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A Fitting Endpoint: My (Spoiler-Free) Review For “Avengers Endgame”

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Starting an epic journey is a daunting challenge. Keeping people engrossed in that journey for over a decade is exceedingly difficult. Ending that journey in a way that’s dramatic, appropriate, and satisfying is damn near impossible. Despite those insane stakes, that’s the primary goal of “Avengers Endgame.” It attempts to cap off the story that began in 2008 with “Iron Man.”

Without spoiling the many dramatic details of this three-hour cinematic experience, I can safely confirm that it did. “Avengers Endgame” achieved that seemingly impossible goal of completing a decade-spanning story that included 22 movies, a cast of top-notch actors, and one talking raccoon. It’s one of those feats that shouldn’t be possible, even with Disney’s deep pockets, but Marvel Studios pulled it off.

It isn’t hyperbole to say that “Avengers Endgame” is a historic cinematic achievement that fundamentally changes the standards for just how bold a movie can be. All the praise from fans and critics alike that this movie has garnered is well-earned, but still doesn’t do justice to what this movie achieved.

It’s not just another step in the ever-expanding saga that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This movie does not set the stage for another sequel or lay the groundwork for the next big battle between the Avengers and the next Thanos-level threat. The movie is true, polished ending that manages to beautifully encapsulate the scope and scale of the story it told.

As a life-long comic book fan and a fan of superhero media, going back to the days of Saturday morning cartoons, this movie was both satisfying and impactful. I came out of the theater with my heart still racing and my mind still reeling from what I just witnessed. Part of me was sad. Part of me was elated. In all, though, I felt like I’d completed a journey alongside these beloved characters.

Even if you’re not a fan of comics and only know these characters through the movies, “Avengers Endgame” still succeeds in terms of raw storytelling. Years of world-building and character development really come to ahead in this movie. The shared journeys of characters like Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Bruce Banner provide plenty of dramatic weight to everything that happens.

Make no mistake, though. A lot happens. This movie will test your bladder almost as much as it tests your heart. There are so many characters to juggle and many of them have their own arcs. Tony, Steve, Thor, and Hawkeye are all in wildly different places throughout the story, literally and figuratively. Coming together again in a cohesive plot takes time and effort, something the Russo brothers do not shy away from.

As a result, “Avengers Endgame” is very different structurally from “Avengers Infinity War.” Whereas “Avengers Infinity War” played out like unfolding battle with Thanos leading the charge, “Avengers Endgame” is very much a reaction to the aftermath of that battle. To say it left some traumatic scars would be the understatement of all understatements.

There’s no getting around it. Thanos won and the Avengers failed. Before anyone can even contemplate undoing the damage, these characters have to adjust to a world that has been decimated on an unimaginable scale. Processing, exploring, and reacting to that decimation is a big part of what makes that final showdown sufficiently epic.

That means are sizable parts of this movie that don’t involve Hulk smashing things, Captain America fighting Hydra agents, or Iron Man blowing stuff up. “Avengers Endgame” puts much more time and energy into character moments and interpersonal drama, which were fewer and less developed in “Avengers Infinity War.” However, none of this time ever feels wasted or drawn out.

It helps make that final showdown all the more meaningful. It’ll get you to cheer, gasp, cry, and cringe every step of the way. I can even attest that there are moments in this movie that got the people in the theater out of their seats and cheering. In all my experience with superhero movies, I can’t remember the last time a movie got people that emotional.

There’s a lot I can say about how “Avengers Endgame” succeeds in making the emotional investment of the past 22 movies pay off. I don’t think I need to belabor how important this component was in making this movie work in a satisfying, climactic manner. While the movie succeeds in this critical aspect, there are other noteworthy details.

In terms of pure entertainment value, it is not as great as “Avengers Infinity War.” I would even argue the first “Avengers” movie had more spectacle and was more cohesive, overall. There were times when “Avengers Endgame” felt somewhat chaotic, due to all the character arcs it had to balance. While it managed to juggle them all effectively, there’s only so much that can be done to keep that narrative concise.

It’s also worth noting that some character narratives were managed better than others. I won’t cite specific characters for spoiler reasons, but they fairly obvious within the first hour of the movie. I’m sure fans of certain characters will be conflicted by how things play out, but I doubt those same fans will be too disappointed.

Fans of the distinct humor that often shows up in Marvel Studios productions will also have plenty to laugh at. Granted, the bleak circumstances of the movie make that tricky, but moments are there and they never feel too forced. They’re not quite as numerous as they are in other MCU movies, but given the various plots of the story, I’d say there’s just enough to balance the overall tone.

There are some other flaws within this movie, but the extent of those flaws is never more than minor. It would require an extreme level of pettiness and nit-picking to use those flaws to undercut the movie. “Avengers Endgame” is not perfect, nor does it try to be. Its primary goal is to end this era of the MCU and it does so beautifully.

The ending will leave many with tears in their eyes, both from joy and sorrow. There’s equal amounts of tragedy and triumph. Certain characters get a happy ending. Others must deal with loss and tragedy. Overall, it’s a perfect blend of satisfying conclusion and bittersweet finality. It reinforces the notion that these characters are true heroes.

For a movie that begins under such bleak circumstances, the ultimate conclusion really solidifies “Avengers Endgame” as an incredible cinematic experience. If I had to score the movie, I would give it a 9 out of 10. It hits all the right dramatic notes, evokes all the right emotions, and succeeds on a level that few could’ve imagined 11 years ago.

Like Captain America himself, this movie was willing to do whatever it takes to complete this superhero saga for the ages. Moving forward, it’s hard to say what will come of the MCU, especially in wake of the Disney/Fox merger, but it’s safe to say that “Avengers Endgame” has set a bold new standard for just how great a superhero movie can be.

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Shazam! Review: A Simple Formula For Maximum Fun

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When a particular genre becomes over-saturated and overdone, it’s tempting to try and reinvent the concept in hopes of striking a new chord. It’s especially tempting when so many others have risen the bar to such an insane extent that success can only be measured in billions instead of millions.

It would’ve been easy for a movie like “Shazam” to give into such temptation. With the recent success of “Aquaman” and “Avengers Endgame” set to break all sorts of box office records, it seems like this movie has to do something extreme, just to stand out. How else would it succeed in such a crowded market in a golden age of superhero movies?

That was my greatest concern before I saw “Shazam.” As much as I loved the trailer, I was worried that this movie would try so hard to stand out that it would overlook the part of actually being a fun cinematic experience. That sort of oversight has been plaguing the DC Extended Universe since “Man of Steel.”

This picture sums up the issues nicely.

Well, having seen the movie, I’m happy to say that none of those concerns were founded. In fact, I’m elated to report that “Shazam” is another big win for DC Comics and superhero movies, as a whole. However, it didn’t win because it reinvented the genre or did something radically different. It won because it followed the basic formula for quality superhero movies and had fun along the way.

It helps that the core appeal of Shazam, as a character and superhero, is that it approaches heroics with a childlike playfulness. Billy Batson, the alter ego of the titular hero, is not some jaded adult like Batman. He’s not even a boy scout idealist like Superman. He’s just a kid and one who got dealt a bad hand, for that matter. Being both an orphan and a troublemaker, he sees the adult world through very different eyes.

That’s a novel perspective, to some extent. Every other superhero movie, even going back to the era of Richard Donner’s “Superman,” has framed the idea through an adult lens. It always starts out as something simple. An individual gets superpowers, they start carrying out simple acts of heroism, and those acts eventually get complicated, as often happens with adult issues.

With a character like Billy, things never get that complicated. Again, he’s a kid. Even in his heroic form, he sees conflict with a childlike simplicity and “Shazam” captures that simplicity perfectly. The movie doesn’t deviate much from the details and themes of the source material. Concepts like the Rock of Eternity and the Seven Enemies of Man are present and accurately portrayed.

Such details may not matter to those unfamiliar with the comics, but such accuracy is largely a bonus. What really makes this movie work is how it follows Billy’s journey and not just the one he undergoes as a hero. His evolution when he’s not a magically-endowed superhero is arguably the most meaningful aspect of the story.

When we first meet Billy, it’s hard to discern whether he has the spirit of a hero. He’s no upstanding boy scout. In fact, he’s very much a troublemaker who’s willing to thumb his nose at police, break the rules when it benefits him, and run away from anyone who tries to help him. However, he never comes close to crossing that might send him down a darker path.

It’s that trait that sets him apart from his villainous counterpart, Dr. Sivana. While he’s no Thanos, he demonstrates that he’s a lot like Billy in a few key aspects. He’s given a chance to become a hero, but is unable to refuse the temptation that often comes with immense power. That failure haunts him and pushes him down a darker path.

For a time, it seems as though Billy could walk a similar path. When he first gets his powers, he reacts in ways that most would expect of a 14-year-old boy. He tries to buy beer. He tries to make money. He even ventures into a strip club. It’s hilarious and cute, but it also establishes the perfect tone for a movie that avoids complicating the standard superhero narrative.

Within that narrative, there’s a hero who makes choices and learns from his mistakes. There’s also a villain who makes choices and refuses to learn from them. When they eventually clash, it’s a flashy spectacle with simple, understandable stakes. It’s no Battle of Wakanda, but it doesn’t have to be.

The look of someone who DIDN’T get to work with Josh Brolin.

From the moment he first gets his powers to the final showdown with Dr. Sivana, Billy develops into his own hero, but never loses his childlike mentality. He’s not forced to grow up too fast, nor does he have to abandon the civilian life he’s trying to establish. Whereas being Bruce Wayne is often an inconvenience for Batman, being Billy Batson is necessary for Shazam.

This shows in the seamless characterization provided by Asher Angel, who plays young Billy, and Zachary Levi, who plays Shazam. At no point does either manifestation feel like a different character. They both wield the same childlike charisma as they navigate their superhero journey. The same lovability that made Levi so great in shows like “Chuck” help him and Angel bring out the best in Billy Batson.

When the movie begins, it’s not clear that Billy has what it takes to be a competent hero. Trying to determine his worth is like trying to determine if some random 14-year-old will one day play in the NFL. The odds are against them, but the potential is still there. By the time the credits roll, the message is clear. Billy has the spirit that Shazam was looking for and you can’t help but root for him.

At its core, “Shazam” checks all the right boxes for the classic hero’s journey. Billy Batson is perfectly poised to take that journey and not just because he’s one of many orphans who become superheroes. The movie doesn’t try to subvert these tried and true tropes. If anything, it embraces them and dares to have a little fun along the way.

It’s easy to share in that fun. The humor is exactly what you would expect of a movie that involves 14-year-olds getting superpowers. It’s serious when it needs to be, but never too serious. Given the grim and gritty settings of other DC Extended Universe movies, it’s a breath of fresh air that the superhero genre badly needed.

It’s not without its flaws. Some details of Billy’s life are underdeveloped and glossed over. There were also inconsistencies with Dr. Sivana as well, but none were egregious to the point where they derailed the movie. It simply stuck to a simple formula, mixed in a few twists along the way, and made the most of what it had to work with.

If I had to score “Shazam,” I would give it an 8 out of 10. It didn’t reinvent superhero movies or raise the bar. It was simply a fun, entertaining movie that gave a character with little star power a chance to shine. It even managed to accomplish all this without trying too hard to make him like Batman. For a DC Comics movie, that alone is a major accomplishment.

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Higher, Further, Faster, And Fun: A (Spoiler-Free) Review Of “Captain Marvel”

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Soaring to new heights, venturing into uncharted territory, and achieving greater things always requires a great deal of risk. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you’ve always gotten and that’s just not enough for some people. For Marvel Studios, the gold standard by which all other movie studios are measured, it has to take those risks in order to expand its dominance into another decade.

A movie as big as “Avengers: Infinity War” or as diverse as “Black Panther” had high stakes on top of higher aspirations. They had to keep raising the bar that Marvel Studios had already raised to unprecedented heights. Those movies both succeeded and raked in record profits, but even those movies never faced challenges like the ones faced by “Captain Marvel.”

Without a doubt, this movie will go down as one of the riskiest movies Marvel Studios has ever made, which is saying something for the same studio that made an “Ant Man” movie. It’s not just because “Captain Marvel” is Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie, nor is it because DC set a pretty high bar with “Wonder Woman.”

Captain Marvel” arrives with more baggage than any other superhero movie not associated with Joel Shumacher. In some respects, it’s coming out at the worst possible time. This is an era where gender politics are on a hair-trigger and features an actress who has been outspoken on where her political affiliations lie. It’s like bringing a tank of gasoline to a growing wildfire.

The context of this movie and its politics are already well-documented and I’ve made my opinions on it known. Beyond the politics, the heated gender debates, and coordinated efforts to tank this movie, there’s still one critical question that overrides all the baggage and burdens.

Is “Captain Marvel” a good movie?

Having seen it at a midnight showing in which the theater was quite packed, I can say in my humble opinion that yes. It is a good, entertaining movie. It doesn’t deviate too far from the Marvel Studios tradition of making superhero movies that are fun, entertaining, and heartfelt. However, “Captain Marvel” ends up achieving much more than that.

Before I go any further, I want to make a few comments about the heated politics surrounding this movie. I’m not going to focus too much on them, but I’m not going to avoid them, either. I get that some people will go into this movie with certain expectations and look for any excuse to justify those expectations. This is my response to those specific individuals.

No, this movie is not laced with radical feminist undertones.

No, this movie does not denigrate men or a specific race of men.

No, this movie does not make overtly political statements.

No, Carol Danvers is not a Mary Sue who is never allowed to fail or be wrong.

Yes, the movie is entertaining and fun in the tradition of good superhero movies.

Yes, the movie is respectful of the history and personality of the character.

Having said all that, I understand that there are a number of people who may disagree with every one of those statements. However, after seeing the movie and having time to digest all its high-flying details, I believe that doing so requires a level of outright pettiness that obscures just how good this movie is.

 

This movie does not have the luxury of expanding on a character who was previously introduced. Unlike Black Panther, Carol has nothing to build on when the movie starts. However, things move quickly once the action gets going. We find out early on that Carol is in a difficult situation, but tenuous situation. In addition, that situation helps further the world-building that is so distinct of the MCU.

We learn more about the Kree in the first 20 minutes of this movie than we have in any other Marvel movie, to date. They’ve been mentioned before in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but who they are and what they’re like is firmly established in “Captain Marvel.” Their iconic rivals, the Skrulls, are also introduced and it’s here where the movie really shines.

If you’re not familiar with the history of comics, it’s hard to overstate how critical the Kree/Skrull war is to the cosmic side of the Marvel universe. This massive war is something that Carol finds herself in the middle of and her role in it evolves over the course of the movie. Without getting too heavy into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say that this evolution is what helps make her Captain Marvel.

Carol’s story isn’t just about her seeking to fly higher, further, and faster. Through both flashbacks to her past and struggles in the present, her journey from being a loyal Kree warrior to Captain Marvel feels personal, even as it moves the story forward. At first, it feels like the story is on a predictable path. However, that changes, thanks largely to Carol’s the supporting cast.

This is where Samuel L. Jackson’s role as Nick Fury and Ben Mendelson’s role as Talos really complements the story. Their choices and their actions put Carol in a situation where she comes to some difficult realizations and has to make difficult decisions. In doing so, she becomes the hero that she needs to be, both for this movie and for the MCU.

It’s not unlike the evolution that other characters like Tony Stark and Thor have undergone. They start off with one particular outlook on their world. Then, they find themselves in a situation that undermines and even shatters what they thought was right and true. Rather than avoid the unpleasant implications, they confront them. That’s what heroes do and that’s what Carol Danvers does.

By the end of “Captain Marvel,” it’s easy to root for Carol. As she realizes her true power, she becomes the kind of hero that fits right in with the Avengers. The source of that power is not something she inherits or pursues. True to her comic book origins, her high-flying aspirations lead to an accident that comes close to destroying her. Also like the comics, it renders her vulnerable in unexpected ways.

Throughout the movie, Carol is guided and often frustrated by her limits. Some of those limits are things she puts on herself. Some are limits that others impose on her. Overcoming such limits, be they her own emotions or the actions of others, is the true strength of her character. It’s a strength that anyone, regardless of race, gender, or anything of the sort, can respect.

That’s not to say there aren’t flaws in that journey, along the way. In terms of a superhero origin movie, I would not put “Captain Marvel” above the ranks of “Batman Begins” or “Iron Man.” The movie does feel somewhat congested in several areas and the pacing, especially in the early parts of the movie, are a bit erratic.

There’s also an issue with villains in this movie, to the extent that they’re vague. Both the Skrulls and Jude Law’s, Yon-Rogg, aren’t going to give Thanos or Erik Killmonger a run for their money. Even the presence of a young Ronan the Accuser feels like a missed opportunity. While Carol has plenty of fights to pick in this movie, the lack of a major villain is somewhat glaring.

Let’s face it. Nobody was going to top THIS guy.

However, this doesn’t keep “Captain Marvel” from succeeding in the ways we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios. The distinct bits of humor and tone are definitely there. The use of 90s nostalgia, from grunge rock to Blockbuster, works at every turn. The choice of music is spot on for every scene. Like “Captain America” and “Wonder Woman,” the time and place fits perfectly with the story.

By nearly every measure, “Captain Marvel” checks all the right boxes, in terms of a quality product from Marvel Studios. Again, it is possible for someone to single out certain scenes as proof that the movie is trying to make a political statement. However, I would argue that you could find similar scenes in movies like “Wonder Woman” and even “Deadpool.”

At the end of the day, if you’re really determined to hate this movie and label it as some sort of hit piece against a particular race or gender, you’ll find multiple excuses. However, it still requires a level of pettiness that requires someone to actively look for a reason to be offended and there’s already too much of that in this world.

If you watch “Captain Marvel” with the sole desire to be entertained and see the MCU evolve before your eyes, this movie will deliver in all the right ways. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a 4 out of 5. It’s a fun ride with a few bumps along the way, but is ultimately satisfying by the end. On top of that, the post-credits scene help further build the excitement for “Avengers: Endgame.”

Also, no matter your politics, the Stan Lee tribute at the beginning of the movie is beautiful.

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“Happy Death Day 2U” Review: A Quality Sequel With Noticeable Flaws

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Slasher movies are one of those frustrating genres that have a lot of overdone tropes, but a handful of gems that really stand out. These movies tend to have a standard formula from which few deviates. There’s a mysterious killer on the loose. A group of attractive young people try to escape. All the promiscuous ones die while the sweet, innocent virgin who never shows her tits survives.

If you’ve seen any slasher movie after the first “Halloween” in 1978, then you’ve seen this play out any number of ways. However, it’s because that formula is so overdone that the first “Happy Death Day” felt so refreshing. When I reviewed this movie, I lauded how it injected fresh nuance into the typical horror/slasher formula. It didn’t completely abandon that formula, but it didn’t play by the rules either.

That approach paid off. The move went onto make over $125 million worldwide, despite having a budget just below $5 million. That’s a pretty good payoff for horror/slasher movie in an era where superhero movies dominate and movies that punish beautiful women for being sexy is losing favor. Not surprisingly, this success warranted a sequel in “Happy Death Day 2U.”

Considering how the first movie wrapped things up so neatly, a sequel comes with greater risk. How do you even build on a story where a young woman is stuck in a time loop where she dies at the hands of a killer every time? After the time loop ends, shouldn’t the story also end? “Happy Death Day 2U” tries to make the case that there’s still room for the story to grow.

By and large, the movie succeeds in telling that story. However, I don’t believe the movie works quite as well as the first in terms of impact and nuance. I admit I was skeptical, and even a little disappointed, when I heard that a sequel was in the works. For a movie that overtly referenced “Groundhog Day,” which never got a sequel, it seemed like it could only be counterproductive.

To some extent, those concerns were vindicated at the start of the movie. One of the things that made “Groundhog Day” such an effective concept was that we never learned what caused the time loop that trapped Phil Connors. While the cause was revealed in the original scrip to the movie, the act of not explaining the cause helped make it an effective plot device.

Happy Death Day 2U” doesn’t bother with such ambiguity. Within the first half-hour of the movie, we find out what caused Tree Gelbman to get stuck in the time loop that plagued her in the first movie. I won’t spoil too many details. I’ll just say that there’s nothing overly supernatural or subtly spiritual about it.

That’s not to say it still doesn’t work. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it adds an extra level of innovation to the horror/slasher formula that the first “Happy Death Day” did so much to alter. The stakes are different this time around, but the concept is the same. Tree is stuck in a time loop again, but the story has less to do with how she escapes and more to do with the price she pays to do so.

There isn’t quite as much mystery, but there are new complications that add a different kind of intrigue. The nature of the loop and the identity of the killer is different, this time. Motivations and obstacles are different too, but similar enough to build upon the foundation that the first movie established.

While I didn’t care for how “Happy Death Day 2U” explained the time loop, I still found myself genuinely intrigued by Tree’s journey, as well as that of her supporting cast. In the first movie, much like Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day,” Tree starts off as a selfish, arrogant, mean-spirited person who is difficult to root for. Over the course of the movie, though, she becomes more likable.

Tree’s journey in “Happy Death Day 2U” takes it even further by testing her new persona. Instead of becoming a better person by navigating the time loop, Tree is faced with a series of difficult, gut-wrenching choices. Beyond surviving the killer, escaping the time loop means paying a heavy price. Within the moments of bloody violence and messy deaths, she agonizes over that price.

That aspect of the story is what makes “Happy Death Day 2U” worth seeing. Even if it loses something by explaining the source of the time loop, it gains something by building on Tree’s story. We learn more and more about why she was such a self-loathing bitch in the first place, which makes her growth from that persona even more satisfying.

By the end of “Happy Death Day 2U,” it feels like Tree has take yet another step. She shows just how much she has grown, as a result of her experience in the time loop. It also gives even more weight to the blossoming relationship she has with Carter Davis. Her feelings for him and his feelings for her feel a lot more genuine by the time the credits roll.

As meaningful as this kind of character growth is, though, “Happy Death Day 2U” doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s still a slasher movie. Like its predecessor, it’s overtly coy with how it portrays the violence and death scenes. It’s a little gratuitous, at times. It also employs some tongue-in-cheek humor that helps balance things out.

Happy Death Day 2U” never tries to be too bloody, but never tries to be too funny, either. It takes what the first movie did and builds on the foundation. While it doesn’t feel as novel or innovative as the first, it still captures the overall spirit and style.

The movie still has flaws beyond explaining the cause of the time loop and limiting the overall mystery. Like the first one, this movie feels like it holds back at times. It probably could’ve done a lot more with an R-rating instead of a standard PG-13 rating, but there’s never a sense that the movie attempts to walk a fine line between the two.

In addition, while Tree’s character undergoes plenty of growth, Carter still doesn’t get nearly as much. We still don’t know much about who he is or what makes him tick. He still shows plenty of backbone throughout the movie, stepping up in a way that make him easy to root for, both as a character and as Tree’s love interest. It just feels like he doesn’t get his chance to shine.

There’s also the issue of needing to see the first “Happy Death Day” to understand what’s going on here. This is one of those movies where the prequel really isn’t optional if you want to appreciate everything that happens. In fact, this movie build so much upon the first that it basically acts as an extension more than a sequel.

Those flaws aside, “Happy Death Day 2U” is still a solid movie that took some considerable risks. Those risks paid off in that it further established this franchise a badly-needed shot in the arm for a genre that has become less relevant in recent years. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a solid 4 out of 5.

There is still a place for horror/slasher movies and there probably always will be. “Happy Death Day 2U” demonstrates that there’s still plenty of room for blood, violence, sex appeal, and creepy masked killers in the current cinematic landscape. John Carpenter and Wes Craven may have helped perfect that formula, but “Happy Death Day 2U” adds some new and overdue ingredients.

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Why “Bad Santa” Is The Greatest Modern Christmas Movie

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This is the time of year where you can’t go more than a half-hour without seeing a Christmas movie on TV. We’re basically in the heart of the holiday season. People have finally stopped complaining about Christmas decorations going up too early or getting a head start on their shopping. It’s not just fast-approaching anymore. The holidays are here.

Now, I love the holidays as much as anyone. As such, I have a strong appreciation for Christmas movies. I often go through stretches in December where I’ll watch at least part of a Christmas movie every day. It’s a beautiful thing that gets me in the spirit and gives me an excuse to drink eggnog spiked with whiskey.

I have a long list of personal favorites. I’m also among those who argue vehemently that “Die Hard” qualifies as a Christmas movie. Despite what Bruce Willis himself says, this movie will always be part of my holiday viewing schedule. I could write multiple articles to justify that position, but that’s not my intent here.

In recent years, I’ve found myself immersed in another argument surrounding a unique kind of Christmas movie. That movie is a lesser-known, but underrated gem called “Bad Santa.” If you’ve seen it, then you probably understand why it inspires such colorful discussions during the holidays. If you haven’t, then I urge you to check it out, but do not watch it with your children.

Make no mistake. “Bad Santa” is to Christmas movies what the McRib is to fast food fans. It’s one of those rare movies that doesn’t just go in the opposite direction of every classic trope associated with a particular genre. It gives those themes the finger, kicks it in the balls, and throws up on them for good measure.

This movie has no holiday miracles. There’s no magic at work. There’s no heartwarming moments that reaffirm the spirit of the season. This movie is weapons grade cynicism for all things Christmas and it goes about it in a way that’s vulgar, crude, disgusting, and hilarious.

The story is not for the faint of heart. It follows Willie Soke, a degenerate, misanthropic, womanizing, alcoholic who makes his living cracking safes with his dwarf partner-in-crime, Marcus Skidmore. Their tactics are the antithesis of the holiday spirit. Willie works as a mall Santa while Marcus works as an elf. They work at malls during the holidays and then rob them on Christmas Eve.

If you expect the movie to be a feel-good holiday story about a criminal redeeming himself during Christmas, then prepare to be disappointed. Willie is not that kind of character and “Bad Santa” does not tell that kind of story. While Willie does undergo some growth, he’s still an asshole by the time the credits roll.

The story doesn’t try to redeem Willie. It doesn’t even try to put him on the path to becoming a better person. All the Christmas miracles in world can’t do that for someone like him. However, his story does bring something uniquely festive to the table. The way things play out for Willie and those around him convey a powerful message that resonates with the holiday season in its own perverse way.

Some go so far as to argue that “Bad Santa” is an anti-Christmas movie. I can understand that sentiment to some extent. However, I would argue that “Bad Santa” is one of those movies that has become more relevant with time. I would even argue that, in the context of the modern spirit of Christmas, “Bad Santa” is the greatest modern Christmas movie.

Now, I know that won’t sit well with those who still love “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” I don’t deny that those are great Christmas movies that deserve to be classics. I’m not arguing that “Bad Santa” is better than those movies or deserves to be in the same category. I simply believe that “Bad Santa” is the greatest Christmas movie for the current times in which we live and these are my reasons why.


Reason #1: It Reflects The Real (And Increasingly Jaded) World

Let’s face it. These are not the upbeat, idealistic times of yesteryear. People no longer trust in their government. People keep seeing once-beloved celebrities self-destruct. In general, people just aren’t confident about the future anymore. As a society, we’re becoming more and more jaded. That’s exactly the kind of sentiment that “Bad Santa” appeals to.

This movie is a world where assholes keep being assholes. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. That may not be a great basis for a Christmas movie, but it perfectly represents the real world, now more than ever. In this day and age, we see famous and powerful people get away with awful things time and again. There’s no miracle that comes around to right all the wrongs.

In “Bad Santa,” this harsh view of the world isn’t avoided. For the entire movie, Willie essentially channels the defeatist attitude of Al Bundy. His life sucks. He hates himself. He barely even flinches when he’s staring down the barrel of a gun at one point. Beyond the self-loathing, though, he finds a way to provide real insights into the holidays.

Do we really need all the crap we ask for on Christmas? Do we really need magic, miracles, or some grand spectacle to appreciate it? Willie’s entire persona is an indictment of those who rely too much on magical thinking during the holidays. In the real world, that doesn’t get anyone anything other than a gut punch and a kick in the ass.


Reason #2: It Relies On Choices Rather Than Miracles

As deplorable a human being as Willie Soke is, he does have one defining trait that makes him somewhat sympathetic. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t blame the world or everyone else for his lousy lot in life. He’s very much a product of his choices. He chooses to drink, spit, swear, and piss himself while wearing a Santa suit. There’s no extenuating circumstances. These are his choices.

Granted, they’re deplorable choices from someone inclined to self-destruction, but he makes them freely and doesn’t hide from the consequences. These same choices are what makes his relationship to the dense, but lovable kid in the movie, Therman, so meaningful. Willie has no reason to care or help this kid in any capacity and the kid is in no position to stop him.

In the end, though, Willie doesn’t need a miracle or some visit from Christmas spirits to make his choices. Therman’s influence on him, while ridiculous and downright pathetic at times, is sufficient for him to make the choices that make the story work. While they don’t necessarily redeem Willie for all his misdeeds, it does show that even a drunk like him can do the right thing without a miracle.

That, in and of itself, is a testament to the spirit of Christmas. When someone like Willie Soke can actually choose to do something good for a gullible kid, then that offers hope to any jaded soul on the holidays.


Reason #3: It Highlights Small (But Meaningful) Gestures

Many of the most memorable Christmas movies often have these big, elaborate gestures that attempt to make our hearts gush with holiday cheer. Whether it’s embracing loved ones at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or reuniting with family in “Home Alone,” it feels like a Christmas movie has to go overboard with holiday sentiment.

Bad Santa” takes the exact opposite approach, but somehow finds a way to make those gestures more meaningful. The movie doesn’t take place in the North Pole or some fanciful holiday setting. It takes place in Phoenix, Arizona where it doesn’t snow and heavy coats are useless. It effectively removes the ambiance of the holidays beyond the tacky decorations that people put up.

That works perfectly for “Bad Santa” because it ensures any gesture carries more weight. Whether it’s Willie trying to get Thurman his Christmas present or Willie putting back together the Advent Calendar, these small moments feel bigger in a setting devoid of traditional holiday magic.

There’s no sweeping change that turns Phoenix into some sort of Christmas haven. The world of “Bad Santa” never tries to be anything other than a world of shallow holiday imagery because that’s all it needs. Anything more than that is just fantasy and there’s only so much fantasy you can muster in a story that follows a misanthropic drunk.


Reason #4: It Offers Perspective Rather Than Hope

Another major trait of classic Christmas movies is the hope they inspire. When you get to the end of a Christmas movie, you’re supposed to feel a sense of hope. There’s this sense that the story has somehow rekindled someone’s holiday spirit. While there will always be a place for that kind of hope in a fantasy world, “Bad Santa” offers something different, but valuable.

More than anything else, “Bad Santa” conveys a sense of perspective about the holidays. It’s not this wonderful, heartfelt occasion for everybody. There are a lot of miserable, self-loathing drunks like Willie Soke out there who don’t want or need hope. They’d rather have something that’ll make life suck a little less.

That’s the best Willie can strive for in “Bad Santa” and that’s exactly what he does. Being around Therman doesn’t make him a beacon of Christmas spirit. It just makes his miserable life slightly less miserable and he’s grateful for that. As a result, he makes an effort to help the kid have a good Christmas.

Sure, his efforts result in him getting roughed up and shot, but that’s perfectly appropriate for the tone of the story. In the real world, noble efforts like that aren’t always rewarded. Sometimes, they end up pretty messy, which Willie finds out the hard way on more than one occasion. It’s not the most uplifting message, but it’s the most honest.

Perspective today is more precious than it has ever been before. In the era of fake news and alternative facts, it’s hard to maintain a firm grasp on reality. Christmas movies tend to obscure reality for something more cheerful, but “Bad Santa” for something more real and that’s what makes it so effective as a story.


Reason #5: It Finds Humor In Bad Situations

To this point, if I’ve given the impression that “Bad Santa” is one depressing slog of a movie, I apologize. Yes, it can be depressing and bleak, but it’s also obscenely funny. There are dark moments in this movie that involve depression, alcoholism, and even attempted suicide. However, many of these moments are perfectly balanced with moments of raw hilarity.

Whether it’s Willie beating the snot out of a bunch of bullies or Marcus berating Gin with a masterful string of profanity, this movie invests heavily on humor. Granted, it’s a very adult form of humor, but it works perfectly within the context of the story. From the very beginning, Willie and his supporting cast are in all sorts of awful situations. Injecting humor into the mix helps balance it out.

It helps create a particular tone for a movie that goes out of its way to spit on so many holiday traditions. Things are ugly for these characters. They’re miserable excuses for human beings, but they often find themselves in funny situations that they make more hilarious with their reactions. No matter how bad it gets, they find a way to make their devolving situations entertaining.

In an era were awful situations unfold in real time because of social media, it’s important to find humor wherever you can. There’s only so much we can do to change a situation. Willie makes that clear from the very beginning of “Bad Santa.” Sometimes, all you can do is just laugh at the absurdities and that’s exactly what this movie does.


I won’t claim that “Bad Santa” is the new standard for Christmas movies. I doubt it’s going to start the kinds of trends we’ve seen in other genres. However, the story it told and the dark humor it utilized struck a chord when it first came out. As the years have gone by, it keeps finding new ways to resonate with an emerging audience.

There will always be a place for “Home Alone” and the Grinch. However, I think for the current generation and all the others who have watched this world embrace new levels of absurdities, “Bad Santa” deserves a special place in our holiday traditions.

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How “Into The Spider-Verse” Embodies The Best Aspects Of Superhero Movies (And Sets Up A Promising Future)

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In the modern era of superhero movies, Spider-Man is one of the bedrock franchises that has guided the genre through its journey from niche market to global box office dominance. Alongside the first “X-men” movie, Sam Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” is credited with ushering in this golden age of superhero cinema.

It has been a bumpy road at times. We had high points with “Spider-Man 2” and not-so-high points with “Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Regardless of how these movies fared, the story of Peter Parker shouldering the power and responsibilities of Spider-Man has become ingrained in pop culture. We still could’ve done without that awful dance scene, though.

Given all the weight Spider-Man has for the genre, a movie like “Into The Spider-Verse” has a lot going for it and just as much working against it. The story of Peter Parker has been done, redone, and overdone so much that it feels like there’s no room left for nuance. Well, “Into The Spider-Verse” definitively proves there’s still untapped potential and it runs even deeper than anyone thought.

I don’t want to spoil much about this movie, but I will spoil this. “Into The Spider-Verse” is every bit as awesome as critics and audiences alike have said. It’s a truly groundbreaking achievement for superhero movies, animation, and the Spider-Man franchise. The fact that it managed to do this without being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes that accomplishment all the more remarkable.

This movie succeeds on so many levels. It takes a concept drawn directly from the comics and expands on it, creating a whole new world in which all things Spider-Man do not revolve entirely around Peter Parker. That’s not a typo, by the way. This is a Spider-Man movie in which Peter Parker is not the main driving force of the story.

