre a character for a mainstream Hollywood film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the origin of the comic book series and a couple of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.5M on a $68M production budget; the movie was an unqualified flop.

STATION WAGON LOVERS: The Shoveller’s car is an early AMC Rebel.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: This is 40

Marvel’s The Avengers


Marvel's The Avengers

Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are a bit grumpy because they didn’t get a nifty uniform.

(2012) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Gwynneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany (voice), Alexis Denisof, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Joss Whedon

 

Okay, take a deep breath now. It’s finally here, after five years of anticipation, of endless speculation, it’s here. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one place. Comic book fans of all sorts have been squirming in their chairs for months waiting for this movie to make it into the multiplex.

The thing is, this isn’t a movie just for those who love superheroes. This is spectacle on an epic scale, with battles raging in the skies as well as in the streets of Manhattan. However, there is more to it with a bit of pathos as well as some sharp dialogue. For those wondering, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the preceding Marvel superhero movies, although it helps to have done so.

Loki (Hiddleston) has been released from his quantum exile by the Tesseract, a cube of immense power that SHIELD has been using to try to create a self-sustaining energy source. He immediately uses his spear to control Professor Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) who’s been consulting with SHIELD on the project, and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner), an agent of SHIELD.

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Jackson) realizes that war has been declared on Earth by Loki – and he may have an army of alien beings behind him. The armed might of the world’s armies will be insufficient to stop what’s coming, so he is forced to recruit the most powerful beings on Earth to stop the threat – Iron Man (Downey), he of the powerful metal battle suit; Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist and expert on gamma radiation who when angered turns into a gigantic mindless beast that can tear about virtually anything without much effort, and Captain America (Evans), a soldier from World War II rescued from a decades-long sleep who was enhanced at the genetic level by a super soldier formula.

They are joined by the Black Widow (Johansson), an athletic spy and master interrogator and agent Phil Coulson (Gregg), Fury’s right hand – and eye in the field. They’re going to need all of them because with Hawkeye swinging for the other team, Loki is privy to all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

The rest of the team is transported to SHIELDS heli-carrier, an airport carrier with gigantic helicopter rotors and the ability to turn invisible – yes, a cloaking shield! Eat your hearts out, Trekkers! In any case, Banner works on a device to track the unique but faint gamma radiation signature of the Tesseract. In the meantime, Loki is captured by Cap and Iron Man in Germany.

That brings Thor (Hemsworth) into the mix. Thor, Loki’s adopted brother, has noticed what Loki is up to and has had his father send him to Midguard (Earth) at some great cost. The intention is to bring Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes there. However, there is work to be done on Earth before that can happen – heading off the invasion that Loki has initiated, for one thing and the alien Chitaurs are not particularly interested in a gentle, benevolent rule. It will take the combined might of all of them to thwart Loki’s intricate plans and save the Earth from being subjugated by alien masters.

This is everything a superhero film is supposed to be; it captures the dynamics of each individual character and Whedon and writer Zak Penn extrapolate how the interpersonal relationships would work given their personalities and egos (which, to be fair, the comics have been doing for years). The result is a believably dysfunctional group of heroes who can be prima donnas and have their own agendas from time to time. Tony Stark (the alter ego of Iron Man) for example is highly suspicious of SHIELD’s motives and distrusts government, particularly after they forcibly tried to take away his work from him in the first two Iron Man movies.

Everyone gets to shine here, from the big guns (Downey) right on down to Gregg who has few scenes but makes the most of them. All of them, including Nick Fury (who hasn’t had much to do in previous films except for a good deal of expository dialogue) kick patooty, whether each other (as in  Thor-Hulk battle) or against the aliens (Cap gives the big green guy the orders “Hulk smash” and Hulk, grinning broadly, does just that).

It might have gone a little bit long (and waiting until the very end of the credits for the second extra scene might be a too much to ask) but all in all this is mind-blowing when it needs to be and visceral when it has to be. Watching Hulk smash is one of the great joys in life, as is seeing Cap’s leadership abilities come to life, or Tony Stark’s ego.

Nothing I say is going to dissuade people who want to see this from seeing it or those that don’t want to see it from avoiding it. If you don’t like superhero movies, if you find big loud action movies with Dolby sound and 3D glasses to be sensory overload, you’re going to be uncomfortable with this. HOWEVER if you don’t mind or actively love these things, you’ll be in your element here.

A note to parents: please don’t bring your kids along if they’re say seven or younger. The movie is a bit long for kids with short attention spans, it’s very scary in places and LOUD throughout. There was a moment when Hulk was roaring and I happened to be glancing at a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old covering her ears with a look of ABSOLUTE terror on her face. She had no business being there and you know it wasn’t her idea to go. Get a babysitter folks, or take them to see a Pixar film instead or be prepared to have an angry mob of people at the theater turn on you. This isn’t a little kids movie by any stretch of the imagination. If your kids aren’t able to handle a two hour movie at home, they probably won’t be able to handle it in a theater – and if you should know how easily frightened they are. The movie theater isn’t a day care center.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-choreographed action sequences. None of the heroes get short shrift.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a bit long for those with short attention spans.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence of the alien invasion sort, as well as a few fairly scary sequences. This is definitely not for children under, say, seven years old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie became the fastest to earn $200M at the U.S. box office – it only took three days to reach that milestone.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.The reviews are almost without exception positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men

STAN LEE LOVERS: The legendary Marvel Comics grand vizier shows up in his cameo during a montage of interviews of Big Apple residents being interviewed about the battle just fought on city streets.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade