December Round-Up, Part Two

To the tune of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”

Don’t cry for me, my dear readers
The truth is, I never left you
All through my college days, my mad semester
I kept my promise
Returned with vigor

Here are five of the biggest movies, box-office and awards-wise, that have recently come out.

Bohemian Rhapsody

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I didn’t know much about Freddy Mercury before seeing the film, so for the first half, I spent it thinking, “Rami Malek sure is overacting. I don’t know why he’s being nominated for so many awards.” And then I realized this was just the character, and then it got better.

Bohemian Rhapsody is ambitious in recreating famous Queen performances but never decides if it is a character study of Mercury or a celebration of the band and its music. It ends up trying to do a bit of both, and therefore doesn’t do either full justice. It’s a competently made, standard biopic, but there are enough glimmers of greatness here that makes its by-the-book approach feel like a big let-down.

For someone like me, who didn’t know much about Queen beforehand, I was disappointed that the film didn’t change this fact. It is so focused on Mercury that it 1) pushes the other band members aside, and 2) doesn’t tell me why Queen was so revolutionary in its day. It never explains how this band appeared and delighted the wider public. In that way, the film is claustrophobic and doesn’t have much of an outside perspective. But if you like Queen, it sure wouldn’t hurt, and it does do a good job recreating the feeling of seeing a great concert.

Roma

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A black and white foreign language film about a maid in Mexico City in the 70’s is, frankly, not what I usually want to watch. It was a bit of a chore psyching myself up for it. And it might be the same for you, too, but I think you should watch Roma anyway, even if you don’t love it.

For one, it’s a masterclass in filmmaking. Every beautiful shot is deliberate, and every scene breathes. The movie is excellently paced, in a way that tests the audience’s patience but with purpose. There’s not really a plot, but the stakes are raised so excellently that it never feels aimless.

It’s not a film I would want to rewatch, but I marvel at its craftsmanship. And further, it makes a movie star out of someone who represents a group that is never considered worthy to be a movie star, and there is something precious within that itself. It makes the trials and trivial of life feel epic in scope and worthy of attention, which it is. Life, and every life, is worth paying attention too, and that humanity makes Roma a special film, even if it isn’t the most entertaining or poignant film of the year. And it’s on Netflix! There are no excuses.

Mary Poppins Returns

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Mary Poppins Returns is technically a sequel, but it certainly feels like a remake. It hits the original movie beat-for-beat with most of the songs carefully crafted to be one-to-one remixes of songs from the original. I want to fight against the chronic “safeness” of most of the recent Disney movies, but for this film, I can’t. I fell for Mary Poppins Returns.

It probably helps that I don’t have any nostalgia or feelings towards the original. I’ve seen it, but it was never a favorite of mine or a part of my childhood. For those who do love the original, this movie will either be heresy or a delightful reworking. For me, it was a lovely film that was truly able to be a magical way to end the year. It’s not revolutionary, but it plays to its strengths and is propelled by excellent performances all around. It’s the perfect family film.

Aquaman

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Aquaman can be best described through a scene near the end of the film, so mild spoilers. Arthur Curry/Aquaman goes into the den of a monster to retrieve an important trident. He approaches the monster and begins to talk to her.

Before this moment, Arthur tells another character how he grew up only using his fists and hiding his feelings. So when he began to talk to the monster, I started to get excited. Is this going to buck the trend of superhero movies ending with a big battle? Is the day going to be saved through communication and empathy? Is Arthur Curry going to be an example to young men that coming of age doesn’t have to be tied to acts of violence? Are they doing the same ending as Moana?

Arthur begins saying he is Arthur Curry, son of a lighthouse keeper and Queen Atlanna of Atlantis. He’s a nobody, and that’s what makes him the rightful ruler. I started getting more excited. Wow, the story is going to be about our worth coming from our identity, which empowers us! I looked over at my dad next to me. This could be a sermon illustration or something!

Then Arthur finishes his speech by saying to the monster: “and if you don’t like it, then screw you.” And then he grabs the trident and goes to fight in the big battle that ends the movie. So much for diplomacy and empathy.

I applaud the ambition and complete sincerity that director James Wan and the rest of the cast and crew go about making this movie. They go for it. I never felt a single emotion in the entire film, except for disappointment and lethargy, but they go for it. Perhaps I’m just not the right audience. I don’t care for Aquaman, I don’t know the mythology, and the worldbuilding (which is done with excellent special effects) didn’t interest me. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun for someone who is invested in the character. It’s just a shame it didn’t hook a new fan.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

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Into the Spiderverse feels very much like Incredibles 2, except with a completely different moral to the story. Both are beautifully animated films, appeal to both children and adults, and are about superheroes. Both build off previous films, and both came out opposite another superhero movie. And both are the only real competitors for animated movies for this year.

From a story perspective, both get bogged down with plot details and villains who are underbaked and feel more like obligations than actual additions to the story. Particularly in Spiderverse, there are scenes that can feel extremely tedious. The real strength lies in the character interactions. Incredibles 2 makes the most of the family dynamic, while Into the Spiderverse gives a delightful deconstruction of Peter Parker and introduces us to a fantastic new hero in Miles Morales. The scenes that highlight their mentor/mentee relationship are some of the best of the year.

Thematically, the two films are opposite. Incredibles 2 tries to say that every person is responsible for being their own superhero, but undercuts its own message by not having any regular people do anything super. In that way, it feels more of a story about exceptionalism, and how to handle being the exception.

Into the Spiderverse, on the other hand, is all about inclusivity. Everyone can wear a mask.  Everyone can be a superhero. Every race, gender, nationality, and age can be Spiderman. Just check out the #spidersona on twitter to see how this is already inspiring people to imagine themselves as heroes.

Musing on this, I came to an epiphany. It’s no secret I love Marvel films. But by this point, those movies have zero interest in inspiring heroism in the audience. MCU movies are melodramas, fueled by the storylines of the characters. The entire franchise is a big soap opera with lots of episodes. You aren’t supposed to see yourself in Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, you’re supposed to see them interacting with each other and reckoning with their own powers. And that’s great, I love watching superhero drama.

But Into the Spiderverse refocuses the genre. It brings the attention back to the audience. In this way, it is the best tribute to Stan Lee, who created these characters to inspire and teach readers. It’s an excellent film with groundbreaking animation that I would highly recommend if you aren’t completely fatigued with superhero faire. It shows there are still new places to go with comic book stories.

-Madeleine D

Just Say No To: Teen Titans GO! To the Movies

Image result for teen titan go to the movies*Major spoilers for Incredibles 2

Exactly 364 days before Teen Titans Go! To the Movies was released, The Emoji Movie was released. A film that was so disgusting, I offered to babysit any child for an hour and a half in exchange for them not to see the film.

While I cannot offer that currently, I wish I could, because Teen Titans Go! To the Movies isn’t deserving of your child’s affection.

Granted, it’s not the worst movie made for people who believe kid entertainment should lack any element of sophistication. And I’ll give it this- the songs are catchy. Most kid movie songs aren’t very catchy.

Now I want to stress that I actually like the TV show this movie is from. I have watched quite a few episodes on Cartoon Network of Teen Titans Go! while babysitting. I understand why it’s popular. The twenty-minute episodes are full of superhero deconstructionism, goofiness, creative visual gags, and appealing characters done by great voice actors. As someone who didn’t know who the Teen Titans were in DC comic lore before the show, I have a better appreciation for the characters and understand why this team has such staying power. If there was an eighteen-year-old sitting in that movie theater by herself that was ready to give this movie a fair shot, it was me.

But some things that are twenty minutes are not meant to be stretched to an hour and a half. Just like emojis are not meant to shoulder a full-length commercial, Teen Titans Go! was not meant to be both Deadpool for kids and a “we read your internet complaints” message from Warner Brothers.

The basic premise of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is that every superhero has a movie except Robin and the Teen Titans (consisting of Starfire, Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Raven). Robin, in particular, wants a movie and will do anything, even find a supervillain and abandon his friends, to do so.

And that’s the whole plot. And it’s stretched ttthhhhiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn. To be fair, it avoids feeling as episodic in structure as many TV shows-turned-into-movies are, but still. The only things moving this story forward to the inevitable moral conclusion are dance numbers and jokes about Batman V Superman. There are a few good gags, and excellent voicework all around, but it’s not enough.

While watching the third fart joke of the film, my mind started to wander, and I decided to reflect on the philosophical implications of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. The villain, Slade, has an evil plan that, not to spoil anything, basically involves using screens to mind control people, including other heroes like the Justice League. He gains control of people’s screens through superhero movies, and because superheroes are too busy staring in these movies, they aren’t around to save people.

That is actually an interesting idea, that we spend too much time consuming media about superheroes but not actually enacting the morals they are supposed to teach us. And at the end of the film, Robin decides that it is better to be a superhero with his friends than a movie star.

However that message is defeated by the fact that this is a movie, and half of the runtime is dedicated to selling how cool superhero movies are. So kids are probably not going to walk away thinking- I should consume less superhero media and instead live out the values I have learned from them so I may serve my neighbors and community. I’m pretty sure they’ll be thinking, Robin and the Teen Titans are so cool! I want to watch more of their show! I wish I could be a movie star!

But you know what other movie has a villain with this exact same plan? Incredibles 2. In that film, Screensaver/Evelyn Deavor uses screens to control superheroes. She believes the existence of superheroes makes the public weak and passive, believing someone else will save them. So she uses mind control to make the superhero’s fail publicly, and ruin their reputation forever. She believes this will force people to become active again.

The “who did it first” argument doesn’t really matter here, although I’m going to give it to Incredibles 2, considering that Teen Titan Go! To the Movies looks like a rush job. The point is, we have two children’s films where the main question is: do superheroes (and superhero movies) make us more passive, easier to mind-control? Teen Titans does very little with the premise, ultimately burying it under the goofiness and flippant style of the film. Incredibles 2 thinks through it more clearly and ultimately comes to the conclusion that it’s on us to be superheroes, although we should let superheroes share their gifts. Both films suffer by having only the superheroes save the day, when thematically it would probably be better to get some human people in there, but Incredibles 2 gets to the heart of both the problem and appeal of superheroes, even more than the meta-Teen Titans Go!

And plainly, Incredibles 2 is a much better film. It is for both kids and adults. So why not see that? Unless you are a strong Teen Titans Go! TV show fan, this movie will feel like a chore. It’s a bummer there aren’t more animated movies out this year, but there are plenty of classic family movies to rent or stream. In a world with so many movies, why pay to see this one? Or watch a few episodes of the TV show instead. The Teen Titans may be going to the movies, but you don’t have to.

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Leave No Trace, and Mamma Mia 2

July has been a hectic month, but nothing can stop me from seeing movies, so here is what you need to know about these three new releases.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

After Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is somewhat of a palette cleanser. Not from any of the Marvel formula, but from even pretending to have stakes. It sheds the foreboding nature of Infinity War and relishes in simpler times, by redoing jokes from the first film and being just as pleasant. I had a great time watching it, but I struggle to remember much, and while things technically happen in the lives of the characters, there aren’t any far-reaching consequences for the MCU as a whole, nor is there anything thematically to take away.

It does make a few improvements on the first film. The villain, Ghost, played by Hannah John Kamen, is not only a visually arresting character but one with twisted motivations who gets a surprising ending for an antagonist. Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd continue to make a charming pair, and seeing them work together in a way no other pair of superheroes have in the MCU is exciting to behold. And Michael Peña continues to steal the screen and our hearts. But all of that isn’t enough to make it a necessary film. And while you may ask, are any of these movies actually necessary? within the story the Marvel brand is telling as a whole, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a pleasant romp but very forgettable, and when the other Marvel films are going in an exciting new direction, this feels like a step back.

Leave No Trace

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Leave No Trace struck me in a place I haven’t been struck since my favorite film of last year, The Unknown Girl. Both films tell small stories about people struggling with messy, complicated ethical decisions, who ultimately bring out the best in other people and themselves through conviction and will. This slow and enchanting Debra Granik film never goes where you think it will, and ends with a startling conclusion that works perfectly with its compassionate, melancholy, yet hopeful, story of a father and daughter struggling to keep out of a society they cannot rest in. Watching the coming-of-age of daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her realization that her desires might be different from her fathers is both heartbreaking and empowering, told with the nuance of experience by Granik. I won’t say more, because the less you know the better, but I would say it’s a must-see.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go AgainImage result for mamma mia 2

If you liked the first Mamma Mia, then you’ll like this one. Case closed.

It’s an accurate description though! Mamma Mia 2 is exactly like the first one, good and bad in all of the same ways. It has a flimsy story and weak characters, and everything is in paradise and beautiful and is the ultimate wish fulfillment (primarily for women. It is a film made for the female gaze, and honestly, it feels nice to be catered to in such a way, albeit superficially). It’s a joyful movie that celebrates family, friendship, and motherhood (and free love and deep pockets, but that’s beside the point). Abba’s music is infectious, and the cast, young and old, is having so much fun that it’ll wear down the sourest of souls. Fittingly, my feelings are as they sing in the film:

I tried to hold you back but you were stronger. Oh yeah! And now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight. And how could I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose!

-Madeleine D

Avengers: Infinity War (Spoiler-Free Review)

In preparing for this review, I took a look at other reviews and think-pieces. One in particular drew my attention. “Are Movies like Avengers: Infinity War Worth Taking Seriously?” asks Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post, which addresses critic A.O Scott’s “symphony… of resignation” in his New York Times review of the film that asks the titular question. Rosenberg comes to the conclusion in the article that yes, we should take Avengers: Infinity War seriously, although her reasoning is more that critics can teach the movie-going public how to be smarter and that critics are independent thinkers who can push and prod against “the Big Bad.” While I agree with a lot of Rosenberg’s article, the clear implication that she and other critics aren’t fans of this work can’t apply to me. I am a fan of Marvel and have invested in these movies. So when I approach these films, it’s with duality, because I want to embrace it. I’m not trying to push against the “Big Bad.” But I’m also trying to be a good reviewer. Can I do both? Or, like Thanos, who feels that destroying half of the world will make the other half better, do I have to destroy one of these sides of me to fully be the other?

This is a non-spoiler review, so here’s what I can tell you: Thanos, an intergalactic god, has to collect six infinity stone to have enough power to wipe out half of the universe. All of the Marvel superheroes you know and love and quite a few you probably forgot about form mini-teams and split off into different corners of the galaxy to prevent him from collecting them all.

Some critics have been comparing Avengers: Infinity War to The Empire Strikes Back. I would compare it more to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Both have the characters splitting off into their different quests (some that drag or seem unnecessary), a lot of mythology you have to know to understand anything, and great action scenes. Both are not as self-contained as Fellowship of the Ring, yet neither have the satisfactory feel of The Return of the King. But like The Two Towers, Infinity War is necessary for the future, and it has things to offer on its own.

However, like I would not recommend seeing The Two Towers without having seen Fellowship of the Ring, I would also not recommend seeing Infinity War if you, like my mom, asked before the film, “Is Wonder Woman going to be in this one?” If you are a casual movie-goer and can’t name at least 3/4ths of the heroes on the poster, I can imagine this two hours and forty minute esoteric season-finale of a 19-film melodrama series feeling… well maybe like 19 films.

If you are a fan, then you probably already have your ticket, and I suggest you use it. Infinity War is both everything you expect and none of it. It is the closest I’ve ever seen a movie embody an amusement park ride, and there are genuine delights for fans. But I don’t think your experience is going to be satisfactory.

There’s a scene at the end of the film that is a perfect representation of the Infinity War as a whole. I promise it’s not a spoiler. Thanos, our villain, has a vision of sorts. In his vision, he finds himself walking on top of water, surrounded by a red dusk. He approaches a vaguely Buddhist-inspired temple, where he sees a character we’ve learned he has a complicated relationship with. This character says a few cryptic words, end vision.

This scene made me feel something. First it’s visually striking with the color palette and the Jesus-imagery with Thanos walking on water. Then we see him talk with the character, and the heartstrings are pulled because I know the relationship between the two, the complexities and emotions behind it.

But when I take a step back and think about it, the scene rings a bit hollow. This vision accomplishes very little, and doesn’t tell us anything about Thanos that we didn’t already know. Did Thanos show any previous affinity to walking on water? No, there’s no reason to have him do that except that it’s cool and seems tantalizing because it’s a religious allusion, and makes the film seem smarter. The Buddhist temple? I think for a majority of American audiences, including me, the first reaction will be, “oooh, that’s mystical. This must mean this is spiritual and stuff.” But it means nothing other than that. It’s lazy, uninformed short-hand for, “this is a mystical scene.” And then for the character interaction itself? There’s no actual work put into the scene to make it emotional. It’s all shorthand that I have to know to infuse it with any meaning.

Infinity War is all of these things: visually striking, suggestive of deeper meaning but without actual invention, and completely made up of shorthand. This film actually brings very little to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and there’s no character development. It only combines and uses what has been established before.

But… isn’t that also the point? Marvel has done something that has never been done before. Marvel created an interconnected cinematic universe, the equivalent of a television show with two to three two-hour long episodes a year, going on for ten years. As other reviews have pointed out, this is like the season finale. And it’s not bad to use a shorthand, that’s what all films do. Isn’t it then a narrative triumph that this movie has even been made, and audiences can understand and emotionally identify with it based on all the work done before? It’s indulgent, yes, but Marvel has certainly earned it with 10 years of consistent work.

Then why doesn’t it feel whole? While I’m still trying to unpack the film, I think there are a few reasons.

One, the ending. This film was originally conceived as a two-parter, and it certainly feels that way.

Second, we know the future roster of movies, and that keeps some characters completely safe and the stakes not as high. To the film’s credit though, I think it does all it can to make you feel like everyone is at risk, and some of the character’s fates are genuinely shocking.

Finally, all of the previous movies ended with saving the world, and hope. Sometimes it rang hollow and felt false, but it wasn’t until this film, which has very little hope, that I realized how comforting that is.

Now there’s no doubt that hope is coming in future films. So, on one hand, I would applaud this movie for ending on a hopeless note, unlike, say Batman V. Superman which couldn’t bring itself to do hopeless in an honest way. But, on the other hand, because this film doesn’t actually add anything to any characters, quickly patches over old conflicts and plot threads with a throw-away line, it is neither a celebration of this beloved universe, nor is it a complete reboot. It suspends everything in midair, without even hope to tide us over. And aren’t superheroes about hope?

Infinity War isn’t satisfying as a critic because this is a movie with very little actual substance, and needs not only knowledge, but emotional ties, to the previous films to work. It’s not satisfying as a fan because while it’s a thrill ride, it’s both a relentless beating to your fan-heart and its delights are quick and often feel more like a checklist. If you blink you might miss your favorite two characters meeting, interacting, and then departing.

But I’m still not taking the bait. I’m not killing my fan side, nor my critic side. I still believe you can be both, and even if Avengers: Infinity War isn’t complete, that doesn’t mean it is empty.

-Madeleine D

Go See it! Black Panther

Black_Panther

Should wealthy and advanced countries share their resources with the world? Are there any advantages to isolationism? What responsibility does Africa have to the black diaspora? What responsibilities does the black diaspora have to Africa? Do world superpowers have to be the world’s police too? Should one’s loyalties be to leaders or to their positions?

These are the ideas wrestled with in Black Panther, which besides being a political drama is also the story of a king who wears a bulletproof catsuit and was in the movie where the Avengers fought each other in an airport parking lot.

Yes, Black Panther has been poised to stand apart from the other Marvel movies, and not just because this is the studio’s first superhero movie (its 18th movie overall) made with a black lead. The film is directed by auteur Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and has an almost all-black cast, with stars like Oscar-winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, as well as Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, and this year’s Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya. Black Panther comes from a rich comic book history beginning in the Civil Rights Era, and many people are counting on it to be a new trailblazing film, in the vein of last year’s Wonder Woman. It aims high in its entertainment, and its ideas.

So is it as good as all the hype?

Short answer: Yes.

This is a visually stunning movie. The acting is excellent. The attention to detail, particularly in the costumes, is amazing. The film is big and mythic in proportions, but has intimate moments dedicated to character building. The worldbuilding for T’Challa’s country of Wakanda is comparable to Middle Earth.

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka King T’Challa, is the first Marvel hero I would actually trust to lead. The majority of Marvel heroes, from Tony Stark to Star Lord, are varying levels of man-children, but T’Challa is a real leader and role model, full of stoic strength and dignity. He surrounds himself with equally good people, and what makes him such a great leader is that he listens to those around him. I said in my Thor Ragnarok review that all the Marvel heroes were starting to meld together, but T’Challa and his supporting characters all stand as unique and three-dimensional.

I only have two mild critiques. First, is that T’Challa himself doesn’t have a character arc. He begins as a great man and continues to be a great king. He doubts himself briefly, but that disappears. Most of the conflict in the film isn’t because anyone is doubting he would be a good leader. His real arc, going from being blinded by vengeance to showing mercy, was in Civil War, which wasn’t even his movie.

Instead, Black Panther is much more about Wakanda then it is about T’Challa, so Wakanda goes through a character arc, and he just represents it. That makes it sometimes feel like Black Panther is the sequel to half of an origin story we’ve never seen.

But that isn’t really a critique considering how important Wakanda is, and how compelling of a character this setting makes itself out to be. I can’t really do justice to the fictional country here, but I’ve learned a lot by reading what it means to others (I highly recommend this article to learn more about what Black Panther and Wakanda represent for many people: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/black-panther-s-glorious-depiction-wakanda-envisions-africa-black-dreams-ncna849016).

The second critique is that the film does not feel like a Marvel movie. That works well in this case, but there are moments within the film where it seemingly remembers it is a Marvel movie, and then does a Marvel-y thing that feels out of place. I would almost prefer if it hadn’t been associated with Marvel at all, and did not feel like it had to have any action sequences or jokes or any outside references.

However, those moments are few and few between, and don’t distract from the integrity of the film. And in case you’re wondering if this film is just a political history lesson, don’t worry. It’s an extremely entertaining film. It will also just happen to make you think! And isn’t that the best of both worlds?

But ultimately, this film wouldn’t have been made if it weren’t a Marvel movie. Not just because Black Panther is a Marvel comics property, but because Marvel and Disney are the only studios that are either able or willing to take this risk. Maybe they didn’t need to make ten movies starring a white guy named Chris before doing this film, but we’re here now. That’s why I get frustrated when prestigious directors bad mouth superhero films. With all due respect, they are by and large not making the films main audiences- and particularly audiences of color- want and need to see.

Black Panther isn’t just an example of the potential of blockbuster and big-studio successes, but also an example of why superhero movies are important. This is a genre, a space, like ancient mythology, that has the ability to be paired with any other genre to create new and original stories. Logan, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and The Dark Knight are all based in comic books, but all tell different stories, create different worlds, and say different things. As long as filmmakers keep pushing for new ways to tell these stories, the superhero boom isn’t going away, and until everybody gets to see themselves as a hero on screen, I don’t think it should.

I don’t know the full effect Black Panther will have on audiences, or comic book readers who have been waiting to see Wakanda in big screen glory. But I do know that it is a great film, and everyone should see it.

-Madeleine D

A “Fun” Movie: Justice League

justice league

Why do I keep seeing superhero movies?

This year alone I saw six (including Justice League). That’s a lot of money going into the Hollywood machine! And yes, I liked three of them a lot. Two, I probably could have skipped. This one? Well…

Why am I not boycotting them? After all, a lot of them are just rehashes of other ones. Am I getting desensitized to the action blow-’em-up violence? Am I becoming more satisfied with the loose plots and broad, undefined characters?

My act of resistance was not seeing Justice League on its opening weekend. I didn’t really want to see it. It got blasted by critics, mixed reception from fans, and the most hopeful thing anyone could say to me about it was that it “was fun.”

Being “fun.” Hmmm. That can’t be a bad thing. I think “fun” can be an acceptable thing for a movie to be. So I went, and decided to gauge the film by if I had a “fun” time.

I did not have a fun time.

Justice League takes place where Batman v. Superman leaves off, but has amnesia about half of that film. Batman v. Superman was all about the world rejecting Superman, and Batman fighting him. Then Superman dies. Justice League begins with a mopey montage about the world and Batman suddenly loving Superman and mourning his death.

The film has a “plot,” but it goes through the obligatory motions with as much enthusiasm as I have about explaining it, so let’s just say that the plot’s main purpose is to get the team together and fight a CGI monster-dude. There’s Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), a newly-resurrected Superman (not a spoiler- Henry Cavill’s name was on the poster), and three new characters- the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). Flash is the energetic comic relief, Cyborg is the moody anti-hero, and Aquaman is just there to have a good time and speak to fish. All of the actors here try their best, but Fisher seems lost within all the CGI, and Miller and Momoa both seem like they are in a much more exciting movie in their heads.

Before I continue, I  know there was a lot of drama and tragedy behind the scenes of the film, and I sympathize. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t criticize it when I’ve been asked to pay to watch it. What was put in theaters is what Warner Brothers decided was a film, and a finished product.

Justice League comes across as a deeply uncomfortable movie. Not for the audience- it requires so little audience engagement that I wrote up the majority of this review in my head during it- but a movie uncomfortable within itself. The actors don’t seem like they fit with the world, the story doesn’t seem like it fits within the previous films, and each scene seems like a patchwork of lackluster efforts and organizational chaos. No scene sits and breathes easily.

For example, I rarely mention CGI and editing in my reviews. Not because they aren’t important, but because most films have professionals working on them and these are areas that are usually competently done. But Justice League can’t even do those things competently. Shots jump awkwardly from one to another, some shots are headscratchers (why do you need a shot at eye level with Wonder Woman’s rear in leather pants? Oh wait…) and some of the CGI is on the level of a video-game.

There is no point in Justice League where there was something that made me think- that looks like a distinct creative decision made by a director with a vision. Which is interesting, because the film is made by the same team behind Batman V. Superman, a film people hated much more than this film, but I think is a better film by the sheer value of having direction. It’s not a great movie by any means, but at least there Zack Snyder tried something. He made interesting casting choices and tried to say something thematically. Justice League says some things about friendship and truth and justice, but… what it actually says beyond the idea that  “those things are good!” I couldn’t tell you.

This is a superhero casserole, stuffed with things people liked from other films- jokes, colors, team-ups, and is crammed in here without thought to what made them work in other films. It’s hollow, but supposedly fun. And I guess if you compare it to previous Snyder-fare it’s fun. There were a few times where a character said something on screen and a part of me went, “Oh, that was a joke.”

But have we really lowered our expectations of “fun” so low that this counts? Can’t a “fun” movie be a movie with direction and effort? Since when are metal things hitting other metal things and a stale script with a by-the-numbers villain “fun?” Why does fun have to be mindless?

So why do I keep seeing superhero movies? Because I believe in their potential. Comic book and superheros are our modern-day Greek mythology and fairy tales. They can be used as lenses in which to view our society’s fears and dreams. They can be easily paired with another genre. Just this year, Logan and Wonder Woman were landmark films and used the conventions of the genre in interesting ways.

Justice League does not push in any category. It stalls progress, and I hope that doesn’t make other movies as lazy- or “fun”- as this one.

-Madeleine D

So We Just Pretend Those Other Movies Don’t Exist, Right? Thor: Ragnarok

thor ragnarok

Every time I go in to see a Marvel movie, a voice whispers in the back of my mind: Don’t you dare give this a good review. You can’t give them all good reviews. Your five readers are going to think you’re basic. You’re becoming the enemy of cinema, a blockbuster, mouth-drooling, action-spectacular addict who likes quips and things that go boom. Don’t fall into the trap. Be better. Be the special snowflake who doesn’t like it.

But, I whisper back to the voice, professional critics have liked it. And I’ve been looking forward to this movie for two years.

They’ve already been mind-controlled. You are young, you can escape.

I just want to have a good time.

No, art only comes through pain and suffering.

That sounds fake, but okay.

Reveal this movie for what it truly is- a hollow technicolor sugar-rush!

And then I write the review.

Thor: Ragnarok takes place a little time after Avengers: Age of Ultron left off. Thor has been having dreams of an impending Ragnarok, the term denoting the apocalyptic-like end of his home planet of Asgard. As he tries to figure out what’s going on, his (evil? antihero?) brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, giving a very earnest performance) has been masquerading as their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins, definitely phoning it in), on the throne. A series of events occur, and Odin, being the Best Dad Ever, tells Thor and Loki they have an evil sister, Hela, goddess of death, (Cate Blanchett, having way too much fun) who is going to destroy Asgard. And then Odin promptly dies. Thor is subsequently sent to the planet of Sakaar, where he is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena against fellow Avenger, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, who deserves more respect for his MCU work at this point).

When I walked out of the theater, the first words out of my mouth were- “it felt sloppy, and I am conflicted.”

Whaaaatttt? 

Director Taika Waititi (of the fabulous Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do In The Shadows) has said the dialogue of the film is “about 80%” improvised. And that’s where the problem lies.

The film is clearly split into three parts (not just because of the three-act film structure) and they are all very different. The first part is rushed and works to parody the rest of the Thor films and clear up any threads to the previous films in order to start with a clean slate. This part was obviously scripted, with only subtle details that point to Waititi.

Then there is act two, where Thor is on Sakaar, fights Hulk, and assembles the new team. This is clearly where the improvisation happens, and where Waititi is most in control. The action sequences are good, but it’s the character interactions that shine. Then the film remembers- oh wait, plot– and so act three is served up with a script and probably a dose of improv. The pacing is uneven and rushed.

The third act is where the attempt at an emotional core takes place. Heimdall and Thor repeat this mantra a few times: Asgard is not a place, it’s a people. And that’s nice, except….

You can’t spend the first part of this movie parodying and invalidating and killing off the only recognizable characters from the previous Thor films, then expect me to then use the supposed connection I have with the previous Thor films to make me believe this ending and care. Maybe this makes me a terrible human being, but seeing all those extras looking mildly distressed is not enough to make me care all that much about Asgard.

So without an emotional connection at all, Thor: Ragnarok does not feel like a Waititi film, because his films do have heart. Quirky and off-kilter maybe, but they feel genuine. The ending of Thor: Ragnarok does not.

Ultimately, this film exemplifies all the pros and cons of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The good things? Well, there are jokes in this film that have been 5 years in the making, and as a fan, that is glorious. It makes it all worth it. The easter eggs in here are spectacular. I love seeing different Avengers pair off and watching their dynamic. I love that Marvel trusted an indie New Zealand comedic director to handle a big blockbuster! That only happens when you’re on your 17th film.

But the bad things? The first act having to deal with the previous movies. The overstuffed plot and characters that sacrifice a smoother story for fan service. The way Marvel is becoming too much of the same “funny.”

Yes, I said it. Marvel is too funny. If you watch the first Avengers film, while all the Avengers can be funny, each Avenger was a different kind of funny. Iron Man quipped. Captain America balked. Black Widow had the understatements. Bruce Banner/Hulk self-deprecated. Thor was a meathead.

But now, everyone has the same Marvel Humor. Doctor Strange, Ant Man, Star Lord and all the Guardians of the Galaxy, they all rip one-liners and can’t have an emotional moment without a joke attached. Thor may be more witty, and his jokes more physical, but when Waititi is gone and Thor is in the hands of another director, his jokes will probably lose their edge and become the same as everyone else. When everyone is the same kind of funny, it’s not as fun.  So I’m surprised this film has seemingly caught everyone off-guard by being a straight comedy. That’s really all the MCU is creating right now, and while a few films in the future may divert the path, Marvel needs to rethink their brand. Light does not have to mean sitcom.

I’m trying to keep my critic’s hat on for this, because believe me, my fan side has some very specific strong opinions. I had high expectations going in.

That all said, I’m critiquing this movie because it has so many things going for it. You’re harder on things you love. And while I am frustrated with Thor: Ragnarok, I do like it, and I think most people will love it. The acting, the humor, the character moments, the visuals, the music, are all spot-on. I can’t really say more for fear of giving stuff away, but this film is really best just seen and experienced. If you can get over the issues I had, which I’m sure I’ll be able to put aside for a repeated viewing, then Thor: Ragnarok is going to be a blast. I don’t think this is a game-changer, but it’s certainly a solid step.

-Madeleine D