Black Widow (2021)

About every 1.6 weeks, someone gets on Twitter and asks some variation of “What’s the best tweet of all time?” There is always of course, the trotting out of the greats, like this one, this one, this classic, this jab, this burn, this zing, mockery of the New York Post, a personal favorite, someone who presumed the universality of a ludicrous idiosyncratic belief and chooses to dickishly ignore that they’re completely wrong, and of course, the truly greatest tweet of all time (and these two, which go out to my friends back home). But what’s “best” anyway? For me, all of these pale in comparison to this tweet, which I think about at least once a week: 

It came to mind again most recently yesterday, as I sat in a movie theater for the first time since Emma., watching Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh engage in a car/motorcycle/tank chase through the streets of Budapest and into the city’s subway, exchanging quippy dialogue all the while. In that moment, I flashed back to the similar car chase sequences in Berlin in Civil War, Seoul in Black Panther, San Francisco in Ant-Man and the Wasp, and [Cleveland as D.C.] in Winter Soldier, as well as probably others that I’m forgetting. And although this was another movie that largely stuck to the tried-and-true Marvel formula, I thought to myself, Why must a movie be “novel’? Is it not enough to sit somewhere dark and see a thrilling car chase through a metropolitan area, huge? After all, although this isn’t the first MCU film all about one of our lady heroes, it’s leaps and bounds better than Captain Marvel, which I gave a high star rating to upon release but was largely tepid about it in the review proper (I literally wrote “I’m hot and cold on this one”) and which I look back on now mostly with contempt, as its imperial Yvan eht Nioj underpinnings have only become clearer with the passing of time. 

I’ll admit here that, by and large, it’s pretty easy for a film to manipulate me emotionally (the people would like to enter into evidence my likewise high star rating for 2016’s Ghostbusters), and it’s also not just films that do it. The Alamo Drafthouse has, for the past few years, used the same simple animated introduction before new releases where several colored circles appear, then overlap, then space out to mimic planets orbiting a star, then come back together to embody the six circular cut-outs of the classic film reel canister. My description is overselling the complexity, I think, but I can’t find it online anywhere so forgive me. The sound design of it is fairly simple as well, but this time, after the theater darkened and the traditional Alamo font appeared on screen saying “We missed you,” the pre-show included a montage of clips of characters from the movies at the movies: Amélie, Taxi Driver, Cinema Paradiso, etc., and then the bonging tones of that intro came together, and I was overcome. It felt like coming home, and if I’m warmer to Black Widow than it truly deserves because of it, well, maybe the people will have to enter this review into evidence one day, too, but for now, I have to say, I really liked it. Even my best friend, who is generally apathetic to Marvel movies, thoroughly enjoyed it; immediately afterward, she said she would be willing to pay to see it again, and when we were considering watching another movie back home last night, she said she’d rather just watch television than another movie because she enjoyed Black Widow so thoroughly that she wanted to “marinate” in it a while before another cinematic experience watered it down. Take from that what you will. 

We open in Ohio in 1995, where a young Natasha (Ever Anderson, daughter of Milla Jovovich and Paul W. S. Anderson) rides her bike through suburban streets and into her backyard, where she plays with her younger sister, Yelena (Violet McGraw). When Yelena skins her knee, their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) attends to her, and there appears to be some tension between Natasha and dear old mom. As night falls, Yelena notes the appearance of fireflies in their backyard, and Melina gives her daughters a little science lesson about bioluminescence. While they set the table, father Alexei (David Harbour) returns home, agitated. He shows Melina a 3.5’’ floppy and notes that “it” is “finally happening.” As Melina whispers a meaningful apology to Natasha at the dinner table, Alexei grabs a rifle and the entire family hops into their SUV and makes haste toward a small airstrip, with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in pursuit shortly. After a tense shootout, the family manages to make their getaway in a prop plane and land in Cuba, where we learn that the “family” is comprised entirely of Russian agents, even the two children, and that the past three years in America have been part of a long term operation at a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. Natasha attempts to prevent her separation from Yelena, citing that the younger girl is only six years old and too young for training, but Alexei notes that Natasha herself was even younger when she first began, and the two of them are forced apart on the orders of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). 

After an opening montage (set to a downbeat cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) gives us the general impression of what constitutes a Black Widow’s training in the “Red Room” (it’s not fun!) we move forward to 2016. The rest of the film is set parallel to the events of the aforementioned Captain America: Civil War, following Natasha (Johansson) in hiding after siding with Cap against Tony re: The Sokovia Accords. Elsewhere, Yelena (Pugh) and a team of fellow Black Widows tracks down and ultimately kills a rogue Widow, but not before her former ally exposes her to a red dust that acts as a counteragent to Yelena’s Black Widow programming, which we learn has grown beyond conditioning and brutal training to literal mind control. Natasha makes her way to a safe house in Norway with help from her friend Mason (O-T Fagbenle), who also delivers some things left behind at her last safe house in Budapest, which includes a package from Yelena that contains several vials of the red dust; the dust, in turn ends up drawing the attention of Taskmaster, Dreykov’s right hand killer, who has the ability to mimic the fighting styles of anyone from merely watching a video. Yelena and Natasha reunite and decide to destroy the Red Room once and for all. In order to do so, they must first rescue their “father” from the Siberian gulag to which he has been sent; the former “Red Guardian,” the only successful supersoldier equivalent of Captain America who was produced by the Soviet Union not relives his glory days in stories told to his fellow inmates and is mocked by his guards. He, in turn, leads them to their “mother,” who reveals that she was the scientist who worked on the beginnings of the mind control project. But can any members of this reunited not-really-a-family trust one another long enough to stop Dreykov? 

Look, this is a Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe consumable product. You’ve already decided if you’re going to see it or not, and if you’re going to see it, whether you’ll do so on a big screen, fork over an exorbitant amount of money to watch it on Disney+, or wait for a more affordable at-home option. It exists to sell toys, costumes, and trips to theme parks while continuing to build the Disney monopoly that we should all be more worried about since the overseers of antitrust laws are asleep at the wheel, and probably would be more worried about if we weren’t all (a) contemplating our insignificance and powerlessness to stave off the climate disaster that will boil, drown, bury, burn, smother, etc. us all alive, or (b) living in a state of denial of said looming extinction event. Its emotional beats are rote, its storytelling checkpoints are familiar, and the forward thrust of its characters is largely moot considering that, as of 2019, Natasha Romanoff is dead. For what it’s worth, at least Disney isn’t trying to insultingly push Black Widow as “empowering for girls/women” (one can read the text that way, but it’s not part of the metatext for once, and the film itself calls attention to the fact that Natasha’s dark past as an assassin renders her “hero” status among “little girls” problematic, to say the least). This film is also decidedly Not For Children, given its use of the visual language we associate with human trafficking to illustrate the horrors of the Red Room as well as the higher-than-normal profanity and a fairly graphic verbal description of the Red Room’s sterilization procedure. 

I’m sure that there will be some reviews that cite the film’s “heart,” although I would warn readers to take that with a grain of salt. The “reunited family that was really composed of spies but who could be a found family” element is present, and all of the cast (Pugh in particular) sell this angle in their performances, but how much it will resonate with you as a viewer will depend on a lot of factors that are external to the film proper. I wasn’t sold on it, but I still had a blast, and the setpieces here are some of the best that this franchise has brought to the table. Pugh is great in this first entry for her into the MCU, and Harbour brings an effortlessly comedic touch to the proceedings. Weisz has never given a bad performance ever, and her Russian accent here is a delight. It’s a shame that Johansson is finally given a vehicle in this series that is hers and hers alone and it must be an interquel due to the choices made in other films, but she’s been carrying films on her back since she was a literal child, so it’s no surprise that she delivers here in her postscript swan song. If you’re going to see it, see it, before we’re all dead.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The New Mutants (2020)

Plenty was already written about the X-Men genre-bender The New Mutants in the years before its actual release.  Thanks to its very public production troubles, post-production tinkering, and release-date delays since its teaser trailer premiered in movie theaters way back in the Before Times of 2017, The New Mutants has been engaged with more as a News Item than as a Movie.  I’ve even personally contributed to that phenomenon myself, cheekily declaring it to be “The Defining Film of the 2010s” a full year before it ever screened for the public.  After living with the Idea of the movie and its bungled potential to mutate the superhero genre into an entirely new beast for multiple calendar years, general audiences (or at least the nerds who pay attention to this kind of cultural runoff) couldn’t help but enter The New Mutants with rigid preconceptions of what it was going to be – whether expecting a playful superhero-horror genre hybrid or an incomprehensible editing room disaster.  It’s hilarious to me, then, that its journey into wide distribution ended with the film being unceremoniously dumped into empty movie theaters in the middle of a global pandemic, then quietly surfacing on cable television just a few months later to practically zero fanfare.  In retrospect, it was the only fitting conclusion to that sad, drawn-out saga.

Approximately one million years ago, I was pretty dang excited for The New Mutants.  The now-ancient teaser trailer for the film/news-item promised an X-Men version of The Dream Warriors, indicating that the superhero genre had established a sturdy enough cultural footing that it could now experiment with subgenre detours—including, apparently, Nightmare on Elm Street riffs—without alienating general audiences.  The finished product (which is, reportedly, the exact version of the film director Josh Boone intended to release in the first place) is unfortunately much more timid than the horror genre detour I was expecting.  Instead of a Mutant Dream Warriors creep-out, The New Mutants is essentially just the YA version of Glass.  Its target audience skews way younger than what I initially hoped for, reeling in the broader possibilities of a superhero-horror blockbuster to settle for a PG-13 thriller aimed specifically at teens.  It even openly acknowledges that aim by including multiple scenes where the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show is playing on a background television, clearly indicating the exact kind of media it hopes to emulate.  Re-orienting its context from X-Men on Elm Street to over-the-plate PG-13 horror required a major expectation adjustment for me. Once I understood where it was coming from, though, I actually found the film passably decent . . .  give or take a few ridiculous accents & wigs.

