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

RoboCop (2014)

One of the stranger trends to emerge from major studios scrambling to remake every past success has been the push to re-imagine Paul Verhoeven films as PG-13 commodities. The recent announcement of an upcoming Starship Troopers re-imagining makes three Verhoeven remakes in the past few years that seemingly are determined to strip the iconic director’s work of all the satirical cruelty that made it successful in the first place. Did the world really need a version of Total Recall with no Schwarzenegger and no trips to Mars? It’s doubtful. I can’t imagine a modern version of Starship Troopers’s war propaganda satire will fare much better and it’s starting to feel like only a matter of time before we get an updated version of Verhoeven’s Showgirls with all of the camp and the nudity surgically removed. The biggest disappointment in this trend so far, though, might just be the 2014 remake of Verhoeven’s privatized police force satire RoboCop, arguably one of the greatest films ever made. The PG-13 RoboCop reboot is especially frustrating in the context of modern, sanitized Verhoeven remakes because it threatens to actually be a decent film with its own interesting ideas for its opening half hour. No other Verhoeven bastardization so far has ever had a chance of being half as interesting as the recent Robo-reboot did, which makes it all the more tragic that the film crashes and burns in such a dull, uninspired manner.

I’d forgive anyone for being fooled that the 2010 RoboCop “gets it” based on its opening sequence. Samuel L. Jackson kicks off the film as the host of a primetime news shoe that’s half CNN, half Dianetics DVD. There are no comedy sketches interrupting this opener as “commercial breaks” like in the Verhoeven film, but the satire in the sequence is still palpable. Jackson’s fake news show profiles a private American company that makes billions of dollars selling weaponry to the military. In demonstration of the power & efficiency of the company’s military-grade robots, which include past RoboCop villain ED-209 working in tandem with Star Wars prequel-type droids, a Middle Eastern terrorist cell is dismantled by American troops. The raid bleakly concludes with the execution of a child, a detail the news program conveniently cuts from its live feed. Jackson’s host then asks his audience why a “robo-phobic” America is so cautious about bringing these private sector androids into urban law enforcement, needling, “What’s more important than the safety of the American people?” This opening efficiently conjures modern concerns of trading freedom for safety, the morality of drone warfare & the surveillance state, and the terrifying business practices of privatized military & police forces, all while maintaining at least some of the sly humor of Verhoeven’s source material. Unfortunately, its minor successes are short-lived. There’s a national debate about the ethics of a roboticized police force that, of course, eventually leads to the titular cyborg solution of a half-man/half-machine (all cop) compromise. The movie remains mildly interesting as RoboCop is built by a futuristic prosthetics company and adjusts to his new Robo-body, but immediately crashes into a wall of modern PG-13 action tedium as soon as he blossoms onto his complete Robo-self. It never recovers.

The hard-R violence of the 1980’s RoboCop feature meant that each bullet, every blow delivered by RoboCop or his supercriminal enemies were significantly brutal. In the remake, the violence is much less impactful, much easier to shake off. The film’s CGI-aided fantasy violence doesn’t help that point much either. RoboCop leaps weightlessly like a superhero in this version, sharply contrasted with the limited mobility in his heavy hydraulic systems of the past. Outside of a couple production details like RoboCop having one human hand and one Robo-hand to accentuate his dual, self-conflicted nature, the film more or less runs out of ideas as soon as its titular hero is actualized. It’s an aggressively conventional work that fully loses track of why it even exists, to the point where callbacks to the Verhoeven classic in lines like “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar,” feel absurdly out of place. With the violence muted and the satire almost completely drained, this RoboCop rehash feels entirely devoid of a sense of purpose, as if it were a down-the-line sequel of a Jason Statham or JCVD property that surfaced on VOD long after its origins had been forgotten. You can feel it reaching to reclaim its opening spark in its political mockery, which posits old-timey Republicans as the opposition to the RoboCop initiative and forward thinking leftists, including Michael Keaton in full Steve Jobs mode, as the ones pushing for the innovation. By the time Sam Jackson’s news anchor returns to usher in the end credits, though, the game had already been lost and nearly everything in-between feels like a generic 2010s shoot-em-up. Something about that wasted potential feels even more dispiriting than it would if the movie were just bland from the very beginning.

RoboCop is one of those remakes where you could change just the title and a couple minor plot details and avoid purchasing the rights to the intellectual property altogether. That, of course, would have hurt ticket sales, but it would also have lowered expectations of the quality comparisons to the original Verhoeven film, which it seems disinterested in matching in tone or content. The worst part about RoboCop is that the idea it initially presents it is interested in continuing & adopting Verhoeven’s weird vision to a modern context. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure it was interested in saying anything in particular at all, a distressing attribute seemingly shared by all of these unimaginative “re-imaginings” of this great director’s greatest hits.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Batman (1989)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Batman (1989) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 155 of the first edition hardback, Ebert describes a notorious, boisterous publicist who worked for Warner Bros. named Frank Casey. In one anecdote about the larger-than-life character, he recounts, “It was of my opinion Casey had never seen a movie all the way through. Unlike other publicists, who mostly used screening rooms, Casey liked to take over a theater like the World Playhouse for the Chicago preview of a big movie like Batman and invite all his friends from the worlds of business and politics. Only at a Warner Bros. movie were you ever likely to see Mayor Daley, several alderman, and various Pritzkers.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Gotham City created in Batman is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric places I’ve seen in the movies. It’s a shame  something more memorable doesn’t happen there. Batman is a triumph of design over story, style over substance – a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about. All of the big moments in the movie are pounded home with ear-shattering sound effects and a jackhammer cutting style, but that just serves to underline the movie’s problem, which is a curious lack of suspense and intrinsic interest. Batman discards the recent cultural history of the Batman character – the camp 1960s TV series, the in-joke comic books – and returns to the mood of the 1940s, the decade of film noir and fascism.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

There have been four major live action Batman franchises to hit theaters since the cartoonishly campy days of Adam West in the 1960s. All of them have Tim Burton’s greasy fingerprints all over their basic DNA. Burton’s 1989 Batman adaptation was such a highly stylized smash hit that Gotham has never looked the same onscreen since. His highly specific production style of gothy art deco gloom mixed with subtly campy sadism has shaped everything Schumacher, Nolan, and Snyder have done visually with the Batman property in the decades since, and even launched an entire, highly-acclaimed animated TV series. Every Batman adaptation since Burton’s seems to like have inadvertently mirrored more than just that seminal work’s high-end Hot Topic gloom, however. They’ve also adopted his pattern of when to intensify personal vision instead of bending to corporate-minded marketability with each respective franchise.

Tim Burton’s Batman has a striking visual palette & overall tone to it that’s directly tied to the director’s personal wheelhouse as an auteur. Still, there’s something about the relatively vanilla romance at the film’s center, the shoehorned-in Prince soundtrack, and the blatantly brand-conscious imagery of the bat signal that reeks of movie-by-committee studio interference. Batman ’89 feels like Burton delivering exactly what studios want (with a strong personal spin, of course) so that he can prove himself worthy to fully take the reins in a second, wilder, more personalized feature. 1992’s Batman Returns is pure Tim Burton, an untethered, perverted goth kid rampage that broke free from studio exec influence, a much more striking & idiosyncratic work than its predecessor. Every live action Batman adaptation since has seemed to follow this pattern. Joel Schumacher’s jokey-but-tame Batman Forever isn’t nearly half as memorable as the oversexed camp fest of its far superior Batman and Robin follow-up. (It’s time we all admit that’s a great movie; don’t @ me.) Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is widely recognized as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last decade, while its predecessor is a much more muted drama about Batman’s salad days at ninja school. Even recently (and I’m expecting even more flack for this than the Schumacher praise), the Zach Snyder-helmed Batman films got a lot more lively & delightfully weird in Suicide Squad than they started off as in the punishingly dull Dawn of Justice. Burton has laid out a clear blueprint for any & all would-be Batman auteurs arriving in his wake: try to keep it somewhat calm & familiar in the first film, then swing for the fences with the follow-up.

