Nerds are thinking about a Disney/Fox deal the wrong way

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The possibility that Disney may buy part of Fox – including crucially in this context its movie studio 20th Century Fox – has excited the attention of the geekier parts of the internet for one specific reason:

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For those of you who are not familiar with the landscape of superhero movies, let me recap quickly. Both the X-Men and the Avengers were characters that originated in Marvel comics. However, you do not see them on the big screen together because in the 1990s, Marvel was losing money and to stay afloat it sold the movie rights to its most popular characters. Fox bought the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and has been making movies featuring those characters ever since. Then in the 2000s, Marvel began producing its own movies based on the characters it hadn’t sold the rights to. Against the odds these second-tier hereos like Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow proved to be the basis for the most profitable franchise in movie history. Then Disney bought Marvel. The result was that the movie versions Avengers and the Fantastic Four wound up owned by two different companies, each making its own movies, set in its own fictional universe. If one company attempted to use the other’s characters in its movies it would be sued for breach of copyright.

However, this would all change if 20th Century Fox became part of Disney. The problem is – as Scott Mendelssohn of Forbes – notes is that it would also change a lot of other things and not necessarily for the better:

Last year, Walt Disney had a jaw-dropping 26% of the domestic box office while Fox had 13%. With Fox and Disney combined into one entity, it’s plausible to see Walt Disney’s theatrical output controlling close to 40% of the theatrical business. With that kind of hold, the Mouse House could essentially rewrite the rules for how its movies are seen in theaters (higher ticket prices, higher percentages back to the studios, exclusive auditorium control, etc.) in a way that wouldn’t remotely help the likes of Universal or Warner Bros.

Disney has already gotten heat this year for somewhat more draconian terms for domestic theaters planning to show Star Wars: The Last Jedi (because it knows that much of the money isn’t going to come from the overseas business). It justifiably got torn to shreds for blacklisting Los Angeles Times journalists from Thor: Ragnarok press screenings after the paper reported unfavorably on Disneyland’s tax-related relationship with Anaheim. While Disney relented quickly, arguably because Coco needed the critical buzz more than Thor, such a move could well be solidified with that much control of the market.

And while Walt Disney is a publicly traded company and not a charity, this wouldn’t necessarily be good for the overall industry. Fewer major studios mean fewer places for artists to pitch their work, and thus potentially a less diverse slate of movies and television shows. Less competition could also drive down compensation for said artists, and Disney would be powerful enough to (if it chose to) essentially set the status quo for compensation for the next round of union negotiations. But at least we’d get a decent Fantastic Four movie, right, guys?

To this list of worries, I would add a concern that a larger Disney would have more political power. Given the company’s role in, first, turning American copyright law from a useful system for incentivising creators into a means for large companies like Disney to monopolise the use of valuable characters for generations, and then, lobbying for trade treaties that globalise this perversion of the system, that’d probably be a malign development.

Besides all this, I’m not even sure the massive superhero team-up fans want is really desirable. The MCU seems to be going along fine. Fitting the X-men and mutants in would require a lot of – probably detrimental – crowbarring. Better to let Fox try and make its properties work in isolation. Logan showed that can lead to interesting results.

Justice is served lukewarm

I suppose I should post something about Justice League. I mean, I write a blog of which commentary on superheroes films is a staple. It would seem like a missed opportunity not to, but dear reader I struggle to muster the enthusiasm. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the film. I did. Indeed I can’t improve on Scott Mendelson’s summation that it’s “a bad movie but a great time at the movies.”

The problem is that anything that requires me to think about Justice League more, leads to me liking it less. Even passing contemplation makes it apparent that it should have been more impressive than passing fun. Even judged simply as a simple diversion, the very act of judging shows it, reveals what a flimsy edifice it really is. Everything from the VFX, to the plotting, to the soundtrack feels rushed and unfinished. It does a good job of matching cast to characters, but then takes these potentially interesting depictions nowhere. Ponderously set-up story points – from both Justice League and its predecessors – are paid off with a whimper. It all seems like a rote recitation of the Marvel formula, only without that studio’s flair or willingness to experiment with that formula. The result is that it feels more like a generic Marvel movie than any actual Marvel movie. With a $300 million budget, decades of backstory, and some of the most iconic characters in the world as inputs, Justice League is a truly meagre output.

In the rear-view mirror

That it is so generic is especially galling because when this franchise began it did have a distinct vision. In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and his collaborators were trying to create a version of Superman with credibility, much as the Nolan brothers had done with the Dark Knight trilogy. In Batman v Superman, this was allowed to congeal into sullenness that was so self-conscious it became absurd. But for the first instalment of the DCEU that meant telling Superman’s story not as the tale of a superhero, but as a piece of science fiction about an alien raised as a human, who must choose whether to save his original or his adoptive people. When superpowered aliens do battle in Man of Steel it doesn’t seem like two actors in spandex having a punch-up, but a horrific conflict that leaves behind rubble and collateral damage. That was a lot for some people to take. Many never forgave Man of Steel for not being an updating of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve films. But we’ve already seen that film – it was called Superman Returns – and frankly it was boring. It was a good call on DC’s part to aim for something more interesting than a retread.

It didn’t quite work. Problematically for a film aspiring to a naturalistic note, the cast seemed stiff and uncomfortable in their roles. The story was also a tad convoluted and reliant on co-incidences. And once the full destruction of third act was unleashed, Snyder never really found a way to modulate the sound and fury. But these were all problems with execution not with the fundamental vision.

Indeed, one of the advantages of making films as part of a franchise with an in-built audience is that there is an opportunity to fix errors. If the first instalment of a franchise doesn’t quite work out, future outings for the same characters can serve as something of a do-over. The MCU emphatically does this and as a result improves over time. There was no inherent reason Warner Brothers could not do the same with the DCEU, taking Man of Steel and improving on the formula it provided until they had something special.

Done right

In fact, if you look around the Superhero genre, you will see a number of movies that succeeded where Man of Steel failed. Using superhero franchises as a framework in which to deliver genre movies has become the norm. The MCU has now has comedies (Guardians and Ragnarok), a political thriller (the Winter Soldier) and a high-school coming of age story (Homecoming) that happen to have protagonists with superpowers. Fox is – if anything – more reliant on this strategy. Logan is essentially a pastiche western, whilst Deadpool is a frat comedy living inside a parody of the superhero genre.

Perhaps even more saliently, Warner Brothers proved themselves capable of making a film that realised Man of Steel’s potential. It was called Wonder Woman. It also told the story of a non-human with incredible powers living amongst humans, discovering our species’ good and bad sides, and ultimately deciding to save us despite our flaws. Despite the story beginning on a mythical island, once it moves to WWI era Europe, we see a serious attempt to show us – somewhat realistically – a character raised in a harmonious society contending with a world riven by the direst conflict. And in so doing, it moves into a particular genre: the war film. It is not a film like Captain America: the First Avenger, that happens to take place during a war. It is about war. Armed conflict defines each character’s struggle, embodies its themes and drives the plot. The most pivotal moments happen on battlefields. Apart from Themyscira, virtually every set looks more like something out of a war film than a superhero film. It seems to consciously eschew not only anything futuristic but also any steam punk. That serves to keep out any element that is not true to either the WWI or Ancient Greek setting. Myriad aspects of the film from its pacing to its colour palette are more like a war film than the Avengers. Heck, the antagonist is actually war himself (AKA Aries AKA Mars)!

Back to the beginning but worse

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Sadly, the kind of rich, interesting yet entertaining filmmaking that Man of Steel hinted at and Wonder Woman exemplified have largely been missing from the rest of the DCEU. Warner Brothers response to the underwhelming reaction to the franchise, was to heavy handidly correct a series of very specific mistakes, while leaving the broader issues untouched. Audiences complained about civilians being killed in Man of Steel’s violent finale. Therefore, Batman v Superman belaboured the point that its fight scenes were happening in deserted areas. Audiences complained that Batman v Superman was morose. Therefore, Suicide Squad was packed with pop music and jazzy graphics. Audiences complained all of these films were too dark. Therefore, Justice League looks like someone has stuck a colourful Instagram filter over it. Notably absent from these efforts was any sense on Warner Bros part that they needed to slow down, consider carefully the story they were trying to tell, the kind of films they wanted to make and the director they were relying on to set the tone.

Instead, they waited for Zack Snyder to step aside of his own volition after a personal tragedy. And began trying to force his version of Justice League to become the Avengers. Even going as far as hiring the director of the Avengers to finish the project after Snyder’s enforced departure. But whereas you could really feel the love and care that went into the MCU’s first big team-up, Justice League feels rushed, shoddy and above all unimaginative. I really struggle to think of anything that feels fresh or novel in the whole film. Its most blatant borrowing is from the Avengers, from which it takes its premise, structure, style of humour and – let’s not mince words – its plot from the Avengers. However, you spot elements of other films along the way too: ‘oh, that shot is a reference to the Burton Batman films, that one the Nolan ones, that battle sequence comes from Wonder Woman, that reminds me of Watchmen and it’s slow-mo like Days of Future Past’. These elements pilfered from other superhero films are thrown together to form a creation that rather ugly and hard to love, but does still lurch forward rather effectively.

In one sense, this takes the DCEU back to where it started. We’ve passed the low of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad and the high of Wonder Woman, and returned to the kind of serviceable 6.5/10 movie-making we got from Man of Steel. But while in and of themselves, the first and the most recent instalments may be of about equal quality, Man of Steel hinted at future potential, which Justice League lacks. My concern is that now Warner Bros have a template for making serviceable entertainment that avoids Suicide Squad-esque disasters, it’s will become what the DCEU will be like from here on in. Justice League there by represents the franchise finding its voice only to have it say “honestly…we also wish this was a Marvel movie.

Would I recommend Justice League?

If you were walking around thinking ‘I’m bored and have nothing to do for the next two hours’ and at that moment the breeze blew a ticket into your hand, then I’d say go for it. It’s kinda fun. If you have to sacrifice actual money and time you could be doing something else to see it, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

X-Meh

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X-Men: Apocalypse is not a terrible film but it’s a terrible waste of the talents of its director and cast.

There’s a variation of a particular line that always suggests to me that the writer of a sci-fi blockbuster isn’t over-endowed with the ability to craft original dialogue. In Terminator: Genysis (sic) the skynet hijacked John Connor tells Arnie’s nearly destroyed T-800 “you cannot defeat me” and Arnie replies “no – not alone”, at which point Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese burst in and save the day. In the truly awful, Fantastic Four Reed Richards tells the rest of the quartet that Dr Doom “is stronger than any of us but not stronger than all of us”. And in X-Men: Apocalypse Professor Xavier tells the titular villain that he will lose because “you’re alone and I’m not”.

Sadly this is the very generic place the X-Men franchise finds itself. Once a great innovator that largely created the blueprint for modern superhero genre, it now appears unable to vary that blueprint in any especially interesting ways.

Director Bryan Singer, the guy behind the Usual Suspects, is one of the few people able to make large amounts of CGI work. And he uses that talent to deliver some cool set pieces. In particular, and once again, Quicksilver’s big moment.

But this only goes part way towards mitigating the disappointment of the rest of the film. That’s largely a product of an uninspiring and unsatisfying script. As I’ve already the dialogue it contains is lazy and pedestrian. It also manages to both drag and feel rushed. Apocalypse is two and half hours long and large chunks of that run time are ponderous. Yet the film is so cluttered with characters and subplots that no single element has the space to develop satisfactorily. No character’s arc ever engages because it’s hard to tell what you are supposed to be investing in.

To make matters worse for Fox, they will inevitably face (unflattering) comparisons with Marvel. The obvious reference point is the recently released Captain America: Civil War, which is substantially better. But perhaps more striking is that the current run of Agents of SHIELD which more or less the same story as Apocalypse is also superior. The first mutant yells and relies on brute power but the first inhuman is a quieter and more insidious threat. The pain he causes the heroes feels more real and his actions are less predictable. Now we have moved on from the days when TV was considered necessarily the inferior to film. And I would argue that SHIELD is underrated and would cite as evidence for that the fact that Rolling Stone just put it on a list of the greatest sci-fi shows of all time. Nonetheless, nobody thinks SHIELD is Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. It has a decent sized fan base but basically zero cultural resonance outside of it. If a studio spends north of $200 million and hires the guy who made the Usual Suspects, it presumably wants something a cut above a third-tier Marvel project. Certainly if you’ve made Oscar Isaac’s less compelling than Brett Dalton you’re doing something wrong.

Indeed the weakness of the titular villain is one of the most striking aspects of the film. One area in which Fox has had an edge over Marvel is in its villains. Where the Avengers would – Loki aside – face some blue guy yelling about destroying this or taking over that, the X-Men have always confronted psychologically complex characters with real depth. Sadly Apocalypse could easily be a Marvel villain: he’s a blue guy yelling about destroying this and taking over that. He may be massively powerful but that just confirms that more is not always better.

Isaacs is not alone in being wasted. Apocalypse has a seriously impressive cast. Not good in superhero terms, good in any terms. Like, there are Spielberg films with worse casts. Between them, Lawrence and Fassbender have six Oscar nominations and one win. McAvoy, Isaacs and Byrne each have BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Emmys. Munn, Hoult and Turner while not huge stars are clearly bankable supporting actors, who are good at what they do. Given all this it’s not surprising that the acting in Apocalypse is good but it is not applied to anything with that justifies such an assembly of talents. Characters just show up, do their thing and get placed in position for the next film. Professor X is bald – check. Storm is now an X-men – check. The potentially apocalyptic nature of Jean Grey’s powers have been hinted at – check. Magneto has been shown, despite his myriad homicides, to actually be a decent bloke – check. What’s particularly strange about moving all these characters around the franchises chessboard is that Apocalypse is supposed to be the endgame. It’s the culmination of the current trilogy and while there are Wolverine and Deadpool films lined up, the fate of the X-men films themselves appears unclear. It’s not obvious that Fassbender, Lawrence or McAvoy will be back and without those characters it’s hard to see it continuing successfully. Thus the all too common feeling in franchises that the quality of the film you are currently watching is being sacrificed for the sake of some future instalment is compounded by the sense that it might all be in vain.

Let us return momentarily to discussing Isaacs. One of my (female) viewing companions complained that his good looks hidden under prosthetics and CGI. From my (male) point of view Apocalypse seems vulnerable to an equal and opposite criticism. Why does Olivia Munn’s Psylocke fight in what is essentially a bathing suit? Ok that’s a rhetorical question, I mean I get that it’s so the audience – presumed to be mostly men and (especially) teenage boys – can ogle her. But that seems disrespectful to character, actress and audience alike. Perhaps instead Psylocke’s inclusion could have been justified by actually giving her something of significance to the narrative to do.

That’s a fairly minor gripe. Had I really bought into what else was happening in the film, I’d have barely noticed. But while X-Men: Apocalypse is not as sloppy as Batman v Superman nor as obnoxious as Deadpool, it’s still deeply underwhelming. Which is kind of odd because on a certain level it’s spectacular. The visuals are stunning and unusually for a superhero film it actually gains momentum when it moves into a climax full of obscene amounts of CGI. But that mostly underlines how weirdly inert the rest of the film is. There’s little point marrying such a talented director and cast with a script that is so flat and uninteresting.

5 things Civil War has that Batman v Superman needed

Why Marvel won the battle of the battling superheroes

*Abundant spoilers from the get-go*

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War are in many regards very similar films. Both films feature superheroes. Both films centre on those heroes fighting each other. In both films, the impetus for that conflict is the collateral damage that resulted from the superpowered battles in previous films. Both films begin with a scene in which the parents of one of those heroes is murdered, which allows them to inherit the vast wealth they will one day use to build the suits of armour than will enable them to become superheroes. After these murders, both films then move onto an action sequence in Africa, the casualties of which turn the public against heroes.

Yet they differ in one really important regard: Civil War works, while BvS doesn’t. That’s not just my view – though it certainly is that too. On Rotten Tomatoes, Civil War has a resounding score of 90% whilst BvS elicits a measly 27%. There are cases where audiences and critics, whose reviews power Rotten Tomatoes, disagree but this is not one of them. BvS hasn’t lost money, in fact it’s made rather a lot of it. But a film featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman would always manage that. It has, however, underperformed. A project this massive ought to be aiming to be one of the year’s biggest hits. Yet it’s not only been comfortably outgrossed by Civil War but also by Zootopia. The Jungle Book is not far behind and had Deadpool opened in China it would almost certainly have topped BvS too. And it’s only May.

Worse still its failure has likely depleted the supply of goodwill surrounding the franchise which will likely hurt the box office takings of future instalments. So where did Marvel go right and DC/Warner Bros go wrong? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Humour

Let us start with the most commonly voiced complaint about BvS: it is a bit of a slog. Its combination of brooding characters, a gloomy colour palette and a story that focussed on the suffering of ordinary people that superheroes create. That makes it a rather dour affair.

The same could be said of Civil War – it is a film where at one point it appears that Steve Rodgers is going to smash in Tony Stark’s face – but for the fact the darkness with jokes. Falcon and the Winter Soldier bickering over legroom in a Renault Clio is not simply amusing: it also helps us relate to those characters and prevents the tone of the film becoming morose.

That said, I don’t think this is the crucial distinction it is made out to be. It’s quite possible to make a superhero film of any quality in any tone. The Dark Knight is gloomy and fantastic, the Fantastic Four is gloomy and excruciating.

The sad reality is that the problems with BvS went way beyond a lack of jokes and couldn’t have been fixed just by throwing some in.

2. A function for its shoehorned in hero

The narrative of BvS did not require Wonderwoman. Likewise Spiderman is more or less extraneous to Civil War’s story. But in order to set up future films they had to be in there.

Both films make a virtue of this commercial necessity. Wonderwoman’s entrance into the final battle is the only fist pumping moment in BvS. However, she is underused and her presence appears to have confused Chinese audiences unfamiliar with her character.

Spiderman is better used: a wisecracking, exuberant and innocent teenager gatecrashing the film counterpoints the darkness that would otherwise pervade the proceedings.

3. A plot that makes sense

After the aforementioned scene of Bruce Wayne’s parents being (once again) murdered and an impressive flashback to the carnage at the end of Man of Steel, BvS moves to a scene in Africa. Louis Lane and some of her colleagues are kidnapped by a warlord they are supposed to be interviewing. As soon as the hostages are out of sight, a group of private military contractors arrive and begin shooting people. Then Superman arrives and rescues Lane.

Something probably has been lost in the process of summarising that scene but not much. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds. None of the elements besides Superman and Lane have previously been introduced. Nor is there a proper through line between this scene and the one before or after. This makes it hard for the audience to place it in context.

Even if you manage to, there’s still a definite lack of internal logic. The confrontation in Africa was apparently orchestrated by Lex Luthor, so Superman would be blamed for the deaths caused by the mercenaries. But it’s never explained why anyone thinks Superman, who has super-strength and can shoot laser beams from his eyes, would shoot people.

There are definitely problems with the plotting of Civil War but they are relatively minor. The introduction of a number of the heroes is rather contrived. But I’d rather be thinking “it’s so obvious what the writers are doing here” than “I haven’t got the faintest idea what the writers are doing and apparently neither have they”.

It’s also probably fair to say that appreciating Civil War depends on having seen the proceeding Marvel films. But at this stage we really need to accept that Marvel isn’t making films but a TV series new episodes of which are shown in cinemas biannually. You can’t join the MCU after 13 episodes and fully comprehend it, anymore than you could Breaking Bad.

While Marvel lean heavily on things they have previously shown in their movies, DC/Warner Brothers rely on you knowing stuff they’ve never shown and don’t explain. The formation of the Justice League and the arrival of the villainous Darkseid are foreshadowed. In a Marvel movie, this would have been done in post-credit sequences or easter eggs. Batman v Superman sticks them into the main body of the film. If you’re an audience member who realises these sequences are basically irrelevant to the story you’re currently watching, they are jarring and mess up the rhythm of the film. If you don’t and you, therefore, try to incorporate them into your understanding of that story, then it becomes even more baffling.

4. An understanding of what its heroes are fighting about

In Civil War, the UN gives tells the Avengers that their activities need to be regulated. A faction lead by Tony Stark wants to accept that regulation, whilst Steve Rodgers and his allies reject it. There are wrinkles and complications but fundamentally that is what the audience needs to know to follow the film’s conflict between superheroes.

Any decent hero vs hero story needs to be able to boil down its central conflict to a sentence or two. Six X-Men films are a battle about whether Mutants can co-operate with humans or whether conflict is inevitable. In Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil, the Punisher thinks it’s acceptable to stop criminals by killing them, whilst Daredevil rejects that view and tries to stop him.

In Batman v Superman, Batman and Superman are not two sides of a single dichotomy. Indeed, their reasons for fighting each other are tangled and rather hypocritical. Batman thinks Superman is too powerful and produces too much collateral damage, even though he is himself rather powerful and has himself produced plenty of collateral damage. And Superman dislikes Batman being a vigilante despite being a vigilante himself. The lack of clarity about why they were fighting in the first place makes it hard to invest in the conflict or to understand its sudden resolution.

5. A decent villain

Speaking of unclear motivations let’s turn to Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. I like Eisenberg and think he does a good job with the material he’s given. But that’s not great. Luthor as an entitled tech bro could work – indeed I predicted it would – but the execution is really sloppy. It’s clear what his immediate objective is: kill superman. But what lies behind that? He seems to have been damaged by his abusive father and – for some reason – that makes him resentful of Superman. At points he seems to share Batman’s misgivings about the inherent danger of the existence of a being as powerful as Superman but later goes on to create one himself. There seems to be some religious thing going on but what it means is unclear. There are no signs of Luthor having a faith that might be feeding into his motivation. I suppose he could have become a disciple of Darkseid but if so that only happens in the film’s final act long after his plan began. Alternatively maybe it is his self-belief that is powering his actions: his arrogance is palpable and perhaps killing the most powerful creature on the planet is to him what stealing paintings is to Thomas Crown. But why then all the ponderous Revelation lite warbling? Perhaps, he simply wants Superman out of the way, so the Man of Steel can’t intervene with his plans to blow up California in order to inflate the values of his landholdings in Nevada or whatever supervillains are into these days. But if Superman is an obstacle that must be cleared away in order to carry out a larger plan, what is that larger plan? Any of these would have been fine – ok maybe not the abusive father one but the others seem OK – but rather than choosing one or finding a way to mesh several together BvS leaves Luthor to blunder directionless through a film he’s supposed to be driving the narrative of.

By contrast, Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo is an understated highlight of Civil War. A lack of screen time means that Marvel villains often wind up being rather generic. They are vaguely evil, they want to destroy and/or rule things, which they will proclaim in a booming voice before being killed in the final act.

Despite Bruhl having even less screen time than his predecessors, he makes a far greater impression. The comic book character with whom he shares a name is a leader of Hydra who has surgically attached a purple mask to his face. The name turns out to be a red herring. The film’s Zemo is a villain rather than a supervillain. He’s a soldier whose family was killed during the events of Age of Ultron and, not unreasonably, blames the Avengers. With no powers of his own, he can’t possibly defeat them in a direct confrontation, so he manipulates them into battling each other.

He works better than the average Marvel villain for a number of reasons. Having gone in expecting him to be a character similar to the one Reed Diamond plays in Agents of SHIELD, he came as a welcome surprise. And Bruhl is a very capable actor able to bring plenty of pathos to his performance without becoming hammy in the way many of his counterparts do. And his character meshes with the film’s broader theme: that revenge is an inherently destructive motivation. It’s also true that being less objectively dangerous, makes him seem more sinister. His motivation is mysterious and his cruelty is more apparent: killing someone by drowning rather than using some supernatural mcguffin just feels more real.

To wrap up…

Zack Snyder’s vision for the DCU has come in for a lot of criticism and there is plenty to criticise. His pursuit of darkness for darkness sake leads him to, for example, complain that in the Nolan Batman films, the hero goes to “a Tibetan monastery and…[is]…trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie.”

But the errors that really bothered me were not to do with the concept but the execution. The visuals and some of the action sequences are clearly the product of the kind of obsessive craftsmanship that can only arise from a genuine love for the task at hand. But that just makes it all the more glaring when everything else is so slapdash.

This contrast is clearly a reflection of Snyder’s priorities. His back catalogue makes clear that what matters to him is whether stuff looks ‘epic’. If it does then nothing else seems to matter. What is less clear is why Warner Bros – having spent $250 million on the film and presumably wanting to see a return on it – apparently collaborated in this indifference. Man-child auteurs may disdain narrative coherence and relatable characters but audiences probably won’t. Had the studio pushed for an additional rewrite to rationalise the plot and the character motivations – and perhaps also throw in a joke here or there – Snyder’s grisly vision intact would have remained intact but would have led to a far better film. Indeed, Warner Bros might have wound up the with something like Captain America: Civil War.

I ranked every film and TV series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because I’m that cool

As my way of celebrating the impending release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, here’s my personal ranking of the ten films and three TV series that form the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) so far.

13. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Pros: The first film to move beyond hinting at a broader universe and start fleshing it out. Also it introduced us to Black Widow, and Don Cheadle is a better James Rhodes than Terrance Howard.

Cons: It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later on. Perhaps because of this the story and script are a mess. Also, it wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).

Summary: The film that sacrificed itself for the good of the rest of the MCU.

12. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Pros: Nothing in particular.

Cons: Nothing in particular.

Summary: It’s really forgettable.

11. Thor (2011)

Pros: The scenes set on Earth are mostly fun.

Cons: Despite having superthesp Ken Brangh directing, the faux Shakespeare stuff doesn’t really work. That’s unfortunate because that’s most the scenes and in particular the most dramatic ones.

Summary: A film where some physicists taking readings in a backwater town in New Mexico is more interesting than the action sequences. That’s mostly not a good thing.

10. Thor: the Dark World (2013)

Pros: Loki only really came into his own when Whedon’s writing injected him with some menace and panache. The improvement carries over into this film, with by far the best scenes being the Whedon penned sparring between Thor and Loki. They are a joy to watch.

Cons: I really could not care less whether Thor manages to prevent the Dark Elves unleashing the Aether at the centre of the convergance.

Summary: Ideally Thor: Ragnarok will just be Tom Hiddleston delivering Whedon one-liners.

9. Captain America: the First Avenger (2011)

Pros: The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film.

Cons: The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax. Also Tommy Lee Jones gives the most “where’s my cheque?” performance of all time.

Summary: The first film to hint that Marvel was capable of doing smarter things. However, it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result.

8. Agents of Shield (2014-15)

Pros: It took a while getting there but this is now genuinely good telly. It’s pacey, delivers plenty of cliffhangers and has found interesting character dynamics to explore. It has also begun serving as a harbinger of the future development of the MCU.

Cons: Very little good can be said about the first sixteen episodes. It was corny with terrible CGI and a meandering story arc. It’s got a LOT better but it still has weaknesses. The most grating of which is overuse of on the nose exposition.

Summary: If I’d judged the two series separately then the second would have been higher placed. The first might well have been bringing up the rear.

7. Iron Man (2008)

Pros: Started the whole MCU, revived Robert Downey Jnr’s career and made post-credit stings a thing.

Cons: It’s a bit hammy in places.

Summary: If you ignore what it lead to, it’s a pretty generic blockbuster. Naught wrong with that mind.

6. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Pros: Impressive stripped down action sequences, a plot that makes sense and a good ensemble cast. And as much as it annoys comic purists, the twist is hilarious.

Cons: Gwyneth Paltrow is still in it.

Summary: Proved that Marvel could live up to the standards it set itself with the Avengers.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Pros:  Rivals Scott Pilgrim as the funniest comic book film ever. Plus the sheer boldness of making a film with a racoon and a tree at its heart.

Cons: Marvel loves its McGuffins almost as much as its underwhelming villains. This film has two of the latter chasing after one of the former. It’s an indication of how good this film is that this only mildly undermines the fun of the movie.

Summary: If you didn’t enjoy this, I despair of the possibility you will ever be entertained.

4. The Avengers (2012)

Pros: Successfully married sci-fi epic and office comedy with phenomenal results.  Created a new sub-genre: the superhero ensemble. In Mark Ruffallo, we finally get the movie Hulk we deserved, who let us not forget at one point destroys a massive alien spaceship with a single punch.

Cons: The plot is occasionally a bit thin (*cough* failsafe *cough*) and it introduced Thanos which on the evidence of Guardians was a mistake.

Summary: Whoop, whoop!

3. Daredevil (2015)

Pros: All that juicy weighty morally ambiguous darkness. In particular, Vincent D’Onofrio as a villain we can believe in and therefore get really scared by. Also the simultaneously beautiful and horrifying fight choreography.

Cons: Marvel’s young fan base should definitely not be watching this. If you know any of them who are, report their parents to social services.

Summary: Daredevil is to Marvel, what Daniel Craig’s 007 is to the Bond franchise.

2. Captain America: the Winter Soldier (2014)

Pros: Another great ensemble. Fight scenes inspired by the Raid and a car chase based on the French Connection.  I love how it adopts of a Seventies political thriller and the fact that it uses the space afforded by having a lead character called ‘Captain America’ to highlight the fact that not everything the American government does is desirable.

Cons: You can knit pick the plot and the massive battle scene at the end rather undermines the more grounded feel of the rest of the film.

Summary: In my initial review, I described the Winter Soldier as Marvel “coming of age”. I stand by that.

1. Agent Carter (2015)

Pros: A smart plot, a great lead performance, supporting actors who are almost as good, its wonderful evocation of the 1940s, a deliciously twisted villain, real pathos, a feminist message and its style.

Cons: Sometimes it feels a little like its rushing to get everything into the eight episodes it has. Other than that I really can’t think of anything.

Summary: Even in a golden age of television, there’s little else on at the moment that’s this entertaining.

Real Life Superheroes

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Purple Reign and Phoenix Jones of Seattle

Believe it or not this is a real thing. There are actually quite a few people – in many different countries – who dress up in costumes to fight crime. Enough of them in fact that a photojournalist has produced an album documenting them.

Earlier this year CNN reported on ‘the Rain City Superhero Movement’ which patrols the streets of Seattle.

They interviewed one of its members Phoenix Jones:

whose day job is teaching autistic children life skills, says he didn’t read many comic books when he was young, because he couldn’t identify with the heroes. “It never appealed to me,” he said. “For example Batman, he was this billionaire living in a mansion and I was just a broke kid.”

Then, at 14, he came across a little-known character called Nightwing who worked as a waiter during the day, and fought crime at night, and was hooked. “I fell in love with this idea, that you don’t need to have a lot of money to go out there and make a difference,” he said.

Jones doesn’t tackle criminals unprepared. He is a former mixed martial arts fighter, and wears a $10,000 bulletproof, Kevlar reinforced, fire-retardant jumpsuit, made with D3L smart fabric which hardens on impact.

His superhero activities landed him in trouble in 2011, when he was arrested for pepper spraying people outside a bar in Seattle. Jones said he was trying to break up a fight, and he was later released without charge.

Any scepticism you might have about this project may or may not be reduced by Jones assertion that:

only people of military, police or martial arts background should consider becoming superheroes because their training could help them deal with potentially dangerous situations.

‘The Rain City Superhero Movement’ is part of an international federation of such groups called ‘the Alliance’ that has chapters in the UK.

Whether this is proof that superheroes can encourage real people to nobility or a reminder that it glorifies vigilantism, is a matter I shall leave to your judgement.

Coming up on Matter of Facts – Superhero week

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Earlier this year a kids program began airing on Pakistani TV with a novel twist on superhero genre:

Burka Avenger stars a girls’ school teacher who dons a burka to combat a cast of Taliban-esque villains with a decidedly conservative view of the appropriate role of women in society (the show contains clear parallels to Malala Yousafzai, the young campaigner for girls’ education in Pakistan who was shot in the head by the Taliban). To fight these nemeses, Jiya, the star of the show, employs a novel form of marshal arts that utilizes only books and pens. The message is clear: The pen is mightier than the sword.

On this blog, I try to cover both serious and amusing. This week’s topic is both.

Superheros are big business. Since 2008, the highest grossing film of the year has been a superhero film as often as not. The billions of pounds these films have made reflect millions of people watching them and with that a significant cultural influence. The Burka Avenger is just the latest example of these characters being used to discuss a significant issue. And while there have been many foreign imitations of them, they remain a fundamentally American totem and a means of spreading a distinctly American view of heroism.

Look out for posts on:

  • Which comic inspired electronic tagging
  • The first director to bring Batman to the screen
  • Superman’s religion
  • The real-life superheros
  • The best improvisation ever
  • Batman and guns

Note of thanks:

As I’ve never read a comic book in my life, I’m only able to do this series because I’ve been able to pick the brain’s of someone whose read literally thousands of them. So a big thanks to my good friend Sam Willis for providing quite a number of these facts.

All the films I saw this summer reviewed in a single post

As the summer went along I was grumbling about the films that were around but in hindsight it looks pretty good. I didn’t see any really bad films and the disappointments were pretty mild. That said I do wish Hollywood would focus more on original films than endless franchises.

Iron Man 3 (7/10)

I am not a fan of the franchise and only went to see this because a lot of people recommended it. I’m glad I did because it was a lot more exciting than its predecessors and also had a nice pinch of quirkiness. Disappointingly, it still contains Gwyneth Paltrow’s lame portrayal of Pepper Potts but this is off set by Ben Kingsley playing the Mandarin.

Star Trek Into Darkness (8/10)

All the fun of the first film with added War on Terror metaphors and a far superior villain.

Man of Steel (7/10)

Ok it’s clearly not as good as the Dark Knight trilogy – what is!? – or indeed its own trailer. Nonetheless, it didn’t deserve the derision it got. For a proper defence let me point you towards these two posts: ‘Man of Steel’ Is a Better Science Fiction Film than Superhero Movie and No, Man of Steel’s Superman is Not Your Superman. And That’s Okay.

Despicable Me 2 (8/10)

If you read this blog it won’t come as a surprise to you to know that I adored this.

Pacific Rim (4/10)

Loudest film ever. Otherwise wholly unremarkable.

Alan Patridge: Alpha Papa (5/10)

I don’t understand why but I found this funnier in theory than practice. It may have been that I watched it in almost empty cinema. At its most amusing when satirising local radio.

The Way Way Back (9/10)

Heartwarming and biting simultaneously. Pretty funny too. Everyone I’ve spoken to this agrees the performances are great but can’t agree which is the standout one – apart from Allison Janney who is brilliantly repulsive as a hedonistic divorcee who clearly shouldn’t be raising bread dough let alone children.