Monday 29 April 2019

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg to adapt RIVERS OF LONDON for television

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, The World's End, Paul, Spaced) have re-teamed to produce a television adaptation of Ben Aaronovitch's urban fantasy series Rivers of London.

Stolen Pictures, the production company founded by Frost and Pegg to develop new projects, have optioned the rights to the series and are searching for a production partner. Currently the plan is to adapt the first novel, Rivers of London (retitled Midnight Riot in the US for no particular reason) across 8-10 episodes. Subsequent seasons may combine the narratives of several books.

For Aaronovitch, this is coming full circle as he began his writing career in the 1980s working in television, including writing episodes of Doctor Who. After some time out of the writing field, he returned with the Rivers of London series, exploring the adventures of Peter Grant, a young constable in the Metropolitan Police who is drafted into the service's undercover magic division under Thomas Nightingale.

To date the series comprises the novels Rivers of London (2011), Whispers Under Ground (2012), Broken Homes (2013), Foxglove Summer (2014), The Hanging Tree (2016) and Lies Sleeping (2018), as well as several novellas and graphic novels. 

Game of Thrones: Season 8.0

Great armies are gathering at Winterfell. The White Walkers have breached the Wall and are marching south, planning to wipe out humanity. The scene is set for a great confrontation, a war which will determine whether anyone lives to see another dawn.

Originally I'd planned to wait until the season was complete before reviewing the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, as with the past few seasons, but structurally the final season is panning out in a way that seemed more rewarding to review it as two halves. So here we go.

Way back in 2007, when it was confirmed that HBO was developing George R.R. Martin's fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire for television, they also almost immediately confirmed that the show would be called Game of Thrones. It made sense: Game of Thrones is a more concise, faster-to-say title that fits onto merchandise better and is more memorable. Many of the spin-off media from the books had used that title for years for much the same reason. Watching Season 8, it strikes me that the title change may also reflect a much more fundamental and philosophical shift in the focus of the story.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a title rooted in mysticism, prophecy and thematic conflict, the struggle between the ice of the Others (the books' analogue of the White Walkers) and the fire of the living, as championed by the dragons of House Targaryen. It suggests that the core struggles of the series will culminate in a confrontation between humanity and the Others, as personified by the Prince That Was Promised, the singer of the Song of Ice and Fire, who in the books may be Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen (or both). Game of Thrones, on the other hand, emphasises the Machiavellian realpolitik of the story, the ground-level struggle between differing political factions for a more mundane goal, control of the Iron Throne of Westeros.

Season 8 of Game of Thrones suggests that the producers had another reason beyond conciseness for changing the name. Season 8 breaks the remaining part of the story into two and addresses them separately, focusing in the first three episodes (surprisingly) on the struggle against the White Walkers at Winterfell and the latter three on who gets to claim the Iron Throne in King's Landing. This suggests that, in the view of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the final conflict is a mundane, human one, focusing again on the conflict between Stark and Lannister, which is where we came in during Season 1. It's not an invalid take, given the lack of the source material, but it feels like it's at variance with the thematic conflicts and ideas established in the books, where very much it is presented that the mundane political conflict is a dangerous distraction from the true threat gathering to the north (despite the Others' relative lack of screentime - or pagetime - in the books versus the TV show).

As such the first three episodes of Season 8 form more of a three-and-a-half hour movie. The first episode, written by Dave Hill (soon to be tackling a new fantasy TV show as a writer on Amazon's Wheel of Time series) sees the gathering of forces at Winterfell and both long-awaited reunions (particularly Jon with Arya, whom he hasn't seen since the second episode of the entire series). It's a fairly standard "catching everyone up" opening episode for a season, with some nice callbacks to the first episode of the entire series.

The second episode is set immediately before the arrival of the White Walkers and is penned by Bryan Cogman, the writer responsible for many of the show's finest episodes and moments. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a love letter to the characters, delving deeply into character moments and conversations between them on the eve of an apocalyptic final confrontation. It's also a huge nod to book-reading fans, referencing the legend of Ser Duncan the Tall (the star of Martin's spin-off series of novellas about a hedge knight wandering Westeros ninety years before the events of the main story) and his likely status as an ancestor of Brienne.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is in fact probably the best episode of the entire series since at least Season 4. It sets up character conflict down the line (such as Jon's claim to the Iron Throne, which clashes with Daenerys') but also explores interrelationships between characters. It's also quite funny, warm and human, which is something that Game of Thrones can sometimes neglect in favour of cynical backstabbing and death.

The slow build-up ("the deep breath before the plunge" as another fantasy figure said) explodes in The Long Night, an 80-minute episode revolving almost entirely around the battle for Winterfell and for the dawn. Humanity is on the line and the enemy has an overwhelmingly impressive force, but our heroes have some aces up their sleeve as well.

Unfortunately, what is supposed to be Game of Thrones' most climactic and thrilling battle is let down on a number of fronts. The first is that the episode feels like it hasn't been colour-corrected properly. It's hard to make out what's going on, even on a properly-calibrated television. Game of Thrones has done night battles before - at the Blackwater in Season 2 and at the Wall in Season 4 - and it's always done a great job of keeping things clear and visible even in bad light. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy did the same thing at Helm's Deep. But in this case the action is often muddled and hard to parse. Things are better when the action switches inside - Arya stalking a bunch of wights in Winterfell's library may one of the show's best moments in terms of tension and stealth - but most of the exterior scenes are blighted by poor visibility.

It also doesn't help that it's very much a "TV battle" with very little thought made to genuine medieval battle tactics, hence the bemusing scenes of a light cavalry force (complete with specialised horse archers, who aren't used at all) being sent to directly attack a much larger and stronger infantry formation head-on, followed by powerful siege weapons being mounted outside defensive fortifications and in front of an infantry formation (instead of behind it). The siege weapons fire off two or three salvos and are then immediately disregarded and destroyed. Game of Thrones has done very well in portraying tactics before (particularly in Blackwater and Watchers on the Wall, still the shows' highwater marks in terms of battle episodes), but it's also done incredibly poorly, such as in Battle of the Bastards, and this episode is definitely on the latter side of the scale.

At 80 minutes, with a battle lasting almost twice the length of Helm's Deep, the episode outstays its welcome, with the scenes of people killing wights getting boring much earlier than that. Continuity is a problem as well, as on multiple occasions we see groups of characters being completely surrounded by insane odds, but after a camera cut we see the group is now standing in more open ground fighting off a few wights, who are politely lining up before attacking. The "unstoppable horde" of the wights feels somewhat contrived as a result.

The battle ends in exactly the manner you expect (even if the people delivering the killer blows to crucial enemies are not who you expect) with a far lower casualty count than you'd expect from such a hard-fought engagement. We don't need to see a bloodbath with 75% of the cast wiped out or anything, but it does feel like our heroes got off easily and won a stunning victory at relatively little cost (at least in terms of characters the audience is invested in, the actual body count seems immense).

Still, this opening trilogy does leave some interesting questions for the latter half of the season. The battle for the Iron Throne should be incredibly one-sided, as Team Daenerys/Jon have two dragons and Cersei's side have none, which raises the question of what curveballs can be thrown by the writers to make this final struggle more interesting. We will find out soon enough.

801: Winterfell (***½)
802: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (*****)
803: The Long Night (**½)

Friday 26 April 2019

Narcos: Season 3

1993. Pablo Escobar is dead, leaving a vacuum for control of Colombia's lucrative drug supply market. The Cali Cartel has taken up the strain, making absurd sums of money, and its leaders know to live under the radar rather than attracting attention like the publicity-hungry Escobar. The Cartel's leader, Gilberto, proposes that the Cartel abandon the drug trade in six months to focus on legitimate business, to avoid Escobar's fate, leading to a race against time for DEA Agent Javier Peña as he tries to bring down the Cartel before its leaders can escape justice.

The third and final (in this incarnation) season of Narcos focuses on the fight between the Colombian authorities, "aided" by the American DEA, and the Cali Cartel in the early 1990s. This is a different kind of battle to the one fought against Escobar, which was bloody and merciless, with the Cali Cartel at least initially trying to fly under the radar and not carry out such huge acts of blood-letting. As events unfold, however, the various factions lose control of events and chaos returns to the streets of Colombia.

Boyd Holbrook's character of Steve Murphy has returned to the USA (perhaps thankfully; Holbrook was something of an anonymous link in an otherwise splendid cast), leaving the considerably more charismatic character of Peña (Pedro Pascal) to pick up the slack, which he does brilliantly. The voiceovers and semi-docudrama feel of the first two seasons has also been dialled back, with Pascal providing occasional context-setting voiceovers but not to the same degree as in previous seasons. This makes Narcos much more of a traditional drama, with a larger cast of characters and multiple storylines unfolding in different areas.

The result is a rich drama, packed with excellent performances (Matias Varela as tormented security chief Jorge Salcedo is particularly outstanding) and paced expertly, with less of the repetition of story beats that slowed the previous seasons. However, it does feel like some characters and subplots are less well-serviced, and none of the new antagonists can really match Wagner Moura's Escobar for charisma and presence. The storyline revolving around Maria Salazar doesn't feel like it really goes anywhere and it's odd that the show goes to the trouble of casting the legendary Edward James Olmos as Peña's father and then gives him almost nothing to do. Eric Lange's CIA agent character is also an annoying kind of reverse deus-ex-machina, constantly on hand to thwart the DEA's plans at the last minute because of some realpolitik motivation which usually doesn't make much sense. Of course, Narcos is a prisoner of the real historical events which sometimes don't obey the laws of drama.

Overall, the third season of Narcos (****) is a very watchable, compelling drama that is highly watchable and constantly fascinating, although it can't quite match the tension of the hunt for Escobar. It is available on Netflix now.

Thursday 25 April 2019

The Avengers: Endgame

The Infinity Stones have wreaked tremendous devastation across the universe, leaving the survivors reeling. The remaining Avengers and their allies from across the cosmos gather together on Earth for one last, possible plan to stop what has happened, at the risk of losing everything that survived.

Fifteen years ago, we experienced a genuine cinematic Moment when Peter Jackson delivered the thunderous conclusion to his Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. He wrapped up an emotional, impactful and epic story in a manner that was (mostly) successful and resulted in huge numbers of people visiting the cinema multiple times to see the conclusion to an entire multi-movie arc. I doubted we would see anything like it again, but a decade and a half later we are here with Endgame, a movie that tries something even more stupendous: paying off not just three but twenty-two movies that have been building things up and leading to this moment. The hype is crazy and if anything greater than that for The Return of the King (where you could go and read the story summary online from the book any time you wanted).

Endgame, surprisingly, delivers a nuanced and tight finale to the story that began in last year's Infinity War. Infinity War was epic and impressive, a stunning sequence of epic battles and quieter character moments that came together in several confrontations with Thanos, which Thanos won (although not without cost). Endgame picks up on the aftermath of that event with the surviving heroes regrouping, but they are caught up in grief and loss. Returning heroes Scott Lang and Hawkeye rejoin the team, whilst Rocket, Nebula and Captain Marvel join the Avengers to help resolve the crisis, but their early efforts have mixed results.

Endgame's generous three-hour running time allows directors the Russo Brothers (who can now write their own meal ticket and direct whatever film they want, ever) and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to have their cake and eat it, with huge, thunderous battle sequences and lots of quieter character beats. In fact, much of the first third of the film is taken up by people processing the events of the end of Infinity War, and how you move on when half of the people you've ever met are gone. The rest of the film is taken up by our heroes embarking on A Plan to save everyone, which near-instantly goes horrendously wrong and results in lots of the action, comedy and dramatic beats that you've come to expect from a Marvel movie, but more surprising is the amount of emotion on display. Character after character has to face up to their growth and what they've gone through to reach this point, and how they handle key moments that lead to victory, or in a few cases, their death.

Events culminate in a finale that is jaw-dropping in its scale and features some of the best, punch-the-air moments you've ever seen in a superhero movie, as well as moments of real reversals and pain. The directors walk a tightrope between being self-indulgent (the film may rival Return of the King for the number of endings it has, although I think it sells it much better) and too dark, and manages to chart a difficult course through that. It even manages to use Captain Marvel well, acknowledging her sheer power and her use as an asset against Thanos but not allowing her to dominate proceedings to the detriment of the characters we've spent eleven years with.

There's a lot of movie here and it's almost entirely brilliantly-handled. What's more surprising is the sheer degree of payoff we get in this film, and how many near-obscure characters from older movies suddenly and unexpectedly show up and play vital roles (bar one case where rather obviously the actor involved didn't want to return and they had to film around it using older footage, although it kind of works). Fans of the Marvel TV shows will also get one genuine moment of delight in a scene which seemingly officially canonises at least one of the Marvel TV shows as taking place in the Marvel cinematic universe after all. There's also the film's possibly most epic shot which was foreshadowed by a single moment (not even a scene) in an earlier movie from years ago which you could have missed by just looking at your phone for a second. Another major plot revelation hinges on a line of dialogue from another, even earlier movie which makes you suspect the Russo Brothers and Kevin Feige are genuine, outright geniuses.

Problems are mostly non-existent. This is a movie which, as I think everyone has guessed, does lean into a bit of time travel and as a result viewers can have exciting conversations over whether the story completely makes sense as a result (which Ant-Man and War Machine themselves get into a knot over at one point, trying to work out if the plot of the Back to the Future trilogy makes sense whilst Banner gets frustrated at them talking about movies rather than the science). Beyond that, for the first time, a Marvel movie hits every single beat it means to, with a fantastic villain, excellent characterisation and some titanic character payoffs, some you've been waiting a decade for. The only other criticism that could be made is that the film doesn't even remotely stand alone, at all, but then that's kind of the point of it. This is an ending to a very long chapter, and I can't even work out what happens next.

The Avengers: Endgame (*****) is long, but feels short when you watch it. Every character gets their moment in the sun, and the creators somehow make 21 previous movies worth of foreshadowing and backstory pay off in a real, meaningful way through a story that is by turns tragic, epic, moving, funny and action-packed.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Joss Whedon's THE NEVERS casts lead role

Joss Whedon has cast the lead role in his new television series, The Nevers.

Laura Donnelly will play the role of Amalia True, a hell-razing Victorian woman who refuses to confirm to stereotypes and ends up in charge of a group of women with unusual powers. Donnelly is best-known for playing the role of Janet Fraser Murray on Starz's Outlander, and has also appeared in Merlin, Beowulf and Britannia.

The Nevers marks Whedon's first foray into television since the first season of Agents of SHIELD in 2013, and his first original drama series since Dollhouse in 2009. Whedon will write and direct for the show, and will co-showrun alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Jane Espenson. Doug Petrie, also a veteran of Buffy, will also serve as writer and producer. Journalist Laurie Penny and playwright Madhuri Shekar will also act as writers on the series.

The Nevers will start shooting in June this year and run through to February 2020, shooting in and around London. It is expected to debut on HBO in late 2020.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Timeline

Before the release of Avengers: Endgame tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting to run down a timeline of major events in the previous twenty-one films and the relevant backstory.

Nick Fury of SHIELD, who plays a decisive role in assembling the Avengers.

Some notes on this timeline: the canonicity of the spin-off comic books, books and TV shows is open to question (particularly the films' resistance to incorporate the large-scale events of Agents of SHIELD or the Netflix series), so I've restricted things to the movies themselves and their direct publicity materials.

It's also well-known that the team at Disney have themselves retconned the timeline several times, resulting in some on-screen dating evidence that is flat-out wrong and has to be ignored (such as the "Eight years later," title card in Spider-Man: Homecoming). At other times writers seem to have assumed that movies have taken place in the year they were released and then ignored information to the contrary, creating more problems.

The Timeline at the MCU Wiki was useful in assembling the list, although their tendency to use weighted averages to try to pinpoint precise dates feels somewhat inaccurate. I have followed their reasoning in some matters (particularly the convincing arguments for putting Iron Mann in 2009 versus 2008) but have deviated from it where it feels necessary.

For the most part, the precise dating of each film and event is much less important than the order the events take place in.


The Infinity Stones.


The Great Marvel Rewatch: Summing Up

Having rewatched all of the Marvel films in the past couple of months in preparation for Endgame, I thought it'd be useful to list the reviews and do some summing up here.

Broadly speaking, I enjoyed revisiting the series. I've never been a massive superhero comics fan, appreciating those films and comics that were really good but certainly not religiously following the medium. My favourite comics and related movies have generally been those that poked fun at or deconstructed the genre, or dealt in areas other than superheroes: Sandman, Watchmen, Scott Pilgrim, Mystery Men and so on.

That said, there was certainly a change around the turn of the millennium when the quality of comic book movies did improve significantly: X-Men 1 and 2, Spider-Man 1 and 2, Batman Begins, Hellboy and a few others.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe follows in this train and has, remarkably, produced no less than twenty-one movies in eleven years that have, between them, never turned out a film that I would consider to be a complete failure, at least nothing to rival the jaw-dropping ineptitude of, say, Man of Steel or X-Men: The Last Stand. The weakest films in the series, the likes of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, still have strongly-directed action scenes, good character beats and some amusing dialogue.

The reverse of this is also true: the MCU has also, to my mind, not yet produced a stand-out, solid-gold, five-star classic. It's come close a few times, but never quite stuck the landing. Perhaps Endgame will be the first film in the series to achieve that.

What was fun, rewatching the series, was seeing how diverse the films can be in terms of tone, veering from the extreme comedy of Ant-Man, its sequel and Thor: Ragnarok to the Shakespearean grandeur of the original Thor to the technicolor space panorama of the Guardians of the Galaxy series, to the more grounded, gritty vibe of The Winter Soldier. In terms of structure, the MCU definitely has a set template which can get occasionally wearying, but in terms of tone and vibe, the films definitely switch things around a lot, which is useful in maintaining interest over such a long period of time.

What was interesting is seeing how this film series has managed to build up continuity links between the films like no other in history. You certainly don't need to have watched all of the films in order to enjoy any of the others (excepting possibly Infinity War and Endgame), but if you do there's a whole range of small subplots and characters beats that keep coming up which is fun to revisit, from minor stuff like Tony's relationship status with Pepper and Happy Hogan's slow career progression to larger elements, like Thanos's rumblings in the deep background and Loki's journey of (at least somewhat) self-realisation. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a film series which has tapped into the box set, bingeing culture of Netflix, rewarding careful, close viewings of the films in order.

This kind of close rewatching also identifies some key weaknesses in the series. There's a tremendous vagueness to how tough characters are or how much in danger they are in battle scenes. Thor, as far as I can tell, is almost outright indestructible, as is Hulk (at least in Hulk mode). The power levels of the other characters seems more vague, particularly characters like Black Widow who have no supernatural or technological powers at all but can hold their own against enemies who otherwise are real threats to the real hyper-powered characters. This is of course a familiar issue from the comics, where the toughness of the characters will often vary on the needs of the plot.

Another weakness is arguably the most famous one: a serious case of weak villains. The reason the MCU has gone in for Loki and Thanos in such a big way is that their strongest villains are otherwise in the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man franchises, the film rights to which until recently were owned by other studios. For the most part the villains in the MCU are forgettable and disposable, with a few honourable exceptions such as Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger (from Black Panther) and Hugo Weaving's Red Skull (from Captain America: The First Avenger). The good news is that the other franchises are now under the Disney banner, so we may see better villains (such as Doctor Doom, Doc Octopus or Galactus) showing up in future films, and indeed we've already seen the first sign of that with Michael Keaton turning in a splendid performance as Vulture (in Spider-Man: Homecoming).

I'll need to see Endgame (tomorrow) and perhaps Spider-Man: Far From Home to get a better sense of where the MCU is going in the future, but for now I'll say that this ridiculously huge list of movies is thoroughly entertaining, although rarely really surprising, and fascinating in its scale and scope.

The Great Marvel Rewatch (in order of release):

  1. Iron Man (2008)
  2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
  3. Iron Man 2 (2010)
  4. Thor (2011)
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
  6. The Avengers (2012)
  7. Iron Man 3 (2013)
  8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
  9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  11. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
  12. Ant-Man (2015)
  13. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
  14. Doctor Strange (2016)
  15. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)
  16. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
  17. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
  18. Black Panther (2018)
  19. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
  20. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
  21. Captain Marvel (2019)
  22. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Gratuitous List (so far):

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy
  4. The Avengers
  5. Captain America: Civil War
  6. Black Panther
  7. Avengers: Infinity War
  8. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  9. Captain Marvel
  10. Captain America: The First Avenger
  11. Ant-Man and the Wasp
  12. Thor: Ragnarok
  13. Iron Man
  14. Doctor Strange
  15. Ant-Man
  16. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  17. Iron Man 3
  18. Thor
  19. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  20. Thor: The Dark World
  21. Iron Man 2
  22. The Incredible Hulk

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Scott Lang is under house arrest for violating the Sokovia Accords and helping Captain America out in his struggle with Iron Man (in Captain America: Civil War). With only three days left before freedom, the last thing Scott needs is to be roped back into the machinations of Hank Pym. Which of course is exactly what happens. Hank and his daughter Hope are on the verge of locating Hope's mother Janet, lost thirty years ago in the Quantum Realm, but they need Scott's help to complete the mission.

The original Ant-Man was a solid movie let down by an underwhelming villain (a perennial Marvel problem) and the fact that it had too many hands involved in its creation, resulting in the story losing focus. Long-term Marvel fans were also not keen on the relatively minor character of Ant-Man being elevated above the more traditional Avengers member of the Wasp in story importance. The sequel sets out to rectify these problems and (mostly) succeeds, resulting in a stronger, more assured picture.

The film is less dependent on Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, although he continues to provide an excellent performance balancing comedy and pathos. Evangeline Lilly has a lot more to do as Hope van Dyne, now officially the Wasp with her own costume and plenty of stunts and fight scenes. Michael Douglas also seems to be having a great time as the irascible Hank Pym, with more of an irritated comedic aspect visible in his dealings with Lang, but also genuine emotion as he struggles to find his missing wife (a brief but effective appearance by Michelle Pfeiffer, complete with some de-ageing CGI to scenes set in the 1980s).

The incongruous "evil mad villain who kills people" aspect of Ant-Man is something that we desperately didn't need to revisit, so pleasingly the antagonists of the sequel are either more comedic bumblers or, in the case of Ghost (Killjoys' Hannah John-Kamen), a more multi-faceted and complex antagonist whose motivations are pretty easy to relate to but difficult to fully reason with. It's also good to see Laurence Fishburne show up in the MCU. The movie also features a real Marvel Comics deep dive by bringing in FBI Agent Jimmy Wood (a light-hearted performance by Randall Park), who appeared in comics in the 1950s before the modern Marvel as we know it was even founded.

As the movie that followed up the extremely intense Infinity War in the MCU timeline, Ant-Man and the Wasp is mostly here to have a good time, so the darker elements of its forebears are dropped. The result is, perhaps moreso even than Thor: Ragnarok (which did have some real darkness to balance the technicolor laughs), the film that comes closest in the series to being an outright comedy movie. This works quite well, with excellent sight gags and more ways to wring humour out of making things very big or very small than you'd think is remotely possible.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (****) is a fun, not-taking-itself too seriously film which reunites the cast of the original film, gives them more to do and doe some light setting-up for future movies without ever getting too bloated. It's not the weightiest or most memorable film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it does improve on its forebear to become a more interesting film.

The Great Marvel Rewatch: The Avengers - Infinity War

The Titan Thanos has begun his plan to unite the Infinity Stones and wipe out half of the life the universe. His plan involves seizing the Stones from remote planets, the Collector of Knowhere and from Xandar, and the several Stones that have come to rest on Earth. In deep space the Guardians of the Galaxy join forces with Thor to defeat Thanos, whilst on Earth the fractured Avengers have to overcome their differences and unite again to fight against his armies.

It's entirely possible that no movie in history has had a build-up like Infinity War. Almost every one of the eighteen preceding movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been laying pipe and groundwork for this film, from introducing the Infinity Stones one-by-one to brief appearances by Thanos to the introduction of both the extravagant space opera and mystical sides of the universe through Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange. Marvel and Disney have shown tremendous restraint and forbearance in not pulling the triggers on those stories too early and making sure they have their ducks lined up in just the right row before finally committing.

Infinity War is an insanely massive movie. Starting as it means to go on - with a massacre which leaves several established characters dead and one MIA (which weirdly goes unmentioned for the whole movie) - the film barely lets up. Characters big and small going right back to the start of the MCU ten years earlier (including some you thought you'd never see again) show up, some with large roles to play, some for an extended cameo. Despite the weight of the massive cast, directors Anthony and Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely somehow create a very coherent film with four distinct acts and the kind of tension filled, multi-pronged final battle on two separate fronts that we haven't seen since Return of the Jedi.

It also helps that although the movie is filled to the brim with heroes and big personalities, the film keeps its focus firmly on a central quintet. Thanos himself dominates proceedings, Josh Brolin (somehow) investing this big purple dude with some real pathos in scenes where we learn more about his backstory, his family and his homeworld. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has a major role to play, her family issues with both Thanos and Nebula proving a key emotional motivation for the film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also has a lot of screentime, clearly having feeling annoyed after the events of Thor: Ragnarok and determined to kick someone's backside. Scenes pairing him and Bradley Cooper's Rocket Raccoon (or "Rabbit" as Thor insists) are excellent, and then get better when they join forces with a giant space dwarf played by Peter Dinklage. Dinklage's screentime is limited but extraordinarily effective (he also gets arguably the best line of the movie, but it's a really tough choice). Rounding off the central focus is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), two extremely different people who prove to be an effective team.

Lots of other characters get their moments in the sun (although Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner seems to be reduced to a harbinger of doom whilst he's dealing with, er, "performance" problems as Hulk), although the role of Captain America (Chris Evans) in the movie is surprisingly small. The directors know how to deliver a great superhero arrival scene just as all hope seems lost and also how to frame an action sequence. There's a lot of explosions, CG people being flung around and strange creatures and it all flows mostly well, with only a couple of moments where CG fatigue threatens to set in. Infinity War is not a movie any sane person can call restrained, but it's a movie that knows when and where to deploy its monstrous resources (adjusted for inflation, Infinity War is the most expensive movie ever made) to maximum effect.

It's also a surprisingly emotional movie. The weakness of films - and the reason we've seen television explode in comparison recently - is that it's very hard to introduce characters, establish motivation, emotionally invest the audience and then deliver a payoff whilst telling a good story in under two hours. Infinity War is instead able to draw on almost forty hours of previous character development in the MCU, so even when a fairly minor character bites the dust it hurts a little. When more major characters bite it, things get real (and it appears that at least some of these characters aren't coming back).

When the movie runs aground is in its ending, which is impossible to talk about without major spoilers. Suffice to say that the Chekhov's Gun maxim is employed by full force in the film and when you walk out of the cinema - especially if you know the significance of the post-credit sequence and what movie will immediately precede Endgame next year - you'll probably be able to immediately pen a fairly close outline of what happens. I mean, if they completely wrong-foot us, fair enough, but some of the choices made in the ending are completely nonsensical if you have any knowledge of what's coming and what's not coming down the Marvel production pipe later on.

Another major weakness is that the film undersells its new team of villains, the Black Order (servants of Thanos). Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Ebony Maw and Carrie Coon as Proxima Midnight are particularly excellent, but both get limited screen time (especially Carrie Coon, one of the best actresses on TV, who is almost unrecognisable).

Finally, Marvel has gone to some lengths to say that Infinity War is a stand-alone movie and Endgame is a movie in its own right and not just the second half of one bigger story. That's quite frankly untrue, and a lot of the more dramatic and emotional moments from Infinity War will live or die depending on what happens in the sequel.

If you can step out of all the meta-knowledge, The Avengers: Infinity War (****½) is a very effective action movie with lots of solid action scenes, some real dramatic moments of power and a refreshingly ruthless attitude to its cast of massive stars. It lacks the pacing, focus and character interplay of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther (or even the first Avengers), but's in the upper tier of Marvel Cinematic Universe films and in balancing an unprecedentedly vast cast with solid storytelling, it's almost achieves the impossible.

Note: the original version of this review was published in 2018.

Tuesday 23 April 2019

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Black Panther

Aeons ago, a vast meteorite crashed into central Africa, leaving behind a mountain of vibranium, the hardest and most versatile metal on the planet. The nation of Wakanda has grown up around it, developing into the most technologically-advanced nation on Earth whilst keeping its capabilities secret to avoid drawing the eye of invaders. When a shipment of vibranium is stolen by noted arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, the newly-crowned King T'Challa - the Black Panther of Wakanda - sets out to capture Klaue and avenge a great crime he committed against the country years earlier.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a smoothly-operating machine at this point, having hit a stride where it has consistently churned out well-produced movies for several years now without missing a beat. The strength of the MCU is both its over-arcing storyline extending across multiple movies (and set to culminate in this year's Avengers: Endgame) and also its growing willingness to let talented, slightly offbeat directors helm individual movies and bring a sense of individuality to them. This could be seen in the Russo Brothers' Winter Soldier (influenced by 1970s spy movies), James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy (influenced by 1970s space opera) and Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok (influenced by glam rock and the 1980s Flash Gordon). And it certainly can be seen in Ryan Coogler's Black Panther.

This film hits all the checkboxes you expect of a Marvel movie: it's colourful, it's fun, it has a slightly knowing sense of humour and it has enough of a broad appeal to keep adults and kids entertained alike. However, it also provides what arguably no Marvel movie has since The Avengers (an honourable nod at Michael Keaton's Vulture aside): a palpable sense of menace in a villain who is extremely effective. For the first part of the movie that villain is Andy Serkis's Klaue, who is dynamic and convincingly wide-eyed insane. Later on, Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger rises to the fore and Jordan plays the character with a nonchalant confidence that boils over into simmering rage. It's a powerful performance. Jordan has been on a lot of people's radars ever since his memorable turn as the tragic Wallace in the first season of The Wire, but this film takes him to another level. Most impressively, Killmonger becomes a villain who is clearly in the wrong, but whose motives are clearly understandable and who has human moments of weakness and doubt that make him a more interesting enemy.

In terms of performances, the film overflows with great ones. Lupita Nyong'yo and The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira are both outstanding as warriors defending Wakanda (one from behind the scenes and one with a massive spear), with Letitia Wright stealing every scene she's in as bonkers Wakandan inventor Shuri (think of Tony Stark, but young, female and less prone to tedious angst). Winston Duke has a small but highly memorable role as M'Baku, the leader of a tribe less than happy with T'Challa's ascension, and he gets the lion's share of the film's best lines. Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is also excellent, using his thoughtful thousand-yard stare to great effect as W'Kabi, one of T'Challa's friends and allies. Angela Bassett also has a strong, elder stateswoman presence as T'Challa's mother. Martin Freeman returns from earlier Marvel films and has a surprisingly important role to play, which he lives up to nicely (and gets an intense conversation with Serkis wherein the director restrains himself from any Hobbit references).

It would be wrong to call his performance disappointing, but Chadwick Boseman gets a little lost in the mix at times, surrounded by far more interesting characters with senses of humour, or righteous honour, or dread-inspiring menace. Boseman's T'Challa gets to be a stoic straight man to most of the rest of the cast, which is fine but does leave Black Panther feeling like one of the less-interesting things about a film called Black Panther. However, he does rally in the film's final act when he discovers the heinous mistake his father made which risks shaming the entire nation, and has to fight to regain his family honour. Forest Whitaker also has a great performance, but only shows up for about ten minutes, making me wonder if he has some contract with Disney where gets to appear for short bursts in each one of their franchises in return for a lot of bank (see also: Rogue One).

Structurally, the film is sound and keeps things ticking over with frequent changes of location and pace, and the subtle use of flashbacks throughout the film to establish character motivations. Some Marvel films trip over having too large a cast or not having enough story to fill their two hours, but Black Panther expertly juggles characters, drama, action, effects, comedic beats (of which there is a fair but, but mostly low-key which is a relief after Thor: Ragnarok) and thematic elements. The movie raises interesting questions about colonialism, imperialism and whether vengeance is better than forgiveness, but does in a restrained manner. Coogler knows this is Hollywood popcorn entertainment, not a treatise on the history of Africa and slavery, but that makes what he does do - subtly weaving these themes throughout the film without slamming the audience over the head with them - more impressive.

The film ends in a big flashy fight and the usual overreliance on CGI, although at least this time the geography of the fighting and the use of the effects is understandable. The final battle is also kept fairly breezy as these things go (learning from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's interminably never-ending effects overload, perhaps) and there's some nice foreshadowing of the stakes in the final fight earlier in the movie. Also as usual, we get some mid-credit "secret" scenes. There's only two and both are fairly disposable, although the second at least nods at the wider MCU we know Wakanda is going to collide with in Infinity War.

Black Panther (****½) is one of the stronger entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It adheres to the Marvel formula, but it does so in a much more successful manner than most of the movies in the franchise, as well as a more serious one than some of the more recent films. It's a film that's unrelentingly entertaining, action-packed and layers its story of vengeance, family betrayal, politics and blood like an Afrofuturist take on Game of Thrones. It's fun and finds time between the explosions to say some interesting things.

Note: the original version of this review was published in 2018.

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Thor - Ragnarok

Thor, God of Thunder, returns home to Asgard with a mighty artefact and discovers that things are...amiss. Soon he finds himself imprisoned on the remote planet Sakaar along with his redoubtable half-brother Loki, pitched into fighting in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of millions. Back on Asgard, the realm (and its eight fellows) stand in mortal peril due to the return of Hela, Goddess of Death. Thor must find a way of escaping Sakaar, returning home and averting Ragnarok, the end of everything.

By 2017 the Marvel Cinematic Universe had become a smooth conveyor belt churning out superhero action blockbusters, now up to three a year, reliable as clockwork. If it's a tribute to the powers behind this multi-billion dollar mega-franchise that they've never produced a truly awful movie (even Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World are watchable, if mediocre), it's also damning with faint praise to realise they've never produced a single stone-cold for-the-ages classic either. After seventeen movies up to this point you'd expect at least one of them to be a genuine stand-out, but nope (The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 come close but ultimately no cigar). There is a Disney-Marvel formula and whenever they've hired a director who seemed in danger of putting too much of their own spin on things or adopting a more experimental approach, that director has gotten with the programme or been fired (such as the fate of Edgar Wright on Ant-Man).

From that perspective, Marvel's decision to hire New Zealand director Taika Waititi for the third Thor movie seemed a bit crazy. Waititi is a free-wheeling comic genius, the director of movies such as BoyHunt for the Wilderpeople and, most hilariously, What We Do in the Shadows, a crowd-funded Spinal Tap with vampires. His approach to his films relies heavily on actor improvisation and experimenting with different ideas on set, ideas which seem antithetical to a $180 million CGI action fest where every scene is storyboarded to within an inch of its life a year before shooting starts. Indeed, when Phil Lord and Christopher Miller adopted the same approach to the Han Solo Star Wars prequel movie, they were fired. Watching Thor: Ragnarok, it's clear that Marvel stuck with Waititi for the simple reason that, as much as Waititi had made his mark on this film, Marvel had also made its mark on Waititi: this is very much a Standard Marvel Movie with the same basic structure and story beats that we've seen sixteen times before, just with a couple more genital jokes than usual that get thrown into the mix.

Structurally, the film is a bit of a mess. Typically, a film's opening will establish the premise and backstory of what's going on, either by itself or through entertaining plot action. Ragnarok's opening takes in a planet that looks like Hell with scenes set in Norway, New York and on Asgard and a completely pointless Doctor Strange cameo before the story really even kicks in. Once it does, we follow two plot strands, one with Team Thor on the planet Sakaar trying to escape from the Grandmaster, and another on Asgard as it comes under attack from Hela and the established B-cast from the previous movie (led by Idris Elba's Heimdall) try to hold her off until Thor gets his act together. This would be fine, except that the Sakaar interlude goes on way too long, leaving the resolution on Asgard to take place with almost indecent haste.

There are, however, some strong benefits to this approach, most notably that the ending is fast-paced, punchy and wrapped up with a minimum of fuss, which is a bit of a relief from way too many recent big movies with huge, CG-drenched endings that go on forever (hi, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). The downside is that the Sakaar sequence is a bit interminable. Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster is funny, but he's never really a serious threat, and the apparently "serious" character stuff as Hulk undergoes some much-needed character evolution (if you're wondering why and how he can talk rather than just being an irrational force of destruction, that gets explained) could have been wrapped up much more quickly than is the case. As usual Tom Hiddleston steals the show as Loki and Tessa Thompson makes for a compelling new protagonist as the hard-drinking Valkyrie who, refreshingly, doesn't end up as anyone's love interest.

The scenes set on Asgard are briefer, but they do feature a surprisingly excellent subplot focusing on Karl Urban as Skurge. Skurge's character arc is relatively brief and straightforward, but Urban does outstanding work with very little material, confirming his position as the single greatest supporting actor on Planet Earth at this time (get this man back as Judge Dredd, stat!). Of course, it goes without saying that Cate Blanchett relishes her performance as the evil Hela, chewing scenery and unleashing villainous dialogue with absolute conviction.

The film has developed a reputation as a comedy, even the first outright comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which is a bit of an exaggeration. There's a lot of funny lines and some characters like Korg (a CG rock monster voiced by Waititi himself) are pure comic relief, but there's also quite a lot of death and destruction (the film is called Ragnarok, after all) and a few grim moments. The comedy stuff is fine and there's a few belly laughs here and there, but the trailers definitely give away almost all of the funniest moments which is a bit of a disappointment.

One of the biggest successes in the movie is how Waititi handles effects. He's never handled a CG extravaganza on this scale before and his grasp of visual imagery is striking. Some of the scenes, particularly a flashback to a charge of horse-mounted Valkyrie warriors, are beautifully composed. There's a hell of a lot of moments in the film which would make for great paintings or desktop wallpapers.

Ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok (****) emerges as the best Thor movie to date and the funniest film in the MCU, but it's also dramatically challenged, coming perilously close on occasion to reducing Thor to pure comic relief. Although Thor has an comical side to him, it should never be allowed to overwhelm the grandiose, Shakespearean aspects of his character. Waititi does skirt that at times, but just about manages to hold it together so Thor emerges as the mighty hero he's always been teased as in the previous movies. Thor: Ragnarok is fun, funny, well-acted and has some breathtaking visual moments, but its pacing and structure feels a bit off: the film has a messy opening and saggy middle before it pulls things together for a strong, brisk finale that sets up The Avengers: Infinity War.

Note: the original version of this review was published in 2017.

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Spider-Man - Homecoming

Peter Parker is a New York school kid who has been bitten by a radioactive spider, developed powers and been recruited by Tony Stark to help out the Avengers with an internal dispute. Promised big things by Stark, Parker is soon dumped back in Queens with a badass spider suit but not much clue about what to do. Investigating an ATM robbery gone wrong, Parker uncovers evidence of a criminal gang selling weapons on the black market. With Stark busy with other projects, it falls to Parker - and Spider-Man - to tackle this threat on the streets of the city.

On release, it was easy to be wary of Homecoming. Oh yay, a new Spider-Man movie. We'd had six Spider-Man movies in fifteen years - and sixteen Marvel movies in nine years - and this was the third Spider-Man reboot in that time, which felt a bit extreme. If there was ever a superhero movie which seemed utterly redundant before it even launched, it was this one.

Perhaps perversely, the film refuses to follow expectations and fall flat on its face. Instead, Spider-Man: Homecoming was, on release, comfortably the best Spider-Man movie ever made (a title which came into dispute more quickly than expected) and is one of the better Marvel movies. A mixture of the impressive quality of the films that came after it and the high quality of Into the Spider-Verse means that Homecoming has gotten lost a little in the mix, but on a review it reasserts itself as a very strong superhero movie.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is made with a surprisingly light touch, it blends genuine laughs with a superbly-executed plot twist and, in Tom Holland, it finally finds an actor who can play both Spider-Man and Peter Parker excellently: Tobey Maguire was a fine Peter Parker but a subdued Spider-Man, whilst Andrew Garfield was a great Spider-Man but a firmly unconvincing (and way too old) Parker. Holland straddles both worlds, giving us the wise-cracking Spider-Man that cinema has been looking for but also playing the awkward, shy, teenage Parker to the hilt.

The film also gives us - in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the first time since Tom Hiddleston's Loki - a genuinely outstanding villain. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes as an ordinary hard worker who snaps for a pretty damn good reason: being driven out of business as the head of a clean-up crew picking up the debris of the Avengers' big fight scenes after Tony Stark muscles in (and thus getting paid to clean up the mess he himself is responsible for). Toomes becomes an arms dealer, selling alien equipment (or left-over bits of Ultron) for profit, but it takes quite a while for himself to cross the line into more overt, lethal villainy and become the Vulture, one of Spider-Man's more familiar enemies. Keaton also gets the best scene in the film, a conversation in a car in which he very gradually pieces together clues to uncover Spider-Man's true identity, and it's a masterclass of acting and writing.

Some reviewers have drawn comparisons between the movie and the work of John Hughes, which is a bit of an exaggeration: the move nods to high school/teenage issues but doesn't spend huge amounts of time in that milieu. Instead, Parker's struggles to impress Stark and the Avengers, and vindicate himself as a hero (at one point near-breaking down as he claims - somewhat histrionically - that he has nothing else going on in his life), take centre stage, with nods at his love life, which is more hypothetical than real. However, the high school scenes are quite funny and there's some nice inversion of tropes. An attempt by classmate Flash Thompson to embarrass and bully Parker falls flat because Parker simply doesn't give him the time of day, whilst Ned (a memorable debut performance by Jacob Batalon), Parker's best friend, is quite funny in his quest to be Parker's "chair man" who helps him out from behind the scenes.

The biggest weakness is the typical Marvel one: a slightly muddled concluding fight sequence that is overly reliant on CGI and also a lot of CG stunts and moves which feel out of keeping with the more grounded, realistic feeling the movie is going for elsewhere. This is particularly notable as the film avoids replicating the soaring but obviously fake CG NYC transition scenes from the Sam Raimi movies (highlighting that Parker isn't there yet in his skill set), but in the finale has no trouble suddenly throwing the character around a ludicrously fake CG situation that should have kill him five times over.

If you can overlook that brief dip in form, Spider-Man: Homecoming (****½) emerges as a terrific slice of entertaining, being funny, emotional and well-judged on just about every level.

Note: the original version of this review was published in 2017.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Tolkien experts Tom Shippey and John Howe join Amazon's LORD OF THE RINGS project

Renowned Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey and top Tolkien artist John Howe have signed on to Amazon's Lord of the Rings prequel series.

Shippey is the author of The Road to Middle-earth (1982), a relatively early and influential work of Tolkien scholarship, and has collaborated with Harry Harrison on science fiction short stories and a novel trilogy. Shippey is also a noted retired professor of Middle and Old English literature, and taught and worked at Oxford. He met Tolkien shortly before the author's death. Shippey is noted particular for his view that Tolkien was a "traumatised war author" whose experiences in WWI shaped his outlook and fiction. Shippey worked on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy by advising on the lore and dialects of the fictional languages. Shippey's work was quoted by Christopher Tolkien in his History of Middle-earth series.

John Howe is a famed Tolkien artist, responsible for illustrating many of Tolkien's works over the years. Howe is one of the unofficial trifecta of top Tolkien artists, along with Alan Lee and Ted Nasmith. He has also illustrated the works of many other major fantasy authors, including Jack Vance, George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb. Howe worked with Alan Lee as an artist on the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, with several key designs (most notably the tower of Orthanc in Isengard) based directly on his earlier Tolkien illustrations. Howe is also a keen military reenactor, with specialised knowledge of armour design and construction, in which capacity he also worked on the movie trilogy.

Shippey and Howe's work has already been seen by fans: Howe drew the maps Amazon used in their viral marketing campaign in February and March this year, culminating in the revelation that the first season (at least) will be set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, whilst Shippey advised on lore and fine details. In particular, it is believed that Shippey provided information on how the coastlines of Middle-earth changed as a result of the sinking of Numenor (information which was written by Tolkien, but buried very deep in his notes).

Their role in the full series will presumably be in the field of continuing to advise on the lore, and hopefully in Howe's case contribute some concept artwork.

WHEEL OF TIME TV show begins casting process

The Wheel of Time TV show has hired its casting director, indicating that the casting process for the show is now underway.

The casting director is Kelly Valentine, who has a long history in the business as a casting director and assistant, having begun her career in 2005. Her credits as casting director include Ironclad, Law & Order: UK, Fleabag, Humans, SS-GB, Broadchurch, Episodes and The Last Kingdom.

Valentine's casting site can be found here.

The Wheel of Time starts shooting in September 2019 in Prague. It will likely debut on Amazon Prime in late 2020 or early 2021.

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Some months after their triumph over the renegade Kree warlord Ronan, the Guardians of the Galaxy have been hired by the Sovereign to defend their homeworld from a ravaging interdimensional monster. Unfortunately, Rocket manages to offend the Sovereign, leading to a sequence of improbable events culminating in Peter Quill finally meeting his father. Meanwhile, the Ravager faction led by Yondu has been outcast by their fellows for Yondu's dishonourable actions and he seeks to regain his honour in their eyes...which means tracking down and defeating the Guardians.

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's more laidback and fun movies. Free of the weighty continuity built up by the Earth-bound movies, it felt fresh and inventive. With a top soundtrack, some excellent humour and some great performances, it emerged as perhaps not the most dramatically satisfying Marvel movie, but certainly the most fun.

The second movie sees returning director James Gunn attempt a tricky balancing act of giving the audience more of the same - comedy, action, space battles, quips - and also doing something new that keeps the freshness of the first movie going. It can't quite stretch to do all of these things well and it stumbles a little more than its forebear, but it's still a brave attempt to do something more interesting than a by-the-numbers sequel.

The movie is certainly funnier. Baby Groot gets some great moments but it's Drax and new character Mantis, by themselves and as an unlikely double-act, who emerge with the best material. Yondu's Ravagers also get a bit more definition and the "tough"-sounding name of one of their number becomes a recurring gag throughout the movie. Chris Pratt employs his considerable comic talents better as well, such as his ongoing attempts to explain the dubious premises of mid-1980s action TV shows to his baffled compatriots.

More importantly, the film explores character better than the first movie. We find out why Peter doesn't just go home to Earth, more of what makes Gamora and Nebula tick, and more of what drives Yondu, who emerges as a more complex figure in this movie than the previous one. The film doesn't break new ground - the idea that the Guardians are a family and that's why they hang out even when they argue is hardly revelatory - but it does offer more food for thought about these people in the calm breaks between explosions.

The film does have a fair few explosions, and if the movie does have a weakness it is the protracted climax. The first movie had a long final battle, but that battle was divided into several strands with the goals, plans and motivations of everyone involved clear. The second movie's climax goes on too long, gets a little silly in places and risks being lost in concussive CGI overload. It's nowhere near as bad as, say, a Michael Bay Transformers film, but it does risk losing the audience's interest. Fortunately the climactic moment of the battle may also be the film's funniest moment, and the movie's actual ending is actually quite decent, if perhaps drawing a bit too deep on sentiment.

Remarkably, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 does roll back a little on the scale from the first film. There's no Thanos, no Infinity Stones (although both rate mentions) and far fewer tie-ins with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the original movie. Instead, Vol. 2 is more interested in setting up the rest of the Marvel Cosmic Universe. The first movie teased it, but the second film opens up on the wider SF stylings of the setting, with more character cameos from obscure 1970s Marvel Comics then you can shake a stick at. One revelatory moment will have old-skool Marvel fans grinning from ear to ear, especially if it leads into the spin-off movie Marvel reportedly are very interested in making, whilst the apparent revelation of the villain for Vol. 3 will have fans nodding in approval.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (****) is a worthy successor to the original film. In trying to do more of the same and be different it perhaps bites off a little more than it can chew and the prolonged climax is messier and less interesting than the first movie's, but it wins those points back with more interesting character work, better laughs, yet more quotable dialogue, some great performances and another solid soundtrack (and the well-judged decision to do something different with setting up Vol. 3's). Oh, and it has maybe the most amusing credits Marvel has ever done (I mean the actual credits, not the mandatory during and post-credits sequences, which this movie goes overboard on).

Note: I originally reviewed this film in 2017.

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Doctor Strange

Stephen Strange is one of the best neurosurgeons in the world, until a car accident sees his hands crushed. Strange tries everything to heal his injury and eventually, broke and desperate, he travels to Kathmandu. In a sanctum called Kamar-Taj he meets the Ancient One, a sorcerer who defends Earth from mystical and spiritual threats. Extremely reluctantly, she agrees to take on Strange as a student. He proves a quick servant, but his hunger for knowledge raises awkward memories of a previous student, Kaecilius, who turned to evil. When Kaecilius mounts a surprise attack, it is left to the inexperienced Strange to face him.

Doctor Strange is the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has one of the less-enviable tasks in the canon: it has to introduce the entire mystical, spiritual and magical side of the Marvel Comics universe to the movies, which have so far explained everything through hyper-advanced science. But by this point the MCU is absolutely over-brimming with confidence and Doctor Strange struts onto screen with almost as much swagger as the title character when he is introduced performing brain surgery to 1970s pop music (because that's just how rad he is).

In fact, Doctor Strange is a near-pitch-perfect popcorn movie. It knows it's not an AvengersCivil War or even a Guardians of the Galaxy which is going to drag in massive crowds through bombast and slick team banter, and, like last year's similarly fun and chilled Ant-Man, it sets out to have a good time (although not quite as disposably, as this film has a lot more impact on the wider MCU). It establishes Strange - played with the requisite charisma and arrogance by Benedict Cumberbatch - as brilliant but consumed by hubris. It has fun casting him down to his lowest ebb, getting him to Nepal and into a series of training montages with Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor before he is ready to go fight villain Mads Mikkelsen in a mind-bending series of fights in alternate realities that out-Inception Inception about twenty times over.

For a movie dealing in the strange and mystical, the plot is surprisingly light and straightforward, the fight sequences are well-staged and the presentation of magic as a tangible force of nature is both different and well-done (and is actually slightly reminiscent of how it was handled in the WarCraft movie). At under two hours the film doesn't outstay its welcome and it handles its cliches with charm. The effects are also splendid: the Inception-aping scenes of New York folding in on itself are amazing, but there's also a brilliant homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the film's crown jewel, a fight sequence in a street where time is flowing backwards, with people un-dying and things un-exploding all around the characters. It's a brilliant, clever and original visual effect.

The film also holds back the best for the ending. If the Marvel movies have had a key weakness, it's been that they always get resolved in a morass of punching, explosions and CGI of varying quality. That's fine, but after thirteen previous movies that was starting to get a bit old. Doctor Strange wrong-foots the audience by presenting them with all the set-up for one hell of a massive battle, but then throws things for a loop and resolves the story in a completely different way. I wanted to stand up and applaud Marvel for finally having the courage to end one of their movies in a clever and cunning way that avoids lunatic ultraviolence and massive civilian casualties.

There are some drawbacks. There's perhaps a bit too much of Inception in the CG sequences, which start to get a little wearying towards the end of the film, and Mads Mikkelsen's villain is never really developed in an interesting manner (the perennial weakness of most of the Marvel movies to date), although Mikkelsen himself gives a typically charismatic performance.

But overall Doctor Strange (****) is a very solid slice of confident, popcorn entertainment, but which also has the confidence to try and do things a bit differently to the Marvel norm, and sets things up well for later movies in the series.

Note: this review originally appeared in 2016.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

The Great Marvel Rewatch: Captain America - Civil War

In the aftermath of the fall of SHIELD and the battle against Ultron, which destroyed a large chunk of the nation of Sokovia, trust in superheroes is at an all-time low. The final straw is a battle against Hydra agents in Lagos, in which Scarlet Witch accidentally destroys an office building (whilst trying to prevent a much larger bloodbath). The United Nations sign the Sokovia Accords, placing superheroes under severe restrictions in how they can be deployed and when. Iron Man and Captain America find themselves on different sides of the resulting argument. When Steve Rogers' old comrade (and former brainwashed Hydra agent) Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, is implicated in a fresh atrocity, the Avengers find themselves split and at war among themselves.

Civil War is marketed as a Captain America movie, following on from The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, but in reality it's more like The Avengers 2.5, picking up on important plot threads from Age of Ultron and setting the scene for Infinity War. As such it's one of the more continuity-heavy movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the (surprising) few where an intimate knowledge of the previous movies in the MCU is a definite asset.

Civil War is very much two movies. On the one hand, it's an all-action, effects-heavy extravaganza with lots of explosions, fights and chases. On the other, it's a surprisingly effective study of the law versus free will, of security versus liberty and of responsibility and consequence. That the same team made The Winter Soldier, possibly the best MCU movie for likewise tackling slightly more serious material than some of the other films, is unsurprising and it's good to see a lot of plot points from that movie picked up and advanced. In particular, the Winter Soldier storyline is arguably more central to Civil War than it was to The Winter Soldier itself.

It was around this point in time that the MCU transformed itself into a well-oiled, purring machine, pumping out reliably entertaining blockbusters three times a year. The Russo Brothers walk a tightrope with this movie, combining crowd-pleasing superhero antics with the opportunity to study the ideas of liberty and responsibility. The problem is that they can't quite explore this theme in as much depth as they want, due to the movie having a lot of other business it needs to get done. This includes introducing both Spider-Man and Black Panther ahead of their respective first solo movies, bringing Ant-Man into the fold of the other characters and resolving the long-standing mystery of the fate of Tony Stark's parents.

Still, if the film can't fully engage with the theme, it at least pays it more than bare lip service, with the disagreement between the two sides being so fundamental that it can't be overcome with a nice chat. In one of the MCU's finest twists, Tony and Steve do eventually come to an understanding, only for a fresh revelation to drop a hand grenade on the situation. In this sense the film doesn't pull its punches, which would have been an easy cop out.

The actors are all on fine form, with Tom Holland particularly impressing as the latest incarnation of Peter Parker, and we even get a good antagonist! Daniel Bruhl is a phenomenally talented actor, and it helps that his character is perhaps less of a standard villain than a catalyst for the already-existing tensions in the Avengers to explode.

Captain America: Civil War (****) is a little bit too overstuffed to be the finest movie in the MCU, but it is up there as one of the stronger entries in the franchise. It's an effective ensemble piece with a twisting, unpredictable storyline, some great set pieces and a surprisingly downbeat ending.

The Dragon Prince: Season 2

The moonshadow elf assassin Rayla has formed an unlikely alliance with Ezran and Callum, the princes of Katolis. Their mission is to take the newly-hatched Dragon Prince back home to Xadia and end the brewing war between the human and elven kingdoms, facing opposition along the way. But first they have to make their way out of Katolis and find a way of crossing the river of lava that separates the nations.

The first season of The Dragon Prince was highly enjoyable but let down by technical issues, particularly the decision to drop the frame rate for certain scenes to keep the budget down. Fortunately this problem has been fixed for the second season, where the animation is stronger and more fluid. More importantly, the shows steps up a gear with its story and characters.

The series continues to mainly be a road trip, as Team Kayla makes its way to the border. They encounter new friends and allies along the way, along with old "enemies". The best thing about The Dragon Prince continues to be the character depth. The "good guys" make questionable and difficult decisions that sometimes backfire, and the "bad guys" (who don't consider themselves to be the bad guys) have their own, often credible motivations for what they are doing. Viren is certainly the show's antagonist, but he comes across as more ruthless than actually evil, and several times seems to retreat from doing things that would cause too much harm. Viren has a low-key but fascinating storyline in which he makes contact with an elf magician named Aaravos to learn more about magic, and it becomes clear that Aaravos may be a far more dangerous figure.

This season also relaxes its attention from the Callum and Rayla relationship to focus a lot more on Ezran, who now has responsibilities after the dragon hatchling "Zym" bonds with him. Ezran's journey from a young carefree boy to a more serious prince is handled quite well, in a relaxed manner. Callum has his own journey as he tries to find a way of mastering magic without a Primal Stone, something that is supposedly impossible for a human. Of the prominent Season 1 regulars, only Rayla feels a little lost in the mix, with less to do. I must also admit to some disappointment that the entertaining duo of Ellis and Ava the three-legged wolf fail to join the heroes on their quest, although they do have some prominent moments in the opening episodes.

There is also a tremendous improvement in the worldbuilding, with the other four human kingdoms named and explored (if only lightly at this stage) and more varieties of elf appearing, such as the formidable sunfire elves who can turn into powerful lava monsters.

With the technical problems solved, the world being fleshed out more and the narrative being more interesting, The Dragon Prince levels up in its second season (****) to become an even stronger series. It continues to feel like the seasons are a little too short at nine episodes apiece, but on the flipside the producers are making the episodes relatively quickly, with at least two seasons projected to come out every year. The series is available now on Netflix.

Angel: Season 2

Angel Investigations is expanding, fighting the good fight against evil from a new headquarters and recruiting expert vampire fighter Charles Gunn and finding a new informant in the form of Lorne, the Host. But when demonic law firm Wolfram & Hart resurrects Angel's sire and old lover Darla, it sets a chain of events in motion. To defeat their plan, Angel has to alienate his friends and risk his soul.

The first season of Angel, a spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer focusing on the broody vampire-with-a-soul, was an entertaining but diffuse collection of episodes which varied widely in quality. However, in the second half of the season the show coalesced with the addition of Wesley as a regular character and became much more dynamic, climaxing with the explosive season finale in which Darla is resurrected.

Season 2 picks up on this thread with Darla playing mind games with Angel and throwing him off his game. Early episodes feel a bit Season 1-ish with a few stand-alone episodes, but these are mostly excellent. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been is a fantastic stand-alone drama which answers the question of what just Angel was doing for the century between regaining his soul and deciding to ally with Buffy and start redeeming himself, and Guise Will Be Guise is an entertaining Wesley solo adventure.

The meat of the season is the relationship between Darla and Angel and its impact on other characters such as Wolfram & Hart lawyers Lindsey ("evil hand!") and Lilah. This creates a complex, messy and compelling ten-episode story arc as Angel's commitment to doing the right thing are tested as he tries to help Darla find redemption, and then (once Darla joins forces with a returning Drusilla, from Buffy) vows to destroy her, alienating his team in the process.

Both Buffy and Angel work best when dealing with moral conundrums and difficult character relationships, and this story allows the writers to explore that to the hilt. Excellent performances - especially from Julie Benz (who was supposed to appear in one episode of Buffy and then die, so was doing pretty well here) - and genuinely surprising plot twists keep the story moving in a gripping fashion.

The season does fall down in a few areas. One of these is that it's never really explained why or how Angel and his team are able to rent out such a massive hotel in LA that is in a fully usable condition. Given their money troubles in Season 1 when they were renting a tiny office, it's unclear how they can afford this building. This is paid more attention to in Season 3, but is a niggling oddity in Season 2. Another is that there's so much going on this season that other storylines from Season 1 are minimised or ignored. Kate Lockley's storyline feels a bit undercooked in particular (Elisabeth Rohm's decision to quit the show to become a regular on Law & Order being very understandable as a result).

The season then ends in a curious manner. Perhaps feeling that the season had gotten a bit too dark and depressing, the writers decided to visit Pylea, the home dimension of Lorne, a karaoke bar-owning friendly demon who helps Angel out over the course of the season. Angel goes a bit Hercules/Xena in the final four episodes of the season, with lots of unconvincing castle sets and exteriors, and the crew helping the people rise up against their evil overlords. It's Angel's most bizarre and out-of-place story and hugely divisive amongst fans. I kind of like the whacky change of pace and the way it helps Angel come back from his dark place, but at four episodes the mini-arc is roughly twice as long as it really should be. The best thing the arc does is introduce Amy Acker as new regular character Fred, whose importance becomes much clearer in subsequent seasons.

Angel's second season (****½) is a significant improvement over the first, with a much more riveting story arc and more interesting character developments. It's a rollercoaster of darkness and grit, ending in an unexpected blaze of camp. It is available now as part of the complete series boxed set (UKUSA).