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.

4

Shazam! Review

Shazam! is a pleasant surprise. While the DC Extended Universe has been a bit of a mess – trying to play catch up with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe too quickly and filled with movies who think forced brooding and edginess equate to maturity – Shazam! takes a step back, looks at the current state of the super hero genre, and happily takes it back to its more innocent early years. In a time when even Marvel’s films are becoming more and more serious (though they have actually earned their more mature tone after years of growing, and still understand that being ‘serious’ doesn’t have to come at the expense of fun), it’s fun to see a movie like Shazam! embrace the sillier side of comic book super heroes.

Formerly known as Captain Marvel (yeah, it’s a little confusing, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now), Shazam is actually one of the oldest comic book super heroes. And yet, he’s remained relatively obscure, never reaching the mainstream heights of Superman, Batman or Marvel’s Spider-Man. Hopefully this movie can change that, and do to Shazam! what 2008’s Iron Man did for its titular super hero, and turn its subject into a mainstream attraction.

It’s a wonder why Shazam has remained in Superman’s shadow. The origin story of this hero is at once simple and earnest, and something of a parody of super hero conventions (which it did long before parodying super hero conventions was a thing). Most super heroes are born with their powers (like Superman or the X-Men), gain them through freak accidents (the Incredible Hulk) or make them through their own skillsets (like Batman and Iron Man), and have duel identities of hero and civilian. Shazam, meanwhile, is a kid who transforms into an adult superhero by the magic gifted to him by a wizard.

It’s a beautifully simplistic origin story, really. And I kind of wish more comic book authors would have looked to it for inspiration over many of the more convoluted super hero origins that became the norm.

The kid in question is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan who has bounced around from one foster home to the next, often running away on his own volition. Billy eventually finds himself in another foster home, where he becomes foster brothers with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled super hero fan who quickly becomes Billy’s best friend, despite their differing personalities.

Meanwhile, in another dimension, an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) has been keeping seven demons (named after the Seven Deadly Sins) imprisoned with his power for centuries. But Shazam’s body is succumbing to age, and his seal on the demons is withering along with his body. Shazam has thus been seeking an heir to inherit his immense magical power, both to keep the demons sealed away, and to protect the mortal world from any other supernatural threats. After his fellow wizards put their faith on a successor that went rogue long ago, Shazam sought to find the perfect heir.

Shazam’s spells had found him many candidates through the years, but all of them failed his tests of character in one way or another. So he continued his duty despite his weakening seal on the demons. One of these failed heirs, however, became obsessed with discovering the way back to Shazam’s dimension. Naturally, this individual became an evil genius, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). After Sivana discovers a portal to Shazam’s realm some decades later, he takes revenge on the wizard by taking the power of the demons, which he plans on unleashing on the Earth for his own nefarious gains.

With no more time to lose in his misguided quest for a ‘perfect’ candidate, Shazam changes course to find the best possible candidate in the time he has left. And when Billy displays his strength of character by standing up to some bullies who were harassing Freddy, he is summoned to Shazam’s chambers to inherit the wizards unfathomable power, which he can call upon at any time by saying the sorcerer’s name.

In place of merely possessing the wizard’s abilities, Billy is transformed into an adult super hero (Zachary Levi) whenever he utters Shazam’s name (and reverts back to his normal self whenever he says it in his hero form). Not knowing what to do with his newfound power, Billy seeks the aide of Freddie’s extensive knowledge of super heroes to discover the true extent of his abilities.

The premise itself is just so much fun. I make no secret my disdain for Superman, a character who can essentially outdo every other DC hero at their own game, and does so with a holier-than-thou disposition. But here we have a hero who is just as powerful as Superman (more so in some continuities), but has the carefree, irresponsible and sarcastic attitude of a kid. While Superman often seems to look down on “lesser” beings, Shazam is likely to be as surprised and amazed by his own powers as everyone around him. Superman is so often treated as a perfect beacon of heroism, but is actually kind of arrogant and condescending. Shazam, on the other hand, is recognized as having flaws despite his power, and has to learn and grow because of his faults, making him a far more compelling character.

Yeah, I’m going on about the contrasts between Shazam and ol’ Supes. But I find that Shazam as a character is essentially a better and more lighthearted version of the Man of Steel. I’m happy that this movie might make more people recognize the character of Shazam after being left out of the mainstream for so long.

And yes, the film Shazam! fully embraces the silly nature of the character. This is one of the funniest super hero films in recent memory. While the majority of the DCEU has been bogged down by its “edgelord” mentality, and the MCU has grown more serious as it reaches its crescendo, Shazam! is a delightful break from brooding that tells a good story, and has a whole lot of fun with it.

That’s not to say the film lacks seriousness. On the contrary, the character development feels organic, and the emotional moments feel rightly earned. Shazam! is a super hero film that understands you can laugh at the material without making itself a joke. The acting is similarly well done, with Angel, Grazer and Levi all giving memorable performances that add to both the film’s story and its sense of humor.

Unfortunately, Shazam does make a few missteps with its pacing. A number of key story moments come off as rushed, while other, less important moments can linger at times. In one notable example, the first scene we meet the adult Dr. Sivana and learn of his quest to return to Shazam’s dimension…is also the the scene in which Dr. Sivana discovers his way back to Shazam’s dimension. The film’s opening scene (which depicts a young Sivana who fails Shazam’s test) gives us a good understanding of the character’s motivation, but it’s a shame that when we’re re-introduced to the character in his proper villainous state, we kind of get rushed through his ambitions.

Still, whatever pacing issues the film may have ultimately can’t detract from Shazam!’s entertainment value. Shazam! is a film that rewinds the clock back a bit, to a time when super hero films were a bit lighter and more breezy, but still treats its story with respect and dignity. Shazam! is a funny and surprisingly thoughtful movie that delivers on its poignant moments almost as often as it does its comedic ones (the relationship between Billy and Freddy is a refreshingly original dynamic for a super hero film). It’s certainly the best DCEU film so far, and one of 2019’s most charming movies.

And yes, I think Shazam would totally beat Superman in a fight.

 

7

Justice League Review

*This review contains some spoilers, but nothing that wasn’t obvious already, really.*

You know what? I hate Superman. There, I said it.  I hate Superman, and watching Justice League reminded me exactly why I hate him. Despite being named after a team of super heroes, Justice League goes out of its way to display just how useless the rest of the team is compared to Superman alone. His super strength is stronger than Wonder Woman’s, his super speed is faster than Flash’s; plus he can fly, lift buildings, has heat vision, ice breath, and is basically indestructible. In one scene, he nonchalantly throws Batman to the side as if he’s garbage. I hate that Superman can just do anything. I hate that he makes infinitely better super heroes look like nothing by comparison. I simply, flat-out can not stand Superman.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the rest of Justice League.

Since its inception with Man of Steel in 2013, the DC Extended Universe has been a shallow attempt at recreating what Marvel has done with its Cinematic Universe. While the MCU wisely took its time in bringing its different super heroes together, the DCEU seemed to be in a desperate game of catch-up, rushing the crossover aspects together with its beyond-muddled second entry, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The DCEU has become so needy in its desires to replicate what Marvel has accomplished, that it seems to consistently forget to make coherent movies and strong characters to justify its extended universe.

But then, earlier in 2017, we had a glimmer of hope in the form of Wonder Woman. There was a movie that told a simple super hero origin story, but had a main character who was likable and fleshed out, not to mention it actually seemed to understand human emotion. Surely Wonder Woman signified a turn for the better for the DCEU? Surely these movies would learn from past mistakes and take notes from what made Wonder Woman work?

Nope. Here comes Justice League to undo all of that goodwill Wonder Woman established.

In all fairness, Justice League isn’t as much of a disaster as Batman V. Superman, nor is it as boring as Man of Steel. But it’s still a clunky, over-bloated movie that lacks focus and, even more disappointing, lacks any heart. It wants so desperately to be on the same boat as the MCU with its shared universe, but also makes the shared universe concept feel pointless with how insignificant everyone else feels compared to Superman. If one team member can take out all the others without breaking a sweat, why should we care that there’s a team at all?

Basically, the story here is that a being from another world named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) invades Earth looking for the three lost “Mother Boxes” which, when combined, can destroy a planet or something. And so with Superman dead after the events of Batman V. Superman, Batman tries to form the Justice League to defeat this otherworldly threat…before completely giving up on the idea and deciding to use a Mother Box to resurrect ol’ Supes because everyone is useless compared to him.

“Steppenwolf makes me miss the villains of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Yes, he’s THAT bad of a character.”

In all honesty, Steppenwolf is very likely the most boring, uninteresting villain in super hero movie history. I’m not exaggerating. Ciaran Hinds’ acting abilities are entirely lost on a character who is written without the tiniest shred of depth or motivation. So much as calling him a placeholder villain is giving him too much credit. I don’t even think he has a line of dialogue that isn’t about destruction or obtaining a Mother Box (which may as well just be called Macguffins). He’s an absolute non-entity. Perhaps worst of all, he’s a CG character who is entirely unconvincing. Every time he fights with the heroes, it looks like the Justice League is grappling with a PS3 monster.

Speaking of bad visual effects, Justice League is full of them. This is a movie aiming to be a big blockbuster, but one which appears the studios behind it didn’t have enough faith to put the extra funding into it.

The CG used to hide actor Henry Cavill’s mustache has already obtained internet infamy, and with good reason. It’s downright distracting. Apparently, Cavill has an obligation to another role that requires a mustache, so he couldn’t shave it. So the filmmakers just decided to CG the area in between his nose and upper lip, and it looks as weird as it sounds. Might I suggest a better option would have been to give Superman a mustache? Sure, Superman isn’t known for having facial hair, but with how often comic books – the origins of these characters – retell, retcon and flat-out ignore certain continuities, is adding a mustache to Superman really so out of the question? I mean, come on, you’re resurrecting the dude with a magic box, but a mustache? That’s just too far. Hell, if Superman had a Tom Sellick ‘stache going on I might actually like him (slightly) more. At the very least, it would be less distracting to see Henry Cavill’s actual mustache than to have a CG band-aid over it.

“Can somebody please get this bad CG off me?!”

The unholy trinity of bad visual effects in Justice League is capped off with Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a member of the Justice League whose mostly robotic body clashes obnoxiously with the human side of his face. It just looks really bad. I mentioned PS3 graphics earlier, but now I’m starting to feel like that was maybe a bit insulting to the PS3. I would much rather look at a ten-year old PS3 game than Steppenwolf’s ugly mug or Cyborg’s…visual awkwardness.

To be fair, not everything is outright horrible in Justice League. On the bright side of things, Gal Gadot returns as Wonder Woman, and is as charming as ever. Aquaman is portrayed by Jason Momoa, and actually seems to be into the character. Some of the action scenes are also decently successful in creating excitement, and unlike the oppressive “edginess and grit” of Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman, Justice League at least tries to lighten the mood at times. Sure, not all of the humor works – with the antics of the Flash (Ezra Miller) growing more exhausting as the film goes on – but I’ll take the attempt at fun over the forced brooding of Batman V. Superman any day.

Despite those few highlights, it’s hard to recommend Justice League. Even Ben Affleck’s take on Batman – one of the few positive qualities of Batman V. Superman – seems lackluster this time around, as though Affleck no longer cares following Batman V. Superman’s reception. The characters are one-dimensional, the plot is beyond thin, the pacing is cluttered and all over the place, it’s riddled with bad dialogue, and for a movie that needed to rely heavily on special effects, the effects in question are just really bad.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the seemingly pointless elements of the movie. A good example of this is the opening of the movie itself, which is presented as a video of Superman recorded by a couple of kids, asking the caped hero some questions after another rescue. The scene ends just as ol’ Supes is about to answer the question of “what is his favorite thing about Earth.” This scene doesn’t play into the main story, nor does it seem to have any thematic purpose. I honestly don’t know why it’s there.

At the very least, Justice League is the kind of bad movie I can get a kick out of talking about, which is more than I can say for Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman. But it’s also a blatant showcase of these DCEU movies not learning from past mistakes. And considering this is the follow-up to the delightful Wonder Woman, the results sting twice as much.

Maybe DC should just reboot this cinematic universe, but keep Wonder Woman canon and use it as the new starting point. Also, leave Superman out of it. Yeah, that’d be nice.

 

3