Film, Partisan Cinema

Partisan Cinema: THE FIRST PURGE (2018) – Ultraconservative Horror to fear?

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Given The First Purge is first and foremost a horror movie, this may seem like a redundant question. Blumhouse Productions naturally want us to be afraid of a picture designed to make audiences jump and scream, but The Purge franchise has never been simply a series of jump-scare horror films. The most recent prequel, depicting how the concept of the Purge came to be, presents a deeper, more existential question which, by the day, seems to grow in power.

Should we be scared that The First Purge could actually, in some form, one day happen?

The deeper sociological and political quandaries posed by Blumhouse and writer-director James DeMonaco’s franchise have always been more intriguing than the storytelling itself in these movies. Don’t get me wrong, after the somewhat listless 2013 entry that opened the franchise—which presented itself more in the vein of a home invasion horror in the wake of successes such as The Strangers or Funny Games, no doubt to accentuate The Purge along more of an axis horror fans had responded to in the past—the franchise has steadily with sequels Anarchy and Election Year evolved into more of a grotesque action-thriller/horror spectacle, and benefited from that direction.
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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, 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, 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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Season Reviews, TV

LUKE CAGE (Season 2) matures into one of the slickest superhero series around (TV Review)

If anything proves the Netflix corner of Marvel’s cinematic and TV universe has found its groove, or perhaps in this case its soul groove, it is the second season of Luke Cage.

Marvel’s partnership with Netflix to weave together four shows set in New York City has reached an interesting place, after three years of regularly airing content. The Punisher added a fifth main show to the mix late last year after The Defenders, a much-touted coming together of Cage and fellow heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, underwhelmed a great many. Iron Fist’s first season last year suffered a critical mauling, while people have been lukewarm on Jessica Jones’ recent second season – after it raced out of the gate in late 2015 with a powerful piece of comic-book television. In other words, the Netflix corner of Marvel is drifting a touch, and is in sore need of a booster to remind people of how good it can actually be.

It looks like Luke Cage may, therefore, have returned at just the right time.
Luke Cage as a show is possibly the most consistent entry to the Marvel-Netflix collaboration of series. The first run, which aired in mid-2016 before Daredevil’s second season and Iron Fist’s debut, established a unique tonality which a lot of the other Marvel series have struggled to find. Daredevil dropped off a cliff in its second season when it attempted to introduce wonky mysticism into the plotting, the same jarring karma which sank Iron Fist before he even really got going – and compromised parts of The Defenders too. Jessica Jones, on returning, simply could not shake off the ghost of the Purple Man aka Kilgrave, and the remnants of its pre-#MeToo abuse of power narrative.

Luke Cage, by contrast, grows into its own in its second year, building on the already solid foundations laid by its first season.

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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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Film, Reviews

BLACK PANTHER is thrilling, powerful & elegant black superhero myth making

Black Panther feels as much like a moment as it does a movie. There has been something transformative about the response to what, in another time and place, might have just ended up as another Marvel movie. It’s yet again proof that Marvel are expanding their reach, upping their game, and doubling their odds.

Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, adapting the successful if not widely known outside comic-book circles story of King T’Challa of Wakanda, is the second picture in a row from the comics studio, after Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, to feel like the true work of an auteur filmmaker. This has been a balance Kevin Feige’s game-changing franchise has previously struggled with since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man changed the course of blockbuster cinema in 2008; you only have to point to the wreckage of films such as The Incredible Hulk or Thor: The Dark World as good examples of how it took Marvel a while to truly embrace a filmmaker’s singular vision alongside the beats and overarching universal frameworks Marvel have spent a decade building toward, which will reach a conclusion with Avengers: Infinity War this year and its untitled 2019 sequel.

Could it be that the reason both Thor: Ragnarok and now Black Panther are such strong entities within the Marvel family is precisely because they didn’t have to particularly fit that framework? That’s a strong possibility. All Waititi had to do was position Thor in a space whereby he could be slotted back into Infinity War – beyond that he had carte blanche to re-imagine the world of Asgard as a neon, Guardians of the Galaxy-esque, 1980’s retro-futuristic blend of mythology and Antipodean eccentricity, and for the most part it worked beautifully.

Coogler has perhaps even greater freedom with Black Panther, allowed as he is to truly develop the internal mythology and world of Wakanda around what isn’t a traditional origin story for T’Challa, given his previous introduction in Captain America: Civil War, but something deeper: a liberal-minded tale of colonial rejection, imperialist globalisation, and the haunting embers of black persecution.

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