Ant-Man (Review)

Directed by Peyton Reed, US, 2015

Superhero movies are getting a little monotonous these days.  Good guy becomes superhero, faces bad guy, loses confidence, regains confidence, defeats bad guy, rinse and repeat.  It would be refreshing if superhero films started exploring other genres.  Enter Ant-Man, which is essentially a heist movie.

It’s not as good as Ocean’s 11 (either version), but it puts an interesting twist on the standard formula.  Something needs to be stolen from a clear antagonist (the movie doesn’t even try to make its villain, Darren Cross (Corey Stall) three dimensional).  There’s a team handling different aspects of the break-in, and oh yeah, a guy who can shrink to the size of an ant and communicate with insects.

The movie is kept afloat by solid, humorous performances from Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, and Evangeline Lilly.  The interactions between these three protagonists keeps the tone of the movie from taking itself too seriously.  Douglas is of course a screen legend, but Rudd and Lilly hold their own acting opposite him.

Should you go see Ant-Man at this point?  Sure.  As a whole it’s better than some Marvel movies, but not as good as others.  It’s far from a classic of American cinema, but a fun movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

You might like Ant-Man if: You think a superhero/heist combo film sounds like a fun idea.

You might not like Ant-Man if: You’re a little burned out on comic book movies for the summer.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Ranking the Marvel Studios Films So Far

In anticipation of this weekend’s release of the money-printing blockbuster “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at the previous ten Marvel Studios productions and create a pointless ranking!  This should get us all through the next few hours until we see the new movie:

Not Ranked – Thor: The Dark World (2013)

I haven’t seen Thor: The Dark World, so I can’t rank it.  I’m sure I’ll watch it on basic cable someday, but the character of Thor has never been a big draw for me.  The comics I most enjoyed reading when I was growing up were the X-Men, Avengers, Captain America, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Batman books.  Sure if a Thor book came in a package I would slog through it, but I never found his character particularly exciting.   Sorry Thor.

9. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2 isn’t a terrible film.  For a summer blockbuster it’s fairly average, and therefore suffers in comparison to Marvel’s other films.  The only thing that happens in it that’s so far relvant to any of the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) series is that it is the first appearance of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.  It’s the least memorable, and least essential, film in the series.

8. Thor (2011)

I might be a little biased – as stated above – in my opinion of the characters and storylines of the Marvel Thor mythos.  That being said, the movie Thor was pretty disorganized and a bit of a mess as a film.  The Thor mythos is complicated, and trying to shove all of that exposition into one film made was problematic.  Still, it exceeded my admittedly low expectations.

7. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Ed Norton made a great Bruce Banner, but I feel like he was wasted a bit in this film.  The problem was the Marvel decided to make a sequel to 2003’s poorly received “Hulk” instead of starting from scratch.  I would have rather seen Ed Norton as a younger, pre-accident Bruce Banner that dropping him in the middle of a story like they did.

6. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Tony Stark has problems.  Iron Man 2 scratched the surface of those problems, but the third film in the series does a better job of humanizing them.  Showcasing Stark’s issues here laid important groundwork for the direction the series seems to be heading with Friday’s Age of Ultron and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.

5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The MCU Series has done a better job of setting up Steve Rogers as a likeable character than his comic book series.  Rogers often comes across as a bit of a stiff in the comics, but the film version of the character gives him a great deal of depth and warmth.  The only reason that this one doesn’t get ranked higher is that I think it was a mistake eliminating the Red Skull as a threat so early.

4. Iron Man (2008)

Now we’re getting into semantics.  The top four films here could be ranked in any order and I would probably be okay with that.  Still, like any pointless ranking post, there must be winners and losers.  Iron Man is a fun, high quality film.  Since there are films that build on, and improve on, Iron Man in the MCU series, it has to be listed behind them.

3. The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers is a fine film and a landmark in serial film storytelling.  What it doesn’t, and can’t really, do is spend much time on the characters in the film.  It relies heavily on the characterizations established in the other MCU films, and for this practical creative decision, there are two films ranked ahead of it on our pointless, time-killing list.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

What sets Guardians of the Galaxy apart from the Avengers is that, for structural reasons, it has to spend a lot of time setting up its characters.  The story is pretty basic, even for comic book movie standards, but it does a better job of establishing a large group of characters than any other movie on the list.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Winter Solider takes the characters established in the other MCU films and builds upon them, but it’s strength lies in its story.  The film deals with more complex themes than the other MCU films and is better structured than most of them.  It makes me look forward to the next Captain America film more than the Avengers made me look forward to this weekend’s release.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Directed by Bryan Singer, U.S., 2014

Sometimes I wish that the creators of some bad movies would create sequels or remakes that would undo all of the damage those bad movies did to their respective franchises.  After all, how many of us have spent more time talking about how the Star Wars prequels could have been better if they just made a few changes?  Or wish the Indiana Jones series only had two movies in it?  Or wish a mad-with-power William Shatner had never made Star Trek V?  Enter X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Like its unfortunately botched predecessor,  2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (which was loosely – extremely loosely – based on the Dark Phoenix Saga), Days of Future Past is based on a beloved classic X-Men story.  What Last Stand got wrong, Days of Future Past gets mostly right.

