Captain Marvel (2019)

She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can kick you into space.

Well, the first Marvel movie of 2019 is here. And, hey, it’s pretty good! Nothing that’s so exciting that it’ll melt your brain out, or anything, but Captain Marvel has finally hit our screens and damned if we aren’t glad to see her. Right? Right?

I don’t want to be down on this one. I really enjoyed myself as I sat in the theater and mindlessly absorbed a little nugget of Marvel product, which loudly and proudly is set in the 90s. Remember the 90s? There was a Democrat in office, the economy was essentially okay, we weren’t at war with anyone for a little while, and when the President got a blowjob and perjured himself about it, we all were in agreement that the office of the PotUS had been so thoroughly tarnished that no future President could ever sink lower (ha). But also, you know: AIDS, Hurricane Andrew (which goes strangely unremarked upon here despite the fact that a significant portion of the film takes place in 1995 Louisiana), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc. Never let your nostalgia get the best of you, is all I’m saying, but it’s no crime to feel a little warm inside when you hear the opening strains of “Come As You Are,” either.

It’s 1995. Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the Kree Defense Force, a group of interstellar “warrior heroes” who keep the peace in the Kree Empire (the blue [mostly] aliens from the Guardians movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) by performing various acts of apparent valor, including rooting out cells of Skrulls, a race of green reptilian shapeshifters. She herself is a woman without a memory, à la Wolverine, only getting glimpses into a past she can’t recall when dreaming of a mysterious woman (Annette Bening). Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to learn more about herself using the AI ruler of the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence (Bening again, as we only see her from Vers’s point of view and it takes different forms for different people), without much success. After being taken captive by Skrulls and fighting her way free, Vers lands on C-53, better known to its inhabitants as Earth, where she immediately runs afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., before bonding with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and setting out to discover why the woman in her dreams seems to have had a life on C-53, including involvement with a top secret aerospace defense project. Along the way, she connects, or perhaps reconnects, with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). Opposing her is the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), but there may be more to his motivations than meets the eye.

A lot of the internet is pretty up in arms about Captain Marvel, and for the most part, it’s just trolling and various degrees of personal toxicity. And the problem with every dudebro out there who’s angry about the injustice of Captain Marvel/Vers (as I’ll refer her to remain spoiler free, if that’s even possible at this juncture) stealing a motorcycle from a man who told her to smile, as if a microaggression warrants grand theft, is that it leaves very little room to be critical of the elements that don’t actually work from a narrative perspective. Look, I’m not MovieSins; I’m not here to ring an annoying little bell just because the final mental showdown between two characters is set to a Nirvana classic from an album that we don’t actually see Vers hearing (although she had plenty of chances offscreen). But I have to admit that even I was a little tired of some of the pablum and the unwillingness to take risks that were on display here. Sure, there was some inventiveness with the subversion of both what we’ve come to expect from films in general and this franchise specifically, especially in regard to the villainous Skrulls and their true motivations, but that doesn’t mean that the storytelling itself is inventive, and that’s the issue here. We’ve seen the fish-out-water story before in Thor, but that doesn’t mean that this is inherently derivative. I remember walking out of that film way back in 2011 and being pleasantly and refreshingly surprised by it, and there’s a part of me that wants every Marvel movie to give me an equivalent rush, but that’s not a realistic expectation to have after ten years and twenty movies. Time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older, too. It may be that these movies are just as fun as they’ve always been and I’m just too cynical to enjoy them the way that I used to.

Because, hey, this movie is fun. There are a lot of great setpieces: a sequence of dodging questionably aligned federal agents deep in the heart of a research base library, a terrific train fight sequence featuring the best Stan Lee cameo to date (I’m more of a Jack Kirby stan, if we’re being honest, but even I thought it was nice), and others. But the main one, the big finale, was just a big CGI fest that tired me more than it thrilled me. Compared to the relative viscerality of the Independence Day-esque desert dogfight that came earlier in the film’s runtime, not to mention the undetectable de-aging of Jackson to make him the Fury of yesteryear, it lacks any concreteness and feels hollow; I’m glad to hear that other people found this to be exciting, but it just didn’t work for me. Admittedly, that’s always been the case with the MCU, as all of the films peak early, going as far back as Iron Man, where the best sequence wasn’t the toe-to-toe showdown between our “hero” and Iron Monger, but the more stunning and ground-breaking sequence in which Tony finds himself flying alongside two fighter planes. But still, there’s something about this movie that doesn’t quite sit right with me, and it’s not just that they didn’t have an appearance from Peggy, even though she was totally alive at this time and, per Ant-Man, still active in S.H.I.E.L.D. a mere six years prior, although that omission is a crime.

Still, it’s hard to fault a film for having a poor finale after a lot of fun beforehand. Fitting for a movie that is at least on some level about both Girl Power and The 90s, the comparison that kept coming to my mind was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It may just be that I rewatched the 1992 film within the past six months (and also watched it about 47 times over the course of a single summer once), but the aforementioned scene in which Vers steals a guy’s motorcycle reads just like the scene in that film in which original Kristy Swanson Buffy does the same after a rude biker asks if she “wants some real power between [her] legs.” It’s a sanitization of something, to make it more palatable for you to be able to bring your kids to see the new superhero movie, but it’s almost the same scene, and I genuinely enjoyed that the film evoked that rhetorical space in the era of its birth. Further, the sequence of Vers getting up over and over again, used as a shorthand about her past and her resilience in the face of limitations placed on her by a masculine culture, included one of her as a little girl stepping up to the plate and getting ready to knock one out of the park, which once again evoked the scene from the series finale of Buffy the show, during the title character’s famous “Are you ready to be strong?” speech (believe it or not, this is the best upload I could find of the scene; sorry). I don’t know if there was a subliminal attempt to invoke the memory of disgraced Avengers and Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon by summoning relevant images from both the beginning and end of the Buffy franchise, but if so, that’s a next level of synergy, and I’m impressed by the mad genius of it.

I’m hot and cold on this one. As it’s been out for almost a month now, it’s unlikely you need me to tell you whether or not to check it out, as your decision was probably made months in advance of its original release date. Larson is a terrific actress who’s really not given as much to do characterwise as someone of her talent could, but she’s effortlessly charming and magnetic, and her chemistry with Lynch and Jackson is very good. When it comes to integrating a child as a main character and instigator of plot, it also certainly works a lot better than Iron Man 3, where the character was so blatantly an audience surrogate that it almost derailed a film that is, outside of that plot detour, the best Iron Man movie (don’t @ me). And after quietly making his bones in the mainstream as a one-dimensional villain in a lot of hyped releases the past few years (Rogue One, Ready Player One, and that Robin Hood that no one saw), Mendelson brings a pathos to a scaly monster that you wouldn’t expect to find in a movie that’s as relatively flat as this one is. There are twists and betrayals, but they all seem rather rote at this point. And yet . . . and yet . . . I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

For the last decade solid, the superhero franchise has dominated box office receipts as a medium, to the point where hardly anything else has room to breathe. This pop culture takeover largely started with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series & the MCU kickstarter Iron Man in the late aughts, which combined to redefine the comic book adaptation as being not just kids’ stuff anymore. “Thanks” to The Dark Knight & Iron Man, nerd culture is popular culture now, where superhero comics media is expected to be taken seriously as Art for Adults, leaving the days of more over-the-top properties with Saturday Morning Cartoon energy like Sam Raimi’s Darkman or Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 far behind in the cultural dustbin. I often miss the go-for-broke zaniness of those earlier works as the MCU and the *shudder* DCEU have become such well-oiled machines that you more or less know what to expect from their individual franchise entries a year before the pictures even reach the screen. It’s tempting to look back to the early stirrings of comic book adaptations’ sea change in the late aughts, then, and imagine what might have been if culture had shifted in a different direction. What kind of gloriously fucked up world would we be living in if Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone had won the culture war instead of The Dark Knight?

As an aesthetic object, Punisher: War Zone is clearly of the same cloth as the dark, “gritty” genre filmmaking that commands The Dark Knight Trilogy & its legion of grimly macho descendants. An emotionally troubled, gruff anti-hero violently tears down webs of organized crime while bathed in dark, sickly green lighting & harsh music video edits. Questions of whether vigilante justice has gone too far plague the titular “hero’s” tirade against powerful mobsters & crooked cops, echoing the anguished ethical philosophy at the core of the Dark Knight series. And yet, Punisher: War Zone could not be further in tone from Nolan’s self-serious philosophical sobriety. Even the more jocular, brightly lit counterbalance of the MCU is no match for the places Alexander takes the superhero medium here. To put it plainly, Punisher: War Zone is goofy as fuck. For all of its gruff macho exterior & onscreen depictions of vicious hyperviolence, it reaches levels of silly delirium unseen in a comic book adaptation of its stature since the cartoon energy of Dick Tracy in the 90s. This is a superhero narrative where cops have no interest in catching the murderous anti-hero, despite having rooms full of evidence on the bodies he’s left behind, because they respect his alpha male ability to get the job done while the judicial system leaves their own hands tied. That sounds like it would be poisoned with an insufferable level of superhero machismo, but somehow it comes across onscreen as so deliciously silly that it’s almost wholesome. Almost.

Considering its hard-R exaggeration of its comic book ultraviolence, Punisher: War Zone is decidedly not for children. No opportunities for bloodshed are wasted here. Bullets rip open skulls in glorious practical effects gore. Mobsters’ faces are dragged across seas of broken glass bottles, carved to shreds. Heads cave like melons when punched. If you find yourself asking, “Why is the stem on that wine glass so long?,” it’s because it’s soon to be plunged through a victim’s throat. However grotesque, this cartoonish fascination with the violent breakdown of the human body is decidedly juvenile. Punisher: War Zone wastes no time pretending that its violent antihero tirade represents some philosophical, allegorical dilemma about right & wrong in a world without a moral center. The closest it gets to meaningful dialogue is in the hilarity of awkward one-liners like, “Let me put you out of my misery,” and, when The Punisher oversteps the bounds of justice, “Who punishes you?” Why waste time pretending any of this action spectacle actually means something when you could just as easily set up a lengthy gag where parkour-obsessed goons are swiftly destroyed with a bazooka just before they get to show off their skills? Punisher: War Zone earns its R-rating in nearly every frame, but it does so while staying true to the childish sense of humor inherent to comic books media. It’s essentially the same juvenile slapstick violence that commands Shoot Em Up, except played straight which is to say it’s 1000x better than Shoot Em Up.

Practically speaking, it’s no use wondering what might have been if Punisher: War Zone was a smash hit instead of The Dark Knight. The film made only a third of the superhero box office numbers earned by notorious flop Howard the Duck two decades earlier – no adjustment for inflation. It’s a cult object at best. Even if it had been a hit, Hollywood studios have a tendency to learn the wrong lessons from box office successes and its formula could have inspired some truly hideous art in other directors’ hands – both visually & morally. Still, there’s a certain live action cartoon energy to Punisher: War Zone that was largely AWOL in superhero media in the past decade as comic book franchises sought a grittier, more tonally sober path. You can detect that sensibility’s gradual return in recent late-franchise entries like Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Aquaman, but even those films feel overly restrained & concerned with respectability in a way that never crosses War Zone‘s delirious mind. This is an aggressively juvenile, brutally violent splatter fest that stays true to both ends of the comic book medium – the grimly macho & the unapologetically silly – in a tonal juggling act more films could benefit to emulate. If you’re going to be constantly bombarded with superhero media, there should be plenty of room for more outliers to be this wildly unpredictable & deliriously silly.

-Brandon Ledet

Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

Deadpool 2 (2018)

Although they’re clearly not made for me, I’m starting to become fascinated by Deadpool movies as a cultural curio. There usually isn’t any fun to be had from sitting through a comedy you find thoroughly unfunny and the reference-heavy Family Guy irreverence of Deadpool seems custom-built to create a laughter-free vacuum of punishing bro humor around me. What’s fascinating about these movies to me is watching them in the theater anyway, where laughter is a constant, thundering flood. To watch a Deadpool movie in public is to feel as if I am from a different planet than the rest of the room. Edgy hack jokes about suicide & child rape, lazy references to vintage pop culture ephemera, and mater-of-fact namedrops of unrelated comic book characters all land as if they’re carving out previously undiscovered, revolutionary forms of comedy the world has never seen before. Audiences gasp, involuntarily muttering “Wow” and “Oh My god” after every supposedly transgressive gag in total disbelief of the films’ comedic brilliance. Jokes that have been run into the ground though months of being repeated in advertisements somehow earn belly laughs so deep it’s a wonder no one vomits. Just as I was with the first Deadpool movie, I was befuddled throughout Deadpool 2 by why everyone around me though it was hi-larious that this “annoying prick” of a lead character (the movie’s words, not mine) broke kayfabe by saying “Patrick Stewart” instead of “Professor X” or suffered sub-Rickles insult comedy routines form real-life shitbag TJ Miller or celebrated a weapon’s forcible insertion up his enemy’s ass. I felt partly like a land mammal attempting to swim with the fish, partly like the only person in Jonestown with concerns about the Kool-Aid. I was surrounded by creatures I didn’t understand: true nerds.

Although my outsider’s discomfort watching Deadpool in public continued into this sequel, it was a marginal improvement on the first film, which barely feigned a superhero origin story around its bro-friendly meta humor. Directed by Atomic Blonde/John Wick vet David Leitch and afforded a more legitimate big studio budget, Deadpool 2 feels a little more authentic to the action genre it’s spoofing. When Deadpool himself isn’t sucking all the oxygen out of the room with his constant flood of “Ain’t I a stinker?” metacommentary, the movie manages to stage a few halfway decent gags, such as an early yakuza-themed sword-fighting montage set to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” (even though that exact song was already similarly employed in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, of all lowly places). Romantic tragedy, conversion therapy anxiety, and existential self-loathing are all taken more seriously here than they probably even need to be as the movie builds a time-travelling revenge plot around Deadpool’s sudden desire to have a family and the threat of X-Men antihero Cable. Genuinely entertaining performances from James Brolin (as Cable), Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison (as Deadpool’s troubled, unwanted ward), and Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz (as Domino, a superhero character who much better deserves her own franchise) all helpfully distract from the Ryan Reynolds/Deadpool-shaped hole at the film’s self-corrupted center. The comedic payoff to a team-building montage spoof was lifted directly from a better-executed bit in MacGruber, but comes awfully close to achieving legitimately well-crafted humor. The film even finds ways to make Deadpool himself occasionally funny, against all odds, by pausing his dialogue to focus on the physical horrors of his superpower: a body that stubbornly refuses to die. If you generously squint at Deadpool 2 from a flattering angle in just the right light, it almost resembles a mildly amusing, ZAZ-style action spoof. Deadpool himself is always on hand to deflate that balloon, though, ruining any and all good will he can with as many child molestation quips or referrals to Cable as Thanos as necessary to spoil the mood (or bust a gut, depending on your POV).

I should probably be grateful for the minor details that break up Deadpool 2’s oppressive stench of Gen-X comic book bro humor, like the years-late inclusion of a (barely onscreen) same-sex couple in a major Marvel release or the fact that is a macho superhero who isn’t afraid of high heels or pegging. Fixating on those touches or the welcome presence of Domino & Super Ricky Baker feel like sifting though the scraps for momentary joys, however, an exercise that’s only occasionally rewarding in the few blissful moments when Deadpool himself is not cracking wise. The most the Deadpool franchise offers me, personally, is the experience of sitting in a room full of people from an entirely different planet, cowering from the deafening horror of their baffling laughter. Deadpool 2 is a slight improvement on its predecessor, but I almost wish it were much, much worse, so I could get as much out of that alienating experience as possible. The movie isn’t quite decent enough to earn genuine enthusiasm, so I’d almost prefer if I didn’t see anything of value in it at all. That way the absurdity of sitting quietly in a cinema packed with guffawing space aliens might hold more novelty for me as a cultural experience. A worse Deadpool 2 might even deter me from tuning back in for the inevitable Deadpool 3, where I’m sure to relive this comedic alienation all over again—confused, scared, and alone in a crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

 

X-Men vs. The Avengers: Determining the Worst No-Stakes Offender

Avengers: Infinity War offers an interesting conundrum for a movie critic, as it defies consideration as an isolated piece of work. Overall, the film felt to me like the MCU in a microcosm; there were some aspects I really liked mixed with some I couldn’t care less about. Like with the MCU at large, I could’ve done without Stark & Strange, the CGI spectacle could be really numbing, and its absurd length felt paradoxically too short to fully serve its myriad of storylines & too long to maintain constant, undivided attention. The bizarre critical dilemma it presents is that it can’t be separated from the MCU at large at all. Not only does it represent both the highs & lows of its franchise, its impact is meaningless without 18 previous films informing its in-the-moment significance. Considering the merits of Infinity War as an isolated work of art would be like critically assessing a randomly selected episode of a soap opera, a single pro wrestling match from a months-long angle or, perhaps most appropriately, a mid-stream issue of a comic book series. It’s a tough thing to evaluate in isolation, as it’s built on a structure that requires both knowledge of its characters’ previous arcs and acceptance of its medium’s need to never truly wrap up a storyline. This type of storytelling’s endless self-propulsion requires always leaving a door open for The Next Big Show. The tagline for Infinity War is “An entire universe. Once and for all,” but we know as consumers that a more accurate descriptor would be “Once or thrice a year.” It’s difficult, then, to invest any emotional response in the film’s at-the-moment consequences, since they convey a kind of finality that we know will inevitably be undone in the next summer’s sequel(s). Adapting a comic book story structure to blockbuster cinema has created a never-ending franchise that can’t afford to introduce actual stakes to its everlasting gobstopper “plot.”

That’s not necessarily a bad ting, though. I love pro-wrestling. Millions of people watch soap operas every day. Comic books are at least popular enough to have justified this franchise’s launch in the first place. Like with consumers of all kinds of serialized storytelling, MCU fans are entering these films recognizing that their storylines can never fully reach a satisfying conclusion. At the very least, they can assume that the death of a major character who’s already scheduled to appear in an announced sequel will inevitably be reversed through supernatural shenanigans. There’s a surplus of dubious character deaths in Infinity War that anyone familiar enough with the film to be watching it as the 19th entry in a series is going to be skeptical of, if not outright dismissive. The one aspect of the film that helps distinguish it as an isolated work, however, is that it does not acknowledge that inevitable impermanence. It commits to its own tragic consequences by ending on a disaster of mass death & mayhem. All signals of an optimistic future for its doomed characters are extratextual, based entirely on those deranged Disney press conferences where the corporate bully claims future weekend release dates for their bottomless wealth of sequels planned centuries into the future. We can fully expect as an audience that Infinity War’s damage will be undone by the end of the next Avengers sequel, but the film ends without any indication of that impermanence. I mention this because I’ve seen plenty of comic book movies (both in the MCU and outside it) do the exact opposite in the past, to their own detriment. For instance, if Infinity War were an X-Men sequel, its mass death downer of a conclusion would have wrapped up tidily at the climax, then immediately been undone by a convenient, quick denouement. I know this because I’ve seen the X-Men movies do it more than once, most egregiously in its two most recent entries.

I’m about to vaguely spoil two recent-ish X-Men movies, but don’t worry; nothing really matters in that franchise. In just two pictures, X-Men has become the authority on the comic book Reset Button, assuring that its individual battles have no stakes in the context of franchise-wide storylines. The current trajectory of the X-Men series has been a decade-by-decade nostalgia trip. The prequel X-Men: First Class plays like a swanky 60s spy picture. Days of Future Past deals largely in 70s political thriller genre beats. Apocalypse functions as a Ready Player One-style indulgence in 1980s aesthetic. The next film on the docket will presumably push through to touch on 90s grunge or pogs or whatever. Even beyond these temporal divisions, X-Men movies typically feel more independent from each other than MCU entries, with each individual episode resetting the rotary dial for the next adventure to arrive with a mostly blank slate. The most backlash I’ve seen to this repeatedly mashed Reset Button plot structure was in the reaction to The Days of Future Past’s ending. Days is a sci-fi time travel movie that splits its efforts between a possible future reality and an alternate version of the past. The movie largely concerns preventing a grim future by nipping past evil in the bud, which the heroes inevitably accomplish to no one’s surprise. What was surprising is that, after victory, omnipresent series favorite Wolverine awakes in a timeline that ties together both the First Class prequels & the early 00s series that preceded them, undoing many major character deaths through an afterthought shrug of time travel shenanigans. I understand why this tidy conclusion rolled many viewers’ eyes when the film was first released, but I was personally much more annoyed by a smaller moment in the next picture. There’s a scene late in X-Men: Apocalypse where characters with mutant powers stand in an open field with their arms extended, palms open, while their destroyed home base magically reassembles itself. Every broken brick & board smoothly floats back to its proper assembly in a low-rent CGI spectacle, not an inch of the once-destroyed structure out of place or conveying damage. It’s maybe a 20 second clip, but there was something about its magical ease that really irked me. I’ve never seen the impermanence of consequence in comic book movie storytelling represented so succinctly in a single scene before or since.

For better or for worse, the massive, sustained success of the MCU means that more of this serialized blockbuster storytelling is on its way. I found myself watching a trailer for an upcoming Star Wars prequel this past weekend that ends on an action sequence cliffhanger teasing that Chewbacca may or may not die in the film. Everyone who’s ever seen any Star Wars movie before (read: everyone) knows that Chewbacca will not die in that prequel. That momentary crisis has no potential consequence in its larger series, but that’s just how these kinds of stories are told (including the old-timey radio serials Star Wars was originally inspired by). All we can do, if we’re going to continue to tune in for the next episodes in these ongoing series, is celebrate the examples that commit to their consequences in the moment. Avengers: Infinity War might not ultimately mean anything in the grand picture of individual characters’ fates, as it will likely be undone by its successor next summer. At least it committed to its own consequences, though, instead of undoing them on the spot. In X-Men: Infinity War, the mass character deaths would’ve been a climactic crisis immediately undone by the surviving superheroes standing in an open field, arms outstretched, putting their friends’ pieces back together again with their mysterious powers. I only mildly enjoyed Infinity War overall, the way I only moderately enjoy the MCU overall, while recognizing that there are individual elements I’m really into: Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Black Panther. I do respect that it didn’t reset its own consequences we know through extratextual means to be impermanent the way a more traditional comic book series entry would have. When I first reviewed X-Men: Apocalypse I asked, “What’s the point of any of this if it can all be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-a-Sketch?” By saving its own magical reset for a later date (which I’m sure was announced at a press conference five years ago), Infinity War sidestepped that annoyance completely, even if its in-the-long-run storytelling amounts to the same general effect as what’s undone in Apocalypse: no effect at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan (2017)

I don’t like Wolverine.

This has been a topic of much contention with my fellow comic book nerds for a long time, but there are a host of reasons why he doesn’t appeal to me as a character. First, it’s never made much sense to me that Professor X has a spot on his peace-oriented team for a man whose powers and enhancements make him a perfect assassin or soldier. I’ve also never seen myself reflected in Wolverine the way that I see aspects of myself in Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost (under Joss Whedon’s pen), and (especially) Beast; nor do I see something I could aspire to be in Wolverine the way that I did and do in Storm’s serenity or Nightcrawler’s happiness in spite of a lifetime of abuse. I certainly understand the allure of a character without a past and the desire for redemption (although the importance of this desire was intermittent), but Wolverine never worked for me as a character.

I think that this is mostly because, despite his meager origins, the character of Wolverine evolved into a straight white male power fantasy, especially among the more self-pitying members of the nerd subculture of the eighties and nineties. Macho Wolverine gets the girl, takes no shit, and leaves his enemies shredded to ribbons: he’s the ultimate enviable hero of the platonic nineties nerd before Hollywood came along and turned comic books and superheroes into the hottest trends on Earth. Following this popularity explosion, the character was inescapable, which is probably my foremost issue with him. Don’t like Angel, or Jean Grey, or Psylocke? No problem: there are plenty of Marvel comics without them, including long periods of time in many X-books. Don’t like Wolverine? You’re out of luck, bub: try to find an X-Men comic from 1985 to 2014 where he’s not a presence (give or take an Excalibur here or there), and if you turn to another Marvel book for a Wolverine-free reading experience, you better not want to check out Avengers, or New Avengers, or even Power Pack. It’s essentially the same reason that, despite my long and storied love of Star Trek, I don’t like Data (a crucifiable offense in many circles): both he and Wolverine are such pets of vocal fans and some creators that they become the entire focus of what is supposedly an ensemble, to the detriment and derision of other characters*. You can even see this in the way that he was not only the de facto star of the X-Men films in which he appeared, but also got his own film franchise.

That franchise reaches what claims to be its final film in the recently released Logan, a gritty neo-western masquerading as a superhero film. The plot finds the titular Logan (Hugh Jackman) caring for an aging and increasingly senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the help of Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in the Mexican desert in 2029. The combination of a cataclysmic event and genetic suppression has rendered them among the last mutants on Earth, until Logan is drawn back into the world of heroism by Gabriella (Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez), a woman who begs him to help save a child named Laura (Dafne Keen) from Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. Their redemptive road trip also features appearances from Eriq La Salle and Elise Neal as world-weary farmers who provide shelter for the group.

My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.

This is not the Sentinel-ruled technicolor hell of Days of Future Past, nor is it the candy-coated “corrected” timeline in which Jean, Scott, and Hank are alive: this is a dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. This film has been in development for a while and takes a great deal of inspiration from graphic novel Old Man Logan, but it is particularly fascinating that the first X-film released following the election paints such a realistic picture of a dark future in comparison to the optimistic ending of Days of Future Past, which was released solidly in the middle of Obama’s second term, when the tide of freedom and progress seemed to flow ever-forward.

Logan never becomes explicitly political, however, instead allowing this interpretation to emerge from its subtext. This is, first and foremost, a story about a retired, past-his- prime gunbladeslinger who has long since lost what little place he had in the world before being brought back in for one last stand. You’ve seen this movie before, but dressing it up in these clothes puts a spin on the material that is fresher than I expected, in the same way that Winter Soldier was reinvigorating as both a government conspiracy thriller and a superhero flick. I’d love to see more movies like this, to be honest: James T. Kirk and Company as the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, Black Widow having to Die Hard her way out of a building, or, hell, even Steve Rogers trying to save the old community center from being torn down to make way for those awful condominium/shopping center hybrid abominations.

Where the film doesn’t work for me is in its insistence on defining Logan’s little group as a family. The discovery of the genetic connection between Logan and Laura and the latter’s decision to help her does not necessarily an intimate connection make, and Xavier’s “This is what life looks like” moment rings falsely sentimental for the character, given all that we’ve seen him do and accomplish over the course of these films. For such a bloody and violent flick (which, make no mistake, Logan is), a fair amount of the emotional resonance that the film seeks to create works, but the occasional references to Laura and Xavier as Logan’s family work better when they’re subtle (like when he passes them off as his father and daughter) than they do when characters explicitly state that they are family. That aside, however, this serves as a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s contribution to the franchise, especially if you’re  willing to forgive stilted dialogue and the occasionally unearned moments of pathos.

*Here’s the part where I admit that I love the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, despite my general apathy towards the character; although Wolverine is the title character, WatX was much more of an ensemble piece that gave every character plenty of development and attention. He’s also cast in an unusual role as the reluctant leader with the atypically angsty Cyclops serving as the team’s loner. The show also has one of the darkest storylines ever constructed for what is ostensibly a show for children; it’s definitely worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

You Can Now Purchase Swampflix Zines @ Crescent City Comics on Calhoun St. Uptown

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Attention, Swampflix readers in the New Orleans area! We’re now selling the zines we printed for last year’s NOCAZ & N.O. Bookfair exhibitions at the new Crescent City Comics location @3135 Calhoun St. Uptown. This includes print versions of our “Marabunta Cinema“, “Lugosi Vs. Karloff“, and “Wrestling Cinema” pieces, as well as 2015’s Movie of the Month conversations in their entirety. They all feature dozens of new illustrations & hand-transcribed text from the site and the Movies of the Month zine is a ~90 page whopper featuring work from everyone who contributed to the site last year.

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For more info on Crescent City Comics check out their website and follow them on Facebook. Or, better yet, just drop in on them sometime (Monday-Saturday 11am-7pm, Sunday Noon-6pm @3315 Calhoun St.), because they’re by far the best comic book shop in the city.

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-The Swampflix Crew

The Phantom (1996)

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Common wisdom seems to be that the film market is currently flooded with so many comic book properties that mainstream audiences will soon be experiencing a wicked case of “superhero fatigue” and the whole Marvel/DC empire will crumble. So far I seem to be experiencing the opposite effect. All of these rampant comic book adaptations have sent me on something of a superhero tangent and I’ve been finding myself looking back to comic book cinema of the past for smaller titles I might’ve missed over the years. Sometimes this urge is a blessing, like when it lead me to Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. In the case of The Phantom, however, I’m not so sure I’m on the right path.

Based on a comic strip that’s been running continuously to this day since the 1930s, The Phantom is a starring vehicle for 90s pop culture artifact Billy Zane. While dressed as his superhero alter ego The Phantom, Zane is decked out here in skintight purple spandex, black leather mask & boots, and a handgun he rarely touches. He also rides an immaculately white horse & keeps a gigantic wolf for a pet. Raised by Mongolian pirates 400 years in the past or some such nonsense, The Phantom is rumored to be an immortal ghost who protects the sanctity of the jungle from white archehologists & businessmen looking to plunder its resources. In the comics he does this through practical real world means (including some martial arts shamelessly designed to show off Zane’s fanny in purple spandex). The movie adds a supernatural element to the mix in some black magic skulls that can be exploited to bring on world domination. This addition threatens to make The Phantom entertaining as a campy trifle with half-assed old-world mysticism backing up its comic strip charm. Nothing significant comes of it, though, and after the novelty of seeing Billy Zane dressed up as a handsome, but deeply odd superhero wears off the rest of the film is a total bore.

The main problem with The Phantom is that it lacks any strong creative voice or soulful eccentricity required to make a comic book movie really work. Just match up your very favorite scene from this film to an 15 seconds of Darkman & you’ll see what I mean. There was a time when the legendary Joe Dante almost helmed The Phantom as a tongue-in-cheek camp fest and another where the delightfully sleazy Joel Schumacher could’ve dragged it down to the same so-bad-it’s-great depths he brought Batman & Robin (the one with the bat nipples & ice puns). Sadly, neither of those versions of The Phantom were meant to be and the film wound up in the dull, uninspired hands of the director of Free Willy & Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s easy to see how The Phantom could’ve swung in a more interesting direction. If nothing else, the slightly off performances of the spandex-clad Zane, O.G. Buffy Kristy Swanson, and a deliciously evil Catharine Zeta-Jones all feel like they belong in a much better movie (or at least a less boring one).

As with everything in criticism, my boredom with The Phantasm might’ve had a lot to do with personal taste. Once the wackier introductions to the film’s central scenario were out of the way, the movie would up playing like a second-rate version of the Indiana Jones franchise, especially in the way it mimicked the “Tune In Next Time!” structure of old, serialized action programs on the radio. There are Indiana Jones junkies out there who might be aching for more similar content to tide them over until the next inevitable reboot and those might be the only folks I’d recommend The Phantom to. Anyone who’s looking for an eccentric comic book movie here is a lot more likely to feel let down. The aspects of The Phantom that wound up fascinating me the most were more or less all related to its comic strip source material. The Phantom is credited as being the first superhero shown wearing the skintight jumpsuit that has become pretty much the standard for the genre and is often seen as a direct precursor to superhero titans like Batman, Superman, and Captain America. The artwork & narrative of the strip also has a distinct echo of the work of madman outsider Fletcher Hanks to it, especially of his character Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle.

It’s never a good sign when an adaptation is outshined this much by its source material and it seems audiences at the time of The Phantom‘s release shared wholeheartedly in my boredom. The film bombed at the box office and, despite strong VHS & DVD sales, never earned the two sequels in its originally-planned trilogy. I wouldn’t call this effect “superhero fatigue”, however. It’s more of a boring movie fatigue, as the superhero source material was the only interesting thing going for this slog, an effect that fades fast once the novelty of the live action comic strip wears off.

-Brandon Ledet

Darkman (1990)

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I’ve never been much of a Sam Raimi fan. His Spider-Man films felt like the height of superhero cinema mediocrity to me in their heyday. The Evil Dead series was never really my thing, mostly because of the rapist tree & my contention that Bruce Campbell is a second-rate version of Jim Carrey’s worst tendencies. As far as I knew until recently, Raimi’s greatest contribution to the cultural zeitgeist was as a producer on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, with his directorial work not mattering much to me in any significant way. I appreciated the over-the-top cartoonishness of his aesthetic, but it never connected with me in the same way that the work of, say, Peter Jackson did. Darkman changed all that.

