Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020) – So What Happens Now?

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (Video 2020) - IMDb

      This is a film that brings an end to the ongoing films in this Franchise. This is a Franchise that includes all the Batman stories with Damian Wayne, the different Justice League films, the Teen Titans films and Justice League Dark. So, how does it stick to landing? Without going into spoilers I liked a fair amount of the world that we see and the character dynamics but some bad performances and the ending ruin what could have been a dark ending with hope. In the end, this is not a film I’d recommend as I feel the ending cancels out all the choices that were made over the course of the film.

The film was directed by Matt Peters and Christina Sotta and written by Mairghread Scott.

The story follows the Justice League as they plan an attack on Darkseid’s world of Apokolips in order to prevent an invasion of Earth.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Failed Attack on Darkseid – I like how our heroes attacking Darkseid fails and we see through him hacking Cyborg and seeing the invasion plans that it was doomed from the start. The rest of the story is us dealing with the fallout as he dominates Superman and makes the rest of the Justice League he caught into Cyborgs under his control. When Darkseid wins he really wins and the failed invasion sets the tone for the rest of the story. We learn the reason for his victory lies in his Paradooms. Parademons with Superman’s DNA, making them a mixture of Parademon and Doomsday. They are an awesome threat and win any battle they are in.

Earth’s Resistance – Earth’s resistance of Darkseid’s rule includes Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Raven primarily with Etrigan and Constantine until they are pulled in as well. From here we have the League of Shadows and the Suicide Squad join forces and eventually Lex Luthor himself changing sides to fight Darkseid. They are fighting a losing battle on occupied Earth and come up with a last ditch plan to rescue Batman and stop Darkseid. The resistance has a wonderful dynamic to them as the Suicide Squad controls the prison, which is one of the safest places in the world under the occupation and Clark Kent and Raven are the wanderers recruiting the last remaining heroes.

Clark Kent / Superman – Superman is defeated by Darkseid who decides his punishment will be to pump him full of liquid kryptonite, neutralizing him and after returning him to Earth. It is well done as we see that Clark Kent never stops fighting and is willing to risk it all to save the world. His power doesn’t define him, which is the kind of Superman story I enjoy. Besides Constantine and Raven, Clark’s is the main perspective that drives the narrative. The plan is eventually a success and in the Superman fights Darkseid once again after Trigun is purged from his body and in turn the liquid Kryptonite is too.

Lois Lane – Rebecca Romijin (Mystique and Number 1) voices Lois Lane and I got to say I like this version of Lois Lane. She is a military brat who has learned how to fight and clearly trained with Superman. She is the one who defeats Harley Quinn in a brawl that convinces Harley to give them control of the Suicide Squad. She is one of the faces of the resistance and I love how she drives the story. In the end she dies with Lex and the Suicide Squad to prevent the Paradooms from returning to Apokolips.

John Constantine – Matt Ryan continues to be the voice of Constantine and he is great in this. In this film we have a Constantine wracked with guilt as he ran from battle during the assault on Apokolips. His story arc is facing that guilt and loss of his love Zatanna as it is his final acts that help prevent Darkseid’s plans for Earth. We also see his pansexuality as we learn he and King Shark were once together. Sadly though, he is also behind one of the stupidest part of the film as he convinces Barry Allen to reboot this entire universe in another Flashpoint.  We also learn he ran away because Zatanna cast a spell when they talk in heaven together.

Okay:

Damian Wayne – I didn’t hate Damian Wayne in this film. It is still annoying how he doesn’t immediately help Clark Kent and the resistance, but his relationship with Batman is really well done as you see how much they care for each other. It is Damian’s risking of his life that frees him from Batman’s control.

Cons:

Raven – Raven is so bland in this film. She spends most of the story reacting to Trigun wanting to be freed and her only act of agency is bringing Damian back to life after he is killed. She is central to the story but it doesn’t feel that way. Trigun feels like a much bigger part and he is only a voice for the majority of the film.

The Flash – Flash is super bland in this and is captured and used by Darkseid after the failed assault on Apokolips. He reboots this entire film but he isn’t even a POV character all he is a plot device. I wasn’t a fan of the voice acting as he sounded bored and tired. Christopher Gorham was fine in the other animated films so I’m not sure what was going on here. His act of rebooting the universe is the final act of the film and it feels tacked on, like his role in this story.

When in Doubt, Reboot – I hate that this film ends in a reboot. A world rebuilding with cyborg heroes freed from Apokolips seeking to save the world from destruction could still be an awesome story. Instead all the growth and development we get of these heroes means nothing. I’ll still probably watch whatever the reboot is, but the fact that they thought the reboot was how to end this story really shows how little confidence they had in the world they’d made.

This is a film that I’d only recommend to those who have been watching the DC animated films in this continuity up to this point. If you want to see Darkseid as a threat and some good Clark Kent and Constantine work you will find things to enjoy. Sadly you can’t hang a story on that and if you reboot the story the audience is left wondering what the point of telling the story was in the first place. I wouldn’t recommend this film to any fans of the animated films and the ending ruins the potential for a lot of great stories that could have come out of the story this film tells.

Final Score:

6 / 10 Giving some points for telling a story with consequences but penalizing it for the reboot that potentially do away with those consequences.

 

Bloodshot (2020): Cliche Elements Make For an Enjoyable Ride

Bloodshot (2020) - New Poster : comicbookmovies

  “Bloodshot” is a film I went into expecting to find as bad. Vin Diesel is pretty one note as an actor and “Bloodshot” is from an era of comics that are all about extremes. Hell when those characters showed up during Grant Morrison’s run on the “Justice League” in a crossover was my least favorite story arc done in that amazing run. So going in, I did not have hope that it’d be good. If anything I’d thought I’d enjoy it by how bad it might be. Suffice to say, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. It is full of stupid cliches but there are some performances that stand out and made it a fun rental.

The film was directed by David S.F. Wilson and written by Jeff Wadlow and David Heisserer.

The story follows Ray (Vin Diesel) who finds himself resurrected by a company called Rising Spirit Tech after a failed operation in Mumbasa. He begins to find his purpose once more as his memories of who he was comes back as he realizes his newfound powers.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Premise – The premise of a soldier with lost memories trying to find out his past is interesting. It gave me “Memento” vibes when the reveal is what is really going on behind the memories which made me appreciate what the story was trying to do all the more. The premise is a solid action movie and how the action scenes are setup is artfully done.

The Action – The action is largely a positive. There is one aspect of the action that isn’t positive that I’ll get into below but once Ray discovers that the person in his recalled memories killed his wife we get some fantastic action sequences. Ray takes down entire squads as the nanites in his blood regenerate him. He’s basically Wolverine.

The Fights – There are a few sequences where we get some really good action as Ray/Bloodshot faces off against other supers. Specifically when he’s facing off against the two military guys who are working for Rising Spirit Tech. The main guy gets a suit that gives him an extra pair of arms in the fight and they neutralize Ray in their first fight against him.

The Supporting Cast – KT and Wigans were the only characters handled completely well in this film. KT is another Super who is being controlled by the organization but rebels and uses Wigans to do it. Wigans is a scientist who invented the code that was used to create Bloodshot. Together they liberate Ray and help take down the Rising Spirit Tech. KT is one of the prime manipulators initially before her change of hearts and Wigans doesn’t want to fight until he is pulled into it. This arc they both have is what really drives the story and I wish they’d been more central. Eiza Gonzalez is awesome as KT (she was fantastic as “Darling” in “Baby Driver”) and Lamorne Morris gives dimension to Wigans who is initially played as a joke. Besides the action they are really what made the film work.

The Cons:

Slow Down Action Scenes – For all the great action scenes there were some that really sucked. We get a few slow down sequences that make an already long movie feel longer while lending nothing to the narrative action. They could have cut down these slow down scenes and the film would have been better for it.

Pacing – The pacing is really off in this film as the first half is Ray’s mission and ends with him being used as we figure out the truth at that point that he is given artificial memories with a different person as his wife’s killer each time. Due to how drastically the film changes this reveal should have happened in the first third of the film, not halfway through given how much story there is to tell. The reveal of him being used also turns complex characters into one-dimensional villains, which is my final issue with the film.

When Complex Antagonists Lose Dimension – Dr. Emil Harting played by Guy Pearce is first presented as an ally, until you learn he’s been playing Ray the entire time and using him as a weapon. The complexity in the character act he is put on is entirely gone after the reveal. This is awful as the complex mad scientist was so much more interesting than the selfish sociopath. The same thing applies to his minions too as one turns upon the other when he sees a chance to take out Ray. Both characters were deeper initially but just became stock one-dimensional baddies by the end. If they’d been better this could have been a good or even great film.

If you are looking for a fun and dumb action movie you should check this out. It doesn’t reach the levels of good but as someone who went in expecting to hate it, I had an enjoyable time. Vin Diesel is fine even if he doesn’t elevate the role and it is worth it for the minor characters and the scenes they have. This is a film that could have been truly awful. Awful is what I was expecting but there is enough here to elevate the film to fun.

Final Score: 7 / 10 Supporting character performances and some of the action sequences saved it from being a 6.

Joker (2019): Can More Batman Rogues Get This Treatment?

Image result for joker poster

        “Joker” is a film that has received both a lot of hate and love. I can understand both perspectives but find myself on the liking side. I’m a huge fan of the Batman Rogues gallery and how different they all are psychologically is what makes them so compelling. Hell, they are more compelling than Batman. It is one reason Warner Brothers always casts big name celebrities in the roles. There is so much to do, even if we only get a glimpse into their psyche. This film is a deep dive into the Joker and it works.

The film was directed and written by Todd Phillips who co-wrote it with Scott Silver.

The story follows Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill clown for hire in Gotham City. As his life falls further apart he aspires to be a stand up comedian. Secrets tied to his past combined with social collapse in Gotham forever change him.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Gotham – Gotham is so wonderfully portrayed in this film. The city is dark and grimy and you see the build up of trash (from the garbage men strike going on at the beginning of the film) contrasted with the Wayne’s version of Gotham where you have fundraisers at beautiful hotels and Wayne Manor, which is so far away from the city that they feel barely connected. You also get taste of the everyday life from the comedy clubs to Robert De Niro’s talk show host Murray. This is a version of Gotham I hope we see more of as it makes that it is a city where unless you are wealthy you will get eaten up and spit out. Which does help explain the rise of Joker and all the Batman rogues to come.

Isolation – One thing the film portrays will is isolation. Arthur Fleck doesn’t have any friends and the film follows his point of view. We see how alone he is with his mother, when he’s working and any large social event he is invisible, except for at the end when he’s embraced his new identity as the Joker.

Joker / Arthur Fleck – This is a story told from the perspective of Arthur Fleck. We don’t really see any of Gotham besides what we see from his point of view. This is great as we come to see how isolated, alone and ill he is. He’s medicated, has a tick where he laughs uncontrollably, lives with his mom who is also mentally unstable and is in a job he hates where he has no job protection or security. I wish there’d been more of a push for him to become a killer. This version of Joker is already broken and unstable and when he does kill for the first time in self-defense has no regret, but loves the attention it is getting him in the revolution taking place in Gotham. Joaquin Phoenix portrays this sociopath really well. From his dancing when he feels freedom and his lost within himself and delusions that we see through the film. This is a character completely alone and that combined with everything else just makes this character’s already unstable mind, so much worse to the point that he adopts the Joker identity.

Dreams, Delusions and the Unreliable Narrator – One of the reasons I think this film works as a Joker film is because it still gives us the unreliable mind of the Joker. Throughout the film Arthur has visions of being with his neighbor and to him they are real until reality comes crashing down on him. This brings up the possibility of this being all a lie told by the Joker at the hospital, as the final scene is him being interviewed before he kills the person interviewing him. This film is his justification, his life where he abused and bullied, the inequalities in Gotham and self-defense, in the case of his first murders. The versions of the Joker from the comic would tell some version of this, as the Joker is never responsible for anything. It is how he gaslit Harley Quinn. For me this is what works even though the writing had a lot of tell when it needed more show.

The Cons:

Themes Needed to go Deeper – There are a few themes the film touches upon, but isn’t willing to go deeper. We see wealth inequality and the detachment of the wealthy like Thomas Wayne and how insulated the rich are from the poor even as they cut their resources. Again, it is touched upon but there was so much they could have done with this. How was Arthur and his mother affording their apartment? What were some of the policies that Thomas Wayne wanted to enact? What is the history of the Waynes to Gotham? Who are the people protesting? These are all questions that would have enriched this theme. Same with lack of mental health care, Arthur loses his social worker but we never see him interact with others in his state or hear about her other clients. These are all great ideas that exist and the film briefly touches, but it needed so much more to elevate the film and better flesh out the world.

Too Much Tell, Needed More Show – This film has some dialogue that isn’t great. Joker literally blames “society” on the talk show, which is a living meme at this point given how Disney and other studios have used the vagueness of society to try and make their films appear more progressive, without actually addressing any issues. The dialogue at times feels unnatural, which is one reason why the best scenes are simply Joaquin Phoenix quietly acting. The guy truly deserves an Oscar for this role as he elevated a film with his performance. The telling rather than showing was easily my biggest issue with this film and I wish we had gotten more show.

This was a controversial film and I have friends who loved it and hated it. I really liked it and it was a film I’d highly recommend to any Scorsese fan (Phillips clearly takes inspiration from a lot of his work in how he frames Gotham and presents characters). I hope more of Batman’s rogues get this treatment as Scarecrow, Riddler, Penguin, Bane and countless others have stories worthy of the big screen. They are much more compelling than Batman (as Batman’s rogues usually are) and I hope this film inspires more of their stories to be told. This film didn’t achieve its full potential, but I appreciate what it did accomplish.

9.3 / 10. I really enjoyed this flawed film and I hope more Batman rogues get this treatment.

“The Umbrella Academy” Season 1 – Great Character Arcs With More to Tell

Image result for Umbrella Academy Poster

    “The Umbrella Academy” is easily one of my favorite shows. I read the original volume it is based on years ago and the show captures the zany characters and character relationships that made the book so memorable. Gabriel Bá and Gerard Way truly created a beautiful world and Netflix did an amazing job bringing it to the screen. The cast is fantastic and I can’t wait for season 2 to come out, given how season 1 ends.

The series was created by Jeremy Slater and Steve Blackman and as said above based on the comic series of the same name by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá published by Dark Horse Comics.

The story follows the members of the Umbrella Academy who were all born on the same day when 43 women around the world gave birth without any sign of being pregnant. The seven adopted by the billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves would become the Umbrella Academy. After years away his death brings them all back home and the apocalyptic plot unfolds from here.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – The cinematography feels like a comic book. Color is made to stand out and some scenes slow way down, such as when Cha-Cha and Hazel are high on Klaus’s drugs and destroying a lab. The film is beautiful all the way through and focuses on characters the way a panel would. Craig Wrobleski and Neville Kidd clearly have an eye for their craft.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack like the cinematography keeps that comic book feel while capturing so beautifully how all the characters are isolated and outsiders. Gerard Way’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” and Morcheeba’s “Blood Like Lemonade.” This is a soundtrack that goes between so many styles of music while keeping an undercurrent of rock to it. All our characters are healing and going through trauma and the soundtrack expresses it.

The World – The world of “The Umbrella Academy” is amazing. You have the Commission in the future making sure bad events go according to plan and who want to end the world. There are the members of the Umbrella Academy itself and also the ones hunting them being the duo Hazel and Cha-Cha who are enforces for the Commission the way Five once was. The characters are what make this world and I’m curious to see what the show does with them moving forward.

Hazel and Cha-Cha – These two are one of the best parts of the show. Hazel is played by Cameron Britton and is fed up with the work of being a killer. Cha-Cha is his closest friend and fully devoted to the Commission. Mary J. Blige is amazing as her. Over the course of the series we see that even when they are set against one another by Five or the Commission we see there is always more going on. Whether it is regret from Cha-Cha for attempting to kill Hazel and vise versa or her rage at Hazel for moving on with another person. I hope that there story isn’t done as I really like these two.

The Umbrella Academy – The Umbrella Academy is the super hero organization created by Sir Reginald Hargreeves from the 7 adopted children who were born during the event. Each of them has powers and are used by Reginald to take down villains. I’m going to give special time to Five and Klaus as they were the most interesting and fleshed out of the characters, but it is important to mention the other members of the family. I’ll also be including the guardians that Reginald created for them.

Grace, the robot created by Reginald is the mother of Academy while Pogo is the Reginald’s butler and together they hold the secrets of what was done to all of the members of the Academy and how Sir Reginald died. Over the course of the series they go from being the most trusted by the surviving members of the Academy to in the case of Pogo killed for hiding Vanya’s power from her. They are fascinating characters and I wanted to know so much more about them.

Of the Academy members who I won’t be giving a special paragraph to. First there is Ben, the one member who is dead and can summon a tentacle monster from his body. He is still around though as his spirit talks to Klaus. There is Diego (whose power is the ability to hit anything with his daggers) who is a wonderful Punisheresque vigilante who deals with his trauma through rage but comes around the caring for the team and seeing them as a family again. There are Luther (the leader of the team whose power is physical strength) and Allison (the only character with a family outside of the team and one who controls people through suggestion) that love each other romantically and come to terms with that and how they’ve changed as people. Allison is also Vanya’s biggest ally and the one who was used by their father to hurt her the most and repress Vanya’s powers. Vanya is the one who believes she doesn’t have powers through most of the series. It is only through a creepy stalker who is manipulating her that she discovers how great her power is and kills him. Her power is energy both psychic and otherwise that she can channel through music. After the Academy turns on her and traps her she goes full bad and we soon learn is the one who causes the apocalypse leading the Academy to make a choice and time jump with her away from the end of the world that she caused.

Five – Five is the member of the Academy who can jump through space and time. Because of this he ends up going missing when he jumps and ends up in the future. Here he lives a full life working for the Commission before returning back to the present time and in turn appearing as the young kid he was once before. He is great as he is an old man in a teenage body so he doesn’t want to be with people. His arc is his coming around to his family and his work against the Commission comes to a head as at one point he works for them again as he secretly tries to stop the apocalypse and in the end he is the one who saves them all after Vanya causes the end of the world as they jump to a time and place we haven’t seen yet. His arc is also dealing with the fact that he’s seen how it all ends so wonders if it is set in stone and can’t be prevented. He’s dealing with the possible inevitability of the end and it changes his outlook as he fights against it.

Klaus – Klaus is the best character on the show and Robert Sheehan does such a fantastic job as him. Klaus’s power is that he can speak to ghosts and the dead and because of this Ben is with him counseling him. Klaus before the events of the show has been through so much abuse from Sir Reginald that his only escape has been through drugs and alcohol (he would be locked in a room with the dead as a child and was never let out). Because of this he is detached from everyone and his arc is his sobering up to the point that he can speak to their father and learn about why they were brought together. At one point he serves in the Vietnam War and loves a fellow soldier after he uses Cha-Cha’s and Hazel’s briefcase to travel back in time. He resists torture from the two of them and even manages to turn Hazel more to the good when he calls upon all those Hazel and Cha-Cha have killed. His greatest moment of awesome is making Ben corporeal which saves the Academy from an attack by Cha-Cha and the commission as Vanya is bringing about the end.

Family and Sibling Relationships – People aren’t perfect. People are dysfunctional and all of us are going through different trials from past hurt. “The Umbrella Academy” explores these relationships through the characters. We see Diego and his rivalry with Luther. Allison and her reaching out to and protecting of Vanya. Five being cared for all by all the others and the reestablishment of relationship after how long he’s been gone. We also have Vanya, who dealt with being the one without powers by doing a tell all book and how they all have to confront the hurt they’ve caused to each other that their father had brought down upon all of them. The family dynamics are fascinating and I can’t wait to see how they are developed further.

The Cost of Trauma and Abuse – All of our characters are survivors of Sir Reginald’s abuse and we see what it has done to them. They are cut off from another, escaping into drugs and alcohol (Five and Klaus) and in turn they abuse one another. The cost of trauma is constant and ongoing and we see hints of healing near the end but only after the characters have had those moments of honesty with one another on all that they’ve been through. I’m curious to see how the show explores this further as I feel like our characters are really only starting to face it and the consequences it has had upon their lives.

The Cons:

The Cliffhanger – In the end Vanya’s power wrecks the moon causing the apocalypse. Five realizes the only way out is to time travel with Vanya to prevent the end from occurring. As the city was destroyed they manage to make the time jump. This is a great cliffhanger but it is a cliffhanger, if the show had gotten canceled this ending would have sucked.

I highly recommend both the comic and the show. “The Umbrella Academy” explores trauma, abuse and sibling relationships in such a compelling way that even though I hate cliffhangers I was grateful that the show would probably get renewed. I want to spend more time with these characters and this world and I can’t wait to see where the story ends up. Definitely worth checking out for any fans of the super hero genre.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10 A great start to the show, even with the cliffhanger.

Aquaman (2018): A Beautiful Mess

         “Aquaman” is a mess. It isn’t a bad film, but it isn’t especially good. I’d put it around the same place as “Suicide Squad” in that a lot of the writing and performances are what bring down so much potential in what could be an amazing story. This could have been “Wonder Woman” if the acting and writing had been up to that quality, sadly it is not. I still enjoyed a lot of things about this film, just as I did with “Suicide Squad” though. This film is beautiful, the experienced actors are fantastic and it made me want to read the comics and learn more about the characters. This world is amazing, even if the execution is extremely flawed.

     The film was directed by James Wan who wrote it along with Geoff Johns and Will Beall.

The story follows Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa) who is called back home when his half-brother is attempting to unite the Underwater Kingdoms to destroy humanity above. Arthur must find the mythical Trident of Atlan to unite the Ocean as his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) sends the pirate David Kane / Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) after him and Mera (Amber Heard) to prevent them from challenging his rule.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe and Ocean Politics – I want to read the comics after watching this film. There are 7 Nations based off the 7 seas who are sunk down to the ocean due their hubris and each Kingdom evolved into a different kind of fish person. Atlantis is the largest of the Kingdoms and King Orm wants revenge on the surface dwellers for pollution and destruction of the ocean, so is going about uniting the Kingdoms by paying off a mercenary pirate (Black Manta) to do so to make the other distrust humanity. When his betrothed Mera (from another Kingdom) brings his half-brother Arthur / Aquaman down to challenge him, they fight and Orm wins! After this he goes full on expansionist and begins uniting or destroying the remaining Sea Kingdom (3 are lost before the film begins) and seeing it all unfold…it is a great backstory and I wanted to know more. This world is more interesting than most of the characters driving the action. The 7 Kingdoms fascinate me and there is such a rich amount of lore in this movie.

The Cinematography and Action – This movie has some of the most beautiful action in any DC film. You have giant sharks and ships with lazers fighting on the deep ocean floor. You have monsters rising from the depths and even a chase in Sicily that manages to hold a good amount of tension for Mera and Arthur as they escape from Black Manta and his mercenaries. The color pallet is as vibrant as the fish in the sea and the action is up there with “Tron” in how that color is used to illustrate underwater action. The big final battle was especially compelling and kept me entranced the entire time. It was also the only time I like Arthur Curry as a character.

Queen Atlanna – Nicole Kidman plays Arthur’s mother Queen Atlanna. We could have got a whole movie just about her as she drives the initial action escaping to the surface world to escape from an arranged marriage. It is there she falls in love with a Lighthouse Keeper who rescues her and they have a happy life until Atlanteans find her again and attempt to bring her back for judgement. After this she is presumed dead since she is left to face judgement in the Trench (after she returns back to the sea to protect her husband and Arthur) where most are sent to die. She survives, but after that is just there as support for Arthur. I loved her agency early on in the film and wanted to know more about her backstory. Kidman gives so much to this part and really deserved more.

King Nereus -Dolph Lundgren is an underrated actor if this film is anything to go by. I know he was in “Masters of the Universe” and now 2 films in the Rocky Franchise as Ivan but I never realized how charismatic he was. Here he plays Mera’s father and one of the Kings of the 7 Sea Kingdoms. He is manipulated into joining Orm when humans attack them and stands by Orm until Mera finally calls out how evil he is for standing by Orm’s destruction of others in order to rule. He was compelling that way and the most political of all the Kings, as the others were isolationist (the Crab People) or Philosophers (the fish people). His people were most like the Atlanteans and he was good as a somewhat antagonist. His love for his daughter trumped his hatred of the humans though.

Karathen – Julie Andrews plays this giant Ocean Monster at the bottom of the sea. She is so cool. It is small part as she protects the legendary Trident Atlan that Arthur needs to be King, but once he has it she joins him in the battle against Orm. She is amazing and her reveal is a sight to behold. The fact that getting to her involves fighting a bunch of feral fish men adds more tension to how quiet her lair is and the threat against Arthur as he could easily fail to retrieve the Trident like so many before him.

Nuidis Vulko – Dafoe plays the adviser to the King and was the one who helped Arthur develop his powers when he was a child. He supports Orm up to a point, even though he always wanted Arthur to return. We don’t get much on his motivation but it is Willem Dafoe and he adds layers to a sadly very underwritten character. He serves the realm like Varys and in doing so will serve even the most selfish and cruel of kings until there is one who is better.

Mera – I want to see more of Amber Heard’s films. She is the only main character with any level of charisma and acting range and I loved her fish out of water situations. She is first introduced to humans when she escapes with Arthur and seeing her interact with the surface world is charming. She also can take care of herself and saves Arthur on multiple occasions, and manages to hold her own against the best of her people. Her arc goes from hating the surface world to finding the innocence that exists within it (specifically a child’s kindness to her changes her point of view). It is an organic change and I wish she’d been the lead. She would make a much better Queen than Arthur would a King.

The Cons:

Flat Acting and the Leads – I’m covering a few things here because it applies across the board. Black Manta only ever shows anger and doesn’t have the moral complexity of a Killmonger or Thanos, at least in how he is written and acted, Orm is a little better but even his hatred of the surface world and willingness to kill and hurt his own isn’t explored either, leading to either very flat or very ham scenes, and Arthur’s arc makes no sense. He goes from a surfer bro pounding beers to the wise King of Atlantis. There isn’t an inbetween here and he is largely grating in how he continues to mock everything around him for the majority of the time he is on screen. Momoa not having that great of range for the character doesn’t help. I really appreciate how great Hemsworth is as Thor as both are similar in that they love fighting and drinking and need to come into their own as Kings. I believed Thor becoming King and that he was someone who had grown up. Arthur felt like an entirely different character than he was even a few scenes before after he becomes King. This was whiplash that I blame on the writing, the flat performance and Momoa’s limited range as an actor.

Telling Rather Than Showing – A huge thing that brings down the film is how often we are told the plot. There were moments we could have been shown, either in a painting or an artifact, but instead more often than not, Mera or an ancient King is explaining the plot to us and why so and so must get the artifact. It hurts the flow of the story and there is far too much of it. This telling reminded me very much of Episode 1 and 2 of the Prequels where we are told plot points rather than shown them and all that changes is location. The fact that Momoa has as much range as Hayden Christensen also brought back Prequel flashbacks. This film needed a rewrite for these scenes as they played into another problem, the agency of our hero.

Arthur Curry and Agency – Much of this film is Mera taking Arthur to locations to get exposition or to find a Mcguffin. It starts when she takes him to Atlantis to challenge Orm and after that it never stops. The only agency Arthur has is choosing whether to come with her or not and after they are being hunted by Orm it is no longer a choice since they’ll try to kill him anyway if he stops moving. This leads to major whiplash when Arthur goes from Surfer Bro to Wise King in the span of a scene. We never saw him make choices in regards to the people he would be leading. The choices were all actions driven by Mera to make him King, one reason she should have been the lead and been Queen. This was far more her story than his but he is the main character. If we had been shown him facing more choices and growing into his role as King, that transformation would have been believable. I never felt he was truly at risk because he never had his darkest moment. His father was always saved, he discovers his mother is alive, Mera is fine and he doesn’t care about the war between the Ocean Kingdoms. If any of these things had changed to give him a reason to take responsibility this film would have been good. All we needed was greater choice and consequence for Arthur and even Momoa’s limited acting wouldn’t matter as much.

This is not the worst of the new DC films and I had fun. This isn’t a film I’d ever buy, but it made me interested in the world of the comics and I really enjoyed the universe it all takes place in. The biggest detriment is the writing and some very flat performances. Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry never felt like he had agency. He is brought everywhere so I never felt like it was him making a choice, it was just him punching things until it worked. It made me admire the first “Thor” film and Thor as a character a lot more. I did like the Aquaman I saw at the end of the film, so there is promise for this series if there is a sequel, I just hope the villains aren’t as flat next time around and that Arthur is more complex and has more agency. If you are looking for a good escape over the holidays, you will enjoy this film and should give it a shot though. The movie is a beautiful mess and so much flawed fun.

Final Score: 7 / 10

An Aside: Pitbull ruins Toto’s “Africa” in this movie with his remixing of it in a song called “Ocean to Ocean.” Listen at your own discretion. You’ve been warned.

 

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – The Power of a Compelling Villain

“Infinity War” is easily in my Top 5 MCU films. This is a film I saw a second time before writing this review, and the only other Superhero films that have been that lucky were “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” As you can tell from those and this film, I enjoy my superhero films depressing or bittersweet. This is a film that hits you over the head with loss, and doesn’t stop until the end. Thanos is the villain, but also the protagonist, as his actions drive the film and force our heroes to make choices that define them before the loss comes. I’ll get into spoilers deeper into the review, but for now, this is a film I highly recommend.

This film was directed by the Russo Brothers, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, while being produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves the Avengers trying to stop Thanos from getting all the Infinity Stones (cosmically powerful stones born at the Big Bang, and scattered through the Universe), as when he does, he plans to wipe out half the universe.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – It is the Marvel Cinematic Universe… a universe full of aliens, cultures, clashing personalities, heroes, villains and in the end consequences. There is a reason I’ve become so drawn into the comic books. What Marvel and Disney have done is to interpret so much of that beautifully on the screen, and each new film I like returning to this enjoyable and fascinating world.

The Superhero Teams – The driving action of the film is the team-ups between different heroes. Characters clash and have to work out their conflicts in order to take on Thanos to keep him from destroying half the population of the Universe. I’ll cover what I liked about the teams below.

Bruce Banner and the Secret Avengers – The film kicks off with Thanos killing Loki and knocking out the Hulk. The Hulk is saved by Heimdall and sent to Earth where Hulk retreats into Bruce Banner. From here we see Banner reunite with the Avengers, and have to depend on his brains to take on the Black Order, as Hulk is afraid to come out after losing to Thanos. It is wonderful seeing this dynamic in action, with those in Wakanda, as he fights in Tony’s Hulkbuster armor against the alien swarm. Banner has always been the outcast in the Avengers, and now that he’s back he can’t even depend on his power as the Hulk. This forces him to adapt to thinking things through as Banner, as he realizes he has deeper issues to explore with the Hulk. I can’t wait to see where his arc goes with the Hulk and the Avengers in “Avengers 4.”

Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Iron Man – This dynamic is fun. To kick things off, Doctor Strange is the one who doesn’t care about people (he tells Tony and Peter that he will let them die before he gives Thanos the Time Stone). Spidey is full of pop culture references that annoy Tony, and Tony Stark is always trying to take control, which leads to conflict with Doctor Strange because of it. They succeed in taking out a member of the Black Order, but face deadly fallout when they reach Titan, Thanos’ homeworld, to battle the Mad Titan himself.

Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax and Mantis – 3 of this group eventually team up with Spidey, Strange, and Stark against Thanos… which happens after Gamora is kidnapped by Thanos, as she knows the destination of the Soul Stone. She has some powerful scenes with Star-Lord, and some funny scenes with Drax.

Rocket, Groot and Thor – This was my favorite team up, it happens after the Guardians of the Galaxy rescue Thor from his destroyed refugee ship. Thor’s ship was destroyed by Thanos when he picked up the Space Stone from Loki, before Thanos kills Loki. It is the death of Heimdall and Loki, and half of Asgard that have Thor full of anger and broken. This leads to Rocket stepping up to be the Captain and helping Thor through the process of healing, as they head to the legendary location of Nidavellir, so that Thor can create a god killing weapon. Groot is a teenager and full of attitude, but steps up to the plate when he contributes part of himself to making Thor’s new weapon.

The Story Arc of Thanos – Thanos is the protagonist of this film. It is desire for balance in the universe (which he believes can only come about through genocide after his planet is destroyed from running out of resources and overpopulation) that drives his desire for the Infinity Stones. Each stone costs him, as the members of the Black Order are all eventually killed by the Avengers. To get the Soul Stone he has to sacrifice the only one he ever loved (Gamora), and getting the Mind Stone out of Vision nearly costs him his life, when Thor attacks him with the God killing weapon. In the end he wins and wipes out half the universe. Where his story goes from here remains to be seen, as he achieved his goal, and as far as he knows… he is the monster who brought balance to the universe. Josh Brolin truly did a masterful job and is easily one of the best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Okay:

The Black Order – These 4 look really cool but weren’t as effective as they could have been. I would have liked at least one of them to kill one of the good guys. They might be back now that Thanos has all the Infinity Stones, so they could get more development later on… we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Battle in Wakanda – The Battle in Wakanda is pretty generic compared to most of the other fights in the film. Most of the other fights involve use of the environment and powers to try and stop the Mad Titan, where here it is a bunch of expendable aliens against a group of superheroes and soldiers all lined up. It is like every other “big battle.” It still looked good, but the genericness of it all kept it from being a truly memorable part of the film. It was the kind of action we see in every other MCU film.

Pacing – The first time I saw this film I didn’t notice any pacing issues. The second time I watched I thought the beginning could have been cut down and happened faster, the Battle of Wakanda is too long, and Thanos needed more scenes with people. Each film develops him further, and with better pacing we could have gotten more of that, or least more exploration of his faction, the Black Order.

The team ups, the comedy, the action, the characters and their arcs… there is so much I have to recommend about this film. This is a film that could have been a gigantic mess, given how large the cast was, and all the different parts that are in play. The Russo Brothers managed to pull it off. Once again, showing why they are the ones shaping the story of the MCU. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do it. This is a film that is well worth your time and shows just how powerful stories can be.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

 

“The Punisher” Season 1 – A Powerful Exploration of PTSD, Trauma and Life After the War

       “The Punisher” is one of the best things to come out of the Netflix Defenders continuity. It is easily the furthest removed from the MCU in regards to super powers, super soldiers and a level of comedy underlying most of the other works…and it works because of it. At the end of the day this is a show that covers the consequences of war, PTSD and just how difficult the process of healing from trauma after war is. This is a beautiful show and I really hope it gets renewed for a Season 2. I have not read the comics so I’m not sure how true the characters are to their comic book adaptations but I found them to be the most compelling aspect of the show.

The series was created by Steve Lightfoot as part of the MCU.

The story Frank Castle uncovering the government conspiracy surrounding the death of his family as he must learn to trust as others like Micro the hacker and the DHS agent Midani who are also seeking to uncover truth.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Action – The action is amazing! The closest thing it reminded me of was “John Wick” and the “The Raid” with how brutal the gun and knife action is. If you like action movies this is your show for this reason alone. Fair warning though, this gets brutal, very few characters come out of this not having done something bad.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of the show and the reason you should watch it. I’m going to go into the 3 main leads and the most compelling villain as they are the ones who drive the action and it is their arcs that kept me involved in the show.

Dinah Midani – Amber Rose Revah does an amazing job as Dinah Midani a Federal Agent who is seeking to uncover the murder of her contact in Afghanistan, who she discovers was murdered by an American hit squad after Micro sends her the video. From here she has to confront the corruption within the government and her own agency to take down those responsible.  She goes from trusting many to trusting few as her life becomes a bit like the Punisher’s when she loses those close to her in uncovering the conspiracy and finds out those she trusted betrayed her.

Billy Russo – Billy Russo served with the Death Squad in Afghanistan with Frank Castle and was his best friend. He was also knee deep in the corruption and he is the man who works with Agent Orange to cover up the conspiracy and kill those who find out. He tricks Midani for a good portion of the show and almost tricks Frank. He is a character who was an orphan and has used his pain to detach himself from caring about anyone but himself. This makes him compelling as he does try to care as best he can, even though he’s a sociopath so in the end he only serves himself. In the end he is taken down, but not killed as Frank messes up his face and leaves him for the government to take in. After reading up further it looks like he is going to be Jigsaw, which I’m really interested in seeing if the show gets renewed.

Micro / David Lieberman – Micro like the Punisher is on the run from the government and believed to be dead by most people. His arc is revealing the conspiracy so he can be with his family again and also reminding Frank of his humanity and that he has reasons to live. They start out as adversaries as there is so much paranoia between the two of them but they work together as they both want the same thing, even though it takes Frank a while to realize that. In the end Micro does get to be with his family but there is an unspoken pain there given that he faked his death to protect them and that betrayal of trust is something that I don’t think he’s fully wrestled with fully.

Frank Castle / The Punisher – The Punisher’s arc is finding a purpose beyond his pain and revenge. We see him when he is done and he is obsessed just breaking walls down. He doesn’t exist beyond reaction and it takes the conspiracy to pull him back in. He is the character who needs a mission and after his revenge is done he finds that mission again in the fake identity the government gives him and helping vets from falling down the mental hole of despair and trauma that he was in. What gets him there is a kid inspired by his actions who targets government and media where Frank realizes just how much influence he has and had as the Punisher and when he is given another chance to live he uses it so others don’t fall into the trap the young vet did. It’s a powerful story and him sparing Russo’s life means something given how clear his code was for killing bad people…it is his final turning point and when Frank Castle finally comes back.

When the War Consumes – Frank Castle the Punisher, the young terrorist vet Lewis Wilson (who is living in a fox hole when he gets home, and doing so voluntarily), Agent Orange and Russo…all of them are consumed by the war in different ways. Whether it is wanting to live it like Castle and the terrorist were or hiding it while still living it like Agent Orange and Russo who hid what it had done to them except for when it served their ends.

Finding Peace After the War – The main arc is Frank Castle becoming Frank Castle again and finding healing beyond what the war made him into (The Punisher). Lewis couldn’t find peace, he had to find a reason to fight, Russo and Agent Orange never left Afghanistan either as they kept their roles up even when they were home. In the end Frank like Curtis finds some semblance of peace and it is is facing his own pain and loss and the actions he did during the war and helping others to face themselves too. It is a powerful arc and theme and part of what makes the show so powerful.

Okay: Agent Orange – He is standard “Ends justify the means” baddy…Russo is far more compelling as a villain but he worked. He was privilege incarnate and he clearly relished being a baddy, which made his defeat so enjoyable when it finally came.

Karen Page – Karen is Frank’s contact through the series and at a few points needs to get rescued by him. I put her as okay for that reason. The role of journalism in regards to terror attacks is explored briefly but I felt that so much more could have been done with her role in this. She really doesn’t show up that much as Midani has taken over that major character role in the show. If it gets a Season 2 I hope we see more Karen.

The characters are the strongest part of the plot, as I knew Russo was going to be bad pretty early and long before his reveal, I also knew they would make him complicated as he fit the Mordo, Loki, etc…former friend villain archetype that Marvel likes to use. The plot is predictable, brutal and a lot of fun. So much of what drives the dynamic is you have all these characters who are paranoid having to learn to trust and that dynamic is what I loved most and can’t wait to see if the show gets renewed. I highly recommend this show.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10