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.

Doctor Strange: Marvel continue to mix it up

Film

From the opening third of this movie I thought, here we go, Inception on acid with a large helping of Batman Begins. No bad thing, but still… everything draws from something else, so the studio had to make this movie stand out; but also give it that Marvel flavour. Which, happily, they did; with mystic monks bending matter and reality and turning cities into living kaleidoscopes, it’s definitely no cookie cutter approach. Nor should it be, because Marvel – the juggernaut it is now – need to keep pushing the envelope to stay fresh.

Heroes cannot just punch people to solve their problems.

And after all, our hero here is Doctor Strange, so strange is what you want from this character, right? So what follows after the initial sugar rush of monks and warped cityscapes is the introduction of neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); brilliant but arrogant and living the playboy lifestyle. Then a horrific car crash leaves him with severe nerve damage in both hands. So no more surgery and no more perfect career for our hero. His life is effectively over and he’s broken and angry.

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So he seeks alternative therapies, which eventually lead him to Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, the ultimate mystical monk. She sees potential so takes him on, but gives him an LSD style crash course trip before he gets to his training proper. And during this time one of the Ancient One’s former pupils (Mads Mikkelsen) has gone to the dark side and is tearing around the place trying to unleash a being from the dark dimension (as we all are wont to do when we’ve had a bad day).

Amidst this we have Strange desperately trying to stop him; whilst awkwardly learning how to be a hero at the same time. It’s from this that most of the humour is drawn. Because, as he’s no fully formed Avenger, the mishaps work a treat; he’s reckless but inquisitive, arrogant but intelligent, a fast learner but a bit of an idiot. So we have an odd hero, offbeat. More the mould of Ant-Man or early Tony Stark than Thor or Captain America. He definitely doesn’t have all the answers. 

He even has a levitating cloak which, in a genius bit of screenwriting, gets its own rather brilliant introduction and, after a few scenes and no dialogue (being a cloak) half steals the film from Cumberbatch. But every hero needs a sidekick, so it works.

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And Cumberbatch is fantastic in this role.

Did I mention that? Half Sherlock but more of an outright hero with more swagger. With bits of John Harrison (a la Khan) in there, but here much more appealing to root for than a tortured bad guy taunting Kirk.

And for the fanboys (and girls) I can no doubt imagine their excitement to have Cumberbatch now part of the MCU, with his version of Strange interacting with the Avengers in future films an enticing prospect. Picture it: even just him, The Vision and Tony Stark sitting down for a cup of tea could be standout scene in any Marvel movie you care to name.

Then there’s the other fact that, with this film including Strange’s use of an Infinity stone, Marvel have drawn much closer links between Earth’s heroes and the Guardians of the Galaxy gang. And Strange could be the glue that holds them all together. With, er, five Infinity stones now in play, we’re moving closer to the end game.

A slight bum note is that, yet again, the baddies are not that fleshed out. Mads gets one proper scene where he explains why he’s doing what he’s doing, but it’s kind of hard to feel much for him after that. Especially as the rest of the time he’s just scowling and running around after Strange. 

But whatever, it’s nitpicking. And with Cumberbatch, Marvel have struck casting gold again, so the future looks rosy. Not that it was ever in doubt.

I guess it’s just a case of saying… Infinity War here we come!

Captain America: Civil War – review

Film

Let’s make something perfectly clear – or at least less muddy. This film is not an Avengers movie, it’s a Captain America one… inasmuch as he’s the focus and both antagonist and protagonist. But then, so is Tony Stark. So maybe it’s a Captain America versus Iron Man movie, with their respective teams in tow?

In any case, it’s all gotten a bit more serious…. more DC maybe, less Marvel. Perhaps this is right in this instance, for here the plot picks up strands from Steve Rodgers’ prior outings, as well as further mining the depths of Tony Stark’s inner torment, following everything he’s been through; including accidently creating Ultron as force for bad rather than good.

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And so we have a bit of playing against type – or role reversal – in that rebellious playboy Stark supports legislation to make our heroes accountable to the U. N., but Rodgers – a man who you’d safely bet would be on the side of the establishment – is firmly in the opposite camp. Mostly because he wants to protect his friend Bucky – the Winter Soldier who keeps getting into trouble – but also because he feels legislation clips the wings of the Avengers, stopping them from doing what they do best without the need for red tape.

So we have some nice, meaty motivation for our two main dudes, pitting them against each other. Each a titan with his own loyal followers, and so with Civil War we get some old names (Black Widow, Hawkeye), some newer but fairly established ones (War Machine, Falcon, Ant-Man, The Vision, Scarlett Witch) and some fresh blood (Spider-Man, Black Panther).

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They fly, they swoop, they shrink, they grow and they scrap their little heart’s out.

And it’s a blast.

Then, on the periphery of all the infighting we have an actual bad guy (Daniel Bruhl) who goes rather unnoticed for the most part. But he’s not the main focus, so it’s ok. He does the job he needs to do at the times upon which he’s called, but it’s Cap v Iron Man we’ve come to see really… that and the interplay between almost all of Marvel’s superheroes (except Thor and Hulk who’ve gone AWOL and the Guardians of the Galaxy lot) in one giant dust-up, plus a few other skirmishes along the way.

To do this and not give the audience a headache is really quite masterful on the part of the Russo brothers; who are really getting into their stride directing these days.

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That said, there’s a point where the movie is in danger of becoming too po-faced and serious for its own good. Thank God that, at that point, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man turn up to take the edge off most pleasingly.

Lest we forget that Marvel’s strength tends to be in light-hearted banter amid the mayhem, so it’s good that they didn’t go too far down the DC path, past the point of no return at least.

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At the end of the day we all know people in costumes are somewhat ridiculous, so it’s important to burst the bubble at regular intervals – and the final third of the movie moves into much more welcome territory. Overall, it may actually be the best Marvel film yet (I’ve yet to see Ant-Man, but from the scenes in this film it has to be on my ‘to watch’ list in the near future).

And as a final thought, props to the filmmakers for how they’ve portrayed Black Panther. With his cat-like reflexes, sharp claws and black suit he’s got to be up there as one of the coolest superheroes we’ve seen in a while. A solo film following this character would be a pretty savvy choice bet I’d say.

Roll on the next one…

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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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Jeff Bridges – old-timer hits rich vein of form

My musings

I’d like to chat, if I may, about Jeff Bridges. Now some might say he’s in the twilight of his career, but I think he’s just getting into his stride. Let me explain.

IMDb shows his first credited role took place on a TV show called Sea Hunt from 1958-60. From there, in 1972, he became one of the youngest ever actors to get nominated for an Oscar, aged 22 for The Last Picture Show. During the period between 1970 to the end of the 1990s, obadiah iron manhe received further nominations and critical acclaim for performances including: Starman, Against All Odds, and Fearless.

Then, at the end of the 90s, he gave us arguably his most iconic character, The Dude in The Big Lebowski. A character many consider to be a career high – or at least the most memorable.

In 2008 came Iron Man. A bit of an unexpected hit for the studio and the cast. Bridges, here, giving us the scheming Obadiah Stane, facing off against Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. A brilliantly realised character, Obadiah is the ultimate CEO-gone-bad and Bridges plays him perfectly. Never a moment when he overdoes it, letting Obadiah’s quiet menace come through, effectively hidden behind Bridges’ genial nature until the third act. The Dude has gone bad.

jeff-bridges-as-bad-blakeThe tipping point
For me, this film was where Bridges’ career moved up a level. With Iron Man he had reached a point where he could play wonderfully complex, yet thoroughly engaging characters. Some villians, some good guys, all of them flawed in some way. Some may say they’re all variations of The Dude, but that’s lazy and inaccurate.

At this point Bridges’ rich vein of form began to gather pace. Beginning with a brilliant and underrated turn as Bill Django in The Men Who Stare at Goats in 2009. He then gave us – the same year – a fantastic performance as washed up, boozy singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart.

His journey from bitterness and self-loathing through to redemption and inner peace is thoroughly believable and compelling. Indeed, the performance won him an Oscar, making him – quite fittingly – also one of the oldest actors to ever win the award, aged 60.

jeff-bridges-true-gritOld-timer delivers
In 2010 this followed with another critically-acclaimed performance as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. Another award-laden film. Following John Wayne’s iconic footsteps was no easy thing, but Bridges gave a strong performance, thoroughly inhabiting Rooster’s gruff nature.

Beneath his hardened exterior, though, Rooster showed compassion and sense of responsibility towards Mattie Ross (played with plucky determination by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld). Many of the scenes in the final act where he comes through for Mattie time and again are incredibly moving.

So, to sum up, even though The Dude is now in his mid 60s, I think he’s doing some of the best and most consistent work of his career. Let’s hope the roles keep coming!

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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!