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Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

I recently saw the movie X-Men: Apocalypse and here are my thoughts.  As my readers know, I am a big comic book fan and I try not to miss these films.  The X-Men, of course, are characters from Marvel Comics who deal with the implication of being born with genetic mutations which manifest as what people would call superpowers.  This film is the sixth in the X-Men series (the third in the latest run) and ninth in the franchise.

The second X trilogy has turned out to be much superior to the first; however, as they are technically within the same franchise, the continuity is a disaster.  While seeing the previous films is, obviously, helpful to understanding what is happening and why in the latest movie, one cannot look too deeply into those past films as the continuity and consistency is so lacking.

This film finds Professor X’s mutant school to be thriving, Mystique to be in hiding, and Magneto living out an ordinary life with an assumed identity.  There seems to be a relative détente between mutants and humans at this time.  Unfortunately for mutant kind, the ancient (and possibly first) mutant, Apocalypse, has found a way to revive after millennia of hibernation.  While not clearly explained, Apocalypse seems to have the ability to absorb the abilities of other mutants, but also employs an unexplained technology that was even available to him in ancient Egypt.  Apocalypse appears to be a god to the ancient Egyptians, but he is betrayed and trapped, buried under a collapsed pyramid until, in the 1980s, Moria McTaggart observes people trying to recreate the ancient technology to revive him.

Apocalypse, once revived, resumes what was left undone in ancient Egypt, and recruits four mutants (Magneto, Psylocke, Storm, and Angel (turned Archangel)) to be his “Horsemen” to accomplish his goals.  Of course, Apocalypse’s advance puts him into conflict with the X-Men and, as mutants are the source of the unrest, the government as well.

This movie had a lot of potential, especially since the last two X films were pretty good.  Unfortunately, insufficient thought went into the movie and it resulted in a pretty generic goodguy/badguy conflict with practically no explanation.

The motives and purposes of Apocalypse are never really explained.  I guess he feels mutants are superior to humans and, therefore, he should rule them, but that does not seem much different from Magneto’s inner-conflict over the past five films.  I am guessing, of course, as Apocalypse’s lines are pretty succinct and little is known about him, where he came from, and what he wants to accomplish, aside from simply dominating the world.  How he acquired his various powers, and what they are exactly, is also never explained.  The same goes for the Horsemen.  Aside from Magneto, who has a long history in the films, the Horsemen had few lines and little exposition is dedicated to revealing who they are and what their interests are or even what their powers are.

The carnage also is ramped up far beyond any prior film.  As the extent of Apocalypse’s powers is not shown, they, at least, seem to be sufficient to cause worldwide destruction.  The destruction is just ridiculous and the total lack of involvement of anyone else in the world aside from the X-Men to stop it is totally unrealistic.  Although I understand high stakes is supposed to make the conflict important and compelling, I think having lower stakes and more personal conflicts a welcome change and often make for better stories; Ant-Man and Marvel’s Netflix series are a testament to this.

I have to say the performances in the movie are very good and the character development of the main cast (Magneto and those on the X-Men side) is well done.

Just as an aside, why can practically every super hero, or super hero group, find happiness, levity, and fun, while the X-Men, and other mutants, are constantly dour, persecuted, and sullen?  Weird.

In sum, this movie has a lot of great elements and a lot of potential, but it is diminished by a lack of development of the villains.  It is a fun and entertaining film if you just do not think too much about it.

Three post-scripts: Olivia Munn’s casting as Psylocke is genius.  She looked exactly like her comic book counterpart.  Also, Hugh Jackman, as Wolverine, makes his obligatory (albeit brief) appearance in an X movie (as he apparently must in every X movie), this time in a critical (and violent) scene in his Weapon X persona.  Finally, Quicksilver has yet more well done, and funny, scenes moving at high speeds as everyone else seems stationary from his perspective.

Movie Review: Deadpool

I recently saw the movie Deadpool, and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers).  It should be noted that I am a big fan of comic books, and Marvel Comics in particular, and have been so since I was at least five years old.  I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way.

Unlike the other Marvel movies I have reviewed on this blog (like Captain America: Civil War, Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ulton and Guardians of the Galaxy), this film is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but is part of the X-Men Film Franchise which is owned by 20th Century Fox.  Although all of the characters in both franchises are Marvel Comics characters, the film rights to those characters are distributed among different companies.

This film is Rated “R”, and it bears that rating for very good reasons.  It has a lot of graphic violence, some brief (non-genital) nudity, a somewhat explicit sex scene, profanity, and a lot of crass jokes.  Indeed, this film is crass to say the least.  So, if such things are not one’s taste, then this film is not for you.  I am typically not a fan of such things myself – I usually avoid such films – but sometimes, as in this film, I do not mind them as they are presented in such a way that makes them tolerable.  I admit that, if this were not a superhero film (a genre I enjoy), I likely would not be as accepting of these elements of the film, nor would I have been as interested to see it.

For those not “in the know,” Deadpool is mercenary whose superpower is the ability to heal superhumanly quickly from virtually any injury.  He also suffers from some form of schizophrenia.

What makes this film so good is the fact that it is a superhero movie done as a comedy with action sequences done in the slick and stylized and well choreographed style of Quentin Tarentino.  So, needless to say, everything in the film is over-the-top and exaggerated and wrung out for comedic effect.  Unlike most other superhero films, the world is not ending and there is no great moral tragedy in the narrative.  Instead, it is just a guy out for revenge, and the tone is nearly always light and bouncy, as it seems the film is out for laughs as much as it is for action thrills.

This film takes nothing seriously and that is what makes it such a good film.

The violence – though bloody and graphic – is, strangely enough, done in a very comedic way.  I realize that sounds perverse – as killing and maiming are not funny – but if one steps back and accepts the unbelievably of it all, one can see the humor in the presentation.  Of course, I could be simply contributing to the dulling of my own senses, so that is something to consider.  I guess one could say that the violence in the film is sort of like slapstick on steroids and that makes it funny despite the gore.

Deadpool appears to suffer from some form of schizophrenia which allows him to break the fourth wall at will without undermining the structure or presentation of the film.  Deadpool is also, as a character, a guy with a razor sharp quick wit (albeit often crass), and is always joking around and talking a lot.  As a result, he delivers a ton of lines in a manic fast-talking machine gun like fashion throughout the film. Deadpool’s lines are hilarious and clever and his constant stream of funny lines help serve to lighten what would otherwise be pretty violent action sequences.  If you combine his wit with his schizophrenia, the film becomes even funnier.  His schizophrenia allows him to be unintentionally self-aware.  So, for example, Deadpool (who is played by Ryan Reynolds) makes fun of Reynolds from time-to-time.  Or, as another example, Deadpool observes that only two other X-Men are in the film yet they live in a giant mansion which could house dozens.  This causes Deadpool to wonder aloud as to whether the budget for the movie could afford more X-Men.  My favorite self-aware jokes were the digs Deadpool had on the Green Lantern movie which also started Reynolds as the titular superhero.  Not even the opening credits were safe as the characters were introduced as “hot chick” or “bad guy” instead of their actual names.

So, I have to say that I truly enjoyed this film.  Yes it is violent.  Yes it is crass.  But, if those things are not instant turnoffs, I think one will see how well this film handles those elements of the film.  As my readers know, I love superhero movies, but I especially love unique and/or interesting takes on the superhero film genre, and this film certainly qualifies as that.  This, perhaps even more than Ant-Man, is as much comedy as it is superhero film.  Needless to say, I, and the gentlemen with whom I saw this movie, laughed the entire way through, and probably enjoyed this film more as a comedy than as a cool action film with well choreographed action sequences.

Movie Review: Creed

I recently saw the 2015 movie Creed, and these are my thoughts (this review contains some spoilers).

Creed is the seventh film in the Philadelphia-centric Rocky franchise which stars, of course, Sylvester Stallone as the street-tough-everyman boxer Rocky Balboa, and Michael B. Jordan as Rocky’s protege Adonis Creed, who is the illegitimate son of Rocky’s rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

If I had to rank this film in the franchise, I would say that Rocky is clearly – and obviously – the best film of the series (and, obviously, one of the greatest movies of all time).  It probably also goes without saying that Rocky V is the weakest of the series.  I would also say that while Rocky III and Rocky IV are fun films, they are not nearly of the quality of the other films (save Rocky V) and, in my mind, are of a different genre of the other films as well.  III and IV seem more like action-hero movies rather than dramas about boxing like the others.  I think Rocky II and Rocky Balboa – though not as classic and celebrated as the original – are quality movies in their own right and are worthy sequels to Rocky.  I would place Creed with Rocky II and Rocky Balboa in terms of quality.  In order, I think I would rank them (1) Rocky; (2) Rocky II, Rocky Balboa, and Creed; (3) Rocky III, Rocky IV; and, (4) Rocky V.

Creed brings the film series back to its roots by portraying a young boxer who is a decent person, but whose live is unmoored and in need of a mentor and direction, who is suddenly thrust into the boxing limelight, and uses boxing to gain some stability and meaning in his life.  This movie serves as a so-called “soft-reboot” of the series.  This film does not restart the film franchise as if the first six movies do not exist.  What it does do is create an entirely new set of characters and potential story lines which can now become independent of the franchise but using this film as a transition that is entirely respectful of the franchise’s history and continuity while, itself, creating a new continuity for future films.  As a very respectful soft-reboot, there are many great scenes which do homage to Rocky that any fan of the series will really appreciate.  These scenes also – in their own way – establish Adonis Creed as the new Rocky Balboa by giving them similar beginnings and feelings; it is clearly a welcome and warm passing of the torch between the characters.

As seems to be the pattern for poor Rocky in nearly each of his films, this film finds him losing yet another person from his life, this time in the person of Paulie.  Rocky is more-or-less content with his state in life as a former famous athlete now owning/managing a local Philadelphia restaurant, and seems to have reluctantly come-to-terms with his solitude.  Later in the film, however, it is revealed that Rocky is suffering with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with a guarded prognosis.

Adonis, however, is a troubled kid due to his illegitimacy and his pedigree, and, although he has apparently, by the start of the film, straightened up and found some success in the corporate world, he still finds himself unfulfilled.  Having been apparently abandoned by his biological mother – and having his father die before he was born – his step-mother (Apollo Creed’s widow) took him in as her own son.  Adonis takes out his frustrations in the boxing ring by getting involved in small-time boxing matches at local gyms.  Of course, she is totally opposed to Adonis’ boxing ambitions considering the fate of her husband.  Being completely disillusioned by his life, he makes the startling decision to quit his job (despite a recent promotion), and moves to Philadelphia in order to persuade Rocky to come out of boxing retirement and train him to be a professional boxer.

Once they meet, the story that ensues is one of mutual affection, support, and inspiration, as they each face their own trials and lean on one another to navigate through them.  As with any good Rocky movie, the best parts of the film are the vulnerable moments when the characters grow and develop as opposed to the more famous boxing match scenes.  They each learn to accept, understand, embrace, and perhaps even love, themselves, and their true identity, through the insight and developing friendship of the other (Adonis being the son of a celebrated boxer and Rocky as an declining older man who can no longer be who he once was, but still has a lot to offer).  Of course, the movie would not be a Rocky movie if there was not a run up the Art Museum steps, and I absolutely love how they did it and presented it in this film.  It made the famous run perhaps more meaningful and significant than ever.

I thought this film was well done with good acting which really captured the spirit of Rocky.  The relationships were authentic and the struggles the characters faced real.  Like the better Rocky moments, this one is unpredictable and allows the characters to experience true loss and conflict.  Stallone should have received an Oscar for his performance, if only because of reputation and legacy (not to mention being robbed of one for Rocky).  It is a worthy addition to the franchise and I am looking forward to where the franchise goes from here.  I suspect the next film will have less Stallone and more Jordan and, if that film succeeds, Stallone completely phased out by the film after that.  I highly recommend this film.

 

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil war

I recently saw the movie Captain America: Civil War, and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers).  It should be noted that I am a big fan of comic books, and Marvel Comics in particular, and have been so since I was at least five years old.  I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way.

By way of introduction for the uninitiated, Civil War is a movie based on Marvel comic books that falls at the beginning of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  This movie is the thirteenth in the film series, which also includes three seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a television series), two seasons of Agent Carter (also a television series), Daredevil and Jessica Jones (Netflix series), and five Marvel One-Shot films.  Needless to say, this film is deeply entrenched in a clearly established, long running, and sprawling interconnected media universe.

I thought the prior Captain America film, called Winter Soldier was the best of the Marvel movies thus far, but I think Civil War is just as good, if not better still.  If the viewer is a comic book fan and/or Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, this movie hits all the right spots.  This movie is nearly top to bottom action and almost all of it is really well done.

When I first heard about the full cast in this movie, which more or less includes almost every major movie superhero thus far (Hulk, Thor, and a couple of others are noticeably absent), namely Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Agent Carter, Scarlett Witch, Vision, Falcon, War Machine, Ant-Man, Winter Soldier, Thunderbolt Ross, and Agent 13, as well as two new (for the franchise) superheros, Black Panther and Spider-Man, not to mention the villains (Crossbones and Baron Zemo), I got concerned that this film would fall prey to what afflicted Spider-Man 3 and the later Batman films in Burton series, which was way too many characters crammed into a film.  My concerns were unfounded.  Marvel has done an astonishing job juggling its characters over all of its films and, as a result, they have been able to include a boat load of characters in their films very successfully.  I think that is because, despite the long list of characters, they do not weigh the film down as there is no imminent need to flesh them all out in this film in particular as Marvel is confident future films will do the job.  Merely plugging them in where needed, and adding in those puzzle pieces for the purposes of advancing the story of this particular film suffices for the moment; they will be fleshed out elsewhere (or have been fleshed out elsewhere already).  This reflects the new reality of serialized film making and I like it.

As with the other Captain America films, this film relies just as much on the emotional relationships between the characters as it does the action sequences, which is refreshing because, although fans of these movies really look forward to the action, the character development is really what drives these movies, makes them interesting, and keeps them popular.  The relationship between Captain America and Iron Man is, obviously, a main focus of the film, but there is also the relationship between the Vision and Scarlett Witch (hints of a romantic relationship just like in the comics), Hawkeye and Black Widow, the Black Panther and his father and the Winter Solider, and Captain America and the Winter Soldier that are highlighted.

The dispute that arises – which causes all of these relationships to strain – centers on whether the Avengers – and other superhumans – need to register with the United Nations, as the world has determined them to be too powerful to be left unchecked.  Iron Man supports registration while Captain America supports affording the Avengers the freedom and liberty to act as they need and when they need.  While the world pursues registration and the Avengers debate its merits – due to the various disasters in which the Avengers were involved – Baron Zemo (who, in this iteration, is not a Nazi, but someone who lost his family due to the events in Avengers 2) simultaneously incites a conflict between the Avengers in the context of the registration by framing the Winter Soldier for the assassination of the Black Panther’s father and discovering how to trigger the Winter Soldier’s Hydra/Soviet mind programming.  Of course, the lines are dawn between the Avengers, which results in a conflict and a fantastic battle scene among them that is, at the end of the film, left fairly unresolved.  I like the idea that the conflict is not wrapped up in a tidy bow at the end of the film.  There are still a lot of issues to address in future films, which, in my mind, makes them even more interesting to anticipate.  There has been a lot of criticism leveled at this movie that no one of significance died or was killed, but I am not sure how significant that is in light of the fact that the characters are disunited, the relationships between all of the characters is strained, and the dispute of the film is unresolved in significant ways; these aspects give the story weight and significance (and death is not the only means to that end).  It is also worth noting that the fights were between friends, so it would not not be surprising that they pulled their punches in order to not significantly hurt one another; that may explain why no one died as a result of the battles.

In addition to a clear and compelling story with actual significance, this movie also featured the patented Marvel comic relief.  As much as I appreciate more “serious” comic book movies (like B v S), I always love how Marvel can work in some light moments.  This film is arguably the “darkest” of the Marvel movies, yet even in this film, the occasional humorous moment is appreciated and always well placed.

With the exception of the primary antagonists (Captain America and Iron Man), the standout characters, to me, were Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Ant-Man.  I went into this movie expecting Black Panther to be just another character and, possibly, a little lame (I am not a big fan of his in the comics).  I can honestly say that I was completely wrong.  The Black Panther is one of the characters who drives the story and he, to put it simply, is just so cool.  His fight scenes were absolutely fantastic – my favorite of the film – especially his fights with the Winter Solider.  Those fight scenes were some of the best and expertly choreographed that I have ever seen.  The Panther’s fighting style is light and exciting, but his impact is heavy and quite serious.  His suit is not lame in the least (as I expected) and leaves some mystery as to how it works (it is vibranium).  Furthermore, his role is not merely as a superhero, but as the head-of-state for Wakanda (his superhero persona is the embodiment of Wakanda), so that makes his approach and perspective a lot more interesting than mere superhero.  Also, and refreshingly, he is a noble character who introduces the concept of forgiveness to the mix.

Spider-Man is my favorite comic character.  He only made a cameo appearance in this film, in order to introduce him for his upcoming solo film, but what he did do was, to turn a phrase, amazing.  I am so happy that it seems movie makers finally got Spidey right: a young, skinny, teen-aged boy, with a squeaky voice, little money, absolutely no idea what he is doing, and a constant flow of words which are generally pretty funny.  Spider-Man, appropriately and needless to say, was the source of a lot of humor in the movie.  Quite honestly, the movie did not need Spider-Man at all, and his scenes were clearly inserted a a way to introduce the character as opposed to advance the plot of Civil War.  In that way, I imagine one could criticize his insertion into the film as unnecessary, superfluous, and somewhat shameless in promoting another Marvel movie.  If I were not a Spider-Man fan – and did not absolutely love how he was presented in the film – that criticism may have had traction with me; however, as I love Spidey and what they did with him, I loved it.

The same goes largely goes for Ant-Man as it does for Spider-Man.  Now, Ant-Man was previously introduced in his own film, so Civil War did not serve quite the same purpose for Ant-Man as it did for Spider-Man.  In saying that, however, Ant-Man is a sort of minor character and the film did help push him into the greater story in a way his own film really was not able to do.  In addition, Ant-Man, in addition to Spidey, was another source of humor in the film.  It seems Paul Rudd (the actor playing Ant-Man) can’t help but be funny.  So, with Spider-Man on Iron Man’s “side,” Ant-Man was on Captain America’s “side” that side’s bug-themed superhero providing comic relief.  Without giving too much away, Ant-Man revealed a secret that made his presence a lot of fun and added another, and unexpected, element to the battle scene.

Finally, it is worth reiterating again that the fight scenes in this film were fantastic.  They are probably my favorite of the Marvel movies so far.  I think it helped that the battles were mainly between friends who really did not want to hurt each other, which allowed some humor (mainly via Spidey and Ant-Man) to get into the mix.

As a final word, allow me to say that I was a little jarred at the casting of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May.  Her role will obviously be fleshed out more in the upcoming Spider-Man film, but, as a purist, I was a little disappointed that Aunt May was not an older woman as she is in the comics.  In saying that, I guess it does not make much sense that a 15 year old’s mother’s sister is elderly, which probably explains the younger casting.  Also, I absolutely loved how, as a nod to the comics, the Falcon controlled a small bird-like drone.  His ability, in the comics, to communicate with a bird is, quite frankly, lame, so I am glad they made it cool in the movie.

In sum, I highly recommend this film.  It has a good plot, some fun humor, fantastic fight scenes, good characters, and a real impact on how the franchise will play out in the upcoming films.

Movie Review: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

I recently saw the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (“BvS”) and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers).  It should be noted that I am a big fan of comic books and have been so since I was at least five years old.  I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way. This movie is based on the D.C. comic books and characters.

Introduction:

This movie is the second installment in the DC Extended Universe, DC’s serialized motion picture series, which began with the Superman origin film, Man of Steel.

Man of Steel introduced the character of Superman and many of his traditional supporting characters. The film concluded with an epic battle between Superman and his similarly powered fellow Kryptonian General Zod, which destroyed a large portion of the city of Metropolis, killing thousands of people in the process.

BvS is set about a year-and-a-half after the events of Man of Steel, and finds the world trying to come to terms with what it means to have a being like Superman in its midst. I do appreciate the realism of this aspect of the DC films thus far. The naïve and unquestioning acceptance of an incredibly powerful and invulnerable being as being nothing more than a completely selfless hero – as is traditionally the case in Superman stories – is simply incredible. So, I like the idea that the world wrestles with the implication of the arrival of the Superman.

Batman, who is introduced for the first time in the DC Extended Universe by way of this film, has the basics of his origin story told through the opening credits (i.e.: the murder of his parents and falling into a bat cave).  Aside from being referred to as a vigilante in Gotham City, the film offers no explanation as to who Batman is, what his motivations are, how and why he has his fighting skills and technology, or really much of anything else for that matter. Thankfully, Batman is a near universally known character who has appeared in film many times over the course of decades, so the near total lack of description had little effect on the film.  It almost seems like the screenwriters decided to take a short cut on an already long film because, if Batman were a new character, I do not think they could have gotten away with such thin development for him.  I do hope that, at some point, some further development is offered in the Extended Universe as, otherwise, it would leave it fairly incomplete in terms of its internal story and cogency.

Plot Summary:

A building owned by Bruce Wayne (i.e.: Batman’s true identity) is destroyed between the battle between Superman and Zod (referred to above).  Batman recognizes that Superman may be “good” today, but one day that may not be the case and no one has the ability to stop him.  Seeing the sheer power of Superman, and its effect on the world, Batman instantly thinks that Superman is too great of a threat to be allowed to go unopposed and resolves to kill him.

Concurrent with Batman’s agenda, Lex Luthor sees Superman as similarly threatening and, through LexCorp, seeks government permission via government contracts to weaponize recently found kryptonite.  Lex Luthor manipulates the government and public opinion (through shrewd tactics and terrorist attacks) to become suspicious of Superman.  Eventually, for some reason, Luthor captures Superman’s mother Martha and agrees to allow Martha to live if Superman kills Batman.

Based on the above, the battle between the heroes inevitably occurs.  Batman gains the upper hand and intends to kill Superman until Superman cries out that “Martha” will die.  By coincidence, Bruce Wayne’s murdered mother is named “Martha,” and the threat to Superman’s mother (along with the memories of his own mother Martha) gives Batman sufficient pause to stop his assault on Superman and save Martha Kent while Superman can dedicate his time to another threat which has arisen during his battle with Batman.

Lex Luthor, having been given access to Zod’s scout ship by the government, is able to create a Kryptonian monster called Doomsday who wrecks havoc across Metropolis.  As a result, the kryptonite weapons Batman created to defeat Superman now need to be used on the greater threat Doomsday.

Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (who, as Diana Prince, has been pursing her own designs through the film) team up to defeat Doomsday.  After the ensuing battle, Bruce Wayne intends to contact other people who are cropping up that appear to be metahuman.

My Thoughts:

I went into this movie with cautious optimism and, I think, that turned out to be the right decision.  I really enjoyed this movie, and it was great fun seeing these two titans of comic books finally encounter one another in a blockbuster movie and, perhaps more importantly, see the foundation of a budding movie franchise.

The action sequences are fantastic.  The look of the characters is near perfect (except Luther, see below).  The battle scenes were well choreographed.  The characters were introduced well.  I loved seeing what was basically two famous DC comics story lines come to life (i.e.: Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman story lines).  The story had a nice build up and did a good job in presenting why people are leery of Superman, and why Batman finds it necessary to oppose him.  It was a great experience for a comic book fan.

In saying all this, I did say my optimism was cautious.  The makers of this movie, like many others in this genre, felt the need to extend its running time to nearly two-and-a-half hours.  Now, as this was a big epic story, I expected it to be long.  What I did not expect was a really good two hour movie with another twenty to thirty minutes hastily appended to it.

The story should have been about the origin, build up, and resolution of a conflict between Batman and Superman (as the title suggests).  Indeed, it seems that was what the movie was going to be until it appeared that the resolution of the conflict between the heroes would be the death of one of them at the hands of the other.  Not wanting that to happen, the writers threw in Doomsday as a plot device to unite the heroes.

The Doomsday portion seemingly came out of nowhere in the last thirty minutes of the movie, and introduced new elements of the film completely absent from the rest of it.  For example, Luthor’s motivation throughout the film is to gain government contracts and access to Kryptonian technology.  Batman barely registers on his radar.  For no reason necessary to the rest of the story, Luthor suddenly provokes a conflict between Superman and Batman.  It isn’t necessary as the story already built up Batman’s own motivation to engage Superman.  Furthermore, upon gaining access to the scout ship, Luthor suddenly has facility with advanced alien technology and, somehow, has learned how to create a creature, and not just a creature, but one containing his own DNA (why his DNA is needed is never explained).  Capturing Martha Kent to motivate Superman to fight Batman was completely contrived, and highlighting the fact that both of their mothers have the same Christian name was obviously a contrived plot device.  Why in the world would someone use his mother’s first name when talking about her if it were not a lame attempt to call Bruce Wayne’s mother to Batman’s mind?  In addition, it is not entirely clear why this would give Batman pause in his fight with Superman anyway.  Batman has grave concerns over a being with nearly unstoppable power.  Why the commonality of mothers’ names would suddenly distract and/or change Batman’s mind about the potential danger of Superman is never explained and, quite frankly, makes little sense in light of the rest of the film.

Speaking of bad plot devices, Batman uses a kryptonite spear to battle Superman.  Batman, who is extremely diligent and always has a well thought out plan, simply and randomly drops the spear and walks away without any thought of the implication of doing so (which could mean losing his opportunity to kill Superman), which is entirely out-of-character for Batman.  Dropping the spear for no good reason becomes a problem later in the film to merely add to the drama in an unrealistic way and to give Lois Lane a role and purpose in helping to save the day instead being a perpetual damsel in distress.

The concern over Superman’s power makes sense.  What does not make sense is for Luthor to unleash a similarly powerful but totally mindless beast in order to fight Superman.  At least Superman is rational and helps people.  Doomsday is just a destructive monster (who is a far greater threat than Superman), and there was no plan developed by Luthor as to how to stop it despite his concerns about Superman.  In short, Doomsday’s creation makes absolutely no sense both in terms of the story and Luthor’s motivations throughout the film.  Finally, perhaps as a way to make the battle with Doomsday even more epic, after Superman battles Doomsday for about 5 minutes (literally), and tries to fly him into space, the United States government, in that incredibly short period of time, suddenly and out of nowhere decides to fire a nuclear rocket at Doomsday in the atmosphere above Metropolis (oh, and, of course, no fall out from this decision is noticed in the film). What a hasty decision!

I also felt that, perhaps to distract away from the nonsensical Doomsday portion of the film, the score suddenly becomes extremely melodramatic and hokey.  The music during the big battle with the three heroes and Doomsday was loud rock(ish) music that tried to send the viewer the message that this battle was cool, awesome, and, perhaps, totally epic.  It was so obvious and transparent.  Similarly, the swooning and melodramatic music at the climax of the battle just seemed so over the top.  Subtly is, apparently, not a superpower.

Criticisms Made by Others:

Some people have concerns over the characterization of the characters.  Some seem legitimate while others less so.  I like the tentative Superman who is still working out his heroism and role in the world (and, so far, has always ultimately chosen the heroic path).  I am not at all keen on how this movie series has presented the Kents.  Instead of a good wholesome couple who teaches their son selflessness, heroism, and righteousness, they, instead, tend to be rather apathetic about the needs of others, sometimes discourage Superman from being heroic, tell Superman to think of himself over others, and, overall, are not the rather virtuous couple they are traditionally presented as being.  I loved this version of Batman, and Ben Affleck’s performance as Batman is my favorite thus far.  This movie even explains why Batman has a growly voice!  Affleck looks like enough of playboy to be a convincing Bruce Wayne, but he also looks sufficiently grizzled to accurately represent the character.  Perry White was a fun character (and it is now impossible for me to see Laurence Fishburne without thinking of his character on Blackish), however I thought that, in this movie, he was a sort of J. Jonah Jameson light as opposed to a character in his own right.  Lex Luthor was not presented well in light of the comics.  Taken independently of the comics, this Lex Luthor is a really interesting and compelling character.  In light of the comics, however, he is presented as a young, sort of skittish, almost Joker-like character instead of the cold and calculating middle-aged man he is usually presented as being. As in Superman, he has hair throughout the film until the end when he assumes his traditional bald look.

There has also been a lot of negative talk about the tone of the movie being serious or even dour.  I am not sure why this is a negative.  This only seems like a negative because people are comparing it to the wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, which tends to be fairly light-hearted even at its heaviest, instead of looking at the film in its own right.  I found the tone to be perfectly fine and completely appropriate for its subject matter.  The fact that people have a hard time viewing comic book movies as “serious” ought not to be a negative reflection on the movie but, rather, on the viewer who insists on a narrow view of comic book movies.

Another common criticism I have seen of this movie is that it is sequel baiting.  I find this criticism completely out-of-place and, quite honestly, not describing anything I would say is a negative.  The movie, as noted above, gives extremely limited background on Batman.  I imagine this will all be fleshed out in future Batman films and/or future DC Extended Universe films.  There are also cameo appearances of the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman.  Wonder Woman, while not a main character, has more than a mere cameo appearance.  She, as Diana Prince, appears here and there throughout the film, and as Wonder Woman in the big fight scene at the end.  Aside from her direct role in the plot, there is precious little revealed about her (or her alter ego) at all.  Again, I assume this will all be fleshed out in her own film.  Finally, although probably only noticeable to a hardcore comics fan like me, there are at least three references to Darkseid in the movie (Batman’s weird dream sequence in the desert, the large omega symbol in the sand, and Luthor’s crazy ramblings at the end of the movie (as an aside, if Luthor’s motive and ability to create Doomsday is later revealed to be the result of Darkseid’s influence, then some of my criticisms of this movie will be somewhat tempered)).  Some say all of this is evidence of poor writing and exposition.  I disagree.  We now live in an age of serialized movie making and world building.  These movies presume sequels and greater exposition in those sequels.  The era of a self-contained superhero movie is nearly gone.  This movie revealed as much as required for the story to be told.  All of the other references here and there will be explained in later movies.  When the future movies are made, and all viewed together as a cohesive story, the gaps described above will presumably be filled, and there will no longer be a lack of information.  If they are not filled, then the criticisms of poor writing and exposition will have a lot more merit.  I simply think the criticisms about sequel baiting seem to simply ignore the new reality that modern superhero movies are serialized and go through progressive world building.

Finally, DC’s approach seems to be the opposite of Marvel.  Marvel presented a series of solo movies first, slowly developing each character and revealing their interrelationships, until it climaxed in the big cross over movie The Avengers, and the franchise has continued since then in a similar pattern.  This way of world building was really satisfying and helped develop really good characters.  DC seems to have the opposite approach with the big cross over movie released very early in the franchise with the hopes that it will be a spring board into other movies (especially solo movies) where the characters can develop.  Although DC’s approach did not have well developed characters in its first crossover movie, their approach may still pay off just as well as Marvel’s has.  I think it is too early, at this point, to determine whether Marvel or DC has the better approach.  I think that question should be revisited in a year or two when DC has had opportunity to release a few more movies.

Conclusion:

I would highly recommend this movie, especially to a fan of comics and superheroes.  I am very excited to see where this franchise goes, and I think this movie is a very good start as long as DC does not blow the opportunities it now has in movies.

Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

I recently saw the movie Fantastic Four (2015) and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers).  It should be noted that I am a big fan of comic books, and Marvel Comics in particular, and have been so since I was at least five years old.  I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way.

This movie is based on the Marvel Comic books’ Fantastic Four series and characters (see here) and is a reboot of an earlier Fantastic Four movie franchise which consisted of two movies, one in 2005 (see here) and one in 2007 (see here).

I think one can approach this film from two angles.  One is as simply a superhero/sci-fi movie and one as a Fantastic Four movie.  As a superhero/sci-fi movie, it is a mediocre movie for that genre.  I would say that it is the sort of movie that, if it came on television on a lazy Saturday afternoon or evening, you would not turn it off, but not necessarily seek it out either.  As a Fantastic Four movie, it totally misses the mark.

Before I get into the meat of the film, I want to mention that this movie has been caught into the relatively new trend to make superhero movies “dark” and/or “gritty.”  Apparently, though, the filmmakers took this rather literally and made this movie literally quite dark.  Almost the entire movie largely takes takes place in a dark lab, a dark garage, a dark house, a dark alternate dimension, or at night.  I cannot really recall seeing the sun at all at any time during the entire movie.

The film presents five people who are each loners or misfits in their own way coming together under the guidance of a wise father (/father-figure) in order to use their collective talents to achieve scientific advancement by developing and using technology to teleport to another dimension.

  • Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) is a super genius singleton who does not at all fit in with, or relate to, his ordinary working class modestly educated mother and step-father (in the film he states he wishes he were adopted), or even his high school science teacher;
  • Ben Grimm (the Thing) is the loner son of a working class family that owns (or at least works at) an automobile mechanic shop, who is bullied by his brother and verbally (if not physically) abused by his mother.  His father is never shown;
  • Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) is adopted into the Storm family and, therefore, an “outsider” in some way and emotionally reserved;
  • Johnny Storm (Human Torch) is the (apparently) angry and alienated son of a prominent scientists who has a difficult relationship with his father and his mother is never seen;
  • Victor Von Doom (Dr. Doom) is a misunderstood and anti-social millennial super genius who appears to have no family connections and is, more-or-less, a loner who has worked with the Storms’ father prior to the movie but has discontinued doing so prior to the events of the film;
  • Franklin Storm is the father of Johnny (and adopted father of Sue), and is the architect of the project which leads to the dimensional teleportation.  He is the person who discovers and recruits Richards, and re-recruits Doom to help him.

Franklin heads up the teleportation project, finds and recruits Reed, persuades Doom to return to the project (apparently he is disinterested in the project).  Grimm tags along with Reed as his buddy without any direction in his life.  Sue works with her father (and seems the most well-adjusted of them all).  Johnny is recruited after crashing his father’s car (due to illegally drag racing it), and needs to work off the cost of repairs.

Now, all of the elements for some human drama are there.  All the young characters are “orphans” in their own way, and find family and belonging in their Fantastic Four.  Franklin is the father-figure for them all.  The problem is that, aside from pointing out all of the things I note above through a sentence or two of dialogue here and there, these issues are never actually ever explored.  There is practically no dialogue in the movie beyond a lot of sci-fi tech-speak.  You never really see how Reed and Ben’s friendship blossoms.  Indeed, Ben Grimm says almost nothing in the movie.  None of the Four is shown to make friends let alone the “family” they are to create.  Doom is nothing more than a spoiled genius who is unhappy over not getting his way with the project.  There are some glances here and there regarding romantic interest between Reed and Sue and Doom’s jealousy over it, but beyond that, it, too, goes unexplored.  In short, even though they are to form this new “family” by the end of the film, the viewer still feels like they hardly know one another.  There is no emotional fall out from the events of the film, and the viewer is supposed to believe that, after all that has happened, they’ll just unite as a team to do whatever it is that they will do somehow and for some reason.

At some point, impatient with the slowness of the process, the five younger characters engage in an unauthorized use of the dimensional transportation device and go to another dimension.  As one may expect, something goes wrong, and, instead of dying, they are all genetically altered.  All but Doom escape back to the Earth.  Upon their return, the film focuses on the U.S. government’s (or military’s) interest in their powers and their technology.  There is virtually no exposition on how the characters feel about their powers, their reactions to them, their reaction to each other, discovering the extent or cause of their powers. or them trying to use their powers.  The viewer never really learns anything about them.  Everything – like their relationships mentioned above – is done through a line or two or a momentary scene here or there.  Nothing is explored.  The Thing (who is CGI), weirdly, is also never dressed in the film.  Now, unlike Dr. Manhattan, his nakedness is not part of the commentary of the story and includes, strangely, no genitals; instead, he is completely anatomically blank in that region of his body and, as a result, he wears no pants or shorts.  I found his nakedness distracting because it was out of place and he looked like a Ken doll.  It is not that I want to see the Thing’s thing, I just found it weird to have a genital-less naked character walking around without explanation.  I have to say that, despite CGI technology, this Thing does not look nearly as good as the body suit worn by Michael Chiklis in the original franchise.

The Four feel compelled to return to the other dimension to save Doom.  Once there, they find him, too, transformed.  Without explanation, he wishes to rule that dimension claiming it as his realm and suddenly engages in a conflict with the Four in which he is defeated.  There is no explanation as to why he changed the way he did, what the extent of his powers are, why he no longer wants relationships with the Four or Franklin (or the Earth for that matter), why he wants to rule a barren realm, or really anything.  Mercifully the final fight scene is rather short.  Notably, as a side note, this movie does not present scene after scene of constant action.  The movie really centers on tech-speak and Franklin’s relationship with the military.

So, weirdly, the movie has all the pieces of a decent film, but does nothing at with with them.  Little dialogue, minimal actual exposition, and no personal exploration make this film rather mediocre.  No one really has a fleshed out personality at all.  The only thing I can think of is that the film makers viewed this movie as the first of a franchise, and all of the missing elements would be explained over the life of the franchise.  Otherwise, I cannot imagine a reason (beyond poor writing) why so much seems left out.

As far as being a Fantastic Four movie, this film significantly misses the mark.  I concede I am something of a purist and sentimental, so I sometimes overreact when films do not adhere strictly to the source material.  I like to think, as I have gotten older, I am more adaptable.  Therefore, I am okay with their powers being the result of inter-dimensional travel as opposed to cosmic rays in space, and Franklin and Johnny Storm being black and Sue being adopted.  The problem I have with this film is not these minor changes, but that it simply is not a Fantastic Four movie.  The Fantastic Four, as a series, is not “dark and gritty,” so that approach is totally foreign to the characters and their personalities.  Further, the characters in the comics are not these sullen social misfits.  They are each fairly lighthearted people.  In the comics, Reed is the smart guy who has trouble with girls because his nose is in a book.  He is not the depressed loner who stays in his garage.  In the comics, Ben Grimm is a affable guy who protects the geeks from the bullies, not the also sullen and almost non-communicative dumb-guy side kick to the smart guy.  As a side note, and this may be a symptom of my nostalgia, the actor that played Grimm was completely wrong.  Chiklis was perfect for the role and looks just like Grimm.  Grimm is a big stocky guy, not an athletic slender guy.  Sue is a rather serious all-business emotionally reserved character in the movie, while in the comics she is a nice friendly person.  Johnny is not an angry disaffected twenty-something, in the comics he is a fun loving goofball who flirts with girls all the time.  Everyone in this film was so serious and without personality, and what they did have was not at all who they are in the comics.  Doom is the biggest offender.  In the comics, Doom is the son of a wealthy Eastern European baron and has a genius which rivals Reed’s, but his breeding gives him feeling of superiority over Reed.  In this movie, as noted above, he is a anti-social former scientists who simply views himself as too intelligent for others.  There is nothing particularly special about him.  Suffice it to say, these are not just “updated” Fantastic Four characters in a “modern” setting and “modern” tone.  No, these are entirely different characters in a misplaced setting and foreign tone to that of the Fantastic Four.  They just happen to have similar powers and names.

Finally, it is worth noting that none of the Fantastic Four really take on their superhero names (“Dr. Doom” is muttered once as a joke long before his transformation), and the team is never named either.

20th Century Fox, the creators of the franchise, must make a sequel of the movie or else ownership of the source material reverts back to Marvel.  I am hoping that they do not make a sequel, or 2oth Century Fox works out a deal with Marvel for a joint venture, as happened with Marvel and Sony for Spider-Man.   I hope this for two reasons.  First, I think Marvel will do a far better job at doing these movies than 20th Century Fox has.  Second, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently planned out to three phases (including 21 or 22 films) with its overarching villain being Thanos.  Phase Four is currently only speculative and projected to begin no sooner than 2019 with a possible movie about the Inhumans (see here).  There are few villains with enough gravitas to pull together the entire franchise.  Thanos is one of them; Dr. Doom is another, as is Galactus.  Both Dr. Doom and Galactus are owned by 20th Century Fox and both are classic Marvel characters with ties to all sorts of characters and many classic stories, and both are substantial enough to be a threat to all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as opposed to a single film.  I would love to see the Fantastic Four enter into the Avengers’ universe, and to see how the Avengers would deal with Dr. Doom and/or Galactus (and vice/versa).  Right now, due to the poor reception and performance of Fantastic Four (2015), the plans for a sequel have been taken off the table.  So, there is hope!  All of the Marvel Comics need to come home to the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I recently saw the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens (“TFA”) and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers).  It should be noted that I am a big fan of the Star Wars franchise and comic books, and have been so since I was very young.  Indeed, I was introduced to the franchise when I saw Return of the Jedi at the movie theater when I was six years old in 1983I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way.

This movie is the first in the franchise not to have its creator, George Lucas, at the helm; instead, J. J. Abrams has now taken over.  Abrams is a consummate fanboy and many fans love him for it and, therefore, assume everything he touches is gold.  So, when he took over the Star Wars franchise, fans the world over thought he would right the Star Wars ship that had, allegedly, gone off course with the Prequel Trilogy.  I think TFA reveals both the great positives of Abrams’ approach, but also its enormous detriments.

For the record, I am a big fan of the Prequel Trilogy (admittedly this is an unpopular position to take).  Yes, the acting was bad, baby Vader and Jar Jar Binks were super annoying, and the CGI was overwhelming. In saying that, I think people forget that the Original Trilogy did not have great acting, had its share of annoying characters and, well, okay, no CGI, you have me there.  The problem is that people loved the Original Trilogy so much, they overlook its obvious problems and flaws, and expected anything else coming after it to basically duplicate it.  The Prequels offered an entirely new and creative take on the Star Wars universe.  It did not center on a fun and likable small band of people who were clearly good with a very clear bad guy to fight, but, instead, focused on an entire galaxy of people where, ultimately, everyone fights for the bad guy (and the bad guy wins!).  Instead of a clear good guy / bad guy conflict through a series of well-crafted action sequences, like in the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy offered fairly complex (for this sort of film) political issues and emotional and personal traumas and developments from childhood to adulthood, which even addressed such big philosophical topics like politics, parenthood, death, life, and love. So, needless to say, the Prequels did not offer what the audience expected, and the response, therefore, was predictably negative, and, where they gave the Originals a pass on some negatives, they hammered hard on those same negatives in the Prequels.  In my opinion, if the Originals are the “gold standard” of good ideas which are well executed, the Prequels are good ideas which could have been executed a little better.

This leads me to the TFA, which is the first film of the Sequel Trilogy.  Taken in order, the Prequel Trilogy is the story of how the child Anakin Skywalker develops into a Jedi as an adult and turns to evil as Darth Vader.  The Original Trilogy is the story of the redemption and death of Darth Vader and, in his place, the rise of his son Luke Skywalker.  TFA features Darth Vader’s grandson Ben Solo / Kylo Ren as a Dark Jedi (or perhaps Sith Lord, the movie is unclear) and Luke as the wizened old Jedi (and a mysterious woman called Rey who exhibits Force sensitivity and an attraction to the Skywalker lightsaber. I assume she will be revealed as Luke’s daughter in the next movie, though this is only a guess.).  Of course, as a backdrop, the Prequels feature the fall of the Galactic Republic and the rise of the Galactic Empire, the Originals feature the Rebellion’s succeeding in toppling the Empire, and TFA finds, out of the Empire, a New Republic has been formed which is opposed by the First Order that faces a Resistance that is tacitly supported by the New Republic (the relationship of these three is very unclear in the film).

Where the Prequels attempted to offer an entirely new and fresh take on Star Wars, Abrams elected to go the incredibly safe route and offer exactly what he thought the fans wanted to see, offering very little that is new, innovative, or interesting.  As a result, my thoughts and feelings about this movie are extremely schizophrenic.  On one hand I absolutely loved this movie and I cannot wait to own it and watch it a dozen times because it truly summons all the feelings of the Original Trilogy.  On the other hand, as a discerning fan, this movie offered me nothing more than that.  To put it another way, it is almost as if Abrams got a bingo board of everything a fan would want to see in a Star Wars movie and made sure he got them all into it, except he forgot originality and really anything new.  This movie is the greatest piece of fan service I have ever seen in my life.

It’s not that Abrams was deferential or reverential to the franchise.  If that is all it was, I would have no complaints.  Indeed, that sort of thing is something I truly appreciate.  No, instead he basically duplicated another film in the franchise almost plot point by plot point.  As an illustration of Abrams’ total lack of imagination in this film, consider the following: what movie am I describing?

A small droid on a desert planet contains secret vital information.  This droid comes into the possession of a lonely desert dweller who suddenly becomes embroiled in a intergalactic conflict.  The lead female character is befriended by swashbuckling guy in a leather jacket with his own agenda, and they develop an awkward romance with quirky flirtatious comments.  They all find themselves on the Millennium Falcon (which consistently malfunctions) while escaping from some bad guys who are led by a guy in a black mask and computerized voice and a British guy in basically a Nazi uniform.  After a visit to a bar of ill-repute, they discover that the bad guys have a planet-sized ultimate weapon, and it must be destroyed to save the day.  Plans are developed at a secret meeting of pilots (the meeting is led by a prominent woman), and a hologram of the weapon is revealed.   A part of those plans require an old guy to stealthily enter and sabotage the weapon from the inside in order to ensure its shields are shut down to allow for an assault by X-Wing fighters.  After sabotaging the weapon, the old guy seeks out and confronts, and is then killed by, the man in the black mask.  The sabotage allows an X-Wing to fly into a small hole in the weapon’s surface in order to destroy a small section of it, which serves to destroy all of it.  The good guys are successful, and, while that is happening, the lonely desert dweller discovers force sensitivity.

See?  The problem with this movie is that we have all seen it before when it was called A New Hope.  It is nearly the exact same movie.  Sure, some pieces are shifted around a little differently, genders or races may be changed, and locales may look different, but when it comes down to it, it is the same, and that is what makes this movie so frustrating.  I loved being transported back to the Star Wars I knew and loved.  The problem is that that Star Wars already exists, and I was hoping for TFA to provide a new adventure to take me to new places.  So, if I do not think about it much, I love TFA, but when I think a little harder, I get disappointed.  Where the Prequels were good ideas poorly executed, this movie was very well executed recycled ideas.  Whether TFA survives the test of time will be determined by what happens in parts VIII and IX.  If those movies basically follow the plot and flow of the Original Trilogy, then these movies will be a waste of time.  If TFA is a way to mildly “right the ship” before taking off into new directions, the complete lack of originality in TFA could be forgiven.

As an aside, the special effects in TFA are the best of any of the films.  Abrams’ use of practical effects, as opposed to constant CGI, was a welcome change, and makes this movie more immersive and realistic than any before it.

Finally, I have to get a little controversial and comment on the casting. Every actor was good and, in fact, this movie probably has the best acting of the franchise (though Carrie Fisher was never that good of an actress), and it was great to see Harrison Ford back in the saddle (though his acting was a bit on the caricature side honestly, which is to say it was often like Han Solo playing Han Solo if that makes sense).  Anthony Daniels looks like he put on weight, but who noticed that?  If Rey is the daughter of Luke (and I think she is), then the casting of Daisy Ridley (as Rey) is brilliant because I think Rey clearly looks like she could be related to her grandmother (Natalie Portman‘s Padme Amidala), her aunt (Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia Organa), and her grandmother’s body double (Keira Knightley in The Phantom Menace).

My only issue with the casting was that it was so incredibly and blatantly pandering.  When I first learned that a new set of Star Wars movies was in the works, I told anyone who would listen that the featured Jedi would be a woman and the leading man would be black, and my prediction sadly came true.  Now, I have no problem with female or black characters at all.  What I have a problem with is pandering.  If Abrams wrote a story that happened to include a female Jedi or a black leading man, so be it, I would have no objection.  It is the fact that his decision to do so was so obvious, so telegraphed, and so predictable from so many years out from the premier of the movie, that it simply reveals that it lacked any sort of basis in storytelling or objective casting decisions, but, instead, smacks of pandering and some sort of “politically correct” agenda.  If there is one thing that pervades this movie, it is pandering: just like his decision to basically make TFA duplicate another movie, his casting decisions, too, lack any sort of actual creativity and are completely predicable.  The fan-service-bingo-like formula of the film panders to the fans, and the casting decisions panders to politically correct expectations.  He even doubled down on politically correct casting by also being sure to shoehorn the current Hollywood darling, and African actress, Lupita Nyong’o (as Maz Kanata) into the film for no apparent reason as well (Maz Kanata is, at best, a side character).  In fact, he notably (to me) never addresses Leia as “Princess” anywhere in the film, but only as “General” (as, of course, princesses are considered a negative thing for girls among the politically correct crowd).  How disappointing that, even with the casting of the film, Abrams was completely predicable, pandering, and without creativity.

Now, in saying all that, Abrams actually does cast really good actors, so his pandering is thankfully mitigated by great performances by Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn) and, quite honestly, by mid-way into the film my annoyance at seeing my prediction of cast pandering fulfilled became tempered, and by the end I totally forgot about it as Ridley and Boyega totally transcend the pandering that led to their casting, and they offered great performances and became fantastic new characters in their own right.  My complaint about pandering will, as a result, not translate into the next films (that is, unless, Abrams continues to do it).

So, to conclude, this movie is a fan’s dream in that it truly captures the Star Wars feelings, but it offers no reason for it to exist as it, basically, duplicates a prior film.  As stated above, how history will ultimately view this film depends on its sequels.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

I recently saw the movie Ant-Man and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers).  It should be noted that I am a big fan of comic books, and Marvel Comics in particular, and have been so since I was at least five years old.  I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way.

By way of introduction for the uninitiated, Ant-Man is a movie based on Marvel comic books that falls at the end of Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  This movie is the twelfth in the film series, which also includes nearly two-and-a-half seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a television series), one season of Agent Carter (also a television series), Daredevil and Jessica Jones (Netflix series), and five Marvel One-Shot films.  Needless to say, this film is deeply entrenched in a clearly established, long running, and sprawling interconnected media universe.

In the comic books, Ant-Man is among the first Marvel characters introduced in the 1960s (an era which included the introduction of most of “classic” Marvel characters everyone knows and loves), but in the movie universe he is somewhat late in the game.  As a result, the movie places Hank Pym, who is the original Ant-Man (played by Michael Douglas), into the Cinematic Universe’s past, and makes him a similarly aged contemporary with Agent Peggy Carter (who appears in the film in a flashback with Pym) and Howard Stark (who also appears in flashback).  As one may expect, the movie surrounds “Pym Particles” (the technology Pym invents to change his size) and the interests S.H.I.E.L.D. has in them.  Of course, things go south which causes Pym to discontinue using and developing his technology, which he then suppresses for fear of the danger that it could wreak.  Fast forward to the present day, and the man who becomes the villain Yellowjacket relentlessly pursues Pym’s shrinking technology seeking to weaponize it, which, once he perfects his own (albeit somewhat flawed) version, he does, and that creates the primary conflict of the film.  Pym, as an older man now, seeks out, and recruits, Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd), a young guy with a chequered past but good heart who needs to redeem himself, who adopts the Ant-Man mantle to accomplish that.   Over the course of Pym and Lang’s relationship, he encounters Hope Van Dyne (Pym’s daughter) which, of course, goes down a romantic path, and the whereabouts of the Wasp (Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother) is explored.

As I stated above, this movie is the twelfth entry into a huge movie series which has proven itself capable of easily making fun, fast paced, well put together comic book movies, and Ant-Man is a worthy addition to that series.  This movie, obviously, is not a serious drama or artistic cinema.  Instead, it is fun action movie that holds up well with spunky dialogue, well choreographed action scenes, and surprisingly decent acting.

Unfortunately, Marvel has gotten into a routine with its movies where it presents a character’s origin, creates a conflict with a character with very similar powers (albeit with ill intent), and then resolves that conflict after it appears the hero is dead (or nearly dead), all the while meeting a love interest along the way.  Almost all of the Marvel movies play out in this way, and Ant-Man seems the most cookie cutter of them all, which does not bode well for the Phase Three slate of origin films.

Marvel appears to be cognizant of its tendency to be formulaic, so it has made each of its films a different genre into which its formula is placed to make for variety and interest.  So, for Ant-Man, the genre appears to be a funny heist type movie (as opposed to a straight up action movie) along the lines of Oceans Eleven, which, to my mind, works very well.  Other examples being the Captain America movies being political thrillers, the Thor movies being fantasy, the Hulk movie being a “monster movie,” and the upcoming Spider-Man movie being a movie in the style of John Hughes, and so on.  In addition to genre adaptation, Marvel also leverages the natural personality of its actors, which works very well for them as Marvel, so far, has had a real knack for really effective casting.  In this movie, Rudd is very much himself through this movie, and Douglas is too, and that sort of natural approach makes the characters both humorous but also very relatable.

As a comic book fan, this movie was very obviously self-referential to its placement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  For example, there is an entire scene of dialogue placed into the movie simply to engender anticipation for the introduction of Spider-Man into this universe (the entire scene was unnecessary for this movie).  The Falcon plays a brief role in the movie in order to solidly put Ant-Man onto the Avengers‘ radar.  I imagine that Marvel chose the Falcon as the Avenger to insert into the film because he is known and integrated, and not “new” to the team (e.g.: Vision and Scarlett Witch), but is not a character so big that he would steal the movie, and, quite honestly, is also played by an actor who is relatively inexpensive.  Ant-Man also explores “another dimension” when he becomes impossibly small, which must be setting the stage for the upcoming Doctor StrangeFinally, this movie has two post-credits scene, one which sets up the Ant-Man sequel and one which sets up the thirteenth movie in the Marvel movie franchise.

Finally, I have to mention the last climatic fight scene between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket.  First of all, it is mercifully short.  It eschews this tendency of late to make the climatic fight scene an endlessly long slug fest which, at some point, becomes boring and, ironically, anti-climactic as one wonders how the combatants could possibly take all that punishment instead of rooting for the good guy.  Instead, this scene in Ant-Man is fun and well choreographed and interesting due to the fact that the characters constantly shrink and enlarge in size throughout the fight, which is a new element to these scenes.  Marvel did a really good job making the scene fun and, in fact, funny.  Two insect-sized guys are duking it out and, from their perspective, it is all very intense and powerful but, with well placed comic timing, the scene would pan out to reveal them fighting on a Thomas-the-Tank-Engine table, and the apparently huge items being tossed and the carnage being wrought is really just some toys harmlessly being flung about.  I will not spoil it here, but the coup de grace on the bad guys – caused in one place by Lang and another by Pym – are pretty hilarious for comic book movie standards.

So, this movie is great for fans and very entertaining for non-fans.  Do not expect great cinema but do expect a well done comic book movie that both honors the formula but also tries to make it interesting in its setting and approach.  If you are invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you will want to see this film; if you are a comic book fan, you will enjoy and appreciate the film; and, if you are a non-comic-book-fan, while you will not find it necessary to specifically seek out and watch the movie, you will nonetheless enjoy it if you watch it when it happens to be on the television in your vicinity.

Book Review: Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, by Lesslie Newbigin

Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (see more about it here), is a book about epistemology by the very influential Anglican theologian, missionary, and bishop Lesslie Newbigin.

This book is a rather slim volume, indeed Bp. Newbigin calls it an “essay,” but it says an incredible amount.  My fluency with philosophy is still rather elementary so, despite Newbigin’s efforts to make his book as simple as possible, I am still working through his points.  As a result, my explanation of them is still a work in progress.

Newbigin’s focus is “certainty” of knowledge and whether a person can have absolute certainty of any piece of knowledge.  Newbigin goes back to Descartes as the origin of the current confusion over certainty.  Ironically, Newbigin points out, while Descartes’ intent was to battle the atheistic philosophy of his day, he inadvertently laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, which then led to the modern humanism and/or atheism in our own day.

Newbigin’s point is that our search for certainty in knowledge is wrong headed.  Flowing from the Enlightenment was this idea that only scientific conclusions are “certain” (ironically this is despite the fact that most scientific conclusions are reached through the shaky foundation of inductive reasoning and are only as certain as the most recent experiment).  Modern perceptions of knowledge – and certainty – is one of (allegedly) objective “facts” and the individual’s seeking for them.  Ironically, the conclusion of the modern effort has found that such absolute certainty is impossible, which has led to relativism and the denial of truth at all, making nothing certain at all beyond one’s own thinking mind.

Newbigin recognizes that absolute certainty is impossible and all knowledge is mitigated through our subjective consciousness, however he rejects the idea that absolute truth does not exist; he merely recognizes the reality that truth is filtered through one’s subjective mind.  Instead, Newbigin asserts that the modern approach to certainty is flawed.  Its assumption that objective facts exist “out there” for us to discover is only partially true.  There are also facts revealed to us that are also true.  For example, a friend’s revealing to us something about his inner-life is not something discoverable by someone on the outside, but that does not make it less true and knowledge of it less certain.  Furthermore, Newbigin also indicates that the modern approach to knowledge (described above) must be recognized for what it is: a culturally created paradigm.  By contrast, Newbigin says that another way of looking at knowledge is as a story in which we are in the midst.  As we are participants in the story, future knowledge is still unfolding in which we must have faith but of which we never have complete knowledge as the story still is being revealed to us.

Ultimately, for Newbigin, the fact that absolute certainty is impossible reveals the role of faith in one’s life to fill in the gap left open by that lack of certainty.  Faith is ultimately trust and we place our trust in things, people, and sources of knowledge we find trustworthy.  In that context it is perfectly acceptable to have doubt and the issue becomes whether one’s faith – which is to say trust – is sufficient to overcome that doubt.

I found this book extremely helpful in that it provided me a better way to view knowledge, more realistic expectations with regard to certainty of knowledge, and a better way to understand the role and purpose of faith.  As I intimated above, I am still learning about philosophy so my understanding of its concepts and my understanding of Newbigin’s points are still developing (so, I am sure, this review could be clarified and/or modified based on greater understanding in the future), but I think the above gives an adequate overview of what one should expect from the book.

Book Review: After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre

After Virtue (see more about it here), is a philosophy of ethics book by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre which is, arguably, one of the most important works in the genre in the twentieth century (you can read a good summary of it here).

I must admit that I am not a philosopher, and have only recently (and, I am ashamed to say, very belatedly), really delved into the subject.  So, as a result, some parts of this book were a little difficult for me to slog through. Difficult not because it is poorly written or hard to understand but, rather, because my own knowledge base is somewhat limited.  As a result, I had to read a few of the pages a few times just to ensure I knew what the argument was or to what it was referring.  Aside from that, though, the book is not written in such a way to make it inscrutable or so technically only professionals could really appreciate it.  It just takes a little work sometimes.

The primary thesis of the book is that the Enlightenment, and after that modernism and post-modernism, having jettisoned the traditional underpinning of Western Civilization (namely Christianity and, before that, Aristotelianism), and the teleological understanding of reality that goes with it, are simply philosophically incapable of providing an individual and/or society with a system of virtues (or ethics or morals) that is, or can be, anything other than something binding and convincing to the individual alone.  In other words, the Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) have reduced virtues, ethics, and morals to simply personal preference, without any objective basis or general applicability.  In short, a system of virtues, if it is to have any meaning and applicability, must be based upon objectivity and truth, but the Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) rejects objectivity and truth and, therefore, handicaps itself from any ability to develop a system of virtues.  MacIntyre reviews a variety of Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) thinkers who have tried to develop a system of virtues and reveals each of them fundamentally in conflict with one another despite all claiming the same intellectual heritage in the Enlightenment.  MacIntyre presents this as hard evidence that the Enlightenment and its progeny simply cannot form the basis of any workable system of virtues as it betrays any effort to do so with its rejection of truth and objectivity.

Ultimately, MacIntyre incarnates the conflict between pre and post Enlightenment as a conflict between Aristotle and Neitzsche with Aristotle representing the traditional teleological approach to virtue and Neitzsche representing the logical conclusion of Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) philosophy as Neitzsche acknowledges and simply embraces the fact that developing a system of true and generally applicable virtues is impossible.

This book is an impressive indictment of our twenty-first century Western culture.  Despite all of the bloviation about morality and ethics one hears through the media and the community, MacIntyre demonstrates in stark relief that in doing so they reveal that the emperor truly has no clothes.  Instead, as our post-Enlightenment culture has no consistent philosophical or intellectual way of deriving and/or identifying virtue, it has survived using the borrowed capital of the prior Christian culture that preceded it by adopting its virtues for the present culture but attempting to find a post-Enlightenment rational for them.  The obvious intellectual problem is that post-Enlightenment thought simply cannot provide an intellectual basis for Christian virtue as the disconnect between the two is too great; they are too disparate.  Western culture was able to run on the fumes of Christian virtue within an Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment worldview while thinkers attempted to synthesize the two.  This attempt at synthesis has failed, which directly led to that failure coming to a head in the 1960s and, since then, Western culture has been in the process of deconstructing itself revealing the fundamental incompatibility of pre and post Enlightenment philosophy, and has laid the seeds for the constant cultural warfare being waged in Western civilization since then.  What concerns me, and MacIntyre too it seems, is that the cultural heritage we have received since the Enlightenment is inherently incapable of replacing what came before it in terms of developing a workable system of virtues, especially in the community and public life.  As a result, the foreseeable future will be marked by constant cultural conflict until the Neitzcheian Übermensch simply, by the force of his (or its) will and strength, exerts control over our society unless, of course, a more traditional view (e.g.: Christianity or at least Aristotelianism), can reassert itself in the culture.  May God have mercy on our culture!

If one has an interest in philosophy, ethics, or even mild cultural commentary, this is a phenomenal book, which is made all the better by the fact that it is highly respected and influential within and among intellectuals of all stripes and academia.

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