I don’t mean to imply here that Batman ’89 is in any way a bland, forgettable film. It does feel homogenized around the edges to meet major studio blockbuster expectations, but the weird little heart at the center of the film is still unmistakably Burton. The stop motion retractable shields on the Batmobile are pure Burton aesthetic, a visual calling card also matched in the film’s matte paintings & miniatures. He also frames a lot of the film with an excess of Dutch angles, which is not only a natural aspect of adapting a comic book property for the screen, but also consistent with the childlike tone of his then-contemporary works like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Besides the visual calling cards that let us know as an audience that this is A Tim Burton Joint, you can also feel the director’s personality strongly reflected in the casting. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a reclusive billionaire weirdo is a smart deviation from the square-jawed, American Hero caricature Adam West (expertly) brought to the screen before him, bringing a calmer version of his demonic Beetlejuice performance to the role. Where Burton really finds his footing in leaving a personal stamp on Batman as a product wouldn’t be with the titular hero at all, however. The director’s talents were much better suited for bringing to life the cartoon cruelty of the Caped Crusader’s sworn enemy, one of superhero comics’ most infamous villains.

Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the key to understanding Batman ’89 both as a Burton film and as a monolithic influence on the adaptations that would follow. Burton is obviously more interested in the villains of the Batverse than he is in Bruce Wayne himself, except maybe when the billionaire weirdo is exposed to be just another oddly kinky monster terrorizing the city he supposedly protects. A large part of what makes Batman Returns feel more like a pure Burton vision than its predecessor is that the director just fully gives himself into this impulse, wilfully allowing Batman to become a background character while total freaks like Danny DeVito’s Penguin & Michelle Pheiffer’s Catwoman run amok. Nicholson’s The Joker is a great preview of that future Utopia of gothy camp. He is as genuinely terrifying here as he is in his career-making role in The Shining, especially in scenes where he covers his clown-white face with flesh-toned make-up. He turns the character into a sadistic form of clowning, filling the squirting flower of his lapel with a corrosive acid & staging a sinisterly warped version of the Macy’s Day Parade with poison-filled balloons. To do Batman exactly right, you have to mix a little camp theatricality in to lighten the gloomy glowering of an otherwise depressive property. This is exactly why Heath Ledger’s own unhinged Joker performance exalted The Dark Knight and also why the utterly joyless Dawn of Justice put many theater-goers to sleep. Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the first sign that Burton understood the need for that balance. You can hear it in his half-goofy, half-chilling catchphrase “You ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” You can feel it in a sequence where he defaces fine art with bathroom-quality graffiti to a funky Prince track and somehow makes the tone fit the film, despite all odds. In a lot of ways Batman ’89 feels like a dry run for better things to come in Returns, but everything Nicholson does onscreen in the mean time is just as timelessly entertaining as the best of what was to follow.

Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan of either of Tim Burton’s Batman productions. He praised the director’s work as “a triumph of design” & atmosphere, but ultimately dismisses it as a style over substance affair. Personally, I always value style over substance. I agree with Ebert on some level that the Bruce Wayne narrative arc never matches the eccentricity of Burton’s vision in Batman, likely due to the homogenizing effect of studio influence, but I can’t dismiss the value of that vision in & of itself. Burton’s mixed media visual accomplishments in Batman are stunning to this day, a distinct personal artistry that doesn’t require a strong narrative to justify its for-its-own-sake pleasures. Although he wouldn’t make his most fully personal Batman film until Returns, you can still feel his own idiosyncrasies creeping in through the influence of Nicholson’s goofy-scary Joker and an overall production design unmistakably of his own. I’ll always hold Returns in higher regard than Batman ’89, but I still greatly respect this landmark work for the ways it fights to be memorably bizarre despite studio influence, the way it envisions an entirely new & instantly definitive look for its hero’s playground, and the way it serves as a basic blueprint for all Batman cinema that followed.

Roger’s Rating: (2/4, 50%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: Galia (1966)

-Brandon Ledet