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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2000 in Film

X-MEN: a pioneering example for modern superhero cinema (2000 in Film #27)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of July 14th, Bryan Singer’s X-Men

NOTE: this piece is a re-post from a previous film by film breakdown of the X-Men series.

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even *is* a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be *real* people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

Continue reading “X-MEN: a pioneering example for modern superhero cinema (2000 in Film #27)”

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.

Continue reading “Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)”
Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN (2000)

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 start with Bryan Singer’s original, 2000’s X-Men…

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even is a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be real people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

Continue reading “Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN (2000)”
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.

Continue reading “LUKE CAGE (Season 2) matures into one of the slickest superhero series around (TV Review)”
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.

Continue reading “Marvel, Gatekeeping and the ‘Problem’ with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR”
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.

Continue reading “AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is an ambitiously solemn superhero epic”
Essays, TV

JESSICA JONES, Marvel Malaise and the Pacing Problem

Let me tell you a story about Marvel, more specifically my relationship with the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe. Having just digested all of the second season of Jessica Jones, the latest entry in the Marvel TV stable, it’s time we had an honest chat about these shows and how there’s a problem I just cannot get past.
Pacing.

Jessica Jones had a really impressive first season, and still could well stand as the strongest run in what, at the current count, stands as eight thirteen episode seasons that have encompassed the Netflix TV corner set in and around Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, with a ninth on its way in the next few months. Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation of the comic Alias Jessica Jones (the Alias dropped in part to prevent confusion with ABC’s spy-fi drama of the same name) made a star of the biting and droll Krysten Ritter as Jessica, a super-powered private detective with a caustic attitude and few social skills, and told a quite violent, harrowing and dramatic story all about an abusive, controlling relationship & the psychological scars of rape. It was, on the whole, pretty superb television.

The second season was always going to have a difficult job living up to the story of Jessica’s mental and physical battle against the mind-controlling monster Kilgrave (played with sadistic relish by David Tennant), and never quite manages to match it for raw, heartbreaking power, but Rosenberg successfully does manage to craft a tale which naturally follows up on Jessica’s determined destruction of a man who corrupted, abused and violated her; a tale in which Jessica faces her own origin story, in a sense, and reunites with the mother she believed long dead, who turns out to be a darker and even more troubled reflection of herself.

Thematically, Jessica Jones remains about abuse, abusers and the search for ‘normal’ in a world filled with fractured families and controlling parents, siblings and lovers.

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Essays, TV

THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’s Brexit Britain: why the old guard TV shows are returning now

If you grew up in the late 1990’s across into the new millennium, you almost certainly remember The League of Gentlemen, if you’re British at least.

Then unknown performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith burst on the TV scene and delivered for the BBC a sketch comedy as successful as The Fast Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus before it, only skewed far more away from social comedy or absurdity, and closer to a grotesque, eccentric inversion of Northern lifestyle spliced with Hammer horror movie homage.

Running for three series and a Christmas special, the League got in and out before anyone could start to find them wearing; constantly evolving their visual and narrative style, telling witty, bleak and inventive stories, and ending with the hope they would make more.

Almost twenty years since they began, they have, with three new Christmas specials on the horizon. But why now?

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