Film

Film Review: SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021)

There is a debate coming about Spider-Man: No Way Home, set to go down in cinematic lore as both the end and a new beginning for Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. A debate around just how much fan service has now arrested control of popular cinema.

While No Way Home will almost certainly do gigantic box office business, even by the metrics of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, not everyone is going to embrace the ambitious steps Jon Watts’ film takes. This isn’t, after all, simply the concluding beat of a three-film trilogy, such as we saw in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (and let’s not forget there was talk of a fourth for a time afterward). No Way Home is the conclusion of seven previous Spider-Man adventures, not to mention Holland’s web as a character within the wider MCU itself.

In that sense, Marvel have crafted a sequel quite unlike any other here, by tapping into the burgeoning concept of the ‘multiverse’ in the way audiences have previously understood to be the point of parallel universe stories: to depict alternate versions of the same characters. The MCU has thus far established the concept on more of a conceptual level in outings such as Loki, or even irreverently in the last Spider-Man film Far From Home or in elements of WandaVision. Here, the franchise goes for broke in providing audiences with long-standing closure that, had the MCU not been as rampantly successful, would never have happened.

For some, like this writer, the result is joyful. Others will find it infuriating and strangely reductive. And either way, No Way Home could be a sign of times to come, should it be the huge success people are predicting.

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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, 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, 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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Essays, Film, Game of Thrones, Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Sopranos

Death Wish: When did death become the journey?

The end of April saw two of the biggest pop-culture entertainment events of the decade in one weekend, and something strange has become apparent through the other side of them: we have become obsessed with death.

In the wake of arguably the biggest episode in Game of Thrones’ history, The Long Night, which saw the long-awaited, titanic battle between the living and the dead, a great deal of complaints flew around in the ether that we hadn’t seen enough major character meet the Lord of Light (or insert substitute maker). Why didn’t Jaime Lannister go down fighting? How come Sansa Stark wasn’t mauled alive in the crypts? Surely Sam Tarly would never have survived in the savage, undead melee? Fans and commentators seemed fixated on the outcome of the battle for Winterfell being significant loss, as opposed to victory or defeat for the collected good guys.

Equally, in the run up to Avengers: Endgame, Marvel’s culmination to the first decade of their cinematic universe, all bets were on one of two deaths: Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark or Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers. Both played by actors who publically stated they were done, both playing characters who have reached the logical end of their ten-year story arcs. In a narrative choice earned and logical, it’s Tony who takes the bullet (alright, gauntlet) and shuffles off to superhero immortality, but what was the state of conversation in the wake of this? That everyone saw this coming. Tony’s death was too predictable. For some, it even clouded the entire film. Endgame, to certain audience members, was about who died, who wouldn’t make it out into the next phase.

When did this become what long-form storytelling was about? Why is the death of characters we are so attached to the destination, the only destination, that matters?

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Essays, Essays, Film, Game of Thrones, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Trek: Discovery, TV

End Game of Treks: Is Time-Travel Becoming a Storytelling Crutch?

In one of the busiest few months in science-fiction and fantasy popular-culture, the beginning of 2019 has seen three major franchises in cinema and on television become embroiled in what could be rapidly becoming a narrative crutch.

Time-travel.

The lacklustre Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery (I really promise to stop talking about this soon) saw the crew of the Starfleet ship launch themselves almost 1000 into the distant Federation future to prevent a universe-destroying, rampant AI from wiping out all life. The gigantic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first era, Avengers: Endgame, saw our superheroes enter the Quantum Realm and zip backwards across time to recover the universe-shattering Infinity Stones before the Mad Titan, Thanos, can snap his fingers again and wipe out half of all sentient life. And just this week, Game of Thrones saw the ultimate battle with the Night King and his army of the dead, coming to wipe out the living, which all hung on the fate of Bran Stark, a time-travelling tree-wizard.

Anyone noticing a pattern here? Three legendary franchises. Three titanic threats to the fabric of the entire universe. And in each case, the resolution of the paradox has the potential to lie in the bending of time.

We’re in danger of death by temporal mechanics if we’re not careful.

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Film, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Reviews

AVENGERS: ENDGAME is the natural crescendo to Marvel’s cultural cinematic dominance (Film Review)

“Part of the journey is the end” says Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark at a key point in Avengers: Endgame, a phrase which could neatly punctuate Marvel Studios’ remarkable conclusion to the first era of their Cinematic Universe.

Endgame is a staggering achievement. It is, without question, the biggest superhero movie ever made. It makes last years Infinity War look, at times, like an indie movie. Okay, that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but there is one sequence in particular toward the climax of Endgame which is just, quite frankly, jaw-dropping in its ambition and scale. It was one of several moments over the next few minutes which had the audience in my screening cheering, whooping and gasping in joy, surprise and the impact of what Endgame provides, and provides in absolute spades: payoff. Payoff to ten years of narrative and character investment from an audience which has grown, some who have grown up, with the Avengers.

It therefore comes as a surprise to report that Endgame, on first blush, is not as solid or accomplished a piece of cinema as Infinity War, or Avengers Assemble, or Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and certainly the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It easily dwarfs every  single MCU movie to date in scope, without a shadow of a doubt, but by its very nature there are structural issues, and problems with certain beats of characterisation, which are going to become more of a sticking point for critical fans once the euphoria and magic of Marvel’s fan service begins to wear off. This is a euphoria I share, by the way, right now, to the point I am itching to see Endgame again very soon.

Endgame is a film which, certain problems aside, will absolutely make you feel a whole range of emotions by the end. If you’re invested, this is a powerful experience.

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Essays, Film

ANON: The Quandary of the Joint Home/Cinema Release

Just to clarify, starting a title with Anon is not me trying to go all highbrow and Shakespearian on all of you.

It does of course refer to a new picture being released next Friday, starring Clive Owen & Amanda Seyfried, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, which is being promoted with a curious affectation: it is both being released in UK cinemas and on the Sky Cinema service as a premiere simultaneously on the same day. In a world where people worry about how Netflix Original movies are threatening to make cinema obsolete, this only adds fuel to the fire.

Now I haven’t seen Anon. My website Set The Tape was at the press screening and our guy there gave it a decent review, but the film didn’t set his world alight. I will refrain from judging Anon until I’ve seen it, and I will see it, but will I see it at my local cinema? Probably not, in all honesty. Why would I? I’m fortunate enough to have the means to have Now TV, and by extension Sky Cinema, so I can get home from work on Friday, grab a snack from the cupboard, put my feet up on my sofa, and watch Anon on my 45’ plasma. Alternatively I could travel five miles, pay for snacks, sit next to a stranger, and not even be able to stop the film for a cuppa. Again, why would I?

This sounds like I’m down on the cinema as an entity. I’m really not. There remains nothing like the experience of watching a movie on a big screen with an audience. Last year, I experienced the beauty of hundreds of people in hushed, hold your breath silence at the end of La La Land, or this year dozens of people crying out when that character suffers a potentially fatal blow in Avengers: Infinity War. You can’t replicate that at home on your couch. The honest truth, however, is that unless you’re an absolute fanatic with time to spare, a Cineworld Unlimited card (or variant), or it’s your job, you won’t watch everything at the movies. In this world, we have to pick and choose what we go and see.

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Essays, Film

Marvel, Gatekeeping and the ‘Problem’ with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

There has been an interesting response to the dominant Avengers: Infinity War this weekend as it romped home to a record-beating opening weekend in the States, and a remarkable $600 million plus global take home.

Aside from the legion of critics, professional and amateur, who have all lined up on either side of whether the film is good or bad (and most reactions seem positive), the issue again seems to concern fandom. In this instance, whether Infinity War is for anyone who isn’t already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A piece in The New Yorker has been widely circulated, with people criticising and defending an article which suggests Infinity War suffers for the fact it does nothing to ‘introduce’ the myriad amount of Marvel players to new audiences. Some are suggesting that it doesn’t have to, given its place as the first part of a finale to an ongoing saga—which I discuss more in my review—but some have on the other side of the fence suggested this kind of storytelling by Marvel Studios, and how the fandom have responded to it, is yet another form of ‘gatekeeping’.

That fandom are, once again, erecting a big ‘KEEP OUT’ sign and planting it firmly in the entrance of every cinema from Middlesbrough to Manhattan.

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Film, Reviews

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is an ambitiously solemn superhero epic

Say what you like about Avengers: Infinity War but nobody can deny one thing: it is breaking new cinematic ground. For decades there have been sequels. For decades there have been franchises. For decades we have seen continuing universes on both the big and small screens, sometimes overlapping, develop characters and storylines. Marvel Studios differ in their approach.

This is the first time anyone has, over a ten-year period, created and structured a cinematic franchise in the narrative style of a ‘season’ of television.

This is something I have discussed when talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe before because it has cast a shadow over the mainstream cinematic landscape which is likely to stay for years, perhaps even decades, to come. Kevin Feige, producer supremo, has been the constant here; ever since 2008’s Iron Man turned Robert Downey. Jr from disgraced character actor into the biggest movie star in the world, Infinity War has been the goal.

While undoubtedly tides have changed, production realities have emerged, and details have altered, Marvel have been working to a decade-long plan to unite the Avengers against Thanos, the Mad Titan, and his plan to wipe out half the universe with the combined Infinity Stones.

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