Days of Future Past is a sequel to Last Stand, but it is moreso a sequel to the far superior X-Men: First Class (2011).  The future part of “Days of Future Past” is a framing device only, as the future Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time.  In the comics, it’s Shadowcat (Ellen Page) that goes back, which makes a lot more sense but hey, gotta have Wolverine as a central character in an X-Men movie!

Anyway, Wolverine has to take a burnt out 1973 Professor X (James McAvoy), and imprisoned 1973 Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and get them to stop 1973 Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from doing something that will result in horrible killbots destroying the world in 2013.

The movie relies upon the strong character foundations of First Class and The Wolverine (2013), so it doesn’t spend a lot of time on the background of its the characters.  That is actually okay in this circumstance – we already know these characters. This avoidance of repetitive background information allows the movie to indulge in some of the better action sequences in any comic book film.

Also, unlike some Spider-man related sequels, Days of Future Past avoids too-many-villain-syndrome.  Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is interesting, and the evil robots he creates are devastating to the future X-Men, but the real villain in this film is time itself.

That touches a nerve I think.  The movie would be one of the better comic book films due to its indulgence in comic book action rather than filler, but its premise gives it an added dimension.  We all wish we could go back and change one or two things about the past after all, especially, I imagine, if a choice we make results in the destruction of our civilization.   Or even, if the choice we made to hire Brett Ratner and rush out a crappy sequel caused people to question whether this our lucrative franchise should just revert back to Marvel/Disney.

On that note, I like where Fox is headed with X-Men.  The Days of Future Past storyline in the comics put off the destruction of the world for a time, but it left a hanging question over the heads of the X-Men as to whether they weren’t ultimately doomed anyway.  Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out.

Finally, if Fox continues to produce quality X-Men films like Days of Future Past and First Class, I don’t think the franchise should revert back to Disney.  After all, the biggest problem I have with the Marvel comic book universe is that the X-Men work better as a stand alone universe.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense that the Fantastic Four and Avengers are revered while mutants are persecuted.  What makes the X-Men so special/reviled in a world where super powered beings are a dime a dozen?  Plus, it gives Marvel a lazy way of creating hero back-story because, when in doubt, they can just make someone a mutant.

Anyway, that’s a discussion for another time.  Back on topic – if you like the X-Men you should see this movie.

You might like X-Men: Days of Future Past if: You like the X-Men, and are sick of comic book movie sequels that contain repetitive characterization and endless, one-dimensional, villains.

You might not like X-Men: Days of Future Past if: You think comic book movies are silly.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder, 2013, US

By D.G. McCabe

My kingdom for a decent Superman movie.

When I last checked Rotten Tomatoes, Man of Steel was sitting at 56%.  I don’t know what movie those 56% percent of critics were watching, because it certainly wasn’t the same one I saw this evening.  It’s bad.  How bad you say?

It starts off promisingly enough.  With Christopher Nolan working on the screenplay and production, you get a little bit of Batman Begins…oh wait, Superman isn’t Batman.  Superman doesn’t walk the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu.  There is enough complexity in the character already without having to turn him into Bruce f’ing Banner already, and a lot of that complexity is hereto unexplored in film.

Still, I could get behind a reluctant, nomadic Superman if the director, Zack Snyder, would have followed through on that concept.  It’s too bad he doesn’t.  And after two hours that feel like five, you realize that Snyder should stick with ridiculously stylized movies about shirtless, ancient Greek meatheads.

The second half of the movie consists of nothing but smash smash, boom boom.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve defended smash smash, boom boom at times, but usually I expect that crap from Michael Bay films not a Superman movie.  There’s a difference between “all I want to see is giant robots fighting each other” and “I’m looking at my watch to see how long this never ending action sequence is.”

And the dialogue.  Maybe this crap was fine on TV’s Lois and Clark, oh wait, that show is bloody Shakespeare compared to this crap.  Now, Nolan’s scripts sometimes hit you over the head with exposition a bit too much (“That’s why the military invented dream sharing” from Inception for example), but I expected more of him.  After plenty of mustache-twirling villain exposition and lots of “release this against Superman” or “unleash that against Superman” I started laughing like I was watching friggin’ Anchorman.

Apparently, Nolan and Snyder decided to farm out the second half of their screenplay to an eleven year old who got into the coffee again.  So Superman fights the bad guys and smashed up the town, then they move to the city and then he’s gotta fly to the other side of the world and fight this other thing and then he’s gotta go back to the city and fight Zod in the big climax and boom!  Boooooooooom!

After sitting through this BS, it made me want to do to this movie what a completely out of character Superman does at the end of it.  Apparently there are two sequels on the way from these clowns, let’s hope they learn from their mistakes instead of doubling down on crappy dialogue, complete lack of romantic chemistry, and stupid jokes like Star Wars Episode II did.

You might like Man of Steel if: You have no interest in the Superman character, or wish that he was Batman, or you have completely merged video games and movies in your mind.

You might not like Man of Steel if: You have any knowledge at all about the character of Superman or you just don’t have the endurance to sit through a ninety minute action sequence that doesn’t even look all that great and never f’ing ends.

(c) 2013 D. G. McCabe

Iron Man 3 & Comic Book Films

Iron Man 3

Directed by Shane Black, 2013, U.S.

If there ever was a film that would be critic-proof, it would be Iron Man 3.  The previous three films with Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark combined to gross more money than the GDP of entire countries sure, but with no significant time lag or cast changes, the film is destined to continue the Marvel empire’s chain of successes (and it’s initial box office returns have confirmed this to be fact rather than prediction).

Iron Man 3 is a lot of fun, and I would recommend it to anyone who just wanted to spend a few hours in a movie theater and watch an super hero action movie.  Even if criticism did make any difference, it would be hard to point out any significant flaws in the film in attempting to accomplish what it is trying to achieve – the satisfaction of Iron Man fans and casual moviegoers.  In fact, most of the reviews that I glanced at seemed to be more concerned with the film’s derivative or cliched elements than any actual problems with the acting, writing, effects, directing, or other commonly understood benchmarks of film quality.  For example, almost no one criticizes any of the performances, but it seems that having an action scene set in an abandoned shipyard draws a collective “yawn” from the film intelligentsia.

Still, have these critics every read a comic book?   Sure, the comic book artform has become more sophisticated since the 1980’s but complaining that a movie based on a comic book from the 1960’s is derivative or cliched is a bit like complaining that Chaplin’s films are silent or complaining that a giraffe is  tall.  It’s in the thing’s nature as pulp mythology – there is only so much you can do to a storyline that’s been around for five decades without turning off the fans who are paying many millions of dollars to see that storyline on screen.

That isn’t to say that comic book films can never be creative or are doomed to “B-Movie” status.  The Dark Knight (2008), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and Tim Burton’s original Batman (1989) stand as clear examples of creative takes on well known characters.  But I would argue that it isn’t only the creativity of the aforementioned “upper echelon” of comic book films that make them stand apart from the masses of super hero films, good and bad, that have come out in the last twenty-five years or so – it’s their execution.  After all, a well executed, derivative comic book film like Iron Man 3 is still far preferable to a creative but poorly executed  film like 2009’s adaptation of “Watchmen.”

Iron Man 3 belongs in the same category as Batman Returns (1992),  Spider-Man (2002), and the original Iron Man (2008) – fun adaptations of familiar stories that are well executed and satisfactory to movie-goers and fans alike.  It isn’t a classic of cinema or even near the top of it’s particular genre, but if we’re going to criticize it for being derivative or cliched, let’s at least put some context around it first, shall we?

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man

Marc Webb, 2012, USA

New on DVD is The Amazing Spider-Man, this summer’s third highest grossing film after The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.  I recently saw this on an airplane and while I didn’t get the full cinematic effect by doing so, I’m glad I didn’t spend money on it in the theaters.  It’s not a bad film, but it is an inferior re-make of a far better movie (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002)).

Don’t get me wrong – there are worthwhile remakes out there.  However, most of the time the best remakes have a different location (Seven Samurai (1954) /The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Departed (2006) /Infernal Affairs (2002)), a different time period (Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001), Father of the Bride (1950/1991)), or a dramatically different plot (Scarface (1932/1983)) than the original. The Amazing Spider-Man has none of these differences.  Just like the original, we find Peter Parker in high school, figuring out his new powers, and trying to stop a villain who attacks bridges.

First of all, Spider-Man absolutely nailed the comic book origins of Spider-Man, indeed it may be the most accurate adaptation of a comic book ever committed to celluloid.  The Amazing Spider-Man dumps large swaths of the Spider-Man mythos (I know newspapers aren’t doing so hot but c’mon, no Daily Bugle?), demonstrates Peter using his powers in public and in the open on at least two occasions (in the original he beats up Flash Thompson sure, but in this one he fights like 10 people on the subway), and contains an uninspiring villain (I’ve never been a big fan of the Lizard). And for what?  So we can see Peter Parker/Spider-Man as a text-happy, mopey, teenager?

Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is 0ff base, although he does his best with the material he’s given.  His Peter Parker is written as motivated by vengeance and showing off more than Parker’s actual reason for being Spider-Man in the first place – an overwhelming sense of guilt and responsibility.  Tobey Macguire’s Peter Parker/Spider-man (at least in the first two Spider-Man films) is far superior in this regard, as well as generally more likeable.

I know why they made The Amazing Spider-Man – Sony needed to make another film or the rights to Spider-Man would have reverted back to Marvel/Disney – but I don’t think an inferior re-make of the original film was the right way to go.  After all, the young adult, 30ish Spider-Man of the 80’s and 90’s had to navigate a troubled marriage, increasingly powerful enemies, and the enormous fatigue that resulted from him having been Spider-Man for a decade.  Why do a below average job of telling the same story a second time when there are so many more interesting stories to be told?

You might like the Amazing Spider-Man if: You wish Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films were more like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.

You might not like the Amazing Spider-Man if: You thought the Sam Raimi Spider-Man nailed Spider-Man’s origin story so well that you see no reason to tell the same story again.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe