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.
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.
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.
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.
I had to do it, guys. I had to put my top comic book movies into one list. Why? Well, I couldn’t in good conscience rank Winter Soldier over The Favourite or spend the rest of my natural and unnatural life debating the artistic merits and differences between Batman: Under the Red Hood and Phantom Thread. I didn’t want to live that way. So here they are, my favorite 15 comic book movies of the 2010s. You can check out my other 100 favorite films of the decade here.
15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018). From my review: “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.”
14. Ant-Man (2015). From my review (my first writing for Swampflix!): “My initial skepticism about this movie mirrored my early skepticism for Guardians of the Galaxy: “Sure, expand the scope of the franchise–but why this property?” Ant-Man couldn’t possible live up to the standard of a movie that turned schlubby everyman Chris Pratt into a legitimate movie star, but the hype for Rudd’s vehicle doesn’t oversell the inarguably fun, likable, watchable movie that Ant-Man is. As a CGI-heavy flick, it had the potential to look like computer generated garbage (again, see also: Jurassic World), but at no point did the imagery take me out of the moment the way other recent movies have. Although Lilly is underutilized, the groundwork for her larger future involvement in the franchise is laid well (comic book fans will probably guess in what capacity, but I won’t spoil that here), and Peña works well as a character suited both for comic relief and surprising heroism. An extended cameo from the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) seems somewhat tacked on, but does well to remind us that this relatively grounded entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still part of a larger narrative, and Mackie is always a welcome screen presence. Unlike gloating trillionaire Tony Stark, Scott Lang is a much more identifiable, sympathetic, and likable character, which makes for a more interesting and compelling character. And, as cited above, the sequences that feature tiny Scott navigating the normal world, but magnified, are a treasure—Scott flying around on the back of his flying ant steed, Antony, was a particular highlight.”
13. Iron Man 3 (2013). From our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion: “A lot of people really disliked this movie when it came out, citing the appearance of a kid sidekick character and the purported ruination of The Mandarin. Personally, however, I have to say that this is probably my favorite of the Iron Man flicks. I’ll admit that the kid sidekick character doesn’t really bother me in the slightest (and he appears onscreen for such a short period of time that his presence is virtually negligible). As for the way that the film used The Mandarin … I actually think that it was a bit of an ingenious move. I understand that this is a character into whom a lot of people have invested time and emotional energy, and I can understand the outrage because I felt much the same way when Star Trek Into Darkness sprang a whitewashed terrible Khan on the audience. The difference, however, is that the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is Khan contributes nothing to the film other than a familiar name, whereas the Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3 actually serves to further the plot in an interesting way, and the film does well to play that reveal close to the chest up to the point where we finally meet Trevor Slattery. This was a neat twist that played on expectations of comic book fans and mainstream filmgoers alike, and I think a lot of people were simply caught off guard by the revelation and overreacted to it.”
12. Shazam! (2019). From my best of 2019 list: “Zachary Levi makes a star turn as DC’s Big Red Cheese, the Shazam formerly known as Captain Marvel, one of the oldest comic book superheroes in existence (fun fact: while home from work on Christmas Eve, I watched an episode of The Donna Reed Show in which the lead visited a bunch of children in the hospital and one of them was reading a comic book featuring this very character). A surprisingly good flick coming out of the DC film house, this one takes all the wish fulfillment that has long been a part of this character’s nature—a child becomes an adult superhero when he speaks the titular magic word—and crafts a narrative about two separate people whose home lives leave much to be desired and how each charts their own path, a narrative of choosing to let go of resentment and naïveté to embrace hope or hopelessness. All that, and it’s a throwback to the kids movies of the eighties, films that understood that children want to be scared sometimes, and embraces that paradigm, balancing fright and fun in equal measures. Read my review here.”
11. Avengers (2012). From our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion: “The Avengers is a fun ride, and although the Battle of New York—as the final action sequence would come to be called in later MCU media—admittedly experienced a series of diminishing returns, most of the myriad of other high-octane set-pieces were genuinely thrilling and engaging. It was a smart move to start the film with an action sequence that was largely Avenger-free and which instead focused on Fury, Coulson, and Maria Hill before following that up with a series of smaller scenes that reintroduce each of the key players with varying degrees of bombasity. Other checkmarks in the “good idea” column include the decision to have characters express reluctance and hesitance to commit to the idea of a full-on superhero team, and to introduce the seeds of discord early on. As a result, when the temporary falling out occurs at the end of Act Two, it feels properly earned and not as forced as it so easily could have.”
10. Logan (2017). From my review: “My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.”
9. Thor: Ragnarok(2017). From my review: “Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.”
8. Wonder Woman (2017). From my review: “For a tale that takes place with WWI as a backdrop, this film’s not that gritty. Thanks goodness for that, because it could have easily been another gray, dull action movie about the horrors of war. That’s not to say that the horrors of war aren’t present here, especially since World War I was a particularly savage example of carnage and loss of life. The main villains are still an evil general and his mad scientist lover/sidekick, who are developing a particularly lethal form of mustard gas. Despite this, there’s a tone of hope. We believe in our seriously scarred and flawed heroes. Diana is a source of justice and light in the darkness. War is still hell, but in the end we know Diana is going to succeed. There’s no way she can’t. She’s Wonder Woman. The movie really sells us on the idea that she can do anything, and that’s not a bad thing at all.”
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). From my review: “While recently watching The 3% on Netflix with my roommate, he remarked that he found the show to be “effortlessly Tumblr friendly,” which is also true of this film. One thing you may notice about the cast list above is that, other than Holland, all of the actors listed are people of color. This is a great step forward as far as diversity goes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is something that I have written about here before, especially in regards to the largely white-washed and underwhelming Doctor Strange. More admirable than that, however, is the fact that the film has largely cast actors with strong comedic ability beyond any arguable (or marketable) “tokenism” in what is probably the funniest film that the MCU has produced outside of the Guardians movies so far. Other notable comedians in the adult cast include comedic actors like Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson (who has some of the film’s best lines), my beloved Donald Glover as two-scene wonder Aaron Davis, and Orange is the New Black‘s (admittedly underutilized) Selenis Levya, making her the second actress to break free from that program into a superhero film after Elizabeth Rodriguez’s appearance in Logan earlier this year.”
6. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (2017). From my review: “There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character. The conflict between Peter and Rocket centers around Rocket’s insecurities about whether or not he deserves to be part of a family, even if that family is a group of outlaws who found each other. The violence Nebula seeks against Gamora comes from an obsession with besting her sister out of misplaced jealousy and rage, without realizing that they are both survivors of the same abuse but who have allowed that past to push them in different directions. The interaction between Peter and his father gives rise to the film’s climax (although it feels the weakest to me, despite being the primary conflict). Yondu’s desire to right the moral failings of his past give him the longest character arc of the film, and even the comedy bits between Mantis and Drax, both fish out of water but from very different worlds, is display of character, rather than the needs of pushing the narrative forward.”
5. Batman: Under the Red Hood. From our Movie of the Month discussion: “Cards on the table: Under the Red Hood is my favorite Batman movie. OThis may not be my favorite version of Batman, but it’s the best self-contained feature that both feels like a true standalone while also addressing the character’s long history. There’s no origin story, no belabored backstory showing how and why Bruce Wayne came to be the Batman, no attempts to make the character feel like he fits in a modern context or make the gadgets and gizmos seem “realistic,” and no damned pearls in an alley. This is a grim story, with a bleak ending that gives me chills every time [as] we fade out on [an] image of the hopeful, blindingly optimistic beginning of a journey that we as the audience have just seen come to a brutal, bitterly violent end; it’s a closed, nihilistic loop.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). From our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion: “It was a smart move on Marvel’s part to follow up a somber MCU installment with a film that was exhilarating in a different way and for different reasons, but Guardians has a problem that the other films don’t have.Whereas the previous ensemble in The Avengers had the luxury of multiple individual films to flesh out the members of the team (minus the characters who were supporting players in previous installments, with Hawkeye never being fully realized as a character until Age of Ultron), Guardians has the unenviable task of introducing all five of its mains as well as their world and the ramifications thereof in a very short amount of time [but] The script is excellent [and] the film doesn’t feel overloaded.”
3. Avengers: Endgame (2019). From my best of 2019 list: “Unlike in past years, I’m not just going to stick all of the Marvel movies in one slot, because really, only one of them really and truly stood out to me this year. Captain Marvel was good, and Alison Brie is always cool, but I haven’t felt the need to revisit it at all, and its position as the first Marvel flick to end up solely on Disney+ instead of Netflix has put it out of my reach (I’m at once disappointed in all of you for not boycotting the announcement of yet another streaming service in order to force Disney to put its material back on one of the existing services while also recognizing that we are all but ants in the House of Mouse’s shadow). Tom Holland’s latest outing was also nothing to write home about, either, other than some pretty good Mysterio illusions and that scene where everybody talks shit about dead Tony Stark. Love it or hate it, the MCU is here to stay, but if it weren’t (and even I have argued that a break would be a good idea, as I did in my Spider-Man’s European Vacation review), this would be a loving and lovely finale to the end of the first “volume” of a franchise that is going to either peter out in the next few years or outlive us all (see also: Star Wars). As I said in my review, this is the “All Good Things” of the Marvel film franchise, and I loved it, no matter what comes next. But I’d be surprised to find an MCU movie in my list next year, if we’re being honest. Also, Peggy‘s in it!
2. Black Panther (2018). From my review: “Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too. […] It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.”
1. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014). From mine and Brandon’s “Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.” discussion: “I love this movie. It’s the MCU picture that I’ve watched and rewatched the most and the one that I find the most enduring, thoughtful, and well-paced; for my money, it’s the best of them all. I’m not ever sure where to start with all the things that make this film work for me. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy flick (and even some bad ones), and the tonal similarities between Winter Soldier and things like Enemy of the State, The Manchurian Candidate, and most obviously (and explicitly) Three Days of the Condor hit all the right buttons for me. [It] features [a] great and historical hero who finds himself framed and caught up in political machinations, dealing with strategic espionage maneuvering which is far outside of his control but in which he has a vested personal stake.”
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
Always slightly late to the table, the Swampflix crew won’t be filing our collective picks for the best films of the decade until sometime in February. Meanwhile, pro critics have already been making busy work of distilling the 2010s into digestible Top Ten lists long before they’re even officially over. All of this discourse pinpointing the films that defined the decade—titles like Fury Road, The Social Network, Boyhood (blech), and latecomer dark horse Parasite—has me thinking about what one movie could possibly define the entire era. And since it’s apparently become acceptable to declare such things with incomplete data (some of these lists arrived as early as October), I’m just going to go ahead and stake my claim now: New Mutants is the defining cinematic work of the 2010s. It’s a film no one has yet seen. For all we know, it may not yet even be complete. Yet, its behind-the-scenes tinkering and disastrous presence in the cultural zeitgeist encapsulates so much of what mainstream filmmaking has become over the course of the decade.
It’s obvious to me that the defining film of the 2010s would have to be a superhero picture, considering what the MCU has ballooned into since Iron Man kicked off the franchise twelve years and twenty-three sequels ago. It feels like the only non-sequel, non-remake feature films that make significant box office returns anymore are superhero movies and talking-animal animation disposables, and only one of those categories eats up critical discourse space with an alarming regularity. Marvel & DC tentpole films have become such oxygen-sucking behemoths that interviewers are now encouraged to ask arthouse auteurs light-years outside their wheelhouse for an opinion on their merits (see: Scorsese’s “theme park” nontroversy). Now, the lie about the superhero movie’s cultural dominance is that the genre is in itself a vast medium open to endless possibilities — so that smaller, experimental mutations of the genre could allow for much more variety & creativity than you’d expect from a typical comic book adaptation. New Mutants was supposed to be a major experiment in that genre deviation — breaking with the superhero picture’s usual sci-fi & fantasy modes to deliver a full-on horror film. Instead, it’s become an oft-repeated joke, delivering the exact same punchline with each new announcement every few months.
I swear I saw a trailer for New Mutants in a movie theater two years ago. That surely can’t be, since the movie does not—in a practical sense—exist. It does have an excellent hook, though, as a horror film offshoot of the X-Men starring teens in a spooky asylum, like a superhero version of Dream Warriors. What it doesn’t have is the strong, personal creative vision we’ve been promised from these superhero genre detours. Supposedly, the film was a passion project helmed by two nerds who grew up with a shared adoration for its comic book source material (the same dudes who adapted The Fault in Our Stars of all people), but it’s since been taken out of their hands by the true filmmaking elite of the 2010s: boardroom directors & studio executives. The reason the movie has been delayed for two full years (so far) is because it’s been hijacked from its (admittedly mediocre) creative team to be retooled & reshot into oblivion in an attempt to “save it in the edit.” This is a signature Major Studio move that has ballooned many, many budgets in recent years, to the point where films are guaranteed to be flops before they’re actually released (Fantastic 4, Monsters Trucks, Sonic, Solo, etc.). What started as a potentially fun, tiny genre experiment is now a years-spanning money pit & a public embarrassment — a distinctly 2010s trajectory.
So if a final, set-in-stone cut of New Mutants does not yet exist, how is it that the film’s already had multiple rounds of theatrical trailers advertising its release? That’s because the #1 fetish that movie studios have discovered this decade is announcing release dates. They love it. They’re addicted to it. Years before most blockbusters (especially ones on a superhero scale) are even completed, their studios will announce their far-off release dates in a truncated press release. Now, most audiences aren’t going to have a three-year plan about what movie we’re going to be watching opening night on a specific Friday in the distant future (not least of all because it’s not guaranteed Earth will be inhabitable in the distant future). These calendar real estate claims have nothing to do with getting butts in seats. Rather, they’re about keeping almighty Intellectual Property name brands like X-Men, Avengers, and Batman in constant cultural conversation even when there’s no current product to advertise. That way, we’re constantly talking about Marvel movies that aren’t even out yet instead of smaller, original productions that could actually use the critical oxygen — thanks to fun press tricks like release date adjustments, casting announcements, and “leaked” set photos. New Mutants had had no fewer than four release date announcements to date, which means it’s done more to keep the X-Men brand alive in The Discourse than even Dark Phoenix, a film that was actually released (but no one saw). The only reason these release date delays were necessary to announce via the press is because the film didn’t make its initial self-imposed deadline thanks to its behind-the-scenes retooling. In a best case scenario, New Mutants would have been rushed to meet that initial, arbitrary deadline whether or not its CGI or sequencing were entirely completed to their best possible standard. Instead, its “delayed” release is being used as IP kindling for naive bloggers (Hello) to keep talking about X-Men movies even though we didn’t even enjoy the other, completed entries in the series of recent memory. It’s doing a great job even though, again, it does not exist.
The biggest offender in this release date fetishism and, if we’re being honest, the biggest offender in all things is Walt Disney Pictures. And, thanks to Disney’s monopolistic acquisition of 20th Century Fox, New Mutants is now officially a Walt Disney film. So far, Disney is seemingly committed to theatrically releasing New Mutants in April of 2020, but it wouldn’t be the first, second, or third time that plan changed. It’s just as likely that the film will be demoted to a straight-to-streaming release on Hulu, Disney+, or whatever other streaming service the great dictator mouse absorbs by next Spring. Or maybe they’ll scrap the production entirely, making it the newest ghost to haunt the famed Disney Vault. No matter what happens with New Mutants‘s release in 2020 (or, just as likely, 2022, 2025, or never) I can’t think of a more definitive 2010s trajectory for a movie than that. New Mutants was supposed to be a small, fun experiment that cashed in on the superhero movie’s box office invincibility to push the genre into new, weird directions. Instead, it’s now a Disney acquisition that’s little more than a ballooning budget & a series of release date announcements meant to keep its almighty IP alive in the cultural zeitgeist. It’s likely doomed to be unceremoniously dumped on a streaming service rather than reach wide theatrical distribution, and it’s all but guaranteed to be forgotten in either instance. What one movie could encapsulate mainstream filmmaking in the 2010s better than that?
There’s a scene that I loved in Spider-Man: Far From Home that I wish I could explore in more detail than is really appropriate for an opening paragraph, even if the review is as late as this one. To be as spoiler free as possible, I’ll just say that we once again spend some time with a character who finds Tony Stark’s narcissism and egotism as obnoxious as I do, and I got a minor thrill out of the fact that, within this narrative in which (spoilers for Endgame) Stark’s corpse has barely cooled, the evil that he’s done lives after him and the good is interred with his arc reactors (or something). His former employees hated his freaking guts, with Stark’s careless dismissal of the “little people” in his sphere, despite their individual contributions to the technology that kept his empire alive, presented in a more honest way than we’ve seen before. Somewhere along the way, Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma tricked everyone into forgetting that Tony Stark is someone that would be very difficult to get along with, unless you were a gorgeous twenty-something he wanted to bed. That he died and left most of his legacy to a kid from Queens he barely knows is strange, to say the least, and Stark’s spurned employees don’t see a reason why they should have to honor that desire. Frankly, neither do I, and I have the benefit of living outside of the narrative and can recognize how weird it is that this Spider-Man isn’t really all that Spider-Manny.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland)’s going to Europe! Along for the ride are his pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), MJ (Zendaya), and Flash (Tony Revolori). Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice), seen in the last Spider-film only on the school’s video announcements, is also along for the ride. The aforementioned all disappeared for five years during what’s now being called “The Blip,” the time period during which half of all life was snapped out of existence by Thanos at the end of Infinity War, before being snapped back into existence by Tony in Endgame (ok, he’s not without a redeeming feature or two); some students return to discover that their younger sibling is now biologically older than them, even if they are still chronologically elder. To those who were gone during the interim, that means that there’s a whole new group of freshly-minted peers, with some of Peter’s classmates having, subjectively, grown from pipsqueak to hunk overnight. One such character is Brad (Remy Hii, who, like me, is 32, making me wonder if I could still pull off a potentially problematic Never Been Kissed investigation), whom Peter fastens onto as a potential rival for MJ’s affection. As soon as the group gets to Europe, element-based monsters appear and start wreaking havoc on all that priceless architecture, and Peter must team with new hero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to stop them, etc. Also part of this story are Tony Stark’s hideous sunglasses, which turn out to be linked to yet another A.I. that connects to an orbiting Stark weapons platform, among other things, and which Stark meant to go to his “successor.” But is Peter’s head adult enough to wear so heavy a crown? And if not, him, whom? Also, Samuel L. Jackson appears in his contractually obligated appearance as Nick Fury, and Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) is also there. And Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
There’s both too much and too little going on here. “Too much” in the sense that, with a release date a mere 61 days after the premiere of Endgame, there hasn’t really been sufficient time to let that film digest in the public consciousness; “too little” in the sense that, if we are going to dive straight back into this world, we don’t really get to spend sufficient time exploring the massive consequences of The Blip. I still remember the thrill of electricity that ran through my fat, greasy, balding 2009 body the first time I read in an issue of Wizard that there were going to be Captain America and Thor movies in 2011, and how that seemed so far away, and all the speculation and discussion and anticipation that created. Endgame truly felt appropriately consequential and, at the risk of coming across as sententious, iconoclastic. It was a capstone to a truly impressive decade of mainstream film; to break ground on something new so soon diminishes the poignancy and the potency of what we just saw in theaters two months prior. In my Endgame review, I noted that the film functioned as the “All Good Things” of the first ten years of the MCU, but even Rick Berman and Brannon waited at least six months before getting straight to Voyager. This analogy bears out in the content of Far From Home as well, where we find our intrepid band of heroes literally far from home, but the narrative quickly settles into something that’s so familiar it’s essentially the same old thing, just blanched of some of the color that made it special. Perhaps, like the franchise that once boasted the most films in a single series, we’re about to experience such diminishing returns that the next ten years of Marvel fail to penetrate the public consciousness the way its forbearer did.* Give my fat, greasy, balder 2019 body the chance to feel that excitement and anticipation again, Marvel.
I understand that fans are too hungry for new content to let the land lie fallow for a season so that the earth is sweet again, or at least I understand that this is the narrative. I also understand that the MCU is a machine that generates money, and that this is the real reason we’re not going to see a summer without an MCU flick until the well runs dry (if it ever will). But if we are going to head back so soon, we should spend more time really living with the aftermath of The Blip. As it is, an entire half of the universe just experienced a cataclysmic existential shift; half of all life just lost seven years, not to mention there’s very little exploration of the fallout from the doubtlessly widespread infrastructure issues that this creates. What we get is a single fundraiser for Aunt May’s homelessness initiative, which barely glances off of the surface of what kind of a massive housing crisis must now be a reality for everyone. The implications are boundless, but the most devastating event in the history of existence is used mostly as a source to mine for comedy in the fact that formerly sexually ineligible middle school nerds are now hot (32 year old) seniors.
I’m coming down pretty hard on this for a movie that I had a fairly good time watching. I’m not really upset with the product, just with the system of production. I mean, I’m never going to love the fact that Peter Parker’s whole deal–being a street-level superhero who had to balance all his great responsibility with his need to have some semblance of a normal life–is kinda defeated by having Tony Stark acting as Daddy Warbucks bibbedi-bobbedi-booing Peter straight out of Queens. Even when one considers that Peter’s desire to be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man is part of his external conflict in this film, Tony Stark’s presence looms so large and his shadow casts so far that it drags down the plot. The narrative connection between the former Stark employees and their complicated boss not only works for me because it’s critical of Tony Stark, but also because it makes the world feel larger in an organic way; having Peter’s story be so dependent on Tony’s makes it smaller. Gone is the relatability of the fable, in which perseverance is a virtue, replaced by the rhetorical distance of the fairy tale, in which you might be rewarded for hard work, but also sometimes you’ve just got a fairy godmother to do that shit for you.
There were a lot of things that I liked. There’s a series of illusions that appear throughout the film (to say more would reveal too much) that are really cool to watch. There’s also an appearance by J. Jonah Jameson, once again played by J.K. Simmons, which both comes out of nowhere and is a welcome addition, although it’s hard to wrap one’s head around what the larger implications of that might mean. Such as: is Jameson just the same across reboots? Do you think Simmons thinks its weird that he used to be 27 years younger than Aunt May when she was Rosemary Harris, but now he’s ten years older than Aunt May now that she’s Marisa Tomei? Are there really multiple earths? This film posits the existence of other dimensions and presents evidence for it, but the source is ultimately less than reliable.
I saw this one opening weekend, and in the time since, news broke about the potential dissolution of the contract that allows the MCU (under the Disney omnibrand) to use Spider-Man in their films, with much hand-wringing and corporate apologia and weeping/gnashing/sackcloth. But honestly, I’m not sure that getting a little distance from the larger MCU isn’t for the best right now. At least if we don’t see Tom Holland for a few months, it might give us time to miss him.
*In this analogy DS9 equates to the Netflix shows (more inspective of humanity’s darker impulses, tightly focused, “grittier” for lack of a more accurate term), and the original series is/are the comics (originating mostly in the sixties, socially conscious for both the time of origin and now, sometimes aliens steal character’s brains). Don’t @ me.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
I was several weeks behind the curve when I finally caught Avengers: Endgame on the big screen. Thoroughly spoiled on which characters were going to die and filtered though several cycles of praise & backlash for its merits as either A. the greatest film of all time or B. just another superhero sequel, I was predisposed to a fairly lowkey moviegoing experience. Ultimately, I did have about the same reaction to it that I did with last year’s less-loved Avengers film, Infinity War: I was tickled by the components of the MCU that already tend to tickle me and bored with the characters & storylines that always tend to bore me. That high-floor/low-ceiling quality of this series leaves a lot of room for the mind to wander, especially when stretched out over a three-hour downer of an “action” film that is very light on action. What I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout Endgame was how inconceivably popular it is, and profitable. Making over a billion dollars in its first weekend and still packed to the walls in our spacious Faux-Max theater many weeks into its run, Endgame is a mind-bogglingly popular film – one that’s even gunning to become the #1 box office earner of all time. How, then, is it possible that what was playing out on the screen in front of me was so deeply, incurably nerdy?
It wouldn’t really be going out on a limb to suggest that nerds have won the culture war. Considering the regularity with which the box office is dominated by superhero flicks, Star Wars sequels, and all other Disney-owned properties within that spectrum, it’s been clear for years that nerd culture is popular culture. You can no longer infer any general characteristics of a person who says they’re “such a nerd” because they’re into Marvel superheroes or Star Wars. Everyone is into Marvel & Star Wars to some degree. They’re the foundational pillars of our Disney-owned monoculture. Still, there was something uniquely extreme about Avengers: Endgame that felt like the arrival of a new paradigm in modern pop media. I was no longer sharing theater space with moviegoers who were being slowly, gradually indoctrinated into watching “nerd-ass shit” by way of handsome movie stars delivering snarky one-liners to reinforce how above-it-all & non-nerdy the characters & creators actually are. I was in the deep end. Endgame is a very long, deeply sincere film where the (supposedly) relatable smartass of the group that holds audiences’ hands with nerdery-deflating jokes dies onscreen and you’re supposed to cry over the loss. I got the distinct sense during our screening that I was now sharing theater space with a New Nerd America. The snarky training wheels are off. Our transformation is complete.
It’s not just that Endgame is long or overly serious, either. It’s also that it follows a complex sci-fi plot most audiences would balk at if it were in service of an original property. This is a time travel film in which several teams of costumed superheroes travel through distant times & places throughout the galaxy to retrieve the Infinity McGuffins necessary to undo their failure from the last nerdgasm. All the usual time travel paradoxes from sci-fi nerdery past arise during this mission – including the implication that their actions could be creating alternate timelines throughout Avengers history (that, of course, can be dealt with in future adventure$ on platform$ like Di$ney+). A few dismissive, smartass jokes about the absurdity of the heroes’ “time heist” reassure the audience that what we’re watching is still Cool & With it, but for the most part it’s treated like a dead-serious genocide prevention mission staged across the vast nerdiness of space-time – one that’s largely met with genuine, heartfelt tears from its loyal, global audience. What’s especially bizarre about that reaction is that it’s evoked by scenes from the audiences’ own indoctrination into the New Nerd America paradigm. When the Avengers time-travel back to their Infinity McGuffin-encrusted past, they’re also traveling to the milestones of the monoculture’s gradual nerd transformation, fully displaying how far we’ve come in the ten years of MCU culture domination.
Sequels that time-travel back to their previous installments to observe & alter their own lore aren’t an entirely new plot phenomenon. It’s been done before in Back to the Future II, Terminator: Genisys, Happy Death Day 2U, and probably several others I can’t name offhand because I’m just not nerd enough. What’s different here is that Endgame has twenty-one pervious films in its own franchise it can choose to revisit, an oceanic wealth of #content. Revisiting those past franchise entries, especially the first Avengers team-up from 2012, is a stark reminder of how far off the nerd-culture deep end America has truly gone. This is a time-travel sci-fi picture where superheroes square off against their own doppelgangers in a world-threatening conflict you have to watch nearly two dozen previous pictures of homework before you can fully understand. It sounds exhausting in the abstract, but so many people have kept up with the series so gradually that we hardly had time to step back and consider just how elaborate & convoluted it has become. It’s an engagement with pop media that has become common in the American household: binging on over fifty hours of a single story (usually on television) to keep up with talk at the watercooler, even in instances when you’re told that the story only “gets good” after the first twenty hours or so. I’m not the first person to compare Marvel movies to television, but it definitely wasn’t lost on me that at the exact same time this film was eating up the nations’ screen-space at the theater, the same audience was ravenously digesting the swords-and-dragons show Game of Thornes at home, over seventy hours into its run. Nerds.
I mostly enjoyed the experience of watching Avengers: Endgame. I can’t match the emotion or enthusiasm of Boomer’s five-star review, but it was pretty alright. I also enjoyed the twenty-first Marvel film that preceded it – another sci-fi action film titled Captain Marvel – which is so recent that it’s still playing in theaters simultaneous to Endgame. I also stayed after the credits of this three-hour epic that I kinda-sorta liked to watch a spoiler-loaded advertisement for its next follow-up, Spiderman: European Vacation, out this summer. I don’t know, I guess you could say I’m a total nerd that way. Or, more accurately, you could say that I’m a totally average, unexceptional American consumer, just counting down the days until our official form of currency is converted to Disney Dollars. The culture war may have been lost a long time ago, but Endgame has offered its casualties a rare opportunity to step back & observe how nerdy we’ve become, like live frogs gradually being brought to a boil.
Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.
Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.
Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.
The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.
Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!
You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).
The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.
I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.
Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond