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X-Men: Dark Phoenix

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The superhero genre groundwork was laid by the Superman and Batman franchises, improved by Blade, and received its first fully formed incarnation with 2000’s X-Men. The subsequent 19 years delivered a further eleven films, ranging from the highs of X-2 and Logan to the lows of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, sad to say, another low. There are many familiar features, from visual renderings of telepathy to energy blasts from eyes, but there is little that’s new or interesting. Writer-director Steven Kinberg displays little flair or innovation, making the viewer pine for the stylistics of Bryan Singer (controversy notwithstanding) or Matthew Vaughn. Action set pieces on a space shuttle and aboard a train pale in comparison to earlier entries in the franchise as well as those in Marvel Studios’ output. That said, Kinberg does manage to evoke a sense of atmosphere, fitting for the steady and dangerous increase of power in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). At their heart, superhero films are always about power and its appropriate use, and Dark Phoenix does continue this conceit in relation to Jean, and also Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), but without any significant depth. Indeed, much of the early part of the film is fairly bland, despite potentially shocking moments, though it does pick up slightly when Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) appears. Despite the best efforts of the cast, and a prominence of female characters, the strongest element of the film is the score, with Hans Zimmer at his most Hans Zimmer. Crashing synths and booming Braaaaaaahms abound, adding to the atmosphere even if the end result is somewhat hollow. As a chapter in the franchise, Dark Phoenix feels conclusive, and it is a damp squib for this long running series to go out on. But then again, you can never keep a good (or bad) mutant down.

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Shazam!

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Some are born powerful (Wonder Woman), some achieve power (Batman), others have power thrust upon them. Such is the case with foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), blessed with superpowers by a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) by virtue of his, well, virtues. Curiously, much of Shazam! actively avoids these virtues, as Billy shows the zero responsibility that comes from his great powers. Super powers have been linked to growing pains and puberty before, especially with Spider-Man, but with Shazam! this becomes literal, the film quirkily merging superpowered antics with the out-of-body humour of Big. It proves a pleasant addition to the DCEU, as director David F. Sandberg and star Zachary Levi bring levity and humour to the film, that are generally lacking in the largely grim franchise. Some of this humour consists of lightly mocking the other films, as Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman and Superman merchandise appear and references are made to the events of other films in the series. Many of these jokes find their mark, as Shazam! is frequently very funny, as Billy/Shazam along with friend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) experiment with superpowers as well as super names, investigate lairs and struggle to keep everything a secret. Once villain Dr Sivana (Mark Strong) comes on the scene, Billy must step up to the ‘hero’ part of superhero, and again the film is acutely aware of the legacy it joins, echoing sequences from Man of Steel especially with a cheeky humour, as well as overt references to Big and Rocky. Along the way, the film also makes some interesting explorations of family, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. Combined with the humour, this is the most satisfying aspect of Shazam!, as the film provides some genuine surprises in its exploration of familial ties. It is less successful in its pacing, often feeling languorous and overlong. This is down to its many parts not being brought together cohesively: Billy exploring his powers; Sivana pursuing his ambition; the trials and tribulations of Billy’s fellow foster children and foster parents. These elements remain disparate rather than coherent, ham-fistedly roped together rather than linked by connective tissue. Other filmmakers have struck the balance between internal story strands, franchise tie-ins and acknowledging fan knowledge through references. With Shazam established, along with a group of supporting characters and adversaries, maybe future instalments will strike a better balance than this initial effort. In the meantime, there’s plenty of fun to be had here.

Shazam still

The Death of Superman / Reign of the Supermen

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The Death of Supermanis one of the bestselling comic books ever published, shifting over six million copies upon its release in 1993. The story’s bold premise and provocative artwork is turned into animated pictures, complete with a fine ensemble of voice actors. The Death of Supermancharts the arrival of the seemingly indestructible alien beast Doomsday, its rampage through Metropolis (and the Justice League) and its battle with the Man of Steel. Like many a superhero tale, The Death of Supermanalso engages with ideas of identity and roles. A romance blossoms between Lois Lane and Clark Kent, the latter of whom struggles to reconcile his public and secret identities. The other members of the Justice League, including Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Lantern, as well as Lex Luthor, also worry about Superman’s role, and these concerns run throughout the film and its sequel.

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The adaptation struggles to bring the emotional heft to the screen, not least due to rather stilted animation. Compared to recent fare likeIncredibles 2and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, this superhero adventure feels lacklustre and uninspired. Character movements lack fluidity, backgrounds are often under-developed and the film falls into an unfortunate space between comic book and animation, lacking verve and dynamism. Where The Death of Supermandoes succeed, perhaps surprisingly, is in its brutality. The violence inflicted by Doomsday is bloody and often graphic, from crushed and severed heads to battered and bloody heroes. The eventual conflict between Superman and Doomsday is compelling and does deliver in the physical and emotional stakes, even though the end is known. While the journey to the climax is not always engaging, it is a hard viewer who does not experience a lump in their throat

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The follow-up, Reign of the Supermen, is more successful in the animation stakes, offering greater vibrancy and movement. It also has a good line in humour, which is while present is less at home in The Death of Superman. In Reign of the Supermen, the humour is effective, especially the comedic quips of the Flash and Green Lantern. The film also does some exploration of power and its proper uses, the various ‘Supermen’ offering different takes on the concept. On the downside, the Supermen as well as the overarching plot seems overtly derivative of other cinematic superhero adventures, which leads to the film feeling like a half-hearted imitation of The Avengers. Overall, this double bill falls short in several ways, but does provide thrills and laughs in others.

