Thoughts on Today’s Nintendo Direct (9/23/2021)

Nintendo had a new Direct today, which maybe not-so coincidentally happens to be the 132nd anniversary of the founding of the company (happy 132nd birthday, Nintendo!). It was certainly an improvement over their E3 Direct this year (not a very high hurdle to jump, but I meant it as a compliment). There were numerous big announcements, so let me talk about the ones that caught my attention.

First thing’s first, Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games are coming to Nintendo Switch as part of an upgraded Switch Online. That’s cool, and with the NES and SNES already a part of it, it just feels more complete now. All the classics together again for the first time since the Wii (I know many people would hate me for not including Atari consoles as part of “the classics,” but let’s not pretend like those hold up). A lot of the obvious games will be included at one point or another, like Super Mario 64, the N64 Zelda titles, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, etc. But then they (briefly) showed something that really caught my eye…

“Buh Gawd King!”

Yes, Banjo-Kazooie is coming to Nintendo Switch, making it the first time since its original release that Banjo-Kazooie is on a Nintendo console (where it really belongs, if we’re being perfectly honest). It was a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of announcement, which is odd, seeing as it’s actually a pretty big deal given the whole history of the series (and developer Rare) with Nintendo and then Microsoft and everything. Could this mean a new Banjo-Kazooie game is in the cards? Probably not. But it gives some semblance of hope for a future for the series. Plus, Banjo-Kazooie (and the other N64 games) on the go? Sounds great!

Before we move on to more games, let’s take a moment to talk about something else that was discussed during the Direct: the upcoming Super Mario animated movie!

While the fact that the film is being made by Illumination has me a bit skeptical (their movies tend to be perfectly content with being “adequate”), I would be lying if I said I weren’t interested. Particularly after this Direct, when Shigeru Miyamoto himself announced the cast!

Chris Pratt wouldn’t have been my first choice for Mario, but I can totally imagine it now after the announcement. I admit I’m a bit disappointed that Seth Rogen is voicing Donkey Kong. But Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach and Jack Black as Bowser? Hot diggity dog! I mean, I always imagined Brad Garrett as Bowser (he was great as Krang in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows), but Jack Black is a more than worthy substitute.

Also, Cranky Kong is in the movie.

Also also, Foreman Spike is in the movie. Now THAT is the kind of deep cut I was hoping for from this Mario movie. The kind of deep cut Super Smash Bros. USED to do, but would never do these days.

Speaking of Super Smash Bros., the last DLC fighter for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate wasn’t announced during this Direct, but will be announced in October. I’m kind of glad they didn’t reveal them here. It’s probably just going to be another anime guy with a sword or another vanilla fighting game character. They’ll likely be a character who has little to nothing to do with Nintendo’s history anyway, so why sully this Direct with another inevitable disappointment from Super Smash Bros?

Anyway, back to the good stuff. Next year will see the release of Chocobo Racing GP, a Switch exclusive sequel (or maybe remake) of a semi-obscure Mario Kart-style racing game from the Playstation One.

I. Loved. This.

I have many fond memories of Chocobo Racing back in the PSOne days (hard to say how well it would hold up, since I haven’t played it in such a long time, but for its day I had a lot of fun with it). Never would I have thought Square-Enix would actually make a sequel to it after all this time. I’m happy they are. Especially since Nintendo seems to keep forgetting to make Mario Kart 9, a kart racer like this is all the more welcome. So happy to see Square-Enix remember something other than Final Fantasy VII for once.

And finally, the big news (for me, anyway) was the announcement of Kirby and the Forgotten Land. The first fully 3D Kirby game!

Good gracious, that trailer. It started off quiet, showing off an abandoned civilization. Typical video game stuff, but with an added colorfulness not usually seen in “abandoned civilization” scenarios. Then we cut to Kirby waking up on a beach. “Oh cool! A new Kirby game!” I thought. Kirby’s always reliable in producing quality games, though he is a Nintendo mainstay so it wasn’t the most shocking revelation.

But then… it happened.

The camera zoomed out behind Kirby. “No, it can’t be…” I thought, before Kirby started moving around freely in this new environment! It’s a Kirby 3D platformer! Good heavens, it’s a Kirby 3D platformer!

Do you know how long I’ve waited for a 3D platformer starring Kirby? Way too long! To pull back the curtain on the depths of my nerdhood, I’ve sometimes thought about what kind of games I would make in various existing franchises, and one of my recurring ideas has always been a 3D Kirby platformer. And now it’s actually happening. I actually got a little misty-eyed in the trailer.

But what am I telling you for? Just watch it yourself!

Now, to be fair, 2D platformers have a much better track record than 3D ones (3D Mario games are amazing, but they haven’t had any real competition since the days of Banjo-Kazooie). But the potential has always been there. And in this day and age, when Rare hasn’t been present in the genre for well over a decade, Mario’s 3D platformers (sublime though they may be) are really the only ones out there. Oh, you can bring up Ratchet & Clank all you want, but that series is far more an action-adventure game than a platformer (just because it has cartoony characters doesn’t mean it’s a platformer). So we need 3D platformers now more than ever. There’s never been anything wrong with 2D Kirby games (literally, there’s never been a bad one), but I’m happy to see the series branch out with a full-fledged 3D platformer after all this time.

There were plenty of other things discussed in the Nintendo Direct, such as a long-awaited update to Animal Crossing: New Horizons (yes please), and a new trailer for Bayonetta 3 (which closed out the Direct for some reason. I personally would have ended it with Kirby, which has a much richer history and – I’m just going to say it – is a much better, less button-mashy series). But if you just want the news that came out of the Direct, you can read that elsewhere. I’m just giving my thoughts on my favorite bits of the presentation. So hopefully you enjoyed reading my thoughts on this Nintendo Direct.

Jack Black is Bowser.

Ten Years of Dark Souls

Today, September 22nd 2021, marks the ten-year anniversary of the original release of Dark Souls in Japan. So not only is September 22nd the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but I guess you could call it Dark Souls Day as well.

Yes, somehow it’s been ten full years since Dark Souls first captured our imaginations (and made us smash our controllers) with its intricate gameplay, epic boss fights and unique dark fantasy world. It would end up being (unquestionably) the most influential video game of the last decade, with many imitators in the “Souls-like” genre (none of which are a patch on the real deal) being made in its wake, and games in just about every other genre adopting many of its elements and mechanics.

Okay, so technically Demon’s Souls started the series. Though while Demon’s Souls may be a classic in its own right, I think it’s safe to say it was with 2011’s Dark Souls that the series really took off and conquered the video game world.

Unlike so many games from the late 2000s/early 2010s, Dark Souls has aged beautifully, and its impact and influence has remained intact in a way that’s usually reserved for Nintendo’s best titles. I mean, who the hell talks about Bioshock anymore? Good riddance, I say.

Ah, but Dark Souls. It really is one of the medium’s modern classics. Although now that it’s ten-years old, do we take out the “modern” and simply categorize it as a “classic?”

At any rate, that’s what Dark Souls is, a classic! Its sequels and follow-ups are also stellar (though BloodBorne is probably the only one whose reputation matches the original). The series was a dominating force in gaming in the 2010s, and it seems its influence will continue well beyond that.

Series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s next game, Elden Ring, is one of the most anticipated games on the horizon. But it certainly has a lot to live up to if it hopes to have the same impact as its 2011 predecessor. A hell of an act to follow.

Happy tenth anniversary, Dark Souls!

“Ah, dang it!”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the twenty-fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By now these Marvel films are so frequent, that it may be easy to take for granted the fact that they’ve been mostly good. Shang-Chi is the second of four MCU movies being released in 2021 alone, and it comes after we’ve already had four different Disney+ series set in the MCU in recent months. Amidst so much Marvel-ness, a movie like Shang-Chi (which harkens back to the superhero origin stories of the MCU’s early days) could have been drowned out as the rest of the MCU seems to be aiming for grand scale epics. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings not only stands on its own two feet, but stands tall among its MCU contemporaries. It may not exactly reinvent the Marvel formula, but Shang-Chi manages to improve on it in a few key areas.

Although the film’s hero is the titular Shang-Chi or “Shaun” (Simu Liu), the film’s backstory centers around his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung).

Over a thousand years ago, Wenwu discovered the Ten Rings, mystical artifacts that granted him superhuman strength and abilities, as well as immortality. With them, he became a warlord and established his army, which he dubbed “The Ten Rings” after the source of his power. As centuries passed, the Ten Rings organization adapted with time, eventually becoming more of a terrorist organization than an army. But their goal was still the same: bringing down nations and give Wenwu more power.

In 1996, Wenwu had begun searching for a legendary village called Ta Lo – which serves as a kind of gateway to a dimension of mythical creatures – in hopes to conquer this new world. Wenwu finds the entrance to Ta Lo, but is confronted by its guardian, a woman named Ying Li (Fala Chen). Ying Li has powers of her own, granted to the people of Ta Lo by its dragon protector. Despite the power of the rings, Wenwu is defeated by Ying Li. But the two quickly fall in love, with Wenwu making return visits to the site just to see Ying Li again. Her love changes him to the point that he removes the rings and abandons his organization so he can start a family. But the people of Ta Lo frown on the relationship, and won’t allow Wenwu access to their village due to his dark past. So Ying Li leaves her people (and her powers) behind in order to be with him. Shang-Chi is born to the couple a few years later, followed by a daughter named Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).

When Shang-Chi and Xialing were kids, a tragedy struck that cost them the life of their mother. With Ying Li gone, Wenwu fell back into his old ways, reclaimed his organization and put the rings back on. Shang-Chi became just another assassin in training to his father. Xialing became ignored by Wenwu, who claimed his daughter reminded him too much of his late wife to even look at her (she would learn to teach herself the same techniques Shang-Chi was learning in order to survive the world her father created). Eventually, Shang-Chi couldn’t handle life under his father any more, and so he left, leaving his sister behind.

Fast forward to the present day (which I believe is currently 2023 in the MCU), and Shang-Chi, as Shaun, has been living a mostly normal life in America. He’s become a chauffer at a fancy hotel alongside his friend Katy (Awkwafina), with whom he often spends long nights goofing off. That is until one day, when assassins sent by Wenwu confront Shang-Chi during a bus ride, leaving him no choice but to reveal his past (and fighting abilities) to Katy (as well as providing one of the MCU’s best set pieces in quite some time). Wenwu is after both siblings, so Shang-Chi – with Katy in tow – sets out to find his sister and uncover his father’s plot.

For anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I think it’s safe to assume is pretty much everyone at this point) the story of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings won’t feel like anything new. It follows the established Marvel formula pretty closely. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stands out in at least two key areas.

The first are the action scenes. As enjoyable as these Marvel movies are, I have to admit their familiarity can extend beyond their narrative structure, and even bleed into the action sequences. They’re almost never boring, but many of the MCU’s action scenes can feel a bit deja vu, as if Marvel has found its safe spot with its action, and doesn’t wish to tread new waters with it. But Shang-Chi is one of the exceptions, with beautifully choreographed fighting sequences, and big set pieces that dare to do something visually distinct from the rest of the pack (pointing again to the bus sequence, where one moment has the audience peaking in on the action from the windows).

The other area in which Shang-Chi stands out is in its villain. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a pretty persistent villain issue, with the baddies not being nearly as memorable as the good guys (kind of a reverse of the superhero movies from before the MCU, in which the villains often outshined the hero). If an MCU villain isn’t some rich guy with the same powers as the hero, it’s another underdeveloped bad guy from the deep reaches of space (see Ronan the Accuser or Malekith). Very few of the MCU’s bad guys could be called “interesting,” with perhaps the only examples so far being Thanos, Erik Killmonger, and Adrian Toomes/Vulture (okay, and I suppose Loki… at least until his own series turned him into the most passive and boring hero in the MCU). But I think Wenwu is arguably the best of the lot.

Wenwu is the MCU’s proper adaptation of the Mandarin character (mercifully retconning the ridiculous twist on the character from Iron Man 3. And don’t worry, Shang-Chi addresses that whole situation brilliantly). But Wenwu certainly transcends his (outdated) comic counterpart. Wenwu is a villain who’s ruthless but sympathetic, powerful but pitiable. While audiences were expected to understand where Thanos was coming from, with Wenwu you actually kind of feel for him.

Without spoiling too much, Wenwu’s ultimate goal is to be reunited with his late wife. He’s a man who’s lived for over a thousand years, but only the small handful of years he spent with Ying Li meant something. Despite living centuries with power as his only ambition, he willingly gave up that power when he found someone he could love. The problem is he could only love that one person. And the fact that that love didn’t extend to his children after his wife’s passing is part of what makes him a villain.

Though the movie is well cast all-around, I do feel that Tony Leung’s performance as Wenwu deserves special mention as one of the best in the MCU dating all the way back to the first Iron Man.

There are other, smaller things I like about the movie: the titular Ten Rings are one of the more fun super powers the Marvel movies have provided. Wenwu wears five rings on each arm (they’re more bracelets than rings, really), and can shoot them off and bring them back with his mind, they can link together to make a whip or shield, or just hover around him like some kind of magic satellites. Conversely, Shang-Chi himself doesn’t seem to have any actual super powers. He’s a really good fighter, but doesn’t have any powers in the traditional sense. I thought that was a fun little twist on Marvel norms.

I also kind of like that Shang-Chi is a (mostly) self-contained origin story. I feel like that’s what Marvel should have focused on for a while after Avengers: Endgame, though Shang-Chi is only an exception here, as Marvel seems hellbent on fast-tracking the next Endgame-level scenario (*Cough! Loki! Cough!*). So enjoy these more standalone MCU features while you can.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may be familiar Marvel territory in a lot of ways (which isn’t too bad of a thing, given Marvel’s track record), but for both hardcore fans and the more casual Marvel audience, the action scenes and villain may make it stand out in the Marvel canon, no matter how many movies and TV shows they churn out.

7

Dr. Mario (NES) Review

These days, we kind of take for granted the Mario games that don’t fit into the “main” Super Mario series. Unless it’s the next big 3D Mario adventure, we tend to refer to the games as “spin-offs” and don’t hold them in the same light as the “proper” Mario games.

The thing is, Mario was always Nintendo’s renaissance man. Shigeru Miyamoto designed the character with the intent that he could be thrown into any type of game, in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and (most specifically) Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s not as though Mario was created with a definitive story and some big universe of characters already planned out ahead of time. Mario appeared in a number of games before Princess Peach, Bowser and the entire Mushroom Kingdom came into existence in Super Mario Bros. That was Mario’s breakout role, sure, but it wasn’t exactly where he got his start. Although it makes sense that Super Mario Bros. would become the basis of what we all consider to be “main” Mario games, as time has gone on it seems people have diminished the allure of the “other” Mario games as an unfortunate side effect of this.

That wasn’t the case back in 1990, when Mario could suddenly don a lab coat and head mirror, call himself a doctor, and star in a falling block puzzle game, and it would still create an iconic game in its own right.

Dr. Mario was the first such puzzle game in the Mario franchise, which would slowly become its own series, and open the door for puzzle games starring other Mario franchise characters like Yoshi’s Cookie and Wario’s Woods. While some of these later puzzle games were improvements, and subsequent Dr. Mario sequels (such as the underrated Nintendo 64 entry) built on the formula, the original NES release is still a charming and addictive puzzle game.

The goal of Dr. Mario is to eliminate a screen of all of its viruses. These viruses come in three colors: red, blue and yellow. You eliminate these viruses by matching them up with vitamins of corresponding colors. But there are a few twists to keep things interesting.

The first thing to note is that the vitamins have two halves, which can be different colors, so you’ll want to pay extra attention when the viruses are close together. You have to match four objects of the same color in order to eliminate a virus. Each half of a vitamin counts as one object, and a virus counts as another. So you could potentially have three viruses of the same color stacked on top of each other, meaning you’d only have to put one similarly colored half of a vitamin on top of them to eliminate them. You can even eliminate the viruses by placing the vitamins against them horizontally, but it’s much less common.

Additionally, if the vitamins involved in an elimination feature halves of different colors, those halves will remain and fall straight down until they either land on a virus or the bottom of the screen. This gives you an added level of strategy for any nearby viruses, but it also risks filling up the screen with piles of vitamins. If the vitamins stack up to the top of the screen and Mario can’t throw any more, you lose the round.

It’s a nice twist on the Tetris formula, one that remains fun even today. Better still, the game features a two-player competitive mode, where each player aims to eliminate their screen of viruses before the other. And despite the technical limitations of the game (even by NES standards) it makes the best with what it has. The graphics are cute and fun (I especially like how part of the screen is a microscope held up to the viruses, just so you can see them dancing around in all their glory), and the game’s two selectable music tracks, Chill and Fever, are infectiously catchy, and are all too easy to listen to on repeat as you play round after round.

Unfortunately, if you don’t have a second player at the ready to tackle the aforementioned two-player mode, Dr. Mario’s gameplay can only go so far. The lack of any additional modes really stands out in retrospect, and the fact that – unlike Tetris – each round has a set goal to reach means beating your own high score is kind of an afterthought.

Dr. Mario is still fun, no doubt. But it isn’t particularly deep. It’s at its best when two players are onboard, and even in that area it’s been bettered (Dr. Mario 64 turned the formula into a four-player party game. And now I really wish Nintendo would re-release that game or make a proper sequel to further add to the proceedings).

Its limitations are certainly more apparent today, but Dr. Mario is still worth playing. Perhaps more importantly, it represents a time when gamers were a bit wiser, and could accept Mario in any role and not question the merit in its potential.

6

Free Guy Review

Free Guy is a comedy with a fun premise: a video game NPC (Non-Player Character) slowly realizing he is, in fact, a video game character, and wanting something better out of life than what his programming entails. All of which is influenced by his unrequited love for the avatar of a player.

The NPC in question is simply named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank teller in a video game called Free City, which is basically Grand Theft Auto crossed with Fortnite (the destructive open-world of the former, and the garish, unharmonious elements of the latter). Guy lives a simple life: he wakes up, says hello to his goldfish, puts on the same suit, gets the same cup of coffee, and walks to work with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) – a security guard at the same bank – before spending the rest of his day on the ground as the bank is continuously robbed day and night.

Naturally, in a game like Free City, the bank in which Guy works exists solely as a mission for players to rob in order to get in-game currency and experience points. The players are known to the NPCs simply as “Sunglasses Guys,” with their eyewear being the movie’s physical representation of the players’ Heads-Up Display. The NPCs understand that there’s something different about the Sunglasses Guys, as they can’t fully communicate with them or do the things they’re able to do, but since it’s always been a part of their lives, they just accept it. The robberies at the bank are so frequent, that poor Buddy has never once done any real security work, as he hits the ground by default as soon as a player kicks in the door. To Guy, Buddy, and everyone else at the bank, getting robbed is part of their daily routine.

Things begin to change when, during one of his daily walks to work, Guy becomes smitten with a Sunglasses Woman named Molotov Girl, who is the avatar of Millie Rusk (both portrayed by Jodie Comer). Guy still goes to work, but can’t get the girl of his dreams out of his head, and wishes to meet her. So when the bank is inevitably robbed again, Guy doesn’t have the patience for it. Guy stands up to the bank robber, accidentally killing him in the process (he can respawn later), then takes his sunglasses, to the absolute confusion of everyone else at the bank.

Once outside, Guy tries on the sunglasses and sees his world in a whole new light: He can see the locations of missions in his immediate area, the NPCs and Sunglasses Guys have their levels displayed overhead, and health and power-ups are scattered all over the place. These are all only visible when he has the sunglasses on, so it’s like a cute video game version of They Live.

With his (literal) new outlook on life, Guy hopes to reunite with Molotov Girl and make a connection with her. But it won’t be easy. Free City is already a dangerous place as it is, but the developers of the game – particularly their boss Antwan (Taika Waititi) – believe Guy is the result of a player hacking the game to control an NPC, and make it their mission to make life in the game as difficult as possible for him, seeing as they can’t trace him to any actual hacker to punish him otherwise.

That’s the base premise of the story, and in that regard, Free Guy is a whole lot of fun. There are, however, some added details to the plot that I have more mixed feelings about.

It turns out Millie is a former Indie developer who helped design a game called Life Itself alongside Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery), who now works for Antwan’s company. Life Itself was to be a game about watching its characters grow and learn organically without player influence (sounds pretentious enough to be a real Indie game), but Keys’ and Millie’s studio was bought out by Antwan, killing Life Itself in the process. Keys just kind of gave up on his dreams and now works on Free City for a paycheck, but Millie believes Antwan stole the code for Life Itself and used it in Free City. So she plays the game as Molotov Girl to try and find proof of Antwan’s theft. It probably won’t take very long to connect the dots that Guy is actual proof of Life Itself’s code hidden being hidden within Free City, and that he not only grew and learned as Life Itself intended, but managed to gain sentience.

I don’t know, I’m a little disappointed that the film felt the need to give an explanation as to why Guy is able to defy what he’s supposed to do in the game. Movies these days seem to have a compulsive need to feed audiences every detail (God forbid we have to use our imaginations), and it kind of takes some of the fun away from a concept like this. Imagine if Wreck-It Ralph had to develop an entire side story just to explain why Ralph could go against his programming. It’d be totally unnecessary. Sometimes “because it’s a movie” should really be all the explanation you need.

The more serious elements of the “real world” side story is where Free Guy starts to fumble a bit (including a kind of cheesy budding romance between Millie and Keys). I could also live without the cameos from real life Twitch Streamers and YouTubers, which I think were meant to make things feel more authentic, but only end up reminding me of how annoying and obnoxious those areas of gaming are. There are a few references and cameos from real video games, such as Mega Man’s Mega Buster and the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, but they are surprisingly few. I would have rather seen more of the cameos from actual games, instead of the internet personalities who play them. Additionally, because Free Guy was produced by 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) around the same time of the Disney buyout, the film also gets in a big fanservice-heavy moment featuring a few other Disney-owned properties. While this certainly works better and is far more crowd-pleasing than the Twitch cameos, it does make me wish all the more that the references to actual video games got the same kind of love and attention.

Still, Free Guy is funny and charming enough that it ultimately wins out. I especially like Ryan Reynolds in the role of Guy, who makes the bumbling NPC an innocent and naive hero who’s all too easy to root for. At the expense of being hated by a lot of people, I feel Ryan Reynolds’ schtick as Deadpool can get a little grating after a while, but here the act never wears thin. Jodie Comer makes for a great foil, and seeing as her character is the one who bridges the film’s two worlds, she gets a nice double act to play.

I also like the film on a visual level. Free City certainly looks like it could be a modern video game (for better or worse), and the video game setting allows for some fun visual effects. The film additionally features a solid musical score courtesy of Christophe Beck (who manages to sneak in a piece from one of his previous film scores that I won’t spoil here). Free Guy even has a surprisingly life-affirming message through Guy’s story, which is probably the more serious element of the plot the film should have focused more on, instead of all the real world hullabaloo.

The plotlines with the human characters may detract a little from the silly innocence of the “video game NPC falls in love with a player character and ditches his programming” premise that the film sold itself on. But whenever the film gets back to that premise, and we see the lengths Guy will go to in order to win Molotov Girl’s affections, and the turmoil he goes through the more he learns about the world he inhabits, Free Guy is a winner. It’s fun, funny and heartfelt, and even has a bit of originality going for it. It’s not too often those things come together these days.

6

Super Nintendo Turns 30 (in North America)!

Yeah, I know. I already wrote a thing about the Super Nintendo’s 30th anniversary based on its original Japanese release. But we’re talking about a video game console so good, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about it again.

Today, August 23rd 2021, marks the 30th anniversary of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s release in North America. This also means it’s the 30th anniversary of Super Mario World’s release in North America, which I’ll happily say is still the best launch game ever made.

There are a few classic video game consoles from yesteryear: the original NES had perhaps a bigger impact than any other, and was the video game console of the 80s. The Nintendo 64 pioneered 3D gaming. The Sony Playstation, as well as the Sega Genesis, Saturn and Dreamcast, also opened new doors to gaming. But it’s the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that’s the timeless masterpiece of a video game console.

With all due respect to the aforementioned consoles, they have aged in one way or another (well, maybe not the Genesis, but its library wasn’t as deep as the SNES’). That’s not to say that they don’t have their share of timeless games, because they do. But when revisiting those consoles, it is apparent that they came from specific points in the past (as much as I love the N64, and perhaps sometimes I’m too harsh on it, it can sometimes be painfully obvious that it was experimenting with 3D gaming). But the SNES is the one that still stands tall even when compared to today’s consoles. It was that perfect moment in gaming history when developers had mastered the craft of everything that came before. And while it is a good thing that gaming entered new territories afterwards, suffice to say that entering the third-dimension kind of started things over. And in some ways, games still have yet to catch up to where they were (the SNES never had things like microtransactions get in the way of more honest game design, after all).

Just think of the library of classics the SNES had: Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Yoshi’s Island, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Super Mario Kart, Kirby Super Star, Kirby’s Dream Land 3, EarthBound, the first three Mega Man X games, Mega Man 7, Tetris Attack, the Street Fighter 2 ports, Secret of Mana, and more still!

There were just so many classics on the console, and they remain every bit as fun today as they were then (exception being Star Fox. In a bit of role reversal, it’s the N64 installment in that series that has proven timeless). You also had your lesser known gems (Demon’s Crest), and stronger third-party support than any Nintendo console until the Switch (although the Wii actually had stronger third-party support than it gets credit for).

A classic lineup of games unlike any that has been seen before or since, the Super Nintendo is truly one of the greats. It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty years since the system made its way stateside (I was just a baby at the time!). But you wouldn’t know it by playing the many classics it produced.

Happy 30th anniversary (again), Super Nintendo!

The Suicide Squad Review

What a time we live in, where a sequel can differentiate itself from its predecessor with the word “the.”

The Suicide Squad is the sort of sequel/almost a reboot of 2016’s Suicide Squad, one of the most disliked movies in the DC Extended Universe. Most people are referring to 2021’s The Suicide Squad as a “standalone sequel” in that it shares some characters and the basic premise of the first film, but is otherwise disconnected from it, similar to the recent Space Jam sequel. In regards to The Suicide Squad, it may be better described as an “embarrassed sequel” given that it actually does share direct continuity with the 2016 film, even though it wants nothing to do with it.

I understand the intent. Given the reception to the 2016 original, it makes sense that the 2021 film would want to distance itself from it. But this also just makes the DCEU an even more fragmented mess than it already is. We are, after all, talking about a franchise that’s trying (quite desperately) to replicate the shared continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but has seemingly dropped the ball at every opportunity to make a connected narrative between its movies. Man of Steel was originally just a Superman movie, but then Warner Bros. saw the success Marvel was having, and retconned Man of Steel into the first part of their shared universe, and its would-be sequel was mutated into Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (which also featured Wonder Woman). This is a series in which Batman exists but, since Ben Affleck lost interest, just doesn’t show up anymore, and the upcoming film The Batman (there’s that “the” again) has lost all connections to the DCEU during its production. This is the movie universe of DC comics, and yet the Joker has become nothing more than a name whispered by other characters ever since Suicide Squad, and the 2019 movie Joker had nothing to do with the DCEU version of the villain (I’m sensing a theme here). And now we have a sequel to Suicide Squad that feels like it wants nothing to do with Suicide Squad, with that “the” in the title indicating they want to start over, instead of continue from where they left off with a Suicide Squad 2.

My point being that DC and Warner Bros. should either scrap the DCEU and just focus on the individual films, or actually care about continuity and cohesiveness. The DCEU is so full of starts and stops that it makes the Star Wars sequel trilogy look like it had a coherent narrative thread.

Against all odds, the DCEU has managed to produce a few good standalone movies (Wonder Woman and Shazam! come to mind), so even if The Suicide Squad does no favors for the greater DCEU, it still has a chance to stand on its own two feet. After all, it’s helmed by James Gunn, the director behind the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, with Gunn being given this gig during the interim of his firing and re-hiring by Disney (DC was all too happy to pick up what Marvel discarded).

It seems like the whole controversy of Gunn’s firing from Disney and Marvel has strangely lionized the director, whom people now talk about like some kind of creative visionary (Guardians of the Galaxy may be one of the best MCU movies, but I think that’s due to a number of factors – not least of which being the characters Marvel themselves created – as opposed to some auteurship on Gunn’s part). And I feel that has played a large part in the acclaim that The Suicide Squad has received. It is admittedly an improvement over the 2016 Suicide Squad film, and a good number of the DCEU movies for that matter. But that isn’t exactly a high hurdle to jump, now is it?

The truth is that The Suicide Squad is just kind of okay. It provides some fun moments while you’re watching it, but you may forget all about it as soon as it’s over. The whole “misfit superhero team” sub-genre has been done so many times now, that it’s more or less indistinguishable from “proper” superhero movies by this point (1999’s Mystery Men pioneered this trend, and that was years before superhero movies became the omni-genre they are today). So unless you consider excessive violence as original, The Suicide Squad doesn’t exactly introduce anything new to the proceedings.

One of the returning characters from the 2016 film is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the corrupt government official who operates “Task Force X” (or the titular “Suicide Squad”), a disposable task force comprised of gifted criminals and convicts. Each member of the squad is implanted with an explosive device, should they go against orders, leaving them at Waller’s beck and call.

The story here is that the nation of Corto Maltese has been overtaken by an anti-American regime. Corto Maltese happens to house an old laboratory called J├Âtunheim, which is the source of an extraterrestrial experiment dubbed “Project Starfish.” So Waller sends in the Suicide Squad on a mission to destroy J├Âtunheim before Project Starfish can fall into the new regime’s hands.

Well, in actuality, Waller sends in two Suicide Squads. The first group includes returning characters Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney). It turns out this Suicide Squad is intended to live up to its name, and simply serve as a distraction as its members are brutally killed one by one (except for Harley and Rick Flag, of course. The former being taken prisoner and the latter being found by rebel soldiers. Captain Boomerang dies unceremoniously though, so if you happened to be one of the few people who liked the first Suicide Squad movie, screw you I guess). I don’t know why three characters who helped saved the world in the 2016 film were considered so expendable by Waller, but I guess this was supposed to be a bait-and-switch and subvert the audience’s expectations (the doomed team also consists of actors Nathan Fillion and Guardians of the Galaxy’s own Michael Rooker in a further attempt to throw us off). But all it really ends up doing is steal a joke from Deadpool 2.

Anyway, with the terrorist regime believing they completely disposed of Task Force X, the real Suicide Squad can enter the nation undetected to continue their mission. This team is captained by Robert DuBois/Bloodsport (portrayed by Knuckles himself, Idris Elba), a mercenary who is a perfect marksman. Basically, he’s Deadshot from the first movie (he even has a similar backstory with a daughter he desperately wishes he could take proper care of). In fact, he WAS going to be Deadshot, with Elba initially being recast in the role as Will Smith had a scheduling conflict. But since the studio (wisely) wanted to leave the door open for Smith to return, they just swapped the character name and called it a day. While that does seem a bit halfhearted, it does make me want to see a Deadshot meets Bloodsport movie down the road.

The other members of Bloodsport’s squad include Cleo Caza/Ratchatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a woman who can command rats, an ability passed down by her father (Ratchatcher 1, of course). Christopher Smith/Peacemaker (John Cena), a jingoistic mercenary with similar abilities to Bloodsport (that makes three). Abner Krill/Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a man who throws destructive polka-dots. Finally, Nanaue/King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), is a half-man, half-shark who is dimwitted but seemingly indestructible.

Most of the film is comprised of the group’s misadventures through Corto Maltese: how they end up allied with the nation’s rebels, become reunited with Harley Quinn and Rick Flag, and the many bloody battles that ensue between them and the regime’s forces.

One thing the film does really well is representing each character that comprises its oddball team. The 2016 Suicide Squad movie gave something of an effort to make each member of its team feel important, even if it was ultimately a showcase for Deadshot and Harley Quinn. Birds of Prey didn’t even give a damn about its titular group, and focused so heavily on Quinn I wonder why they even bothered making it a Birds of Prey movie. But here, each member of the main Suicide Squad gets a distinct personality, backstory, and moments to make you care about who they are (even Pola-Dot Man, albeit the running joke of his hatred towards his mother becomes a bit one-note after a while).

Further praise has to go to the cast who help bring these characters to life. While they all deserve credit, particular praise goes to Elba, Robbie, Cena, and Melchior: Despite the glaring similarities between Bloodsport and predecessor Deadshot, Idris Elba’s performance is what really separates him from Will Smith’s character (Smith put Deadshot’s more human side front and center, but kept the ruthless villain aspect at the ready for when it was necessary, whereas Elba does something of the opposite with Bloodsport). Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn feels like she’s had a proper growth from her previous appearances. Cena makes Peacemaker simultaneously dead serious and comically naive. And Melchior gives Cleo/Ratcatcher a sensitivity that makes the character the heart of the film.

On the downside of things, I find myself having trouble remembering the finer details of the main plot and the action scenes that take us from one point to the next. Said action scenes are really more about the violence than they are any kind of structure, which leaves them all kind of blurring together (though there is a fun scene where Bloodsport and Peacemaker find new ways to one-up each other with how they take out their targets). There’s a lot of faces being blown off, dudes getting ripped in half, and people being otherwise crushed, splattered and eaten. The violence certainly separates the action scenes here from those of the 2016 film, though I wouldn’t say that the action is any better than what was in that film, either.

James Gunn seems to revel in this splatterhouse approach. And with the film’s R rating, I’m sure many would argue that The Suicide Squad has allowed the filmmaker to take the gloves off, and go crazy in a way he never could with Marvel’s PG-13 limits. But I think, if we compare this film to Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s a good example of limitations opening the door to creativity. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was released back in 2014, and I can still remember the big action-filled moments, because they had a sense of structure to them. The Suicide Squad barely came out, and I can’t really remember the details of the action scenes. They’re all just kind of a blood-soaked blur. This gratuitous violence may work for B-movie shlock horror, but it doesn’t make for very fun or memorable super hero action.

“Sylvester Stallone voicing a shark is a highlight. But then again, how could it not be?”

I know I’m supposed to view something like The Suicide Squad as some kind of subversion of the superhero genre. That it’s supposedly upending the genre’s rules and conventions, and holding a big middle finger to superhero norms. But this kind of attitude actually feels commonplace now. It would actually be more original these days to see an upfront superhero movie, with a competent main character who actively wants to do good, than it is to see another group of sarcastic, superpowered misfits and anti-heroes (is it really any surprise that Wonder Woman is still the most acclaimed film in the DCEU?).

The Suicide Squad thinks itself some kind of rebel standing high above the crowd. In actuality, it’s just kind of standing somewhere in the middle of it.

5

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) Review

These days, it seems Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy gets unwarranted flak, as people claim it kickstarted the popularity of “dark and gritty” takes on comic book super heroes. I have to disagree. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films simply took themselves seriously. Batman, his villains, and the world of Gotham City are relatively darker and (usually) more grounded than the usual super hero fare, so Nolan’s films leaned into that, and they successfully gave audiences a more mature super hero world. But they never featured gratuitous violence and gore. They didn’t fill half the dialogue with F-bombs just to look cool. Those are the kind of cringeworthy “dark and gritty” elements that comic books themselves have utilized for decades, as the medium was taken over by man-children who thought adding blood, swearing and sex automatically made things grown up (in actuality, their execution only made comic books more immature). Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were mature simply by embracing its mythology as something serious, and really don’t deserve to be lumped into the same category as the “edgier” comic book stuff whose understanding of maturity is about equal to that of a teenage boy cussing out a bunch of kids on Xbox Live.

Suffice to say, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Despite the movie receiving some acclaim upon its early 2020 release, Birds of Prey ends up being little more than a showcase of those supposedly adult comic book elements that only end up having an opposite effect. This is what I think of when I hear the words “dark and gritty” used negatively.

Go ahead and call me a prude or say I’m being oversensitive or whatever, but I find it to be more eye-rolling than funny when Harley Quinn takes a whiff of some cocaine during a shootout so she can go “full crazy” and shoot her enemy’s brains out. And I don’t think any movie set in the same world as Batman needs to have a scene in which the villain murders a rival gangster and his family by peeling their faces off. But it’s just so edgy and cool, right?

It all becomes exhausting, really. And it’s made all the more exhausting by the fact that the screen is continuously bombarded by various graphics. You know, like a character being introduced with a graphic of their name, and then a bunch of doodles and jokes drawn on and around them like a college sketchbook. The kind of thing that was fun when Scott Pilgrim did it way back when, but now is just the go-to trope for movies that think themselves quirky and irreverent. It’s just soOooOo wacky!

The story here is that Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up with the Joker. Because she’s been so strongly associated with the Joker, no other criminal in Gotham City would dare cross her, no matter how often she crossed them, lest they invoke Joker’s wrath. But after Harley foolishly lets the whole city know that she and “Mistah J” are no longer a thing in a public display by blowing up the chemical plant where Joker finalized Harleen Quinzel’s transformation into Harley Quinn, Gotham City’s criminals are all too happy to put a bounty on her head. Most notably Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan “Hello There!” McGregor), who has a vendetta with Quinn.

Harley then becomes entangled in a chase for a valuable diamond, which is embedded with the account numbers of the wealthy Bertinelli mob family, who were murdered years ago. A young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) swipes the diamond from Sionis’ right hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), making her Sionis’ new number one target. Cassandra swallows the diamond to hide it (with the film never missing the opportunity for an easy poop joke as to how she’ll reclaim the diamond later), and soon bumps into Harley. Being the targets of practically every gangster in Gotham City, Harley and Cassandra become partners in crime, hoping to pull one over Sionis and Zsasz and use the diamond to make a new life for themselves.

Along the way, Harley also makes allies/enemies/frenemies with Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett), a singer at a night club owned by Sionis; Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), an alcoholic, disillusioned detective; and Helena/The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is known by others as the “Crossbow Killer.” Together, the group forms the titular Birds of Prey.

But do they though? Despite the movie being called “Birds of Prey,” it’s really more about Harley Quinn than it is the group of characters as a whole. Suicide Squad also highlighted Quinn, but it at least felt like a proper team of characters. Here, Harley Quinn is front and center, with the others occasionally getting mixed up in her shenanigans (Huntress in particular seems forgotten about for large stretches of the film, mostly coming across as a side plot as the Crossbow Killer until the finale). There’s nothing innately wrong with the idea of a Harley Quinn movie, and Margot Robbie is good in the role, but it is a little odd how the movie acts like it’s built around this team of anti-heroes, even though it’s only really interested in one of them. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that when the film struggled at the box office, Warner Bros. created the alternate title of Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey and changed the film’s marketing accordingly.

Though it may stumble in regards to the overall team, I do admit I like the idea of Harley Quinn’s story. She’s dedicated her life to the villainous Joker, and others perceived her to be merely an extension of him. Now that she’s free of the Joker, Harley is determined to prove her independence and make a name for herself. But of course she’s still crazy and a criminal and all that, so it’s a fun setup that should allow for character growth, at least in theory. Though it probably would have been more impactful if we properly saw her relationship with the Joker in a previous film, instead of just the bits and pieces Suicide Squad teased. But the DC Extended Universe is so hellbent on catching up to Marvel’s movies that these DC movies can’t be bothered to tell full stories, and just hope the legacies of these characters from other media can fill in the finer details.

Like past DCEU films, the cast is strong even if the script is not. Particular praise goes to Margot Robbie, who’s allowed to do more with Harley Quinn as a character than she was in Suicide Squad; and to Ewan McGregor, who makes Sionis a flamboyant psychopath and narcissist. Though even with these performances, these characters might becoming straining after a while. It’s almost like they could have given more time to the other Birds of Prey to give us the occasional reprieve or something.

Despite the highlights, I really can’t recommend Birds of Prey. Whatever good the film does manage to produce is drowned by its sheer joylessness. Instead of reflecting the chaos and bedlam of its heroine, it’s just a formulaic superhero outing but removed of just about all of the genre’s usual entertainment value (I admit the final action set piece, in which the film actually becomes a Birds of Prey movie, is decently fun. Though by then it’s too little, too late). What could have been an anarchic anti-superhero movie instead feels empty, with all the aforementioned graphics thrown on the screen a shallow attempt to make us think the movie has some semblance of invention. Then add the film’s many desperate attempts to earn that “hard R” rating, and it feels like even more padding to a movie that otherwise has nothing to it.

Harley Quinn can be a fun character. It’s possible there could be a good Harley Quinn movie somewhere down the road. But Birds of Prey certainly isn’t it.

3

Suicide Squad (2016) Review

Suicide Squad was released in 2016 as the third entry in the “DC Extended Universe,” following Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Though the film would break a number of box office records, and even become the first film in the “DCEU” to snag an Oscar (for Hair and Makeup), it was derided by critics. To this day, you’ll still see it at the bottom of rankings of the DCEU films (and close to the bottom of similar rankings of DC movies on the whole). Even its 2021 sequel “The Suicide Squad” seems to want to separate itself from the 2016 film as much as possible (notice they didn’t call it Suicide Squad 2).

Despite my initial curiosity, Suicide Squad’s reception made me lose interest (perhaps if it hadn’t been released mere months after Batman V. Superman, I could have mustered up the strength). So I actually just watched Suicide Squad for the first time for this review and in preparation to watch the second film/soft reboot/whatever. And I have to say, I didn’t think Suicide Squad was that bad.

Don’t get me wrong, Suicide Squad isn’t that good, either. But for my money, it’s more entertaining than Man of Steel, and certainly more coherent than Batman V. Superman or Justice League (and that includes the questionably praised “Snyder Cut”).

There are at least a few good things going for Suicide Squad, so already we’re better off than with the aforementioned movies. The first and foremost of these positives being the main cast: We have Will Smith as Floyd Lawton/Deadshot, a deadly assassin with perfect marksmanship; Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (the former Harleen Quinzel), the Joker’s equally insane girlfriend; and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the corrupt government official who forms the titular Suicide Squad as her disposable task force.

We also have Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian villain who uses a boomerang surprisingly few times in the film; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a man who can create fire; and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a sewer-dwelling man who looks sort of like a crocodile and possesses superhuman strength. There’s also Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who commands the Suicide Squad under Waller. Flag is joined by his bodyguard, Katana (Karen Fukuhara), the only real heroic member of the task force. Oh yeah, and David Harbour shows up as Waller’s right hand government goon (the years since the film’s release have proven David Harbour should really have had a bigger role in a movie like this).

Another, oddly-specific thing I liked about the movie is that, once the Suicide Squad gets sent on their mission, that’s it. That’s the movie. Most super hero movies have a certain structure, and had Suicide Squad followed that structure, we’d probably see the group dispatched on a mission, which would result in either A) failure, so the team would have to redeem themselves with the bigger mission later on, or B) success, proving themselves worthy of the bigger mission later on. So I kind of like how we just have the setup of being introduced to the characters and Waller’s idea of “Task Force X,” and then once things go bad, the task force is sent in, and the rest of the movie is that mission. Maybe I’m grasping at straws here (I am), but I found that I liked that overall structure.

One thing I liked considerably less, however, was the film’s villain scenario. The film’s big bad is The Enchantress, an ancient witch possessing the body of Dr. June Moone (both portrayed by Cara Delevinge). It’s kind of a Jekyll and Hyde scenario, before the Enchantress inevitably takes full control. The Enchantress was to be a key member in Waller’s Task Force X, with Waller keeping the witch’s heart in a briefcase as leverage (effectively making the Enchantress Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean). But Enchantress breaks free of her control by (and stay with me here) releasing her brother’s spirit from a jar, with her brother then possessing a man, releasing a tentacle from said man’s body to ensnare a few other men, who are then merged with subway tracks (?!) to transform into a hulking CG monstrosity, who can share his power with the Enchantress to keep her alive until she recovers her heart. You get all that?

As you might expect, it’s Enchantress breaking free from Waller’s control and performing some vague, world-threatening spell that serves as the catalyst for Waller to pull the trigger and send in her new task force. So the Suicide Squad, accompanied by Rick Flag and his men, are to put a stop to the Enchantress. Meanwhile, the Joker (Jared Leto) plots to “rescue” Harley from Waller’s forces.

The problem with Enchantress as the villain is, despite Delevinge’s attempts to make the Enchantress a complex villain with their duel personalities, the character just kind of comes across as silly. Between the weird CG added to and around the character, the dancing she’s constantly doing as she performs a seemingly unending spell, and the fact that Delevinge’s voice seems to be dubbed over herself, I found myself giggling whenever the Enchantress was on screen. And I’m sure that’s not the reaction they were going for with the character.

“Teehee.”

Of course, we have to talk about the elephant in the room: Jared Leto’s take on the Joker. Heath Ledger’s performance of Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight gave us one of the all-time great movie villains. Before that, Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime was the highlight in the otherwise aged 1989 Tim Burton film. So the character had a lot of acclaimed history to live up to. If Jared Leto’s Joker couldn’t quite do that, it’s no unforgiveable sin. The problem is, even on its own merits, Suicide Squad’s Joker is a disappointment. He comes across as silly when he’s trying to be serious, and boring when he’s trying to be crazy. This Joker lacks a sense of presence and terror, and is instead a character we’re supposed to be afraid of simply because of his legacy through past interpretations. It should be unsurprising that this Joker has yet to show up again in subsequent movies (save for a cameo in the aforementioned “Snyder Cut”).

Perhaps things could have been different, had Jared Leto’s Joker been the main villain of the film (or maybe it would have only expanded on this version’s problems). Suicide Squad’s director, David Ayer – in a respectable admittance to the film’s faults – has said if he could do the movie over again, he would have made Joker the main villain. That probably would have benefitted things greatly, not just because it’s weird to introduce the Joker (of all characters) into the DCEU as a bit player, but also because Enchantress feels like she belongs in a different movie. I think DC is at its best with its more grounded characters (we all love Batman), and I’ve never thought those elements meshed with the more extravagant characters (like Superman). They just never feel like a cohesive whole in the way the Marvel characters do. And Suicide Squad’s villain scenario is a blatant example of this. Cut out the Enchantress and promote the Joker, and maybe they would have had something.

“I’m getting flashbacks to some old Dairy Queen commercials here…”

Another disappointing aspect to Suicide Squad are the action scenes. There’s really just nothing to them. You have a few gunfights with Enchantress’ soldiers (who remind me of the Putty Patrol from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers), and a few other such scuffles with more of the same creatures before the big, flashy CG finale against Enchantress and her tentacle/subway track brother. These action scenes would be pretty uneventful as they are, but the film’s insistence on gloomy, dim lighting makes them even more difficult to enjoy. The final showdown has the opposite problem, with the overbearing CG proving too bright and distracting.

I will give the film credit in that it attempts to find a few moments amidst the chaos to shed light on each of its anti-heroes. It may not master its balancing act (Deadshot and Harley Quinn easily get the most screen time, but that’s okay), and the movie awkwardly waits until later on in its runtime before it gives certain characters their moment (better late than never, I guess). But the attempt is appreciated, especially when you consider how Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman had such poor characterization that you could rarely find logical justification or reasoning for their characters’ actions.

So at the expense of being hated by comic book movie fans everywhere: No, I don’t think 2016’s Suicide Squad is the worst DC movie ever made. It ultimately stumbles, and I can’t recommend it. But I do think it was an improvement over the two DCEU films that came before it, and better than some of the ones that came after (like Justice League). The DCEU would eventually receive a few good movies (Wonder Woman, or my personal favorite so far, Shazam!). Suicide Squad may not be among those good movies, but maybe it helped us get there.

4

Jungle Cruise Review

Disney adapting its iconic theme park attractions into movies is not a new concept. It was an idea spawned in (when else?) the 1990s, when a TV movie based on Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror aired as part of the revived “World of Disney” program in 1997 (though the TV movie omitted references to the Twilight Zone, making it a movie based on a ride based on a TV show that ignored the TV show). After a few unsuccessful tries to make this unique sub-genre work, Disney finally hit the mark when they adapted Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 with one of the surprise hits of its decade. Pirates grew into such a large movie franchise (one that really helped Disney out in the days before they bought Marvel and Star Wars), that you would be forgiven if the movies are what you first think about when you hear the words “Pirates of the Caribbean” as opposed to the original ride. The Pirates movies became so big, that Disney would even adapt elements from them into the ride (bizarrely replacing the section of the ride that inspired the plot of the 2003 film in the process, though it’s thankfully been brought back in recent times)!

So Disney continued the Pirates franchise, while the “Disney park attractions turned into movies” concept as a whole kind of fell by the wayside. However, a planned movie based on the beloved Jungle Cruise attraction has been gestating for quite a while. At one point the movie adaptation of Jungle Cruise was set to star Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, effectively bringing their Toy Story chemistry to the realms of live-action. While that version of Jungle Cruise never came to light (unfortunately), the film found its footing once Dwayne Johnson came onboard, which eventually brought in Emily Blunt as well. And after a few delays of its own (we all know why), the Jungle Cruise movie finally arrived in late July of 2021.

The good news? The Jungle Cruise movie is actually a lot of fun! The bad news? After a point, it begins to feel derivative of the Pirates movies, which takes away some of its earlier charms.

The story here takes place in the midst of World War 1, and focuses on a legend of a tree – dubbed the “Tears of the Moon” – whose petals can heal all injuries and ailments, hiding somewhere in the Amazon. An English botanist, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) has firmly believed the stories of the Tears of the Moon since childhood, and has made it her life’s mission to recover its petals to revolutionize modern medicine and aide the British soldiers during the war. She is joined in her ventures by her uptight younger brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitewall), and has frequently butted heads with the chauvinistic Royal Society, who refuse to accept her into their ranks. After the Society denies Lily access to an arrowhead artifact that she believes is key to finding the tree, she simply steals the arrowhead instead (it’s for a greater good). This makes her cross paths with Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German aristocrat who also seeks the tree.

Lily and MacGregor then set out on their adventure, with the only thing missing being a skipper who can guide them through the Amazon. They find such a skipper in Captain Frank Wolff (Johnson), who hosts “Jungle Cruises” and manufactures dangers during said cruises to charge his passengers extra money. And true to the ride, Frank makes countless bad puns throughout (one of the film’s highlights).

With the Houghtons aboard Frank’s boat, the trio set sail on an adventure to find the legendary tree, all while Joachim remains in pursuit.

Sounds good, right? It’s a simple setup: A period piece (much like the original ride itself) that serves as a throwback to Holywood’s early adventure movies, with the added extravagance of contemporary set pieces we’re more accustomed to in a post-Indiana Jones world. It’s good old fashioned popcorn entertainment, and it’s a lot of fun.

So where does it go wrong? By adding so many supernatural elements into the plot that it loses some of its own identity and its initial appeal.

The magical tree that can cure anything is well and fine. That’s the central plot device of the movie, and gives the goal of the adventure a sense of mystique. But when a group of cursed conquistadors come into the picture (and largely overshadow better villain Prince Joachim in the process), the film begins to feel like an unofficial entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The undead conquistadors bring with them a great deal of backstory which needs explaining. So not only do these villains feel out of place, the added plot that accompanies them slows down the adventure from time to time. One particularly exposition-heavy sequence which explains the history of the conquistadors slows down the proceedings so much, it brought to mind similar moments from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (albeit it isn’t that bad).

“Dude, we already had a German Jesse Plemons following our heroes in a submarine as the bad guy! Did we really need undead conquistadors as well?”

Now, I’m conflicted here. I love fantasy stories, and in this day and age when we have superhero movies always feeling the need to explain away something like magic as being “not really magic, but a really advanced science,” and in which movies have a compulsion to make things “more grounded,” I crave fantasy and magic in movies like never before. But I don’t think the Jungle Cruise movie was the place for it. It worked for Pirates of the Caribbean, since the ride itself mentions “cursed treasures” and features talking skeletons. But Jungle Cruise is a ride about, y’know, the jungle! There’s plenty of adventure to be had in the jungle itself. Did we really need a group of undead conquistadors thrown into the mix?

I give the film some credit for making each of the conquistador villains distinct from one another (one is made out of snakes, there’s one made of mud, another one twigs, and my favorite is made out of honey and bees, which is a fun idea for a bad guy). But these guys clearly feel like they belong in another movie. And once they become more prominent in the proceedings, it takes something away from the throwback charms Jungle Cruise otherwise has.

When Jungle Cruise embraces those throwback charms, it’s a whole lot of fun. We get exciting action set pieces, a sense of adventure (which is kind of rare in movies today), and a fun villain in Plemons’ Prince Joachim. Go ahead and call me a sucker, but I was also delighted by the references to the Disneyland ride, though it probably gets to the Backside of Water bit too early in the film. That’s the kind of thing you really have to build up to in a movie!

Sadly, as fun as Jungle Cruise is, the fact that Disney apparently didn’t have enough faith in it to stand on its own two feet, and had to dip back into the Pirates of the Caribbean well with it, does make it feel like a missed opportunity. Had Jungle Cruise leaned completely into its Jungle Cruise-ness, it could have been something special. We already have Pirates of the Caribbean. Let Jungle Cruise become its own thing.

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