Spider-Man: Homecoming – review

Film

So Spidey is back – and now with added baby-faced Tom Holland. Back in the day Tobey Maguire had three goes at the role with Sam Raimi directing: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007). Then Andrew Garfield had a crack with Marc Webb in charge: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).

And each, arguably, suffered from the law of diminishing returns. Spidey wasn’t dead but he had been battered pretty thoroughly. Then he popped up, teasingly, in Captain America: Civil War (2016)played by a young Tom Holland. And everyone loved his – albeit short – take on the character. Seems Spidey had returned and this time he was part of the MCU.

Hooray, this felt fresh and well-timed.

So we get Spider-Man: Homecoming a year later. Now some say this version of our arachnid hero is the best yet. Not just because having a younger actor play the role REALLY works and makes more sense (he’s supposed to be a schoolkid), but also because Tom Holland just seems a better fit as an actor than Maguire, and certainly Garfield.

Because, frankly, Holland plays to his strengths, making him cocky and intelligent yet vulnerable and with a big heart, which, naturally, brings him to Tony Stark’s attention. For you see, with Homecoming, he’s very much Tony’s protégé, with Tony a sort of tough love father figure towards Peter.

And as part of that tough love, after helping Stark out in Civil War he gets cuts loose, and told to basically stay out of trouble until he’s called upon, with Happy (Jon Favreau) his reluctant minder.

During which time hard-as-nails salvage guy Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is nicking alien artifacts found during the aftermath of the chitauri attack on New York and turning them into weapons – and in doing so becomes the Vulture.

So little Peter has to prove he’s got what it takes to bring Toomes down, change from boy to man, and prove his hero status to become a fully fledged Avenger.

Which is all well and good. But the nice touches for me in this film come from things we’ve not seen before. THANK GOD the filmmakers didn’t show us how Peter got his powers and came to live with Aunt May. We’ve seen it so many times. Save for a quick line about being bitten by spider and how his aunt has been through a lot, that’s it. Great, let’s move on.

More thought along similar lines has also gone into Peter’s suit. As it’s made by Stark it comes complete with gadgets galore and a PA, but with a little twist to contrast Iron Man’s JARVIS. So from the types of web he can use (grenade, taser) to the suit’s modes (kill, surveillance), it adds a lot more to Spider-Man in terms of his capabilities as a hero and how he can fight.

Yet, as Tony points out, he needs to be a hero without the suit (much like Tony’s own journey in Iron Man). So there’s a couple of pivotal – and fairly emotionally weighty – scenes where we get to see what Peter is really made of. And it helps, of course, to have a worthy foe, because in Michael Keaton we get both comic book pedigree (Batman, Birdman) and oodles of charisma, where he can flip from charm to menace at the drop of a hat (he should really play baddies more often, it suits him).

Ultimately, it’s great that Spider-Man is with Marvel now. Sony, for all their efforts, never really found their groove with this character. And given the fact that Marvel just continue to go from strength to strength as they expand their universe, it’s encouraging that Spider-Man is now a part of that. Roll on Thor: Ragnarok.

Avengers: Age of Ultron review

Film

And so, Marvel’s quest for domination of box office dollars and moviegoer’s time continues. This may sound like I’m starting cynical but I’d like to point out I’m a fan and did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron immensely. But… I am starting to feel blockbuster burnout.

First though, the good stuff.

It’s great to have another Avengers movie and the gang back together, they’ve got an easy chemistry and work well as a unit. The story kicks off almost immediately with a slow-mo money shot of them attacking a Hydra base – one to get the fanboys screaming. There’s wisecracking all round and Hulk smashing stuff, yay.

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The team are after Loki’s sceptre which carries a great deal of power. Once retrieved, Stark and Banner think they can use it to create artificial intelligence to put in a robot that will protect the earth so the Avengers can effectively retire. With Captain America the strongest opposed to this plan (more on that later) it backfires producing a rather hateful and sociopathic Ultron (voiced with verve and menace by James Spader).

And so the team have a new foe to face, typically one they created themselves – but let’s not get into that. For those that haven’t been living under a rock the past decade you should all know these characters by now – and no time is wasted picking up where they left off in the first film (and indeed all the other individual films they’ve been in).

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Moving things along a bit director Joss Whedon does provide some nice character moments, in particular Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner developing as a couple and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye showing another side as a family man.

There’s also new characters.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch make an intriguing pair – and it’s nice that their loyalties are torn during the film rather than them being clean cut heroes throughout. In terms of powers (his, speed; hers, telekinesis and mind control) they’re brought to life effectively, although hers does mean that we veer pretty closely to X-Men territory. (There’s lots of crossover in the comic book world but on the silver screen I’m not sure I’d like the Avengers and X-Men to meet/fight/team up really, but that’s another discussion.)

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Where this film falls over a little is down to the fact we’ve seen it all before. And before. And before. The film’s final third is yet another battle in the skies, which now seems to happen in every Marvel film. Also, even though we do want to see the team smash bad guys to bits it doesn’t feel like there’s ever much at stake. Maybe I’m starting to care less about the characters, or maybe I know that they’ll never kill off any of the major ones, but it just makes it all seem a little too… safe and pedestrian. Which is ridiculous given all the explosions and fights and whatnot.

Also, it never seems to take that much effort to outwit the bad guy. Well, mental effort. Physical effort the team have aplenty. Making a clumsy comparison to The Dark Knight for a second, the Joker laughs at Batman as he pounds him saying he has nothing to threaten him with. It feels like that here. Other than brute force to solve problems it never feels like the Avengers have any other way of doing things. Is avenging just different ways of punching someone? Maybe their enemies will get more complex in the future, who knows. The teaser (spoiler, ish) at the end of the film suggests Marvel are drawing all the strands of their portfolio together, perhaps for forthcoming Civil War where we see the differences of opinion of Captain America and Tony Stark (on how to protect the masses) come to a head in a monumental scrap.

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Back to Age of Ultron though. Despite what I’ve just said, all in all it’s a lot of fun. There’s lots of meat for the geeks and comic book fans to chow down on, we get a bit more character development and a lot more smashy smashy bad guys but – and it’s a big but – are we reaching saturation point? Are audiences getting tired of these characters? I am a little. Still love them, but I’m getting a little jaded.

Maybe less smashy more talky is the order of the day. There’s a section in Age of Ultron where Scarlet Witch pretty much floors the team with her mind control skills. That was intriguing. More of that please. Same goes for Paul Bettany’s The Vision – another nice addition, and a more thoughtful one to boot. Perhaps my ponderings are immaterial as, from the film’s final scenes, it looks like they’re trying to move the world onto other characters, which is good. I love the old gang as much as the next fanboy, but maybe it’s time to call time on them?

Anyway… I could go on and on but you get the idea. Go watch it and judge for yourself. Do you feel the same way?

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Black lays Stark comically bare for Iron Man 3

Film

You have to hand it to Shane Black, he’s got me torn in a good and bad way. There’s no questioning his screenplay skills, the man can write.

Past work includes Lethal Weapon 1-4, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the latter being his directorial debut. Yet I feel this latest instalment in the mandarinbenkingsleyIron Man franchise, whilst generally good, may have missed a trick or two.

Plot wise, this picks up soon after the events of Avengers. Tony is in a bad way suffering from post traumatic stress disorder; nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and the like.

Then, to kick him whilst he’s down, The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) appears on the scene; a shadowy, terrorist-type figure, taking credit for a series of bombings, issuing death threats to the President – that sort of thing.

One bombing results in the injury of Tony’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau), which is the last straw. With a ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’, Tony tells The Mandarin to pay him a visit, which he duly does with attack helicopters and missiles.

Iron-Man-3-PepperWith his house in ruins and precious iron suit out of power, Tony is stripped back to his wits and surroundings to fight back – much in the way he was in the original. Although this time in snowy Tennessee in winter, as opposed to a sandy cave in the Middle East.

Throw the suave and sophisticated Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and former flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) in the mix, as a pair trying to convince Stark Enterprises to buy into their ‘extremis’ product  (an experimental regenerative treatment) and you’ve got the basis for a rip-roaring film. Let’s face it, anything would be an improvement on Iron Man 2 at this point.

Happily, Black largely delivers. He’s known for sharp, witty one-liners – not only from the main cast, but minor characters too – so iron-man-3-review Stark should suit him down to the ground. I say should, as there’s a few minor quibbles that stop this being a truly great superhero flick.

First off, what’s with everything being a back-to-basics origin story these days? Batman and Bond ‘went dark’, with Thor: The Dark World and Man of Steel appearing to follow suit. Seems hero characters are all being stripped back with Hollywood saying ‘We must have an origin story or people won’t buy into it!’ Not true.

Luckily it’s not all darkness, Black is a dab hand at a quick, witty lines to lift the tone. However, to nit pick somewhat, you could argue he uses this skill a bit too much. Yes, play to your strengths, but there were times when dramatic tone was needed mayahansento build tension and Black retreated to his comfort zone with an amusing line and the moment was lost.

This was clear to see when Tony suffered from anxiety attacks frequently early on, but these were often dismissed or trivialised by other characters and the scene quickly moved on. Surely there was more mileage in exploring his mental state more thoroughly? It would have added depth to Stark’s character.

Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen was an intriguing character and got me thinking maybe she’d add depth to Stark’s journey, yet Black shied away from exploring this too. Kingsley’s Mandarin was similarly short-changed on the dramatic front. Most surprising, given the calibre of these actors the director had at his disposal.

That aside, Black more than delivers on action and humour – perfect for this character – yet perhaps falls short when it comes to dramatic depth. As a result we’re left with the funniest Iron Man to date – the extra comedy putting it on par with the original – but you’re left feeling that, instead of another gag, more substance at times would have been more refreshing.

Let’s leave you with classic Black, ‘This isn’t good cop bad cop, this is fag and New Yorker.’

[Interesting links]
Crash, bang, wallop – Shane Black action movie masterclass
Iron Man – behind the scenes

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Marvel – masters of the cinematic universe

My musings

For this posting I’d like to discuss the evolution of the Marvel universe. I recently – finally – got around to seeing The Avengers. Or, as it’s known in the UK, Avengers Assemble (damn you, Steed).

I have to say, having unavoidably seen and heard many reviews, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it and be expecting too much. Would it live up to the hype? Would it feel rushed/crowded with so many larger-than-life characters jostling for screen time? Well, much like everybody else, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Great pacing, great action, great characters, great dialogue.

avengers natasha romanoffPlus all the Avengers were given – more or less – an equal amount to do, including the new characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. The latter unsurprisingly well written, given writer/director Joss Whedon’s affinity for strong, female characters (Buffy et al).

So, before this becomes an Avengers review, back to the subject in question. I had a vague awareness of the fact there’s been quite a few films over recent years that have come out of the Marvel studio. However when you really look, it seems like an unstoppable wave. To name the live-action films we’ve had since 1998:

  • 5 X Men (2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011)
  • 4 Spider Man (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012)
  • 3 Blade (1998, 2002, 2004)
  • 2 Iron Man (2008, 2010)
  • 2 Hulk (2003, 2008)
  • 2 Fantastic Four (2005, 2007)
  • 2 Ghost Rider (2007, 2012)
  • 1 Thor (2011)
  • 1 Captain America (2011)
  • 1 Avengers (2012)

I’ve left off the experiments that were Daredevil, Elektra and Man Thing, simply because they weren’t hugely successful and it’s unlikely there will be a follow up to any of these in the near future. Therefore I’m only including films where the characters have appeared more than once in the Marvel cinematic universe. So, from 1998 to 2012 (that’s 14 years, keep up), we’ve had 23 films. That’s 1.6 films a year! I’m not sure if what I’m expressing here is good shock or bad shock? Perhaps both.

snipes dorff bladeLooking ahead
I suppose, with this sort of prolific output, you’ll have successes and failures. In recent years, they’ve begun to have more of the former, both critically and commercially. For every mediocre Daredevil or Fantastic Four you’ll get a decent Spider Man or Blade.

Or, if you’re really lucky, strike complete gold and unearth Robert Downey Jr. A man born to play Tony Stark. Don’t believe me? Watch some of his early work, like Natural Born Killers. Check out this classic scene. For me, if you take his character there, throw in a little Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tropic Thunder, you’ll get Tony Stark. Perhaps a leap but it makes sense to me!

Don’t stop us now
With recent successes of the Avengers’ characters, both in their ensemble film and stand-alone outings, the plan for Marvel films over the next few years is looking quite exciting. Next year we’ll get a second from the blonde Asgardian, Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3.  In 2014 we’ll have, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, plus – most intriguingly – a massive departure from the norm with Guardians of the Galaxy. A film which has a sentient tree and a raccoon with a gun as main characters.

I can’t say I’m excited about this one…yet. Although I do approve of the concept art above. What I like is that you cannot accuse Marvel of resting on their laurels or playing it too safe. That, in itself, is reason to be quietly optimistic. But I guess we’ll see. Oh, and there’s also a second Avengers due out 2015, just in case Guardians doesn’t go as planned.

Defenders of the universe
So, on the whole, I think it’s great Marvel are mixing it up. Yes, they’re putting out films for a lot of their mainstream superheroes, but they’re safer bets. Keeps the money coming in. They could just sit on that but, like any industry, if you’re not moving forward you’re doing the opposite.

So introducing a new host of characters is brave, yet wholly necessary. Eventually we’ll get sick of superhero films and want westerns or zombie films for a few years or something. But, if Marvel keep freshening things up, maybe we’ll stay a while longer. Maybe a character called Rocket Raccoon is just what’s called for – long live diversity!