It’s this kid.

He’s still there. He still plays a major part in the story. However, this movie is a story about Miles Morales. Those who follow the comics will recognize that name. He’s not just some unknown character who gets thrust into a central role in the vein of the “Ghostbuster” reboot. Miles has a fairly comprehensive history going back to 2011 and this movie captures the heart of that history perfectly.

Miles is not like Peter in many ways. Beyond the fact that he’s half-black, half-Latino, and the nephew of a dangerous super-villain, his powers are slightly different. His personality is different, as well. He’s not the same nerdy dork that Peter Parker was, but he is very much an outsider who struggles to fit in.

Miles has more confidence, but not in the arrogant hipster Andrew Garfield sort of way. He’s someone who isn’t sure of who he wants to be or where he wants his life to go. On one hand, he’s got his parents who want him to aspire to something greater than a life in Brooklyn. On the other, he has influences like his Uncle Aaron pulling him down a darker path.

Him getting bit by a radioactive spider only compounds these conflicting forces. Part of what makes Miles work when other would-be Spider-Man replacements failed is that his struggle feels genuine. He never comes off as a rip-off or a substitute. What makes Miles a Spider-Man worth rooting for is how Peter Parker inspires him to take on that responsibility.

The comics went about that in one particular way that worked brilliantly. “Into The Spider-Verse” utilizes a different, but similar approach that’s every bit as compelling. Peter Parker has a major influence, but the movie throws in many other influences that send Miles down the path to becoming Spider-Man.

Some of those influences come in the form of other famous alternate-version Spider-Man characters, including the likes of Spider-Gwen and Spider-Ham. “Into The Spider-Verse” manages to give them their own stories that show how they fit into the greater Spider-Man mythos, but for Miles, they embody the responsibility before him.

Like Peter, and so many other Spider-Man characters, he’s initially reluctant to bear that burden. Over the course of the movie, he endures plenty of agonizing decisions and crippling self-doubt. He struggles in ways that we’re not used to seeing Spider-Man struggle, but that’s exactly why “Into The Spider-Verse” works so well in the current landscape of superhero movies.

Going back to the first “Iron Man” movie, we’ve come to expect struggles and setbacks from our heroes. Miles has a lot more than most and not just because of his youth or inexperience. He has huge shoes to fill and the history of characters filling the shoes of iconic heroes is mixed at best.

By the end of the movie, though, Miles effectively proves that he’s worthy of being Spider-Man. He deserves a spot in the greater Spider-Man mythos. It doesn’t have to revolve entirely around Peter Parker. For some Spider-Man fans, that may seem outrageous. “Into The Spider-Verse” shows that there’s plenty of room for characters like Miles.

How it goes about this has greater implications for the future of superhero movies than it does for the present. I would even go so far as to say that “Into The Spider-Verse” might end up being a major turning point for the superhero genre because of how it tells Miles’ story alongside that of Peter Parker.

Aside from just raising Miles’ profile, “Into The Spider-Verse” does something that is overdue for Peter Parker’s story. Specifically, it ages him. The Peter Parker in this story is not some wide-eyed kid with Tom Holland’s baby face. He’s an older, more jaded version of Peter who has made mistakes and lost confidence in himself, as often happens to those who survive to middle age.

The look of a man who has fought one too many muggers.

It’s part of the paradox of heroism that I’ve mentioned before in that many popular superheroes aren’t allowed to age beyond a certain point. In fact, that was cited as the primary reason for breaking up Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson in the comics. Aging a hero beyond the mold Frank Miller’s version of Batman just seems like a dead end.

Into The Spider-Verse” makes the case that this doesn’t have to be the case. Peter Parker can grow up and even endure a mid-life crisis. For a character who has been around since the early 1960s, it almost feels overdue. His struggle doesn’t have to be the end of his story. If anything, it helps further Miles’ ascension to becoming the new Spider-Man.

It’s a theme that has played out in the comics more recently. Older heroes are inspiring a new crop of younger heroes. Miles Morales was among the first. Others like Kamala Khan and Riri Williams have followed. It feels like a natural progression of the superhero archetype, inspiring others to take up the responsibility and aspire to something greater.

Miles Morales isn’t a replacement for Peter Parker. He’s a supplement to the greater Spider-Man mythos and “Into The Spider-Verse” establishes how well this can work. His story is every bit as endearing as Peter’s, but without supplanting him. As such, it provides a new template for superhero movies in the future.

Not every story has to rely on rehashing and revamping iconic characters from the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko era. It’s possible for new characters to emerge without replacing older ones. The world of superheroes can grow and evolve with subsequent generations. It’ll have to and not just because of actors’ contracts expiring.

If I had to score “Into The Spider-Verse,” I would give it an 8 out of 10. It’s a great movie, but it does have some shortcomings. They’re very minor. The pacing of the movie is erratic at times and the designs for certain characters, namely Kingpin and Scorpion, have room for improvement. It never feels chaotic or disconnected, though. The movie has a unique artistic style that fits perfectly with the story.

Every now and then, someone will claim that superhero movies will one day go the way of the western. That may still happen at some point, but “Into The Spider-Verse” shows that there are whole new paths to explore and they have to exist in the MCU. This movie is an incredible achievement beyond just being a great superhero movie and one I hope inspires others for years to come.

Also, the tribute to Stan Lee at the end will bring a tear to your eyes. Be certain of that.

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A (Partial) Symbiosis Of Awesome: My “Venom” Review

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Certain movies are subject to unique standards. Nowhere is this more apparent than with superhero movies. A sci-fi movie can be flexible with its use of sci-fi elements. The same can be said for generic genres like romantic comedies, horror, action, and even stoner movies. A superhero movie, whether fairly or unfairly, will be judged by much stricter criteria.

This is the problem “Venom” faced before it even started shooting. Most fans, especially those who follow Marvel Comics, were probably intrigued by the possibility of a movie about Venom. Casting Tom Hardy in the lead role definitely help. No offense to Topher Grace, but he’s far more qualified to play Eddie Brock than he’ll ever be.

Even so, “Venom” had a lot of logistical problems from the beginning. It wasn’t going to feature Spider-Man. It wasn’t going to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It wasn’t even going to get input from Kevin Feige and everyone else at Marvel Studios, who have made creating billion-dollar movies seem inane. By some standards, that’s a serious handicap.

Most Marvel fans, and I consider myself one of them, aren’t too keen on the idea of a Venom movie that doesn’t involve Spider-Man or have any connection to the MCU. Even if you have a passing familiarity with Venom in the comics, you probably know that a lot of his story is connected with Spider-Man. Telling a Venom movie without Spider-Man is like telling a Joker movie without Batman.

Actually, that may be a bad example. Forget I said that.

Logistical issues aside, I was still intrigued enough to give “Venom” a try. Like many other Marvel fans, I was not pleased with how his story was handled in “Spider-Man 3.” The only good that came out of that was a slew of dancing Toby Maguire memes. I felt Venom deserved better.

Well, without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I can affirm that “Venom” definitely succeeded where “Spider-Man 3” failed. It’s not just a good movie about Venom. It’s a good movie, overall. It had a lot of things working against it, but it still worked.

I know that the movie didn’t exactly thrill critics, nor did it blow the minds of hardcore fans who saw it. At the same time, it wasn’t messy or cumbersome like the theatrical cut of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Yes, this movie probably would’ve benefited by taking the “Deadpool” approach and gone for an R-rating. However, it still succeeds in many ways.

At its core, “Venom” works because it’s less about alien symbiotes infecting random people and more about Eddie Brock. This is his story and Tom Hardy does an excellent job capturing his persona. You don’t have to read a single comic to understand that Eddie Brock is not Peter Parker. He’s not exactly a hero, but he’s not a blood-thirsty villain, either.

Although that’s not necessarily obvious.

Eddie Brock is one of those guys who’s a loser and not just because he ends up bonding with a parasitic alien. One of the best things this movie did was show that Eddie’s life falls apart because of a decision that he makes. He’s not a victim of bad luck. In the beginning, his life is actually really good. However, he makes a fateful choice that completely changes that.

At the same time, the movie establishes that Eddie is not the kind of guy who jumps at the chance to be a hero. He has a few opportunities before he bonds with the Venom symbiote. He doesn’t take it and unlike Peter Parker, it’s not purely out of responsibility. He’s just not the kind of guy who embodies the selfless spirit of Superman or Captain America.

Then, when he encounters the symbiote, these personality flaws intensify. At first, he’s just overwhelmed. He reacts in a way most people would. His first instinct isn’t to help people or be a hero. He’s actually petty and self-serving for the most part. As the story unfolds, he and the symbiote literally and figuratively feed off one another. They both grow and evolve, as characters.

That process involves plenty of action, some of which is pretty visceral. If you’re looking for the kind of cartoonish beat-downs we got in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” you’re going to be disappointed. The action here is quite violent. It’s not on the same gratuitous level as “Deadpool,” but it’s close and it even holds back at times.

Given Venom’s brutal nature in the comics, this can be a bit of a problem. In watching this movie, you get the sense that the effects team worked overtime to keep the violence just below PG-13 levels. At times, it feels forced and that impacts the story to some extent.

This moment could’ve been MUCH bloodier.

That’s not the only issue, nor is it the biggest. While I believe the story works, I also can’t deny that it’s missing some key components. Those not familiar Spider-Man’s history surrounding Venom probably won’t notice, but it’s hard for me to be a Marvel fan and overlook some of these flaws.

The story of how Venom and Eddie Brock come together is solid, concise, and compelling, as it’s presented in this movie. However, it still feels like it’s missing a lot of emotional depth without Spider-Man. A big reason why Venom, and Eddie by extension, becomes so menacing is because of Spider-Man’s role in his story. Removing him from that story is glaring, to say the least.

To fill in those gaps, the movie creates a new source of conflict through the Life Foundation, which acts as the primary antagonist through its unscrupulous Mark Zuckerberg wannabe, Carlton Drake. That’s not to say Drake isn’t a decent villain, but he’s not even in the same hemisphere as Erik Killmonger or Thanos.

Pictured here is NOT Thanos.

Even by non-superhero standards, these villains are pretty bland. It’s basically Venom versus and evil corporation who ends up serving an alien agenda. There’s nothing memorable or iconic about them, but that’s okay in the context of this movie because they still fulfill their primary purpose. They create the necessary moments that move Eddie’s story forward.

On top of that, the lack of connections with the MCU make this movie feel small by comparison, especially in a year when “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” broke box office records. “Venom” has everything it needs to connect with the MCU. There’s nothing in the story that precludes it from having a role, but Sony has gone on record as saying that this movie is completely detached from that world.

The shared reaction of many Marvel fans.

As much as I’d love to see Tom Hardy and Tom Holland battle in a future movie, the lack of MCU connections still don’t take away from everything this movie does well. Overall, “Venom” is good movie that had a lot of factors working against it. This movie faced an uphill battle from the beginning, but still managed to achieve a lot. If I had to score it, I’d give it a 7 out of 10.

I’ve heard some claim that this movie belongs in the early 2000s and just doesn’t work within the current market of superhero movies. I say that’s bullshit. Good movies work, regardless of the year or era they come out. “Venom” is a good movie, but it’s also one that could’ve been much greater.

Coming out of the theater, I was satisfied, but felt as though there was a lot of potential left on the cutting room floor. It’s hard to know whether this movie would function better with an R-rating or as part of the MCU, but it manages to do plenty within its many constraints. Tom Hardy was handicapped in bringing Eddie Brock and Venom to life, but he still pulled it off.

Again, with all apologies to Topher Grace, Tom Hardy is now the definitive face of Venom and this movie sets him up for a promising future.

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