It’s Christmas again! Already…
Before we get into anything else: Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Merry Festivus! Happy Life Day! Happy Rusev Day! Happy/Merry everybody!
Whatever holiday(s) you celebrate, I hope you have a great one filled with happiness, joy, and lots of good food!
Happy holidays to all!
With all the holiday greetings and well wishes out of the way, Christmas Day also marks the anniversary of when I launched Wizard Dojo (well, when I first posted content to it, which is what I would say actually constitutes the launch of something). It’s a double celebration here at the Dojo!
Being both Christmas Day and the anniversary of this site, it’s time once again for the annual Wizard Dojo Christmas Special! Because Wizard Dojo is actually just one long, elaborate Christmas movie in disguise… like Die Hard!
So without further ado, let’s get on with this Christmas Special!
Chapter 1: Ranking the Spider-Man Films
There have been no less than nine theatrically released Spider-Man films ever since Spidey’s first big screen outing back in 2002. I figured now is as good of a time as any to rank all of the Spider-Man features. After all, Spider-Man is kind of like Christmas when you think about it: Spidey wears a red suit, like Santa Claus. The way he swings around New York is kind of/sort of like how Santa flies around on his sleigh on Christmas Eve. And the way Peter Parker builds his web shooters is kind of like how Santa’s elves build the toys…
Okay, it’s not like Christmas at all (unlike Die Hard). But the newest Spider-Man movie, No Way Home, came out recently, and the festive atmosphere of Christmas has me feeling celebratory, so why not?
Oh, and keep in mind that I’m just counting the Spider-Man movies themselves here, and not the Avengers movies in which Spider-Man appears, or Spider-Man adjacent movies like Venom.
With that out of the way, here’s my ranking of the Spider-Man movies!
9: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
That “Amazing” in the title is more than a little ironic, as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is regularly cited as the weakest Spider-Man movie (as it is here). It’s doubly ironic in that the original ‘Spider-Man 2’ was already amazing.
The second and ultimately final iteration of the Andrew Garfield-starring Spider-Man films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 perhaps has more merit than it gets credit for (it’s certainly better than some other Marvel movies, like Eternals or the later X-Men films). But it does ultimately succumb to its desire of wanting to be everything.
Not satisfied with simply being a Spider-Man sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wanted to kickstart its own Cinematic Universe to compete with what Marvel had accomplished with the MCU (remember that Spidey was still strictly under Sony’s control at this time). So what we get is a movie that’s trying to tell its own story while simultaneously setting up an entire series of sequels all at once.
You thought Spider-Man 3 was overstuffed with three villains? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 not only packs on the villains, but also hints at others, tries setting up potential sequels and spinoffs for them (there were plans for a Sinister Six movie, among others), and features a lingering mystery involving the fate of Peter Parker’s parents (which remains unsolved). All this while still trying to give Peter Parker a meaningful character arc involving his girlfriend, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone).
It’s just too much, and the film crumbles under all that weight. Sony got greedy and sacrificed their Spider-Man sequel just to play catch up with Marvel. But Marvel took its time setting up its shared universe of characters, they started with standalone movies (something I wish they’d go back to) before they brought their characters together. By fast-tracking their planned Cinematic Universe, Sony killed it before it even began. It’s a shame, because the Amazing Spider-Man series had potential.
At the very least, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gave us a Russian Paul Giamatti inside of a robotic rhinoceros. That’s something to be grateful for.
8: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a technically well-made movie. So why do I rank it so low on this list? Because its technical polish doesn’t translate to its creativity. The Amazing Spider-Man served as a good launching pad for a reboot to the series (though we know how it ultimately ended up. See above), but it does so by simply going through the motions.
Released ten years after the original Spider-Man (which was Spider-Man’s origin story), and five years after Spider-Man 3 (which heavily focused on part of Spider-Man’s origin story due to an annoying retcon). Audiences just didn’t want to sit through Spider-Man’s origin story again. Give Uncle Ben a break, will ya?
This is the film that introduced us to Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, and to be fair, he’s great in the role (he looks more the part than Tobey Maguire and is less annoying than Tom Holland’s Peter Parker). And it’s his performance, and his chemistry with Emma Stone, that most separates this film from what came before it (that, and I suppose the fact that its villain is a lizard-man). But the film’s darker and more gritty tone haven’t aged as well as the more colorful Sam Raimi-directed films. The fact that Spider-Man was rebooted yet again (and added into the biggest movie franchise in history in the process) five years later, leaving its lingering plot threads to drift in limbo, also hasn’t helped The Amazing Spider-Man stand the test of time.
It’s a shame, because I actually really liked The Amazing Spider-Man when I first saw it. Perhaps if it hadn’t felt the need to show us Spider-Man’s origin story in detail after the 2002 film already did it so well, it may have been able to build more of an identity of its own.
7: Spider-Man 3 (2007)
It pains me to rank one of the Sam Raimi films this low on the list. But Spider-Man 3 was the first instance of the series feeling the need to include as many villains as humanly possible at the expense of storytelling coherence. Spider-Man 3 was such a downgrade in quality that it resulted in the end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series, and “Spider-Man 4” never saw the light of day.
To be fair, it was Sony who forced Raimi’s hand to include Venom into the movie, resulting in one villain too many. Harry Osborne had already been set up to take over his father’s mantle of the Green Goblin in Spider-Man 2, and Raimi wanted the Sandman, as he liked the idea of a small-time crook being turned into the main villain, as well as believing he’d be impressive visually. But Sony wanted Venom, so we got him too.
