Early Man (2018)

Aardman Animations is not the first place I look to for surprise in my stop-motion animated media. The folks behind the A Town Called Panic series thrive on chaos & comedic surprise; Laika Entertainment continually surprises in the technological advancements they bring to stop-motion as an artform in every release (most recently in the jaw-dropping Kubo and the Two Strings). Aardman, for their part, are the picture of consistency. Brands like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are consistently clever & adorable, but in the exact way you’d expect from Aardman, who have been adorable & clever for decades running now. That’s why I was confident that I knew exactly what to expect form Aardman’s newest release, Early Man. Advertised as the studio’s take on caveman life & follies in the Stone Age, I expected a Wallace & Gromit-style romp flavored with anachronistic jokes about volcanoes & dinosaurs. Early Man starts exactly that way, borrowing a few gags form The Flintstones where prehistoric creatures are employed as household appliances – baby gator clothes pins, buzzing beetle electric razors, etc. After that early business of place-setting, though, the movie surprised (and delighted) me in its choice of genre, unexpectedly functioning as a . . . sports movie? I did not see that coming.

Eddie Redmayne voices our protagonist caveman (the most likable he’s been outside his weirdo, pseudo-drag performance in Jupiter Ascending), a plucky go-getter named Dug. His eternal optimism comes in handy as his small tribe of cave-dwelling rabbit hunters are pushed out of their native land by an invading, more technologically advanced society (lead by another frequently unlikable Brit, Tom Hiddleston). The clash is an absurd literalization of the Bronze Age pushing the Stone Age out of existence, but not any more absurd than the battle used to determine which tribe will maintain possession of the contested land: a soccer match. Early Man immediately details the accidental invention of soccer in its prologue, then briefly drops the subject until it gradually becomes a very faithful participation in a traditional sports movie template. The film is much closer to the irreverent sports comedy antics of Shaolin Soccer than anything resembling a sports drama (as is natural from a stop-motion animated Aardman release), but its plot is a conventional underdog story about sports novices preparing for The Big Game against the best, most arrogant team in the land, with the exact results you’d expect. That genre choice might come as a surprise to any American audiences who stumble into the picture (not many, I’m guessing; the theater where I saw it on opening weekend was near-empty); I don’t think there was a single soccer ball featured in the film’s domestic advertising.

Genre & plot are obviously among the least important facets of any Aardman release. Early Man’s cavemen dolts, with their dopey pig snouts & overbites, are adorable buffoons, especially in comparison with their Bronze Age Adonis enemies. The movie even sidesteps common problems with these traditionalist, throwback kids’ movie narratives by making sure to include a race/gender-diverse cast of characters and no extraneous romance plot. The world these prehistoric goofballs occupy is also crawling with ridiculous creatures that often steal the show: a (sorta) anthropomorphic rock, a meteor crash-surviving cockroach, a hog who thinks he’s a dog, (perhaps most significantly) a fanged kaiju-sized duck, etc. Soccer is merely a backdrop for these creatures’ & cavemen’s nonstop barrage of Aardman-style goofs & gags, which are just as adorable & clever here as they always are.

Even though they rarely catch me by surprise, I love Aardman’s style just the way it is (bad pop music and all). I find it dispiriting that the studio isn’t Minions-level popular in America. There’s likely nothing that could save this film’s presumably dire domestic box office returns. Anyone willing to show up in the first place is likely only driven by leftover goodwill form the days of Wallace & Gromit, with a only a few new fans won over along the way. Still, I appreciated the unexpected genre shift in Aardman’s usual, adorable buffoonery here. Sports movies aren’t typically my genre of choice, but it was lovely to see Aardman deliver a genuine surprise while remaining true to their regular comedic tone. Keeping their consistent look & humor fresh might actually be a question of future genre experiments. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (lightly) tested horror waters for them in the past. Their upcoming Shaun the Sheep movie Armageddon looks like it dabbles in sci-fi. I likely would have enjoyed Early Man all the same if it hadn’t adapted Aardman’s style to a sports movie mold, but it might just be that exact kind of genre experimentation the studio needs to keep its loyal audience on their toes.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The big risk in me venturing out to see the latest King Kong reboot was that my love for loud & dumb movies about giant monsters might be crushed by my ever-growing boredom with war narratives. Kong: Skull Island made no secret of its Vietnam War cinema aesthetic in its advertising, promising to be something like an Apocalypse Now With Kaiju Primates genre mashup. The actual film is something more like Platoon With Kaiju Primates, but the effect is still the same. Skull Island‘s main hook is that it uses the traditional King Kong narrative as a thin metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam (and other unwinnable, imperialistic conflicts of world-policing), declaring things like “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you’re looking for them.” It’s the same exact themes that are hammered to death across nearly all Vietnam War movies with the exact same Love The Smell of Napalm imagery (ever seen an explosion reflected in aviator sunglasses before?) and more or less the same needle drops (don’t worry if they don’t immediately play CCR; it’ll eventually happen twice). As an audience, I’m missing an essential Dad Gene that enables people to care about a very specific end of Macho Genre Cinema (including war films, submarine pictures, Westerns, and, oddly enough, the James Bond franchise). If there’s anyone out there with that Dad Gene who still enjoys the occasional Vietnam War film, they’d likely have a lot more fun with Kong: Skull Island than I did. For me, it was like someone mixed jelly into my peanut butter jar because they didn’t bother cleaning their spoon.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about Kong: Skull Island is that it amounts to less than the sum of its parts. The cast alone is a testament to a staggering waste of potential: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson, all wasted. The movie is stacked with onscreen talent, but just about the only memorable performances delivered are from a fully committed Shea Whigham & John C. Reilly, who both pull off a tragic/comic balance in their respective roles as shell-shocked war veterans. Reilly is (rightly) getting a lot of attention in this film as a shipwrecked soldier who’s been stranded on Skull Island since WWII and is deliriously relieved to see people who share his language & culture for the first time in decades. The biggest laugh I got out of the film, though, was in watching Whigham chow down on a can of beans and casually describe his first battle with a skyscraper-sized ape as “an unconventional encounter.” The sense of wasted potential extends far beyond the immense talent of its dispassionate cast, however. Even its central hook of attempting a Vietnam Movie With A Giant Ape seems like it was handled in the blandest, least interesting way possible. Instead of writing a revisionist history where Kong is transported to Vietnam and intermingles with the soldiers on the ground, the soldiers are transported to his home, the titular Skull Island. This sets up an echo of the exact same narrative we’ve seen in nearly every version of a Kong picture. Peter Jackson’s (infinitely more passionate) version of King Kong was released just a little over a decade ago. All this one does to update it is toss in some helicopters & flamethrowers and increase the size of the titular ape.

I’m not sure a full plot description is necessary here, so I’ll try to make it quick. The day after the U.S. declares its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, a military troop is ordered to secretly escort a geological mission to survey the once mythical Skull Island. [Scene missing: soldiers complaining that they’re being deployed instead of going home.] There’s a lengthy assembling-the-team sequence where everyone’s various motives & vulnerabilities are revealed for future significance, but no one character gets enough screentime to make any of it count for anything. Do we really need to know Brie Larson’s background as a hippie anti-war photographer to watch her blankly stare at monsters & the Northern Lights for the next 90min? Doubtful. The “geological” expedition, of course, is a betrayal, a cover-up for finding proof of a two-fold conspiracy theory: that the Earth is hollow and that giant monsters live inside it. Once discovered, King Kong is initially seen as a threat, as he attacks the military crew that bombs his home in an attempt to prove those (correct) theories. Eventually, however, it’s revealed that the gigantic ape is the protector of the island and, by extension, the world at large. He fights off & keeps at bay the other monsters that threaten to crawl out of the hollow Earth to terrorize mankind: giant spiders, squids, something John C. Reilly’s freaked out war vet calls “skull crawlers,” etc. This dynamic of Kong as a protector doesn’t really do much for the film’s central Vietnam War metaphor. It mostly just hangs in the air as a naked setup for a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, no C.H.U.D. that) cinematic universe, which is eventually supposed to link up with the most recent American Godzilla property (as opposed to the far superior Japanese one) for a pre-planned crossover film. And there you have yet another passionless blockbuster that’s a mere placeholder for a future film franchise payoff.

If I haven’t talked enough about Kong himself so far, it’s because the movie doesn’t give me much to work with. There isn’t too much new or different about the infamous beast in his most recent form. The quality of the CGI hasn’t advanced all that significantly since Jackson last tackled the property in ’05, which is kind of a big deal in the King Kong genre, going all the way back to its stop-motion animation roots in the 1930s. The ape’s gotten a lot bigger in scale (likely in preparation for his upcoming kaiju battles) and modern 3D made for an occasional moment of action cinema eye candy, but I couldn’t work up much awe or horror for the misunderstood monster, which is a problem. His inner anguish is always secondary to the soldiers’, never being afforded much of an onscreen emotional narrative outside John C. Reilly plainly informing us that he’s the last of his kind. Sacrificing the ape’s inner life for some killer kaiju battles might’ve made that thin emotional groundwork forgivable, but the giant monster violence of Kong: Skull Island is also a little lacking. In old school kaiju movies (and in more faithful throwbacks like Pacific Rim) the monsters would fight for minutes at a time, establishing pro wrestling-style narratives through the physical language of their battle sequences. Here, the fights only last for seconds at a time as we follow the human characters who navigate their paths of their destruction. Again, my disinterest with that end of the dynamic might have a lot to do with my general boredom with war movie plotting, so mileage may vary on that point. It just feels strange to me that a movie that boasts Kong’s name in the title would be so disinterested in the ape himself.

None of this is to say that Kong: Skull Island is a total disaster and an entirely joyless affair. There are some moments of monster movie mayhem that work well enough as eye candy and both John C. Reilly & Shea Whigham do their best to boost the spirit of the proceedings with some much-needed levity & camp. (I think my ideal, streamlined version of the film just be those two characters alone in a Swiss Army Man-style romance adventure on the same kaiju-infested island.) Overall, though, the movie feels like a well-funded version of a SyFy Channel mockbuster that can afford to hire legitimate actors instead of Ian Ziering or Steve Guttenberg or whoever’s up for it that particular weekend. Unlike the recent genre film rehash Death Race 2050, which applies that SyFy style of direct-to-VOD CG cheapie energy to something uniquely bizarre, Kong: Skull Island lacks any distinguishing sense of passion. I guess you could point to a smash-cut of Kong eating a human to a human eating a sandwich or the basic novelty of a giant ape fighting a giant squid as holding some kind of camp value, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given how much the movie focuses on its stale Vietnam War themes. The silliest Skull Island film gets in its basic DNA (outside Reilly & Whigham’s respective quirks) is in its shameless shots of muscular Kong ass, but even that line of putting-it-all-out-there ape anatomy could’ve been more over the top, #GiveKongADong2017. Maybe audiences more in tune with the basic thrills of war movies as a genre will feel differently, but I struggled to find anything in the film worth holding onto. Its stray stabs at silliness didn’t push hard enough to save it from self-serious tedium and its Vietnam War metaphor wasn’t strong enough to support that tonal gravity. Everything else in-between was passable as a passive form of entertainment, but nothing worth getting excited over, much less building a franchise on.

-Brandon Ledet

High-Rise (2016)

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One of my favorite movie genres is something I’ve dubbed the “Party Out of Bounds,” a kind of storytelling structure where guests at an initially civil social event are compelled beyond reason to stay once polite society de-evolves & things get primally nasty. The exit is open, but they decline & instead choose to duke it out with their fellow “party” guests. As much as I enjoy the realistic examples of this (admittedly made-up) genre like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, and this year’s A Bigger Splash, I really get excited when the “Party Out of Bounds” story gets supernaturally twisted, like in the genre’s crown jewel The Exterminating Angel or in the recent dystopian period piece High-Rise. High-Rise is a particularly interesting case because its party starts from a seemingly dangerous, chaotic place and gets even more wild & savage from there, expanding the scope of its hedonism & cruelty to a months’ long, seemingly supernatural descent into the darkness of the human soul. It’s a sight to behold, a sinisterly amusing & deeply unsettling sight that stands as one of the best “Party Out of Bounds” stories I can remember ever seeing onscreen (and in subsequent nightmares).

Adapted from a novel by J.G. Ballard, the madman who penned the source material for Crash (1996’s incredible Cronenberg provocation, not 2004’s shameless Oscar bait), High-Rise is a reflection of 1970s anxieties about “luxury lifestyle” commodity & spiritually-erosive consumer culture as funneled through an aggressive, vague menace of existential dread. The film posits the modern consumer as a “bio robot,” a soulless machine who cannot function without their various gadgets & devices of “convenience.” Tom Hiddleston’s relatively well-adjusted protagonist begins his journey into a bleak, 1970s version of the future when he moves into a high-rise condo complex, a towering work of architectural Brutalism. It’s easy to believe you understand where the film is headed in his early interactions with the high-rise & its inhabitants. The building is a self-contained class system that matches the rigid haves-vs-havenots societal structure of works like Snowpiercer; the wealthy live on upper floors while the middle & lower class fight for their crumbs on the bottom. As the Talking Heads would put it, the building “has every convenience,” from a grocery store to a gym to a rooftop terrace complete with gardens & horseback riding (that only the upper floor wealthy can access, of course). The rich divert & hoard the best of the building’s resources, setting up an anti-capitalist uprise that we’ve seen play out in many (if not most) dystopian sci-fi works in the past. High-Rise begins its journey into human depravity from this familiar place, but completely unravels & sets fire to the genre expectations that accompany its starting point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything exactly like it before, which is what makes it such an exciting, terrifying work.

In addition to their addiction to modern convenience, the inhabitants of the titular high-rise are also addicted to partying. As a seemingly well-to-do surgeon (whose professions appears curiously specific to peeling faces off cadavers), Hiddleston’s protagonist is just wealthy enough to get a glimpse of the Victorian-style excess of the parties on the upper floors (as orchestrated by the building’s owner/architect, portrayed by Jeremy Irons), to mingle with the swinging 70s drug orgies of the middle floors, and to kindly visit with the little kids’ birthday parties of the lower working class floors (dutifully lorded over by Elizabeth Moss’s eternally pregnant, much put-upon matriarch). Hiddleston’s role as an entry point to each layer of the literally stratified society within the high-rise is a great starting point for establishing the scenario’s social structure, but ultimately becomes meaningless as the walls dividing these groups begins to break down. After the high-rise experiences an unexplained power outage the entire building devolves into total chaos. In a literal sense the structure begins to crumble: the water stops flowing, the gym is dismantled, the food in the grocery rots & molds, etc. There’s something much stranger going on in this shift, however, something that feels akin to a Persona-style psychological break. High-Rise is, at heart, a mass hysteria horror, a surreal exploration of a weird, unexplained menace lurking in our modern political & economic anxieties. Instead of simply leaving the titular building when things go horrifically sour, its inhabitants instead party harder and their drunken revelry devolves into a grotesque, months-long rager of deadly hedonism & de Sade levels of sexual depravity. The people of the high-rise are portrayed as just another amenity, one that can malfunction & fall apart just as easily & thoroughly as a blown circuit or a busted water pipe. It only takes weeks for the societal barriers that keep them in line to fully degenerate so that the entire high-rise society is partying violently in unison in their own filth & subhuman cruelty. If this is a version of America’s future in consumerism & modern convenience, it’s a harshly damning one, a confounding nightmare I won’t soon forget.

As much as the nastier details of High-Rise‘s eventual descent into cannibalism, rape, and animal cruelty (the majority of which, it’s worth noting, thankfully occurs offscreen) is obviously far outside my own experience with what happens when a party goes out of bounds, I do recognize a little truth in the initial power outage as a source for the mayhem. Anyone in New Orleans (or elsewhere in the coastal South) who’s gotten through the weeks-long power outages that follow hurricanes by drinking gallons of liquor in the darkness & heat should be able to recognize some of their own despair & depravity in the scenario, even if just a little. No matter how much you love the people you ride out a hurricane outage with, the confined space, oppressive boredom, and uncomfortable living conditions of the situation can increase tensions exponentially on a daily basis. The alcohol doesn’t help either (except maybe with the boredom). As I multiply that scenario in my head by the hundreds of people occupying this fictional high-rise & the economic tensions already driving them mad before the outage, this movie’s complete descent into subhuman depravity sort of makes perfect sense. Sort of.

There’s plenty of high art craft that goes into High-Rise‘s trashy version of Cronenberg mania, a marriage of aesthetics represented nicely in its off-putting soundtrack of nervous proto-punk jams & various spooky covers of ABBA‘s “S.O.S.” The film puts a lot of care in constructing its traditional sci-fi dystopia beginnings, distinguished only in details like its The Diary of a Teenage Girl/Space Station 76 faithfulness to its grim 70s era origins and its willingness to ogle at a male actor’s naked body for a change (Hiddleston’s, of course). When the setup gives way to the blindingly chaotic & inhumanly cruel punchline, though, the film finds its own distinctive space of cinematic innovation. High-Rise pushes its initially-familiar story into new, surreally wicked territory that makes for a more memorable experience than what the first act would lead you to expect and then lingers there for an uncomfortably long time. I’ve seen plenty movie parties go out of bounds before, but this is the one that most convincingly sets fire to the path back to civilization in the process. Its an entirely unique obliteration of the thin line that separates the modern consumer from the wild, bloodthirsty beast, a nightmare of a good time that will surely become a strong contender for cult classic status once more people have a chance to fall under its terrifying hypnotic spell.

-Brandon Ledet

That’s So Ava!: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)’s Potential Second Life as a Multi-Cam Sitcom

There’s a certain crop of 90s art house films that I can never quite fully give into despite their consistently positive reputations. Titles like Clerks, Slacker, and Living in Oblivion are supposedly essential to the voice of a disaffected, laid back generation of arty farty types, but I often have a difficult time connecting with what they’re selling (possibly because they pretend not to be selling anything at all). Gen-X cinema often purported to be the laid back slacker counterpoint to the over-enthusiastic, grandiose generations that came before, but in actuality felt more try-hard & fresh out of art school than ever. The king of this I Don’t Care At All (But I Secretly Care Too Much) aesthetic is, in my mind, one Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s intentional art house pretension leads to some interesting moments that all too often get drowned out by the suffocating self-indulgence that surrounds them. There are some amazing small moments & images in Jarmsuch titles like Mystery Train, Broken Flowers, and Coffee & Cigarettes, but all three of those examples leave me so frustrated because they ultimately feel like wasted potential when considered in their fatally affected totality.

As much as I can be frustrated with Jarmusch’s overall product, I genuinely enjoy his sillier flourishes. Besides poking fun at his own self-serious mystique on the show Bored to Death & appearing as the “French fried potater” salesman in Sling Blade, the director always includes a flight of fancy or two in his works that catch my attention & delight me. Bill Murray serving diner food to the Wu Tang Clan, Steve Buscemi getting hung up on Lost in Space trivia, and (in my only pet favorite from the director’s catalog) Roberto Benigni annoying the piss out of Tom Waits are the kinds of breath-of-fresh-air moments of sublime humor that nearly save his work for me. Nearly. If Jarmusch dealt exclusively in broad, yuck-it-up comedy instead of using it to punctuate his more intellectual tendencies toward existential self-reflection I might even be willing to call myself a fan.

I waited as long as possible to catch up with Jarmusch’s most recent work, the vampiric existential crisis piece Only Lovers Left Alive, despite my burning fan worship of bonafide changeling Tilda Swinton (who was on fire that year, considering her work in Snowpiercer & Grand Budapest Hotel). Something about the film’s promo material struck me as a lowkey remake of The Hunger (I still don’t think I was entirely off-base there), which is one of those delicately immaculate cult films that probably should not be touched or even cautiously approached. Buried somewhere deep in the film’s ennui & self-pity, however, was one of those typical Jarmusch saving graces I’m prattling on about here. Mia Wasikowska, who has dazzled me before in titles like Crimson Peak & Maps to the Stars, absolutely steals the show in Only Lovers Left Alive. There’s some kind of self-important rock star cool at the heart of Tom Hiddleston & Tilda Swinton’s titular vampiric lovers that honestly bores me to no end in the film, but Wasikowska’s wonderfully disruptive, chaotic presence brings the film, well, back from the dead with the minuscule screentime she’s allowed. Swinton’s matriarch vampire Eve (her vampy hubby’s name is Adam btw *puke*) is struggling with the tedium of centuries-long survival, but her younger, still-stoked sister Ava is a frivolous hoot. She consistently fucks up, wreaks havoc, and over-indulges like a spoiled brat, a behavioral pattern Adam indicates is habitual . . . which finally brings me to my pitch.

Imagine for a minute an alternate, preferable universe in which Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t a stuffy art house film about addiction or romantic ennui or whatever, but instead a multi-cam sitcom with a laugh track in which Wasikowska’s vampire brat Ava crashed the gloomy party every week in spectacular fashion. I want to go to there. Adam & Ava have an exquisitely balanced Odd Couple dynamic. His gloom & her glitz clash beautifully & hilariously, but aren’t given nearly enough screen time to fully play out. Fairly soon after Ava arrives from Los Angeles & burns Adam’s entire life to ground, he’s stuffing her into a cab so that he can pout & whither with Eve in Europe somewhere. Boring. It’s not fair to me as a trash-loving citizen of the movie-going audience. I demand more goofy, disastrous Ava antics, preferably delivered to my television set on a weekly basis with a laugh track prompting me on when to chuckle & slap my knee. Wasikowska delivers a stellar performance here as a bubbly (unintentional) antagonist brat & I could watch her do that shtick for at least 100 syndicated episodes of a formulaic sitcom.

Unfortunately, Wasikowska feels like she’s performing in an entirely different movie form everyone else (Amy Heckerling’s underrated gem Vamps, maybe?) and, although I understand the sentiment is far from universal, it’s a movie I’d much rather be watching. This film’s Gen-X aesthetic hangover just doesn’t do it for me the way an Ava vs. Adam sitcom would. I’m totally okay with how vapid that makes me sound; I just also wish that I had the funding to make the ultimate reality where we had a That’s So Ava! sitcom meld with our own. The world would be a much better place for it.

-Brandon Ledet

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)

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fourstar

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

Crimson Peak’s Giallo Treats

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A lot has been made about the genre mashups to be found in Guillermo del Toro’s most recent foray into horror: Crimson Peak. As Erin mentioned in her review, the film boasts an oldschool horror vibe that longingly looks back to the infamous Hammer horror productions of the 50s & 60s, while also recalling the romantic parlor dramas & ghost stories of the Victorian era. Indeed, those points of reference are worn proudly on the film’s sleeve. It’s impossible to look at the ancient, spooky, castle-like haunts that plague the film’s three central characters (played by Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Waskowska) without conjuring thoughts of the Hammer horror style. The romantic, Victorian ghost story aesthetic is referenced by Mia Wasikowska’s protagonist directly (along with apt name-checks for Jane Austen & Mary Shelly for good measure) because she herself is writing one & submitting it for publication. Something I could not stop thinking about while I was watching Crimson Peak, however, (and I’m sure I’m far from alone) was the stylistic influences of the Italian giallo genre of the 1960s & 70s, particularly the work of Dario Argento & Mario Bava.

While the narrative of Crimson Peak is much more closely related to the Hammer horror classics & Victorian ghost stories mentioned, the film’s visual palette & style-over-substance mentality are deeply rooted in giallo. I’m not talking the traditional murder mystery giallo films where the genre gets its name (though there certainly is a good bit of that), such as Bava’s Blood & Black Lace, but more of the spooky witchery in works that came later, like in Argento’s Suspiria. The most easily recognizable giallo element at work in Crimson Peak is the film’s lighting. Stark red, blue, green, and yellow lights clash in the film’s internal spaces as if Bava himself were alive & running del Toro’s lighting on set. Also present is Argento & Bava’s love of a gleaming straight razor just begging to slit a throat, as well as a masked, gloved, mostly offscreen killer shrouded in black-clad secrecy until the last-minute reveal. The giallo influences get more specific from there– be they the creepy dolls from Deep Red, Phenomena‘s fascination with close-up shots of insects, or the image of characters spying through keyholes, which is so prevalent in giallo that it appears in two of the genre’s recent pastiche tributes: Amer & The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.

What’s most striking about Crimson Peak‘s giallo heritage, though, is just as elementary as the Mario Bava lighting, but also important enough to be referenced in the film’s title: blood. There is a ludicrous amount of blood in this film. Just ridiculous. It flows from the sink & the bathtub faucet. It seeps through the floorboards & runs down the walls. Characters cry blood. They cough it up. Snow is blood-red in Crimson Peak, as are the film’s beautiful CGI ghosts. I should mention here that most of this “blood” is actually the red clay that rests below the trio of central characters’ haunted household. The effect is, of course, intentional, allowing del Toro to fill the frame with absurd amounts of a thick, blood-red substance (stored even in gigantic bloody vats in the house’s basement/workroom), without relying on a supernatural source for it. It can be no mistake either that the film’s blood-red clay is much more akin to the vibrant hue you’d see in an acrylic paint or a ripe tomato. Giallo films were particularly fond of this cartooonish style of stage blood as well, tending to shy away from the more brownish hues of the real stuff.

So, if you happen to have any buddies out there who are huge giallo nerds & haven’t yet shown an interest in Crimson Peak (is that possible?) it might be worthwhile to shoot them a recommendation. The film’s tendency to value visual style over narrative substance should fit in snugly with their tastes, as should its over-the-top lighting & untold gallons of crimson blood. Of course, the film will play even better if these hypothetical giallo nerds also have a taste for Hammer horror & Victorian ghost stories. I’m sure there’s a great deal of overlap on that Venn diagram & the movie will eventually find a sizeable cult following, even if it currently isn’t doing so hot at the box office. It genuinely deserves it, if nothing else, just based on its visual accomplishments alone.

-Brandon Ledet

Crimson Peak (2015)

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fourhalfstar

Crimson Peak is luscious, extravagant, and terrible – a perfectly gothic Gothic Horror. Guillermo del Toro makes another entry into his visually stunning filmography, providing a richness and grotesqueness in both storytelling and cinematography.

I really appreciate that Crimson Peak is a classic Gothic Horror, with the storyline sticking closely to the standard tropes of the genre – isolation, bloody histories, unnatural relationships, menacing architecture, Victorians, obvious symbolism, endangered virgins, things that gibber and chitter in the night, etc.  Del Toro makes references to the Hammer Horror aesthetic, appropriate for a movie with such an overstated sense of dramatic Victorian style (although, to be fair, the Victorians were really dramatic to begin with).

The plot is not complicated or particularly innovative, but the storytelling is superb and the style is to die for.  Crimson Peak is perfectly dark and creepy, with Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain delivering a wonderful combination of passion, tension, and insanity.  Del Toro knows how to keep the audience horrified and engaged, and he continues to exercise his use of obscenely rich visuals.

I’d recommend Crimson Peak to anyone looking for Halloween movie.  It’s not a slasher movie or a suspense drama, but it’s terribly good fun.

-Erin Kinchen