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Justice League

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After the mixed responses to Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman demonstrated that given the right level of care and attention, DC could deliver an effective superhero film both for audiences and critics. Justice League sheds the ponderousness of BVS: DOJ and avoids the jumbled storytelling of Suicide Squad, borrows plot elements from both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and presents a colourful array of characters. The new arrivals – Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – receive short shrift in the rush to squeeze everything into two hours, and would have benefitted from earlier standalone films to give them and their respective worlds more detail. The lack of balance between characters is mirrored by the imbalance between the wit of Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio’s script and the portentousness of Zack Snyder’s direction, a problem that also affected BVS: DOJ. Despite this, Justice League still manages to deliver on the promise of multiple super-powered individuals, with a sometimes dazzling display of spectacular abilities, all of which are neatly tied to character development. From Bruce Wayne’s Batman’s (Ben Affleck) array of wonderful toys (composer Danny Elfman also references his own score from 1989’s Batman) to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) reluctance to lead, Cyborg’s fear over the loss of his humanity to Aquaman’s cynicism and the Flash’s youthful exuberance, powers work as part of identity, and the appropriate use of this power is a recurring conceit of the film. Some of these potential heroes have to mature into their powers, others need to be reminded of its responsible use or restraint. Against all this, poorly-rendered (in both written and visual terms) villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is rather underpowered despite his goal of planetary conquest, and the film’s chief pleasure is watching the members of the League bounce off each other verbally and physically. Several spectacular set pieces – one with a semi-assembled League and another with them complete – deliver smackdowns of varied spectacle and visual impact, while a neat strand of humour (largely coming from Flash) adds further pep to the concoction. Justice League falls someway short of the standard set by Wonder Woman, but it is far from kryptonite for the DCEU.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

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There is a widely held misconception that BVS: DOJ is about an epic physical showdown. It isn’t. What the title refers to, and what the film portrays over its sometimes ponderous running time, is an ideological debate between saviour and vigilante. Perhaps surprisingly for a filmmaker best known for bombastic action set pieces, Zack Snyder grapples valiantly with this political debate, resulting in a film where the most interesting sequences are those that feature actual debates. A brooding, melancholic and traumatised Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) debates with reluctant but loyal Alfred (Jeremy Irons); an idealistic yet doubtful Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) debates with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne); senator Finch (Holly Hunter) debates with fellow politicians as well as twitchy billionaire Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Meanwhile, the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) seems to have more answers than everyone else, yet raises questions herself. In-between the debates are immense set pieces, many shot in Snyder’s trademark slo-mo that recalls 300 and Sucker Punch (other references to Snyder’s back catalogue also appear). DOP Larry Fong lenses the film in gloomy shades, especially the ruin of Wayne Manor and the urban wastelands in which our ‘heroes’ battle. At times, the grand portentousness does overwhelm the drama, the wit of Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script hamstrung by Snyder’s lumpen pacing. Yet while the film lacks the lean muscularity of Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy or even the more focused bombast of Man of Steel, it does make a strong contribution to the fundamental questions of superhero cinema – what does it mean to be a hero and what does it mean to be super? Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may not be the zippiest superhero film, but it is one of the more thoughtful.

Man of Steel – SPOILER WARNING

MOSI recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.

For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.

Movie of Swells

The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.

Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.

SoarNot that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.

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Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.

I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.

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Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.

Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.

Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.

Anguish

Trauma

It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.

I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.

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Top Five of 0.5

It’s halfway through 2013 so I thought it time to give a 0.5 Top Five. I don’t see nearly enough movies, but that does have the advantage of mostly seeing what I like (although there are exceptions). 2013 has been a varied year so far, with the normal glut of award-seekers out in January and February, some lingering into March, followed by the initial blockbusters in April, May and June. Lately some dreck has started to filter through my carefully constructed quality net (yes, After Earth, I mean you), but by and large, I’ve had good cinematic times thus far.

From the latest offerings, I’ve compiled a top five, which I now present in ascending order.

5. Trance

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Danny Boyle’s smooth, sexy, psychological neo-noir is a vibrant and visceral thriller that fuses both internal and external conflicts in surprising and exciting ways. For all his cultural success with Oscars and Olympics, Boyle never loses his sense of fun, and Trance is fun on all levels, even when it’s being nasty. Trance may be the year’s slickest film, drawing great parallels between movies and the mind.

 

 

4. Man of Steel

Many have been disappointed with Zack Snyder’s reboot of Superman, but I was very impressed by it. I’ll post a full review in the future, but for now, it is swell, in more ways than one.

MOS

3. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the PinesDerek Cianfrance’s haunting follow-up to Blue Valentine combines intimate style with epic scale. I was surprised by the three consecutive stories when I would expect a simultaneous, multi-stranded narrative that intercuts between its strands, but I like to be surprised in the cinema if it works, and in this case it does. The almost circular narrative of fathers’ sins being revisited on their sons justifies the epic weight of the film, and the intimate style ensures that the viewer is there every step of the way.

2. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s finest film since Munich, Lincoln is an enthralling political drama. Daniel Day-Lewis’ monumental performance as Abraham Lincoln received the plaudits and awards, but props are due to the whole cast, including Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris and especially Tommy Lee Jones as the firebrand Thaddeus Stevens. Probably the year’s most compelling drama of words.

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1. Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is one of the tensest cinema experiences I have ever had. Despite knowing the ending, I was gripped from start to finish and, for the final hour, had every muscle clenched (had I stood, the seat would have come with me). Naysayers who accuse it of justifying torture are simply wrong, because the film displays no link between information gathered under torture and the eventual success of the mission. Furthermore, this success is not presented as any sort of triumph, as the film’s conclusion expresses a sombre hollowness. Not only is ZDT a very fine thriller, but it is a grim and sobering depiction of obsession and a bleak world bereft of satisfaction. Nothing cheerful, but so far, film of the year.

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