Sunday, February 26, 2023

Catch-Up, Part 11: Sequels, Prequels, Reboots, and Spin-Offs

For those just joining us, this series is where I catch up on all the movies I'm not reviewing as they're released for various reasons. Everything here is mostly recent, but not so recent I could justify an actual review.

Today's theme is franchises. All the movies I'm looking at are part of established franchises. The vast majority are superheroes, but I'm also including a number of other genre films that fit the broader definition.

Before I get to those, I actually want to back up and talk a little about a movie I reviewed a while ago that would have qualified under this topic. I recently rewatched Black Widow and discovered I liked it significantly more than on my initial viewing. I more or less stand by my critiques, but not so much the weight given to them or their effect on the whole. On rewatch, I found the themes worked better and the story was more impactful. I still wouldn't list this among my favorite MCU movies, but I expect I'd rank it in the top half - maybe even top third. It's not uncommon for me to respond to movies differently after seeing them a few times, but it's rare for my opinion to shift this much (and even rarer in this direction). And who knows: maybe I'll watch it again a year from now and find it's climbed even higher.

Now then. Let's get to the new reviews.

Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins (2021)

First, I need to partially retract something I've said a few times in the past. While discussing recent Fast and Furious movies, I've repeated variations of the idea that franchise was a better approximation of GI Joe cartoons than the actual GI Joe franchise could ever hope be in live-action. While I still think F&F offers a delightfully updated spin on one aspect of GI Joe, it certainly doesn't reflect the whole experience.

Neither does Snake Eyes, to be honest, but that's at least partly by design. This isn't a particularly tech heavy story, and as such we're not treated to all the silly toy vehicles that form a major component of Joe. But you know what this does have? Magic rocks and mystical snakes. That's right: this has the ridiculous fantasy aspect covered.

Also, we get ninja with inexplicably superhuman abilities, including the titular character. Where did he get these abilities? We never find out, nor should we care. This is a movie about cartoonish characters with cartoonish abilities doing cartoonish things. It's a dumb, campy, cheesy adventure... and it is so damn refreshing.

I hate that this bombed at the box office. I blame the marketing, which made it look mostly grounded. I suppose critics deserve a little more credit, as this is the highest rated film in the series on Rotten Tomatoes: it's at 35%.

I'm guessing they'll reboot again rather than continue this iteration of the franchise, which is a shame. This feels like the start to a version of GI Joe that would eventually get to Serpentor and do the character justice. It's pure, unapologetic Saturday morning fun that's willing to be stupid in order to be entertaining. Precisely 0% of this movie is boring, and I can't think of a better compliment to anything in this franchise.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

It's kind of fascinating seeing a Ryan Coogler movie that has fundamental structural flaws, in part because it has the counterintuitive effect of highlighting just how good a director he is. Wakanda Forever is the first film from Coogler that doesn't feel like an instant classic. There are characters and subplots that should have been cut, sequences that are out of place, and moments that feel contrived. And yet, the stuff that does work - character moments, emotional beats, and beautifully framed sequences - still feels like it's been crafted by a master. Usually when comic book movies don't work, everything feels slapdash: here, you can see the care and love poured into the story. And, frankly, the majority of the movie's pretty great.

Having Shuri's arc mirror that of her brother in Civil War was clever, and I love the scenes between her and her mother, as well as her interactions with Namor. And speaking of Namor, the MCU's first actual anti-hero is incredible here. I'm not sure any other comics character has pulled off this radical of a reimagining while still capturing everything significant about the source material. This is simultaneously completely new and a perfect adaptation of one of Marvel's first characters: that's a hell of an accomplishment.

I'm not sure how the scene in the Ancestral Plane didn't get spoiled for me, but I'm thrilled it wasn't: that was incredible, both from a conceptual standpoint and as an experience. It was exciting and unnerving at once: I absolutely loved it.

But for all its merits, the movie is definitely a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts, mostly because some of those parts don't work with the larger narrative. Specifically, the three American characters - Riri Williams, Everett Ross, and Valentina - feel like distractions rather than additions. For what it's worth, I love all these characters, but they just didn't fit in this movie. Ironheart, in particular, feels like she's been wedged in: her motives keep changing from scene to scene and never really make sense in context. My guess is she's here to set up her Disney+ series (which, to be fair, I am excited about). But the subplot to chase her down just draws attention away from Shuri, Queen Ramonda, and Namor, who are really the core of the movie. And they were already competing for screen time with Okoye and Nakia.

Sorry, quick side note. I think this movie has issues, but it's cool as hell to see a superhero team-up where all the principal protagonists are women of color. 

Now back to those issues. I think Okoye and Nakia's stories would have worked better if they'd removed the subplot in America. Both characters are still fun as it is, but this never quite comes together the way the first one did. The first Black Panther managed to juggle a huge number of characters and plot threads, but because everything came back to the central theme and plot, Coogler made it work. That wasn't really the case here: Ironheart, Nakia, Okoye, and Ross all have their own mini-arcs, but connections to the central story feel forced. Pulling out the American characters wouldn't entirely have fixed this, but it would have made it much less noticeable.

There were also a handful of times compositing fell short of the otherwise beautiful effects, though this is both an ongoing issue with Marvel and with movies completed during the pandemic in general. It's not a huge issue, but considering how much of Wakanda Forever was jaw-dropping, the occasional sequence where an actor was superimposed into a scene where they clearly weren't present became annoyingly obvious.

Overall, this one was mixed, though the good stuff in the mix was better than we generally get from genre movies that aren't obvious homeruns. I wish there'd been less focus on setting up future installments (assuming that's what happened here), but overall the good definitely outweighed the bad.  

No Time to Die (2021)

I grew up watching the Bond movies with my father (we were particularly fond of the Connery era). I wouldn't say it was ever my favorite franchise, but this series will always have a place in my heart. My wife is a fan of the books - I've read a handful myself. We also own every movie in the franchise, with the exception of Spectre (which, despite what I write below, I intend to rectify).

I love Casino Royale and even had a generally positive reaction to Quantum of Solace (though I last saw it in the theater). I like Skyfall despite some major reservations about the script. As for Spectre, I consider it one of the five worst films in the franchise (the others being Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, and Octopussy). Spectre took the series' most interesting antagonist and reimagined him in the least interesting way possible. Everything about the movie was uninspired, and the film as a whole was astonishingly boring.

One thing I'll say about No Time to Die is I never found it boring. Frankly, there was always more than enough going to hold my attention and keep me emotionally engaged throughout. The problem is the emotion I had wasn't what they were going for. I spent the entirety of No Time to Die on the verge of bursting out laughing.

In theory, this was supposed to be a somber, serious film about legacy and sacrifice. It's a mirror image of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a fact it broadcasts loudly and clearly in a myriad different ways. It wants to be powerful and have a lasting impact. And it is hilariously, comically, unbelievably clumsy in its attempt.

For the record, that's far preferable to boring. But it approaches Her Majesty's Secret Service the way Star Trek Into Darkness does Wrath of Khan, only Into Darkness managed basic elements of filmmaking, such as shot-to-shot continuity and character motivation. No Time to Die is just an incoherent mess that left me surprised there were only seven credited writers. 

I'm not kidding when I say I had fun watching this. It didn't take long for me to realize what kind of movie I was seeing, and then I just sat back and enjoyed the ridiculous absurdity of the script, coupled with some legitimately great action sequences. It's between $250 and $300 million dollars spent to conclude a franchise (or at least this iteration of that franchise) in something best described as "so bad it's good."

But, hey, at least we didn't get another Spectre.

Hellboy (2019)

This benefits from comically low expectations, but overall... I didn't hate this. It's a long way from good, mind you. Structurally, it's a mess of sequences, characters, and ideas tossed together in a halfhearted attempt to touch on as many "greatest hits" from the comics as possible, regardless of whether any of them actually belonged in this story. It's more or less a by-the-numbers remake of the first del Toro film, minus the competency.

And yet there's still a lot of good stuff tossed in. The effects may be inconsistent, but when they're good (which usually equates to when they're practical), they're really quite ingenious. The short bits, considered out of context, hit as often as they miss.

If this had delivered a halfway decent ending, I think I'd actually defend it as a pretty solid entry in its genre. It... didn't do that, opting instead to mimic the 2004 ending with a few minor, dumb alterations, resulting in an almost comically inane conclusion. But, again, this isn't a "greater than the sum of its parts" kind of movie.

This isn't good, but as a throwback to the early 00's hastily thrown-together genre flicks, it's diverting enough to be better than it's 18% on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Not much better, mind you, but maybe a hair (or, if you're feeling generous, maybe even a horn).

Glass (2019)

I know I'm in the minority here, but I loved this. Honestly, I think it's one of may favorite Shyamalan films, right up there with Signs. I like it more than Unbreakable and far more than Split.

It's not perfect, of course: Shyamalan movies never are. Some of the dialogue feels unnatural, and Anya Taylor-Joy's arc was in questionable taste. But the movie as a whole just worked for me. I loved the twist, despite suspecting it early on. As a fan of superhero movies, I found the three main characters fascinating. And the ending felt right for this series. I understand why some fans were upset, but I really enjoyed it.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

It's fine. Parts are better than fine: the mini-marshmallow men sequence was great. I also liked the gag with Sigourney at the end. And Phoebe's great - I liked her character a lot. I also thought this did a good job recreating the flavor of the original.

But, God, the pacing drags. There are extraneous plot lines and characters who only seem to be present so the Ghostbusters count can add up to four. The brother should have been cut entirely.

Overall, it's fun enough as a throwback, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. This could have and definitely should have been better.

I find it astonishing anyone ranks this above the 2016 reboot, which took the franchise in new directions. I didn't hate this, but it's nowhere near the same league. It's closer to Ghostbusters 2, and even then falls a little short.

The Craft Legacy (2020)

Something went terribly, terribly wrong here.

At least that's my guess, because when I actually take a step back, the underlying framework to this seems like a solid starting point. You've got a plot that appears to be mirroring that of the original with a big twist at the end of the second act. You've got a protagonist secretly connected to said original in an interesting (albeit kind of played out) way. You've got a completely different source of conflict...

But not only does none of that add up to a satisfying film, the way it's presented undercuts the individual elements so completely, you have to deconstruct it to realize there was ever something good here at all.

Let's take another step back and talk about what this is. That's... kind of hard, actually, because "what it is" is watered down to the point it's barely anything. It's not horror. It's not comedy. It's not drama. I suppose it's technically fantasy, but just barely.

If anything, I'd describe the experience as analogous to watching an overlong CW pilot. Compare that to the original, which...

Okay, honestly, the original also kind of feels like a CW pilot, but it's got a bit of an edge to it. So, maybe a better CW pilot? Legacy just doesn't work as a movie. The finale is laughably cheap - I'm not exaggerating when I say it would have felt cheap for television in the 90's.

I'm astonished this was released in its current form. The Craft franchise isn't exactly the most valuable one out there, but it deserves better than this. Whether this got kneecapped by the studio (looking at you, Black Christmas) or the director made some serious miscalculations, the end result is a movie that neither works as a satisfying continuation or as a standalone picture reimagined for a new generation.

Simply put, this is a bad movie.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)

I think it's kind of good?

It's honestly difficult to gauge. The movie is leaning into the absurd contradictions of 1990's comics. For all the dark, brooding, violent appearance, most comics from that era were silly, campy things. They were childish stories pretending to be what kids thought "grown-up" stuff was.

Let There Be Carnage seems to understand this and embraces the flavor of the time. It's completely absurd, and intentionally stupid. And, largely because it's not putting on airs of anything else, it's a great deal of cartoonish fun.

In some ways, it feels like a good version of the comic book movies that came out in droves in the early 2000's: think Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Catwoman, or Green Lantern... only better. I'm not a big fan of that era (though I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the first Ghost Rider), but that's mainly because it grated on me that the source material was complicated and nuanced, while studios at the time seemed embarrassed to be adapting them.

Venom doesn't really have that issue. The concept was always silly - a more serious approach wouldn't suit it.

Let There Be Carnage is basically a comedy (and a romantic comedy, at that), and on that level it absolutely works. I almost wish they'd just skipped Carnage altogether and made this entirely about the relationship between Eddie and the symbiote. Not that Carnage doesn't have his moments, too.

You almost get the impression they set out to make the most fun bad movie they could, and mostly succeeded. Does that add up to a good film? Why get bogged down with semantics - the movie's enjoyable as an intentionally juvenile comedy adventure, and I recommend it on that level.

Eternals (2021)

Well, I guess I'm in the minority, because I kind of love this. Tonally, it's very different than where the bulk of MCU movies fall, but I have no issue with that. Frankly, the Marvel movies have gotten a bit monotone recently, at least for my tastes. It's nice to get something a bit more operatic.

This definitely felt more like what we've come to associate with DC than Marvel, though that's more a case of the movie franchises doubling down on certain styles and tones than anything inherent in the source material. Regardless, I've seen this described as more or less similar to a Zack Snyder film (I believe the director even cited Man of Steel as an influence). And I definitely see it: Chloe Zhao approaches superheroes in a similar way.

Only - and I say this as someone who will still defend Man of Steel - she's so much better at this than he is. For one thing, Zack Snyder gravitates towards edgy content, while Zhao goes for drama and emotion. If Eternals is a DC movie in disguise, it's DC circa 2010, while Zack Snyder's stuck in the 90's. Also, for my money the aesthetics in this are far better than what we got in The Snyder Cut (though I'll carve out an exception for The Flash - I thought Zack Snyder did some extremely cool things with that power set).

There were aspects of this I'd have liked changed, sure. A few scenes were unnecessary, some elements and ideas didn't entirely make sense, and some of the non-effects sequences looked off to me, but overall... I just really enjoyed this. I'm not sure whether they're actually going to deliver on their promise these characters will return given the movie's lackluster reception, but if they can justify a sequel, I'll gladly watch it.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Remember when people used to believe superhero movies couldn't work if they featured more than two villains? Proud to say I never bought that hypothesis: if you get the script right, you can fit almost any number of significant characters - heroes or villains - and deliver a good product. That doesn't mean you're not making it harder on yourself, but the people behind the MCU Spider-Man movies have never been afraid of a challenge.

This is an impressive movie, particularly if we're focusing on the script. It juggles a lot of characters, relationships, and ideas, and it does so surprisingly well. That's not to say it never fumbles - there are certainly moments it chooses fan service over a satisfying emotional arc - but it works far more often than not.

I will say some of the effects fall short of the writing. You can see where the limitations of shooting during a pandemic results in a product less polished than the material deserves. For what amounts to an Endgame-level event for the Spider-franchise, some key sequences really feel a generation behind in terms of production value.

But at the end of the day, the writing and acting pulls it through. It's really a fantastically made homage to the character's onscreen history, as well as an exploration of what makes Peter Parker compelling as a hero.

On a personal note, I have some reservations about the resolution, particularly as it pertains to relationships from past MCU installments. I understand and respect the choices made here, but I question whether the added flexibility for future solo Spider-Man movies counterbalances the lost connections and unanswered questions for the MCU as a whole.

That's all nerdy conjecture, though, and it doesn't really pertain to this movie on its own. No Way Home is an effective, funny, emotional Spider-Man story that wraps up a number of loose ends most of us wrote off years ago. It's a great movie despite some compositing mishaps and effects limitations. Overall, I enjoyed this.

Teen Titans Go! & DC Super Hero Girls: Mayhem in the Multiverse (2022)

The first and most surprising thing about this crossover team-up is it's not really a crossover or a superhero team-up. I mean, technically there's a crossover in it, and the two groups do briefly team-up, but the significance and screen time given to the Titans is grossly overstated. This is a Super Hero Girls movie with what's best described as an extended cameo from the Titans. Honestly, I suspect there was an earlier draft that didn't include them at all.

If so, I kind of wish they'd make that version. The Titans bits are funny, but they clash with the tone and focus of the movie. Aside from the Titans stuff, this is an unusually serious Super Hero Girls story. Granted, that's speaking relatively: the Super Hero Girls only get so serious, but this does walk up to that line. It's clearly intended as an extension of the series building on established character arcs and plot threads.

Each of the six heroines (actually, make that seven, due to... never mind: that'd be spoiling) has a story arc here, and they're all good. In contrast, none of the Titans do (at least not really), though Raven is given a good moment. 

One thing worth noting is that you should really catch up with the series before tracking down the movie. I'm a season behind, and it actually did matter a bit. There were developments I wasn't aware of, though it wasn't hard to catch up.

Regardless, it's a strong movie with some great moments and jokes. I just think it would have hit a lot harder without the occasional cutaways to the Titans' antics, most of which felt tacked on and unnecessary.

No comments: