Aquaman (2018)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.

Even if Into-the Spider-Verse had stuck to a single, straightforward Spider-Man origin story, it chose the exact one that could have kept the formula fresh for a modern audience. Afro-Latino teen dweeb Miles Morales is a welcome deviation in representation from the countless white-boy Peter Parkers who have swung across the screen over the years. Miles inhabits a hip-hop centric version of NYC that’s largely missing from the rest of the Spider-Man canon- represented in graffiti bombing, boomboxes, earbuds blaring legitimate radio-rap tunes, and a social pressure to code-switch when attending a predominately white school for the gifted. It’s a refreshing perspective for a Spider-Man universe NYC . . . until the obligatory machinations of the Spider-Man origin story take over the plot. When Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, the audience has an all-too-clear idea of where his story will & should go as he transforms into an unlikely, geeky superhero. Except, Phil Lord immediately dislodges this story from that well-established groove to chase something much more unpredictable & self-aware.

Two distinct narrative deviations disrupt the typical Spider-Man origin story trajectory once Miles is bitten by that spider. First, he becomes aware that he’s living in a comic book. His inner thoughts become deafening narration he cannot escape, and his world is suddenly contained in Ben Day Dots and sectioned-off panels. Second, he becomes aware that his is not the only Spider-Man comic book. In fact, there are countless variations on the Spider-Man origin story that exist in a vast multiverse that begins to perilously overlap with his own. These variations include novelty spider-people like Spider-Man Noir (Nic Cage) & Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), whose outlandishness could not be further from Miles’s grounded hip-hop version of reality. Miles’s first-act run-in with a radioactive spider (and subsequent heartbreak with the tragic death of a family member) may be as consistent with Spider-Man lore as the NYC setting, but the comic book environments & quest to reconstruct the multiverse in proper order that result form that bite feel wildly imaginative for the material.

Those comic book environments & psychedelic multiverse overlaps do more than just open the Spider-Man origin story to exiting new avenues; they also allow for experimentation in CG animation that feels like a huge creative breakthrough for the medium. Where most modern animation pictures feel flat & unimaginative in their design, Spider-Verse is overflowing with ideas. The Ben Day Dots, panel divisions, and deliberately off-set screen-printing effect of its comic book design afford it a distinctly retro visual style, one enhanced by the claymation effect of its off-kilter frame rate. The endless possibilities of its collapsing multiverse also invite a total surreal meltdown of psychedelic colors & shapes, transforming Miles’s grounded NYC into a melted-candy nightmare. I usually dread CG animated kids’ movies even more than I dread the latest needless reboot of Spider-Man. Both of those well-worn mediums subverted & exploded my expectations for what they could achieve in this out-of-nowhere visual stunner, often multiple times in a single scene.

The only arena in which Into the Spider-Verse falls a little short is in eliciting a genuine emotional response for Miles’s journey from geek to hero. It’s a little difficult to lose yourself in his story when the visual language of the film is so (literally) flashy, and when other Spider-Men are on-hand to make self-aware, Deadpool-lite references to things like the character having “an excellent theme song & a so-so popsicle.” Every time a new, outlandish spider-person appears to announce, “Let’s start from the beginning one last time,” it’s an amusing joke at the expense of the character’s endless parade of reboots. However, by extension that also means it’s at the expense of Miles Morales, who likely deserved to have a straight-forward, gimmick-free Spider-Man origin story more than any other version of the character we’ve seen in the countless live action adaptations before him—one that’s likely to never arrive now.

The most emotional I got in Into the Spider-Verse was in an end-credits acknowledgement of the character’s creators – Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, who both died last year. Whether or not its boundless creativity left room for genuine pathos, Into the Spider-Verse feels like as perfect of an encapsulation of everything that collaboration inspired as you’ll ever see – both in its scramble to gather every variation of the character it can and in its vivid graphic artistry. I went into Spider-Verse expecting a humorous, satisfactory reboot of a character who’s been through the ringer too many times to yield any true surprises. I was frequently surprised and more than merely satisfied by the psychedelic, playfully meta spectacle that unfolded, then imploded before me instead. By the end of the film I could only cite one unturned stone that felt like a true missed opportunity, and then that exact gag ended up being a standalone scene after the end credits. The movie is that good.

-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

Batman Ninja (2018)

Stretching back to the 1940s serial shorts, there have been over seven decades of Batman cinema to date, which makes adaptations of the unfathomably long-running comic book series common enough to be considered their own separate movie genre. As such, there are plenty of tropes & verbatim repetitions of scenes in onscreen Batman content that have become punishingly familiar to audiences who regularly seek this stuff out. No Batman movie need ever show a young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder in a back alley again, for instance, as it’s an image that’s been deeply chiseled into our minds over the decades (right down to his mother’s broken strand of pearls skittering across the pavement). Many recent Batman movies have reached for a more distinctive novelty in their narratives as a result, especially the animated DC movies. 2018 alone has already seen the release of a film where Batman teams up with Scooby-Doo, one where he battles Jack the Ripper in a steampunk arena, and one where he crosses over into the treacherous, transcendent world of anime. It’s that last example where Batman cinema has likely reached its most absurd novelty to date, even promising in Catwoman’s opening dialogue, “You think you’ve heard every Batman story? I promise you haven’t.” The story Batman Ninja proceeds to tell after that tease is indeed one I’ve never seen before. What’s up for debate is whether it’s, factually speaking, a story at all, as opposed to a chaotic collection of incongruous tangents & flights of fancy. What’s clear, either way, is that it’s admirably bonkers in a way more Batman movies could stand to be, animated or otherwise.

The concept of mashing up Batman with anime sounds like a nerd’s wet dream, a juvenile pleasure impulse Batman Ninja attempts to live up to in every self-indulgent frame. With intense character redesigns from Japanese manga artist Takashi Okazaki and an impressive team of traditionalist animators, the movie is almost well-crated enough to pass itself off as an art piece instead of what it truly is: nonstop over-the-top excess, a shameless sky-high pile of pop culture trash. The film begins with Batman being transported back to feudal Japan with “a time displacement device,” where he must stop anime-redesigned versions of his infamous foes from taking the country over & rewriting history. The Joker, Poison Ivy, Two Face, The Penguin, etc. are introduced like Pokémon selections in a video game. Each present a different setting-appropriate challenge to the Caped Crusader as he anachronistically drives his shape-shifting Batmobile around feudal Japan. The movie chases its own impulsive whims from moment to moment in these barely-connected conflicts as Batman subdues his enemies one by one, struggling most to conquer The Joker, as always. The resulting spectacle is pure lunacy. Batman sumo-wrestles Bane in a mech suit. The Joker’s goons manifest as samurais in welded clown masks. An army of monkeys assembles to form one giant monkey that challenges a similar gigantic Batman gestalt (composed of bats, naturally) to a climactic kaiju battle. I don’t know that I can praise Batman Ninja as disciplined comic book storytelling, but it’s certainly a novelty as visual spectacle, something that must be seen to be believed.

Ostensibly, there’s a long-running connection to ninja training in Batman’s origin story that could potentially be used to justify this absurd indulgence. If nothing else, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins could’ve easily been retitled Batman: Ninja School without much of a fuss. The truth is, though, that Batman Ninja seems entirely unconcerned with justifying its own for-their-own-sake impulses. Its experiments in the newly discovered artform of Batmanime seem to be born entirely of “Wouldn’t it be rad if __?” daydreaming. It’s a refreshing approach to Batman storytelling, as most of the character’s feature-length cartoons are much less comfortable with fully exploring the freedom from logic animation affords them. In an era where memorable novelty is essential to keeping Batman narratives viably fresh, it’s difficult to imagine Batman Ninja being outdone on a measure of pure imagination, even if it makes zero goddamn sense.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantasm’s Looming Shadow Over All Animated Batmen

We’ve been singing the praises of the 2010 animated Batman feature Under The Red Hood this month for giving viewers something they’re not used to from most Caped Crusader cinema. Forgoing the obligatory origin story opening that weighs down every other Batman reboot and skipping far enough ahead into the lore that it can support two! Robins the Boys Wonder, Under the Red Hood feels remarkably unique in the modern comic book adaptation zeitgeist for its confidence in viewers’ familiarity with its central characters, allowing it a larger freedom in storytelling. The film feels much less unique, however, when you consider the obvious debt it owes to Batman: The Animated Series, particularly the show’s feature film debut Mask of the Phantasm. I’ve written previously about how Kevin Conroy’s voice work as the Caped Crusader on The Animated Series has been the defining standard for all animated Batmen, leaving Under the Red Hood/Gotham By Gaslight voice actor Bruce Greenwood very little room to leave a distinct mark. (The same could probably be said for Mark Hamill’s deranged voice work for The Joker as well). That’s not where The Animated Series’ looming influence stops, though. For all of Under the Red Hood’s narrative details that feel unique to cinematic Batman storytelling, the broader picture of what it accomplishes more than vaguely resembles Mask of the Phantasm. In fact, it follows Phantasm’s template so closely that you wouldn’t have to change many character details around for it to function as a remake.

To be fair, Under the Red Hood’s story about superhero vigilantism gone too far is a fairly common one within comic book lore. In our initial conversation on Under the Red Hood, I wrote, “Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals.” However, the details of how that story is told onscreen in these two films are similar enough to push Under the Red Hood’s parallels to Mask of the Phantasm beyond general adherence to storytelling cliché. Both the titular Red Hood & Phantasm vigilantes challenge Batman’s moral code by pushing their dedication to crimefighting too far, specifically by assassinating mob bosses that control Gotham’s crime rings. The identities of the mysterious people from Batman’s past who mask as these vigilante personae in both films are also presented as impossibilities, as they are both dead. In Under the Red Hood, we see (the second, younger) Robin murdered brutally at the hands of the Joker in the first scene, but presume that The Red Hood could only be him in disguise, somehow resurrected. Similarly, recognizable voice actor Stacy Keach is obviously voicing The Phantasm in the earlier film, but the character he plays is shown to be dead long before The Phantasm arrives, making it an impossibility. The strange circumstances that make these transformations possible are doled out in staggered flashbacks in both films, one to a story of an early romance and one to Robin’s pre-crimefighting youth. The stories also reach their respective climaxes by deploying The Joker as an outside element of chaos in a last-ditch effort to save mobsters’ lives, creating total chaos that reveals the mysteries of the two vigilantes’ secret identities. Some of the individual characters have been swapped out and the animation style of these productions has changed drastically from the 90s to the 2010s, but in narrative terms The Mask of the Phantasm & Under the Red Hood are practically the same movie.

What’s left to distinguish them, then, is a question of aesthetic, for which I’ll always be biased to affording Mask of the Phantasm the upper hand. The action sequences of Under the Red Hood are an impressively complex mix of traditional and computer animation, but they have nothing on the tactile mat painting backdrops and Art Deco designs of The Animated Series, which is about as gorgeous as crime detective noir ever got. Mask of the Phantasm also drives to a much more distinctive climax than Under the Red Hood, staging the final showdown between Batman and The Joker in a sprawling miniature of Gotham at an abandoned, Atomic Age World’s Fair exhibit. The play with scale in that climactic battle makes the two forever-foes appear to be kaiju-size, which is an absurd effect unmatched by anything mustered in Under the Red Hood (or most live-action Batman flicks for that matter). Mask of the Phantasm is the definitive animated Batman move, its influence looming over every one of its successors. Story-wise, the only notable improvement Under the Red Hood holds over it is in skipping the origin story plotlines for Batman & The Joker, which are told uniquely in Mask of the Phantasm, but likely don’t need to be told at all. Otherwise, it follows a very faithful pattern established by that Animated Series offshoot, which becomes blatantly apparent if you ever watch the two films back to back. I don’t intend to point out these similarities to diminish Under the Red Hood’s significance; I was impressed by the film in a way that’s exceedingly rare for DC animated features. I just continually marvel at how influential The Animated Series and, by extension, Mask of the Phantasm were on the entirety of the animated Batman canon. Even one of the most uniquely independent entries into the franchise is still very closely tied to that series, both structurally and tonally, speaking to its staying power as a foundational work.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood, and last week’s look at how it uses the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris.

-Brandon Ledet

Deadpool 2 (2018)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

 

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Neil Patrick Harris, Superhero Sidekick

Neil Patrick Harris wears a daunting number of hats in the show business racket: Broadway entertainer, game show host, sitcom star, children’s book author, etc. He’s one of these well-rounded, over-employed entertainers where you’re never sure how they fit all their various projects in a tenable schedule. One of his regular gigs is voiceover work for various animated projects wildly varying in target demographic, but often hitting that one common denominator in all age-specific marketing: superhero media. NPH has had regular voice acting gigs in the superhero pantheon over the years, even voicing the title role in a long-running animated Spiderman series. He’s only voiced characters in two animated superhero movies, though, both of which fall under the DC Comics brand. That’s maybe not that surprising to most people, as the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand has dozens of feature-length cartoons under its belt to date. What is surprising, though is that someone as talented & recognizable as Neil Patrick Harris has only played supporting characters in both instances of his movie-length collaborations with DC. Likely a reflection of his busy, no time to dally schedule, NPH’s animated superhero movie specialty seems to be punching up a side character’s dialogue with wry, cocky wit, making them appear more fully developed than they’re written to be. As with many of the projects NPH applies his time to, he’s good at his job.

In our current Movie of the Month, 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, NPH’s sidekick role plays as entirely intentional. He’s cast as just one of two ex-Robins, raised under the Caped Crusader’s tutelage in a movie that’s all about Batman’s struggle with the other. NPH appears in the film as Nightwing, an early adopter of the Robin persona who has since branched out to fighting crime on his own, but still desperately needs fatherly approval from a standoffish Batman. Nightwing is an outsider to the central plot involving a second, younger Robin, but he’s also an essential parallel of it. This requires him to be present, but without enough time to develop his persona. It’s a paradox that’s easily fixed by having NPH on hand to instantly sell the character’s sarcastic, performatively confident personality. It’s the same role he fills as The Flash in the earlier DC animated feature The Justice League: The New Frontier, through for entirely different reasons. The Flash is a sidekick to no one and his storyline is one of the driving plot threads in New Frontier, yet NPH is afforded just about the same amount of screen time & character development there as he is in Under the Red Hood. This is because the film is overstuffed with the backstories & character introductions of a long line of superheroes in the film’s cast, who all divvy up the runtime until there’s barely any left to go around. It’s a frequent problem for anyone who’s familiar with the trajectory of modern live-action superhero franchises, especially the DCEU. It’s also a telling contrast to the intimate story told in Red Hood.

As busy & overcrowded as The New Frontier can feel, it does have an excellent central gimmick. Set in the Atomic Age 1950s, the film feels like a better world where Brad Bird made his animated superhero media in traditional 2D instead of with Pixar. Telling the story of an ancient disembodied force that vows to destroy humanity because of its dangerous nuclear proliferation, The New Frontier is decorated wall to wall with the visual kitsch of a 1950s diner with a sci-fi theme. By setting the clock back to that setting, though, it also requires the Justice League to be a uniformed group of disparate superheroes who spend the entire runtime coming together as a team (and joining efforts of an untrustworthy military) for the first time. Characters like The Flash, Superman, and Wonder Woman already have detailed backstories in place, while more character development is afforded the origin stories of lesser characters like The Green Lantern & Martian Manhunter. It’s likely no accident that more seasoned, well-established voice actors are afforded to the three more static characters (NPH, Kyle McLachlan, and Lucy Lawless, respectively), since their personalities need to be more immediately recognizable than the ones who’re developed through origin stories. The Flash is key to the film’s plot, especially in establishing superheroes as McCarthy Era Others (“What’s with that red costume? Red’s for Commies,”) but he’s afforded almost the same amount of screen time as Nightwing in Under the Red Hood: very little. He’s a well-established superhero reduced here to Superman & Wonder Woman’s de facto sidekick.

From a technical standpoint, the more intimate, self-contained story of Under the Red Hood is more effective as a piece of writing, while the overly busy, origins-obsessed plotting of The New Frontier is indicative of the worst impulses of superhero media storytelling. I enjoyed both films very much, though, believing New Frontier’s narrative shortcomings to be far outweighed by the beauty & charm of its Atomic Age aesthetic. Neil Patrick Harris is employed in self-contradictory roles in both pictures. He is both central to the themes & plots and reduced to glorified cameo roles as sidekick & afterthought. NPH does a great job of making both roles memorable, informing both characters with a punchy, wry sense of humor without fully tipping them into wiseass Deadpool territory. Like The New Frontier, the man’s career is spread into an impossible number of directions and it’s impressive the amount of quality work he produces despite that myriad of obligations.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood.

-Brandon Ledet