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

Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Blade Trinity & Night of the Creeps (1986)

Welcome to Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-seventh episode, Brandon & Britnee continue the crew’s month-long look at the superhero-horror subgenre by discussing all three films in the Blade franchise. Brandon also makes Britnee watch Fred Dekker’s sci-fi horror comedy Night of the Creeps (1986) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

On July 20, 2015, my first Swampflix contribution was published: a review of the Peyton Reed by-way-of Edgar Wright Marvel flick Ant-Man, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I’ve written 102 solo reviews, participated in 35 Movie of the Month roundtables, and written or contributed 27 additional articles – including eight under the Late Great Planet Mirth label alone and thirteen collaborations with Brandon as an Agent of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Now, three years later, Marvel has released the first direct follow-up to that film that was my first review, and, hey, it’s pretty great! Not perfect, but great!

As the film opens, we find Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest following his participation in (and pursuant violation of the Sikovia Accords as a result of) the events of Civil War. He’s only three days away from being a free man, but his situation is jeopardized when he finds himself once again embroiled in the activities of former Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter Hope “The Wasp” van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The two believe that Scott’s trip into and return from the “Quantum Realm” at the end of the first film means that there is a possibility that the previous generation’s Wasp, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), may still have a chance to be rescued, 30 years after her disappearance. Their efforts are complicated by the Pym family’s own fugitive status, as well as opposition from Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins), a crime lord who wants to capitalize on Pym’s technology, and Ava “Ghost” Starr (Hannah John-Kamen of Killjoys), a former SHIELD asset who exists in a state of molecular instability as the result of the accident that killed her parents as a child and who hopes the secrets of the Quantum Realm can restore her to a state of stability. Along for the ride are old friends like Scott’s fellow ex-con Luis (Michael Peña) and his crew and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as well as new allies/antagonists like Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a former colleague and professional frenemy of Pym’s, and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent tasked with overseeing Scott’s “rehabilitation,” which in practice means trying to catch the Ant-Man in his extramural exploits.

Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU (Thor: Ragnarok = synth-heavy 80s-style gladiator opera, Guardians 2 = manchild coming-of-age narrative, Spider-Man: Homecoming = John Hughes-style eighties high school flick), there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around. There’s a little bit of Ferris Bueller energy floating around here, especially with Scott constantly having to return home before the FBI (herein acting with the same vaguely-menacing but largely bumbling inefficiency as Ferris’s principal), and while that’s central to the narrative, it’s not the central plot.

There are flaws here, but they’re small, and you have to go down to the nitty-gritty to find them. My largest issue here is that there are several points that feel uneven, the largest of which is anything involving of the Quantum Realm, which is a weirder concept than anything in the first film and feels out-of-place here, all things considered. The idea that our characters could go so microcosmic that they enter another dimension is fine, but some plot points are glossed over too quickly: How does Janet know how long her family has to find her? How does she know that if they don’t find her within that time limit that it’ll be another century before there’s another chance to attempt a rescue? What makes Ghost so certain that the Quantum Realm will repair her damaged body/cells? Why did the Pyms get mixed up in working with Burch in the first place, given that Wasp could easily get the parts they need for the quantum tunnel without having to ally with, essentially, a thug? I’m not one to get a bee in my bonnet about plot holes that are generally minor, but the cumulative effect of them in this film makes it feel sloppy in comparison to its predecessor, which was as trim and tight as a comedy that was equal parts origin story and episode of Leverage could possibly be.

Recently, Reed joined some of the ScreenJunkies boys for a commentary on their Honest Trailer for the original Ant-Man, wherein he confirmed that the idea that the film should be a heist movie was always Edgar Wright’s. This comes as no surprise to fans of Wright’s: you may be able to criticize him for being self-indulgent or esoteric in his references (not that I do or would; I adore his work), but you could never accuse him of being anything less than a ruthlessly efficient artist when it comes to writing and directing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore Hot Fuzz not just because it’s hilarious (which it definitely is), but because it’s a crime mystery whose detective protagonist come to a logically sound and reasonable conclusion based upon available evidence, but which also happens to be completely incorrect. Although I wrote at the time that we would never know how much of the first Ant-Man was an invention of Wright’s and not Reed’s, I feel like this movie proves there was more Wright in the film than one would have initially thought, given that once Reed had free reign he made a film that lacked the tight cohesion and plotting of its antecedent.

Not that this isn’t still a delightful movie. Some disappointment is understandable given that, even more than other films in the MCU, each of this film’s major action beats was included in the trailer in some way. The marketing for Civil War did a great job of hiding the fact that Scott was going to go “big” in that film, which made for an exciting reveal in the film proper, but no such luck here. The giant PEZ dispenser, Wasp running along a knife, re-enlarging a tiny vehicle to crash another, etc.: there’s a cool moment in every one of the action sequences that was already shown in the previews, which makes some of them feel underwhelming, but rejecting the film outright on these grounds is absurd as they’re still lots of fun, kinetic, and really make the small-big-small-big roundabout work. There’s also a new Luis-explains-things montage, which is again delightful, and the chemistry between Team Ant-Man (and the Wasp!) has grown in an organic way, which makes the film a delight to watch.

Ghost is a bit of an underwhelming villain, but I’ll also go out on a limb here (mild spoilers through the end of this paragraph) and say that, although the character isn’t terribly interesting, her arc certainly is. Discounting the fact that you, dear reader, are one of those people who loves Tom Hiddleston so much that you forgive Loki all his sins, then this is the first film in which the primary antagonist is not defeated (or in the case of Thanos, is the victor). The conflict here has nothing to do with the end of the world or even stopping a villain from stealing a bunch of weapons. Instead, for the first time, Marvel has given us a film in which our heroes win not by trouncing their enemies, but by redeeming them. It’s a lovely sentiment, and I enjoyed it.

