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Category Archives: Movies
Caution: This article contains major spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
One of the best things about storytelling is that it offers a chance to walk in another person’s shoes, to step outside of oneself and have experiences that are not possible in most people’s day-to-day lives. But films, television shows, and novels also offer fantasy; they offer escapism and the chance to live out an existence, in two-hour chunks, that is wilder and more fantastical than our own. Some of our culture’s most prominent stories present a particular, alluring version of that idea — the fantasy of the ordinary person discovering that they are, in fact, more special than they ever could have known.
When Luke Skywalker gazes out at the twin suns of Tatooine, the sight evokes his longing for adventure, the unshakable feeling that the universe has more in store for him than just the inner workings of a moisture farm. When we meet Harry Potter living under the thumb of the Dursleys, it’s to establish the lowliness of his position, the improbability that the boy who lives under the stairs could, in reality, be the chosen one. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 presents its own orphan protagonist in Peter Quill who, after a lifetime of hoping and wondering, discovers that he too is more powerful and unique than he had ever imagined.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, each new franchise and sub-franchise must add more characters so as to provide new faces for the merchandise, and each fresh sequel risks becoming increasingly unwieldy and unmanageable. While Captain America: Civil War managed to thread that needle nicely, the tyranny of “more” still threatens to hobble each new franchise installment before it’s even left the spaceport.
To that end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a follow-up to the surprise 2014 hit, does feel overstuffed in places. It introduces two new major characters, flips a pair of baddies to the side of good guys, and still needs to service the five original Guardians of the Galaxy amid a host of new locales and novel threats. But for a franchise whose first entry brought several Star Wars comparisons, writer/director James Gunn succeeds in his follow up by employing the Empire Strikes Back method.
It’s not simply that Guardians 2 reveals the identity of Star-Lord’s father or spends time in caverns that turn out to be living organisms. It’s that Gunn splits his heroes up for most of the film, only to bring them back at the end for the raging climax. That tack helps balance the many needs of a film like Guardians 2 with several overlapping storylines, all of which center on the theme of discovering who your family truly is.
So much of Guardians of the Galaxy’s story is achingly standard issue. This isn’t the first film to feature a collection of rogues and nobodies reluctantly coming together to save the world, and it won’t be the last. The tale of the dissolute young man who eventually learns to fight for something greater than himself is a well-worn one, and the motley crew of suspicious characters slowly becoming a family is a well-known cliché. In other words, when Guardians came out in 2014, it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.
And yet, it is a film full of such charm, such character, such inventiveness in ways beyond its story, that it becomes incredibly easy forgive the ways in which it obediently marches through the usual blockbuster narrative progression. The audience will tolerate, and even enjoy, all the hoary tropes in the universe if you can couch them in a world, an attitude, and a cast of characters worth spending time with.
Growing up is hard enough. Figuring out who you are, figuring out the balance between what’s deep and held fast in your soul and what you’re willing to share with the world, is a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances. Coupling that with the difficulties of living in a household of addiction, of a sexual preference that earns you added scorn, turns an already fraught journey into a cruel and unforgiving one.
Despite the harshness of these troubles, Moonlight finds the beauty forged within that crucible, the kindnesses large and small and the transcendent moments and connections, that give a sweet, put upon young boy something to hold onto as he becomes a man. Despite the aesthetic pleasures of Moonlight’s gorgeously-shot scenes, it is, at times, an ugly, dispiriting film, but ultimately a life-affirming one. It centers on the unique challenges of its protagonist, struggling to define himself, and finding his way among the pitfalls and small graces of growing up.
Someday, in the not too distant future, we’re going to get a raw, documentary-style Batman film, about a regular guy who just so happens to dress up like a bat and get into ugly fist fights with criminals. And when that happens, we’ll turn around and laugh at how cheesy and unrealistic the Christopher Nolan films seem by comparison. Today’s cultural sensation is tomorrow’s hokey relic. So it goes.
But until that happens, it behooves us to look at Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, which scans as corny and even rudimentary relative to Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, with some perspective. After the semi-grounded approach to the character in recent years, it seems odd in hindsight that Burton’s take on the character was praised for its serious approach to the source material. But contemporary critics were comparing it to William Dozier’s Batman ‘66, the overtly comedic, Adam West incarnation of The Caped Crusader. So, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, while much of Burton’s tack in the 1989 Batman feels broader and even goofier than the Batman of today, his version fits into a wide spectrum of portrayals of the character, on the page and on the screen, that’s taken shape over the last eighty years.
You’ve seen Hidden Figures before. Maybe you haven’t seen this exact movie — about how three unduly unheralded African American women helped NASA in the early 1960s — but if, like me, you dutifully watch the slate of Oscar-nominated films year after year, then within ten minutes you’ll already know this movie by heart.
It features a gutsy but unorthodox protagonist trying to make a dent in a system that marginalizes and ignores her. It’s a period piece, with enough obvious dialogue, details, and cameos from well-known historical figures to let the audience know exactly when the story is taking place, with plenty of opportunities for the viewer to say, “My, how far we’ve come.” It has supporting characters facing challenges that mirror the protagonist’s, shining more light on the ways in which the order of the day affected those who were quietly fighting to maintain their place in it. And it has the standard untold story/historical injustice angle, intended to imbue the film with an extra bit of triumph and tragedy, all unleashed with a heavy dose of Hollywood mythmaking.
The difference, and the thing that distinguishes Hidden Figures from the likes of The Imitation Game, Dallas Buyers Club, and other recent Oscar nominees that play in the same space is that it uses the power of that formula in support of a woman of color. At a time when the world of film is still lingering in the shadow of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it’s encouraging that Taraji P. Henson is cast as the star of a movie that follows the Oscar-approved blueprint and succeeds at the box office and the awards table in the process. It’s just a shame that the film’s artistic merit can’t match its social merit.
A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are the sacred texts of the Star Wars universe. Every bit of Star Wars that has emerged in the wake of those first three films – sequels, prequels, midquels, comics, T.V. shows, holiday specials, video games, trading cards, action figures, and commemorative plates – is indebted to the franchise’s holy trinity. And each of them no matter what their claim to originality or expansion, echoes, references, and yes, even rhymes with those instigating incidents. For as wide and wooly as the famed galaxy far far away has become over the years, the creators and collaborators who work in Star Wars are forever filling in the gaps left by those all-important lodestones of the franchise.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the peak of this gap-filling mentality brought to bear. The film is inextricably tied to Episode IV, taking great pains to connect the events depicted in this movie with those of its hallowed predecessor, even when it gets in the way of telling Rogue One’s own story. Because of that, Rogue One comes off more like pandering than as a novel extension of the Star Wars universe. It’s a film desperate to remind you of what comes next in the timeline, without regard for whether any of the harbingers it presents genuinely add anything to the story being told here and now or the story we already know.
CAUTION: This article contains major spoilers for Doctor Strange.
There’s a recurring set of complaints about the “samey-ness” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The argument comes in several forms. One common strain posits that every Marvel movie simply follows a predetermined formula, involving some McGuffin (lately, an infinity stone), an undercooked villain, and an inevitable third act action sequence that sets everything right. Another contends that the MCU films lack distinct authorial voices and break down to a house-mandated style. And one recurring grouse, even among fans, focuses on the way Marvel Studios films are shot and lit and even color-corrected.
There’s a grain of truth to each of these critiques, but as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanatacist Podcast, I find them all largely unavailing. For one thing, even the studio’s first set of films, released prior to the game-changing Avengers team up (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) have vastly different vibes and tell markedly different types of stories. From a Shakespearean-influenced high fantasy romp, to a 1940s throwback adventure, to a military-heavy fugitive narrative, to a more traditional hero’s origin story, the Marvel movies have come in different flavors from the very beginning.
What’s more, while there are common themes of redemption and certain recurring motifs common to many superhero films in the MCU, there’s also a focus on character that has served to distinguish Marvel’s films from one another independently of the antagonists or plot obstacles in a given film. As others have pointed out, Marvel Studios has found great success by focusing on the development of its heroes (and those close to them) making their personal journeys the driving force behind these films, rather than the newest set of villains or big plot development that have driven other franchises. And, over the course of fourteen movies, plenty of entries in the MCU series of films have subverted the tropes that the series’s critics accuse it of slavishly adhering to.
Doctor Strange acts as both a confirmation and a rebuke to these arguments. It features some of the MCU’s most dazzling visuals and breaks with some of the franchise’s biggest conventions. And yet, at the same time, it feels like a recapitulation of many of the same types of stories and beats that other Marvel Studios films have employed in the past.
Suicide Squad director David Ayer and the brain trust behind D.C. Comics’ nascent cinematic universe achieved something I didn’t think was possible — they managed to produce a 1990s blockbuster in 2016. With the emergence of late sequels like Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. But the refurbished, Day-Glo atmosphere of the third entry in the perpetually stumbling DCEU still managed to catch me off guard. I’d anticipated a copycat of Guardians of the Galaxy and its quippy “bad guys gone good” spirit, but I didn’t imagine that M.O. would be filtered through a lens borrowed from twenty years ago.
Nevertheless, all the elements of a Clinton-era blockbuster are firmly present and accounted for: Will Smith gives a standard Will Smith Performance™, one that could have easily been transplanted from Men in Black or, heaven help us, Wild Wild West. There are dry cool action movie lines aplenty. And there’s a cartoony, almost surreal vibe to the entire film, that makes Suicide Squad seem divorced from the attempts at realism embraced in Batman Begins and closer to the cornucopia of neon camp in Batman Forever.
CAUTION: This review contains major spoilers for Batman: The Killing Joke
The traditional superhero story is a simple one. The bad guy threatens to do some bit of evil; the good guy comes in to stop it, and the day is saved. Lather, rinse, repeat. The costumes change, and so do the capers, but for a while, that was the dependable, well-worn blueprint for the battles between capes and criminals.
And then, somewhere along the line, that started to change. Writers like Alan Moore began to deconstruct those old stories. They started to look at the ways that these battles might not be so weightless, how those heroes and villains might still leave their marks on one another. These artists examined how the good guys could not fight evil day after day, week after week, year after year, and yet come out of those battles unsullied, unblemished, and unscathed.
Batman, after all, fights monsters. How long can you run headlong into battle with monsters before you start to become more monstrous yourself? It’s not every comic book adaptation that drops references to Nietzsche, even when it’s one of his most famous quotes, but it’s appropriate for Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated film adaptation of the Alan Moore classic. Because more than The Joker, more than Batman, more than Jim or Barbara Gordon, it’s a story about what happens to those who fight monsters. It’s a story about the abyss.