A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made . . . which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book. Given our current climate of endless adaptations, remakes, and reboots, it’s bizarre to think that Darkman was made from an original idea of Raimi’s & not from bringing a pre-existing character to the screen. The film’s two superfluous, direct-to-video sequels would fit in just fine with our current trend of endlessly returning to the well, but the original Darkman really went out on a limb with its central idea & it’s a risk that paid off nicely.

Tim Burton’s Batman (a film Raimi had actually once been considered for as a potential director) seems like the most obvious point of reference for Darkman‘s cultural context. Released just one year after Batman‘s release, Darkman was a similarly dark, gritty, noir-inspired comic book landscape that even brought longtime Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman in tow for its score. The original idea for Darkman had nothing to do with the Caped Crusader at all, however. It wasn’t even conceived as an homage to comic books. Raimi had first conceived Darkman in a short story meant to show reverence for Universal Studio’s horror classics of the 1930s. It’s very easy to see the mad scientist ravings of characters that would’ve been played by folks like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in an earlier era (or both in the case of The Invisible Ray) in Darkman‘s DNA. The outfit the anti-hero uses to hide his face even more than closely resembles that of The Invisible Man. The combination of this monster movie pedigree & the newfound comic book seriousness of Burton’s Batman were a great start for Darkman as a launching pad. Add Sam Raimi’s particular brand of cartoonish camp to the mix & you have a perfect cocktail of violently goofy cinema.

Liam Neeson stars as Darkman‘s titular anti-hero, a brilliant scientist & kindhearted boyfriend working on the secret of creating new body parts for scratch with the world’s first 3-D printer (of organic material, no less). The doctor’s girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand, inadvertently gets him mixed up with some rough mobster types who burn down his lab with the poor man inside it & through some shaky-at-best comic book/monster movie shenanigans, he emerges alive, but forever altered. Horrifically scarred, unable to feel pain, and freakishly strong due to an increase in adrenaline, the doctor emerges as the masked vigilante Darkman & sets out to exact his revenge on the Dick Tracy-esque mobster villains who destroyed his life. His masks alternate from the Invisible Man get-up mentioned above to temporary organic faces contrived from his pre-mutation scientific research & his revenge tactics go beyond basic vigilantism into full-blown, cold-blooded murder. Instead of struggling with the inner conflict a lot of violent superheroes deal with regarding which side of the law & morality they stand on, Darkman truly enjoys exacting revenge on the goons who wronged him in the cruelest ways he can possibly devise.

It’s not just remarkable to me that Sam Raimi happened to direct a movie I enjoyed. What’s most surprising is the ways that Darkman couldn’t have been made by any other auteur. Raimi’s personal aesthetic is what makes the film work and although he could’ve easily allowed the formula to go off the rails (he really wanted Bruce Campbell in Neeson’s role, which would’ve been a disaster), it’s his own cinematic eye & sadistic sense of humor that makes it such an iconic accomplishment. With Batman, Burton had brought comic book movies out of the dark ages, proving that superhero media wasn’t just the goofy kids’ media of Adam West yesteryear. Raimi combined both those extremes, the gritty & the goofy, in Darkman in an entirely idiosyncratic way (as Burton also would in the similarly masterful Batman Returns). The film indulged in some Batman-esque brooding, especially in its noir lighting & in introspective lines like “The dark, what secrets does it hold?”, but those elements are all so over-the-top in their inherent ridiculousness that there’s never any sense that Raimi is doing anything but having fun.

Although Darkman isn’t technically a comic book adaptation it exudes comic book media in every frame. Darkman‘s onslaught of drastic Dutch angles, 1st person shooter POV, Oingo Boingo circus aesthetic, Alterted States-esque hallucinations, and wild tangents of practical effects gore all feel both like classic comic book imagery & classic Sam Raimi. I can’t speak too decisively on the entirety of Raimi’s catalog since there are more than a few titles I’ve intentionally skipped over, but I can say for sure that the director has at least one certified masterpiece of goofball cinema under his belt: Darkman. It’s a work that not only surprised me by becoming an instant personal favorite, but also by inspiring me to consider giving Raimi’s catalog a closer second look to see if he ever repeated the trick.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Devils (1971) & Seven Decades of Batman Cinema

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Welcome to Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fourth episode, James & Brandon discuss all ten actors who’ve played Batman on the silver screen since the 1940s with illustrator Jon Marquez. Also, James makes Brandon watch the sacrilegious Ken Russell epic The Devils (1971) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet