Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2017

1. Power Rangers – The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Still, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. Its greatest strength is in the tension between those tones.

2. Monster Trucks – The rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; it’s a gift to be cherished.  Monster Trucks feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can.

3. IT – An excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

 

4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2/ Thor: Ragnarok – Apparently, all of the MCU’s tendencies to squash auteurist voices with a collective House Style go out the window when they launch their franchises into space. Hip nerds James Gunn & Taika Waititi were both allowed to deliver the most aggressively bizarre, personal entries in the MCU yet with their respective space operas. Thor: Ragnarok‘s Planet Trash buffoonery (complete with off-the-wall contributions from eternal freaks Jeff Goldblum & Mark Mothersbaugh) was particularly idiosyncratic, like Pure Waititi doing Flash Gordon in the best way. Gunn’s film is much more emotionally grounded, somehow pulling off a genuinely touching climax after two full hours of cartoonishly violent, darkly comic id. Both works deserve kudos for excelling as intensely creative, memorable feats in blockbuster filmmaking.

5. XX –  Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts that each take chances on premises rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but are instead boiled down to digestible, bite-sized morsels. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, it also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

6. Logan – There’s a lot to be excited about here: a superhero narrative that tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster (even though I’m not particularly a fan of Westerns), the throat-ripping hyperviolence, a Wolverine Who Cusses, a Lil’ Wolverine you can fit in your pocket, etc. What really won me over in Logan, though, was how deeply weird the movie felt. Aesthetically, the closest reference point I could conjure for its mixture of childlike imagination & dispiriting grime is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, which is a much more challenging vibe than what we’re used to seeing in superhero fare. The fact that it (accidentally) offers a legitimate glimpse into the future of Trump’s America in the process makes it all the more bizarre & worth seeking out.

7. The Fate of the FuriousThe Fast and the Amnesious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment in the series by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly.  F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. He strays from past tonal choices and character traits, but ultimately sticks to the core of the only things that have remained consistent in the series: there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

8. Free Fire – In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way High-Rise director Ben Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

9. Wheelman – There weren’t many action movies last year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper. The heist-gone-wrong plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening getaway sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. The majority of the film is shot from inside a car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night.

10. Atomic Blonde – One of the more bizarre aspects of this Charlize Theron action vehicle is the way it hops on the 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the Stranger Things & Ready Player One trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in 1989, the film’s estimation of 80s pop culture include references like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. As nerdy as its 80s pop culture references can be, though, its basic pleasures are universally apparent. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. It’s not wrong.

11. Girls Trip – An unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. Also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy with gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth that plays directly to my raccoonish tastes.

12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Objectively speaking, this  horrible excuse for a space opera is a colossally goofy embarrassment. But I think I loved it? Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element somewhat passes as a normal movie if you squint at it from the right angle. This spiritual follow-up never had a chance, thanks largely to its titular lead. Dane DeHaan pretty much delivers a feature-length Keanu Reeves impersonation as the space-traveling swashbuckler Valerian, doing as much as he can to suck all the fun out of the film’s weirdo indulgences in grotesque creatures & alien planet dreamscapes. The movie persists as a misshapen good time anyway and I was oddly won over by DeHaan’s charisma vacuum as the story recklessly barreled along, despite myself.

13. Happy Death Day – Its defining gimmick may be dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher, but what’s most surprising is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that arrived in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize.  Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos.

14. Friend Request – When this dirt cheap supernatural slasher was first released in its native Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. This uninteded comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobia horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently.

15. Death Race 2050 – Not much more than an R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tirelessly self-cannibalizing film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later.

16. Alien: Covenant -Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

17. Kuso -How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with internet access. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.

18. The Babysitter – McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. Essentially Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists, The Babysitter turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors, an excellent backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies.

19. The Book of Henry – An unintended camp pleasure, entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure, whose complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single adult decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment, Watts’s protagonist is visibly frustrated that she can’t ask her son Henry for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. Her narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a (spoiler) dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. She’s the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Colin Trevorrow’s last abomination, Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

20. Pottersville – Plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies, with its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounting to It’s a Wonderful Yiff.  I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but its novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful. Considering that Michael Shannon stars as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer drunkenly attempting to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing in achieving this aesthetic imbalance. You don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing.

-Brandon Ledet

Boomer’s Top Films of 2017

What a year it’s been! 2017 was a pretty mixed bag, all things considered. I had a pretty bad fall and busted my arm so bad that I had to have four screws put in, and that forced me to miss a few releases. On the other hand, between the Alamo Drafthouse showing Inferno back in January and closing out the last Terror Tuesday at the Ritz with the mildly-Christmasy Deep Red, plus the 4K remaster of Suspiria that screened at Austin Film Society, I got to see three Dario Argento films on the big screen last year, which is nice. On top of that, for the first time in my life I can say that I was definitively both smarter than the president and more attractive than the “Sexiest” Man “Alive” (surely I wasn’t the only person who read that news and was immediately concerned that Michael B. Jordan had died, right?).

As is my personal tradition (see here and here), let’s start out with a look back on the year, and specifically mention the things I wish I had seen so that this list could be more complete, but which I (for whatever reason) missed. Austin was lucky enough to be one of the premiere cities for The Square, but my roommate passed out at a friend’s house and his phone died the night before we were supposed to see it, and it ended up being only a one week engagement. Call Me By Your Name has yet to appear in my market (and Beach Rats completely passed me by while I was laid up with a broken arm for most of the summer), and although Austin Film Society hosted screenings of both Dolores and Carpinteros, both films were gone before I could get my ducks in a row. I kept putting off watching Brian Jordan Alvarez’s Everything is Free (I loved The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo) because it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, but an attempt at a recent viewing party with friends was thwarted when it turned out the film had been removed from YouTube. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this means it’s getting an actual release, because that would be lovely. A Ghost Story, Baby Driver, The Lego Batman Movie, Beatriz at Dinner, and especially I Am Not Your Negro were all movies that I planned to see, but it’s been a long, weird year, and some things are bound to fall through the cracks. Brandon didn’t care for The Bad Batch, but given that he and I have vastly different opinions of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I would likely have ended up giving Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest a more favorable rating, or at least a place on this list. As it is, however, I missed it (and my roommate, who responds to the mere mention of A Girl Walks… with a fervent hatred that is the only rift between us, is unwilling to give it a try despite the fact that it is on Netflix). And, unfortunately, I completely forgot Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was going to be a thing before it came to theaters. Finally, it should be noted that I’m composing this list prior seeing The Last Jedi or the released-at-the-very-end-of-the-year-for-some-reason of Downsizing, which I’m pretty excited about given how much I love Alexander Payne. But let’s get to it!

Movies I saw but you won’t be seeing on this list in any form, so let’s put them here now so that you’re not holding your breath:

1. Alien: Covenant: I didn’t hate this movie. It would have had to make me feel something in order to hate it. Instead, I feel mostly indifference and disappointment at the wasted potential, and I hate what it represents. You can read a more in-depth discussion of the film’s faults here. An excerpt: “Before Scott dreamed up a reason to call it an ‘Engineer,’ the Space Jockey was just one more part of an unsolvable riddle: a giant dead body from an unknown race, seemingly eviscerated with its chest open, fossilized. It’s a tableau that induces anxiety because the riddle doesn’t seem like it can be solved, with the perpetrator and the victim both lost to time immemorial–or so it seems until the monster is born again when a group of little humans, completely unprepared for the horrors that exist beyond the fragile atmosphere of their world, stumble into the killing fields of an implacable star beast they cannot comprehend or reason with. Until Prometheus came along, there was no reason to believe that the Space Jockey had anything to do with the creation of the xenomorph; instead, he seemed to represent a previous incarnation of the cycle of violence, another innocent stargazer who happened upon a living nightmare in an earlier time and succumbed to it, its titanic stature further cementing just how fucked Ripley and her comrades are.”

2. Blade Runner 2049: I love the original Blade Runner, despite all of what the modern audience might consider faults, both inaccurately (i.e., introspective pacing) and accurately (i.e., the fact that Deckard is a straight up sexual assailant). When the sequel was announced, my reaction was more “Whyyyyyy? And why now?” than excitement; over time, though, as Denis Villeneuve was announced as director and more news came out, I came around on the idea of a Blade Runner sequel, even building up a modicum of excitement for it. But for all of this film’s beautiful vistas, stunning colors, and strong acting, I was left completely cold by it. Maybe it’s the largely unfocused nature of its narrative, or the fact that I find the idea of considering Rachael and Deckard to be endgame to be gross, or that I could live the rest of my life without another “born to be the chosen one” narrative. I’ve never seen a prettier film that left me feeling so empty.

3. I really wanted to like XX. I really, really wanted to. While the overall quality averaged much higher than other recent anthology horror films like Holidays or The ABCs of Death, it had neither the highs nor lows that made those films so memorable. Considering Holidays in particular, XX never plumbs the depths of bad storytelling and stupidity like the former film does in shorts like Halloween, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, but neither does a single frame of it have the same staying power as the images in Mother’s Day, Easter, or especially St. Patrick’s Day. While XX’s The Box is a small, personal story that haunts you, it’s impossible to say that it’s not at least a little narratively unsatisfying. The short Her Only Living Son can take credit for giving me a really strange dream while under the influence of painkillers after my arm surgery last summer (the plot of which was basically the same as that of the short, but also starred Tyne Daly as a desert mystic and leader), but while its creep factor is decent, it was still underwhelming. Most disappointing is the short Don’t Fall, as it contains not a single frame of film you haven’t seen before, and doesn’t do anything really inventive with its bare-bones premise.

4. Justice League: It’s big, loud, inexplicably cheap looking, and completely absurd! I may have given this a relatively decent star rating (with the Camp Stamp, of course), but no way does it belong anywhere on the list of best films of the year. You can read my review here. Here’s an excerpt: “I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. When you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof. […] The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general.”

Honorable Mentions:

1. I was a big fan of Train to Busan. It technically didn’t get a release in the US until 2017, so in some ways, it could fit on this list, but it would be a bit of a cheat since it was produced and released in 2016. Starring a literal train’s worth of very attractive folks to fit everyone’s type, the film is a pretty great watch. Here’s an excerpt from my review: “Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces (although there’s no unsettling discussion about repopulating the earth by force here as there is in Days), and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable (serving as her father’s conscience) are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films). It’s worth checking out at the earliest opportunity.”

2. Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 comes blazing right out of the gates and barely lets you catch your breath. I missed the first John Wick when it came out because I couldn’t be bothered, frankly. No one expected the movie to be such a fantastic return to form both for Keanu Reeves and the action genre as a whole. Fifteen years ago, no one could have predicted that the shaky-cam aesthetic that The Bourne Identity introduced to the world and which made that film feel so fresh would eventually become the de facto shorthand for “This is action!” Since then, that style has been beaten into the ground, buried, resurrected, and beaten again, and the first film brought us back to the good old days of yore, with extensively choreographed action sequences and beautifully balanced camera movement that never distracts or tries to hide any flaws (of which there are none). This second film builds on the first’s strange but rewarding decision to create an underworld society of high class assassins, enlarging the scope of this world and taking it international. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially as a double feature with the original.

3. I can’t in good conscience say that this was one of the best films of the year, but I will say that the first ten minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (and just the first ten minutes) makes for a perfectly composed short film about an idealized human future in space. The rest of the film doesn’t live up to those expectations, unfortunately. You can read my review here, and here’s an excerpt: “The effects in Valerian are so effective at rendering a beautiful world that you can’t help but get lost in it. It’s so engrossing that, when a supposedly emotional moment is happening between Laureline and Valerian near the end of the film, you forget to pay attention to the plot, such as it is. Combine that with some heavy-handed (and questionable) use of the Noble Savage trope, a dramatic “reveal” of the film’s villain that is anything but, and a notable lack of chemistry every time DeHaan and DeLevigne are on screen together, and you’ve got a beautifully imagined world captured in a fairly lackluster film.”

And now… Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2017

15. Nothing pleased me more this year than when Brandon sent me a screenshot of a tweet from one of his podcaster friends complimenting my review of Killing of a Sacred Deer. You can read my review here; here’s an excerpt: “The emotional distance evident in dialogue is a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.”

14. No one is more surprised than I am that an X-Film about my least favorite popular mutant was not only a great movie, but actually a favorite for the year. Logan the comic book character is, as I described him in my review, a straight white male power fantasy for people with aggressive tendencies. Logan the film, on the other hand, is a somber meditation on age, obsolescence, loss, and death. This is a neo-western in a dystopian, dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. It’s perhaps the starkest look into our likeliest future that came out all year, and demands to be seen for that reason if no other.

13. I will let my opening lines for my review of Kingsman: The Golden Circle speak for themselves: “I approached this sequel with a fair amount of trepidation. The first Kingsman was an anomaly in that it seemed to fly under most people’s radar (it was in its third week when I saw it, on a Thursday afternoon, and there was not another soul in the entire theater) but was successful enough via word of mouth (after all, there is a sequel now) that it became a bit of a cult film almost instantaneously. The press for the film has been overwhelmingly negative, and I had reservations about seeing how far a follow-up to one of my favorite films of 2015 could possibly stray into territory that garnered such negative feelings. And frankly, I just don’t get it. This movie is awesome.”

12. I recently finished Haruki Murakami’s infamously long novel 1Q84 after letting it sit on my shelf for nearly five years; I simply never felt ready to tackle its 1157 page girth. That’s about 20 pages more than most editions of Stephen King’s novel of IT, but never during the reading of Murakami’s work did it ever feel like the book was desperately in need of an editor, as I did when reading IT, even as a teenager. Even if you’ve never read it, you were undoubtedly assaulted last year by dozens of thinkpieces about the film and the novel on which it was based (and every single one of them seemed to think they were the first one to be reporting the hot scoop about the book’s creepy sex scene, even though Cracked was all over that more than a year ago). If you managed to somehow dodge all of those slings and arrows, then you should know that IT is a lengthy screed about friendship and the loss of innocence (and other things) upon the road to maturity, and also that I’ve never in my life read anything that could compete with the book for “Product Most Obviously Created by a Coked-Up Lunatic.” It’s not King’s best work (for my money, that’s The Dead Zone), but last year’s adaptation finds the kernel of perfection in that work and brings it to life, and I couldn’t recommend it more. Read Brandon’s review here.

11. When people have asked me about my 2.5 star review of mother!, the question that I get most often is if I really thought it was that bad. After all, it’s certainly a much more technically proficient film than a lot of things that I’ve given higher reviews. And there’s no mistaking that this is a sumptuous movie with intriguing visuals, haunting imagery, strong performances, an excellent cinematic eye, and an amazing cast. Even as I was writing my piece on it, I knew that I was going to be giving the film a negative rating but also that it would be on my list of 2017’s best films; this is a movie about which it’s impossible to be apathetic but completely acceptable to feel ambivalence, the perfect execution of an utterly flawed concept, and the most highly budgeted student film of all time, with all the heavy philosophical implications and themes that are so important to sophomores who just smoked weed for the first time after school with their tree-hugger friend. Those are all backhanded compliments, but they’re also completely sincere. Normally, you could call something like this a “pretentious pile of shit,” but it’s not; it’s a pretentious pile of razorblades masquerading as… diamonds? I hate it, but I also love it.

10. The Netflix original flick Clinical is one of my favorites for the year. As I wrote in my review: “Response to this film has been overwhelmingly negative, which is both disappointing and a demonstration of just what a negative and profound impact the past decade of ‘jump scare’ horror has had on western film consciousness and casual criticism. It’s not a good sign that every armchair critic is complaining about how ‘slow’ and ‘dull’ this throwback gem is, or bragging about how early they caught on to the ‘twist.’” Brandon tells me that my review of the film is currently its highest rating on Letterbox, and I couldn’t be prouder. It also prompted me to send him my impression of the kind of person I assume wrote such negative reviews, which I’ll reproduce here for posterity: “Hi, my name’s Chet and my favorite horror movies are Insidious, Insidious 2, and the last 8 years of Obummer lol jk but not really. My favorite movie is Boondock Saints (seen it 50 times!!!). I wish I could give Clinical ZERO stars because it’s soooo boring af!1!! The only hot chick in the movie is covered in blood the whole time and there are no jump scares or tits. Avoid this movie!”

9. I first saw this film on a date (yay!) with someone who later ghosted (boo!), but as with Winter Soldier, any movie that accompanies a personal tale of woe but upon which I can look back with fondness has a special place of reverence. That’s the case for Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. At the time I went to see this sequel, I hadn’t seen the first film, although my date had (albeit without subtitles). There was a valiant attempt to explain the backstory, but this one holds up enough on its own that I don’t think an understanding of the first film is strictly necessary. The movie is a completely new story set in a magical fantasy India of the past, although when I first saw the film I was under the impression that it was an epic film adaptation of a classic Indian myth, like a Tollywood The Ten Commandments, although I was later disabused of this notion. The story follows the journey of Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas), the nephew and foster son of the Queen Mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) and heir apparent of the real ancient city Mahishmati, much to the dismay of her trueborn son Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati) and his wicked, conniving father Bijjaladeva (Nassar). Although he possesses superhuman strength, Baahubali is sent to wander the kingdoms in order to better learn to be a great leader, accompanied by Kattappa (Sathyaraj), a slave and leader of the Kingsguard; Baahubali chooses to pretend to be a simpleton in order to see how the people of various areas treat those who are “lowest” in society. While on this journey, he meets and falls in love with Princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty), but his evil uncle manipulates things back home so that she is betrothed to his cousin instead, resulting in a schism between Baahubali and the Queen Mother when he returns and leading to tragedy. Imagine a colorful, fanciful, and a little bit over-the-top amalgamation of King Arthur, Moses, and Hercules, but originating in the culture of the subcontinent instead of the western or Judaic traditions, and you’ve got the right idea. Both the original film and this sequel are currently available on Netflix (in three different languages!), so if you’ve got 5 (or just 2.5) hours to spare, check out this modern epic. Also, as we enter 2018, make it your resolution to have some decency and don’t ghost people; that’s just rude.

8. It wouldn’t really be fair to the rest of the films on this list to break the MCU’s output this year into separate segments, as that could end up pushing out a pretty worthy competitor. The year started strong with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which followed up on the threads left by the previous film while also being the most successful MCU follow-up since Winter Soldier. Further, it features an improvement over much of the franchise’s output by creating a film that is motivated entirely by character development, rather than having a plot that relies on setpieces, action sequences, and character familiarity to produce audience investment: Peter and Rocket, Gamora and Nebula, Peter and Ego, Peter and Yondu, Rocket and Groot, even Mantis and Drax. Spider-Man: Homecoming followed up on this ably, with a plot that showed us the motivations of villain and hero alike and went in depth to show how a world really would be altered by the consequences of the kinds of earth-shattering events we’ve seen in previous films. It didn’t hurt that it was charming and hilarious, either, or that every actor was charismatic as all hell (except for Downey, who I never really like, although he was used perfectly here). Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok closed out the year on another light-hearted, fun note. Check out my reviews of each of these movies for more information, and be on the lookout for our continuation of the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. now that we’ve built up enough of a backlog for it to be fun to proceed again.

7. I wrote my review for The Shape of Water less than a week before submitting this list, so all of my ideas on the film are already on paper and too recent for me to have any additional insights, other than to say that I loved this movie and I don’t care who knows it. So, allow me to present this excerpt in lieu of a new blurb: “Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.”

6. In his review of I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Brandon referenced Falling Down, a film about an unhinged person who goes on a spree following a traumatic event and triggered by the kind of acts of aggression that most of us see but ignore in our everyday life (with a few exceptions). When I saw I Don’t Feel at Home, I felt it was more of a spiritual successor to Bobcat Goldthwaite’s 2011 opus God Bless America, in which an unassuming insurance salaryman learns he has a brain tumor and spends the rest of the film tracking down and doling out justice to those individuals he believes are responsible for the ills of society. His is a sporadic cross-country trek that involves the destruction of Super Sweet 16 brats, reality TV judges who destroy people on national television, and the occasional real monster. Our heroine in I Don’t Feel at Home isn’t on quite that level, and her pursuit–not of justice but of an apology–is much more reasonably presented and linear, and thus favorably compares to Goldthwaite’s picture. There’s the same vacillation between grave-dark humor and truly grotesque outbursts of violence that Bless has, but there’s also more heart and more subversiveness. I also love that Elijah Wood is essentially playing a gender flipped Manic Pixie Dream Girl in this movie, with his bizarre fashion sense, eccentric behavior, and lack of any apparent life outside of assisting the protagonist in reaching his, or in this case her, potential. It’s refreshing but also highlights how real people would consider such a person to be, as he says he has been accused of being, “obnoxious.”

5. In her review of Wonder Woman, Alli wrote “I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me.” That’s reflected in the film’s 3.5 star rating, which will haunt me to my grave. If there’s one superhero movie that came out in 2017 that belongs in the Swampflix canon, Wonder Woman is it. Not only is it visually stunning, hilarious, exciting, empowering, and overall just a hell of a lot of fun, it actually manages to bring the overall average of DC’s output up by several points. I loved this movie. I loved, loved, loved it. It was everything I wanted and more. As I noted in my Justice League review, when I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s, and it’s for that reason that I’ve been so disappointed by DC’s attempts to ape the success of the House of Ideas, not out of any loyalty to Marvel. In fact, when I was a kid, my favorite character was Batman. I never wanted to be Batman, though, I wanted to be Wonder Woman, because she was the coolest. With her lasso, jet, magical creation (I’m not about these retcons that she wasn’t made from clay), royal heritage, tiara, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and her personality as the living embodiment of compassion, truth, and justice, she was an amazing model of citizenship and a role model that one could aspire to be. Gal Gadot is perfection in this role, and she perfectly encapsulates all the traits of Diana, Princess of Themyscira, that made my childhood heart soar. Every actor in this film is perfectly cast, and I have never been happier to see an actress have a career renaissance than I am every time I see Robin Wright on screen. In almost any other year, this would be my number one movie, despite the fact that the ending does peter out a bit (the climactic finale gets a little first-draft nonsensical, but that hardly drags it down).

4. Every single trailer for Lady Bird made it look like exactly the kind of cloying, overly sentimental coming of age piece that I could live the rest of my life without ever seeing again. When we saw the preview as part of the coming attractions at our screening of Killing of a Sacred Deer, my roommate and I turned to each other in unison and made the “finger at the throat means puke” gesture, and made a rude noise or four. I wouldn’t have even given the movie a chance except that a friend I don’t get to see enough desperately wanted to go, so I joined him. Never let it be said that I cannot admit when I’m wrong: this movie was beautiful. I cried three times, big beautiful tears rolling down my face. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic, but the real MVP here is Laurie Metcalf, who’s been hiding out of sight for too long. Every performance is pitch perfect, and Greta Gerwig captures the honesty and earnestness of youthful dreams and the anxieties of class distinction (and how that distinction affects families at every level, and how class reverberates through a person’s whole life regardless of talent, brilliance, or desire). I want to wrap myself inside of this movie like a warm blanket for days on end. The cynic in me is sick to the point of near death when it comes to narratives about people who want to move to New York; I honestly feel that people whose sole desire in life is to move to The City are shallow people with unimaginative dreams. Sure, every one of us has had that desire at some point in their life, but even a deeply entrenched cinephile like me who can’t have a single conversation that doesn’t involve pop culture knows better than to let television and movies make my choices for me, and I’m not an idiot so I’m deeply conscious of the fact that the “New York” that everyone dreams of moving to hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole place. But in this movie, as the shallow dream of a deeply real, flawed teenage girl who doesn’t understand just how good she has it, it works for me, against all odds. No one needs to be told that this is one of the best movies of 2017, as it’s been all over the place, but if you’re feeling contrary like I was, listen to a coal-hearted Grinch like me: it’s worth it. (You can also read Brandon’s review here.)

3. Lady Bird wasn’t the only major feature to star Lois Smith last year. Smith is also featured as the title character in Marjorie Prime, a deeply introspective and meditative film about the nature of grief, memory, loss, and family. I can’t recommend it more highly without going too deep into the film and revealing more than I should, so I suggest reading my review for a clearer picture of whether or not this film will touch you as it touched me. Perhaps it’s that my grandmother, who passed away last Christmas, was very much like Marjorie in her own last days, but there’s a verisimilitude to this story that transcends personal experience as much as it is informed by it.  “As Tess (Geena Davis) points out, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.”

2. I’ll try not to repeat what I already wrote in my review of Raw (original French title Grave). I recently rewatched the film with a different group of friends following its release on home video, and loved it even more the second time around. We ordered a pizza, and I asked if they were still down to watch Raw even though we were eating. Friend 1: “Wait, is the movie gross?” Me: “I think that we’ll be finished eating before it gets gross.” And boy, does it! Friend 2 had to turn away from the screen during a certain scene (at the risk of giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, it’s the scene with Alex’s finger), which was also the point in the film that infamously prompted audience members at Cannes to flee, vomit, or faint, all of which are completely reasonable reactions. Roommate of Boomer was delighted, however; he had also seen the trailer for Raw at the Alamo Drafthouse many times and assumed it was going to be a basic horror movie with delusions of grandeur, and was pleasantly surprised to find that, although there are horror elements at play, the primary genre the movie fits into is that of dark (dark, dark) comedy. Raw is gross, but it’s also hilarious, and surprisingly endearing and sweet at certain moments. It’s also now streaming on Netflix, so check it out while you can (and if you think your stomach can handle it).

1. What else is there to say about Get Out that hasn’t already been said? What tiny pieces of information could I pick up, turn over, and inspect for a deeper meaning that haven’t already been inspected to the point of total knowledge by various other critics, people talking about their lived experience, the black twittersphere and blogospheres, and every other person under the sun? This is the best movie of 2017. There’s not much more to say about it that you haven’t read elsewhere and from a better writer than I am. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Let it flow through you and inform you about the daily experiences of people of color in our country. Let it teach you a lesson about the power of cell phone video as a liberator, and about the frequent hypocrisy of white liberalism. Let it be the light for you in dark (and sunken) places. Let its truth live in you and affect your daily life, teaching you to recognize the toxicity within yourself. Live it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the third Marvel release of the year that focused on fun and adventure, and all for the best. After last year’s kinda-dreary Civil War and the visually arresting but narratively empty Doctor Strange, the film branch of the House of Ideas was in top form this year, churning out an equal sequel with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although Guardians 2 may have leaned a little hard on the beats with its humor (kind of like your friend who tells great jokes but is also a little desperate and always ends up laughing too hard at himself) and Homecoming was an out-and-out comedy with intermittent superheroing, Marvel brought it home with a good balance of strong character moments, spaceships flying around and pewpewing at each other, new and returning cast members with great chemistry, and a hearty helping of the magic that is Jeff Goldblum.

After visiting the fire realm ruled by Suftur (voiced by Clancy Brown), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after a few years galavanting about and looking for the Infinity McGuffins, only to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ineffectually ruling Asgard while propping up the myth of the “dead” “hero” following Loki’s supposed sacrifice at the end of The Dark World. Thor enlists Loki in helping him seek out the real Odin on Midgard (Earth), but events conspire to release the long-imprisoned (and forgotten) Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

Her return to Asgard to take the throne leaves Thor and Loki stuck on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster (Goldblum), who offers the space- and time-lost denizens of the planet their proverbial bread and literal circuses in the form of massive gladatorial games. As it turns out, this is where our old buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ended up after his exit at the end of Age of Ultron, and he’s the champion of the arena after having stayed in his big green form since we last saw him on screen. Also present is Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian Valkyrie who likewise found herself on this bizarre planet after being defeated by Hela before her imprisonment. Meanwhile, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is hard at work putting together a resistance and biding his time until Thor and company can return to Asgard, stop Hela and her new lieutenant Skurge (Karl Urban), and prevent Ragnarok.

Despite apparently being no one’s favorite Avenger and being overshadowed in virtually every installment by inexplicable (to me) fan favorite Loki, Thor has experienced a lot of growth in the past six years since he was first embodied by Hemsworth, and so have his films. The Dark World was, in many ways, the nadir of the MCU franchise as a whole (until Doctor Strange came along), where it felt like everyone was just going through the motions after having a lot more fun with the surprisingly pleasant balance between the fish-out-of-water humor and royal family drama of the first film. I quite like Natalie Portman, personally, and I would have loved to see her continuing to have a role in these films, but she was sleepwalking through that last film with so much apathy that she made Felicity Jones look like an actress.

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.

There are some mitigating factors, as there always are. Those of you hoping for a Planet Hulk adaptation are going to be mightily disappointed, although you should definitely check out Marvel’s direct-to-video animated version, which is not only the only unequivocally good animated film Marvel produced before ceding that realm to DC, but also has a starring role for my boy Beta Ray Bill, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of the faces carved into the Grandmaster’s tower. There are also some character deaths earlier in the film that I think are supposed to be shocking in a meaningful way, but come on so suddenly and have so little effect on the plot that it feels kind of tasteless. I would have loved to see more of Sakaar’s arenas as well; it’s hard not to feel cheated when a movie promises some gladiatorial combat and ends up giving you only one match-up.

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I’ll say this for now: this is a fun summertime Thor movie that somehow ended up being released in November, but it’s nonetheless a delight. Check it out while it’s still in theaters, as you should never pass up the opportunity to see a live action depiction of that ol’ Kirby crackle on the big screen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Thor 2 – The Dark World (2013)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: It seems silly now to think that the ongoing existence of the Thor franchise was not a given. Prior to the first film’s release, Kevin Feige announced that there would be a second Thor following the release of The Avengers, but Kenneth Branagh wasn’t so sure. In fact, his response to the news seems almost pessimistic, as he stated that he felt the audience would have to decide. At the time, there was gossip that this was a response to what must have been seen more and more by the individual directors as executive influence. Although our culture has a tendency to think of studio influence as an inherently negative contributor to a film’s overall quality (probably because its impact is negative in most cases), but there are examples of this kind of oversight working. Two prominent examples in this same genre are Star Wars and Star Trek: The Next Generation: in both cases, once the creator had full creative control the content took a nosedive, and the material itself vastly improved when the property was returned to more corporate oversight. Although this would later (famously) be the reason that Edgar Wright would leave the Ant-Man project, Branagh’s stated reasons for leaving Thor 2 were that he was hesitant to get straight back into production so shortly after the first film was completed, given the long lead times that effects-heavy films like the Marvel spectacles have.

Branagh’s successor was originally slated to be Brian Kirk, and the film would have been his feature debut after working as a frequent director on Game of Thrones. He entered negotiations for the project in August 2011, but ultimately backed out, citing contractual issues. Patty Jenkins, who had previously directed the biopic Monster and who is slated to direct the upcoming Wonder Woman, was brought on to direct, although she too left the project in December of 2011; this time, the cited reasons were creative differences. Ultimately, Alan Taylor, who had also previously worked on Game of Thrones as well as Mad Men, was brought on to helm the picture. Don Payne, who had a hand in the script for the first film, was brought in to draft the script. Payne lost his battle with bone cancer in March of 2013, and it can be assumed that he may not have been able to contribute in the creative process after his initial script treatment. Whether or not his declining health took him off the project, Robert Rodat was brought on to give it another pass. Rodat was most well known at the time for his scripts for Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and there’s a darker text to this film than the first that can be attributed to his influence.

On the casting side, Mads Mikkelsen was in talks to portray a villain in the film (presumably Malekith) but was was offered Hannibal and took that opportunity instead. The role of the Malekith ultimately went to Christopher Eccleston, a British actor known for his portrayal of the Ninth Doctor in the Doctor Who franchise and who is currently starring in HBO’s series The Leftovers. All major cast members were set to return, as well as virtually all of the minor characters. One of Thor’s buddies, Fendral, was recast; ironically, Zachary Levi was set to play him in the first film but had to back out due to commitment to Chuck, but he replaced Joshua Dallas in the role when the latter was pulled away by his obligations to Once Upon A Time. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was cast as Algrim, an elf supersoldier (yeah) who takes on the name “Kursed.”

For those of you who saw the movie once and then kind of forgot about it while waiting for the next Marvel movie, the plot is this: Once upon a time, Thor (Chris Hemsworth)’s grandfather Bor took a magical liquid McGuffin known as the Aether from the leader of a race of “dark elves.” These elves existed before there was light in the universe and who, as a result, hate lightness, goodness, and pretty much life itself. In the present day, an interdimensional alignment is occurring where all the different “realms” that Thor talked about in the first film will line up and physics will be a little wonky. Luckily for him, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is on the scene investigating these strange phenomena. The alignment allows her to get lost inside another realm, where she stumbles upon Bor’s hiding place for the Aether, and she becomes infected by it. The plot contrives to trap Thor in Asgard, so he must enlist the help of Loki (Tom Hiddeston) to cross over to Earth and save the day from the villain who keeps trying to kidnap his girlfriend so she can help him destroy the universe itself.

Brandon, what did you think?

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three star

Brandon: There seems to have been a monumental shift in the Thor franchise here. If you boil the series down to its most basic parts there’s exactly two contrasting realms where the narrative operates (although its internal folklore is heavily tied to their being nine realms, the rest of which are mostly relegated for brief visits): Earth (or some kind of variation of Earth that has seen modern contact with gods, aliens, and supermen) & Asgard, some kind of golden city of the gods that rests somewhere across the dimensions & can only be reached by a rainbow bridge. The first Thor film staged a familial, Shakespearean drama on the mighty purty Asgard, (which was a perfect fit for director Kenneth Branagh’s background), but for the most part it was a fish out of water comedy set on Earth. Although an near-immortal god, Thor was buffoonish in his attempts to adapt to Earth life & spent most of his MCU debut acting like a profoundly handsome & powerful Mr. Bean. Thor 2 takes a wildly different approach to its superheroics, borrowing a little Chris Nolan gloom to dampen down the good mood (right down to the wormhole fascination & the emphasis on the “Dark” aspect of its title). One of the things I enjoyed most about the first Thor film was that it lightened the mood of the MCU in a sincerely wholesome way. It felt like the start of what many people consider Marvel Studios’ “house style”. The Dark World ditches that bright outlook for a much gloomier aesthetic, but I ended up enjoying the film well enough anyway. After seven un-Nolan superhero movies the MCU can easily afford to go angsty for a single picture.

Completely ditching the fish out of water comedy of the original Thor film, The Dark World instead delves deeper into the distant world of Asgard. There are some comedic elements to the film (mostly in Kat Dennings’ strait -out-a-CBS-sitcom comic relief goof Darcy), but the plot is for the most part dead serious. A lot of the same Asgardian concerns about who will take the throne when it’s left vacant by an aging Odin (played again by an even-more-game-than-last -time Anthony Hopkins) & who exactly The Gatekeeper of Asgard (an equally more-engaged Idris Elba) is faithful to play out exactly like they did in the previous film, just with enough time & attention to take the main focus. Thor is still gleefully oblivious of his obligations to the throne. Loki is still an evil, manipulative weasel who teases playing nice before he pulls the rug form under his gullible brother. Aliens from other realms are still trying to cut deals with Loki to take over the Universe. All is right in the world(s). Instead of dragging Thor back to Earth to make more of a fool of himself, it’s Natalie Portman’s scientist hottie Jane’s turn to make a fool of herself on his world. While investigating a “gravitational anomaly” (the aforementioned wormholes) Jane is infected with something called The Ether, which is essentially purely-concentrated space evil. This is no run of the mill space evil, either. It’s an “ancient force of infinite deconstruction” that turns matter into dark matter or some such hooey. Some alien baddies seek to reclaim & harness the space evil & there you have the basic makings of a ludicrously overstuffed Marvel Studios movie plot.

By far the best aspect of The Dark World is the film’s visual treats. If I weren’t watching the film for the purpose of this review it’d be the exact kind of thing I’d zone out for just to drool over the imagery in isolation. It’s the exact way I interact with (don’t shoot!) the Lord of the Rings franchise. I’ve seen Jackson’s adaptations countless times, but can name you only a few of the characters’ names without Google’s help & know very little of the plot outside the endless walking & the quest to destroy The Ring. I treated The Dark World much of the same way. It’s a feast for the eyes, a gloomy trudge through so many alien bests, war ships, and swirling storm clouds that any given farm outside of the Earth scenes could easily pas as a heavy metal album cover. I didn’t evoke that Lord of the Rings comparison lightly, either. As soon as the film opens with Hopkins intoning the Epic Tale of the Dark Elves & warning of the One Ether to Rule Them All, Jackson’s work was already at the forefront of my mind. I was prepared to space out & maybe confirm some plot details on Wikipedia after the end credits. Honestly, that’ s probably something I should still work on. The details are a little fuzzy, but I really enjoyed what I saw.

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twohalfstar

Boomer: I forgot about everything that happened in this movie pretty much the moment I walked out of the theatre in 2013. I remember enjoying it as a pleasant diversion, but it’s apparent that this movie is spinning its wheels. The number of different directors who were at one point attached to the property makes one feel that there is a lot of welding between different ideas for the film, and not all the of the connections work. There’s also the fact that there are parts of this film that feel like the first Thor in tone but are out of place in this darker overall film. It also feels like there was a lot cut out of the movie, especially with regards to the motivations of the villains. Loki’s motives are the same as they always are, and his arc (such as it is) feels largely like a retread of everything we’ve already seen. They even have him reprise his “you must be truly desperate…” line from The Avengers, which feels less like an echo and more like a cynical cut-and-paste from one script to the next. Eccleston is particularly underutilized, as he has virtually no distinguishing features that separate him from all of the other generic genocidal dictators that make their home in this genre. The man is probably the best actor to portray a villain in this franchise since Jeff Bridges, and he’s utterly wasted in a role that a mannequin could play.

The tone is too dissimilar from the first film as well. Thor took place almost entirely in New Mexico and Asgard (give or take a couple of field trips to Jotunheim), and the bright sun of the former and the boisterous lighting of the latter gave that film a warm quality, and the gray overcast skies of the British Isles are a stark contrast. That dissonance characterizes The Dark World from its predecessor, and the tonal shifts within the film itself, along with the handing off of writing duties from Payne to Rotan, leads me to infer a few things. There may have been a hesitation to throw out too much of a dying man’s work, but Rotan’s tendency toward darker storytelling highlights the scenes that retain Payne’s lighter take from the first film and makes them stand out even more. There’s an argument to be made that, should you find yourself watching A.I., you can see the moment when Kubrick died and Spielberg took over to complete the film, because their individual visions conflict with more than complement each other. There’s an element of that here, where you can see Rotan take over from Payne, and the end result is a bit of a mish-mash of ideas.

The women in Thor’s life take it the worst this time around. Although Jane’s scientific knowledge comes through at the end of the film to save the day, she spends most of the movie in near catatonia, saying few lines and having to be protected constantly. The MCU has largely avoided the damsel-in-distress routine that seemed to be the standard in comic book film (give or take your Pfeiffer Catwoman) up to this point, but this is an all but a textbook example. Rene Russo’s Frigga has the best scene in the film (when she protects Jane from the invading elves), and her funeral is the closest the film comes to having a tone that works both as an amalgam of Payne and Rotan’s approaches and to a compelling feeling overall, but it’s not enough. Kat Dennings gets more to do this time out and, although I find her screen presence enjoyable, it didn’t do more to expand our understanding of Darcy, instead simply repeating character beats from the last time we saw her. In no other film is it more apparent that the MCU is killing time. Kevin Feige likely made a mistake by committing the film to a 2013 release date before locking in a creative team, because the final product feels somehow both rushed and overproduced. I think the upcoming third Thor film, Ragnarok, will be a step up, but only time will tell.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It wasn’t entirely intentional, but I’ve mostly relegated my thoughts on the MCU’s post-credits stingers to these “Lagniappe” segments so that they’ve become sort of a meta post-review stinger in a weird way. So, I guess I should touch on the two that occur here. One is a teaser for the (then) upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie that worked perfectly well by accomplishing two succinct missions: introducing Benicio del Toro’s weirdo “collector” character & relegating talk of the Infinity Stones MacGuffin to the credits, both of which were fine by me. Even more innocuous was a second stinger that served as one last romantic beat for the Me Thor You Jane relationship, which, again, was fine. I’m usually a lot more likely to be annoyed when the stingers are the sole tie to other properties in the MCU through a quick two-line cameo. That quick cameo actually occurs much earlier in The Dark World in a scene where Loki mocks the ultra-wholesome (and all-around best Avenger) Captain America in a one-off goof. I don’t know if it’s just that I like Cap so much or what, but that gag was actually quite amusing for me. It was at least funny to watch Chris Evans mime Loki’s sardonic version of himself.

Speaking of Loki, The Dark World really turned me around on that little scamp. I wasn’t particularly invested in his character as anything more than a pissant weasel before, but things took a much more interesting turn here: he reveals himself to be hurt & emotionally vulnerable in a way that never felt quite as convincing before. This turn toward the occasionally sympathetic makes his acerbic brutality all the more interesting when he inevitably changes his mind & commits himself to evil. Not that his Kylo Ren emo tantrums weren’t still amusing. I got a particularly good giggle out of the exchange where Thor confesses “I wish I could trust you” & Loki responds “Trust my rage.” That’s some high quality angst right there.

Boomer: Now that we’ve had Chris Eccleston play a villain in this film and David Tennant as Kilgrave on Jessica Jones, I guess it’s only a matter of time before we see Matt Smith in this franchise. Also, it’s such a bummer that they killed off Frigga in this film, but I am hopeful that they may find a way to bring her back for Ragnarok. A trip to the afterlife isn’t entirely out of the question for this franchise, right?

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Thor 2 – The Dark World (2013)

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three star

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Avengers (2012)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The Avengers was always one of Kevin Feige’s goals. Audacious and ambitious, when Feige started conceptualizing the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe his intention was to create a crossover film that united characters originally featured in individual films, mirroring the character/team dichotomy that permeates superhero comics. As such, a great deal of the history of the Avengers film project is really the history of the MCU up to this point, which has been discussed in our previous posts.

Casting for the film began in 2010, with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye being cast far enough in advance that Kenneth Branagh was able to insert an early cameo from him into Thor in 2011. Marvel’s official story is that they “declined” to have Ed Norton return as Bruce Banner, whereas Norton has claimed that he never intended to return to the role after the 2008 The Hulk flick, as he “wanted more diversity” in his career. His role was recast with Mark Ruffalo. The only other major addition to the ensemble was Cobie Smulders, who was cast in the role of Maria Hill. Hill is well-known to comic book fans as the sometime director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she was a key player in Marvel’s then-recent Secret Invasion storyline. As a result, her casing fueled fan theory that her casting was an indication that the metamorphic Skrulls would be the primary antagonists in the film, especially when the Chitauri (who essentially stand in for the Skrulls under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint) were announced as well; ultimately, these theories were proven incorrect. Other than the six Avengers themselves, the film also featured the return of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Paul Bettany’s Jarvis from the Iron Man flicks and Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from Thor. Clark Gregg also reprised his role as Agent Coulson, and Samuel L. Jackson is featured as Director Nick Fury.

Early story work was completed by Zak Penn, who also contributed to the story for the excellent X2 and co-wrote the screenplay for the abysmal X3; the script was rewritten by Joss Whedon when he was brought on board to direct. There’s no need to explain who Whedon is, right? There are probably sea mollusks out there that are sick of hearing about the Cancellation of Firefly like it was an actual battle that was lost. Still, Whedon’s experience as a director as well as a purveyor of superhero yarns (his run on Astonishing X-Men was particularly good, although I didn’t care for his work on Runaways) made him the perfect fit for bringing the Avengers to celluloid life. Composer Alan Silvestri so impressed Marvel Studios with his composition for Captain America that he was brought back to score this film as well.

But enough about the seeds of the franchise. Brandon, what did you think?

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threehalfstar
Brandon: Finally, an MCU film I’ve actually seen before! When I went to the theater to see The Avengers in 2012 I was aware of its individual characters’ basic attributes, but a little lost as to what exactly was happening in the film plot-wise until about halfway into its massive runtime. The funny thing is that now that I’ve watched all five standalone films that have lead up to this crossover effort, I still found myself somewhat lost. The Avengers is the beginning of the MCU’s descent into full-blown Infinity Stone, MacGuffin-chasing nonsense. The film’s opening sequence feels like the ending of a nondescript action film that just happens to include a magic scepter and a “tesseract”. It’s a pretty clever idea to throw the film’s in-the-know audience into just as much of a confused state as those who just happened to wander into the universe for the first time, but the film’s central Infinity Stone caper is not nearly as much of a draw as the thrill of seeing six wildly varied superheroes share top billing in a single feature, so it feels a bit like wasted time. And once the film sets up its stolen tesseract conflict, it then takes way too much time to re-introduce each of the film’s disparate heroes & bring them together as a single unit. I had a lot of fun with going into an IMAX 3D screening of The Avengers completely blind of context in 2012, but returning to the film fully-informed (movie-wise, anyway) dampened my enthusiasm a good deal. It’s still a fun, crowd-pleasing action film, to be sure, but I think the effort required to get to its gang’s-all-here charm rolling reveals itself to be a little more labored on repeat viewings.

That being said, there are at least two scenes in The Avengers that rank among the best moments in superhero cinema of all time. I’m thinking, firstly, of the scene where the pissant god Loki’s evil scepter causes all six Avengers & (released from his post-credits stinger prison) Nick Fury to bicker in a slowly ratcheted moment of bitter discontent. It’s a well-played moment that sets up how a group of inflated superegos would have a near-impossible time working together as a unit. That scene functions as a set-up for the much more obvious centerpiece: the climactic battle with the alien robot army that destroys an entire metropolis. I don’t really have much to say about the film’s concluding action sequence other than it’s a grand spectacle of fist-pumping action that might be one of the single most fun to watch half hour stretches in the history of superheroes on film. I have no doubt that the reason I left the theater so satisfied in 2012 is that the spectacle of that Battle for the Fate of the Universe completely obliterated any concerns about the labor it took to get there. I was probably also less bored with the film’s individual introductions to the characters & the concept of Infinity Stones on that first go-round, since I feel now like I already put in that effort in the 10 hours of media leading up to that point. Still, I’m entirely grateful for the isolated moments of excellence that The Avengers delivers on its own time, not to mention some wonderful character beats for my favorite duo within the franchise so far (Black Widow & Captain America) and a fantastic revision of a character who simply did not work the first time around (The Hulk). I’ll just be more likely to return to those moments as isolated scenes in the future instead of watching the film as a whole, unless it’s as background noise. The Avengers is one of those movies I can see working best as something you can drift in and out of, maybe while channel surfing or housecleaning or something along those lines.

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fivestar

Boomer: It’s been three-and-a-half years (and roughly 7,283 thinkpieces of varying insight and coherence about whether or not Joss Whedon’s body of work is sufficiently feminist or hopelessly static and outdated) since a group of friends and I went to see The Avengers after a long and trying semester. There was some concern that the film would be bloated or an overall mess. While there’s certainly a case to be made that Age of Ultron would realize those concerns three summers later, I find myself drawn in by Whedon’s first MCU outing every time I watch it, despite the number of times that I have seen it. Between the whip-smart dialogue, the extended but imaginative action set-pieces, and the undeniable cool of seeing super-powered characters come together and coalesce into a united, if volatile, front, there’s so much to enjoy about the film that even the most cantankerous of critics found it hard to commit to panning the movie.

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.

As a writer, Whedon has always had a talent for drafting dialogue and characterization that is at once clever, observational, and occasionally devastating. Jeremy Renner isn’t given much to do in this first flick as he spends most of the film under the brainwashed control of Loki’s staff, but the other Avengers work well here. In particular, Tony Stark improves a great deal as a character under the direction of Whedon, as his dialogue, while still pompous, is less obnoxious in all its crackling Buffy-esque witticism than when other writers have put words in his mouth. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor gets in some good lines as well (the reference to the bilgesnipe is a favorite of mine despite its brevity, as it’s totally wacky while remaining oddly conversational), and Evans gets to show more dimensions to Cap, now a man out of time. Evans’s performance is particularly strong, but, for my money, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha is the MVP here, not that it should be any surprise that Whedon would expand her role significantly from her previous appearance in Iron Man 2.

Throughout the film, Romanoff is surrounded by men who project assumptions onto her: the Russians she is “interrogating” in her first scene see her only as an object of sexual scorn, using derogatory and charged language; Banner initially underestimates her strength and resolve; Loki spits insults at her, concluding that her investment in saving her friend is purely the result of pathetic romantic attachment. In every instance, these assumptions are false, and Black Widow uses these misogynistic and presumptive attitudes against the antagonists at every turn. Despite some well-choreographed ass-kicking in her last appearance, Natasha was still mostly played for the male gaze (potentially an inevitable consequence of appearing in an Iron Man film); here, she’s an extremely competent agent who is so skilled that she doesn’t seem out of place as a team-member alongside supersoldiers and literal gods. And, like Buffy before her, Nat is not an “strong female character” in the sense that she is an emotionless and implacable badass–she gets hurt, experiences doubt, mourns her comrades, and is forced to fight her closest friend. She doesn’t have to be coded as a male character, and it’s just grand.

Overall, The Avengers is an ambitious but well-suited capstone to the first phase of the MCU. It expands a lot from here, as Phase Two would include not only six films but two network television series (it’s not clear where Daredevil and Jessica Jones fit into the “phase” structure, if they fit in at all) over the following three years. It’s big fun that’s mostly (but not wholly) a surface-deep spectacle.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Not only did my friends and I go see this film in costume, but we caught it in 3D as well, as we had with Thor. For those so inclined, I daresay that Chris Evan’s punching bag scene towards the beginning of the film may well justify the extra dollars spent on the post-conversion.

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(image courtesy of user thecaptainrogers of rebloggy)

With regards to the larger MCU, the events of the Battle of New York will come up again and again, especially in regards to how the public and governments will respond to the team. The death of Phil Coulson is cheapened by the knowledge that his character returned a mere three months later when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted; the reason for his sudden and unexpected resurrection was one of the ongoing mysteries of that show’s lukewarm first season (arguably the weakest). My original theory at the time was that his mind would be used to create the personality imprint for Vision when that character eventually appeared in the MCU, standing in for Wonder Man, although the MCU obviously went in a different direction.

Brandon: The feeling I got while watching The Avengers‘ 2015 followup, Age of Ultron, was that the MCU was stretching itself a little thin trying to include both barely-interested newcomers & deeply invested comic book supernerds in the same audience. Now that the novelty of meeting the MCU’s characters for the first time in the first Avengers film has worn off a bit for me, I feel that strained divide might’ve begun as soon as 2012. As a compromise between pleasing both the well-informed and the completely contextless, The Avengers is a massively impressive balancing act. However, I think that these crossover films might be better served as standalone works of art if they left newcomers behind completely & just focused on serving the audience who’ve already put in the effort to get there. And I’m saying that as a recent convert who’s just barely keeping up as is.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Avengers (2012)

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fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Thor (2011)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The ironic thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it owes so much to the success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but Thor owes its placement in the MCU to the failure of that series of films, although I’m getting ahead of myself. Sam Raimi initially conceived of making a Thor film after he finished production on 1990’s Darkman, one of the best films ever made about a costumed hero even before one takes into account that it was not based on a previous intellectual property. This project never got off the ground, but after the success of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000, interest in the potential of adapting Marvel’s Thunder God was renewed, although by that time it was being considered for a series adaptation for UPN. After a few years of discussion, the project was again tabled until Kevin Feige started dreaming up the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2007, Mark Protosevich, fresh from having written the screenplay adaptation of the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, expressed interest in drafting a Thor script. That same year also saw the beginning of the definitive 21st Century arc for Thor comics in the wake of Civil War, penned by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski was already well known in nerd circles for having created Babylon 5 (and would become even more so following the publication of One More Day, the notorious Spider-Man arc in which Peter Parker makes a deal with Mephisto that costs him his marriage and unborn child). This new direction, envisioning a newly recreated Asgard hovering over farmland in the American breadbasket, featured interaction between Asgardians like Thor, Sif, and Balder and locals. You can see a definite influence from that story in this film, even if the specifics are quite different.

Ultimately, both Protosevich and Straczynski ended up with story credit on this film, with the screenplay credit going to Ashley Edward Miller & Zach Stentz alongside Don Payne (the ampersand here indicating that Stentz and Miller worked together on their version of the script). Stentz and Miller had also previously worked together on television series as varied as Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Fringe, where they created the scripts for several episodes of the second season, including the premiere. The last screenwriter, Don Payne, had a series of one-to-two episode stints on utterly forgotten sitcoms in the nineties, like Hope & Gloria, Pride & Joy, Men Behaving Badly, and something called The Brian Benben Show. His breakthrough big screen work was 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which is the antithesis of the above-cited Darkman, in that it is one of the worst films ever made about a costumed hero, even after taking into account those others which were not based on previous intellectual properties. As Payne also had the critically and popularly reviled 2007 Fantastic Four sequel on his C.V., there was much speculation about whether or not Thor would be the MCU’s first artistic and financial failure (which was later the speculative case for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man).

At the same time, over at Sony, the Spider-Man series was running out of steam. The goodwill that was built up by the first two films had been virtually obliterated by the backlash against the third when it was released in 2007. Jokes about Peter Parker’s pseudogoth makeover following his bonding with the Venom symbiote persist to this day, even after an entire reboot series in the interregnum between Tobey Maguire and the new kid set to reappear when Spidey finally shows up in the MCU. A script for a fourth film was solicited, and concept art even appeared in Wizard Magazine showing designs for the costumes of Vulture and his daughter (supposedly to have eventually been played by John Malkovich and Anne Hathaway, which seemed farfetched even then). Ultimately, however, Spider-Man 4 was cancelled following friction between Raimi and Sony, and the release date for Thor was bumped up. Kenneth Branagh, who was most well known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, including Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, was brought on as director. With such a long time in development limbo and with so many fingers in the pot creatively, there was much debate as to whether Branagh’s film would be any good.

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three star

Brandon: At this point in the MCU’s trajectory I was just desperately hoping for a movie that didn’t involve Tony Stark in any way. It’s no surprise, then, that Thor ended up being my favorite film in the franchise so far, especially since I had set the bar so underachievingly low. The silliness is cranked to deliriously enjoyable heights in this film, a nice change from the wealthy douche fantasy fulfillment of the Iron Man movies & the somber romance machinations of The Incredible Hulk. Thor is essentially a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a Norse god stranded in Modern Times America once he is banished from an Oz-looking palace on a planet where gods live for being “nothing but a little boy trying to prove himself a man.” This is a film where a one-eyed Anthony Hopkins plays a space lord in a golden Jack Kirby getup similar to Skeletor’s at the end of Golan-Globus’ Masters of the Universe. Idris Elba, also playing a golden space lord, serves as a “Gatekeeper” for a “rainbow bridge” that can transport these gods to any location in the Universe (although they often end up settling for America, because of course they would). And then there’s the copious amounts of lush, reverent shots of a magical mallet, a.k.a. Thor’s hammer. It’s all quite ridiculous.

The comedy didn’t work nearly as well in Iron Man because it was coming from a nasty, misogynistic place. The Incredible Hulk had flashes of comedy spread throughout its runtime, but they were mostly buried under an overwhelmingly grim tone. After watching the self-absorbed antics of a playboy billionaire & the pensive longing of a blood-poisoned scientist, it was thoroughly refreshinging to watch an empty-headed, naive, absurdly trusting bimbo of an ancient god bumble his way through political relations between warring planets & through the logistics of life in modern America. And because Thor is played by handsome/buff/charming actor Christ Hemsworth, there’s an absurd lean towards shirtless beefcake here that’s a nice change after two movies’ worth of Tony Stark’s grotesque womanizing. Natalie “What Is She Doing Here?” Portman is also pretty refreshing as Thor’s Earthling arm candy, which is somehow less gross than it is when Tony Stark’s endless parade of faceless hotties fill that role. It’s at the very least amusing when Portman’s smitten scientist easily gives in to her boy-toy’s explanation of the Universe’s nine realms & his own origins in a place “where science & magic are one & the same”, disregarding all skepticism that would be necessary for her to sustain a career in her field.

I’m not saying that the film is entirely successful. It’s just that it’s silly enough to pass as an entertaining trifle. Most of what gets in the way of Thor being a thoroughly winning film is director Kenneth Branagh’s over-reaching personal style. I know that it’s a common complaint that Marvel Studios doesn’t allow for enough of a personalized touch in its films & relies heavily on a “house style” (especially considering the way they homogenized the typically-recognizable work of Edgar Wright & James Gunn), but I gotta say that most visual traces of Branagh’s touch are distracting in this particular case. I suppose he was well suited for the task based on the Shakespearean nature of Thor’s home life on the magical god planet Asgard, but the melodrama is laid on fairly thick here. Far worse is the director’s perverse use of Dutch angles, tilting the camera so drastically left to right to back again that I swear it was mounted to a seesaw. The effect was downright nauseating. There were also some generic superhero movie problems afoot here presumably out of Branagh’s control. The CGI “Frost Giants” serve as pretty bland, vaguely-defined villains. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has a thoroughly unsurprising heel turn in the second act (Could anyone ever buy him as a “good guy”? Don’t answer that). There’s a pretty annoying false-death crisis (or “Disney Death” if you will) in the third act, etc.

None of these faults register as too tragic, though. For the most part Thor is a decent example of what sets the MCU apart from other post-Dark Knight superhero franchises: lighthearted humor. This a fun, dumb movie, one with irreverent gags like its alien god protagonist demanding that a strip mall pet store provide a horse or a dog/cat/bird large enough to ride & getting called a “dumbass” when he mindlessly wanders into traffic. I suppose they mostly made this tonal choice to contrast the ridiculous/large-scale power its Norse god hero holds in comparison to the blood-poisoned scientist & rich douche with a mech suit heroes in the films prior. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome glimpse into the mindless fun of films I had previously seen from this “universe” before starting this project: the two Avengers movies, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It makes me a lot more eager to continue watching how this whole thing unfolds, as opposed to how Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies were beating me down.

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fourhalfstar
Boomer: I was a little nervous about rewatching this film. It was the first MCU movie that I saw in theaters (in 3D, even, because some of my friends were a little slow to realize what a cheap and useless gimmick that is and always has been); in fact, we went to the opening night, and I still have the half-sized poster the ticket taker handed out to prove it. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had failed to make a huge impact on me even though I found them passable, but I was more hesitant to commit to a Thor movie. I had only been introduced to Thor as a character (outside of his involvement in Avengers and crossover events) as of the Straczynski run mentioned above. This was a character with a very involved backstory and so many supporting characters that I wasn’t certain how that would translate to the screen; moreover, this was a character that actually mattered to me as a reader, and I was almost certain it was bound to fail. My expectations were overturned, and I remember walking out of Thor and immediately texting several of my nerd friends in other cities about how it was one of the best comic book movies I had ever seen.

My concerns that the movie would not hold up turned out to be unfounded as well. The market saturation of the MCU and the omnipresence of superhero narratives has dulled a bit of the movie’s shine (not to mention some serious Loki fatigue brought on by the continual revisitation of that character), but it still holds up as a fun movie that manages to lend gravitas to the more outlandish and potentially cheesy ideas. Although it borrows the same tired opening structure as Iron Man—a bunch of characters in a vehicle encounter an event, and then the film flashes back to show the audience “how we got here”—the film makes this stupid in-media-res-then-[x time]-earlier thing seem fresh. In fact, considering that the film credits the story and script to a cumulative five people, the narrative is surprisingly streamlined and internally consistent, never splitting focus to the point where the audience becomes bored (as was the case with Iron Man 2).

I have to admit that I have never seen any of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, but coming from that world probably made him the person best suited to helm this film, especially considering that the title character and his entourage were always based more on Shakespearean drama than real Norse myth anyway. The Thor books always used characters from a largely dead religion with great dramatic license; one of the most noteworthy things about Marvel’s Thor is that he has blond hair, but traditional Norse Thor has a fiery red mane and beard. It’s fine that the comics (and thus the films) deviate from tradition, and it’s much more fun to accept the Elizabethan speech patterns than try to rationalize them. The plot is like someone threw a Shakespeare anthology into a blender with some Norse characters and made a smoothie that was not merely palatable but compelling: a Lear-like Odin has unwittingly instigated a rivalry between his roguish natural-born son and the Iago-esque son he adopted; he realizes that his son is not yet fit to lead, to so he banishes him to a far-off land to teach him a lesson, but falls ill before the prodigal’s return, allowing his even more ill-suited, manipulative son to take the throne.

Thor could easily come off as terribly unlikable (and some parts of the internet will defend any interpretation of the film which lends itself to positing that Thor was a bully and Loki was justified in his actions by default), but Chris Hemsworth deftly treads the line between aggression and exuberance. Ultimately, he keeps Thor sympathetic and the audience is invested in his evolution from an immature prince to knowledgeable leader with enough wisdom to know that he is not ready to be king but will be one day. Tom Hiddleston is also quite good in his role, and I really enjoyed watching his manipulations this time around. It’s hard to divorce the role from the overwhelming outpouring of Loki apologia that has haunted particular corners of Tumblr for the past five years, but he does well in keeping Loki grounded. Sure, Loki wants More! Power! just like Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, and General Ross, but this desire stems less from the lust for power itself and more from his need to demonstrate his worthiness to his father. Of course, whether or not that’s actually the case or just one more of his manipulations is never made utterly clear, which is what makes him so interesting.

As a character and in theory, Thor had the potential to be just as much of a jerkass as Tony Stark; as the potential future leader of the highest realm, he was an even greater child of privilege than Stark was (as much as Howard Stark swaggers, I sincerely doubt he ever gave Tony a “all the light touches will one day be yours” speech). The film is well served by focusing on his depowered earthbound adventures, as this allows Thor to be a newcomer who must learn the ways of the new world in which he finds himself. Instead of your typical origin story, this is a spiritual journey in which a man who believes that his way is the only way and that peace can only be achieved with subjugation becomes a man who understands the importance of self-sacrifice and the realizes that the most virtuous use of power is to show mercy. Those are hardly groundbreaking concepts, but they’re larger and more thoughtful than the topics tackled in superhero films before this point, and Thor represents a step in the right direction towards more heady ideas and more inventive plot structures for the MCU.

There’s a lot to love here, from the humor of Thor’s exploration of Midgard, the great interactions between Jane and her crew of ragtag science outsiders, Thor’s confrontations with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the early-bird introduction of Hawkeye, the incredible performance that Idris Elba brings to a largely thankless part, Anthony Hopkins’s pitch-perfect Odin, etc. In fact, the only element that rings a little false is Jane and Thor’s relationship, which moves too fast. As a narrative weakness, that’s pretty common, and may even be part of the intentional Shakespeare atmosphere, but it doesn’t irreparably harm the movie. Overall, this was the first truly good MCU flick, and proved that there was potential for Marvel projects that weren’t based on names with which mainstream audiences were already familiar.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Although I enjoyed this film more than any other entry in the MCU so far, it did backslide a bit in terms of making its inter-connected universe count for something. The exciting development in Iron Man 2 was that it finally gave non-Iron Man Marvel characters something significant to do in an Iron Man film, namely ScarJo’s Black Widow & Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury. Here, Nick Fury is again relegated to post-credits stinger status & future-Avenger Hawkeye basically just pops into acknowledge that he exists. There’s also a quick, throwaway reference to Iron Man in a climactic battle with a space robot where one of the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. asks “Is that one of Stark’s?”. Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., they’re actually given the most do here as connective tissue, acting as total Big Government dicks even though they’re essentially on the same team as the scientists they overpower. That was a nice touch. I’m still getting the sense in these early MCU films that the studio was getting too ahead of themselves in promising the next big spectacle where all of this will finally pay off (in the first Avengers film) instead of making it count for something in the moment.

It’s also throwing me off how out of date & behind the times these films feel. This is mostly detectable in Thor by taking a glance at free spirit/comic relief Darcy’s (Kat Denning’s) wardrobe. I’d swear that her awful hats & scarves where purchased sometime in the early 2000s & not in 2011 if I didn’t know any better. Similarly, Thor’s ragtag group of immortal ass-kicking buddies are amusingly out of step with what’s cool & what’s corny (although I suppose you could argue that some of that effect was intentional). At some point in its lineage the MCU became the cutting edge of superhero cinema. I’m still not seeing it yet.

Boomer: Josh Dallas’s Fandral looks really silly here. Like, really silly. Every time he appeared in a scene, it really took me out of the moment. Also, how strange is it that his daughter on Once Upon a Time is played by Jennifer Morrison, who in turn played the wife of Chris Hemsworth’s character in the Star Trek reboot? That has absolutely no bearing on this movie but felt it merited consideration. As for how Thor fits into the rest of the MCU, this film features the return of fan favorite Coulson, although S.H.I.E.L.D. is outright antagonistic for the first time in this film in a way that will be explored further down the line. This is also the first appearance of Agent Sitwell, who was a total non-entity to me the first time I saw Thor, but his appearance here is noteworthy based on what comes to light later. Also, in retrospect, I can’t believe it took four films to finally introduce a villain who would recur later in the franchise (not counting General Ross, who is set to reappear in Civil War). It’s just too bad they’ll go to the Loki well so soon and so often that this goodwill will wear out.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Thor (2011)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.