The Best Superhero Film Ever

    It has been a few days since the event that was Avengers: Endgame happened. The media; newspapers, television, internet, have all covered the film extensively, both in reviewing it and discussing various aspects of the whole MCU now that this chapter of the cinematic story has been resolved.

    There have been, in some quarters, talk of Endgame being the best superhero film ever made. At three hours long, concluding a chapter that has been building over a decade, it is indeed a great cinematic achievement. 

   It ties up threads from many of the previous films, whilst giving fitting, in some cases surprising, send-offs to characters that have been ever-present in the MCU. It does, of course, leave the ever-baffling conundrum of time travel, but as time travel does not exist, as far as we know, no one can, definitively, rebut its explanation in film.

   The question of whether it is the greatest superhero film ever made, however, is up for debate. There is a definite argument for it to be proclaimed the greatest conclusion of a story told over several films. Even some of the best-known film franchise series in cinema have suffered from not knowing when to end the story. 

    The Matrix was two films too long. The Terminator should have stopped at two, yet still hobbles on. The Godfather, as a duo, was near perfect until Coppola needed a big payday. As for the increasing awfulness of the Die Hard franchise, that is a separate blog! 

    In terms of costume wearing hero films, the MCU does not have a great deal of competition. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is probably the standard bearer, even if in truth it’s the late Heath Ledger’s Joker that defines and elevates the series. 

    Christopher Reeve’s beloved Superman went awry after his second outing, the third installment, though entertaining, was weak and the fourth plain silly. Superman or the Man of Steel has not fared so well on screen since that last Reeves outing. 

    The Fantastic Four, known as the first family of Marvel, have suffered the most in cinema. Brilliant on the page, Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm, found a place in comic folklore on the page. On celluloid, or digital now, not so much. The infamous 1994 version is entertainingly terrible, looking more 1984 than 94. The makeup is garish and it uses the comics as a template, with costumes lifted directly from pages. 

     The two mid-noughties versions are okay. Hated by the fans, they were also Chris Evans’ introduction to the life of a lycra-clad super-being. Not bad films, the problem with the mid-noughties films was they did not get the tone right. Neither comedy or drama, the films straddle an uncomfortable limbo between the genres. 

    Josh Trank’s infamous Fantastic Four effort, rumoured to have been wrecked by studio interference, was an absolute train-wreck of a film. Dark of tone, it was a sombre, meandering film, where nothing vaguely super or fantastical happens for most of the film. 

    Before being absorbed into the MCU, Spider-Man was under the Sony pictures banner. A trilogy of films was produced starring Toby McGuire as the erstwhile web-slinger. I personally, thought them all to be quite good films. Even the loathed third installment, which admittedly overdid it with the villains, was entertaining. 

   The Andrew Garfield reboot started off well. Garfield seemed to nail the Peter Parker character perfectly. Unfortunately, the follow up was woeful, with Jamie Foxx’s Electro villain bringing back memories of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze abomination. 

   When 2008’s Iron Man kicked off the MCU charge to world and cinematic screen domination, the superhero movie was still viewed as pop-culture fare, not particularly serious cinema. Iron Man, not the most popular character in comics, proved a hit, with the charismatic Robert Downey Jr. giving life to a character that would become the foundation of the MCU. 

   Chris Evans return to the world of super-beings would come in 2011 when he would take on the iconic role of Captain America. With the lukewarm reception to Evans first outing, no one could have anticipated how impressive his next outing in the red, white and blue would be. 

    The first of the four films helmed by the Russo brothers, The Winter Soldier was masterful. It was a noticeable step up in the MCU, raising the standard of story and action in one fell swoop. Following on from Joss Whedon’s 2012 Avengers Assemble, The Winter Soldier continued to lay the groundwork for the Infinity War saga, the Infinity stones becoming much more of a focal point within the MCU. 

     Civil War, the third outing for Captain America was the Russo brothers second stint behind the cameras. It was also much more of a prelude to the Infinity War films than it was a Captain America film, feeling, due to the presence of so many of the Marvel characters, like an Avengers film. 

   Away from the MCU, Fox was trying to build some sort of momentum with the X-Men films. The Bryan Singer efforts, X-Men and X2, proved very popular coming, as they did, some eight and five years before the MCU kicked off with Iron Man. 

   Singer then jumped ship and went off to make the Brandon Routh starring Superman Returns. With that decision, Singer derailed both Marvel and DC, with his Superman project proving underwhelming and Fox allowing the X-Men franchise to bounce from director to director, with no one taking overall creative control. 

   After the truly terrible Last Stand, Fox put their hopes in the most popular character of the franchise; Wolverine. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine was the only thing that carried the Origins story in the 2009 film. The follow-up, The Wolverine in 2013 is trash. Awful on every level, the most shocking thing about this film, besides everything, is that it is helmed by James Mangold. 

   Mangold is also the director behind the final film in the loose trilogy, Logan. Had I known, before seeing the film, that Mangold was responsible for The Wolverine, I probably would not have watched Logan. Thankfully, ignorance is bliss. Logan is a masterpiece. 

   I would argue, had it been part of the MCU – though given its level of violence, that would not be possible in the house of the Mouse – it would be much more revered. Everything about the film is right. The music, the editing, the emotional pull and impact, the pacing, everything. 

    As a trilogy, the Wolverine films are barely worth a mention. The question of the best superhero film ever made is different. I would argue that, as good as Endgame is, Infinity War is better as a stand-alone film. Endgame does not work without Infinity War. Endgame is possibly the best conclusion of a superhero film story. It is definitely better than the end to the Dark Knight trilogy. I won’t even mention the Matrix

    But even in the MCU, Endgame is probably only in the top five. I would argue that, as well as Infinity War, The Winter Soldier is also a better film. As a stand-alone, impactful story, it can be watched independently of all the other films and feel complete. 

    The Dark Knight definitely makes a case for the best superhero film ever, with the late Ledger’s performance the benchmark by which every Joker is measured. The entire film is driven by his performance, his character. 

    In terms of the best superhero film ever made, like any media content – music, art, books – the opinion is personal and will always be disputed. For myself, it is, up to this point, Logan. By no means a conventional superhero film – he wears no costume, there is no world-ending disaster – Logan is an exceptional piece of filmmaking, almost defying a genre definition. 

    Endgame is, no doubt, an excellent film, and a perfect ending to the Infinity Saga. As good a film as it is, it is not quite the best superhero film ever made, that is, for me, Logan.   



Endgame – thoughts (no spoilers)

     It begins and ends with Iron Man. That is as spoilery as I will get in this look at the conclusion of the Infinity War saga, Avengers: Endgame. The Russo brothers were always going to be up against it trying to top Avengers: Infinity War. Not only is it an epic film, story, and piece of filmmaking, it also has one of the best endings in modern cinema. 

    Though pretty much every MCU film has been guaranteed to bring the audience back, the anticipation for this movie has been off the charts. Endgame has only one, albeit slight, problem. You know, because of the nature of the genre, they are going to win.

   Obviously, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Anyone of a certain age will remember the frustrating, unsatisfying, endings of many an episode of the visually impressive Michael Mann show, Miami Vice from the mid-eighties. Life is hard and, at times, unfair enough. We want to see our heroes win. 

   The knowledge of them winning is one thing, how they are going to win is another. Having watched the film, I am confident that even that one smug person you know, who always knows what’s going to happen, will not be able to second guess this one. 

   There are so many elements at play, so many things one just could not have guessed at, no matter how many comics you have read or how many times you have seen the twenty-one previous films. All of the rhetoric and theorising is over now. Most of it is wrong. 

   The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen Mcfeely is masterful. There are nearly fifty speaking parts in the film. Fifty. To have so many characters interacting, without the feeling that some are just getting lines because they are on the screen is hard. Just ask any of the actors in Fox’s X-Men films how that feels. 

    The Markus/Mcfeely script has humour, emotion, suspense and still manages to tell a compelling story that one is invested in. At three hours long, the film is a test of one’s bladder if you are foolish enough to enjoy that giant Coke whilst watching the trailers. 

   Truth be told, the film does not feel three hours long, the set up from Infinity War giving Endgame an oppressive urgency that does not let up until the final act. The film answers just about every question you could possibly have had about the story arc over its twenty-one film run.

   As much as there are those who like to know what happens before they see it, I promise this film can only be truly enjoyed if you see it spoiler free. It would be a massive disservice for me, or anybody else, to reveal any of the plot points if you had any intention of seeing the film. 

   As one would expect, the film looks magnificent. You should see this film on the biggest screen you can find. The Russo’s, unsurprisingly, really added to their reputation as masters of the genre, having directed four – including Endgame – of the MCU Infinity War arc films.

That they directed the best of all the films is also a case that could be made for the brothers, having helmed two Captain America films, Civil War and The Winter Soldier, as well as the Avengers pair.

    Music also plays a big part in the film, setting the mood and scene, different melodies denoting different heroes. A veteran of some one-hundred-and-twenty-six films, Alan Silvestri is the man behind the music, a name familiar to just about anyone who watches films.

   The MCU, behemoth that it is, might seem, with all of the money and star power, to almost be bullying the competition, with any other film released around the same time as their films getting completely overshadowed. 

   What the MCU films have done is raise the standard expected from a blockbuster and, even more relevantly, multi-strand story telling. If others who follow can do half as well as the MCU have, cinema could be very interesting over the next decade. Go and see Endgame.    

Captain Marvel – a review (not a marvel)

    As a marketing ploy, releasing Captain Marvel on International Women’s Day must have felt like a stroke of genius. As the MCU’s first female lead superhero feature film, it is a film that has garnered much attention, especially off the back of the frankly epic Avengers Infinity War and its brilliantly teasing post-credits scenes.

   A few things had alarm bells ringing for me personally. Sometime back, I reviewed another female-led film, the Alicia Vikander reboot of Tomb Raider, suffice to say, it is awful. The relevance of that is one of the writers for that film, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, also managed to wrangle her way onto Captain Marvel and, unfortunately, it shows. 

   The story and script are poor. A first-year scriptwriting graduate would have gotten so many red lines through this effort, they might have considered a different career. What is even more worrying is I cannot even say there is a better story buried in the film. There isn’t. 

   There were signs that the MCU was not overly confident with this film. Whenever the stars do excessive press – even more than the norm – it is not a good sign. Brie Larson has been everywhere. Morning shows, radio shows, daytime, blogs, podcast, the poor woman has been pushing hard! 

   The film is not unwatchable, after all, it has two excellent leads in Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson, but the basic precepts of drama are wholly absent from the film. At no point in the film’s entire two hour and four minutes runtime does our hero seem in mortal danger. 

   Captain Marvel or Carol Danvers or Vers, as she is called through most of the film, is capable on a level that one could only dream of. She is supposed to have scant recall of her life as a human or, as we find out later, a possible Kree. 

   Even with no real idea who she is or supposed to be, she takes to every task she encounters with consummate ease. The antagonist, the Skrulls, are not utilised at all well. I am not one to scream about not following the comics, but with regards to the Skrulls, they should really have made an exception. 

   I understand that the Kree have been set up as the ‘big bad’ of the MCU, but that should not have created this character disservice to the Skrulls. In a better film, the misdirection could have really worked, unfortunately, the set up is so poorly executed that one is left barely caring about the outcome. 

   As with Ben Affleck over at the DCEU, some in the webverse feel that their wholly unwanted – not to mention inexperienced – take on who should play the as yet introduced Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel role, should not have been Brie Larson. 

   That fact that, with Kevin Feige at the helm, the MCU has hardly made a misstep casting wise, it seems to be the ultimate in egotistical hubris for those comic page-turning, keyboard critics, to be announcing their displeasure at the casting. 

   In my opinion – it’s my blog, so my opinion – Larson works well with the somewhat poor material she has to work with. Her chemistry with Jackson is evident and she carries off the fight scenes with aplomb.

No doubt, off of the hype of the upcoming sequel to Infinity War, Captain Marvel will do well at the box office and probably spawn a sequel. 

   In conclusion, I would say Captain Marvel was somewhat underwhelming. The acting performances across the board are good, as is the talent on show – the CGI deserves a special mention – what fails is the story and a patchy script. Captain Marvel is, regrettably, not a marvel. 

The Punisher – a review

Like many of the comic adaptations before it, Netflix’s The Punisher had previously been brought to the screen. Three films featuring the grizzled ex-marine, Frank Castle, who would go on to become the Punisher, have been made. Even though the character did have its own comic book title back in the mid-eighties, The Punisher was never a major Marvel title, unlike say, Daredevil in its Frank Miller run.
Like most of Netflix’s Marvel series, The Punisher is well executed. Unlike the other series, it is able to jump straight into the story, with the character having been introduced, backstory and all, in the second season of Daredevil. Having not seen any of the earlier versions of The Punisher, it would be unfair of me to compare the different versions. What I will say is if there is a better Frank Castle than Jon Bernthal’s I need to see it!
Bernthal is so completely born to play this character, bringing an intensity and feral believability to a character that is capable of extreme violence. Bernthal’s taciturn turn is compelling and gruesomely attractive, portraying an admirable monster of a being. Frank Castle is a killing machine, out of place in the touchy-feely, let’s-mediate, millennial generation. The liberal espousing of every person having some redeeming qualities is something he knows, all too painfully, not to be true.
The story begins with all but a select few believing Castle to be dead. He has taken on work on a building site, keeping himself to himself, whilst taking out his rage on masonry. Some of the other labourers take a dislike to him and try to intimidate him. He does not rise to the bait. Another young labourer is friendly to him, but Frank tells him that he prefers to be left alone. The young guy, waiting to fit in and looking for friends, latches on to the bullies. One of the bullies is indebted to a loan shark and needs to get some money. He tells one of the others, who tells him of a mob poker game they can hit. The bullies decide to rob the mob poker game and bring the new kid along.
During the robbery, the youngster drops his wallet, revealing his driver’s license. Afraid that his mistake will expose them all, the gang take him to the building site to kill him. Unfortunately for them Frank, who is on the site still, hears about the whole episode and goes full Punisher on them. After giving the mob loot to the kid and telling him to disappear, he goes and wipes out the mob poker players, inadvertently revealing the probability of him still being alive.
Had The Punisher decided to follow the John Wick route and have him fighting and killing mobsters, forced to come out of ‘retirement’ because they are after him and then having various affiliations coming after him – CIA, Homeland, FBI – as they realise he is not dead, The Punisher could have been brilliant instead of just good.
It could have gone the way of the fantastic Jessica Jones, the little known super-powered private eye in the comics, brilliantly realised in her own Netflix series, utilising characters from the comics but bringing a compelling story.
With the exception of the poorly written lead character portrayed by a GOT popular Finn Jones in Iron Fist, all the acting and performances in Netflix’s Marvel fare have been universally excellent, central and supporting characters alike. It is in the area of story, something that was so strong in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, to a lesser extent in Luke Cage, where Marvel has begun to falter.
The Iron Fist story and central character were an unholy mess, making the decision to have The Defenders have it as a launch pad an odd one. In The Punisher, the writers decided to use the death of his family and an ‘off-the-books’ covert mission, that was recorded (of course), when the squad he was part of executed a prisoner, as the premise for the series. The fact that they decided to put Ben Barnes’ (excellent) Billy Russo character in the trailer doing something nefarious was a spoiler of the worst kind.
With its top-shelf acting and first-rate fight choreography, not to mention the excellent editing, The Punisher is somewhat redeemed, though not wholly, allowing the cliched story to chug along nicely. The real issue with the story is not that it is bad, it is that it is too familiar. There are no surprises at all. Every cliche and stereotype box is ticked; a despicable drug smuggle? Tick. A powerfully positioned ‘secret’ overlord? Tick. A slick, but deadly, an old friend who swaps sides and becomes a fearsome adversary? Tick. Innocents in danger? Tick. It is all in there. There really was not enough story to sustain a thirteen episode arc, with some of the middle episodes akin to a more exciting episode of Homeland.
It is a pity that the overall arc is so tiresome because, as I never tire of saying, the performances are first class. No doubt The Punisher will get a second outing, one can only hope that Frank Castle can be found in a more interesting and challenging situation.

Watching Heroes

I went to see Spider-Man  Homecoming yesterday, the sixth outing of the popular comic character since its big screen debut in 2002. It is also the third rebooting of the character, marking three incarnations in fifteen years. When a failing Marvel comics sold the rights to some of their characters, before Marvel Studios became established as the connected cinematic juggernaut it is today. Bryan Singer’s X-men, released in 2000, kicked off the boon for comic book movies. The rights to the X-men were and remain owned by Twentieth Century Fox.
Sony Pictures, who had acquired the rights to the Spiderman, followed suit in 2002 with the release of Spider-Man, starring man-cum-boy, Tobey Maguire. A massive hit for Sony, two sequels were released before Marvel joined the film party with the movie that rejuvenated not only Marvel but also the career of Robert Downey Jr with the release of 2008’s Iron Man.
With Iron Man doing gross receipts of over half a billion dollars, Marvel knew they had struck gold. Superheroes were popular, unfortunately for Marvel, one of their best-known characters was still owned by Sony. Sony, no mugs themselves when it comes to films, rebooted the property, this time with Andrew Garfield taking the lead. Though hated by comic geeks and some film fans for being a lazy reboot, the film grossed three-quarters of a billion dollars.
As the Marvel juggernaut gathered pace, they had the foresight to connect all of their stories, with even some television crossover. As all comic characters, both DC and Marvel, have extensive histories and a rabid knowledgeable fanbase, faithful adaption of the characters is quite important. Along with fully rounded characters, there are the well-known story arcs and the many nemeses that are synonymous with each hero.
Anybody who knows anything about films knows that there was always going to be some artistic licence. Bryan Singer not only ignored the costumes of the comics – rightly – he also decided to change the ages and appearances and belatedly the characters of some of the protagonist/antagonist. Wrong.
Still, it would be an extravagant waste of time to recreate a moving version of a comic book story. The ego that is Zack Snyder did that with Watchmen, a near three-hour recreation of the comic. It looked good as his films generally do, but once one had read the comic was pretty pointless.
Marvel decided they wanted an overall story arc, one that would connect all of their films. They decided to go with Civil War. Now whereas Watchmen suffered from comparison with the comic because Civil War was across several titles it does not have the same problem, especially as Marvel have not recreated those stories, they have just taken the overall premise of the Civil War story and used it as the anchor for their films.
Back to Spider-Man. Spider-Man is an integral character in the Civil War story. Though in the comics he is older – in the new film he is a school boy – Marvel obviously felt it was necessary to try and bring the popular web-slinging hero into the fold.
So after Sony’s fifth effort, we have a sixth and third reboot with Tom Holland taking on the mantle of bringing Peter Parker and his alter-ego to life for the big screen. It has to be said the seamless way in which Marvel has integrated Spider-Man into their cinematic universe is a testament to their vision and forward thinking. Spider-Man Homecoming is every bit as slick as you would expect. You can check out a review here.
What I will say is it is noticeable, visually speaking, that this incarnation of Spider-Man is a Marvel one. The colour palette is definitely all MCU, with the best villain thus far of all the Marvel films, suffering from the muddy blacks that are the trademark of Marvel films. Apparently, Spider-Man is going to be the character that takes us, the audience, into phase four of the Marvel master plan. As it was with Iron Man, utilising the heads up display in Tony Stark’s futuristic combat suit, Marvel has anticipated how to fill the void left by the inevitable departure of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and given Spider-Man a hi-tech, talking suit, courtesy of Tony Stark.
The superhero genre has been strong for almost two decades now and shows no sign of slowing down. It will be interesting to see where the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes after the completion of phase four. Spider-Man Homecoming is a great start.