Comics, TV, Writing

First Impressions: WANDAVISION ‘Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience / Don’t Touch That Dial’

It was never meant to begin this way.

Marvel’s true first foray into expanding their immensely successful cinematic universe beyond the realms of the big screen was not originally designed to start with an MCU take on Pleasantville; a surreal dreamscape inversion of two relatively important but not marquee characters in the Marvel tapestry, yet WandaVision leading the charge thanks to the continued preponderance of Covid-19 could well turn out to be unintentionally inspired. There is a boldness to having audiences tune in to such an unusual and decidedly ambiguous concept as their first salvo of the much-hyped MCU ‘Phase Four’.

The project, from newcomer Jac Schaffer (also boasting a story credit on the upcoming Black Widow movie), directed by Matt Shakman, certainly in the first two episodes at least, is rooted in the kind of pop cultural reference points Marvel have built an entire screen universe around. There will scarcely be an era or artistic style the MCU hasn’t adopted when the day is done, and WandaVision very clearly takes a cue from the classic American sitcom of old – The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched – which encapsulated safe, charisma driven family friendly comedy. In a way, this almost feels like Marvel in on their own joke, having strived to develop a storytelling universe that caters both to hardcore, decades-long comic lore nerds and the common or garden punter.

WandaVision plays up to those accessible reference points with a sense of playful glee, a joy available only to a well-established universe with adaptable rules, an easy going confidence, and an understanding of the tropes it has adopted.
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Film, Star Wars, TV, Writing

Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…

Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.

In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.

It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.

Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.

Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.
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Film, Writing

Chadwick Boseman and the Mourning of Personal Icons

Rik Mayall died on my birthday.
Not the day I was born, of course. On June 9th, 1982, he was about to appear in The Young Ones as his career began a steady incline to becoming one of the irreverent, post-modern Comic Strip crowd of anarchic, anti-establishment comedians of the ‘80s. It was rather my 32nd birthday back in 2014, a day marred by the passing of someone I genuinely considered a celebrity icon. Not simply for the fact, by some cosmic coincidence, he suddenly passed away at just 56 years old on a day I normally celebrate, Mayall’s death meant something to me, as a fan of the man and his work. It hurt.

Fast forward to May of 2017. I’m at work on a normal day (remember when we all went to work as normal?), checking my phone, and up it pops: Roger Moore has passed away at 89 years old. A lump formed in my throat. Moore was a childhood hero for me. Pierce Brosnan was my generation’s Bond, but Moore was my Bond, the one I grew up watching as an impressionable young boy in the ’80s. The man himself seemed charming and kind, and I had even seen him live on stage in Wolverhampton, no less, around six months before his death. He was aged but no less the engaging raconteur. Like Mayall, I imagined Roger would live forever and when he died, so did a little of my childhood. For similar reasons, I dread the day we lose the other great 007, Sean Connery.
These examples illustrate the strange moments when we lose people we never met, never would have met, but whose passing cuts deep. This weekend, many of us had that same feeling once again with the passing of Chadwick Boseman.
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Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt XI – ‘Live Long and Prosper’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

Given how powerfully The Wrath of Khan ends, it is easy to miss the beauty in it, certainly in terms of how perfectly it caps off a character journey for Admiral James T. Kirk that we’ve witnessed almost from minute one. It may be Spock who dies in The Wrath of Khan, but the film unquestionably throughout is about Kirk.

It is also hard to overestimate how much of a shock Spock’s death might have been at the time. Characters like Spock didn’t die. You didn’t kill off someone like Leonard Nimoy. Star Trek had emerged from an era of largely safe, colourful, now even kitsch television in which America reflected its aspirational virtues for the post-war future in the 1960’s in heroes. Kirk. Bruce Wayne. Jim Phelps. Cinema had James Bond or Matt Helm. Morally flawed or compromised at times they might have been, but they were designed to save us from the hopeless devastation a generation had lived through. Star Trek’s heroes would fight battles, defeat foes, explore new worlds, but they would always at the end finish on TV with a little joke or the acknowledgement that they’ll be back next week for another adventure.

Even The Motion Picture, which tones down the colour and comedy of The Original Series to depict a post-Watergate, late-1970’s cooler vision of Starfleet’s future, saw Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise—with Spock having regained his purpose as a Starfleet officer—warp away toward a sequel. The human adventure, after all, was just beginning. Nicholas Meyer’s sequel is an incredibly humanistic film but it acknowledges that with humanity, with hope, has to come the balance of pain, and of sacrifice. While Kirk’s arc of spiritual rebirth has a resolutely Christian bent, Spock giving his life to save the Enterprise makes him the Christ figure who saves the crew from Khan’s defeated Devil. Kirk’s first best destiny is to lead, is to find his way back to himself, and to do that he must lose someone he takes for granted for much of The Wrath of Khan. His anchor. His best friend.

To even contemplate such a remarkable ending to a story like this proves just how special The Wrath of Khan is. That ending of Avengers: Endgame? It wouldn’t exist without what The Wrath of Khan dared to try.

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Film, Reviews, Star Wars

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga (Film Review)

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

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Film, Reviews, The Conjuring

ANNABELLE COMES HOME cements the existence of the horror movie ‘superhero’ (Film Review)

The so-called Conjuring Cinematic Universe confidently takes another key inspiration from Marvel’s all-dominant equivalent with Annabelle Comes Home by cementing the existence of the ‘horror movie superhero’.

Or, in this case, superheroes in the form of Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 previously, both of whom neatly bookend this ‘interquel’, depicting the carnage wreaked inside their evil-containing fortress of a domestic home when pesky kids unleash the titular Annabelle and the entire contents of their terrifying basement.

The Warren’s were, of course, real people – Lorraine died, indeed, earlier this year, and in The Conjuring they were portrayed much more handsomely and less eccentrically than in real life, but they remained nevertheless demonologist investigators in particularly that first movie; a married, far less dysfunctional Mulder & Scully if their focus were demons rather than aliens. This changes in Annabelle Comes Home. They begin to morph from the Mulder & Scully to the Steve Rogers & Natasha Romanoff of the Conjuring Cinematic Universe.

It may be left to the forthcoming The Conjuring 3 to hit that idea square on but Annabelle Comes Home certainly lays the foundations, exploring what happens when you remove those heroes from the narrative.

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Film, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Reviews

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is a fun, frothy but never throwaway Endgame comedown (Film Review)

You know when people say “don’t watch this one unless you’ve seen the last one”? Well, that statement may just peak with Spider-Man: Far From Home, particularly when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The ‘one’ in particular isn’t even the previous solo Spider-Man film, 2017’s Homecoming, because the MCU has changed the game when it comes to how sequels work. Homecoming introduced the supporting characters in Peter Parker’s direct orbit but Jon Watts’ precious picture was neither Tom Holland’s first bow as the character, and Homecoming serves as an important part of the ongoing, overarching narrative in the first era of the MCU which concluded recently with the ‘one’ I am talking about – Avengers: Endgame. That’s the film you need to have seen before Far From Home as Watts’ Spider-Man film serves as an extended epilogue to the epic conclusion to the Infinity Saga, not to mention a coda to that first, decade-spanning era.

Far From Home is about the legacy of an era which reinvented exactly what the ‘superhero movie’ was. Marvel Studios, under Kevin Feige’s aegis, took the formula and tropes we had come to know and understand from the previous three decades since 1978’s seminal first Superman adaptation, through a legion of Batman movies and beyond, and subverted them pretty much from the get-go. Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man didn’t spend half a dozen films hiding his identity as Bruce Wayne did – he came out and told the world right at the end of his origin story. The MCU interweaved characters and narratives to develop the first ongoing, television-style serialised structure in cinematic history. Along the way it brewed up broad comedy, epic action, science-fiction and half a dozen other genres—often within the same films—inside which the traditional ‘superhero’ nestled.

What we have seen in previous Marvel pictures before Endgame, and which Far From Home makes abundantly clear, is that Marvel’s self-aware subversion of that formula has become their formula itself.

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Film, Reviews, X-Men

X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX is the dated coda to a superhero franchise past its prime (Film Review)

Dark Phoenix is not quite the coda to the X-Men franchise that you might have expected going in.

For quite some time now, general feeling among a large swathe of the movie going audience invested in comic book cinema has been the belief that Dark Phoenix would be a significant let down. Despite the critical successes, even taking into account their flaws, of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse was a strong case of diminishing returns (critically and financially as it turns out) which took a lot of air out of the X-Men balloon when it came to enthusiasm for the next generation of the franchise – having established new versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm etc… to help presumably carry the X-Men saga into a new era. With Bryan Singer no longer involved in the production due to the allegations against him, and long-term writer Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut, plus the usual report of reshoots of the final act and the film’s release being pushed back over half a year, the omens for Dark Phoenix outdoing Apocalypse and providing a satisfying end to this iteration of the saga were low. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Dark Phoenix, in which case, is that it is a better film than Apocalypse and just about accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Let me state this clearly for the record: Dark Phoenix is not a great X-Men film, or comic-book movie in general. When up against the heights of the medium, be it the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its peak or The Dark Knight trilogy, Dark Phoenix cannot compete. It is at times noisy. It can be unintentionally funny in how overwrought the central story finds itself. It suffers from some of the worst villains in the entirety of comic book cinema. It ignores elements of its own continuity and numerous character arcs for expediency. Plus it lacks a great deal of depth when it comes to the underpinnings geopolitical and social aspects that made the X-Men films more than just effects-driven spectacles. It focuses so tightly on one character journey in particular that much of the saga’s entertaining subtext is rejected. Yet despite all of this, it is not incoherent. It is a better adaptation of ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’, the 1980 comic story from Chris Claremont and John Byrne, than X-Men: The Last Stand gave us. It does manage to give key characters Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, as well as Jean Grey of course, dramatic through-lines which tether to the core narrative in a satisfying way.