Overall, despite being less cohesive than the first film, this sequel is still a lot of fun and definitely worth the cost of admission. Just maybe be prepared for an uplifting ending followed immediately by despair. It’s great!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to be anything other than cynical these days. Coming of age during the Bush Administration (how quaint our worries from those days seem now), then passing into the not-free-from-issues-but-generally-pretty-good halcyon days under Obama only to emerge into the rhetorical hellscape that is the current state of American affairs has left me in suspension between various states: hollowed out, terrified, and using humor as a form of non-violent resistance to oppression (check out Majken Jul Sorensen’s essay about the topic here, if you so desire). I find it pretty hard to garner much enthusiasm for anything of late; I’m certainly happier in my current city and living situation on a day-to-day basis than I’ve been for much of my life, but like Lisa Simpson in “Homer’s Triple Bypass,” I feel like all of the static and my own age have left me incapable of feeling either highs or lows. It’s unusual for me to be able to get myself hyped about anything, even something that I’m looking forward to, like the recent premiere of the second season of Westworld, or my own upcoming birthday. But I was excited about Avengers: Infinity War, especially with it coming so close on the heels of Black Panther, which was amazing. And after 18 films and ten years of lead-up, how could I not be? Maybe I was setting myself up for a disappointment right from the start.

Picking up almost immediately after the end of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War opens with Thanos and his hideous CGI minions aboard the Asgardian refugee ship. From there, we check in on each of the characters that we’ve come to know over the course of the past decade: the crew of the Milano are out and about doing good, bad, and a little bit of both; Dr. Strange is being a snarky snarkman; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts contemplate their upcoming nuptials and perhaps starting a family; Rhodey is holding down the fort at Avengers HQ while Vision and Scarlet Witch sneak away for a secret tryst, Montague/Capulet style; Cap, Falcon, and Black Widow are still fugitives from the law per their rejection of the Sikovian Accords; Bucky gets a new arm from T’Challa and Shuri; Peter Parker is on a field trip to MoMA. And then all hell breaks loose as Thanos’s various heralds show up to retrieve those blasted Infinity Stones.

I’m not going to spoil anything for you here, so that may mean this review is shorter than you’ve come to expect from the needlessly verbose windbag that I am. I’ll save all of that for the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion (I can hear poor Brandon‘s wrist bones creaking already, despite the next zine transcription being some time from now; sorry, buddy). There’s only so much you can discuss when you’re trying to avoid sharing any details, but I’ll try. I will say that a lot of people die in this movie. Like, so many more than you’re expecting. That number that you’re thinking of? Double it, then double it again. You think your favorite character is safe? Think again, buddy.

Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of these flicks and am a staunch defender of even those that some consider their missteps (I’ve long held that Iron Man 3 is the best of the three), although I’ve also been quick to criticize their racial or regressive issues (suffice it to say that I’m not a fan of Doctor Strange), but there are other legitimate problems that crop up over and over again. Eighteen of these films preceded Infinity War, and they almost all follow a similar formula. In 2/3rds of these, in fact, the conflict is all but identical: in Iron Man 1, 2, and 3, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Winter Soldier (to a certain extent), Spider-Man: Homecoming, and even Age of Ultron if you think of Ultron as a dark mirror of Tony all follow the same basic plot of “protagonist meets a dark reflection of himself and defeats him (or her, but only once).” The original Avengers and both Guardians films are more about opposition to an external invading force, with the inclusion of personal stakes, sure, but with a different kind of immediacy and intimacy as the whole “Obadiah/Winter Soldier/Yellowjacket/Mandarin/Vulture/whatever is me without a moral compass” element. I honestly can’t remember at all what The Dark World was about.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that these movies are always formulaic or generic, as the uninformed armchair critic likes to claim: Winter Soldier is a seventies-style conspiracy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist flick, Homecoming is a John Hughes-style high school comedy, etc. A more legitimate criticism is that these films are usually lacking in stakes, as character death is often a misdirect (Loki’s multiple “deaths,” the fakeout death of Nick Fury in Winter Soldier) or otherwise undone (Bucky was revealed to have survived his apparent death in The First Avenger, Agent Coulson’s death in Avengers was undone in Agents of SHIELD); the only permanent deaths leading up to this film among protagonists has been the death of Quicksilver in Age of Ultron and the elderly Peggy’s death in Civil War. Infinity War seems to be attempting to course-correct, with the deaths of a lot of people, but only some seem more or less permanent, while others are so obviously temporary that it makes the whole thing seem . . . pointless.

The fact that this is a dark movie isn’t a problem, per se. There’s just something that feels . . . off. There’s been a sharp uptick in the outright comedy in this franchise ever since Guardians showed that the audience was hungry for that kind of mix of humor and action, and that’s been for the best overall, with Ragnarok and Homecoming both being very funny. But a lot of the jokes in this film don’t seem to land as well as in those films. I saw Infinity War late on Sunday night, so it wasn’t a packed theater, but even when there were obvious punchlines that would normally elicit at least a chuckle or two from the general audience, there was dead silence. Which isn’t to say that all the jokes missed; a lot of them were actually pretty strong. There’s also a lot more Doctor Strange in the film than one would expect, but that wasn’t a detraction for me either. All the hallmarks are here: the great interaction between characters that we’ve come to know so well over the past ten years, the action sequences to make every viewer’s inner child jump for joy, and the grouping of characters who have never interacted before coming together in a brand new calculus of characters playing against each other.

It’s hard to narrow down what exactly doesn’t work for me here, but there are a few things that I can point to as being problems. Thanos’s cronies are no fun, and every single one of them looks terrible. Only one of them is named onscreen (Ebony Maw), and perhaps not coincidentally, he’s the only one with any kind of real personality in his brief appearances. Two of the three others are on par with Justice League‘s Steppenwolf when it comes to character modeling, as they appear to have been rendered using some truly outdated technology (like, maybe two generations newer than what was used for Babylon 5), and the third, an ax-throwing hulk of a man, is so needlessly baroque that he resembles a Transformer. None of them have even the smidgen of personality afforded to even the most shallow Marvel villains we’ve seen so far, so although there are stakes on a large, intergalactic scale, it feels like our protagonists are fighting cardboard cutouts.

I can only guess that this issue is the result of editing the film down from a longer narrative, as this would explain quite a bit. For instance, when last we saw the purple stone, Starlord et al had left it in the care of the Nova Corps on Xandar; at the beginning of this film, Thanos already has it in his possession. Structurally speaking, it feels like too much of this film happens offscreen or in between cuts. The pacing of the movie works perfectly, however, so I must conclude that there was a choice between a movie that had good narrative flow and one in which all the relevant scenes were present, and the choice was made to jettison chunks of the story in order to maintain a better flow. That’s probably the right choice, but it still left me feeling unfulfilled when I left the theater. That’s not even getting into the complete irrationality of Thanos’s entire plan (killing half the universe “at random” to ensure that the other half has enough resources, which is some Malthusian nonsense on top of being illogical), or the fact that some characters get a “moment” but are still ill-served by having very little to do (Cap, Black Widow, and Falcon are notably absent for long periods and do little more than punch and shoot when they are on screen, despite being, you know, the Avengers).

I’m sure that future re-watches (especially at home, on a screen that’s smaller and thus better at hiding the flaws of bad computer imagery) will likely leave me with a more positive feeling (and I reserve the right to change my opinion at a later date), especially after the second half of this narrative is released next summer. For now, though, I just can’t bring myself to love this. It’s not because it’s a bummer; I think that was a good choice and I usually prefer that. It’s not because it’s popular, either; that’s never been a problem for me. Ultimately, the problem for me has nothing to do with what’s in the movie, but everything that it’s missing. Here’s hoping the next outing is something better.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Black Panther (2018)

Oh man oh man oh man, the magic duo of people’s sexiest man alive Michael B. Jordan (not to be confused with People‘s Sexiest[?] Man Alive[?] Blake Shelton[?]) and Ryan Coogler has done it again. Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too.

It’s been a little less than two years since I wrote out my thoughts on Marvel’s race problem, which I drafted up in response to the whitewashing of the character of the Ancient One in the then-upcoming Doctor Strange film. That film was a disappointment on more levels than that (there’s a reason our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. coverage hasn’t resumed, as every time I think about rewatching Strange I get depressed) Since then, superhero broadcast and cinematic media has gotten better about addressing the ongoing issues that are shaking the foundations of our society, and even our democracy. For instance: Supergirl continuing to knock it out of the park as far as political commentary goes, from Cat Grant’s speech in the season two finale (appropriately entitled “Nevertheless She Persisted”) to the show’s episodic intro for this season (“My name is Kara Zor-El. I’m from Krypton. I’m a refugee on this planet.”). The CW also premiered Black Lightning at the beginning of this year, which I’m also finding both to be both moving and entertaining in addition to drawing more attention to issues that middle America tends to ignore. In the first episode alone, our hero Jefferson Pierce faced disproportionate police violence against communities of color, the preponderance of racial profiling in America, the bias of media when reporting on black citizens in comparison to treatment of white citizens. Our media should and must address these vitally important issues that demand attention and discussion in our culture right now, when the Attorney General is using (barely) coded language to signal to white supremacists that they have tacit approval from and are welcome to be part of law enforcement amidst dozens of other horrors.

I’m speaking out of my lane a bit here, as neither a woman or a person of color, and I’ll be the first person to admit to that. I’m not the final word on this, and I have no authority to speak to these matters. What I do have is a responsibility to do so. As Bell Hooks tells us in Homegrown: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege” (emphasis mine), and as such I want to take a second to talk about Star Trek: Discovery (I know, I know, but hear me out). The Star Trek franchise flirted with queer themes a number of times before this most recent series with episodes like TNG‘s “The Outcast” and DS9‘s “Rejoined,” but those episodes, when they discussed queer identities and presences in society, did so with a reliance on metaphor to distance the characters from the “taint” of homosexuality in the getting-better-but-still-not-great nineties. In Discovery, when we finally see Dr. Culber and Lieutenant Stamets standing at their sink and brushing their teeth together, then stealing a quick kiss, I cried. It’s hardly important, not plot-relevant (at least at the time), and part of me wants to decry that this is barely good enough, and yet… seeing, for the very first time, a reflection of myself in the fictional universe that had meant so much to me elicited an emotional reaction for which I was not prepared. Culber and Stamets—Hugh and Paul—were not victims. They weren’t dying of AIDS or as the result of violence, neither was the butt of a joke or a sassy best friend, they weren’t having to face systemic oppression or deny their birthrights to be together; they simply were.

People of black African descent watching Black Panther will have some of the same feelings I had watching Discovery and other feelings as well. There are better and clearer thinkers out there from whom you should be getting this information, but just in case Swampflix is the only website you read and are under a cultural embargo in every other way, listen up: there’s no one-to-one correlation between the experiences of one marginalized group and another, and the history of colonialism is baked into every single facet of contemporary life. The current progressive discourse is about intersectionality and rising higher by lifting each other and standing shoulder to shoulder, but white people like myself are still the beneficiaries of a social order built virtually entirely to ensure our supremacy and maintain a status quo that keeps the reigns of power in white (or, given the current political situation, orange) hands. If you’re capable of empathy and the most basic building blocks of open-mindedness, you either already know this or are not surprised, but down here on the ground in flyover country, even in a progressive urban enclave like Austin, we’re still trying to get the White Gays™ understand intersectionality even just a little bit. Their claims of having have an “inner black woman” are misogynoir in the first degree, their vocal disgust at people of size is fascism of the body, the sexual fetishization of black men is racism, and the claim that sexual attraction to only one (or all but one) ethnicity is “just a preference” is, at its core, a statement of “I treat people differently based on the color of their skin.” Institutionalized homophobia and racism are both legacies of colonialism that (just in case the people in the back didn’t hear me the first time) is a factor in every level of Western society; we’re struggling to slough off like so much dead skin, but some people will take any small advantage that they have without a moment’s hesitation or a second thought to those whom they may be stepping over. That’s something that the alt-right is happy to take advantage of.

I’m sure that, among readers with a moral philosophy that differs from the values I hold, this will be interpreted as some bleeding heart liberal cuck virtue signaling. Maybe a review of Black Panther isn’t the place for me to air my grievances with the White Gays™ and the fact that even my beloved Supergirl anchors itself pretty solidly in the garden of white feminism; I’ve gone a bit off track, but I just wanted to point out to you, dear reader, that even if you are not a person of color, Black Panther is still a movie you ought to see, and basic empathy means that you should be able to grasp some small part of the immeasurable importance of this film, even if its message of empowerment isn’t aimed at you directly. Despite the issues within my own community, I as an individual recognize the awesome power that representation has, and moreso the power of representation that forsakes the trappings of the meager pittances of visibility that came before. Not every movie about The Gays has to be Philadelphia, not every trans* movie has to be Boys Don’t Cry, and not every movie about the black experience has to be 12 Years a Slave. Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.

Away we go! Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War, showing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the technologically advanced isolationist African nation of Wakanda, preparing to take on the mantle of king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in that film. He retrieves his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from the mission she is on as a “war dog,” a term for Wakandan spies living in other nations, and returns home to be greeted by his mother, Queen Ramonda (actual goddess Angela Bassett), and tech wiz younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). His coronation is preceded by ceremonial combat, in which he engages M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a different tribe, for control of the throne. Filling out his coterie are: General Okoye (Danai Gurira, who steals the show), leader of the Dora Milaje, elite female warriors who serve as kingsguard; spiritual leader, tender of the garden of heart-shaped herbs that give the Black Panther his power, and overseer of the transition of power Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who also hides a shameful secret; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s confidante and Okoye’s lover. Meanwhile, a literal and figurative world away, American black operative Erik Stephens (Jordan), aka Killmonger, has teamed with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from Age of Ultron) to raid Wakanda in order to steal vibranium, the precious metal that fell to earth long ago and accelerated the technological advancements of Wakanda far beyond its neighbors. Stephens, however, has a greater purpose than Klaue has dreamed, and their machinations lead T’Challa to reunite with American CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Unexpected revelations occur, the long-term reverberations of a shameful act that happened in 1992 echo through the present, and fierce debates about the potential for colonialist interventionism to arise from pure and honest intentions, the de facto violence of isolationism in a world teetering on the precipice, and the wisdom of building bridges versus the foolishness of building walls arise.

That’s a lot of discourse to wrap up in a 134 minute superhero film that has to introduce nearly a dozen heretofore unseen characters, establish vital information about the history of a fictional nation that is unlike any society in the real world, and create a stunning afro-futurism aesthetic that looks cooler than anything else we’ve seen before in this franchise (only the colorful world of Ragnarok really comes close). On top of that, the film also has to give the audience the action thrills that they’ve come to expect: a (badass) car chase, two slugfests on a waterfall outcropping, a (kind of forgettable) opening sequence under the cover of darkness, a casino shootout, and the final climactic battle. But Coogler manages to compress all of those things into that runtime, and churns out an early contender for one of the best movies of the year. Just like Get Out last year, this is a February release that I predict will continue to be part of the conversation for quite some time to come. Granted, Disney is essentially a national economy unto itself, and this is a “product” for them in the strictest sense, but Marvel Studios seems to have learned the lesson that getting out of the way and letting their directors have extensive creative control makes for better art (who could have guessed?). The only bad thing about creating a movie with so many rich layers and elements is that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin discussion.

First things first: I can see why this movie is making racists angry, especially those who hate being called out on being the recipients of the benefits of being the descendants of colonizers. Ross is explicitly called a colonizer, and much hay is made of the fact that Wakanda has only managed to reach their staggering technological achievements because of the nation’s isolationism, made explicit in the text by showing other African states being devastated by the slave trade in the film’s opening moments. I come from a rural white family and have family members on Facebook, so I know what its like, as I assume you do, to see the same people who want to “Never Forget” incidents like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, and whatever else you can put a name on that involved Americans being heroic in the face of tragedy (although what defines “heroism” and “tragedy” varies from ideology to ideology, especially when talking about something like the Alamo) but are also vocally resistant to movies like the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, saying things like “why can’t the past be the past?” I’d wager that no matter what walk of life you come from, you’ve got at least one of these people in your social network because of family or work connections; they’re probably going to hate this movie, because this ideology so often goes hand-in-hand with disliking any art made by people of color, regardless of quality (funny that), although they usually couch it in the rhetoric of “it’s not for me” or “I just don’t understand because it’s not something I know.”

And that is not to say that the film is without flaw. Of all the conspiracy nonsense out there, one that I hate the most is the “ancient astronauts” theory. Ever since Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, the idea that various architectural wonders of the ancient world were inspired by extraterrestrial contact has gained wide acceptance among the irrational, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the History Channel’s passive approval of the idea with the launch of TV shows like Ancient Aliens. But the truth of the matter is that the “paleo contact” and “ancient astronauts” hypotheses are also part of a colonial narrative. Europeans in Africa and the New World saw the ziggurats and pyramids that had been built using rope, stone, wood, and gumption and said to themselves “Well, sure Monte d’Accoddi and the Hulbjerg Jættestue and Newgrange were ancient structures that our ancestors built with primitive tools, but how on earth did these non-white pagans do it? [Snaps] That’s it! There’s no way that they could have expressed such ingenuity… on earth. They must have had help from spacemen!” I’ll admit that I’m a huge nerd and, frankly, very little would make me happier than any sort of evidence of extraterrestrial contact, but this “theory” and all the “evidence” for it starts from the presupposition that non-whites outside of Europe were inherently savage and incapable of the same architectural feats as their European contemporaries. This concept was manufactured out of nothing based on the core idea of denying African and South American ingenuity. Again, this is a long aside, but the reason that I bring this up is that there is a smidgen of this in Black Panther, as Wakanda’s futuristic nature is only possible because of the presence of vibranium. One could argue that Black Panther devalues and undermines African inventiveness in much the same way as von Däniken and his followers by showing a nation that is only exceptional because of an external event; on the other hand, real world history often demonstrates that nations can rise and fall based upon the presence or absence of certain natural resources, and that the film treats the abundance of vibranium beneath Wakanda’s surface as such. As a potential problematic issue in the text, it’s minor, but something I expect to generate an inevitable argument about how “Black Panther isn’t as progressive as you think” in the coming weeks. There’ll probably be some complaints about the monarchic nature of Wakanda as well, despite that the potentiality of abuse of power within that method of governance is addressed pretty explicitly in the text.

Everything else is amazing. It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a delightful movie. Featuring baby-faced Brit Tom Holland reprising his role from Captain America: Civil War as the eponymous arachno-person, the film has already met with widespread approval from most critics and fans. It’s not difficult to see why; even when playing an exasperatingly ebullient modern teenager complete with inappropriately timed self-videoing, Holland has a magnetic screen presence and brings a lot of charm to the role, not to mention that he actually looks like a teenager and not just Tobey Maguire in his late twenties wearing a backpack. This newfound verisimilitude when it comes to casting young people as young characters is reflected in the rest of the cast who portray Parker’s classmates, including Laura Harrier (27 but looks younger) as Peter’s love interest Liz, Jacob Batalon as his best friend and confidante Ned, Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori as bully Flash Thompson, and Disney debutante Zendaya as Michelle alongside others.

While recently watching The 3% on Netflix with my roommate, he remarked that he found the show to be “effortlessly Tumblr friendly,” which is also true of this film. One thing you may notice about the cast list above is that, other than Holland, all of the actors listed are people of color. This is a great step forward as far as diversity goes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is something that I have written about here before, especially in regards to the largely white-washed and underwhelming Doctor Strange. More admirable than that, however, is the fact that the film has largely cast actors with strong comedic ability beyond any arguable (or marketable) “tokenism”  in what is probably the funniest film that the MCU has produced outside of the Guardians movies so far. Other notable comedians in the adult cast include comedic actors like Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson (who has some of the film’s best lines), my beloved Donald Glover as two-scene wonder Aaron Davis, and Orange is the New Black‘s (admittedly underutilized) Selenis Levya, making her the second actress to break free from that program into a superhero film after Elizabeth Rodriguez’s appearance in Logan earlier this year.

Rounding out the adult cast are Marisa Tomei as Peter Parker’s Aunt May, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man (yet again), and Michael Keaton as the Vulture. Downey is essentially the same in this appearance as he is in all of his appearances as this (and frankly every) character, the rich asshole who is less charismatic than he thinks he is. Those of you who were wondering if he would express any regret or mixed feelings about his role in drafting what is essentially a child soldier into his personal grievance with Captain America in last year’s Civil War are bound to be disappointed, although probably not surprised. It’s still a nice touch that the film acknowledges in its text, if not in its characters’ self-awareness, that (once again) the film’s villains are created by Tony Stark and his lack of foresight. Keaton’s Vulture, nee Adrian Toomes, is a blue-collar Salvage worker whose contract with the city is rendered null when Tony Stark creates a new government agency to deal with the cleanup of the Battle of New York, forcing Toomes and his associates to find a new line of work. As is so often the case in the real world, these working-class men have no choice but to turn to crime, in this situation the theft and customization of advanced technology into weapons, in order to support themselves and their families.

This creates the backdrop of the film, which tells a much more grounded story than more excessive, loftier films like The Avengers. The stakes are largely personal, especially in one particular story beat that is obvious in retrospect but I didn’t see coming and won’t spoil here. Of course, just because the fate of the world isn’t on the line, that does not mean that the stakes are small. One could be easily forgiven for assuming that this movie would be a cliche teenage film that just happens to be filtered through a superhero lens, especially given the film’s subtitle of “homecoming,” but everything feels like it is awarded the dramatic weight that is warranted and appropriate given the setting and the tone. I’m hesitant to say more in this review as I want to save some of my insights for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I can say that this is one of my favorite films of the year so far and definitely worth the price of admission. I may be any easy sell (especially anytime a film uses “Space Age Love Song,” aka the best thing Flock of Seagulls ever made), but I’ll admit there are a few jokes and nods to the source material that don’t quite land, and I can confess that I had a fairly unpleasant viewing experience due to the loudness and phone usage of the film’s target audience (which is probably what I deserve for going to a screening on opening weekend that was not at the Alamo Drafthouse). All in all, however, I can all but guarantee you’ll have a good time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The gang is back with a few new faces this time around in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, with director James Gunn returning to the helm of the weirdest series in the MCU franchise. Although there are a few missteps this outing, including a lack of screentime for some of your old favorites, violence that is at turns disturbingly unexamined in its brutality when it’s not cartoonish, and hit-or-miss emotional resonance, this second installment reminds us that Guardians is still the funniest and most charming Marvel property currently being produced.

After a flashback opening sequence that shows a CGI de-aged Kurt Russell planting a strange alien plant on Earth in 1980s Missouri while romancing Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) mother, the film finds the team performing a mission to protect the extremely powerful batteries of a race known as the Sovereign from theft by a gross, fleshy tentacle monster (its essentially Caucasian flesh tones and stubble make the thing quite nauseating to gaze upon, as it looks like a scrotum come to life). This first action sequence felt a little off to me, as the obsession Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has with getting Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) music ready before they fight seemed a rather on-the-nose tip of the hat to the popularity of the first movie’s soundtrack. As the action primarily occurs in the background, the camera follows Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) around the platform in a one-shot that’s impressive despite being largely CGI.

We then meet our decoy antgonist, the High Priestess of the Sovereign (Elizabeth Debicki), as she presents the Guardians with their payment for the successful defense of their batteries, a captured Nebula (Karen Gillam), who is to be taken back to Xandar by her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for the bounty on her head. The team is pursued by the Sovereign as Rocket, unable to control his kleptomania, made off with Sovereign tech; as a result, the team is forced to crash land in a forest after taking heavy damage and ultimately being rescued by Ego (Russell) and his servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who helps the powerful being sleep. After revealing his familiar connection to Peter, Ego offers to take him, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) to his planet to explain his abnormal existence, and present Peter with a unique opportunity.

Elsewhere, Yondu (Michael Rooker) faces an existential dilemma when it is revealed that he and his squad are outcasts in the greater Ravager community, in a way that ties back to his essentially having raised Peter after abducting him, moments after the boy watched his mother die. He accepts a bounty for the Guardians from the Sovereign, but when his crew learns that he did so in order to protect them rather than hunt them, they mutiny, taking over his ship and freeing Nebula, who goes after Gamora in pursuit of revenge. Rocket, Groot, and Yondu must then attempt escape, with a little help from everybody’s favorite Stars Hollow weirdo (Sean Gunn, whose character’s name is irrelevant, and we all know it).

There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character. The conflict between Peter and Rocket centers around Rocket’s insecurities about whether or not he deserves to be part of a family, even if that family is a group of outlaws who found each other. The violence Nebula seeks against Gamora comes from an obsession with besting her sister out of misplaced jealousy and rage, without realizing that they are both survivors of the same abuse but who have allowed that past to push them in different directions. The interaction between Peter and his father gives rise to the film’s climax (although it feels the weakest to me, despite being the primary conflict). Yondu’s desire to right the moral failings of his past give him the longest character arc of the film, and even the comedy bits between Mantis and Drax, both fish out of water but from very different worlds, is display of character, rather than the needs of pushing the narrative forward.

This is an elegantly constructed movie, and it moves with such precision and humor that you’ll never feel bored. Still, it is odd that this is a movie with a protagonist character who readily admits to a lust not only for violence, but specifically of killing others, and he’s never really called out on it. I’m not necessarily opposed to the whimsical way one particular scene of what’s essentially a mass murder is treated, since this is a James Gunn movie that we’re talking about, but it feels odd, if not exactly wrong. The fact that this sequence follows another that has a distinct Looney Tunes feel to the violence simply makes it feel like something is out of place.

I’ll save my thoughts on the more spoilery content and the way that this film interacts with the rest of the MCU for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but Guardians 2 gets an endorsement from me. It’s still the weird sci-fi comedy that you can recommend to your friend who doesn’t like superheroes. Also, be on the lookout for a cameo from Ben Browder, who portrayed the protagonist of Farscape (which was mentioned as a spiritual predecessor of Guardians in our Agents review), playing a member of the Sovereign and using his best Peacekeeper voice.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 (2016)

“How many movies did Roger Corman make that never got released? One.”

When the last failed attempt to competently adapt the Fantastic 4 comic book series for the big screen hit theaters in 2015, I foolishly decided to give all past attempts a chance and watched all four craptastic Fantastic 4 features that have been produced since the 1990s. The only film of the batch that was at all enjoyable happened to also be the only one that never saw an official release. The notoriously campy, 1994 Roger Corman-produced Fantastic 4 film is rumored to have been made solely so that co-producer Bernd Eichinger could retain the film rights to the intellectual property he later leveraged for a much larger paycheck with the 20th Century Fox Fantastic 4 production in 2005. Although Corman’s goofy $1 million Fantastic 4 production was shot, edited, and printed into a final, marketable product ready to be shipped to movie theaters across the world, it never saw an official commercial release. The details of these backroom shenanigans have always been a little murky, as the Corman film was intended to be dumped quietly into the void by folks behind the scenes, which is a total shame given that it’s a much more enjoyable work than the major studio Fantastic 4 travesties that have been released in its wake. Now, the documentary Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 has arrived to promote the very existence of this lost VHS gem and to shed some light on the mysterious forces that sabotaged its would-be theatrical release.

As an informational experience, Doomed! doesn’t accomplish anything that couldn’t be achieved through a longform “oral history” article on a well-funded film blog. It’s more of a Wikipedia-in-motion style of post mortem on a superhero film that never officially saw the light of day than it is a Tickled-style exposé on the dark forces that greenlit the production just to sabotage its release. The interview pull quotes that appear as onscreen text and act as chapter breaks between talking heads awkwardly call into question why this even had to be a movie at all, instead of a series of print interviews & YouTube clips. It’d be foolish to expect anything more than that from a crowd funded documentary about a film only available on VHS bootlegs & less-than-legal YouTube uploads, but keeping those limitations in mind definitely helps soften any major criticism that could be lobbed at Doomed!. Stories about how the movie was fast-tracked into production, passed on by Lloyd Kaufman, filmed at a studio warehouse condemned by the fire marshal, and advertised in theaters with a legitimate trailer despite the apparent conspiracy to never release it all make for interesting anecdotes, but do little to distinguish the documentary as its own work of art. What makes Doomed! worthwhile instead is the pathos it manages to mine from the cast & crew who worked on the film, people who sank immeasurable time, passion, and money into an effort that was conspired to become a meaningless waste by design behind their backs.

In the early 90s most superhero media was considered to be kids’ stuff, with most Marvel films in particular, including early attempts to bring Spider-Man & Captain America to life, not really providing much hope that the landscape would change into the comic book-dominated nerd future we live in today. The success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film changed that perception, however. Although folks working on the 1994 Fantastic 4 might have had reasons to be concerned about the limitations of working within Roger Corman’s direct-to-VHS era, with his quick-paced production schedule & indie-level scale of budget, they also had enough encouragement from the cultural zeitgeist at large that the film might be a huge financial success. A project hundreds of Hollywood nobodies sank all of their hope into as their big break into major A-list success, one that had explicit verbal assurance that it would reach a wide theatrical distribution and a trailer that screened before other major action films, never saw the light of day until it was bootlegged & ridiculed years down the line. The first sign the cast & crew had that the powers that be behind 1994’s Fantastic 4 might not have had total faith in their work was when Marvel legend Stan Lee publicly trashed the film at that year’s Comic-Con before production even wrapped. Everything from that point on is hurt feelings & dashed dreams. Doomed! is most essential as a document when it captures that sense if betrayal from those most hurt by the film’s cancellation. Like with a lot of movies sets, the crew had developed a tight-knit, familial sense of camaraderie during production and it’s a little sad to see them all look back bitterly on sinking together with a ship that was doomed before it even left the port.

If you want to see a great document of the cheap, wild production style of Roger Corman filmmaking, I recommend checking out Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel instead. If you want to see a great documentary about a passion project that becomes unruly during production and is sabotaged out of existence by sinister film industry types, check out Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau instead. Already-established fans of the Roger Corman Fantastic 4 movie (like myself) are likely to seek out Doomed! for its cool tidbits about how The Thing’s animatronic facial expressions were achieved or how, exactly, copies of the film were ever leaked out. Then again, those fans were likely to be the exact people who funded this documentary on Indigogo in the first place. If you’re already on the hook for Fantastic 4, this film works well enough in tandem with that would-be cult classic as supplementary material. Doomed! aims to achieve more than that, nakedly calling out for an official, decades-late commercial release for Fantastic 4 as a kind of victory for the folks who were wronged in the conspiracy of its initial non-release. Only time will tell if it’s successful in that respect. In the meantime, folks who aren’t already onboard with 1994’s “lost” Fantastic 4 can only look to Doomed! for a small, quietly sad story about a group of hopeful up-and-comers having their dreams built up and immediately crushed by a shared project that’s just beyond their control. Even if just for that one aspect, though, it’s still worth a recommendation.

-Brandon Ledet

Howard the Duck (1986)

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“In a land of a lot of flops, it’s kind of awesome to be in a really famous flop. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s kind of a poster child for flops. A lot of iconoclasts really love that movie. They love to love something that everyone hates. And those are my kind of folks. I’m happy to be part of that club of people who don’t want to be told what’s horrible and just want to enjoy it anyway. Howard the Duck has a lot of fans, and usually when they come up to me, I just think they’re the coolest. Because it takes a lot of strength, a lot of perseverance to love Howard the Duck. [Laughs.]” – Lea Thompson, star of Howard the Duck

There are a lot of great reasons to love a movie, any movie, that have nothing to do with establishing yourself as an iconoclast or Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest” (not that those aren’t great consolation prizes). Ebert’s musings on cinema as a “machine that generates empathy” is a great go-to quote for starters, but I don’t think it exactly covers all of what makes a great film great art. For instance, I don’t necessarily love Howard the Duck because it makes me empathize with a cigar-chomping, beer-swilling duck from outer space or the human woman who wants to fuck him. Instead, I believe the infamous George Lucas-produced flop touches on one of cinema’s other distinguishing qualities as a unique art form: improbability. There’s an almost transgressive absurdity to the idea that this film reached theaters in the form that it did. So many collaborators touched this expensive, unlikely work and it took on a weird energy all of its own in the process. Howard the Duck isn’t Guernica or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it is a visually distinct, almost hauntingly memorable mess of artistic expression, at the very least notable for the specificity of its improbable ineptitude. Lea Thompson may have been a little off the mark in the above quote by suggesting the movie deserves love merely to buck its criticism or to establish contrarian cool points, but I do believe she’s right that it takes a certain strength & perseverance to hold onto that love in the face of its overwhelmingly negative reputation. I also believe that loving certain catastrophic missteps like these (and I mean genuine love, not its ironic cousin), films like 1993’s Super Mario Bros & Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles franchise, means loving something essential about film as an artistic medium. The worst thing a movie can be is unmemorable. Howard the Duck typifies a type of “bad movie” that’s anything but unmemorable, an outlier of improbable absurdity that only the film industry could deem worthy for public display in thousands of movie theaters (the most modern of art galleries) across the world.

Part of the reason Howard the Duck is such a great exemplifier of the “bad” movie as modern art is that so much of its DNA matches its cultural reputation. Both the film & its Marvel Comics source material depict an anthropomorphic duck transported from an alternate dimension against his will to a world that’s less than hospitable to him as an obvious outsider who’ll never quite fit in. In the comics’ words, he “trapped in a world he never made.” This is partly why he finds a kindred spirit with Beverly, played by Lea Thompson in the movie, who is socially & financially unable to find her place in a heartless patriarchy that only values her . . . assets as an art school model (or, in the film, a rock star babe) and not her talents or personality. The movie itself has become an out of place outcast in a hostile world and its slow-growing cult audience has become a sort of real-world surrogate for Bev in the way it finds love for something everyone else seems to hate. Howard’s comic book creator, Steve Gerber, used the duck’s misfit existential crisis as a device for griping about a modern world the artist found distasteful, critiquing social ills like a corrupt political system or violent children’s entertainment and filtering those critiques through outlandish comic book villains like Pro-Rata, the cosmic accountant, who lives in an enormous tower made of credit cards. Although the movie does feature a similar over the top villain in The Dark Overlord of the Universe, it also softens the property’s tendencies towards biting social satire in favor of some bullshit Marty McFly 80s cool & George Lucas-specific action “comedy,” the exact kind of Poochie-flavored marketing Howard would’ve despised in the comics. However, the film does maintain a critical eye against unwarranted hostility in the modern world in a way that feels very true to its source material and it’s amusingly appropriate that the citizens of Earth have treated Howard the Duck the movie with just as much of that vitriol as the way they treated Howard the Duck the character in the comics.

A large part of what people tend to hate about Howard the Duck is its inconsistent tone, which is a problem apparent as soon as its opening four minutes spent on Howard’s home planet, Duckworld. This movie was a produced in the early, lawless, Wild West days of the PG rating, which allows for a surprising amount of sexual content to seep into its childlike humor. In the first few minutes we spend getting accustomed to Duckworld’s anthropomorphic duck citizens (before the opening credits, mind you), we’re treated to two (!!!) shots of topless duck women’s exaggerated humanoid breasts (once in a bathtub and once in a Playduck Magazine centerfold). The clash of adult sensibility with kids’ movie visuals continues later when Lea Thompson infamously climbs into bed with Howard wearing only lingerie and a hungry smile, threatening to instigate the world’s most uncomfortable love scene (although I could argue that her character in Back to the Future’s seductive threat is even worse) as well as a moment where she finds a tiny, duck-sized condom in his wallet. (Thankfully, no mention is made of how terrifying real life duck dicks are.) In the comics Howard & Bev’s romance is played as odd, but harmless. Faced with the realities of its imagery in the movie is a different matter entirely. It’s hilariously wrong at best, an effect the film’s writer-directors Willard Huyk & Gloria Katz entirely intended, according to their interviews on the “A Look Back” featurette included on the film’s first DVD release in 2008. Howard the Duck looks & feels like a kids’ picture, but its hero is a sexual being whose appetite knows no special bounds. He’s also an animatronic puppet who will humorously hit hicks with cream pies in one scene & threaten to stab record company creeps in the face with an ice pick in the next, a wide range of tones that makes for a singularly memorable, terrifying experience, especially if you catch it at a formative age.

In the fool’s mission of trying to make sense of Howard the Duck’s tonal mishmash, it’s easy to lose track of exactly how striking its visual palette can be. Try for a second not to get hung up on the idea that this talking duck children’s film features a biker gang called “Satan’s Sluts,” a hedonistic bathhouse orgy, and a hideous space demon with a Doom monster torso & a scorpion’s lower body (more on that in a moment) and you just might find some interesting production design in those details. The violent new wave punks’ wardrobe features some incredible touches, like a leather jacket adorned with plastic babydoll faces. The aforementioned bathhouse is lit like an early Bava or Argento giallo picture. The scorpion demon from outer space is a perfect marriage of classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion technique with some nightmarish HR Giger flourish. Howard himself, although disturbingly uncanny, is a feat of practical effects animatronics. As a historical object of cinematic past, I’d argue that his design is actually quite beautiful. Jeffrey Jones’s Dark Overlord of the Universe, an all-powerful demon from beyond the planets who eventually turns into the aforementioned scorpion beast & is undoubtedly the film’s most overlooked secret weapon, is a masterclass in cinematic villainy, running the full gamut from Star Wars Empower Force-lightning to Cronenbergian body horror to self-conflicted Golem psychosis. There’s even some early-in-the-runtime outer space mysticism, which I’m always a sucker for in any film, regardless of quality. The only time Howard the Duck becomes genuinely boring is when it abandons its typical Reagan-era grit – with its drugs, punks, violence, and homelessness – for George Lucas’s usual mode of 30s & 40s action “comedy” chases which are just about as lifeless as they are in Spielberg’s 1941. At the very least, though, those scenes serve to contrast & heighten the absurd unlikelihood of the film’s very existence as a completed product and even in the worst of the film’s third act doldrums it’s difficult to take your eye off Howard’s unthinkable face, which has a Max Headroom kind of unnerving quality to it, one that makes you just as horrified by the duck’s presence as the fictionalized citizens of Earth who reject him at every turn.

Thirty years after Howard the Duck’s release it’s difficult to find much praise for what the film accomplishes. It’s occasionally covered by schlock cinema critical outlets like My Year of Flops or How Did this Get Made?, but without any hint of adoration or fanfare, if not with an open, unapologetic hostility. Even the film’s initial DVD release, supposedly willed into existence by a growing cult fanbase, could only muster the faint praise that it’s “one of the most talked about movies of all time” in its jacket copy. The only instance I can think of where Howard receives any kind of reverence or adoration is an post-credits gag in Guardians of the Galaxy where the character appears (in a much less visually interesting CG rendering) solely to troll the audience with the mere idea of his return to the big screen. Despite being the very first Marvel property to earn a feature film adaptation (and a surprisingly faithful one at that, lifting some dialogue directly from the page), Howard the Duck holds a lowly 15% score on the Tomatometer & is widely considered to be “one of the worst films of all time.” If it has a wide cult following its devotees are just about as silent as fans of pro wrestling or Nickelback. As strangely misshapen as the film can be, I believe it deserves better than that and its best chance for a path to a better reputation would be for more people to respect it for its basic improbability. This film was initially pitched as an animated feature, but was instead rushed into production due to studio pressure & morphed into a live action film where little person actors man animatronic duck puppets. It opens with a duck traveling through outer space against philosophical musings about infinite dimensions where “all is real and all is illusion,” yet ends in the same generic industrial space that concludes all 80s action plots. It indulges in generic 80s garbage pop, but finds unlikely collaborators in respected musicians Thomas Dolby & George Clinton. The dialogue is sublimely corny, with its references to “space rabies” & Quack-Fu, but is sold competently by in-on-the-joke actors like an incredibly game Jeffrey Jones (who really does put on one of his most memorable performances here) and future Oscar winner Tim Robbins, (who, appropriately enough, is dressed like Thomas Dolby in the film).

Much like its self-loathing “wisequacker” protagonist, Howard the Duck is a “strange fowl in an even stranger land.” Its mere existence points to a cinema-specific ability to bring strange, improbable art to a mass audience, whether or not that audience appreciates it. In fact, its complete lack of a positive reception only adds to its idiosyncratic charm in the way it mirrors the mallard-out-of-water hostility of the source material’s narrative. The film has objective faults, sure. It could have been shorter, better paced, more tonally consistent, etc. What’s more interesting to me are the ways its stands out from other films with the same problems. Its practical effects techniques, however dated, carve out their own, unforgettably bizarre space of visual distinction. Its duck/human sexual tension is a brilliantly uncomfortable mode of (again, intentional) audience trolling. Its attempts to shoehorn in George Lucas’s aggressively wholesome aesthetic of radio serial adventure epics into its modern era cynicism is beyond bizarre. Its space demon villain is a genuinely breathtaking work of movie magic evil in a film generally considered to be technically inept. This movie should likely not exist in its completed form and it’s that exact, eccentric crime against good taste & basic logic that makes it such a memorable oddity, a quality often overlooked in a quest to catalog its many, improbable faults. There’s never been a better time to reconsider Hoard the Duck’s charms a go-for-broke cinematic misstep. On its thirty year anniversary, the film is benefiting from some fine wine time capsule qualities that can only come with age. Its comic book source material is currently experience one of its all-time best runs with Chip Zdarsky’s neo noir take on the property over at Marvel. There’s always a chance that Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn will continue to Trojan horse the wisequacker into future MCU properties, so it’s probably best to be aware of his cinematic past. Besides, falling in love with Howard the Duck will have Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest.” And if none of that is enough to convince you that the film is at the very least interesting as a cultural relic, if not lovable as a cinematic outlier, then I believe Thompson’s Bev put it best: “Howard may be a duck, but you people are animals!”

-Brandon Ledet