Suicide Squad

In the 90’s, emboldened by the critical and popular acclaim of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the prior decade, DC set out to make itself the producer of mature, grown-up comic books graphic novels that could sit proudly on any bookshelf next to Cormac McCarthy. Instead what we got was a plethora of ultraviolent, terribly written, astoundingly immature books that missed the mark so hard they landed next to Alpha Centauri.

Suicide Squad completes the 90’sification of DC movies that began with Man of Steel and continued with Batman v Superman, a dark, gritty, remarkably violent and creepy movie with the racial and sexual politics of a Transformers movie. The premise is that Amanda Waller, an evil government agent with far more menace than sense, decides that in case someone like Superman decides to kill everyone the US government should assemble a team of blackmailed supervillains to do their bidding. This fucks up within twenty minutes as Enchantress, an ancient demon who resembles a decaying stripper, breaks free of her control and decides to end the world (as you do).

Enchantress then spends the rest of the movie wobbling in what I suspect was meant to be a sexy fashion around a giant pillar of light leading to a portal in the sky (very original), while Waller’s other Dirty Dozen shoot their way through her army of identical tar babies to stop her. They consist of Will Smith, an assassin with a young, precocious cliche daughter he loves, Killer Croc, a man covered in bad fake crocodile leather, Captain Boomerang, who has no reason to be in this movie, El  Diablo, a latino gangbanger who shoots fire from his hands, Slipknot, who dies almost immediately, Katana, a samurai-wannabe even more stereotypical than her name implies, and Harley Quinn.

This is the first time I’ve seen Harley in anything, and I can only assume she’s different elsewhere as this movie’s depiction of her can charitably be called creepy, and uncharitably called fucking creepy. An absurdly sexualised caricature of infantilised women, coupled with this really uncomfortable fetishisation of mental illness, which stands out as bad even by the standards of the Batman universe which is typically only half a step up from Victorian madhouses. Her past relationship with the Joker (played by Jared Leto in one of the worst performances I’ve seen in years) is clearly abusive but the director has no idea how to write this in an interesting or clever fashion, it’s halfway played as romantic.

The depiction of romantic relationships here is so bizarrely and proudly retrograde I’m surprised it exists in a modern day blockbuster. At one point a soldier with the team starts talking about his relationship woes, at which point Boomerang tells him he needs to ‘get a handle on her’ by slapping her arse and telling her what to do, and I’m not sure if it’s even meant as a joke. The jokes themselves typically land with a thud and the studio reshoots studio to make the film more like its first trailer are painfully obvious, as it cannot commit to a tone. Parts of it try to be dark and gritty but never allows itself the casual amorality it aims for, and despite being about villains the cast are never allowed to be particularly evil.

Filmmaking-wise this thing is an astounding mess, with characters introduced to the audience multiple times, awkward flashbacks, choppy editing and action that varies from bland to unintelligible. I don’t know if it’s quite as bad as Batman v Superman was, both are incompetent but SS was never boring and a half hour shorter, but if this is now the standard for the DC universe expect it to end very soon.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Bryan Singer’s X-Men series is the longest line of superhero films by a single director, and while they’ve been consistently popular over the years they’ve been frequently criticised for not keeping up with the times, stuck in an early 2000’s mindset of being ashamed of their comic book origins and refusing to embrace their source material’s often campy nature. But I can happily confirm that this era is finally over, as Singer has managed to make a film perfectly in tune with the age we now live in, with a dour, joyless, extremely violent superhero tale to fit in right alongside Batman v Superman and Civil War.

This time our heroes are confronted by an ancient Egyptian mutant played by Oscar Isaac, looking uncannily like Ivan Ooze from Power Rangers, who is resurrected from the ruins of a destroyed pyramid and wants to take over and destroy the world because… I really don’t know, he’s just evil and rambles about false gods a lot like he was accidentally given Jessie Eisenberg’s script notes for BvS. After gathering a deeply silly looking group of followers, who join him in his genocidal quest for no discernible reason besides him being able to make them more powerful, he sets about razing the world’s cities to the ground to build a pyramid because… I have no fucking idea. He just does things because the script needs a villain.

Meanwhile Magneto watches his latest family being shot dead in front of him because he just can’t catch a break, and joins Oscar Isaac for the exact same reasons he was the villain in the last two films, while Mystique, played by an utterly not giving a shit Jennifer Lawrence, also has her character arc reset to the beginning of First Class because the writer can’t come up with a new plot for her besides ‘gets over not looking normal’. Meanwhile baby versions of the cast from the first three films get together at Xavier’s incredibly inconspicuous school for people with superpowers and go off on a quest to rescue him when he gets kidnapped by Apocalypse. Oh, and Wolverine’s in it for a minute, because of course he is.

To describe this movie as ‘going through the motions’ is extremely generous; it’s basically just a checklist of X-Men movie tropes: Magneto decides humans are worthless, Mystique gets over body image problems, vague allegories to real life persecution are made, Professor X gives humanist speeches, the cast is way too large for everyone to be developed properly etc. The whole affair is so mind-numbingly generic I found myself heavily referring to the Wikipedia plot summary to remind myself what happened the day after seeing it. It’s ostensibly set in the eighties, but it doesn’t matter and once Apocalypse starts getting demolishing cities like a bored Roland Emmerich you’ll have forgotten the few nods made to the period. I don’t know if Singer’s just given up trying, but his direction has regressed drastically since (the legitimately good) Days of Future Past. There are direct to video Seagal films with more compelling direction.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, this film is absurdly violent. People are crushed, impaled, decapitated, shot, stabbed, flayed in slow motion and in one case telekinetically folded up like human origami. None of it fits the film’s overall tone and it feels like the director just got bored and decided to see what he could get away with. All of it ends up building to a punishingly long and literally headache-inducing climax in which characters we don’t know very well hit other characters we don’t know very well repeatedly with dodgy CGI, and I found myself zoning out to the point where I can’t quite remember how it resolved.

This is quite possibly the worst X-Men film to date, even worse than the legendarily bad Origins: Wolverine. It’s an agonizing slog that only avoids being the worst superhero movie of the year because Batman v Superman exists, and I can only hope that another director is hastily brought in to right the series because otherwise it will soon go down in flames.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

So it’s finally here. After all these (three) years and Marvel’s most forgettable (IM3, Thor 2) and best (GotG, TWS) films we’ve arrived at the latest massive franchise crossover destined to siphon children’s pocket money the world over. Joss Whedon, returning to the world of blockbuster filmmaking from his famous Much Ado About Nothing adaptation, has crafted his grandest, most ambitious and apparently final Marvel opus, and while it’s in many ways a step up from its predecessor I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed.

Age of Ultron is the story of the roughly three-week age of Ultron, a global peacekeeping AI project built by Tony Stark, who having never seen Terminator forgot AI’s exist only to enslave or kill mankind and assumed his world-controlling supercomputer would be all sunshine and rainbows. Shockingly, Ultron decides to kill mankind and it’s up to the Avengers to track down and defeat him. His given motivation is something about helping mankind evolve and meteors but it feels like half his scenes were left on the cutting room floor (the film was pared down almost an hour before release) and for all his pseudo-philosophical monologuing he rarely feels more than Generic AI Supervillain #4325.

The remaining cast fare a lot better though. Stark, as always, takes front and centre to mope about creating a monster and Downey Jr does a fine job selling his character’s distress, but the film spends most of its character moments developing its less popular Avengers. Hawkeye gets some genuinely heartwarming scenes with his wife and kids, and a (fairly believable) romance blossoms between Black Widow and Hulk, though the former suddenly announcing she’s sterile is one of the most tonally incongruent things I’ve seen since I spliced five minutes of A Serbian Film into Spirited Away.

We’re also introduced to the two new Avenger siblings Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (sadly not the Ultimate versions), played with the finest Russian accents since The Hunt For Red October by Elizabeth Olsen and Kick-Ass, respectively. They hail from the generic Eastern European nation of Madeupia, a country populated exclusively by screaming refugees and which we’re never properly introduced to in a way that suggests Whedon was wading knee-deep in film by the end of editing. Quicksilver is fun, though less so than his X-Men counterpart, and Scarlet Witch’s powers are seemingly random depending on the plot, which puts a damper on the drama when we don’t quite understand the stakes.

On a technical level this film far exceeds its predecessor. Whedon’s direction has vastly improved from the televisual style of the first film, and he’s developed a fondness for snazzy tracking shots, one of which kicks the movie off in spectacular fashion through an equally improved action setpiece. It’s much more even overall as well, keeping its excitement and pace throughout whereas the first film took an hour to really take off, and this time the potential end of the world actually feels like a threat. For all that works here though, something feels missing. The first Avengers felt like the culmination of all that preceded it, the climax of its story. But Age of Ultron just feels like a stepping stone to Avengers 3 (teased in the credits), an episode of something bigger. This makes it much less dramatic and memorable (as well as lacking individual moments as memorable as say, Hulk smashing Loki), and as a result it’s a less satisfying experience. It’s still worth seeing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no Avengers 1, and the seams of this universe plan are showing.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

[This review contains spoilers]

I have to admit, when I heard four years ago that Marvel were doing a Captain America movie, I immediately wrote it off like an expensive car merely due to the name (my Marvel knowledge at the time was just the Iron Man films and the Ed Norton Hulk movie), but my mate Jordan pretty much dragged me down to the pictures to see it and I was pleasantly surprised by the result. It was a fun, engaging movie with enough action and humour to keep you involved throughout and when the sequel was announced to be in the hands of two guys I’d never heard of I remained optimistic, especially after the delightful spectacle that was Thor 2.

The Winter Soldier was described in the press releases as Marvel’s attempt to mix seventies political thrillers a la All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor with modern superheroics, and the result is somewhat impressive to say the least. Cap gets caught up in a massive conspiracy when Nick Fury is killed by a mysterious seasonal commando and uncovers a web of scheming and treachery that threatens to lead back to SHIELD itself! It essentially sets itself up to be a political action movie for the age of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, with questions of privacy and freedom vs security and order, with the plot centred around a SHIELD program to launch helicarrier gunships with the ability to rain explosive death down on anyone they deem a potential threat. And then the Nazis show up.

This is my biggest gripe with the otherwise good conspiracy tale woven here as the film stops just shy of really interesting political commentary. A tale of flawed human beings deciding that mass murder is the path to happiness and kittens and the Cap’n having a problem with that would be far more interesting, but it just turns out that Robert Redford is a closet Nazi (or rather Marvel’s I-Can’t-Believe-They’re-Not-Nazis). He is given some chance to defend himself but the Nazi angle just kind of undermines it as by nature we start tuning people out the second they mention their dreams of invading Poland. This doesn’t prevent the political aspects of the film from working well enough though, and in the end I’d say that this is really the sort of film that Elysium and the Robocop remake wanted to be, and like those it is also executed with that special kind of subtlety reminiscent of being smacked around the head with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick, which is not necessarily a bad thing. This desire to play it safe also manifests itself in my second biggest gripe with this film, which while I won’t spoil was rather disappointing as it kicked the legs out from under the stakes the movie had been working hard to lift up so far.

Character-wise, the film does pretty well. Captain Pugwash himself has always had the problem of being the Marvel hero with the least distinct personality (at least of those who have gotten their own films) and this movie doesn’t do a lot to buck that trend. He does get some good moments centred around his culture shock in the 21st century (including a few good jokes and an Oldboy reference in the Korean version) and some decent character development but he’s not exactly a standout personality in the Marvel universe and if it wasn’t for the supporting cast I think the 21st century setting could have stranded him in a film without a memorable identity of its own.

Thankfully everyone else is up to the challenge. Black Widow turns up again (this time with an actual personality!) and Johansson pulls off her role well as more of a secondary protagonist this time than a sidekick, getting a lot of good moments particularly in the action scenes. She also gets to actually act like a spy at some points (though more Mission Impossible than Tinker, Tailor) instead of a gymnast in an outfit whose function remains baffling to me. I am hoping she finally gets her own movie after Age of Ultron (which still sounds like a reject Transformer) and if this film was meant to call back to All the President’s Men then her’s should probably be more Mission Impossible or Bourne. I should also note that she is by no means the only action girl on the heroes side, as we have both Sharon Carter (possible future love interest for Picard) and Nick Fury’s right hand girl from the Avenger’s helicarrier scenes shooting people in the face so the whole exercise feels like a more egalitarian flick than Marvel’s other offerings to date.

As far as the other heroes go we have Anthony Mackie as Falcon, an ex-paratrooper wearing a jet-powered wing suit (as in actual mechanical wings) who joins up with our protagonists when the world is out to get them. Admittedly when we met his character for the first time and his past came up I did start dreading a potential two hours of Michael Bay demanding that I start fellating American soldiers but it all plays into his character in a compelling way. The next time we see him he’s leading a support group for traumatised war veterans and while his character isn’t brilliantly developed it does give him enough depth and sympathy to make you want to follow him, despite the fact that, in the end, he doesn’t have that much of a role in the plot.

For Villains we have not only Watchmen’s future president as a compelling and charismatic enough bad guy who thankfully does seem as smart as the movie makes him out to be and of course the sub-titular character himself, and if I haven’t said anything about him yet it’s because he doesn’t actually have much of a role in the plot. He does do some things (mainly killing people) and proves himself more than a match for Ahab here, but his entire arc (while decent) is superfluous to the overall conspiracy. If anything it’s really a symptom of a film with a few too many good ideas it wants to include in its runtime (Falcon being another one) so that it can’t quite make them all coalesce as intricately as it would like, to the point where midway through the action climax it cut back to Falcon fighting a Nazi commando and I suddenly realised I’d completely forgotten about him in amongst the four other fights going on at the same time.

But of course, an action movie would not be much without the action and this movie more than delivers on that front. The action in this movie is honestly some of the best I’ve seen in a while. When people hit each other here you really feel the impact to the point where the fight scenes feel pretty brutal (at least for a 12A movie) and when Nemo kicked people into metal walls at the beginning I was starting to question whether they would get up again. While promoting the film the directors kept stressing that they were doing as many stunts practically as they could and it shows. Car chases and shoot-outs through the streets of New York have a weight and impact that the CGI climax of the Avengers never did and when it does get CG-heavy towards the end it never feels any less impressive. One thing that really struck me about the action scenes here was just how well they flowed in and out of the rest of the film. Watching most films, there is a conscious feeling of ‘we’re in an action scene now’ whenever people start to get hurt, but here it moves so naturally between the two that they just feel like extensions of each other.

If I had one other hesitation here, it’s that at times I didn’t find myself connecting with what was happening in front of me. Everything going on was still very well-made, acted and put together but at points I almost felt like I was observing the movie from a distance and more admiring it than being actively involved. We also of course get the credits scenes (mandated by the new Superhero Movie Act), which as expected exist purely to tease us with characters we will only be seeing once Joss Whedon finally gets off his arse (and I do hope they use the Ultimate versions here). Overall, though, this is a very good action film, and one I would heartily recommend for all families and anyone else wanting to see a good knife-fight.