Like The Dream Warriors, The New Mutants features a small group of traumatized teens living in shared confinement in a mental ward, each haunted by the literalized versions of their worst nightmares.  Except, in this case the teens are all X-Men type mutants in training.  Also, instead of their worst fears being brought to life by the wicked scamp Freddy Krueger, it’s the fault of a new recruit who doesn’t yet know how to control her unwieldy powers.  Because this is a superhero film, the surrealism of that teen-mutants-vs-their-own-psyches premise is eventually reduced to a smash-em-up CGI battle with a single, destructive villain (in this case, a kaiju-scale Demon Bear), but there are some truly great creature designs & jump scare gags in the build-up to that inevitable climax.  Its commitment to PG-13 scares means there’s no true body count, and the cast is rounded out by less-than-charismatic performances from TV-star teens who got their start in now-dusty properties like Game of Thrones & Stranger Things (including a career-worst performance from usual-MVP Anya Taylor-Joy). As far as tween-friendly horror goes, though, it ain’t half bad.  If nothing else, it scores easy bonus points for being centered around a cute, queer romance that’s more genuinely hormonal than what’s typical for the superhero genre, even in properties that are supposedly aimed at adults.

As a news item, The New Mutants was a cultural time capsule that typified a wide range of ways mainstream blockbusters were marketed, edited, distributed, and passed around between corporate buyouts in the 2010s.  As a movie, it’s nothing special – especially not in a market already flooded with similar #content like Split, Morgan, Legion, The Umbrella Academy, and Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  It could have been a game-changer within the superhero genre, had it taken the genre-blurring risks teased in its early advertisements.  Still, that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it actually is: a dumb-fun popcorn movie for teens.

-Brandon Ledet

Tank Girl (1995)

As much as I love Birds of Prey, I’m still in shock that a Major Studio superhero movie ended up landing in my personal Top 5 films of 2020, much less Swampflix’s collective Top 10. The hyper-violent, hyper-femme irreverence of that film feels like a major disruption of the usual smash-em-up superhero tedium, if not only for the novelty of watching Women Behaving Badly in the context of a mainstream action movie. That doesn’t mean that Birds of Prey is a total anomaly, though. In fact, its major precedent is decades-old at this point, a similarly anarchic Girls Doing Violence superhero gem from the way-back-when of the 1990s. There is strong proto-Birds of Prey energy running throughout the 90s adaptation of Tank Girl, right down to Margot Robbie & Lori Petty doing the same Sadistic Betty Boop Voice as their films’ respective antihero leads. It’s a shame neither movie was a hit, since they’re easily the most exciting specimens of superhero media since Burton revamped Batman as a fetishistic horndog.

Lori Petty stars as the titular Tank Girl, a sugar-addled rebel scavenger in the not-too-distant-future of 2033. Water is in scarce supply, leaving a power vacuum filled by the mega-corporation Water & Power (not to be confused with the infamous enema porno Water Power) under the direction of evil overlord Malcolm McDowell. The water-rich oligarchy in this Mad Maxian desertscape entertain themselves at Hype Williams-style future-brothels; the resistance is led by mutant kangaroos; and Naomi Watts hangs around as a sidekick brunette. As with Birds of Prey, none of these plot details or set-decoration eccentricities matter nearly as much as the central performance that anchors them. Lori Petty bounces off the walls as a manic Bugs Bunny anarchist, openly mocking every inane indignity that distracts from the one thing she loves: blowing shit up in her girlified battle tank. Like with Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Petty’s Tank Girl is the blinding fireworks show at the center of this film, and everyone else is just there to gaze at it in wonder – even the mutant kangaroos.

It’s incredible that the Tank Girl movie doesn’t have more of a prominent legacy in the pop culture zeitgeist. The only time I remember this film being around was when Comedy Central was looping some cut-to-ribbons edit of it to pad out their daytime broadcasts in the early 2000s. I was fascinated by the out-of-context snippets I would catch from those broadcasts as a kid, but never enough to watch it from start to end (a feat I’m not sure anyone’s accomplished with any commercial-padded Comedy Central movie broadcast). I was taken aback, then, that the actual movie is so unapologetically Vulgar. Tank Girl has enough Saturday Morning Cartoon energy that it feels like it was made for kids, but Petty’s hyperactive antihero is an omnisexual social anarchist who challenges every taboo she can point a tank at, like Bugs Bunny smooching Elmer Fudd in drag. In just a slightly better world, that kind of horned-up flippancy would be celebrated as one of the all-time-great superhero performances, but 25 years later we still live in a world where Birds of Prey was allowed to tank at the box office (even though it improves a lot of this film’s already stellar chaotic highs through revision). I don’t get it.

A lot of early-MTV Cool was deployed to boost this movie’s marketability, including a Björk-scored strip club routine, an Iggy Pop cameo, and an opening-credits remix of DEVO’s “Girl U Want.” Still, you can tell it was underfunded & under-supported in its time, if not only because many of its transitional exterior shots & action sequences are supplanted with panels from the original Tank Girl comic. I found that choice to be a boon to the movie’s stylistic paletteborrowing a post-Love & Rockets indie comics patina from the source materialbut it’s also frustrating that a vision this fun & this idiosyncratic was left so scrappy while contemporary superhero tripe like Spawn, The Phantom, and Judge Dredd were just torching piles of cash. I would have loved to see Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl vision on the scale of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey budget. Recent history has only proven that it would’ve still been ignored & discarded, but you can’t account for general audiences’ lack of taste. This is the superhero media that should be culturally celebrated & exalted, but instead we’re still struggling to shake off the dour, self-serious conservatism of the Nolan era; shame on us all.

-Brandon Ledet

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Once again helmed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor/sorta, respectively, along with additions Pedro Pascal (as Maxwell Lord) and Kristen Wiig (as Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah), sequel Wonder Woman 1984 (stylized as WW84) has hit the big screens and small screens at the same time. Like many people who spent their Christmas apart from their family this year, and also have HBO Max, my Christmas morning involved watching WW84. As a Christmas present, it was like the gag candy that looks like coal and you get in your stocking, where for a moment you think that you’ve been punished before realizing it’s a sweet, except in reverse, where what seems like sugary fun at first turns out to be kind of a piece of coal. Wonder Woman 1984 is … pretty bad. And not in the way that the first one was considered “bad” by a lot of people who (understandably) lost the thread somewhere in that muddy finale or who just have a mental block that makes them hate the Wonder Woman character. This movie is a mess, with a few true gems in the narrative, but also with some troubling philosophical underpinnings. But what WW84 is, at its core, is something that Diana of Themyscira never would be: cowardly. 

It’s 1984, and Diana is working at the Smithsonian in her civilian identity, where she has access to artifacts recently recovered from a black market jewelry shop front that was revealed during a botched robbery that Diana foiled as Wonder Woman. She meets colleague Dr. Barbara Minerva, who establishes the value of everything save for one object: a citrine sculpture with an inscription that Diana translates to, essentially, “you get one wish.” She absently reminisces about Steve, and there’s magic little tinkly sounds and an air machine, and I can admit that I loved that bit. Barbara, for her part, wishes she could be more like Diana: effortlessly confident, eternally alluring, and tirelessly kind. Diana discovers that the wishing stone was actually en route to Maxwell Lord, a televised Ponzi schemer selling the idea of a socialistic communally owned oil reserve (I don’t get it either) when the FBI confiscated the artifacts, but she fails to stop him before he obtains and then acquires the power of the artifact. Steve comes back to life and although the two are happy to be reunited, the method of his resurrection reveals that the artifact operates on Monkey’s Paw rules (explicitly; it’s invoked, and it’s an admittedly nice touch that it’s Steve who calls it by name, as it would be a recent reference for him), and Lord’s using the granting of wishes to increase his personal power even as his body and society start to fall apart. Will Diana be able to stop him in blah blah blah?

If you’re completely removed from The Discourse or are Very Offline to the point that you’re in a bubble vis-a-vis politics, both contemporary and of the 1980s, then it might be possible for you to just turn your brain off and enjoy a nostalgic throwback about Wonder Woman fighting a Ponzi schemer in 1984. It’s certainly what the film wants you to do, and to that end, there are a lot of elements that are super fun.

Everything to do with Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah, is great from a performance standpoint. Wiig is once again playing a character similar to her previous role in Ghostbusters: a woman of high academic achievement who is nerdy, Hollywood Homely, and largely ignored/disdained by her peers to exaggerated comic effect (none of her male colleagues help her collect her dropped documents, only Diana does). Her own boss doesn’t even remember meeting her previously, which was funny in Office Space but just feels painful and awkward here, especially as it comes so early in the film that the tone hasn’t really been set yet (more on that in a moment). Her immediate interest in Diana is adorable, as she sees in the literally divine Amazon a reflection of what she wishes she could be, in more ways than one, and her friendship with Diana is fun and likable, before it inevitably goes sour. Wiig is having a lot of fun playing “frumpy” and excitable, and while that’s definitely within her wheelhouse, it’s also fun seeing her stretch those muscles playing some of Minerva’s more subdued moments. Unfortunately, the material she’s working with plays against her talents, especially once she’s turned into a clawing, snarling CGI abomination (seriously, the practical effects in The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1996 are better than how this looks). 

The film’s length works both for and against it. When you’ve got a movie like this that’s premiering in people’s homes, it’s not like a theater in which the audience’s attention is captivated and captive; at home, there’s a lot more to distract you, and if you’re not drawn in by the opening, you’ve already lost a lot of people to their phones. As for how it works in its favor, I’m not opposed to a 2.5 hour movie (if anything, mine and Brandon’s recent discussion of Doctor Sleep proves that I thrive on them), and the film’s decompression allows for some of the film’s best elements to have sufficient breathing room. We get to see Diana reignite her love with Steve Trevor, who is brought back to life* via the magic of the film’s MacGuffin, and start to develop a friendship with Barbara that’s warm and kind. There’s an awful lot of complaining that this film is too light on thrills and that the length of time between action sequences is to the film’s detriment, but the same complaints were made about Spider-Man 2 when it was first released, and even after 15 years in which the prevalence of superhero media has done nothing but grow at an exponential rate, that’s still considered one of the most triumphant examples of the genre. It’s what doesn’t move the plot along that makes the film work when it does work; although this film has a different resolution than a big blue laser beam (and one that’s a novel choice, if nothing else), it still follows the rote and prescriptive stations of the plot outline for all of these movies.

The action sequences are also nothing to scoff at (most of the time). The opening scene on Themyscira is a fun contest, if a little Quidditch-y at points and hosting the film’s most questionable CGI choices, but there’s also really gorgeous location work that makes you just yearn for the beach; it really does look like Paradise. The mall sequence that brings us to the film’s 1984 “present” is really what sets the tone for what’s to come: it’s light, pastel, a little goofy, but warm and inviting and not too threatening. As Diana runs around stopping people from being injured during a robbery gone awry, she really seems like Wonder Woman, the real deal, the friend to all living things  who loves kids and Christmas and ice cream and justice, and it’s very clear that the movie’s operating on G.I. Joe/A-Team rules: nobody dies, they always parachute out or land in water instead, etc. There’s an extended roadway set piece that’s very impressive and makes inventive use of the lasso, and the best White House-based action since X2. The battle with Barbara in her Cheetah form is less fun, but the fact that the climactic sequence is not about beating Maxwell Lord into submission and is instead about saving his soul is a nice change of pace from the third act megafight that’s become the standard. Although the film is explicitly set mostly in midsummer (there are Independence Day fireworks over Washington at one point), that the film’s major conflict comes to a head when a greedy Dickensian man renounces his need to own the world gives the whole thing more of a Christmas vibe than the tacked-on snowy holiday set piece that ends the film proper. 

That having been said, there’s a lot going on here that’s … questionable. I couldn’t put it more eloquently than Walter Chaw does here, and I won’t try to, other than to say that all of the things that WW84 brings to the table pale in comparison to its gross narrative choices. And if you’re sitting there after having gone and read Chaw’s review and you’re thinking that he’s reading too much into it, then I’d direct you to a follow-up Tweet of his, which says, succinctly and simply, “The nature of bias is that yours is invisible to you.” It’s easy to hear the siren call to overlook the hard-to-face fact that this film has a supervillainess’s face-heel-turn be her self-defense against a sexual assailant. A woman is punished for wanting to be powerful, and instead of breaking through her defenses by lifting her up, Wonder Woman (who is friend to all living things and loves ice cream, remember), gives her one chance to recant without any encouragement or warmth, and then gives her the old toaster-in-the-bathtub treatment. Chaw wrote about the implications of the Bialyan anti-colonial sentiment expressed by an oil baron, but there’s so much being implied in the margins here that even he couldn’t get them all down. How about the fact that the wish stone is tied to the fall of multiple civilizations due to the chaos that it creates, including the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization, and that the Mayans are explicitly stated to have been unwilling to take the actions needed to save their society? Yeah, yikes. For recommended further reading, there’s also Roxana Hadadi’s discussion of the film’s Middle Eastern stereotypes here.

At the top, I mentioned that WW84 was cowardly, and where that shines through the most to me on a personal level is in the choice of place and time without the willingness to tackle the topics of the time. The POTUS in the film is nothing like Reagan, other than in the raging hard on for nukes, and the unwillingness to attack the tarnished late-blooming legacy of a president who was despised (even within his party and even in his time) and who turned a blind eye to the HIV/AIDS pandemic with callous disregard for human life (by the end of 1984, nearly 8000 people had contracted HIV, and nearly half of that number had died). Maxwell Lord is clearly supposed to echo the soon-to-be-former-President Donald Trump, with his facial bloat, unconvincing dye job, and all-consuming greed, but in a year dominated by politicized response to public health emergencies and dangerous alliances between pulpit and podium, history was lobbing a slowball straight over the plate, and WW84 not only didn’t make contact, it didn’t even swing. 

Some films we’re able to appreciate despite their flaws by recognizing that they are products of their times. Unfortunately, WW84 is the same, as its flawed technical achievements and interesting character moments take place in a narrative that’s circumscribed by peak white liberalism, blind to its own faults like a lot of capitalist products that aim to capture leftward social momentum and leverage it into profit. Maybe Wonder Woman is harder to get right than we thought when lighting was captured in a bottle in 2017. I don’t think it had to be this way, but unfortunately, this is what we got. 

*Some restrictions may apply.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #123 of The Swampflix Podcast: Birds of Prey (2020) & Good Movies in Bad Genres

Welcome to Episode #123 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss the recent superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey (2020) and several others movies we enjoy in genres that usually bore us.

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on  SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTube, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Flamingos Forever: John Waters’s Unmade Superhero Epic

It’s been nearly two decades since John Waters’s last feature film, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that there will ever be another. And that’s okay. The Pope of Filth appears to be totally content in semi-retirement, where he continues to entertain as an author and a travelling orator without having to beg movie studios for budgetary pittances. If Waters never makes another film again, at least he went out a return to form in A Dirty Shame, an underrated career retrospective that bridges the gap between his early-career gross-outs and his late-career “mainstream” comedies. Still, as he is the single greatest filmmaker of all time, it’s fun to daydream about all ~the John Waters projects that could have been~ had his Hollywood Studio cashflow not dried up so suddenly. A Christmas-themed comedy called Fruitcake (potentially starring Johnny Knoxville & Parker Posey) was the most recent unmade John Waters project drifting around the ether, but here are several others besides: a Wizard of Oz spoof called Dorothy the Kansas City Pothead, an ill-advised adaptation of Confederacy of Dunces, some unholy mutant titled Glamorpuss, etc. It’s difficult to speculate on any of these unmade projects with any clear detail beyond a basic elevator pitch, though, because they mostly pop up in media coverage as fun anecdotes in Waters’s bottomless repertoire of fun anecdotes. That is, with one major exception.

The closest one of John Waters’s unmade films ever came to production was in the mid-1980s, when the director was staging his unlikely transformation from arthouse reprobate to a household name. The 1988 paperback Trash Trio features collects three screenplays from John Waters’s “trash period”: Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and the unrealized sequel Flamingos Forever. In the intro to the book, Waters refers to Flamingos Forever as his “first abortion,” a “stillborn” project that failed to secure the proposed $600,000 budget it would’ve needed to reach the screen uncompromised. There were many roadblocks to Flamingos Forever‘s journey through the Hollywood System birth canal: clueless producers insisting on rewrites that included more Hot Babes, Divine’s dwindling enthusiasm for its various gross-out stunts, and, ultimately, the death of the irreplaceable Edith Massey. There was a brief window where Waters could have got the film off the ground under the infamously sleazy Troma Entertainment brand, but he held out for a better opportunity that never came. It’s probably for the best. I’m personally appreciative that Waters pressed on to new, subversive textures in works like Serial Mom and Cry-Baby rather than revisiting Pink Flamingos for a victory lap sequel. Still, reading the screenplay for Flamingos Forever in Trash Trio all these years later is a total treat, as his authorial voice (as well as the mind-searing vocal performances of actors like Massey & Divine) is idiosyncratic enough that you can mentally picture the movie more or less exactly as it would have been had it not been quietly aborted decades ago.

Fifteen years after the events of Pink Flamingos, Divine and her cavalcade of perversions return to Baltimore to reclaim their title as the Filthiest Family Alive. In a beat-for-beat rehash of the previous film, Divine brags to the press about her wicked deeds, drawing unwanted attention from jealous members of the Marble clan, now led by the deceased Connie’s equally vile, child-snatching sister. Gross-out pranks and violent crimes ensue as the two families once again clash over Filth supremacy, with Divine ultimately (obviously) coming out on top. Of course, narrative doesn’t matter nearly as much in a John Waters film as the gross-out stunts & character quirks. While Flamingos Forever retreads a lot of familiar ground, it’s packs plenty of gags that would’ve been a scream if they were realized: the Filth family moving on up to an absurdly artificial Pee-wee’s Playhouse type compound, Divine carrying around Edie in a baby holster, a deranged performance of “The Hokey Pokey” (one of several gags that found its way into the A Dirty Shame), etc. It’s also a wildly offensive vision in the way that you’d expect from a Pink Flamingos sequel, including jokes involving blackface, necrophilia, children in drag and on heroin, and male rape. Even with the slightly-ballooned budget, it’s a trash-era John Waters screenplay through & through. No wonder producers were squeamish to back it.

To Flamingos Forever‘s credit, it does its best to escalate the filthy antics of its central cast to match the escalation of the proposed budget, especially when it comes to Divine. Amusingly, the screenplay recontextualizes Divine as a kind of filth superhero, an avenger of Bad Taste. As her war with the Marble clan heats up, Divine reveals previously unexplored superpowers that confirm her divinity: levitation, X-ray eyes, the production of flying turds (many, many flying turds). She also contrasts the heroic quality of her own filthy antics vs. the child-snatching stunts of the Marble clan, explaining in detail the difference between Good Filth & Bad Filth (the way Waters will walk you through the difference between High Camp & Low Camp in his essay work). Divine’s saga as a notorious murderess who kills because she loves attention from the press is already sketched out in a crude precursor to MCU-style sequential filmmaking across multiple loosely connected films: Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, and Pink Flamingos. In Flamingos Forever, she would have solidified her stature as a filth superhero in that lineage, even providing a flashback superhero origin story for how she became so filthy (in stubborn opposition to her cleanliness-obsessed parents). Flamingos Forever would not have broken new narrative ground for Waters’s early Family of Weirdos character comedies, but it is amusing to consider how far it would have unintentionally pushed that familiar story into the modern territory of sequential superhero storytelling.

I’ve gradually come to peace with the realization that I’ll likely never see a new John Waters film again, a blow that’s been softened by several recent developments in his cinematic legacy: Waters’s newfound joy as an on-stage storyteller, The Criterion Collection’s wonderful restorations of his trash-era classics, the occasional opportunity to experience repertory screenings of his work with new audiences (which somehow always still inspires mid-film walk-outs all these decades later despite their notorious reputations). I’d also chalk up reading the unmade screenplay for Flamingos Forever in Trash Trio as a similar comfort. It was a delightful to watch an unmade John Waters film projected only in the run-down drive-in theater of my mind (an experience I wisely saved for a hurricane-related power outage), even if his work is always better with an audience – as all comedies are. The unlikely Superhero Sequel qualities of the screenplay only added to that novelty, as movies this unabashedly filthy rarely secure Superhero Movie budgets.

-Brandon Ledet

Spawn (1997)

Oof. I remember enjoying this post-Batman superhero action-horror as a mouth-breathing 11y.o. dingus, which inspired me to revisit it despite its garbage reputation. I still don’t think I was entirely wrong. Spawn has plenty of great raw material for a belated cult classic reclamation. Along with Blade & Black Panther, it’s one of the few major instances of a black superhero headlining their own comic book movie. Its grotesque practical effects & Satanic 90s aesthetic also make for a fun novelty in stops & starts, and its notoriously shoddy CGI work is so outrageously bad that it almost achieves something outright surreal. Too bad the film is ultimately a bore. And an annoying one at that. It’s embarrassingly cheap, inert schlock, which is a shame because it otherwise has the makings of an all-timer in retro cult action-horror.

After an assault of X-treme 90s fonts & soundtrack cues steamroll over the opening credits, an insanely rushed over-ambitious info dump sets Spawn up as a fallen mercenary soldier who’s been chosen by the Devil to lead Hell’s army as it conquers Earth. And because stopping all the demons of Hell from invading Earth is not enough motivation for him to turn superhero, we’re also dragged through some domestic melodrama about the widow he left behind in death, providing him personal reasons to care about the fate of humanity at large. Naturally, Spawn defects from the Devil’s plans and attempts to save the planet from his evil reign. There’s also a weapons-trading espionage subplot that keeps the newly formed Hell Hero busy for a chunk of the runtime, but I couldn’t imagine giving enough of a shit to bother recapping it here.

There are two major faults at the core of this movie: one adorable and one reprehensible. Firstly, the effects are just unfathomably bad. The practical gore stunts are a joyful reminder of how tactile & grotesque this kind of action-horror media used to be before computer effects took over as an industry standard, which only makes the film’s early-PC-gaming CGI effects look even goofier by contrast. The set pieces in Hell are particularly embarrassing, unworthy even of the original DOOM desktop game. At least those effects are laughably bad and so bizarrely unreal that they make you feel like you’re losing your mind after being immersed in them for minutes on end. The movie’s other problem is much less endearing, and it’s one that Spawn shares with far too many other films: John Leguizamo just will not shut the fuck up.

Despite playing the titular Spawn and proving himself to be a compelling marital arts performer in many other films, Michael Jai White does not earn top billing here. That honor belongs to Leguizamo, playing a phenomenally annoying demon clown named Violator who’s dispatched to pester Spawn into acting out the Devil’s commands. The film’s grotesque practical effects work is at its most beautifully upsetting in Violator’s prosthetic costuming. His shapeshifting abilities allow him to transform into a variety of nightmarish clown monstrosities, each more hideous than the last. The only problem is that he’s impossible to listen to for as long as he shrieks & rambles about Spawn’s duties as the Devil’s servant. It’s the kind of untethered, out-of-control performance that you get when hyperactive comedians like Jim Carrey & Robin Williams aren’t reined in with a strong, guiding hand. Except that Leguizamo isn’t nearly as talented nor as adorable as either of those (equally annoying) goofs, so even when he’s at his best it still feels you’re like babysitting a hyperactive child.

I almost want to give this movie a pass despite its glaring faults, because it feels like the exact kind of superhero media I wish we could return to. After over a decade of being asked to take superhero movies super seriously as grim philosophical epics in a post-Nolan world, it’s really refreshing to return to the goofier ones that play like live-action versions of Saturday Morning cartoons: Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Corman’s Fantastic 4, etc. You know, kids’ stuff. For kids. These movies aren’t “bad” the way their reputations would suggest. They’re just goofy & over-the-top, which is at least more personality than you’ll see in the three-hour behemoths we get now every time Marvel releases another big-budget-spectacle-of-the-month. Spawn should be a commendable example of that kind of retro-juvenile superhero relic, especially since its gory Satanic imagery makes it a novelty in the genre: an R-rated kids’ film. You could even argue that John Leguizamo’s annoying presence enhances that experience by making it feel even more authentically juvenile; his is the only performance that actually matches the cartoon energy of the film’s intensely artificial backdrops & backstory.

I’ve seen this exact R-rated kids’ action horror sensibility done worse (The Guyver), but I’ve also seen it done much better (Yuzna’s Faust). Ultimately, I can’t fully warm up to Spawn because it has so much potential as a reclaimable cult classic that it’s incredibly frustrating that it falls short of earning it. If you have fond memories of this vintage superhero action-horror leftover from your childhood I recommend leaving them that way and just revisiting Blade instead (or, better yet, Blade II). As fun as the Satanic iconography & absurdly cheap CGI can be in flashes, neither are worth the Leguizamo-flavored headache they accompany.

-Brandon Ledet

Dark City (1998)

I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.

Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.

If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.

Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.

The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.

-Brandon Ledet

Birds of Prey (2020)

It took me over a thousand rambling words to defend the much-reviled DC supervillain team-up Suicide Squad as Passably Okay back when it was first released in 2016. It was an ugly mess of a film when considered in its comic-book worldbuilding context, but as an outsider to that end of nerdom I found it amusing as a Hot Topic-costumed shoot-em-up action flick. Where I was really out of step with the critical consensus on that film was believing that it was saved, not ruined, by its studio tinkering. Suicide Squad was edited to Hell and back, removing as much of meathead director David Ayer’s personal vision and footage of Jared Leto’s meth clinic Joker as the studio could manage with while still walking away with a “coherent” picture. The genius of this post-production tinkering is that it highlighted the two sole items of interest in Suicide Squad’s arsenal: its mall-goth flavored gun violence and Margot Robbie’s electric performance as the Joker’s anarchic moll, Harley Quinn (mostly through Robbie’s already-established chemistry with Will Smith, sans Leto). Brilliantly, Suicide Squad’s spinoff sequel Birds of Prey (produced by Robbie herself) has further isolated & extrapolated those two morsels of entertainment value to the point where my moderate enjoyment of the previous picture is now obsolete. In fact, most superhero media of the past couple decades (or at least since Joel Schumacher transformed Batman into a gay cartoon) now feels obsolete in a post-Birds of Prey world. This is exactly what I’m looking for in modern superhero pictures but rarely, if ever, receive.

Birds of Prey is just as narratively messy as Suicide Squad, but this time it’s an intentional result of its protagonist’s loopy POV rather than a toxic-waste byproduct of studio interference. Its “story” mimics a Pulp Fiction-style scrambled timeline assemblage, but only because its narrator is too far detached from reality to relay a linear tale. As a result, nothing about its diamond heist MacGuffin plot or running-from-the-law dramatic tension registers as especially important. This is more of a bubblegum pop breakup song than it is a feature film, catching up with the violent-crime clownstress Harley Quinn in the immediate hours after being dumped by her abusive, manipulative boyfriend The Joker. Devastated but liberated, Harley lashes out at the world at large in grand displays of heartbreak: getting blackout drunk at the local gangster bar; exploding the chemical refinery where she used to loiter with her boo; forming a titular girl gang with fellow violent eccentrics; and shotgunning entre cans of Cheese Wiz directly into her mouth. Those grand displays of heartache announce to the local crime world that she’s no longer under the Joker’s “protection,” making it open season for any and all dirtbag men she’s wronged over the years to seek revenge for past grievances. As her road to self-fulfilling singledom and her clashes with every scummy bro in Gotham pile up, the movie ultimately becomes a thin excuse to watch Margot Robbie kick the shit out of nameless men, model sparkly costumes, and mug directly at the camera. What I’m saying is it’s a delight.

The slapstick action-comedy of this grim, R-rated novelty is as hyperviolent as it is hyperfemme. Harley Quinn smashes men’s faces & kneecaps with wild abandon, but she’s most likely to do so with a canon-fired glitter bomb or a bejeweled baseball bat. She commands the same anarchic, glammed-up energy as Bugs Bunny in drag, and the entire movie around her has no choice but to warp itself around that Looney sensibility. I struggle to explain exactly why that “Ain’t I a stinker?“ pranksterism works for me here when I found it brutally unfunny in the Deadpool movies, except maybe in that the wardrobe is more exciting and Robbie, unlike Ryan Reynolds, can actually land a joke. It might just be that it’s more of a refreshing novelty to watch women behave badly than men, as they so rarely get the chance. When asked why she’s such a self-absorbed, explosively violent monster in the film’s third act, Harley muses, “I guess I’m just not a good person.” It’s likely that freedom to misbehave so flagrantly is what drew Robbie back in to revive the role despite the avalanche of negative Suicide Squad critiques (this time with a female creative team – director Cathy Yan & writer Christina Hodson). Whatever the case, the devious humor she finds in this mayhem absolutely lights up the screen, and the only times the movie momentarily stumbles are in the occasional scenes where anyone who’s not Harley highjacks the POV. I can apparently watch her tear through sequin outfits & broken bones for hours without flagging in enthusiasm. Every minute she’s onscreen is pure, chaotic joy.

More superhero movies could stand to be this excessive in their violence, this shamelessly broad in their humor, and this fabulous in their costuming. We’d all be better off.

-Brandon Ledet