Yeah, Pretty Happy These Didn’t Become A Thing

X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It’s a love story. Between an indestructible superhero and Explosions. Explosions loves Wolverine, and is trying to hug him. But Wolverine just isn’t feeling it, and runs away from Explosions every time. Poor Explosions. Explosions just wants to be loved!

This is basically a live-action cartoon that opens with a killer piece of efficient visual storytelling and then spends the rest of its runtime pandering to thirteen-year-old boys — badly. If you’re going to pull blatant fanservice by including a character like (popular violent wack-job) Deadpool, shouldn’t you at least make some effort to understand just why the fans you’re pandering to like the character in the first place? Maybe hit-up Wikipedia?

“Bad” doesn’t cover it. This movie is exuberantly stupid, gleefully thick-headed. It has a bunch of boxes to check off, and checks them off with as many bullets, blades, and booms as it can manage, with a heavy dose of fanwank Marvel cameos just for good measure. I have no idea how a movie this over-the-top ridiculous can exist with neither Nic Cage nor Paul W. S. Anderson having had anything to do with it.

This movie is like an adorable, excited, incontinent puppy who sprays the room with shit whenever he’s hyped-up, which is always. Yes, the little devil is kinda fun to play with, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that he’s covered everything you care about with a layer of dog feces.

The movie has an energy to it that’s actually kind of appealing. Not appealing enough to overcome its own awfulness, mind. But, still. It’s unique. And awful. But nevertheless, unique.

Luckily, The Franchise Resurrected Itself

Jasmine and I are taking a personal day, and just crossed X-Men: Last Stand off the to-do list, and I get it.

I get the outrage and disgust. I simply don’t share it.

This was a very ordinary movie — it is, I suspect, the movie fans feared the prior two would be. Weightless, silly, and flashy, this was a Comic Book Movie made for and by people who really don’t care that much about comics and think they’re fundamentally for kids.

And I didn’t care for it. Whatever depth and humanity the prior movies possessed largely evaporated, making it a hell of a lot less interesting to me as a movie watcher. But to be properly outraged, you need to be invested. You need to have spent a lot of time appreciating the depth of Magneto’s convictions and the truths behind them, contemplating his role as Malcolm X to the professor’s MLK, to be properly disgusted by the way he discards Mystique when she’s suddenly nerfed, or treats his Brotherhood of Mutants as disposable mooks. You need to have earned an appreciation for Scott’s qualities as a leader, his ability to get the most out of an extremely limited and limiting superpower, to be appalled at how shabbily the script treats him. You need a long-standing respect for Professor X and his deep sense of humanity to be bitterly disappointed at his role as a font of clumsy, wooden exposition.

I’m unfamiliar with the Dark Phoenix storyline, don’t know what it is that made it so beloved and iconic. I’m willing to bet, however, that it wasn’t a weird and superfluous B-plot tacked-on to a fundamentally unrelated story. And I bet the pain of watching a favorite story get thoroughly botched has only deepened with this new generation of Marvel movies, which you know damn well would have been laying the groundwork for Jean Grey, Unstable Uber-Mutant right out of the gate.

It has its moments. Kelsey Grammer was a very enjoyable Beast, the action scenes were lively. I can’t bring myself to truly hate it.

But I definitely respect the opinion of anybody who does.

X-Time

Jasmine wanted to catch up on the X-Men movies before seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past this summer. And since I quite enjoyed the three I’ve seen, I was game to grab the lot at Exchange, even the ones that are alleged to be terrible.

Thus far, we’ve watched the first two: X-Men and X2: X-Men United. X2 is reputed to be the much stronger movie, but I recalled my own reaction as being fairly contrarian: that it was perfectly fine, but actually fell a bit short of the first movie overall.

Having now recently seen them both back-to-back, my opinion was, weirdly enough, both affirmed and challenged.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, X-Men is probably not quite as good as you remember. Action-wise, the recent Marvel movies drink its milkshake right up. With the exception of the climactic battles in and on the Statue of Liberty, the action setpieces are all flashy curb-stomp battles where one side is completely overwhelmed and the outcome feels preordained. The final scenes remedy this, but do so at the expense of fight choreography that often looks distractingly hokey.

But it ain’t bad. The script has a light, deft touch that does a good job of humanizing its characters, and a lot of the quotable one-liners remain quite good in context. (“I am psychic, you know.”) Hugh Jackman owns as Wolverine, making his grumpy loner qualities come off as human and interesting when they could easily have been dull and tedious. And, of course, you have Ian McKellan as Magneto, who I tend to unjustly forget when discussing great cinematic supervillains. (Seriously, given the problems they’ve had with their own antagonists, Marvel Studios would probably kill to let Magneto be the baddie in one of their movies.) It deserves to be remembered as the strong foundation on which most modern superhero movies are based. Released today, it would come off as a worthy addition to the Marvel movies, just one that doesn’t particularly raise the bar — and given that, in the real world, it actually helped set that bar, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

X2 definitely tries to raise the bar over its predecessor, and in many ways it succeeds. The plot is bigger, more ambitious, and more interesting. The action scenes are (mostly) far superior. Alan Cumming and the special effects team absolutely nail Nightcrawler, who seems to have been quite well written to begin with. Halle Berry doesn’t embarrass herself, and raises her game to “Unfortunate non-entity where there’s supposed to be a strong, iconic figure.”

But … here, let me quote MightyGodKing’s Christopher Bird on how this movie is generally remembered:

“Everything about this is good and nothing is bad.”

Nope nope nope nope noooooooooope.

The climactic fight scene between Wolverine and Lady Deathstryke may be the worst third-act showdown in superhero movie history. Going into the full details would double the size of this post and obscure the fact that on the balance I quite liked the movie, but the short version: no buildup, no stakes, horrifying ending that makes the “hero” out to be every bit the monster the villain claims he is — and then some.

Jean Grey’s heroic sacrifice was probably the worst heroic sacrifice in superhero movie history until Man of Steel topped that shit. Again, short version for exactly the same reasons: contrived, very low stakes, completely ignores the mutants who would have had a fighting chance at getting everybody to safety but who inexplicably sat on their hands the entire time while Jean got herself killed apparently for the sake of a misplaced callback to an iconic X-Men storyline that most people watching the movie (including me) couldn’t have cared less about.

Of course, that sacrifice happens during a ridiculously drawn-out ending (topped only by Return of the King) that keeps on going and going a solid twenty minutes after the movie should have ended.

And the dialog and character interactions don’t even touch what the first movie accomplished. In their place are thudding moments like Professor X’s clumsy-playful threat to make Wolverine think he’s a six-year-old girl, or that ghastly “We like what you’ve done with your hair,” which deserves to be as reviled as Storm’s “You know what happens to toads when they get hit by lightning?” reading, and isn’t because Ian McKellan is otherwise so freaking fantastic. (Seriously, list all the villains who would be so cruel and tasteless as to taunt a sixteen-year-old girl dealing with the aftermath of their unsuccessful murder attempt. It’s a short list. The Joker and King Joffrey “Baratheon” would be on it. Magneto and Mystique shouldn’t be anywhere near it.)

No, X2 gets a lot of things right, but fucks-up more places than I think movie nerds like to admit. It’s still a good movie. And I definitely respect the effort to raise the franchise’s game. But on the balance, I don’t think it’s any better than its predecessor.

Next up, possibly this weekend, are X-Men: The Last Stand, on which I hear opinions raging from “Eh, actually not that bad” to “No, really, that bad;” and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for which my expectations have been set as low as you can get without digging into Manos: Hands of Fate territory.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Is it merely very good, or is it the best of the MarvelVerse movies to be released thus far?

A lot of folks I respect have been arguing the latter (including MightyGodKing’s Chris Bird listing it as #1 in his ranking of all 32 Marvel-based live action movies to be released since 1998), and I’m not sure I’d go that far.  The juxtaposition of Cap in what’s basically a spy movie doesn’t always work, and once you get past the Surprise Reveal of the villain’s identity (admittedly a whopper, and spoiled by a truly hilarious Internet meme), their scheme is … problematic, to say the least.

Granted, Avengers — which remains my favorite of the Marvels — had a similar problem.  But this time there’s no Tony Stark to call-out the big bad and say “WTF?  You know your plan is stupid, right?”  Villain quality has been an issue throughout this otherwise excellent run of movies, with Loki and “The Mandarin” (heh) being the only ones coming close to solving it well.  (I’m calling it now: if any of the Marvel movies luck into a bad guy anywhere near Heath Ledger’s Joker, we’ll have an instant contender for Best Superhero Movie EVAR.)

But.

As somebody who largely doesn’t read comics, I remain delighted by the degree to which I’ve enjoyed the Captain America movies.  An off-the-cuff description — all-American patriot and super-soldier battles America’s enemies — would have me expecting something at best schmaltzy, at worst insultingly jingoistic.  Instead, both his own two movies and Avengers have shown a very human, remarkably relatable character who knows he’s striving for ideals his own side often falls short of.  For me, the defining Cap moment remains “Put on your suit” in the Avengers.  He’s so pissed-off at Tony that he’d like to kick his ass, but doing it mano-a-mano would be the kind of bullying Steve Rogers abhors.  Tony may be a billionaire playboy genius, but outside of his suit, Steve will mop the floor with him.  So, he tells him to put on the suit, even though that doesn’t so much level the playing field as reverse it — in an undamaged Iron Man suit, Tony can go toe-to-toe with gods.

Steve doesn’t care.  He’d rather put himself at a whopping disadvantage than be a bully.

And that’s why sticking him in a spy movie is actually kind of genius.

The days of America’s most dangerous enemies being the obvious ones are well behind us — assuming they ever existed at all.*  The latest Captain America movie doesn’t merely acknowledge this, it makes it central to the plot.  Steve is uncompromised without being either haughty or weak, making him the perfect agent of change to rip the cover off secrets and apply the principle that sunlight makes the best disinfectant.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the action sequences, and honestly, I don’t see what the problem is.  Sure, there’s nothing on the level of the artisanal bloodshed and limb-snapping of The Raid 2, but it’s not like we’re talking spastic, Michael-Bay-at-his-worst shaky-cam, either.  I also liked the reminders that Steve is a SOLDIER, one who will use lethal force without hesitation when the situation calls for it; superheroes don’t normally toss grenades, or throw knives.  I found the action setpieces clear enough to follow and engaging enough to advance the story, and well-grounded in who the characters were.  Works for me.

In fact, I felt like there was considerably more at stake than in most of the Marvel movies.  Cap’s tough, but he’s still only human; put enough bullets into him, and he’ll die.  And his two fellow “superheroes” are even more vulnerable than he is; Black Widow is just a woman who’s damned good at a dangerous job, and Falcon is a dude with a “suit” that Tony Stark famously outclassed in a cave.  (“With a box of scraps!!!”)  And watching the eponymous Winter Soldier tear through a bunch of friendly mooks trying to answer Cap’s call to arms … yeeouch.

What surprised me, though, was how well the movie worked in the quieter moments.  I completely bought the relationship between Steve and his new friend Sam; despite the vast gulf in time and experience between them, they were still brother soldiers and related to each other as such.  When Steve gave Sam a hard time about how “slow” he runs, it felt like a friendly busting of chops when it could easily could have come off as massively dickish.  When Sam decides to join the fight in earnest, his reasons, which could have felt completely hokey, feel well-earned.

Steve’s relationship with Natasha felt similarly real for completely different reasons; they’re nominally on the same side, but their differing world views mean a very natural lack of trust that the movie had to bridge.  And the sexual tension, such as a it was, felt right for two attractive people who know damn well they’d be a horrific romantic mismatch.  (If anything, Natasha tweaking Steve in those moments felt analogous to Steve teasing Sam, and our hero handles it with grace.)

And I loved how Steve’s lawful-good Army rules lawyering revealed a crucial plot element.

And, of course, we FINALLY get to see Samuel L. Jackson be a badass in one of these things.

Not all of the MarvelVerse movies have been great, but even at their worst (likely Iron Man 2), they’ve still been watchable and enjoyable.  They’ve hit that Pixar stage where, until they shit their version of Cars 2 onto the screen, I’m going to be there for each and every one of them, no questions asked.

This is a comic book movie to its core, from the bloodless fight scenes to the grandiose villainy.  If you don’t like that kind of movie, sit this one out.  But if you do, this is damn near as good as it gets.  Highly recommended.

* — Something the first Cap movie slyly acknowledges by making the scientist who buffs-out Steve German himself.

A Brief Review: The Raid 2

I went in expecting a high-octane wall-to-wall action movie, and definitely got it.  If you’ve seen The Raid: Redemption, you know what to expect:  intense, creative, brutal, bloody fights, and lots and lots of them.  If you like extended martial-arts smackdown, you’ll dig it.

This movie operates on a much larger canvas than its predecessor, and I’m not completely convinced it actually served the movie that well.  The first benefited from an admirable sense of focus:  Here’s a bunch of heavily-armed cops looking to arrest some bad guys, here’s a high-rise filled with even-more-heavily-armed bad guys who would just as soon not be arrested, go!  Rama, the rookie badass from the first movie, now does the deep-undercover cop thing, and enters a world of corruption and deceit and blah blah blah blah you’ve seen this before.

I appreciate that the sequel is trying to add more depth and context to the explosive fight scenes, but it’s only sporadically effective.  This is a tough movie to follow; I’m reasonably confident I got most of it, but there are some key plot points I’m very, very fuzzy on.  The police corruption angle felt strangely grafted-on for something that was ostensibly central to the plot.

It’s more ambitious than its predecessor, but doesn’t fully realize those ambitions and is actually a small step down; it’s just not as good as the movie it follows.  But, still, you can be not as good as The Raid: Redemption and still be a damn fine movie, and The Raid 2 is.  For fans of epic fisticuffs, recommended.

Burgertime!

I love Bob’s Burgers.  Season 3 recently made its way to Netflix, and it’s a blast.

And I love how their twenty-second opening credits manage to encapsulate the spirit of the show:

Everything is jaunty and cheerful, even as things keep going to shit over and over behind them.  Because that’s what the Belchers do, dammit: they just keep trying.

Fun show.  Give it a look sometime.