And, perhaps as best it could, Dark Phoenix gives a level of closure to the X-Men franchise that we can probably live with.

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Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s 2014 epic, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Though ostensibly designed as a new beginning for the X-Men franchise, Days of Future Past oddly works better as an ending.

Bryan Singer’s return as director of the franchise, after abandoning the third intended X-Men film in 2006 for Superman Returns, gives the film an unexpected level of continuity back to his original first two pictures and allows it to work as a capstone for the original X-Men cast, the majority of whom return for this adaptation of Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s legendary 1981 Uncanny X-Men saga set in a dark, post-apocalyptic future where both humans and mutants have been subjugated by the Sentinels, a force of man-made, mutant-killing robots. Days of Future Past ends up allowing Singer to both tie-off many of the loose ends left remaining after X-Men: The Last Stand, and continue the rebirth of the saga after Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. As the film brings together two different generations of X-Men and these characters, so Days of Future Past unites Singer and Vaughn, who co-developed the story with First Class writer Jane Goldman, in developing a unique fusion of continuation and conclusion.

Days of Future Past is the most tangibly connected X-Men film to X1 and X2, even beyond Singer back in the director’s chair. It tackles the core ideological difference between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) that formed the backbone of those first films, as it does in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics, and naturally evolves that conflict from its foundation in First Class. Though the plot is driven by Wolverine in his role working to change the past, and it hinges on the historical actions of Mystique, Days of Future Past is as much an origin story for Professor X and his school as First Class was for Magneto. The script is cleaner, the dramatic through-line more directly apparent (at least in the first half), and it manages to both give the original X-Men trilogy a sense of closure while spiralling the franchise off into a new direction. This does for the X-Men franchise what JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot movie did for Star Trek – new life born of old characters.

X2 may be the stronger movie by a yard or two, but Days of Future Past could well be my personal favourite for how it satisfies the viewer on multiple levels.

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Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Brett Ratner’s third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand

If you ever needed proof of the law of diminishing returns, you could look no further than X-Men: The Last Stand.

Over the years, X3 (as it was never officially known but we will call it for expediency) has developed what could be charitably described as a bad reputation amongst fans of comic-book cinema and indeed fans of Marvel’s X-Men comics themselves. There is no question – The Last Stand is a profound step down from the preceding two films, particularly the strong and layered X2. Brett Ratner’s film is emptier while being crammed with more plot, and more mutants, that you can shake a stick at it. The script is unfocused and at times obnoxious, while Ratner’s direction has none of the poise and subtlety Bryan Singer brought to the previous movies. Several of the key, well-developed characters from X1 and X2 are unceremoniously dumped and numerous key journeys and arcs across those two films are ditched or given short shrift. If X2 was X-Men’s The Empire Strikes Back, this is a poor man’s Return of the Jedi, with 2009’s execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine probably the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Yet… yet… there is something about The Last Stand which prevents it from being a complete and utter failure. It is perhaps the purest invocation of the kitsch pulp Stan Lee & Jack Kirby gave us in the earliest 1960’s X-Men comics, far more so than the updated, modernised take across Singer’s movies. While churning through at times underwhelming material, key actors such as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are comfortable in the skin of their characters and are visibly enjoying playing them. The Last Stand, in how it pits the X-Men against the Brotherhood of Mutants by the climax, is one of the first major comic-book blockbusters to pit a whole team of super-powered heroes and villains against each other, something we would by now come to expect in many Marvel Cinematic Universe films; indeed, The Last Stand introduces the post-credits teaser sequence before Iron Man in 2008 goes on to steal it and make it a staple of the MCU.

Don’t get me wrong: The Last Stand is not a good X-Men film, or indeed a good comic-book movie. We have, however, seen much worse.

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