The Friendly Film Fan Discusses the Latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After Marvel Studios rolled out Thor: Ragnarok in November of 2017, courtesy of director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows), the entire landscape surrounding the character changed, seemingly overnight. Gone was the self-serious, dour god with his grandiose Shakespearean aura and booming voice, and gone was the dramatic emphasis on world-ending stakes (at least in Thor’s own movies). Also gone was Jane Foster, Thor’s love interest in the first two of his solo films, and the driving force behind the plot of the second. With a striking tonal shift and Natalie Portman refusing to come back for the third film due to its fallout with original Dark World helmer Patty Jenkins, Ragnarok felt like a reset, a fresh-faced new start for both the character of Thor and for the way in which the MCU would handle most solo films going forward, at least if they weren’t already in production. Even with the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy films – which thrived on their absurdity and James Gunn’s comic sensibilities – no one knew if people would buy into a character whose entire mode of being was revamped just before he showed up for the grand finale of the whole Infinity Saga with everyone else. For any other character in the MCU, the switch would have come way too late. And yet, the gamble paid off. Not only was Ragnarok a bigger hit than the first two Thor films, it was a major hit on the critical scale, its highest praises being Chris Hemsworth’s comic timing and Taika Waititi’s heartfelt storytelling. It came the closest of any solo film apart from Captain America: Civil War to grossing $1 billion at the domestic box office (Black Panther would shatter that record only three months later). Naturally, Marvel Studios wanted Waititi back for another go-round, but unfortunately, Love and Thunder isn’t nearly as successful in its storytelling (and is likely to be less successful in its box office) as its predecessor was.
To be sure, there is a lot to like about Love and Thunder, from its design work to most of the performances. Chris Hemsworth is so much Thor now that seeing him outside of the MCU feels alien, as if those are his alternate personas whereas Thor is his real one, and it works here just as well as it always has, with great comic timing per usual. Christian Bale - easily the best part of the movie – is gripping as Gorr the God Butcherer, wringing a genuinely terrifying, nuanced performance out of a character whose screen time essentially amounts to threats of action but little else. And of course, as heavily advertised, there is the return of one Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to the franchise. Portman is definitely having a lot of fun here, and you can feel it coming through the screen (though her character’s story leaves a bit to be desired, which will be discussed in the spoiler review I may or may not forget to write). Who wouldn’t love wielding Mjolnir with biceps like those and summoning lightning from the heavens? Essentially, almost everything that worked last time – good performances, cool villain, fun side characters, uniquely styled production, solid classic rock-heavy soundtrack – works again. Even some of the jokes land in unexpected ways. But that’s not enough to carry a movie that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be or what story it wants to tell. As a matter of fact, it seems like it doesn’t know whose story it wants to tell.
As Korg narrates (which happens multiple times), we’re taken through the storylines of a few different characters, and while I won’t spoil much more than that here, a lot of time is spent with each before we have to go back to do the whole thing again with whoever’s next in line. This causes the film to feel messy, unfocused, and improperly paced. If anything, Love and Thunder isn’t quite long enough to give the necessary space to everything it wants to do. The adventure this time around has almost nothing to do with helping the characters resolve any inner conflicts – as all the best stories do – and that adventure occupies most of the runtime without ever truly coming together with what the characters are going through except by proxy or when it’s unavoidable. This is where the issue arises wherein the film doesn’t seem to know what story it’s telling, or whose.
Plot-wise, this one is already pretty thin, so any time devoted to non-plot-essential stuff has to focus on emphasizing whatever themes the movie has through its characters’ actions. The first Thor was about humility being the key ingredient in leadership, knowing that one cannot lead without first humbling themselves. Ragnarok was about a civilizations demise in the wake of their own genocidal past not only being justified but righteous and that any true nation is made up of the people within it rather than the ground they stand on (it really is a subtly deep movie). In fact, The Dark World is the least liked Thor film largely due to the fact that it’s not actually about much other than setting up what’s to come (that and its first half is genuinely boring). Love and Thunder – though it’s not setting up anything in particular – has the same problem.
There doesn’t seem to be a unifying theme or message here. What is this movie about? The question isn’t “what happens in the plot?” or “what beats does the movie hit before moving on to the next?” or even “what do the characters have to do to advance the story,” but what is this movie about? Having seen it a few days ago, I still don’t really have an answer. The film doesn’t really have an identity of its own, only one similar to its predecessor and nostalgic for its franchise beginnings. And as far as whose story this is, that sort of thing would typically arise from whose internal conflict the movie is attempting to resolve. Some would say Thor’s, but there’s not a lot of emphasis on his “figuring out who he really is,” as the marketing told us, since the conflict with Gorr takes up most of that space and doesn’t really explore that aspect of Thor’s character at all. Others may say Jane’s or even Gorr’s, but Jane doesn’t really have an internal struggle to speak of, and while Gorr does have both internal and external conflicts, they don’t really match up with each other very well.
As far as character, Love and Thunder also skews fairly close to the bones of what it needs for any interactions between them, and apart from Thor and perhaps Valkyrie, hardly any of them are given anything interesting to do. To justify bringing Jane Foster back into the fold so she can become “The Mighty Thor,” the film doesn’t really give more than a half-assed answer, and the rest of the time, she doesn’t really drive the plot forward at all. It’s as if she’s “along for the ride” but never actually gets to drive. Gorr, too, is also given almost nothing to do for most of the film, which testifies to Christian Bale being one hell of an actor, since his performance remains the best part of the movie. Even Korg and Valkyrie don’t really do a whole lot. As I’ve noted before, though, these are larger issues kept beneath a shiny surface, and that surface does look pretty nice on the whole.
All in all, the MCU’s latest entrant is a fun summer romp, tailor-made for a casual Sunday afternoon viewing, but doesn’t have much else going for it beneath the surface. Unfocused, oddly paced, and thinly plotted, its best moments can’t suffice for the fact that it doesn’t really seem to have much substance beneath its candy-coated exterior, or anything it wants to say. Even Doctor Strange 2 at least had Sam Raimi’s whacky filmmaking to keep it interesting, but this one doesn’t really make a lot of interesting choices in that vein, at least not choices that haven’t been proven to work before. It mostly succeeds on its own terms, and it’s hardly the most aimless thing or one of the worst efforts that Marvel Studios has produced thus far, but Thor: Love and Thunder will likely rank pretty low when paired with the whole of what the MCU has to offer.
I’m giving “Thor: Love and Thunder” a 6.5/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
This review briefly touches on some of the plot setup for this film. You have been warned.
The MCU has always been a little bit self-serious. Even in the films where comedy was the primary mode of storytelling (i.e. the Guardians and Spider-Man films), one has a distinct sense that though the material is self-aware, it’s not especially zany or eager to become playful with its subject matter, particularly on the crafts side. There are no star wipes, no cuts-to-black in the middle of proceedings, and zero freeze-frame lining the walls of the most popular and easily the most successful franchise – both critically and commercially – ever committed to digital rendering. There aren’t even any transitions where one frame bleeds into another as if characters are invading the narrative to take over its main thrust. Most of it, to be frank, is fairly straightforward comic-book storytelling, as straightforward as those things can be when dealing with a purple genocidal alien and a pair of best friends who take the forms of a tree and a raccoon. Generally speaking - and apart from the Guardians films – there’s not normally a ton of risk involved in directing a Marvel Studios film, at least not in terms of an audience being jarred by one’s sense of style; that can get boring after a fashion. In all truth, the MCU needed to get a little silly to stay fresh. It needed to evolve from a mere action/comedy franchise into something more akin to a fun exploration of what kinds of MCU stories can be told. And that, by far, is the biggest strength director Sam Raimi offers in directing the newest entry to the Disney juggernaut, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
As the titular sorcerer travels the multiverse with the help of newly-introduced multiverse-hopper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) in order to stop a fearsome evil from pursuing them and ultimately taking America’s power for its own, one can sense the Sam Raimi style bleeding into the frames from the edge until they consume the story entirely. There are multiple action sequences with genuinely silly effects – one in particular involving a classical music composition – and any number of transitions those unfamiliar with Raimi will no doubt notice as being distinct amongst the wider MCU. Raimi’s been no stranger to camp, ever since his original Evil Dead release in 1981, and it peppers Multiverse of Madness in some fairly significant ways. Another storytelling element to which Raimi is no stranger is horror; Multiverse of Madness is not a full-on horror film, but it does get significantly closer to that genre than any MCU movie has to date, though just how close Raimi was allowed to get is in question since Scott Derickson, the film’s original helmer, presumably left the project because Marvel didn’t want him to get too close to making an actual horror film. That said, certain images and moments are crafted with a horror element in mind, as is evident in certain sequences and with particular characters, especially the villains this time around.
Where the film runs into significant problems is its script, one that can’t seem to decide whose story it’s telling or how it wants to go about telling it. Whereas the initial Doctor Strange film had the benefit of being an origin story, thus only needing to set up one character, Multiverse of Madness carries the unwieldy task of not only introducing us to America Chavez, but to the multiverse at large, and all that it contains, both in its more brief appearances and its more significant layovers. That means a lot of characters and a lot of worlds to cover in a fairly short span of time, and it’s not always up to the task. Unfortunately, though the film certainly has at least a small arc for its titular hero, and he is very much in the center of the frame, the introduction of the wider MCU means that stories in which he’s involved can’t only focus on him now – even if he is, as noted, the title character. Because of all the setup involved, as well as needing to handle at least two other mainline characters’ stories, Strange feels a little bit pushed to the background in terms of development here. We know about him by film’s end almost as much as we knew at the beginning, and apart from some rudimentary introductory material, we don’t really know that much about what kind of person America Chavez is either. That said, MCU movies have bounced back from character development issues and over-bloat before – hell, even Iron Man 2 – the worst MCU movie – still coasts on the charms of Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson.
What Multiverse of Madness may not bounce back from is in how it handles the Wanda Maximoff character, whose MCU journey has been one of the most compelling of any of her cohorts across four movies and her own Disney+ limited series (though the number of movies drops to three if one considers she only briefly appears in Avengers: Endgame). It’s not to say that the place Wanda ultimately ends up in the film makes no sense, but on the whole, it’s merely a repeat of her emotionally-driven arc from WandaVision without the necessary developments taking place to get her back to where she needs to be at the beginning of it (I’m deeply sorry if that sentence is confusing, but keeping this spoiler-free means that will occasionally happen). There is one small line during the first act that hints at what might be driving Wanda towards this point of origin, but no justification for it or demonstration of its truth beyond what we already know from that series. Elizabeth Olsen, as always, acts the hell out of whatever she’s given to do, but her function in this film is more so as a plot device than as her own distinct character, ditto America Chavez for most of the film’s runtime. Wanda begins at an endpoint here without the MCU having earned that journey for her character, and while her story in this film may make sense in a vacuum, the question of how everything connects to the wider MCU forces it to confront a near-antithesis of itself without so much as a guide to who she is or who she has been.
All in all, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does bring some of that much-needed fun back to the film side of the MCU, where nearly everything has been soaked in dour, post-Endgame dread or multiverse acknowledgement/setup, and is able to bring some of that Sam Raimi zaniness to this world with a decent amount of success, but the script for the film can’t seem to handle the weight of what it needs to accomplish in the amount of time it has to accomplish it. Everything that doesn’t work takes up a lot of the spotlight from the things that do, and despite the myriad showcases of style, some fun cameos, and a healthy dose of zany horror, this MCU entrant may end up disappointing audiences on a number of levels. Perhaps this film needed to be longer in order to accommodate everything it needed to include and flesh out some of its more significant pacing issues, but – while I won’t say I wasn’t at least a little bit let down by some of its less favorable material – for my part, it is refreshing to see the MCU dive head-first into becoming something almost entirely different than what it’s been to this point.
I’m giving “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” a 7.6/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down Sony Pictures’ Latest Comic Book Movie Release.
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Sony Pictures’ latest Spider-Man spinoff universe movie, Morbius – a frankly lifeless adaptation of Morbius the Living Vampire – was meant to come out pre-pandemic, or even that its first delays were due to production issues and reshoots, rather than Covid itself, but what no one should be forgiven for is insisting on a theatrical release when its VOD numbers likely would have been much higher, and far more appropriate given its quality. Theatrical selection is far more specific now than it used to be, what with Covid-19 still being around – though in far less fatal quantities – and patrons being more likely to be choosy about how much time they want to spend in a movie theater given what we’ve all been through over the last two years. Time is precious to individual and collective alike, which is why Morbius may well be the most offensive film to see right now in that context. That’s not to say that it’s awful, or outright trash; in fact, it’s not even the worst comic book movie I’ve seen over the past few years (though not for lack of trying). It’s just a colossal waste of time, continually insisting that it’s far cooler than it is and entirely incognizant of how needless its existence ends up being.
The film begins with Jared Leto’s titular character (Dr. Michael Morbius) already at the cave audiences saw in both the film’s trailers, where he intends to trap vampire bats in order to extract their blood for medical research, and then immediately jumps back almost thirty years for the tiniest morsel of backstory before whiplashing us back into modern day with no reason why. The structure of this movie is so out of sorts that entire scenes take place without needing to, and those that are necessary don’t seem to take place in the order they were meant to. The cave scene itself seems to have been an afterthought to the whole proceeding, or shot as part of an entirely different telling of the story, one of two different versions that both show up here, forced together as if the puzzle pieces were made to fit, rather than designed to. In fact, the first third or so of the movie is structured this way, as if two different versions of the story were written but unfinished, and thus Jane the Virgin’d into the same film when that method rarely – if ever – works in storytelling.
Morbius is either all plot with no character or no plot with an anti-character agenda. Not only does the movie itself not seem to have any identity beyond “character for universe,” the characters themselves leave no lasting impact or legacy beyond their time on screen, and even then, the impact is generously dull. In the scene I mentioned where the audience is jumped back almost thirty years, we meet Matt Smith’s character, who is meant to have grown up with Leto as the rich kid with the same disease because there needs to be an excuse for him to be in the movie, but the film never really does anything with him beyond what it telegraphs in that scene. Ditto the film absolutely wasting the immense talents of Jared Harris by having him simply stand around and talk a little bit to Smith’s character about some things but giving him no actual motivation, no pathos, no depth, try as Harris might to infuse something of note into his dialogue.
And that’s the largest problem with this movie: no matter how hard Leto tries, or Harris, or even Smith as he and Leto let their decent chemistry carry a single conversation – no one can save this movie from its colossal level of inconsistency, of ideas, of writing, of character motivations, of essentially anything. Perhaps most hypocritical about the movie is how rushed its pacing is, given how simultaneously tedious sitting through it feels. There is not one single thru-line of the film that makes any impact on the world it inhabits, and no subplot it either seems to just skip to the end of or drop entirely. Characters contradict the very ideas the film is asking the audience to take seriously multiple times, up to and including the insinuation that because Leto’s character doesn’t mean to kill eight people, he’s assuaged of his guilt for doing so, even going so far as chastising another character for killing one on purpose. The film’s shooting style, occasionally finding some sort of sleek and modernist identity, abandons it every time an action sequence comes up, choosing instead to bring in everything trick people remember from 2005; in short, the action sequences look like shit, if you can see them at all, with visual effects so bad that everyone who complained about Black Panther should be required to pen a ten-page apology letter to Ryan Coogler for ever deigning to say so out loud. Even the film's two credits scenes (which both take place before the credits end) ring as completely nonsensical given the already established multiverse rules of Spider-Man: No Way Home. To dive further into why the movie doesn’t work may require spoilers, but honestly, doing a spoiler review for this one would mean watching it again, and right now I can’t think of anything I’d like to watch less.
Morbius may not be offensively terrible, or even all that batshit a comic book film on its face, but it is without doubt the emptiest to come out in quite some time to take itself as seriously as it does. Inconsistent writing and no characterization combine with a rushed pace to make a tedious film that doesn’t seem to have any actual ideas, of its own or even that it’s stolen from other, more successful creations of its kind. It has nothing to say, nothing that matters, and no identity. Theaters all over the world need movies right now that people can get excited to go out and see, that will get them pumped about going back to the theater, and there are a myriad of experiences worth having in theatrical settings – but this won't be one of them.
I’m giving “Morbius” a 3.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Matt Reeves' take on the Caped Crusader is a Triumph of Noir Filmmaking.
Through the many iterations and adaptation of the Caped Crusader’s adventures, the Batman character has always been one of DC’s most beloved characters, both because it’s easier to make media content centered around a non-superpowered person (meaning much less VFX work is necessary) and because he belongs to inarguably the most iconic trilogy of superheroes ever to grace a comic book page, the other two being Superman and Wonder Woman. But that’s not what The Batman is concerned with – its aspirations are closer not to legends, but scandals, not to symbols or ideas, but to the pursuit or revelation of truth, whatever that means for a city as corrupt and seedy as the title character’s hometown of Gotham City. It’s a world and a character ripe for crime capers and film noirs, but for whatever reason, the closest anyone has come to making a straight-up crime drama in a Batman movie before now was in 2008’s The Dark Knight, which wasn’t so much about Gotham or the Batman character as it was about whatever was happening to them as the Joker made his arrival. The Batman is not that movie. Director Matt Reeves’ solution to taking on the Batman story is to start not quite at the middle, not quite at the beginning, and do what should have seemed obvious from the get-go: make it a detective noir story.
The Batman picks up just a few years into Bruce Wayne’s tenure patrolling the Gotham rooftops and alleys, which begins with Robert Pattinson’s voiceover not just explaining what kind of Batman he is, but what kind of story the film is about to tell; it’s one of seediness, corruption, scandal, darkness, and reckoning. Without diving too far into spoiler territory, the opening sequence of the film – just before Pattinson gives us his voiceover – is certainly the darkest a Batman movie has ever had the balls to put right up front, but it’s the nature of what we’re seeing and why we’re seeing it here that lends credence to the idea that while Gotham’s reckoning has come and gone, Batman’s is just beginning. It’s not only a reckoning well-formed and expertly told, but one that could only happen in a noir story like this.
What makes The Batman succeed where other “dark” adaptations failed is all in the eye of the beholder – that’s not me saying it’s a subjective opinion (though it is), but that what this film gets right is on display for all to see. The further we dive into the plotting of the film, the more beautiful it begins to look beyond what we’re shown for shock value or whatever was used in the trailers. Beyond the gorgeous wide shots, the striking color palettes, the makeup work, minimal use of visual effects, we see shadows. We see Batman emerge from them even as the camera has been focused on them for quite some time with nothing in sight. The only other Batman movie to get close to this was Batman v Superman when the dark knight first appears, but that movie never does that again. The Batman, by contrast, does it three or four times over the course of the film, and each time, it works, which makes Gotham’s lower-level criminals fear his being nearby, whether he’s actually there or not, and in turn lets the audience understand why.
Why is the big question posited by The Batman as its mysteries begin to unravel over the course of its three-hour runtime (a runtime which is felt, but not resented). Though it does back out of some of its more challenging material at one or two points, the answers to that question are nonetheless riveting to discover, especially when the script attempts to challenge some more traditionally held views on how the Batman story is meant to go and how the audience has become familiar with certain versions of characters the films rarely, if ever, actually explore. Few films about superheroes can challenge whether they belong on the pedestals we built for them, but fewer still can challenge whether their particular brand of heroism does more harm than good. That’s something usually reserved for anti-heroes, the answers usually falling along the lines of “I’ll go good” or “it doesn’t matter.” In The Batman, it does, especially where Paul Dano’s chilling, calculatory Riddler is concerned. “Unmasking the truth” is Riddler’s obsession, through violence or psychological terror, but we never wonder what it is he’s doing or how – we want to know why.
As Michael Giacchino’s instantly iconic score for the film blares through the theater speakers to signal the arrival of the Batmobile with all its cacophonous sound, we’re not obsessed with the epic car chase sequence or the many hand-to-hand fights leading up to this moment, but with what might happen after, since it might give us more answers to “why?” (though the car chase and those action sequences are excellent in practice as well). We’re not here for an action film, we’re here to help solve the mystery of what’s going on with the world’s greatest detective guiding us along the way. It’s the milieu of Gotham that intrigues most; who holds the power? What do they use it for?
The most intriguing of these social elite are the Penguin (Colin Farrell), who owns a nightclub in the city that Zoë Kravitz’s seductive Selina Kyle works at when she’s not parading around the Gotham rooftops herself (though the name “Catwoman” is never actually mentioned), and John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone. Waiting in the wings with naught but a few words to share and a lot of money to move around, these are the guys who make things happen, and the why of it all is what makes them the most interesting secondary villains to watch, even as Riddler remains the most captivating core antagonist since Heath Ledger’s Joker back in 2008 by taking down people exactly those kind of characters, though his focus is centered on Gotham’s social elite.
Reviewing a film like The Batman without discussing some of its more interesting elements in a spoiler-heavy fashion is a tall task – there’s not that much to spoil that anyone who watches the film won’t expect, but in describing how it all fits together and what’s great about it, there are some heavy-spoiler plots I can’t really divulge in a meaningful way. But, in summary, it’s an excellent crime noir with a visionary look, excellent sound design, an instantly iconic score, and performances that aren’t necessarily standouts, but that more than get the job done. Does it really matter if it’s better or worse than The Dark Knight?
I’m giving “The Batman” a 9.1/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.