Tag Archives: superheroes

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a completely full drive-in parking lot. Whether this is a factor of Covid, or the new Doctor Strange movie only having been out for a week, or both, or some other X-factor… Regardless, I’ve seen a lot of movies at drive-ins relative to my age[1], and some have been crowded, but never packed like this. Man that is a lot of people flashing a lot of headlights, individually, at various moments. But I guess not much more distracting that people getting up to pee or food deliveries or whatever.

I have no segue here, I just like to talk about the drive-in.

See, there’s this teen in need of help, and she occasionally runs into Doctor Strange, who while not the Sorcerer Supreme these days is nonetheless still in charge of the New York chapter house or whatever wizards call their sanctums, and he decides to help her, since that’s what you do in these movies. Then he finds himself traveling the multiverse and fighting demons and the Illuminati and a big bad and pretty much, well, everyone. Turns out the multiverse just isn’t a fan of this guy.

Was it good? It took until the final act for me to say to myself, my, this certainly is a Sam Raimi movie, isn’t it? Unlike I’m sure a lot of people, I did not say this with a heavy heart. Basically, this is a family drama and a second family drama mashed up together, and then turned into a fantasy horror movie, and I completely understand why that is not for everyone, but I kind of dig it, you know?

In retrospect, this may have been the most drive-in friendly movie Kevin Feige has ever signed off on.

What I did not like is how heavily dependent the movie is on watching all of the TV shows Marvel has been pushing out lately. Like, I’ve seen and remember Wandavision, but I feel like you shouldn’t have to? Which is a weird take for a guy reading 100% of Marvel[2], I know, but… you shouldn’t. Needing to watch dozens of movies to keep up is enough to ask. Wanda’s character arc barely makes sense with the TV show for backstory, though, so I’mma call foul there.

[1] Or at least I think I have? Maybe I’m fooling myself.
[2] Close enough, anyway

Spider-Man: No Way Home

I would be remiss if I did not first point out that in addition to being otherwise fun and sans commercials, the Alamo Drafthouse pre-show is especially useful for movies that require recaps[1], because they can tell you everything you need to know and with mostly a bare minimum of spoilers involved. Although, because reasons, the No Way Home pre-show had more spoilers by implication than most. Since previews for these are to some extent unavoidable, it had no spoilers that I didn’t already know about, but if you avoid better than me, this is harder to recommend. (Also, you may not have a local Alamo. For this, I can only offer my sincerest condolences.)

All of that to say, there’s a third Tom Holland Spider-Man movie. The last one, you might remember, ended on the second biggest bombshell in MCU history: Spider-Man is both accused (with documentary evidence!) of murder, and has been publicly identified as Peter Parker. Where do you really go from there? Well, if you’re a prospective high school senior trying to get into MIT, and you also know a wizard, you try to magic your way out of it. I mean hell, probably if you know a wizard, you do that whether the other things are true or not, right?

None of that is important, nor per se is the plot, although I enjoyed the plot a great deal and it retroactively made other movies I’ve seen before (but will not link to at this time) better than they were. What is important is that this is the best version of Spider-Man, the one who sees his great responsibility not as simply using his great powers to fight and stop bad guys, but as using his powers to help people. And sure, that involves fighting and stopping bad guys, frequently, especially when you live in a comic book world, but it’s not the most important way to do it. It’s barely an important way at all, to be honest.

I know everyone talks about whether Pete will be the next Iron Man, but… nah. As far as his heart and soul, he’s the next kid from Brooklyn Queens who is just here to step up because someone has to, sometimes. No offense to Sam Wilson.

[1] such as, say, anything put out by Marvel Studios these days

Eternals

Retroactive continuity is a tool honed to perfection in two art forms[1]: soap operas and superhero comic books. These forms share a lot else in common. They are a) both extremely long-form storytelling where b) the people writing today do not have a plan past the next ten or twelve episodes at the most, c) they both have cliques of characters that mostly hang out together but occasionally cross over with other cliques, and even more rarely all come together for some kind of huge event, and they both d) have dedicated, opinionated fanbases who have stuck around for decades but e) are written so that someone can drop in at practically any moment and be able to catch up.

A “retcon” is when a writer comes up with a story idea that does not match the established continuity of the previous stories, continuity that may be established over years or even decades, but then decides that the story idea is good enough to run with anyway, and comes up with a way to mesh their idea into the long-term continuity retroactively, so that this new continuity was always true, it’s just that the audience and often the characters weren’t aware of it.

Which brings me to Eternals, the (if I counted right) 26th movie released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (It is important to now note that this review will contain, and in fact for the eagle-eyed reader perhaps already does contain, mild spoilers. It’s not too late to stop. But it nearly is.) A movie which, early in the first act, reveals that for over 7000 years a group of cosmically-powered people called Eternals, at the behest of a group we’ve heard of before called Celestials (aka space gods like you might have seen out in space, at Knowhere or (possibly but probably not) Ego for example), were sent from the planet Olympia[2] to Earth to defend a barely established mankind from creepy mostly-made-of-tendrils monsters called Deviants, and that those Eternals have been here ever since. Yep, even then.

While that is not the only apparent retcon in the movie[3], it is the least spoilery one, and therefore I am at the end of my review, leaving only two details to add. First, the capsule plot of the movie is that, oops, the Deviants are back, so now the Eternals have to come out of the shadows they’ve been hiding in for at least the past fifteen years and who knows how much longer, to do their jobs once more. Second, to the extent that I am familiar with these characters, which is about half of them: yep, this was written by someone who understood the fundamental natures of the characters, and in particular the portrayal of Ikaris gives me hope that Mr. Fantastic will be done right someday.

[1] and almost certainly badly misused anywhere else. Not guaranteed to be, but it’s the safe way to bet.
[2] I think this is a little funny, but it’s hard to explain why.
[3] I have some opinions here.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I’m not here for the idea of making links to a bunch of previous movies, but some quick and uncertain mental math tells me that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings relies on four previous and mostly unconnected MCU movies[1] to explain its backstory. (Six if you care about the Blip.) None of these movies include Shang-Chi in a credited role, or even acknowledge his existence. And I mean… I’ve read within a small rounding error of 100% of 25 years’ worth of Marvel comics, so I’m obviously here for it, but that is noticeable weight of continuity to labor under, you know?

Anyway, the plot is the plot and yes I want to see it again, but nobody is interested in an MCU spoiler review, not even two weeks late like this one basically is. But between a pre-verbal child and Covid, it’s harder to get to the theater on time than it used to be, you know?

What I am interested in is the things that were cribbed from the comics, with which I have a more than passing familiarity[2]. Master of Kung Fu (as a comic) focused on two things. First, both in importance and chronology, a generation-later retelling of the old Fu Manchu stories with a lot of those characters still in play. Fu Manchu is as yellow-perily as ever, and the British spies who oppose him are likewise as clichedly British. Only, now he (Fu) has a daughter set up as his heir apparent[3], and a finely-honed, kung fu assassin trained son who has turned against him for being, y’know, evil and whatnot. And second, once the comic wasn’t all Fu all the time, it also focused on being a British spy agency story in which Shang-Chi traveled the world with James Bond’s nephew[4] doing superhero-adjacent spy stuff and living out a spy-girlfriend relationship with a Fleetwood Mac soundtrack.

The movie only focuses on the first of those, except obviously not using Fu Manchu and instead pulling in the so-called Mandarin and his ten rings, by way of the terrorist organization we’ve seen before, all the way back in the very first MCU movie. But then it also pulls in a lot of Iron Fist’s mythology, what with an extra-dimensional kung fu city that you can only get to every so many time intervals, unless you know secret ways; and also, their kung fu is magical wuxia kung fu. Sad to be the guy who played Danny Rand in the Netflix show, but zero percent sad to see the expert martial artist not be some random white dude.

My point, if indeed I had one, is that if you were going to cram a mildly problematic Iron Man villain named the Mandarin together with Marvel’s two martial arts characters, this is pretty much the best way to have done so. And furthermore, if you weren’t going to cram those together into one story but instead spread them out among three, well, probably you should cram them together instead.

[1] And a “Marvel One-Shot” that I’d seen before as a Blu-ray extra, which was released on Disney+ two weeks before Shang-Chi’s release date, to minimal fanfare.
[2] While that is a verified fresh statement, I honestly didn’t remember most of these things until the end of the movie. I spent like 2 hours saying to myself “I don’t remember Shang-Chi having a sister,” for example, until suddenly I was all “oh yeah” instead.
[3] Not that he intends to ever do anything so gauche or pedestrian as dying, but still: contingencies.
[4] Among others, but the more important point is that I’m serious about that.

The Suicide Squad

I remember liking Suicide Squad better than most people did, even if mostly by comparison to other DC movies on offer in the same continuity. And my just glanced-over review bears that memory out.

The Suicide Squad is kind of an oddly named sequel? It’s maybe slightly closer to reboot than sequel even though there is character continuity and it’s clearly still part of the DC Cinematic Universe. Basically, it feels like James Gunn came along while he was briefly persona non grata with Disney[1] and said hey, DC, you know what would make this movie better? Leaning into the comedy part and out of the grimdark part. And they listened!

There are a few things he did especially right. First: it is over the top. The plot is over the top, the violence is over the top, the character are all aware of these facts and embrace their ridiculous, hyper-violent, insane world for what it is. Second: it is funny. This is another thing the characters embrace. I don’t know how to explain exactly what I mean. It’s not like they’re trying to outfunny each other. But there’s an absurdity to everything that’s going on, and they lean into it instead of staying aloof from it[3]. Third: would be a giant spoiler to actually say, but trust me. Gunn understands the world in which he is operating, and I do not mean DC at large, I mean this series in particular, of which I hope to see more.

This is the new best DC movie, and their trendline has been so solid that I legitimately want to see whatever they make next. …I mean, as long as it’s not another Superman.

[1] For historical purposes: he got “canceled[2]” by right wing people who were tired of seeing their heroes be “canceled” for things they were doing in real time, so they dug up things Gunn had done years earlier, and Disney briefly listened to this and took it as the same kind of thing, instead of noticing that he had learned from the past and was no longer doing those sorts of things. Later, they got over it and there will be a third Guardians of the Galaxy movie after all. Still, I cannot hate the outcome of his personal digression.
[2] For additional historical purposes: canceled is when you did something wrong, and people called you out on it, and consequences ensued. Prior to a few years ago, the people calling you out part rarely happened, and consequences ensuing happened so rarely as to be basically never.
[3] Well, except for Amanda Waller as the orchestrator of the squad and its varied missions, who takes everything and herself just as seriously as she did last time. But even this is an important aspect of the story being told.

Black Widow (2021)

I have only a handful of thoughts about Black Widow, I think because it’s been in a holding pattern for so very long. I know practically nothing about the next several movies, and I’ve known practically nothing about the onslaught of Marvel TV shows, but this one: it’s just been hovering in the atmosphere, out of sight but you knew it was there. It’s had to be there, somewhere, for just years now.

As imdb sparsely has it: “A film about Natasha Romanoff in her quests between the films Civil War and Infinity War.” And it is definitely that. It’s the best kind of retcon, where you can look at it from every angle, and it just fits.[1] It has a well-realized version of a villain that I would not have expected to work, it has a solid dynamic between every character, and it has… well, okay, the plot was fine, at best.

The thing is, the movie is not about its plot, and is instead about its characters. It’s a love letter to the Black Widow, in the midst of a film about what family means. There simply haven’t been many quiet, homey movies in this series, and maybe there should have been? I like about the comics that you always eventually get to see the characters on their days off, and this was like that, even though there were like two huge set piece fights and several more small set piece fights.

Not that you asked, but I also think I’ve talked myself into liking this better as a retcon than maybe I would have had it come out in sequence between other movies as indicated by its place in the timeline. It just works better retrospectively, I think?

And finally, in response to a lot of talk I’ve seen along the lines of “too little too late”: a) I will definitely not argue about too little. I think that Winter Soldier was always halfway about Natasha, and while I won’t defend her taking this long to get a movie, I do think her character got solid development over the course of this long series of movies. (Way more than, say, her non-powered counterpart Hawkeye.) But intent matters, and visibility matters, and she never got much. b) I will 100 percent argue about too late, though. In addition to my thoughts above that this maybe plays better here as a retcon in the first place, I also solidly reject the idea that it can be too late to care about something, or to do the right thing.

Very very lastly: IMAX is still pretty cool. People buying tickets adjacent to ours, however, is wildly uncomfortable. I think I’ll have to find emptier theaters or stricter policies, now that I’ve experienced that misery.

[1] Well. The coda that was designed solely as “and then she re-entered previously established canon” was about as forced as I made it sound just now. But otherwise!

 

Powers: Gods

This is the last book in the Powers series!

Okay, it actually isn’t, but at the same time, if you’re going to figure out a way to wrap up the apparently third run of your series before rebranding it as something slightly different, and your series started out as “What if cops had to investigate when superheroes get murdered, and also what if one of those cops used to be a superhero but lost his powers?”, then it stands to reason that you have to end bigger.

Bigger, in this case, is solving the murder of a god, Damocles. Which… okay, it felt a little cheap, and here’s why. If you’re going to have had Greek (in this case) gods hanging out throughout the history of the series, there in the background all along, then you can’t wait to mention it until one of them is going to be your plot device. You especially cannot have your commentary track TV show that everyone (or possibly no one) watches, Powers That Be, talk about said gods and whether people believe in them as gods or as fancier heroes or not at all, like it’s a whole big theological issue, and also never have mentioned them in the previous thirteen volumes of your ongoing series. It’s a problem!

BUT: if you can ignore all that, which I was able to do until the composition of this missive you see before you, they act as a good plot device to reveal a lot of closely held character secrets and catapult the series into its next phase, which I will no doubt discuss next time, whenever that may be.

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

So, I did it! I got the Alamo Season Pass thingy, which this is not a commercial for, but one free movie a day is kind of great? I have to go twice a month to not lose money on the deal, and I want to go a lot more than that, although I think there’s a tiny human hoping to thwart my plans. …who will probably succeed. But for now, salad days[1]!

Upshot, on Thursday we saw Birds of Prey, a movie about which I have non-controversial opinions. To recap, I thought the Wonder Woman movie was great at being the first female-led superhero movie, but the actual film itself has not aged well for me outside that context. It’s perfectly cromulent as a superhero movie but no more than that. I thought Aquaman was shockingly good, better than it had any right to be, and therefore maybe a half-rank above “perfectly cromulent etc”? The rest of the modern DC movies are hot garbage at best, including Suicide Squad, except that Harley Quinn was revelatory in it.

All of that to say: Birds of Prey would fall on a tier maybe just above hot garbage, except for that fantabulous emancipation bit. As nearly as I can determine, Margot Robbie was born to play this role. (She seems to think so too, given her heavy involvement in getting the movie made.) This is basically Harley’s transition from the Joker’s emotionally manipulated girlfriend to chaotic good trending neutral antihero, and she’s hilarious every step of the way. Plus, the narration! I will keep watching her make these movies as long as she’s interested.

[1] I have no idea what that means. What it conveys, yes. What it means that results in conveying that: not a clue.

Powers: Z

Considering how close I am to the end of the published Powers series, you would think I would not have gone three and a half years since the last one I read. That’s just weird. Even more contrary to expectations (well, mine at least), that gap is not the problem I had with the book.

Powers: Z is… well, okay, they’re all about murders. But this is about the murder of the guy who killed Hitler at the end of World War II. Who you would think would be popular enough to have been mentioned by now, especially since apparently our immortal main character used to hang out with Z during and after the war. But okay, comics retcon all the time, and that would not have caused me to blink if the rest hadn’t been so confusing. Which I cannot really explain without massive spoilers, and I’ll just respond if someone asks instead of assuming they’re needed.

But my problems, at broad strokes, included a) my occasional inability to distinguish between the present and flashbacks to the 1950s, b) caused in part (probably) by those flashbacks not actually being very important from either a plot or (worse) a character development perspective. Other than the basic “look, these guys were mobsters in the 1950s, and the people in the modern day plot are also mobsters” parallelism, there just really wasn’t anything there. Finally, c) the fifth issue in the book ended with some really big dangling plot threads, whereupon the sixth issue covered a completely new murder with no apparent tie to or resolution of the prior story, all for the sake of a last second character-driven cliffhanger. Which I sound negative about, but I would not if I hadn’t ended up feeling so much like I didn’t get a complete story in the service of said cliffhanger that I actually spent some research time seeing if there was a missing issue or a misprint of my book or something. As far as I can tell: there was not.

But all the Amazon reviews of the book are very positive, so maybe it’s just me regardless? I have no idea.

Avengers: Endgame

I went to see the fourth Avengers movie on Friday afternoon, right after work and thusly before it was feasible that my on-call duties this weekend would interfere. (As it turns out, it has been non-stop smooth sailing, but I had no way to guess that then.) Obviously I can’t talk about the movie, because, well, you know.

So, the tickets I wanted to buy were sold out before I knew they were on sale. Not literally sold out, but the useful seats were, I mean. So I’ll have to go a second time[1] to see the Alamo’s version. None of this is the point. The point is: after I couldn’t get the tickets I wanted, I sat around for a few weeks waiting for the problem to solve itself, and then ended up not being able to get out of my on-call this weekend as previously referenced. The first time I knew for sure what show I would be able to make was Friday earlier in the afternoon. BUT: there’s this theater a few miles away attached to a mall, only the mall has been closed for years and is in the process of being torn down. Nobody goes to this theater.

So, I was able to get tolerable seats about two hours in advance, and went to a 5:30 show. When we got to the parking lot, it was… well, it’s not a huge lot, most everything beyond the theater’s entrance to the mall is fenced off. Also, what lot there is has not been well taken care of. The upshot of all this is that there are a limited number of spaces, yes, but there are a much more limited number of spaces that have been repainted anytime since the mall died. The upshot of that is that all of the good spaces were already taken, at only 5pm, and man can people not park straight without lines. Some lanes got gradually narrower, eventually dwindling into nothing; some lanes were only a little crooked off into the distance but with one random car blocking half the lane for no good reason. It was a mess and a madhouse. At 5 in the afternoon on a Friday at a mostly dead theater.

Someone not me said that this is plausibly a once-in-a-lifetime (or maybe even a once-in-an-ever) event, where the 22nd film over the course of 11 years tells one complete story. From my anecdotal evidence above, there are a lot of people who know that, even if they don’t have the same words for how weird and rare and wonderful this is.

The big question, then, is will these people be satisfied? Man, I don’t know. I started to say more, but then I realized that it would be by my considerations hugely spoilerish, so I will drop a follow-up comment below the review. Which I haven’t actually done yet; this is just a story about the time I went to see Avengers: Endgame.

And now: my review.

They stuck the landing.

[1] don’t throw me in that briar patch