The Adventures of Tintin Review

The Adventures of Tintin is based on the Belgian comic strips of the same name by Hergé, which have had a strong influence on pop culture adventures in the decades since their initial publication. In 1981, director Steven Spielberg became a fan of Tintin after a critic compared his film Raiders of the Lost Ark to the famed comic stip. Hergé himself – who disliked the Tintin adaptations during his lifetime – believed Spielberg was the only director that could do Tintin justice. It’s fitting then, that when The Adventures of Tintin finally received a major feature film in 2011, it was directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself. To add a cherry on top, Peter Jackson also had a prominent role with the film as a producer. Suffice to say, Tintin was getting some pretty special treatment.

Tintin would end up being the first animated film directed by Spielberg, as it utilized motion capture technology (though there’s an argument to be made as to how much a motion capture film counts as being animated). Tintin ended up garnering critical acclaim, earning favorable comparisons to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series.

The film begins when Tintin (Jamie Bell), a young journalist, spots a model ship – the Unicorn – at a market. No sooner does Tintin purchase the ship that he is approached by two separate individuals who want to buy it off him. The first man is in a hurry and warns Tintin to “get out while he still can” before Tintin refuses the offer. The second man, Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is more calm and collected, offering Tintin whatever he wants in exchange for the model of the Unicorn, but Tintin still refuses.

Now more curious than ever about the ship, Tintin takes the model home, only for it to be broken by his rambunctious dog Snowy, with an important piece getting lost in the commotion. Tintin’s apartment is later robbed, and the model ship stolen. Thankfully, the thieves couldn’t find the broken piece, which Snowy manages to uncover. This piece contains a small scroll, which promises to reveal the location of the real life Unicorn, and its unfathomable treasures, if the other pieces of the scroll are found.

This leads to a wild series of events for Tintin and Snowy, which sees them taking to land, sea and air in (and avoiding) almost every vehicle imaginable. They go to exotic lands, get into fistfights, and importantly, team up with a washed up sea captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis), who is a slave to the bottle. All the while trying to stay one step ahead of Sakharine and his men, who seek the fortune of the Unicorn for themselves, and are willing to do anything to get it.

The film is a lot of fun, and is one of those action-adventure movies that rarely gives the audience a moment to catch their breath. The Adventures of Tintin is one of those “BANG ZOOM!” rollercoaster type adventures that you rarely see much of anymore (perhaps even less so in the decade since Tintin’s release). I don’t think many would argue against the idea that The Adventures of Tintin is a more worthy successor to the 80s Indiana Jones trilogy than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ever was.

While the action and entertainment value may be consistently satisfying, the animation may be more of a mixed bag for some audiences. Although motion capture may work for visual effects characters in live-action movies, it hasn’t faired so well when using it as the basis for an entire animated film. Live-action films capture reality, animated films capture its essence by making their own reality. By trying to make animation look more real, motion capture films just end up looking artificial.

Thankfully, by the time Tintin rolled around, filmmakers seemed to have learned a bit since the days of the expressionless faces of The Polar Express. The characters here are heavily stylized (Sakharine kind of looks like an exaggerated version of Spielberg himself). They look like Hergés characters but with realistic skin and textures. The stylization certainly helps Tintin be less unintentionally creepy than previous motion capture films, although the ten years since the film’s release have revealed its visuals aren’t necessarily timeless, either. Some of the character’s movements can look stiff and awkward. Definitely an improvement over past efforts in motion capture, but even Tintin might look a little off to some viewers.

Still, I guess it plays all the more to the film’s benefit that The Adventures of Tintin is as fast paced and action packed as it is. You’ll be so swept away by the big set pieces that you likely won’t be thinking too deeply about the visuals while you’re watching the film, and can appreciate the overall look of it at face value.

Adding to the film’s entertainment value is its sense of humor. While Tintin may be aiming to look realistic, it embraces its animated side when it comes to comedy. Snowy being more competent and crafty than the humans, Captain Haddock often stumbling into a solution by sheer accident, things like that. And we even have a duo of bumbling police officers in Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg).

As the icing on the cake, The Adventures of Tintin features a great musical score courtesy of John Williams (this is a Spielberg film, after all). The music really sets the fun tone of the film right out of the gate.

On a more sour note, this film was initially to be the first in a planned trilogy of Tintin movies (the second would have swapped the director and producer roles for Spielberg and Peter Jackson, while a third film would have featured both filmmakers in both roles). But the Tintin sequels seem unlikely by this point. Spielberg and Jackson still bring them up from time to time, but it’s been ten years now. I guess I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

Still, the Tintin movie we did get is a whole lot of fun. The kind of movie you can easily rewatch again and again for the sheer joy of it. It was a visual spectacle upon release in 2011, perhaps less so now. But its sense of excitement and adventure is undeniable.

7

Venom: Let There be Carnage Review

Venom: Let There be Carnage is the awkwardly-titled sequel to 2018’s Venom. While Venom wasn’t among the better superhero movies of recent years, it at least made the smart choice of saving its titular anti-hero’s primary nemesis, Carnage, for the sequel. So with the setup of its protagonist out of the way and a proper villain ready and waiting, the Venom sequel had the potential to be a big improvement over its predecessor.

Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only does Carnage fall short of the first Venom film, but it even bungles its namesake villain’s big screen debut.

Set a year after the first movie, journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) has hit hard times: his ex-fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) is now engaged to someone else, his career is at a stand-still, and while the alien Symbiote Venom (voiced by Hardy) still resides in his body, the human/alien parasite duo have been laying low, due to Venom’s habit of “snacking on bad guy’s heads” leaving an accidental trail to their vigilantism.

The only break Brock can seem to get in his journalism are his interviews with death row inmate Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), with Kasady refusing to speak to anyone else. Eddie is trying to get information on Kasady’s missing victims, something that Venom manages to deduce by looking at the sketches on the wall of Kasady’s cell. Finding the missing bodies propels Eddie Brock’s career, which in turn causes a riff between him and Venom (the latter of which is desperate to eat bad guys again, having to settle for eating chickens for too long). During one last interview with Kasady, the deranged killer bites Eddie’s hand, and inadvertently gets a taste of Venom in addition to Eddie’s blood.

With their relationship strained, Eddie and Venom “break up,” with the alien Symbiote removing itself from Eddie’s body and hopping from host to host as to see the city (though seeing as none of these hosts are “perfect matches” for Venom, a number of them die as a result of being his host, which makes me wonder why I’m supposed to see Venom as a good guy). Meanwhile, Kasady’s earlier encounter with Eddie has produced a Symbiote spawn within Kasady’s body, which calls itself Carnage.

Carnage is basically a stronger version of Venom, and allows Kasady to break free just as he’s about to be executed. With a superpowered alien now inhabiting his body, the already dangerous Kasady can now commit any evil deed he so desires. Though that ultimately amounts to little more than breaking his longtime girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris) – who also goes by “Shriek” due to her supersonic screams – out of her own prison, and then setting up a makeshift wedding between the two.

Naturally, the only person (and Symbiote) capable of stopping Carnage is Venom. So Brock sets out to reunite with his gooey alien buddy in hopes to save the city.

And that’s it, really. There’s not much else to the plot other than that. I suppose I wasn’t expecting an extravagant storyline here, but I would have at least hoped that with a simple plot, the movie would flesh out the elements it does have. But it never does, with two key areas really falling short of their potential.

The first of those areas is the relationship between Eddie and Venom itself. Here the dynamic between Eddie and Venom is almost entirely comedic. The first movie played their relationship for laughs on a number of occasions, but Carnage plays up the “odd couple” aspect of Eddie and Venom’s relationship at the expense of everything else. And I have to ask, does every superhero have to be funny these days? Particularly someone like Venom, who was always an anti-hero anyway, isn’t he allowed to be a little more serious? Do we really have to see Venom perform a mic drop? What’s the point of a Venom movie if Venom is just going to act like any other superhero, exactly?

“There is a LOT of talk about chickens and chocolate in this movie.”

The other underwhelming aspect of the film is (somehow) Carnage himself. I don’t know, a serial killer possessed by an alien entity sounds pretty terrifying. It should write itself. Instead, Kasady and Carnage seem to have no clear goal here. And I don’t mean in a “mindlessly create mayhem and destruction just for the hell of it” kind of way. That would actually be a kind of goal for a character like this (Carnage is often seen as Marvel’s answer to the Joker). What I mean is that the movie has no real idea what it wants out of its villains. Kasady and Carnage basically make a deal to free Barrison so Kasady can marry her, and maybe they’ll kill Venom when they get around to it. Nothing more. They’re evil, they’re just not ambitious.

What’s worse, when you combine these elements with a short running time, Venom: Let There be Carnage just kind of zooms by. I suppose that’s a better alternative to a bad movie overstaying its welcome, but maybe with some more time, Carnage could have given us a reason to care about its story.

The whole picture feels like it’s missing something. More specifically, Let There be Carnage feels like it’s missing an entire second act. We have the setup with the “breakup” between Eddie and Venom, and the birth of Carnage, but then we basically go from there straight to the big finale. When Venom and Carnage came face-to-face, I expected that to simply be the first meeting between the two, which would lead to a bigger fight later on. A few minutes into the battle I realized there wasn’t going to be a round two before the movie was through. That was disappointing. If you’re going to drop the ball on the story in a movie like this, at least make up for it with an excess in action between the alien monsters.

I suppose on the plus side, Tom Hardy seems to be having a fun time (he also helped produce), and it’s a credit to him that he’s able to keep things afloat. Of course, this makes it all the more of a shame that the film is so hellbent on making Venom a funny character, because I think Hardy has more to offer to the role than what’s allowed.

There might be moments of fun here and there in Venom: Let There be Carnage, but the film fails to develop any of its pieces, and put them together into a meaningful whole. Venom himself has become something of a joke, Carnage is surprisingly underwhelming, and the film is absent of a proper middle act, with the two remaining acts feeling like they’re set on fast-forward.

The first Venom didn’t exactly set a high watermark to reach. Even still, Let There be Carnage is a disappointment.

4

My Month in Movies (September 2021)

Well, here’s something a little bit different. I had a pretty solid month in movie-watching this September (the month of my birthday!), so I figured I’d write something quick about it here.

I watched over twenty movies in September, which may not be a whole lot for some people, but for me (these days) it’s something. Quite an eclectic lot of movies too, I must say. A number of them I watched for the first time.

Despite the name of this post, I don’t think this will be a monthly thing (if it were, I should have started this a couple of years ago when I was watching movies more frequently), but I thought it’d be a fun thing to write for a change of pace, and maybe I’ll write more of these here and there in the future. We’ll see.

Here is the full list of movies I watched in September 2021 in order of viewing. Movies I watched for the first time will be marked with an asterisk.

Shan-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings*

Bright*

Speed*

Demolition Man

Superman (1978)

Lethal Weapon

The Rocketeer

Last Action Hero*

Lethal Weapon 2

The Fugitive*

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

TMNT (2007)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Jurassic Park

Tron

Speed 2: Cruise Control*

Citizen Kane

Goodfellas

Up

So yeah, quite the variety of movies. I like to think of myself as someone who can appreciate both Citizen Kane and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thank you very much.

Speaking of TMNT, as you probably guessed by this list, along with my recent review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters, I’m on a bit of a Ninja Turtles kick as of late (I can’t wait for that Shredder’s Revenge game next year). I actually reviewed all of the TMNT movies a few years back, but I feel like I have more to say about them. Maybe soon I’ll write an entire retrospective of the TMNT movies, and some other stuff about them as well.

Anyway, a number of the movies I have listed here that I haven’t reviewed, I would like to review some day. Some sooner than others, as I have a lot of things to say about the Speed movies, The Fugitive and Last Action Hero.

I also have to say, after watching the original Superman movie for the first time since I was a kid, I think THAT is how Superman should be depicted. I’ve grown something of a disdain for the character over the years, but I think that has more to do with the depictions of the character in the years since than it does the character himself. People are always trying to make Superman “cool” or “gritty,” or coming up with dumb ‘what if?’ scenarios like “what if Superman went bad?” and crap like that. A lot of what works for other comic book superheroes just doesn’t work for Superman. Keep him simple: a beacon of hope and optimism. The 1978 movie, despite some flaws, gets that so right. Just make Superman THAT.

Of course, there’s a lot to say about Citizen Kane and Goodfellas. Great movies, to be sure. However, if I’m being completely honest, the best film I watched last month was Up. I know, I’ve committed cinematic blasphemy by daring to say anything is better than Citizen Kane, and I’d be shunned by movie buffs by even suggesting that something could be better than the work of the movie buff man-god Martin Scorsese. Hey, I’m not saying Citizen Kane and Goodfellas are bad, just that I think Up is better. Of course, so much as suggesting such a thing – particularly of an animated film – would get me disgraced as a “serious” movie buff. Oh well, I’d rather enjoy movies than fit into some club.

It seems action movies were my overall flavor of the month for September . While most of the action movies I watched were good, the best of the lot has to be Speed. I can’t believe I had never watched it before.

I also watched some notable “technically revolutionary” films in Jurassic Park and Tron. Two truly pioneering movies that I’ll no doubt talk more about later. Speaking of Tron, I also watched The Rocketeer again. Like Tron, The Rocketeer deserves mention with the best live-action Disney movies, alongside the more obvious choices of Mary Poppins and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

I already reviewed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was also a lot of fun. My apologies to Mr. Scorsese that I watched a Marvel movie in the same month as one of his films. Or maybe he should apologize for being such a prude. That works too.

Best Movie I Watched All Month: Up

Still one of Pixar’s best films. Part of me is tempted to even say it’s the best Pixar film, but when I remember Inside Out, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Toy Story 2 (still the best Toy Story) it gets difficult to pick a definitive winner. But Up is probably in the top three at least. Still one of my favorite movies full-stop.

Sure, Citizen Kane and Goodfellas are classic films that have earned their acclaim: Citizen Kane is widely considered the greatest film of all time, and I can understand it being considered the best up until that point. Though if we’re being honest, it isn’t magically better than any other great movie to be released since, as critics would have you believe. It’s just kind of become that “safe pick” for critics, similar to what Ocarina of Time would become for video games. It’s great, but many other works are just as great. Meanwhile, Goodfellas is often hailed as one of the best films of the 1990s, and rightfully so. It’s also often considered to be Martin Scorsese’s best film. To that I say… yeah, it probably is.

My point though, is that I can appreciate Citizen Kane and Goodfellas as great, groundbreaking films. They make for great conversation and it’s fun to dissect and analyze them. But Up is the kind of film that really moves me. It makes me appreciate life and its little things more. It makes me want to be a better person. It makes me cry. No Citizen Kane or Goodfellas has affected me on that level. So Up gets the crown. Sorry/Not sorry.

Best Movie I Watched for the First Time this Month: Speed (The Fugitive being a close runner-up)

I’m not sure if it’s the numerous references to Speed made in the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, or my need for more Dennis Hopper in my life, but I finally decided to check Speed out. Boy, am I glad I did. It’s honestly one of the best pure action movies I’ve ever seen. It deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Terminator 2. It’s pure popcorn bliss.

Shame about Speed 2: Cruise Control. Talk about a dip in quality between a movie and its sequel. Woof. Very ouch.

The Fugitive is also a classic 90s film, released a year earlier than Speed. Though it’s more of a suspenseful thriller than pure action. A feature film remake of the 1960s television series, The Fugitive was actually a really big deal in 1993, but for some reason doesn’t get talked about much anymore. We need to fix that and start talking about it again.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Bright

Speed 2 may be a disappointing sequel, but it isn’t entirely without merit (there are a few brief moments of suspense, and Willem DaFoe is fun as the baddie, even if he’s not an equal to Dennis Hopper’s villain from the original). Bright, on the other hand… Whoo boy….

In case you’ve forgotten (hopefully you’ve forgotten?), Bright is that Netflix movie from a few years back starring Will Smith as an LAPD officer in a modern world filled with fantasy races and creatures, with Will Smith’s partner being an orc. It isn’t the worst concept ever, but I always wonder why Hollywood and the like are constantly trying to “reinvent” fantasy. Fantasy opens the door to literally any story, in a way that no other genre can. So why not use that to tell an original story, instead of trying to reinvent fantasy itself?

Anyway, Bright is from the same director as 2016’s Suicide Squad, and somehow makes that movie look like a joy by comparison. The social commentary – while perhaps well meaning at some early point – is so heavy handed and constant (and I mean constant), that it just comes across as trying way too hard. The movie may have had something with that if it knew how to dial it back a little, but instead its constant shouting of its themes make it seem like it’s trying desperately to be important.

Basically, it’s like a Niell Blomkamp movie. Only fantasy instead of sci-fi.

On top of that, we have action that isn’t really exciting, comedy that isn’t funny, and a wildly inconsistent tone (note to filmmakers: if you’re going to go into as dark of territory as having the villains in your film murder a family, don’t try to be a jokey buddy cop movie two minutes later. It just doesn’t work). It’s a messy, ugly, unpleasant movie.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

I genuinely love this movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not what you would call a “good” movie. It’s just that I don’t care. I’m having too much fun.

While none of the Ninja Turtles films would be considered fine cinema, I enjoy them greatly. As someone born during the boom of Turtlemania, I have a soft spot for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The first two films, in particular, are some of my earliest movie memories.

But Out of the Shadows is the Ninja Turtles movie I always wanted as a kid, but didn’t get until 2016. While the ugly character designs for the turtles are carried over from the (also enjoyable) 2014 movie, everything else is like the 1987 cartoon and the toys brought to life on the screen: It has Krang, it has Bebop and Rocksteady, it has Baxter Stockman, it brought back Casey Jones, it has the Technodrome, it has the theme song!

Due to Michael Bay being attached as producer, a lot of people seem to lump the 2014 and 2016 Ninja Turtles movies together with those awful, awful Transformers movies. They really don’t deserve that. The Transformers movies are bad. The Ninja Turtles reboot movies are fun. Dumb fun. But a whole lot of it!

It’s a shame Out of the Shadows was a box office bomb (which I once again attribute more to the Transformers/Michael Bay connection than the movie itself), because I feel like the series finally got on track to replicating the TMNT we all knew from the cartoons and video games, and could have had another fun sequel or two. But it was a dead end. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is now being rebooted (again) with two different movies (one animated, and a new live-action one), so it’s unfortunate that Out of the Shadows won’t have a proper follow-up. At the very least, please don’t recast Tyler Perry. He seemed to be having the time of his life as Baxter Stockman.

And there you go!

Again, hopefully I’ll be able to write about these movies more in-depth at some point, whether through reviews or other such write-ups. I already have so much more to say about some of them, that I really should get to those soon. And some of the movies I didn’t talk about as much here definitely deserve more love. We’ll see how quickly/slowly I get around to all of these.

September was definitely an enjoyable movie watching month for me. I’ll have to wait and see how October stacks up. If it does I may have to write another one of these (the fact that I already have my tickets to see Spirited Away – my favorite film – on the big screen is already a great sign). But please, don’t expect me to write these every month. I’m already backlogged with my video game reviews, I really should emphasize those for a while before I think about writing something else…

Hopefully you had a fun little read here. It was fun to write, and something a little different for me. So I hope you had a decently good time with this. At the very least, I gave you a place where you could read a little bit about Citizen Kane and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in one spot. I see this as an accomplishment.

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 Jötunheim, which is the source of an extraterrestrial experiment dubbed “Project Starfish.” So Waller sends in the Suicide Squad on a mission to destroy Jötunheim 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.

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Jungle Cruise Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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