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

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

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.

6

Space Jam: A New Legacy Review

It may have taken twenty-five years, but Space Jam finally has a sequel. Yes, the Looney Tunes are back on the basketball court in a high stakes game, this time starring LeBron James in place of Michael Jordan, for a more contemporary take on the concept. Though Space Jam: A New Legacy provides some zany fun and ironic entertainment, its profuse emphasis on Warner Brothers properties as a whole (as opposed to just the Looney Tunes) may prevent the film from being the Space Jam follow-up fans have been waiting two and a half decades for.

I guess, to be fair, the original 1996 Space Jam isn’t exactly what you would call a “good movie.” But it’s such a distinctly 90s absurdity that it has a certain appeal: It threw Michael Jordan – the most famous athlete in the world at the time – into a family comedy alongside the Looney Tunes. It was the kind of movie concept that no one seemed to question back in the 90s, but these days could only exist in the form of a nostalgic sequel to those times as evidenced by A New Legacy.

Interestingly, the original also seemed to add to the mystique of Michael Jordan himself. I’m not about to pretend that I know much about sports (I’m a nerd writing a blog about movies and video games, after all), but I do know that Michael Jordan is one of those rare individuals who seems to transcend their craft. Back when I was a kid during the days of the original Jam up to today, Michael Jordan has always been talked about as an almost mythic figure, and Space Jam leaned into that. Not only did it present Jordan as a kind of superhero who was needed to save the beloved cartoon characters, but the movie itself was basically a giant Michael Jordan vehicle. In particular, its soundtrack (specifically “I Believe I can Fly” and “Fly Like an Eagle”) feel more associated with Jordan than they do the film itself. Space Jam didn’t use Michael Jordan to sell itself, it used itself to promote Michael Jordan. Space Jam was effectively just a part of the Michael Jordan legend.

By contrast, Space Jam: A New Legacy kind of just recycles the original template, and features LeBron James as part of it. James is simply thrust into the events of this movie, as opposed to being its nexus. On the plus side, James is probably a better actor than Jordan.

The story here is that the very real LeBron James is having trouble connecting with his very fictional son Dom (Cedric Joe). LeBron wants his son to follow in his footsteps on the basketball court, while Dom wants to create video games. LeBron finds video games to be nothing but a distraction, with the film’s rather weak reasoning for this being that LeBron himself was briefly distracted by a Game Boy before a basketball game as a kid. But after his wife informs him that Dom has nearly finished creating his own game, LeBron starts to take interest in his son’s passion. Dom’s game is “Domball” a very video game-y take on basketball (so it’s basically NBA Jam). Though LeBron and Dom start to connect, a glitch crashes the game and ruins the moment. To cheer up his son, LeBron invites Dom to tag along to a “movie deal thing” with him the next day.

The movie deal is at Warner Bros., which the film is sure to tell us is the “studio behind all the classics” (I think Universal and Disney might have something to say about that). The studio has recently created the Warner Bros. “Serververse” using an AI called Al-G Rhythm (an already weak pun which is only undermined by the fact the movie uses the word algorithm about 50 times). Through an app called Warner 3000, people can use the Serververse to scan digital copies of themselves into the movies. Warner Bros. wants LeBron to be the spokesperson for the Serververse, but the basketball superstar shoots down the idea hard (needlessly hard, really). Though Dom shows that he might be interested in helping with the idea, and also lets it slip that he plans to attend “E3 Game Developer Camp” in the coming week, which naturally conflicts with the basketball camp that takes place at the same time (as we all know, basketball and video games are destined to conflict with each other). This causes LeBron and Dom to butt heads yet again.

Unbeknownst to everyone, Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) has developed self-awareness, and has taken offense to LeBron’s dismissal of his hard work. Al-G plans to use Dom’s interest in the Serververse to his advantage in his planned revenge on LeBron James. Al-G lures Dom to some high tech secret lab within Warner Bros. Studios (which I’m sure actually exists), and zaps the boy into the world of the Serververse, and LeBron soon afterwards. Al-G then challenges LeBron to a game of basketball. He gives LeBron a full day to find a team of Warner Bros. characters to compete against a team of his own. If LeBron wins, he and his son get to go home. If Al-G wins, LeBron is stuck in the Serververse forever (I guess as its mascot, since he didn’t like the idea of being its spokesperson).

Al-G of course intends to cheat, and plans on using Dom’s game design skills to generate a super team of overpowered characters. He gives LeBron a further disadvantage by dumping the basketball star in the Looney Tunes world of the Serververse, or the “land of the rejects” as Al-G calls it (which seems a bit weird, seeing as Al-G was created by Warner Bros. and the Looney Tunes are the studio’s iconic mascots. Can you imagine a Disney film calling Mickey and friends “rejects?”).

When LeBron lands in the Looney Tunes world (becoming a cartoon himself in the process), he soon learns that Bugs Bunny is the only Tune left, as Al-G separated the Tunes by promising them greater opportunities elsewhere in the Serververse. Bugs Bunny agrees to help LeBron in his quest to find a basketball team, and after hijacking Marvin the Martian’s spaceship, they set out into the Serververse to find the perfect dream team, though Bugs is using this as an excuse to reunite the Looney Tunes.

From here, much of the movie plays out like a big HBO Max commercial, with Bugs and LeBron travelling to the worlds of different Warner Bros. properties and extracting Looney Tunes from them. To be fair, there is some fun to be had here: Having the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote superimposed into Mad Max: Fury Road just feels right. And while an Austin Powers reference may not be most timeless, I’d be lying if I said seeing Elmer Fudd playing the role of Mini-Me didn’t put a smile on my face.

In a way, Space Jam: A New Legacy kind of reminds me of Ralph Breaks the Internet, the unfortunately-titled but otherwise pretty great sequel to Wreck-It Ralph. Though that movie had some fun showcasing different Disney properties, it never lost sight of telling its own story. A New Legacy doesn’t possess that restraint, and instead devolves into one cameo after another just for the hell of it, and the whole “Looney Tunes team up with an NBA star” concept of the series kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Did the world really need another Matrix reference? And I could live a full and happy life never seeing Rick and Morty ever again.

It all just becomes too much. The idea of using Space Jam as a means of a big Roger Rabbit-style crossover of Warner Bros. properties isn’t a terrible idea in concept, and it could have been fun if it played out like a loving tribute to the history of the studio. But the movie becomes so engrossed in the cameos and name drops that it loses the whole “Space Jam” aspect after a while. The film doesn’t even do anything really substantial with the properties, even missing the opportunity to use Warner Bros. villains for Al-G’s team, which would have at least been a more meaningful usage of these characters than simply having them cheer in the audience of the climactic game, which is what the film does end up doing (though respect to the guy giving it his all with his Arnold Schwarzenegger Mr. Freeze impression, complete with the character’s bathrobe from Batman & Robin).

The villains we do get here are the “Goon Squad,” a team of monster-ized versions of basketball players created by Al-G using Dom’s video game and its scanning technology. They include a naga, a birdman, a spider, a water/fire hybrid, and Dom himself, whom Al-G has been manipulating with flattery (and who doesn’t know his father’s freedom is on the line). Although I’m sure some won’t like the CG garishness of them, I do appreciate that the film makes its villains very distinct from those of its predecessor.

Speaking of CG garishness, it should also be pointed out that during the big game in the film’s third act, the Looney Tunes get a CG makeover. I don’t want to sound like one of those people who needlessly complains about CG, but I do have to say it is a little bit of a disappointment that we only get to see either traditionally animated Looney Tunes interacting with a traditionally animated LeBron James, or CG Looney Tunes interacting with real life LeBron James. In this day and age when live-action and traditional animation no longer share the screen together, shouldn’t the Space Jam sequel, of all movies, have been the primed opportunity to bring that idea back? If anything, it would have made the movie standout from a visual perspective in 2021.

Another weird thing about the movie is that the big basketball game at the end isn’t actually basketball. It’s Domball. As in, the video game that LeBron James’ fictional son created. I suppose no one is watching a Space Jam movie for a legit basketball game, and the 1996 film saw the Looney Tunes perform their usual antics within the game (which should surely constitute cheating), so I guess it isn’t a big deal. But Domball is so loose with its rules – which are seemingly made up as they go – that it does take something away from the film’s finale. You kind of have to understand the rules of a game before you can feel the tension in it.

One of the big issues with A New Legacy is its lack of a memorable soundtrack. I can still remember as a kid, how inescapable the soundtrack to the original film was. I mentioned how the soundtrack to the 1996 film added to the ‘legend’ of Michael Jordan. But there’s really nothing here that does the same for LeBron James. Even as I’m writing this, I can’t remember any of the songs or music from the film. The soundtrack doesn’t do anything for the film or for LeBron.

Still, as negative as I’m being in regards to Space Jam: A New Legacy, I have to admit I was entertained at times. LeBron James, like Michael Jordan in the original, has an inexplicable charisma as a movie star, despite not being one in the traditional sense (with LeBron getting extra points for landing the comedy). The movie has some jokes that work, a number of the Looney Tunes get their moment to shine in the big game, and Don Cheadle seems to be having a good time hamming it up as the villain. It’s a fun movie when it wants to be.

The problem with A New Legacy is that its place as a Space Jam sequel can really get drowned out with all the other movies going on around it. The references (and straight-up recreations) of other movies is fun for a while, but they end up feeling like padding after a point. Much like the original movie, it seems like there wasn’t much to the script other than the basic premise. So in between LeBron meeting Bugs Bunny and the big game at the end, the film throws in as many of these other movies as it can as to stretch out the running time. Maybe a little more time dedicated to the main plot could have helped make this a legitimately good Space Jam movie (and filled in some of the gaps in the plot, like why Al-G wanted to separate the Tunes in the first place). As it is, Space Jam: A New Legacy might scratch the itch for a goofy good time in the same vein as the original, though it’s so similar to the first movie in premise, and so busy showing off other movies, that it can’t quite create a charm of its own.

5

Marvel’s Black Widow Review

The old saying “better late than never” gets thrown around a lot, but it is very appropriate when talking about Marvel’s Black Widow, which finally give’s Scarlett Johansson’s titular character her long overdue solo film despite being one of the original big screen Avengers. Though you could also argue that Black Widow’s starring role has come too late in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Johansson’s Black Widow debuted in 2010’s Iron Man 2, a year before Thor and Captain America even joined in the proceedings. Though she was a secondary character, and marketed mostly for her sex appeal back then, Black Widow quickly grew into one of the MCU’s more complicated characters. Taken from a young age, brainwashed, and trained as a KGB spy under the “Red Room,” Natasha Romanoff (AKA “Black Widow”) would later gain her freedom and dedicate her life to saving the world, as a means to redeem her tragic past. She would eventually become an Avenger, no less (one of the original six, as far as the MCU is concerned).

Despite not getting her own movie until now, Romanoff had one of the more fleshed-out backstories of the MCU, up there with Iron Man and Captain America themselves. While the MCU hasn’t always done right by Johansson’s character (that forced romance with Bruce Banner that came out of nowhere in Age of Ultron comes to mind), she remained a fan favorite all throughout. And with years of rumblings of a Black Widow solo film, it makes it all the weirder that such a film is only happening now.

As of Avengers: Endgame, Romanoff’s story in the MCU – like many of the original Avengers – is over. As such, Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, so I guess it counts as a prequel at this point in the MCU. So here we are, after eleven years, and Black Widow’s long-awaited first solo film is also her last, which seems woefully unfair to the character and to Johansson. I would have enjoyed a series of Black Widow movies.

Still, while a Black Widow movie should have happened sooner, I guess one Black Widow film that serves as Johansson’s farewell to the MCU is better than no Black Widow movie at all. Though the film has its issues, it’s a fittingly entertaining installment in Marvel’s mega-franchise that does give its titular character some additional closure.

Black Widow gives Romanoff that closure by means of finally having her confront the Red Room, the organization responsible for robbing her – and many other women – of their lives by turning them into child assassins (or “Black Widows”). So we finally get to see Natasha Romanoff get some much-desired recompense.

Here we delve even further into Romanoff’s backstory, and learn that, for three years during her childhood, she was part of a family. Well, a fabricated family that was a front by the Red Room. The real identities of her “parents” are Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a Red Room spy and former Black Widow; and Alexei Shostokov (David Harbour), Russia’s only super soldier, the “Red Guardian,” and thus their answer to Captain America (with whom Alexei claims to have a long-standing rivalry). Meanwhile, Natasha’s younger ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) is destined to become another Black Widow.

Once Alexei finished his undercover mission in America, the ‘family’ was broken up, and the sisters separated. While Natasha was forced back into her old cycle of training and brainwashing, things were taken further with Yelena, who became one of the Red Room’s test subjects of full-on mind control. So while Natasha was eventually able to break free, Yelena didn’t have that ability.

Fast forward to the present (of this particular movie), and things take a turn for Yelena when one of her targets exposes her to a substance called Red Dust, which cures her from her mind control, and she then defects from the Red Room. Taking the remaining Red Dust, Yelena sends it to Natasha, hoping the now-Avenger can help her free the other Black Widows from the Red Room’s control.

Naturally, the Red Room is on Natasha and Yelena’s trail, sending its soldiers after the duo, not least of which being the Taskmaster; a mysterious, masked foe. So the two Black Widows will need allies to take down the Red Room and its leader, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Keeping in mind that this film takes place after Captain America: Civil War, Natasha is part of the group of Avengers who are now fugitives from the law (some are already in custody, others are in hiding). So she can’t just call for backup here. But perhaps she can reunite her old “family” for help?

Admittedly, the film treads a lot of familiar ground for the MCU, especially echoing the Captain America sequels, which Johansson’s character is already strongly associated with. The entire “mind-controlled soldiers” idea is very Winter Soldier-esque. And with David Harbour’s character literally being the Russian equivalent of Captain America, you really can’t escape the similarities. On the plus side, the Captain America sequels are highly regarded as some of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Black Widow is at least aiming high with which past entries it emulates.

Black Widow has some strong themes it wants to convey, though they may get a bit lost in the shuffle at times. It’s obviously dealing with many of the same ideas of freedom that the aforementioned Captain America films also dealt with. And it probably won’t be lost on anyone that it’s a man pulling the strings of mind-controlled female assassins (the film makes sure Winstone’s Dreykov is the kind of villain you can’t wait to see get his ass kicked).

Where the film really delivers is in its action scenes. The set pieces of Black Widow feel more akin to those of the recent Mission: Impossible films than the usual MCU fare. Although Black Widow can’t quite reach the heights of the recent Mission: Impossible outings (admittedly a very high mark), the action sequences here are similarly satisfying.

Perhaps the best aspect of Black Widow are the characters themselves. Natasha has been one of the MCU’s mainstays due in large part to being one of its most beloved characters, and Black Widow is a great way to finally focus on her as a character (though sadly also reminding us that this all should have happened much sooner). Yelena is every bit her equal, not just in combat skills but also as a character, showing a strength and depth that should make her one of Marvel’s primary heroes going forward (don’t wait a decade to give her her own movie!). And Alexei is part huggable bear, part dumb lummox; his fabricated family being just another mission to him, but he slowly begins to realize what his ‘daughters’ really mean to him. Melina may be something of the odd woman out in regards to screen time, but I think her character shows enough promise that she can be expanded on in future movies.

“The fact that Chris Evans’ Captain America never shared the screen with David Harbour’s Red Guardian breaks my heart.”

Sadly, the Marvel villain curse rears its head once again in Black Widow. It’s weird how the MCU has done a (mostly) wonderful job in regards to bringing Marvel’s comic book heroes to life, but its villains haven’t been anywhere near as consistent. People remember Thanos and Loki, of course. And some other villains have received quieter acclaim (Michael Keaton’s Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming really deserves more praise). But many of the MCU’s villains either mimic the heroes too closely, are too underutilized, or fall back on a disappointing twist.

Though I mentioned Dreykov is effective in making the audience hate him, he falls under the ‘underutilized’ category, only really getting a few short minutes of screen time. Meanwhile, Taskmaster falls under the ‘plot twist’ category, with a reveal that ends up feeling as underwhelming as it does pointless. With a stronger villain scenario, Black Widow may have kicked things into a whole other gear.

Black Widow is one of the smaller-scale films the MCU has seen in recent times (‘smaller’ being a very relative term in regards to the MCU). But that’s kind of what I like about it. Just because the Avengers have saved the universe by this point doesn’t mean all of their adventures have to be taken to such extremes. A big super hero romp can still be a great time even if the stakes are smaller and more personal. Though I suppose it’s all the more of a shame that over on Disney+ we have the obnoxiously apathetic Loki beating us over the head with the idea that nothing in the MCU matters compared to Loki’s wacky shenanigans through space and time. But let’s ignore that show for now (please) and appreciate that Black Widow can make a ‘smaller’ story in the MCU still feel important to it, even after all the places it’s been.

The unavoidable dark cloud when it comes to Black Widow, however, is simply that it should have happened years ago. For all the entertainment it provides, Black Widow can’t help but feel like too little, too late. For this movie to finally happen only after Natasha Romanoff’s story has ended and Scarlett Johansson is leaving the MCU behind her feels deflating, and the movie gives off a “contractual obligation” vibe as a result.

Black Widow gives us some great action set pieces, a good story, and Florence Pugh and David Harbour are great additions to the MCU that hopefully we’ll see a lot more of. It may be a fitting sendoff for Johansson’s agent Romanoff, but it probably shouldn’t have been a sendoff in the first place.

6

Early Man Review

Aardman is one of the most beloved animation studios around. Their lighthearted stop-motion creations have captured the hearts of audiences around the world. At the heart of Aardman’s popularity is animator Nick Park, who created and directed all of the Wallace & Gromit films, in addition to directing Chicken Run and creating Shaun the Sheep. There’s probably only a handful of animators out there who have reached a similar level in both popularity and acclaim.

In 2018, Park directed Early Man, his first time in the director’s chair since the 2009 Wallace & Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, and his first full-length feature since Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005. With a pretty much unblemished record under Park’s belt up to that point, there was a good deal of anticipation surrounding Early Man before its release. That’s why it’s so disheartening that the final film is notably underwhelming.

To be fair, Early Man isn’t an outright bad movie, and the sheer herculean craftsmanship that Aardman puts into its plasticine creations always deserve praise. It’s just that the film ultimately ends up being just kind of okay, and unfortunately forgettable. And this coming from the creator of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep? That kind of hurts.

As the title implies, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, where a tribe of cavemen live in a lush, green valley… surrounded by a volcanic wasteland. The tribe’s chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) leads his people in a simple life of rabbit hunting. But a young man in the tribe named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) wishes the tribe would branch out a bit and be more adventurous.

One day, out of the blue, a tribe of invaders – unlike any that Dug and his people have seen- make camp in the valley. These invaders come from beyond the wastelands, and have advanced into the Bronze Age while time left Dug and his people in the Stone Age. The invaders, lead by the greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), have come to dig up the land in search of more bronze, unflinching to the plight they’re creating to Dug and his people.

Dug soon infiltrates the Bronze Aged people, and learns that much of their culture is built around football (or soccer, as us Americans call it, even though the soccer-type of football is the type of football where the player’s actually use their feet). When it looks like his people are going to be banished to live in the dangers of the wastelands, Dug makes a deal with Lord Nooth: his tribe will take on the Bronze people’s team in a game of football. If the cavemen win, they get to keep their valley. But if Nooth’s team wins, the cave people will be forced to slave away in a bronze mine for the rest of their lives (that’s a bit of a careless bet on Dug’s part, though he doesn’t quite seem to understand what that means when he makes the deal).

And so the stage is set for the cavemen to get an understanding of football so that they might have a fighting chance to keep their valley. Thankfully for them, a young woman of the bronze people named Goona (Maisie Williams) – who knows the game well but can’t play for her own tribe as Lord Nooth doesn’t allow girls to play – has sympathy for the cavemen’s plight, and wishes to join them and teach them the ins and outs of the game.

If you’re at all thrown off by the sudden emphasis of football (or soccer or whatever you want to call it) in a movie about cavepeople, well, you’re not alone. When the film was released, no one really expected this to be a sports movie (that aspect was completely omitted from its advertisements, at least in America). I mean, an animated sports picture that just so happens to take place in prehistoric times isn’t the worst idea out there. And to be fair, Early Man introduces the sport in its opening scene, with the ancestors of Dug’s people inadvertently inventing the game by kicking a recently-crashed meteorite, so it isn’t entirely out of the blue. But the sports aspect of the film seems to completely engulf everything else after a while, making the film’s prehistoric setting feel like a missed opportunity.

There is some fun to be had with Early Man: There’s the occasional joke that sticks the landing and brings a good laugh, the voice work is great (Hiddleston is a particular highlight, making Lord Nooth a snobby Frenchman), and of course, the painstaking work that goes into animating any stop-motion film – especially those with the attention to detail of Aardman – is always commendable. But by the time Early Man reaches its end you can’t help but feel like it could have, and should have, been more. Some of Nick Park’s shorts are ranked among the most acclaimed animated films of all time, while Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were similarly praised as feature films. So for Nick Park’s third feature – and his comeback after a such a lengthy absence – to end up being just kind of okay is a stinging disappointment.

I do have to stress that Early Man is not a bad movie, but it falls short of many of Aardman’s other works, and considerably short of those that had Nick Park at the helm. It’s a visually pleasing, lighthearted entertainment. But this is one instance in which Aardman’s craftsmanship can only take them so far.

5

Space Jam Review

Space Jam is quite possibly the most “90s” movie ever made. Not that I’m saying it’s one of the definitive films of the 1990s, but it perhaps best sums up how outright bonkers movies in the 1990s could be. Known equally for the absurdity of its premise as it is the fact that its original website still remains intact today (only recently being updated for the first time in twenty-five years to feature the trailer for its upcoming nostalgia-fueled sequel), Space Jam is nothing short of a 90s fever dream of a movie.

Trying to summarize the 1996 film sounds like you’re just pulling a bunch of random names and words out of a hat… which may in fact be how the film was made to begin with, come to think of it.

The story revolves around NBA icon Michael Jordan, and how he’s pulled out of retirement by the Looney Tunes (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the whole gang) to help the cartoon characters win a basketball game to prevent them from being enslaved by an alien amusement park in space. If you didn’t grow up watching it, that probably sounds like the weirdest idea for a movie ever. In fact, it may sound that way even if you did grow up watching it.

Yes, Space Jam was one of those live-action/animation hybrid movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though that’s about as far as the comparison with a genuine movie miracle like Roger Rabbit should go. Space Jam is a nostalgic favorite for 90s kids, but it isn’t really what I would call a good movie, though it may still be worth a watch for the sheer absurdity of it all.

The movie was a big deal in the 1990s for a number of reasons: partly because it was Michael Jordan’s acting debut, and also because it was a big cinematic return for the Looney Tunes. Though whoever the hell decided those two things should be combined must have been some kind of madman. But I do remember the merchandising and advertisements were everywhere back in the day.

To elaborate a little more on the plot, the story takes place during the time Michael Jordan had retired from basketball and became a baseball player. He’s having trouble adapting to his new career, and feeling out of place. So things start off as a kind of fictionalized biopic. And then we travel to the far reaches of space, where a cartoon amusement park called Moron Mountain is losing business (maybe giving a theme park a name that insults its guests wasn’t the best idea). The boss of the amusement park – a fat, goblin-like alien named Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito, because of course) – wants a new attraction that will bring crowds back to Moron Mountain. At that very moment, Swackhammer’s colorful lackeys happen to be watching Looney Tunes cartoons, and Swackhammer decides the Looney Tunes will be Moron Mountain’s new star attraction. So he sends his goons (diminutive creatures called Nerdlucks) to Earth to kidnap the Looney Tunes. Yes, this is the same movie as the Michael Jordan story.

When the Nerdlucks manage to find the home of the Looney Tunes (which is apparently at the center of the Earth, I guess), Bugs Bunny tricks the aliens into thinking the Looney Tunes are required a chance to defend themselves in a friendly competition before they can be enslaved (with the Tunes picking the competition, since their freedom is at stake). With the Nerdlucks being such small creatures, the Looney Tunes choose basketball as the deciding competition, figuring it will give them an easy win.

“The Nerdlucks steal the talent of the basketball players by turning into purple goo, entering the bodies of said basketball players, then entering a basketball, and then later touching the same basketball. Huh…”

Things look good for the Looney Tunes, but the aliens have a trick up their sleeve. Travelling to the surface world, the Nerdlucks steal the talent from basketball greats of the time: Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Patrick Ewing. And thus, the pintsize Nerdlucks transform into the hulking Monstars! This puts the freedom of the Looney Tunes in severe jeopardy, so the Looney Tunes do what any reasonable person in a crises would do: kidnap Michael Jordan through a golf hole! Duh!

It only takes a couple of short minutes for Michael Jordan to be convinced the Looney Tunes are real, and only a few more for him to agree to help them in their basketball game. And so the stage is set.

Oh yeah, and Bill Murray shows up as himself sporadically for some reason (an element which the film itself makes fun of later on). Also Wayne Knight is in the movie as Stan Podolak, a publicist who wants nothing more than to please Michael Jordan, and is strangely the only person who seems concerned when the NBA legend goes missing.

Do you need a minute to take all that in? I don’t blame you if you do. To be fair, the movie is entertaining in its own way, and the enjoyment isn’t always ironic: there’s some good Looney Tunes humor to be had, the blending of live-action and animation is among the better post-Roger Rabbit examples of the sub-genre, and Michael Jordan’s acting is actually pretty decent, considering he was an athlete with no acting experience at the time. The film’s soundtrack was well received (particularly “I Believe I can Fly” and “Fly Like an Eagle”). And Wayne Knight is a highlight of the film whose comedy bits might just outdo the Looney Tunes themselves (but then again, when isn’t Wayne Knight a highlight?).

“Sweet mother of God!”

So I don’t dislike Space Jam, but it is more of a hodge podge of random elements strewn together in a mad frenzy than it is a good movie. This is evidenced by the sporadic pacing of the picture, with a number of what should be key scenes just flying by. An example of this is the aforementioned moment when Michael Jordan meets the Looney Tunes. “You’re a cartoon, you’re not real” Jordan tells Bugs, before the famous bunny proves how real he is by giving Jordan a massive smooch, which is apparently all it takes for Michael Jordan to completely accept this alternate cartoon reality and not question any of it ever again. And when we finally get to the big game, it just kind of suddenly happens with little build. Really, the only thing of note that happens in between Michael Jordan meeting Bugs and the big game with the Monstars is when Bugs and Daffy travel to the surface world to retrieve Michael Jordan’s basketball gear from his house, which kind of tells you how little there was to the plot outside of the key premise (though the subplots with Stan Podolak digging to find Michael Jordan and the NBA players with stolen talent no longer being able to play basketball are kind of fun). But if all you’re looking for is some 1990s insanity, you could do a lot worse than Space Jam.

Space Jam has had something of a lasting legacy: it introduced Lola Bunny to the Looney Tunes franchise, I Believe I can Fly became one of those rare movie songs that took on a life of its own, and that damn website just won’t die. But like the film itself, Space Jam’s legacy is comprised of assorted bits and pieces, as opposed to a truly memorable whole.

5