Tag Archives: superhero

‘Doctor Strange’ a worthy addition to MCU

Another origin story. Another weak villain. Another redemptive hero. Another shallow love interest. Another Stan Lee cameo. Another post-credits scene. More CGI action. In spite of the continuing weaknesses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, “Doctor Strange” still manages to be a fun and enjoyable ride.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cocky surgeon who crashes his car and irreparably damages bones in his hands. Searching for the ability to cure his ailment, he travels to a remote village across the world and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him about the mystic arts and prepares him for a confrontation with a fallen student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to bring an evil demon to Earth.

Cumberbatch is strong as Doctor Strange, blending a good mix of pompousness with vulnerability. Tilda Swinton is also a very good Ancient One. Rachel McAdams has a needless role as a trophy girlfriend for the doctor, but she isn’t as grating as Natalie Portman or Gwenyth Paltrow in similar roles. And Mads Mikkelsen is pretty pedestrian as another bad guy who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

The true star of the film are its special effects, with its bending buildings and parallel dimensions and magic and demons. It makes the film a visual feast and helps smooth over the fact that the story itself is pretty bland.

But at least the environment is different. The MCU now has wizards and magic and some pretty crazy science behind its latest hero. While Captain America’s films are espionage dramas and “Iron Man” is modern action and “Guardians” is 1980s sci-fi, “Doctor Strange” is psychadelic new age fantasy. So while its story is familiar, at least Marvel puts that story into different genres.

A ‘fantastic’ failure

I did not see Fox’s recently opened Fantastic Four this weekend. More than likely, you did not either. That’s all right. Most everyone didn’t. As soon as the first reviews started coming in late last week, signs pointed towards a disaster. Not only were they negative, they were downright cruel. Peter Travers of The Rolling Stones said, “The latest reboot of the Fantastic Four – the cinematic equivalent of malware – is worse than worthless. It not only scrapes the bottom of the barrel; it knocks out the floor and sucks audiences into a black hole of soul-crushing, coma-inducing dullness.” A.O. Scott of the The New York Times similarly reported, “Ms. Mara disappears. Her character also has the power to make other things vanish. I would say she should have exercised it on this movie, but in a week or two that should take care of itself.”

What went wrong? How could Marvel Comic’s original flagship superhero team flounder so poorly again cinematically (the 1994 and 2005 films are similarly awful)? It is the classic story of Hollywood greed and incompetence.

20th Century Fox was about to lose the rights to the Fantastic Four franchise unless they released another film, and, rather than lose them for nothing back to Marvel, they rushed into production on a stopgap film. Suffice it to say, a rushed production for purely financial reasons is never a strong way to create a good movie.

There was hope in the beginning though. Director Josh Trank was hired, he of the indie hit Chronicle (2012). Up and coming actors such as Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell were cast in the lead roles. With that talent brought together, a hit seemed assured. The first trailer promised a darker tone and teen angst. This was a new version of the beloved superhero team, one that seemed to take them seriously. And then the rumors about the shoot started to creep up online.

The Hollywood Reporter reported that Trank was aloof on set, often isolated. It was rumored that he was in over his head, often unsure of his decisions and unable to answer questions to cast and crew. It was even rumored that things got so bad that producers Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker were forced to step in and finish the film, with reshoots as recently as just three months ago. Trank had been rumored to be a frontrunner for one of the upcoming Star Wars films. He has since been removed from consideration.

As the first awful reviews started coming in, Trank took to Twitter, posting that, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” The tweet has since been removed.

Josh Trank tweet
Josh Trank tweet

Whether Trank was in over his head or the studio interfered too much, it doesn’t really matter. The final product is apparently a Frankenstein-esque bore.

Early estimates for the weekend indicate that the film made $26.2 million for the weekend, a pathetic showing compared to the $191.2 million that Avengers: Age of Ultron opened to or the $57.2 million that Ant-Man earned. Even audiences who saw the movie gave it a measley C- cinemascore (for comparison, Pixels, a widely panned Adam Sandler film, received a B from audiences). It is highly unlikely, even with the international box office, that Fantastic Four will earn any profit, and a planned sequel and mashup film with the X-Men will almost surely never happen.

Hopefully, Fox will come to their senses the next go around and just let the Fantastic Four movie rights lapse back to Marvel. After their third failed attempt to jumpstart a  ‘Fantastic’ franchise, Marvel fans deserve better.

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

Even five years ago, the idea of a Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) film would have been ludicrous. They were B-list superheroes at best. Most people had never heard of them. But with Disney now determined to churn out a superhero film every few months to hold onto their current popularity for as long as they can, it was only a matter of time before something near the bottom of the barrel was given a $200 million budget just for an open summer timeslot. None of this is meant to disparage the fun film, but it is interesting to think about how we have reached a certain apex in superhero film fashion where a ragtag team of losers that includes a giant tree and a talking raccoon with a machine gun is now a major motion picture.

Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), begins the film as a rogue thief looking to make a profit until one of the items he snatches turns out to be an object with immense power that is coveted by an evil warlord, Ronan (Lee Pace). Through his adventure, he meets allies in Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel). With each working through their own complex pasts involving betrayals and strange lab experiments and heartbreak, they learn to move on from their needs for money or power or revenge and work together to accomplish a greater good. If this sounds somewhat similar to The Avengers (2012), that’s because it is, but with more bizarre, sci-fi elements at play it does distinguish itself. In fact, if you pay close enough attention, you will also see striking similarities to Star Wars (1977) in character types and plot structure.

In difference to other superhero films (though this film barely qualifies in that genre and should be considered more of a sci-fi comedy), Guardians focuses more on humor and action than heart and emotion. The aliens and costumes are bizarre and colorful, the characters and species are plentiful and there are so many laws and devices and objects of immense power that it is difficult to keep track of what may be going on at any particular moment in terms of plot. The filmmakers, director and writer James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman, understood this bizarre dynamic inherent in the comic book and instead of attempting to create a serious work with sci-fi elements embraced the lunacy of the team, working in jokes and gags that not only mock the characters, their world and the plot, but also the conventions of the superhero film in general (the team deciding to work together, nobody trusting each other, the epic conclusion just to name a few). The result is the world’s first multi-million dollar, superhero cult film.

While the film is nothing truly original, it is a lot of fun along the way, full of colorful images, humor and above all, memorable characters. Marvel and Disney have found a formula that works to produce upmost audience satisfaction, and while it is not earth-shattering art, it serves as enjoyable entertainment.

SPOILERS

The film opens with the death of Peter Quill’s mother, a moment seemingly out of place with the rest of the film. One assumes this was meant to serve as some sort of motivation for his character for the rest of the film, but this falls flat as aliens, magic stones and epic battles begin to overrule the plot. With its somber tone and with it being seemingly the only scene that requires no visual effects, it starts the film off on the wrong foot.

The film then transitions to Quill stealing artifacts and selling them on the black market and this is where things really take off. We learn about his character as he uses strange froglike creatures as microphones and converses with guards who have no idea who he is. This should have been the true start to the film and perhaps a mention that he was of earth and cherishes his music as a last remembrance of his mother would have worked stronger. The music is used very effectively throughout the film, not only highlighting the plot but also Quill’s attachment to Earth and to his mother while also representing his own renegade personality.

Many of the plot elements of Guardians of the Galaxy are confusing. If viewers were not familiar with previous Marvel installments, they may be completely lost in terms of who is who, who hates who, what are the different species and who has treaties with whom. In the end, the film ultimately decides that the plot doesn’t matter that much and focuses on the characters and their relationship with the MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever the characters want- in this case a stone that can destroy worlds). Once it is established that this bad guy (Ronan) wants this object that will destroy innocent people and the Guardians have to stop him, the film becomes a very straightforward heroes must save the world(s) narrative and this serves the film better.

The true strength of the film relies on the characters and the actors portraying them. Quill is charismatic and cocksure if incompetent, Gamora is deadly and looking to redeem her past, Rocket Raccoon is immature and greedy, Drax is angry and vengeful and Groot is just fun to watch interact with the others since he can only say three words. Each of the actors (and animators in some cases) brings them to life with vitality that makes the audience understand them and empathize. Watching them interact is fun and keeps the action and humor flowing even when the plot stumbles along.

In the end, Marvel and Disney deliver exactly what you’d expect: laughs, action and strong characters. It seems that the formula for the Disney/Marvel movies has been pretty much set in stone now: flawed heroes who need to learn to work with others against stereotypical villains who are seeking an object that will cause great harm to others. In comparison to great films that we can compare to fine Italian culinary, Disney/Marvel has perfected the sit down family restaurant: filling, full of fun, but nothing particularly memorable or moving. This would be suitable for comic book films in general as popcorn fare until you compare these Disney/Marvel films with other superhero films such as The Dark Knight (2008) or X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) which seem to push the envelope on the emotional range of what superhero films can be. A little more emotional depth and boundary pushing would truly elevate films such as Guardians of the Galaxy further.

As the superhero film has progressed to an assembly line of various entries per year, Guardians represents a move towards the obscure as mainstream. One can only imagine with the multiple sequels, obscure franchises and hundreds of characters how long this current stretch of films can continue to generate revenue. History has taught us that superheroes have always gone through periods of death and rebirth, from the censorship of the 1950s with the Comics Code Authority to the Batman television show (1966-68) to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) to Batman and Robin (1997) all crashing various waves of superhero popularity. Guardians of the Galaxy is not that crashing point, but it does represent a stretch towards a lack of ideas for Hollywood big-budget films. One hopes that studios recognize the need to change and adapt to superhero overuse and at least change some of the formulaic nature of these films before another crash hits us soon (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015)). For now though, we can enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun, humorous adventure romp and rest assured that superheroes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.