On the subject of fairness, Raimi’s hands weren’t entirely clean, either. It was his decision that Sandman should be revealed as Uncle Ben’s real killer, even though that whole story seemed nicely wrapped up in the first movie. And you know you’re in trouble whenever a movie retcons something like that (“that guy wasn’t the real killer, this guy is!”). Though once again, in the spirit of fairness, at least Raimi only did so because he wanted the film to be themed around forgiveness. I just wish he’d had found a better means to do so.
Suffice to say, the film is a bit cluttered. It has too many elements in too many places. If even just one of them had been cut (let’s just say, oh I don’t know, Venom, for instance), perhaps Spider-Man 3 could have found a better focus and been a better movie.
There was once a time when I’d tell you that Spider-Man 3 was one of my most hated movies. Though a few years ago, when I watched it again for the first time since it was in theaters, I realized it isn’t that bad. I mean, Spider-Man 3 can’t hold a candle to its two predecessors, and I think the massive downgrade in quality from Spider-Man 2 may have been why I was extra critical of it initially. But it still has its good points.
Though it doesn’t resonate nearly as strongly as the first two films, Spider-Man 3 still has something of a beating heart to it. Sam Raimi and company still tried to give the film meaning. As messy as the end result may have been, that’s still something more than I can say about most superhero movies that have been released since. Spider-Man 3 actually had something to it (albeit it often got lost in the shuffle) and wasn’t just about hyping the next string of movies in the Marvel pipeline.
A bit of a mess. But its own mess.
6: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Spider-Man: Far From Home was the second Spider-Man film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the third Spider-Man film released in as many years (following its predecessor in 2017 and the animated Into the Spider-Verse in 2018). You would think Far From Home would have suffered a bit from Spider-Fatigue, but for the most part, it’s still a solid entry in the series. It featured a decently fun villain in Mysterio, took the action out of New York and into various locations in Europe, and had some good action scenes. Far From Home was fun, if maybe not groundbreaking. In other words, it sure was an MCU feature.
Still, there are some things holding Far From Home back from reaching the same heights as other Spider-Man films. Notably, with the film being the first MCU feature released after Avengers: Endgame, you would think that Far from Home would respectfully acknowledge the events of Infinity War and Endgame, given the gravity of – oh, I don’t know – Thanos wiping out half of all life in the universe for five years before the Avengers travelled through time to bring everyone back! But you’d be wrong.
Instead, Far From Home plays up the whole thing as one big punchline. Aunt May laughs off the fact that while she disappeared from existence for five years, someone else was living in her apartment. A kid in Peter’s school also jokes that his younger brother became his older brother during the time he was snapped away by Thanos. Maybe a few jokes about it would be fine, but Far From Home seems to exclusively reference the drama of Endgame as a joke. Considering Endgame was the culmination of everything in the MCU up to that point, and Far From Home was the first MCU film released afterwards, its utter disregard towards Endgame basically devalues the entire MCU franchise. It’s like a big middle finger to anyone who invested in the series. And sadly, this element of writing off the past seems to have become a common trait in the MCU since.
At least the sacrifice of Tony Stark is made important! Because of course it is. Tony Stark was all over Spider-Man: Homecoming, just to hit home the fact that Spider-Man was in the MCU now. So Far From Home is sure to let everyone know how impactful the loss of Tony Stark was, to the point that Peter Parker never even brings up Uncle Ben! Uncle Ben wasn’t Tony Stark, why should he be remembered? But Spidey still manages to snag plenty of new gadgets from Stark Industries in Far From Home. Because Tony Stark!
Okay, I won’t keep going on. Simply put, the film’s overemphasis on pointing out that it takes place in the MCU at the expense of Spider-Man’s own mythology, while simultaneously treating the MCU’s history as a joke, is a bit of a problem. But if you can dig past that, Spider-Man: Far From Home does deliver an entertaining movie.
5: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Five years after the Andrew Garfield era started (and only three years after The Amazing Spider-Man 2), the Spider-Man franchise was rebooted yet again! This time, Sony and Marvel worked out their differences (they would have more later, and work them out again), meaning that Spider-Man could now join the MCU! Sony’s planned Spider-Man universe didn’t pan out, so I guess it’s a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
The good news is that Marvel knew no one wanted to see Spider-Man’s origin story again, so they skipped it entirely, and introduced this newest version of Spider-Man in a previous film (Captain America: Civil War) for good measure. So for once, we could just get right into things.
The bad news is that Marvel and Sony were way too excited to let people know that Spider-Man was now in the MCU, with Tony Stark being all over Homecoming (I can’t remember a single advertisement that didn’t put Iron Man front and center). And sadly, Marvel and Sony seemed to think that “skipping” Spider-Man’s origin story meant ignoring it outright. Uncle Ben’s death is still (supposedly) a pinnacle moment in the life of the MCU’s Peter Parker, but you’d never know it from watching Homecoming. Who has time to remember a lost loved one when Tony Stark’s in town?! Yahoo! MCU!
Okay, I’m sorry. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good movie. But I do think sacrificing Spider-Man’s own mythology for the sake of the MCU is a big problem in the Tom Holland-era Spider-Man films, and not one that grew bigger over time. It was there right out the gate with Homecoming. Still, I guess being overly enthusiastic about being in the MCU is better than an MCU movie making fun of the MCU (like Far From Home).
Other than the film’s obsession with reminding audiences that Spider-Man is now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Homecoming has a lot to love about it. While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker can be pretty annoying at times, the actor definitely looks the part, and makes for a fun Spider-Man. The action scenes are, once again, very exciting. And perhaps most notably, Spider-Man: Homecoming gives us one of the few MCU villains who could be described as ‘interesting.’
Adrian Toomes, AKA ‘The Vulture,’ wonderfully portrayed by Michael Keaton, seemed to have taken inspiration from the Raimi-era villains. A hardworking man who (rightfully) has a grudge after his salvage company are sent out of business by the government and (*sigh*) Tony Stark. Michael Keaton plays Toomes as a likable, blue-collar man just trying to set things right the only way he feels he can. That’s the kind of villain the MCU could certainly use more of. I’m getting pretty tired of evil rich guys who have the same powers as the hero…
Spider-Man: Homecoming may not be perfect, but it remains one of the MCU’s most fun and lighthearted installments. And everyone loves Michael Keaton.
4: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Okay, there may be a recency bias here seeing as this movie was just released. Or it could even be a nostalgic bias, seeing as this film brings back so many faces from Spidey’s cinematic past. Whatever the case may be, I’m ranking No Way Home above Homecoming for the time being. I guess we’ll see how I feel they compare later.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is so recent, that I feel I don’t have much else to say that I didn’t already say in my review at the moment. But here’s a quick refresher…
The good: It’s magic just to see Alfred Molina Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe Green Goblin again. Lots of great action scenes. A few good emotional bits. A truckload of fanservice for the MCU, the Amazing Spider-Man films and the Sam Raimi trilogy.
The bad: The film makes too many cynical jokes at the expense of past Spider-Man films. Dr. Strange fills the role of “overbearing Avengers presence” left over by Tony Stark. The classic villains are made out to be easy pickings for MCU Spidey and Dr. Strange unless they team up. J. Jonah Jameson has been turned into a one-note villain. Mr. Ditkovitch didn’t make a return appearance.
A very fun movie fueled by fanservice and nostalgia, if maybe not the most heartfelt Spider-Man film.
3: Spider-Man (2002)
Nearly every list that ranks a particular franchise has that point where the quality of work within that franchise ramps up considerably. For this list, this is that moment.
The original 2002 Spider-Man feature is still a treat. Although X-Men beat it to theaters by two years, it’s Spider-Man that created the blueprint for the entire superhero genre. It may be easy to forget in this day and age, when the all-encompassing MCU seems to grow bigger and bigger, swallowing other franchises in its wake. But back in 2002, Spider-Man – and Spider-Man alone – was a huge deal. No Cinematic Universe required.
Spider-Man made superheroes mainstream. It was the first film to make over one-hundred million dollars on its opening weekend, and it became a talking point not just for comic book nerds, but people who had never read a comic book in their life. Kids and adults alike ate it up.
Perhaps Spider-Man’s initial success and continuing legacy can be attributed to how Sam Raimi gave the film a heart. This wasn’t simply an origin story where the hero gets his powers (though it is that too), but also a story about love, loss, and responsibility.
Tobey Maguire made his version of Peter Parker a loveable dweeb: goofy, awkward, somewhat naive. Later Peter Parkers Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland seemed to be cast to turn the character into something of a heartthrob. But Tobey Maguire’s version is nerd incarnate, giving him a more underdog quality.
To compliment the film’s relatable hero, we were given a sympathetic villain in Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), whose descent into the Green Goblin is equal parts tragic and terrifying. He’s the father of Peter’s best friend, and even becomes something of a father figure to Peter, as well. But a desperate attempt to save his company by rushing an experiment – using himself as a test subject – results in his personality being split a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Norman Osborne remains, but the evil Goblin can take over at any moment. Willem Dafoe plays the double role with a brilliance similar to what Andy Serkis would give Gollum a few months later in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
In what is perhaps the best bonus possible, Spider-Man even gave us the greatest comic relief in superhero movie history in J. Jonah Jameson. The bombastic newspaperman was brought to life so flawlessly by J.K. Simmons that Marvel had to bring him back for the role in the MCU, because they knew no one else could match his performance.
We may all laugh at Spider-Man’s origin story by this point, but the 2002 film got it so right. Peter Parker gains his superhuman abilities after being bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, and at first uses his newfound abilities to win some money and impress the girl next door, Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). But a petty money squabble leads Peter Parker to let a crook get away, a crook who later shoots Uncle Ben (before Spider-Man 3 retconned the shooter, anyway). Peter holds Uncle Ben’s hand as he passes. No overly long, dramatic speech is necessary. Uncle Ben (memorably played by the late Cliff Robertson) simply shows joy that he can look at a loved one before he passes. With his uncle’s teaching of “with great power comes great responsibility” resonating in his heart, Peter Parker decides to use his powers for the sake of others.
It’s beautifully told, and the emotion is earnest in a way that seems lost on the MCU.
Sure, 2002’s Spider-Man has its share of cheesy moments: the upside-down kiss, Green Goblin’s costume, the wrestling scene… But if anything, those cheesy moments only add to that aforementioned earnestness. Spider-Man is telling the story it needs to tell, and if that entails some awkwardness, then so be it. Personally, I find the cheesiness of the Sam Raimi films to be much less eye-rolling than the forced “applaud here” moments of the MCU.
In 2002, no multiverses needed saving. No one was wiping out half of all life in the universe. There was just Peter Parker growing into Spider-Man fighting Norman Osborne, who had fallen into becoming the Green Goblin. And it was great.
Spider-Man may not be the highest ranked movie on this list. But y’know, it’s something of a classic itself.
2: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
“Inventive” may not be the word you’d use to describe the superhero movies of today, but it’s an apt term when describing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Boasting animation that looks like a comic book come to life and a story that plays with the Spider-Man mythology, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the surprise hit of 2018, becoming one of the most acclaimed superhero films of all time.
Into the Spider-Verse shifts the focus to Miles Morales, who becomes the Spider-Man of his world. When Kingpin activates a portal that starts bringing in people from different universes, Miles has to team up with various other Spider-People from across the multiverse to save the day. Miles’ team includes an out-of-shape Peter Parker, Gwen Stacey from a world where her and Peter’s roles were reversed, a monochromatic Spider-Man out of film noir, an anime girl version of Peter Parker, and a cartoon pig.
The film is as fun and varied as its oddball lineup of characters, with its story unfolding – rather uniquely – from the perspective of its main characters, rather than letting the audience in on most of the details ahead of time. Though perhaps as a consequence of this, Kingpin himself – despite having a pretty good story to him – ends up getting a little shortchanged in the film.
In a time when every superhero movie under the sun seems hellbent on building up towards a string of other superhero movies down the road, Into the Spider-Verse was a breath of fresh air. Here was a new take on Spider-Man, no Cinematic Universe was needed. Into the Spider-Verse worked so well as a standalone movie, that I don’t know if its upcoming sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, can actually match it. The fact that the sequel includes a “Part 1” in the title is also a bit disappointing. I’m all for sequels, but it’s a shame that today’s sequels can’t just be their own movie anymore. They always have to hype up something else on the horizon. Being excited for Across the Spider-Verse isn’t enough these days. You have to be excited for the movies that come after it before it’s even released…
I guess we’ll see how that all ends up. But even if the sequels don’t live up to the original, Into the Spider-Verse will have still left us with one of the most original and definitive movies in the superhero genre.
1: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Into the Spider-Verse may be the most original Spider-Man movie, but make no mistake about it, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still, quite simply, the best.
The Amazing Spider-Man took a nosedive with its second entry, and the MCU Spider-Man films can feel kind of interchangeable (the fact that No Way Home needed to bring back old faces to feel distinct is telling). But 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was a case of a sequel taking everything that was good about the first installment and improving on them in every way. It’s one of the best sequels of all time.
The emotion is better. The drama is better. The action is better. The humor is better. And with all due respect to the Green Goblin, even the villain is better.
With Peter Parker’s personal life suffering due to his duties as Spider-Man, he begins to wonder if the city still needs its web-slinging hero anymore. Meanwhile, Dr. Otto Octavius becomes Peter’s mentor, only to turn to a life of crime once a would-be revolutionary experiment ends in tragedy.
This is a key factor to Spider-Man 2’s enduring appeal: On one hand, it is about Spider-Man’s battles against Doctor Octopus. But even more so, it’s a movie about the inner struggles of Peter Parker and Otto Octavius. Even after all these years, it’s still the single most character-driven Marvel film. But if it’s superhero action you’re looking for, Spider-Man 2 has that covered as well, featuring a number of memorable action scenes, notably its iconic train sequence. Though that’s just one of many, many standout moments created by Spider-Man 2.
Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was a likable dweeb in the first movie, but here he becomes a true hero. And Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock – whose mechanical arms make him a perfect foil for Spider-Man – is a tragic, sympathetic villain with a depth that no Marvel movie since has been able to grasp. The supporting players all get their chance to shine as well, and add even more emotion to the film (the scene where Peter Parker tells Aunt May the events leading up to Uncle Ben’s death being another high point). Not to mention J.K. Simmons is at his best as Jameson.
It all comes down to the characters, really. Everything we loved about them the first time around is brought back in full force, with some great new additions as well. Doc Ock is the obvious newcomer, sure. But even characters like Mr. Ditkovitch – Peter Parker’s stingy landlord – leave an impression. And of course, we have the inspiring scene where the people of New York stand up to Doctor Octopus to defend Spider-Man (this was something of a theme in the Raimi era, with something similar happening in the first film as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, Spider-Man 3 lacked such a scene). Even the random citizens were important here in Spider-Man 2.
Yes, it’s true, Spider-Man 2 has its cheesy elements (though perhaps not to the same level as the first film). But again, I almost feel like they add to its appeal in retrospect. Spider-Man 2 is sincere and upfront, warts and all. It’s as genuine and heartfelt as any superhero movie ever made.
There have been many, many, many movies based on Marvel comics in the nearly eighteen years since its release, but not one of them has made me care as much as Spider-Man 2.
Simply the best.
Chapter 2: The Best of Wizard Dojo in 2021
2021 was not exactly the most productive year for Wizard Dojo. Although January got off to a decent start (I reviewed the entire Oddworld series… although a new entry was released a little while later and I still need to review that), things quickly fell silent. From February through May, I only wrote four posts (all movie reviews), with May being the first month in this site’s seven year history where I didn’t post anything whatsoever. And here we are, nearing the end of the year, and I’ve only reviewed nine videogames in all of 2021…five of which were the aforementioned Oddworld titles in January. I haven’t done right by video games this year, so I guess I should focus more of the Dojo on gaming in 2022. Catch up on the games I played but failed to review this year. Fingers crossed I can catch up to my backlogged game reviews.
With all this said, I still like to think I provided some quality content (by my standards) to Wizard Dojo this year. I certainly wrote about plenty of movies. So now, here’s some quick access to the best of what I wrote in 2021!
Video Game Reviews (might as well post them all here)
Movie Reviews (Let’s pick 10, besides Spider-Man: No Way Home since I posted a link to that above)
The Best of the Rest (Things I wrote that aren’t directly reviews)
The 1000th Blog! – In which I celebrate my 1,000 blog milestone here on Wizard Dojo*. Also includes my ranking of the Paper Mario series.
*Technically, I removed some old filler blogs a while back, and the 1,000th post was the 1,000th not including those removed. And I deleted a further few filler posts of old afterwards. So I guess technically it isn’t the 1,oooth blog anymore. But come on, I’m over 1,000 again. Just let me celebrate. I’ll try not to delete any more past content.
Super Smash Bros. Has Lost its Heart – In which I write about how the Super Smash Bros. series has betrayed what made it so fun and memorable in the first place, with its overemphasis on third-party characters, hype and pandering to eSports at the expense of its own identity.
The Beauty of Ghostbusters 2’s Optimism – In which I write about how Ghostbusters 2’s hopeful, positive message makes it a much better sequel than it gets credit for.
I also wrote no less than ten anniversary posts for various movies and videogames. In chronological order…
And now we meet somewhere in the middle, because I posted two movie reviews on the tenth anniversary of their respective movies: Rango and The Adventures of Tintin. But now we’re getting back into review territory.
And perhaps my favorite thing I wrote this past year…
Top 10 Nintendo 64 Games to Play Today – in which I list the most timeless Nintendo 64 games.
Whether you read any of these back when they were posted or not, I hope you have some fun reading them.
Chapter 3 & 4: My Months in Movies (November and December 2021)
Following suit with my previous ‘My Month in Movies’ post, I figured I’d write about what I watched during the last two months of 2021. Sure, December isn’t quite done yet, and I could still watch another movie or two before year’s end. But come on, it’s Christmas!
Because my last ‘My Month in Movies’ post ended up being so long, I will sadly keep things shorter here (seeing as I had other things to post on this Christmas blog). So here I’ll list the movies, and then go straight into the awards. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to write about some of these movies in more detail sooner rather than later. As before, movies are listed in chronological order of when I watched them, and those with an asterisk are movies I watched for the very first time.
Now let’s get started!
My Month in Movies: November 2021
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
Ron’s Gone Wrong*
Home Sweet Home Alone*
Castle in the Sky
Die Hard 2
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Best Movie(s) I Watched All Month: Castle in the Sky and Die Hard
Alright, I’m going to cheat right out the gate and select two movies as the best I watched in November. My reason is simple: they both put up strong arguments to being the best live-action (Die Hard) and animated (Castle in the Sky) action movies of all time. So why not just celebrate both? Also, I know if I just picked Castle in the Sky, my best movies of every month so far would definitely show some favoritism (and having favorite directors or movies or anything is considered taboo these days for some reason).
Castle in the Sky, the first film released by Studio Ghibli (though the third feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki), is one of the most influential animated films ever made. Not only did it kickstart the world’s greatest animation studio, but it continues to influence movies, animation, television and video games to this day. Hell, with the exception of Star Wars, I’m having trouble thinking of a movie that has had as big of an influence on video games as Castle in the Sky. Everything from The Legend of Zelda (most overtly in Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild), Skies of Arcadia, Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy have drawn from it. Even the storyline of Sonic & Knuckles was directly lifted from Castle in the Sky (as a bonus, Dr. Robotnik’s entire character design was largely based on a character from the film).
Even without its impact, Castle in the Sky is such an incredible film. It’s probably Miyazaki’s most straightforward tale, but it’s a perfectly structured adventure film brimming with the director’s unrivaled imagination. Two kids, Pazu and Sheeta, go on an adventure to find Laputa, the titular castle in the sky. A band of pirates, lead by the elderly yet energetic Dola (one of Miyazaki’s best characters), are also out to find the castle and its countless treasures. But a bigger threat looms in the form of the military, under the command of the mysterious Colonel Muska.
Again, it’s a simple adventure story, but flawlessly crafted, and the world it created has proven influential for a reason (the city of Laputa itself is perhaps second only to the bathhouse in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away as the most indelible place in animation). The action set pieces utilize animation to send them over the top of what you would expect. They’re so exciting, in fact, that it’s a mystery Miyazaki never really tackled another full-on action-adventure film after this. A classic.
I feel like I don’t even need to introduce Die Hard. It’s one of the most iconic action movies of all time. It deserves mention alongside the likes of Terminator 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the greatest works of art in the genre (I would also add Speed to that running). And yes, it’s also one of the best Christmas movies of all time.
Taking place on Christmas Eve, New York police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting Los Angeles to reconnect with his estranged wife. He visits her at her place of business, the Nakatomi Corporation. But things quickly go south when a band of terrorists, lead by Hans Gruber (the late, great Alan Rickman) take over the building. John McClane then has to figure out a way to use what resources he has to take out the bad guys one by one if he wants to save the hostages.
Again, a simple premise, but perfectly executed. Besides how well made and exciting the action sequences are, there are a few key areas that make Die Hard stand out from other action movies: One of them is John McClane himself, a much more human and vulnerable action hero. Released in the late 1980s, Die Hard purposefully made John McClane contrast the seemingly invincible heroes of the genre played by Schwarzenegger and Stallone that dominated the decade. Sure, John McClane still survives things he probably wouldn’t in real life, but just barely. Notably, he just happened to take his shoes off right before the terrorists showed up, so his feet end up in a bad, bloody way before the end of things.
There’s also Hans Gruber, debatably the best villain in any action movie. He has a charisma and cunning about him that make him so much more memorable than other villains in the genre. We can’t forget Officer Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), John’s only ally outside of the building, who has an interesting story of his own. Then there’s the Nakatomi building itself. Setting all of the action inside one location proved to be a stroke of genius, and gives the film a strong sense of place.
Die Hard’s 90s sequels are also exceptional action flicks (I still haven’t seen the 2007 and 2013 entries), though they lack a number of the qualities that make the original still feel so unique. Al Powell is reduced to a cameo in the second film, never appearing again thereafter. Hans Gruber was never topped in the villain department. The scope grew, at the expense of a singular, iconic location. And John McClane slowly became the indestructible action hero he once defied. They’re solid sequels, sure. But the original Die Hard is the action classic.
And also a Christmas classic.
Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Eternals
I already wrote a review for Eternals, so mercifully I don’t have to delve too deeply into this mess again.
Suffice to say, it’s the worst entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No contest.
It’s a boring slog with a pessimistic attitude. It has an undeserved sense of self-importance. It conveniently retcons elements of the MCU’s world-building to try and make itself make sense. It’s… uhhh. Yeah.
Look, if you want to know more about why I don’t like it – and you don’t want to scroll all the way back up this wall of text for the last link – I’ll post the link again here.
On the plus side, Spider-Man: No Way Home seems to have brought audience attention right back to the MCU. So thankfully Eternals is already looking like a memory. A bad memory, but still.
Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Encanto (Ron’s Gone Wrong is a very close second)
One of my bad habits this year was seeing a number of great animated films and then not writing about them, such as Luca and The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. I have no idea why. On that subject, here are two other great animated films that were released this year that I still have yet to review: Disney’s Encanto and Ron’s Gone Wrong! Mayhaps I’ll catch up on these animated movie reviews before I start dedicating Wizard Dojo’s 2022 to video games.
Anyway, Encanto is yet another winner in Disney’s current hot streak of animation. Say what you want about Disney’s live-action output, but their animated films have never been better than they are now. I’d be ostracized from my generation for saying that. But with due respect to the ‘Disney Renaissance’ of the 90s, most of those movies were largely the same. The modern Disney era – whether you think it began with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, a year before that with Bolt, or the year after with Tangled – has provided an array of movies with a depth and variety that Disney has never seen before. It’s now also probably the longest hot streak in the studio’s history, so there’s that too.
Encanto tells a beautiful and heartfelt story about family, as Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), an ordinary girl in an extraordinary family, must figure out why her superpowered siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and mother are losing their magical powers.
It’s beautifully animated and has a great selection of songs (which I almost hate to admit, given they were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. But as Moana proved, Disney seems to be able to bring out a more creative side to him and it doesn’t all sound the same). A joy to the senses.
Bafflingly, Encanto was a box office disappointment. That breaks my heart. But now that the film is readily available on Disney+, hopefully it will find the audience it deserves.
Encanto is very worthy to hold the distinction of being Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 60th film.
While we’re here, let’s go ahead and give Ron’s Gone Wrong the “Pleasant Surprise of the Year” award. Seriously, “pleasant surprise” may be the best way to describe this movie. It was barely advertised, and those advertisements didn’t exactly look promising. I went to see it more out of curiosity than anything, but ended up seeing a sweet, emotional, wonderful movie.
Yes, it may look like a Big Hero 6 clone on the surface (but would that be so bad?), and its themes of an overreliance on technology and social media were already done relatively recently by The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. But Ron’s Gone Wrong has an identity of its own and ends up being a touching tale about friendship and loneliness.
Just writing about it now, I want to watch Ron’s Gone Wrong again. It’s currently available on both Disney+ and HBO Max. So if you have time for a movie, give this overlooked gem a watch. You’ll be glad you did.
Now seriously, why haven’t I reviewed these yet? I reviewed that piece of crap Eternals fast enough after I saw it, why not these actually great movies? There must be something wrong with me. Go ahead and call me ‘Scott’s Gone Wrong.’
The Guilty Pleasure Award: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
I honestly had real trouble thinking about what would take my “Guilty Pleasure Award” for November, and not just because I didn’t watch any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. I really just don’t think I watched anything that fits that bill. I thought maybe the Bill & Ted movies – of which I hold the unpopular opinion that Bogus Journey is way better than Excellent Adventure – but no. I genuinely like them. I also thought about Home Sweet Home Alone, which I reviewed already and found to be mediocre and unmemorable, but harmless entertainment that was better than the other post-Macauley Culkin Home Alone movies.
In the end, I decided to go with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Even now, I don’t know if it really qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I find it to be thoroughly entertaining.
I decided to go with it for one specific reason: Home Alone 2 is basically Home Alone 1. It’s the very definition of a copy-and-paste sequel. However, if any sequel could get away with being so similar to the original, I suppose it would be Home Alone. It is, after all, just a story about a kid being left home alone on Christmas and outsmarting a duo of bumbling burglars. It isn’t exactly aiming for a deep, rich narrative. Sometimes, it’s okay to just have fun.
Home Alone 2 does have a couple of distinctions from its predecessor. The first difference is in its setting (It is called Lost in New York, after all), with Kevin McCallister now staying at the Plaza Hotel as opposed to his actual home. The second difference is that the film adds some secondary antagonists in the form of the hotel’s staff, with the concierge being played by Tim Curry (always a huge bonus).
Otherwise, Home Alone 2 is basically more of the same: the setup of Kevin being separated from his family. Kevin enjoying his time alone, before he inevitably begins to miss his family. Kevin is fearful of a local (this time it’s a Pidgeon Lady in the park), only to befriend them later. And he sets up a series of elaborate booby traps to defeat burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), who are also somehow in New York at the same exact time as Kevin ended up there by accident. But, as an added plus, the booby trap sequence here is longer and more brutal than the first movie, and is perhaps the best example of cartoon violence being done in live-action.
So yeah, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York may as well be called Home Alone Again: But in New York. But what it lacks in narrative creativity it makes up for in sheer entertainment. And I don’t really feel guilty about it.
My Month in Movies: December 2021
West Side Story (1961)*
My Neighbor Totoro
Being the Ricardos*
Spider-Man: No Way Home*
The Santa Clause
The Santa Clause 2
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Jingle All the Way
It’s a Wonderful Life
Best Movie I Watched All Month: My Neighbor Totoro
December may have been my slowest month of movie watching since I started doing these ‘My Month in Movies’ things, but it wouldn’t have mattered how many movies I watched, the crown was guaranteed to go to Totoro.
I say that with the utmost respect to It’s a Wonderful Life – truly one of the best movies ever made -but if there’s one movie I can think of that’s even more life affirming than It’s a Wonderful Life, surely it’s My Neighbor Totoro.
Hayao Miyazaki’s quiet tale about childhood, nature and life really is a one of a kind film. Truthfully, Miyazaki could have retired after Totoro and he’d still be the greatest filmmaker in animation. The fact that he continued to create so many classics afterward is nothing short of inspiring. One of those subsequent films, Spirited Away, is Totoro’s only equal as my all-time favorite film, animated or otherwise.
My Neighbor Totoro is the story about two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, as they move to a new house to be close to their ailing mother, who is being treated at a hospital. But their new house comes with a surprise, as just beyond it rests a giant camphor tree, which is the home of Totoro. The girls soon discover the animal-like spirit, and have many adventures together.
Totoro was Miyazaki’s follow-up to Castle in the Sky, which may be the most overt display of the director’s versatility. Going from the spectacle and set pieces of Laputa into the ethereal beauty of Totoro was something else. And none of Miyazaki’s artistry was lost in the transition.
My Neighbor Totoro remains Miyazaki’s most iconic film, with its titular character becoming the face of Studio Ghibli (adorning the opening of every film from the studio thereafter). It’s been said that young children in Japan believe in Totoro in a similar way to how children believe in Santa Claus (something which Miyazaki’s colleague and mentor; the late, great Isao Takahata, claimed was Miyazaki’s greatest achievement). Its reputation couldn’t be more deserved. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle and sweet movie I’ve ever seen. A masterpiece.
And let’s give a special shoutout to It’s a Wonderful Life. Because, well, we’re talking about It’s a Wonderful Life here! Famed director Steven Spielberg recently revealed It’s a Wonderful Life to be his favorite movie, and I’m not about to argue that. It deserves all the praise it’s received over the decades. If you tell me you can watch It’s a Wonderful Life without getting choked up and misty-eyed, well then, you’re probably either lying or a robot.
Worst Movie I Watched All Month: The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Wow. Going from talking about My Neighbor Totoro and It’s a Wonderful Life to talking about The Santa Clause 3. Wow. Just… Wow.
1994’s The Santa Clause is actually one of my favorite Christmas movies. The tale of Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) becoming Santa after the former Father Christmas falls off his roof is unique in that it works as both a kids’ movie and a more complicated one for adults. It’s genuinely a really good Christmas movie.
The 2002 sequel, The Santa Clause 2, is definitely aimed more at youngsters. It doesn’t deal with the same complexities of adulthood as the original, but it works in its own way. It’s another guilty pleasure of mine (and would take that award for December, if not for another Christmas movie). And it’s got Tim Allen in a second role as a human-sized toy Santa who takes over the North Pole and becomes a dictator. So that’s fun.
But The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. Ouch. You thought The Santa Clause 2 was juvenile? It looks like Breaking Bad compared to its successor!
The Santa Clause 3 is basically about Jack Frost (Martin Short) plotting to take over the North Pole, already recycling the second movie. Also, Santa and Mrs. Claus are expecting a baby, so Santa brings his in-laws to the North Pole to visit, claiming he works at a toy factory in Canada to keep his status as Santa Claus a secret (he claims the elves are small Canadians, as one does). It’s silly.
None of the more grown up elements of the original are intact, nor does the film feel the need to give children a fun, coherent story like the second movie. Instead we just kind of get a series of hyperactive things happening, and Martin Short running around in a funny costume saying things (admittedly some of which are funny: “Did you just call me skillful and delicious?”). Did I even get into the time travel aspect of it yet? Yeah, Jack Frost and Santa go back in time to the events of the first movie and change history, so kind of like a Back to the Future Part II thing (but that’s giving Santa Clause 3 way too much credit).
Still, at least I can laugh at The Santa Clause 3. That’s more than can be said of Eternals.
Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Being the Ricardos
I saw the original West Side Story for the first time this month (I still need to see the new Spielberg one), and it was good. I also saw Spider-Man: No Way Home, and it was good. Maybe it’s because I’m more used to superheroes and musicals than I am biopics, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t aware of this movie until some friends invited me to tag along with them to see it and thus I was pleasantly surprised, but I’m going to give this honor to Being the Ricardos for the time being.
Being the Ricardos is the latest in a long line of biopics to be released in recent years. I admit I’ve only seen a few of them, but I really enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks and The Founder. While Being the Ricardos isn’t quite as fun as those movies, I still found it to be a good time.
Ricardos focuses on the inner workings of the production of I Love Lucy, during a particularly turbulent week for the show’s filming (with some additional flashbacks stretching the scope of the film’s story). It has a stellar cast, with Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, and my man J.K. Simmons as William Frawley. The cast may not necessarily look like the people they’re portraying (then again, Tom Hanks doesn’t look like Walt Disney, either), but the film has fun with transforming the actors to look more like the I Love Lucy cast in the moments in recreates scenes from the iconic show.
It’s got all the drama you would expect from a biopic, but of course a movie about I Love Lucy has to have some humor involved, and Being the Ricardos includes some genuinely funny bits. It may be a bit Oscar bait-y, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable all the same.
The film was simultaneously released in theaters and Amazon Prime, so I may have to watch this one again at home soon. I repeat, it’s got J.K. Simmons as William Frawley as Fred Mertz! Need I say more?
The Guilty Pleasure Award: Jingle All the Way
Is Jingle All the Way the best bad Christmas movie? I definitely think it makes a strong case.
The weirdly specific sub-genre of “take an action star and put them in a family comedy” was everywhere in the 90s, and even shows up today every now and again. I would say I don’t know why they keep trying, since there hasn’t been a good movie produced by the combination of action star and family comedy (that I can think of, anyway. Unless Last Action Hero counts). But then I remember how gloriously stupid Jingle All the Way is, and suddenly the genre makes sense.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger himself – the action star of the 80s and 90s – Jingle All the Way is a movie about a dad named Howard Langston trying to make up for his failings as a father by getting his son the toy of his dreams for Christmas. The problem is he forgot to get the hot-selling toy (a superhero named Turbo Man) ahead of time, and now that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s going to be impossible to find! It doesn’t help that he keeps running into a troublesome mailman named Myron (Sinbad) who’s after the same toy.
Using last minute Christmas shopping as the premise for a Christmas comedy actually isn’t a bad idea. It’s the kind of thing we’ve all been through, and that a movie could exaggerate for comedic effect. The problem (great thing?) is that Jingle All the Way exaggerates it so much, that the film ends up being completely bonkers.
Howard has to literally fight his way through a mall to get a raffle ball, gets tangled up with a group of Santa Claus conmen, and in one of the most ludicrous finales ever conceived by mankind, Howard becomes Turbo Man himself for a Christmas parade (complete with working jetpack), where he does battle against Myron, who dons the costume of Turbo Man’s nemesis. Oh yeah, all this while Harold’s pervy neighbor (the late Phil Hartman) keeps trying to put the moves of Harold’s wife. You know, kids’ movie stuff.
The movie is completely ridiculous. It’s dumb, goofy, and makes cosmic leaps in logic. Yet I find it impossible not to give Jingle All the Way at least one annual viewing towards Christmastime. It’s dumb fun. But the emphasis is on fun.
There are a number of good Christmas movies to watch around the holidays, but if you just want to have something you can have fun with and laugh at, Jingle All the Way has you covered.
I mean, how could you not be entertained by a movie that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger screaming the words “Put that cookie down! Now!”
Chapter 5: The Last One
I apologize that I once again have to cut my Christmas special short, chapter-wise (though the word count here is among my highest to date). Remember when I used to do eight chapters to these things? And that was not counting these ending parts which now are one of the numbered chapters. It’s kind of like how in Banjo-Kazooie, the final boss level was considered its own separate entity outside of the nine proper levels, but then Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Tooie included the final boss stage as part of their level count to try to hide the fact that they had less levels.
My point is that hopefully next year I can get started on my Christmas post earlier and do something extra special with it. I love Christmas. I made sure my site would celebrate its anniversary on Christmas Day for a reason (and not just because it would be easy to remember). So here’s hoping that I can eventually make these Christmas posts everything they should be.
At any rate, I hope you had a good time reading this. But more importantly, I hope you had a Merry Christmas, or happy Hannukah, or happy Kwanza! Happy everybody! Happy holidays to all!
I’ll see you in 2022… And by ‘see you’ I mean I’ll write some stuff here and maybe some people will stumble on it by sheer accident and decide to read it if they have nothing better to do.