Director: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Djimon Hounsou
The deeper we get into this era of superhero movies, the more studios have to move away from the household names. Despite having been one of the most popular comic book heroes of the 1940s, Shazam is not a name that means anything to most moviegoers today (and let’s not even get into the confusing fact that for much of the character’s existence he was known as Captain Marvel). But that anonymity might change. David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! finds its own space in a crowded marketplace with is comedic, joyful tone, liberated by Warner Brothers and DC’s shift towards prioritising the distinctness of individual films over a consistent tone across their storytelling universe. Continue reading
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant
After 18 years and eight appearances, Hugh Jackman has decided the time has come to say goodbye to the role that made him a star, and for his final outing as Wolverine he is going out with a bang. Logan is tonally, visually and thematically unlike any of the previous films in the X-Men franchise – it is arguably unlike any previous film in the superhero genre – and proves to be a fitting ending for this iconic iteration of the character.
The year is 2029 and mutants are a dying breed, with no new mutants having been born for decades. Logan (Hugh Jackman) is a shadow of his former self. With grey hair and a scraggly beard he is covered in wounds and scars and walks with a pronounced limp. His regenerative powers are slowing and he is being poisoned from the inside by his adamantium skeleton. Above all though, he is exhausted. Continue reading
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page
Five years ago, the X-Men franchise was looking like it might have run its course. X-Men: Last Stand had disappointed and X-Men Origins: Wolverine was widely panned. But Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class breathed new life into the series in 2011, and now Bryan Singer, the director who helped launch the franchise, is back at the helm for the much anticipated, and confusingly titled, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
We begin at the end. It is the year 2023 and we are in the final stages of a war between the mutants and giant robots known as Sentinels. But it is not so much a war as an extermination. Knowing they have nowhere left to hide, a small band of mutants – including among others, Wolverine, Professor X and Magneto, by this point an ally – devise a last ditch plan. Kitty Pryde uses her telepathic powers to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time. Awaking in his 1973 body, Wolverine must seek out the young Professor X and Magneto, at this point sworn enemies, and with their help change the past in order to prevent this war from ever beginning.
X-Men: Days of Future Past feels like the continuation of a story. It feels like we are picking up where a previous film left off, but we are not. As a result the first half of the movie is chock full of exposition because there is a whole story that we have not seen which needs to be explained to us in order to understand what we are now seeing. We learn how in 1973 Mystique murders scientist Boliver Trask, inventor of the Sentinels, and that act cements the general public’s fear of the mutants and leads to the green-lighting of the Sentinel project. We learn how after being captured, Mystique’s shape-shifting DNA is incorporated into the design of the Sentinels making them highly adaptable and near impossible to defeat. We learn how the machines started out targeting mutants, but soon moved on to targeting mutant-sympathising humans and eventually all humans. We start the film at the culmination of this narrative and then return to the very beginning to try and stop it ever happening, but the result is the feeling that we’ve actually missed out on quite a good story.
X-Men: Days of Future Past continues the strongly allegorical nature of the series, exploring themes of intolerance, prejudice and the fear of the other. In Professor X and Magneto we are shown two different forms of leadership and two different approaches to combatting prejudice. Professor X is the Martin Luther King figure, preaching cooperation, unity and understanding, while Magneto is more Malcolm X, calling for a more militant, fight-the-power response. These important themes are explored effectively, but still in an entertaining package. There are some impressive action sequences and visual effects, and this film contains more fun and humour than we have seen in some of the previous installments in the series. That we experience the 1970s through the eyes of a character from the future means that the sights and sounds of that era – clothes, music, hair styles, lava lamps and waterbeds – can all be played up for comic effect.
X-Men: Days of Future Past does suffer a bit from character overload, with many being very thinly sketched. The X-Men universe contains so many characters and the temptation is always there to introduce new ones each film. In this film, the dual time period means that we have two casts of characters. There are just too many characters here for them all to be meaningfully represented. Of the new characters introduced, the teenage Quicksilver is a highlight. He is responsible for probably the film’s best scene, helping spring Magneto from a maximum security prison, but despite proving himself incredibly useful he is then inexplicably left behind.
The plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past provided an excellent opportunity to wrap up the series, but, unsurprisingly, that option was not taken and the film is clearly setting itself up for a sequel (talk is that X-Men: Apocalypse will be hitting screens in 2016). With this film’s rewriting of the past essentially throwing away the events and chronology of the previous four films in the franchise, it will be interesting to see what they choose to move forward with in the sequel.
There is plenty in X-Men: Days of Future Past to please returning fans of the series, but newcomers will find this a very difficult film to get up to speed with. While it has some quite strong moments, it is very messy in terms of its screenplay and narrative and doesn’t really live up to the high expectations that preceded it.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen X-Men: Days of Future Past? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, Morris Chestnut
In 2010, amidst a flurry of superhero comic book adaptations, Kick-Ass managed to capture the public’s attention by creating a little controversy. An adaptation of the comic book series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr, this story of an average high school student who wonders why no one has ever tried to be a superhero before and decides to give it a go not only featured quite graphic violence, but a foul-mouthed vigilante played by a then 11-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz. Three years later Kick-Ass and Hit Girl are back in a film which provides more of the same.
Like a number of superhero sequels before it, Kick-Ass 2 is primarily a film about escalation. After his mob boss father was killed by Kick-Ass at the end of the first film, Chris D’Amico is bent on revenge. Abandoning his superhero persona, the Red Mist, in favour of a new name that isn’t fit for print he decides to become the world’s first super villain, assembling a squad of costume clad henchmen to help him take down Kick-Ass. At the same time, the emergence of Kick-Ass has inspired numerous others of varying degrees of skill and sanity to don costumes and join him as vigilante crime fighters.
It is in its approach to these characters that Kick-Ass 2 is quite interesting. Where other superhero stories ask what prompts someone to become a superhero, the Kick-Ass films ask a slightly different question of their characters. What type of person chooses to put on a costume and fight crime? The film then presents us with two groups. The first are the incredibly naïve but well intentioned, who are ill-equipped for what they are endeavouring to do and are ultimately a danger to themselves. The second group are the psychotic, who have no appreciation for appropriate action, just a black and white concept of justice, and are ultimately a danger to everyone.
After being a scene stealing support character in the original, Chloe Gracë Moretz’s Hit Girl becomes the co-lead character in this sequel and once again she provides the movie’s x-factor. Now 15 years old, Mindy Macready promises her new guardian that she will turn her back on crime fighting. Her subplot, which delivers many of the films laughs, delves into an idea that will be common knowledge to many teenagers, that the social world of high school can be every bit as savage as anything you might come across in a dark alley in the bad part of town.
While Kick-Ass 2 lacks some of the shock value of the original, it is still a very violent film, though it is notable that martial arts and hand-to-hand combat seems to have replaced the gun violence that was so prominent in the original. Kick-Ass 2 was also not without controversy in the lead-up to its release. Jim Carrey, who had joined the cast as vigilante Colonel Stars and Stripes, announced on Twitter in June that he would not be taking part in any promotion for the film as he had experienced a change in heart in light of recent events – most notably the Sandy Hook high school shooting which occurred only a few weeks after he filmed his scenes – and could no longer “support that level of violence.” The course language has also been dialed up. Obviously a 15-year-old has to go further to confront you with language than an 11-year-old does.
Fans of the first film will still find plenty to like about this sequel – the action sequences are well done and there are more than a handful of laughs – but ultimately despite being every bit as violent and profane as the first it is neither as shocking or as clever.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne
After successfully resurrecting the dormant Batman franchise with his Dark Knight Trilogy, DC Comics and Warner Brothers turned to Christopher Nolan with a far greater challenge: Superman. At a time when audiences seem to prefer their heroes flawed, either with a sense of damage and menace (Batman) or an overly well-developed ego (Iron Man), was there still a market for an idealistic boy scout in a blue suit who fights for truth, justice and the American way?
Whereas the last attempt to resurrect the franchise, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, tried to follow on from the Christopher Reeve series, Man of Steel takes us back to the beginning. Rather than working chronologically, the film jumps back and forth, relying heavily on flashbacks to fill in the story of how Kal-El became Clark Kent and then Superman – a handy device to avoid the usual origin story problem of requiring the audience to wait too long before Superman starts being super. No sooner has Clark learned the truth about his heritage, he is called upon to protect his adopted home from invaders from his ancestral home, with the banished Kryptonian military leader General Zod mounting an invasion of Earth, with the intention of establishing it as a new Krypton.
The “invaders from outer space” nature of the threat in Man of Steel makes it feel more akin to Transformers or Independence Day than other spandex-clad superhero movies. That is the biggest difference between this and previous screen adaptations: Man of Steel is a science-fiction movie rather than a fantasy. It looks like a science fiction movie, with the ice-crystal set designs of the Christopher Reeve films abandoned for a design seemingly more inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien, and it sounds like a science-fiction movie, complete with terrible dialogue about world engines, codexes and Phantom drives.
Like many a Superman adaptation before it, Man of Steel flirts with the allusion of Superman as a Christ figure – an ironic tradition given the hero was the product of Jewish creators Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster. Our hero’s father, Jor-El, tells his son, “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.” The Christ allusions in Man of Steel aren’t as overt as they have been in the past – in Superman Returns he was “the light to show them the way,” literally sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity only to be resurrected a couple of days later – instead preferring to focus on the idea of Superman being a symbol of hope.
With Nolan acting as producer, directorial duties were given to Zack Snyder, who is known for his highly stylised use of digital effects in films like 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen. While he sticks to a pretty simple aesthetic here, his experience with digital effects results in the most visually impressive Superman film yet made, with the little touches – like the way you see the sound barrier being cracked when Superman flies away – being more impressive than the huge effects we are used to seeing in this kind of movie.
A big movie like this one presented as an epic story needs a big-time cast to carry it. British actor Henry Cavill makes for a good Superman, with the appropriate combination of broad chest, chiselled jaw and trustworthy eyes. Amy Adams gets more to work with than past Lois Lanes, with her incarnation of the plucky journalist being courageous, resourceful, and finally intelligent enough to be able to recognise the object of her affection even when he puts on glasses. But it is the depth and quality of the supporting cast which really helps to give the film an epic quality, with the likes of Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Lawrence Fishburne all putting in solid supporting turns.
While it is certain to perform strongly at the box office, ultimately Man of Steel runs into the same issues that Superman stories always seem to: that the build-up is more interesting than the climax. In this case the interest is in the existential journey of a young Clark Kent who is trying to work out who he is, why he is here and what he should do with his abilities, and in the way people respond to him and what he represents. But an adventure story climax requires a level of threat that is hard to muster when your hero is practically invincible. In this case he has an adversary who is equally invincible, and watching two of them hitting each other starts to get a bit tedious after a while.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kinsley, Jon Favreau
Iron Man 3 provides our first look at ‘Phase Two’ of Marvel’s Avengers plan – that is, the movies that come between The Avengers and its sequel – and our first insight into how that process is going to work.
For starters, there is continuity from the events of The Avengers into this next Tony Stark adventure. However, these events have resulted in a logical shift within realism of the ‘Iron Man universe.’ For the first two films in the trilogy, Stark existed in a world that was more or less realistic. Our heroes and villains may have been ultra-rich and incredibly smart, but they were always basically human beings transformed into superheroes and villains through the use of technology. But The Avengers broke this realism by introducing aliens and gods, alternate dimensions and portals. Iron Man 3 acknowledges this shift in reality, giving a prominent narrative place to Tony Stark and other characters coming to terms with what they experienced in New York (“In New York” becomes code for the things that happened in The Avengers). Stark himself is traumatised by the events to the point that he suffers from anxiety attacks.
This shift in reality also allows for a scaling up of the threat in Iron Man 3. Our villain this time is the mysterious terrorist, the Mandarin, played menacingly by Ben Kingsley with a voice that is some combination of Richard Nixon and Heath Ledger’s Joker. The Mandarin is resourced by jaded scientist Aldrich Killian, continuing the tradition from the first two films of it being a battle of the brains. However rather than resourcing him with weapons or super-suits, Killian resources him with an army of genetically modified super soldiers. Therein lays the break in realism which would not have been acceptable without The Avengers.
Of course, not all our questions are answered. The primary one being, when the world comes under threat again, why does Tony Stark have to face this particular challenge on his own? At what point does a catastrophe become significant enough to warrant getting the band back together?
For this third instalment in the Iron Man trilogy, Jon Favreau has handed over directorial duties to Shane Black. Black’s only previous directorial experience was 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a brilliant if under-appreciated film which represented a very important step the comeback of Robert Downey Jr. which ultimately culminated in Iron Man. Black had made his name as a screenwriter of action-comedies, most notably the Lethal Weapon series, making him a pretty good fit for Iron Man 3. And Black does what he does best in this film, ramping up the laughs and the sense of fun in the film without undermining its drama and tension. Black taking over as director has also enabled Jon Favreau’s character, Stark’s body guard Happy Hogan, to take on a much larger role than he did in the first two films.
For a film about a superhero who wears a mechanical suit, Drew Pearce and Shane Black’s screenplay surprisingly sees Tony Stark spending the vast majority of the film, including a number of the action sequences, not suited up. That they felt the freedom to do this is indicative of the fact that over the span of this franchise the writers have successfully achieved what all superhero scribes wish for; they have got the audience invested in Tony Stark as a person, not just as Iron Man. When Christopher Nolan and David Goyer set about writing Batman Begins, one of their primary goals was to get the audience to care about Bruce Wayne as a person so that they weren’t just killing time until he put on the suit. In the case of the Iron Man franchise, you could almost go so far as to argue that audiences have a greater investment in the character of Tony Stark, and the charisma of Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of him, than they do in the figure of Iron Man. Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is the trump card this franchise has to play, so it makes sense that Black set out to give him as much screen time as possible. This is further assisted from within the unfolding narrative of the series, with the constant evolution of the suit now seeing it as a piecemeal set of armour, which enables him to have any combination of his arms, legs and torso suited up without necessarily having to have his face covered.
Amazingly, Iron Man 3 represents Downey Jr.’s fifth appearance as Tony Stark – the Iron Man trilogy, The Avengers and a brief cameo The Incredible Hulk. This is staggering considering that the first Iron Man film was only released in 2008. It took Bruce Willis 25 years to appear five times as John McClane. Stark is now without a doubt the role with which Robert Downey Jr. will be forever associated. The way in which he has brought this character to life could also be arguably his greatest acting achievement, although he is excellent in Chaplin. It does not necessarily go hand in hand that the role for which an actor is remembered is also their best work, so he is quite fortunate there.
Iron Man 3 also contains a very brave plot twist, which I’ve been careful not to give away here. Brave in the sense that it is in equal parts fantastic and disappointing, and has thus far left audiences very divided.
Where Iron Man goes from here is anyone’s guess. We know there is going to be a sequel to The Avengers, there is no way that Marvel will let that not happen, and Iron Man 3 finishes with a Bond-esque “Tony Stark Will Return,” but it also has a sense of wrapping up which makes gives the impression that this may be the last solo Iron Man adventure. If that ends up being the case, Iron Man 3 is a fitting completion to a rollickingly fun trilogy.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Mark Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Dennis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
2012 has given us a number of high profile blockbusters which have just made you ask “why?” Most recently there was the simply awful remake of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990)starring Colin Farrell. Prior to that you had Jeremy Renner starring in the very disappointing sequel (do you call it a sequel when the events are happening concurrently?) to the Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum. And the film which started it all off was The Amazing Spider-Man.
The Amazing Spider-Man raised eyebrows when the project was first announced. When it became apparent that Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire were not interested in making a fourth Spider-Man movie, Columbia and Marvel decided that rather than looking for someone to take over and continue the franchise, they would go back and start again. So what we ended up with was a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise hitting cinemas only five years after the final film Raimi’s trilogy, Spider-Man 3 (2007), and even more amazingly, only ten years after the first film in Raimi’s trilogy, Spider-Man (2002).
For a number of people, myself included, it instantly brought to mind comparisons with the two Hulk films released only five years apart, The Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008)… that is, beyond just the same approach of taking the old title and adding an adjective. However, there was a reason for the reboot here. Firstly, Ang Lee’s films, starring Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly, had been a major disappointment both critically and commercially. More importantly, The Incredible Hulk was made as part of laying the foundations for this year’s superhero super-movie The Avengers (2012). So while The Incredible Hulk told a variation on the same origin story that The Hulk had, it was tying Bruce Banner’s story into that Avengers world.
But the same issues weren’t there with Spider-Man. While Spider-Man 3 had been a bit of a disappointment critically, Raimi’s films were still one of the most commercially successful trilogies in Hollywood history. Rather, the announcement of The Amazing Spider-Man appeared to be evidence of a condensing of time frames or a lack of patience in current day Hollywood. It makes you wonder how long it will be before the announcement of a Batman reboot. So that was a convoluted way of saying, I was intrigued to see what The Amazing Spider-Man had to offer. What would it be like? How would it be different?
This time round, they skew younger. Not yet a photographer at the Daily Bugle, Peter Parker is a seventeen year-old high schooler (slight suspension of disbelief required to accept the 28 year old Garfield as a teenager). Despite having appeared three times as the web slinging hero, Toby Maguire never really made the role his own. It was never impossible to think of anyone else as Spider-Man they way it is with Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. So it is interesting to see Andrew Garfield bring a slightly different interpretation to the character. A teenage Peter Parker complete with parent issues opens up the role for a much more teen-angsty portrayal.
Webb employs a solid supporting cast. Since bursting onto the scene a couple of years ago Emma Stone has shown herself to be an incredibly versatile actress and she is doing something different again here, and does it impressively as always. Martin Sheen is one of those guys who just automatically makes a film better, and his role as Uncle Ben is no exception, with he and Sally Field adding a bit of gravitas to the roles of Peter Parker’s legal guardians.
Other than that, a lot is the same. Raimi’s films brought us “With great power comes great responsibility” and while that quote is never referenced in Webb’s film, the theme of responsibility is still there. Parker feels responsible for his uncle’s death. Parker feels responsible for the creation of his nemesis. It is a sense of responsibility, of duty, that compels him to do the things he does, and this juxtaposes quite nicely in this film with his teenage brashness when gifted with great power.
Coming out in the same year as The Dark Knight Rises (2012)and The Avengers, it was always going to take something very special for The Amazing Spider-Man to be doing anything more than fighting it out for the title of third-best comic book movie of the year, and ultimately there is nothing very special about it. It is an ok movie, which has its moments of being quite good. However, the fact that it is a reboot means that it is faced with a series of other questions. Is it better than the other Spider-Man movies? Possibly, though if it is – and a strong argument could be made for Spider-Man 2 (2004)– it isn’t better by much, probably not really enough to justify the reboot. That being said, the $262 million it made at the US box office is probably justification enough for some.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman
With the exception of perhaps Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, no film released this year has had to contend with the immense weight of expectation that met The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy, when it hit theatres in July. Nolan’s films had re-written the rules of comic-book movie-making, combining box office success with critical reverence.
The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce Wayne living in self-imposed exile after the events of The Dark Knight. When the terrorist Bane releases thousands of Gotham’s most dangerous criminals from Blackgate Prison, and succeeds in prompting a class war which brings the city to its knees – all the while obscuring his even more devastating plan – it becomes apparent that Gotham has no other hope, and Wayne is forced to once again don the Bat-suit.
When the first film in the trilogy, Batman Begins, was released, much was said about this being a ‘darker’ approach to Batman. But the darkness wasn’t really anything new. Tim Burton’s films, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) had been dark. Frank Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One had been dark. Batman had always been a character who suited a dark, gothic interpretation. Rather, what made Nolan’s take on the Batman mythology different was his intent to ground it in the real world, asking the question “How would this work in real life?” This emphasis on grounding the action in the real world then allowed for the film to engage with real world issues.
While other comic book adaptations like The Avengers and Iron Man have been incredibly successful, their pure escapism lacks the real-world relevance of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were both very much products of the War on Terror. The Dark Knight Rises draws on the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement to deal with themes of revolution, capitalism and economic imbalance (as Nolan said in an interview, “You can’t really deal with Bruce Wayne without eventually acknowledging the massive wealth he’s a part of”).
Likewise, this grounding of the Batman story in a real world means that in Nolan’s films we see explorations of the consequences of Bruce Wayne’s decisions and actions. The Dark Knight Rises is a film about consequences – physical, emotional, psychological.
Each of Nolan’s three Batman films have been generically quite different. Batman Begins had a very mythological feel to it, with Bruce Wayne travelling to the farthest ends of the earth to learn his craft from a mysterious cult. The Dark Knight largely abandoned that mythological sensibility, and instead became an urban crime thriller (Nolan often compared the picture to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995)). The Dark Knight Rises again changes direction. This time Nolan is taking us into the world of the historical epic.
Whether or not you think that The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in what it is attempting, you can’t help but admire the ambition of the film. Nolan is attempting to tell a historical epic (not the persistant allusions to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution) on an epic scale, resulting in filmmaking on a scale that has not been seen in Hollywood for a long, long time. The scale of the picture is immense, with this size emphasised by the fact that so much of it was shot in IMAX format. The magnitude of some of the set pieces, literally employing a cast of thousands, harks back to the epics of classical Hollywood and a style of filmmaking we just don’t see in the CGI era.
The Dark Knight Rises does not quite reach the lofty heights of its prequel, but then very few films have. It is, none the less, a very good film and a satisfying end to a very impressive trilogy. It is pleasing to see a filmmaker with the conviction to take a very popular film franchise and bring it to a close rather than giving in to the temptation to drag it out. In closing the story of Bruce Wayne with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has retained the integrity of what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the key film franchises of the early 21st century.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean