Spider-Man: Homecoming

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We are nearing the day when every major movie will be part of an extended universe, when their narratives will function both as entertaining yarns and trailers for the upcoming sequels, when easter eggs and post-credits sequences replace all that makes cinema meaningful.

B

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Wonder Woman

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What could have been the most insightful moment into the very nature of superheroes since that thrilling final scene in The Dark Knight occurs in the final act of Wonder Woman, when Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) realizes that evil carries on despite her executing the main baddie.

I say could have because the movie flirts with a very interesting idea that ultimately falls flat: superheroes are not just different from humans because they are stronger, but because they believe goodness can eventually overcome evil. If heroes did not believe in such a lofty ideal they would not be superheroes to begin with. Superheroes exist to achieve and aspire to heights us mere mortals cannot. That is why they punch Hitler in the face and stop a nuclear bomb at the last minute. They serve as inspiration into who we should strive to be.

The moment Diana Prince learns that the people she is trying to save are the same ones that take glee in annihilating their neighbor should be painful. It should illustrate that perhaps humanity is not worth saving after all. But that superheroes, because they are so much better than that, can see past our flaws and into the other side of our nature: the one that loves, laughs and finds the horrors of wars repugnant. Unfortunately it does not (settling for another slo-mo CGI trope ridden extravaganza), but the effort, like the heroine herself, is still noble.

B-

Logan

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Superhero movies adapted from comic books have had such a tremendous impact on popular culture during the last decade that they’ve even received their own grading curve.
“Good by superhero movie standards”, or “terrible even by comic book adaptation standards” has become the de facto response to this kind of product. Whether this is harmful or beneficial to cinema as a whole is a topic that demands its own blog post (maybe when Wonder Woman opens?), so this entry will not approach Logan as another superhero comic book movie, but rather as simply another slice of cinema.

I note this disclaimer out of fear that I will be doing this movie a disservice by calling it the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight trilogy. A quick glance into the past reveals that in the intervening years there have not really been that many memorable movies of the kind, which would take away some credit from Logan.
So instead I will say that Logan is the most memorable film I have watched since Silence; it reminds me of the greatest television series I have ever watched, Spartacus: Blood and Sand; and features a performance by Hugh Jackman so magnificent that if I cared at all about awards, I would hope against hope he’d be nominated for something.

“That was not Wolverine”, a friend lamented upon exiting the cinema. “I hated the movie.”
“I hoped that character from the other movie showed up”, the other friend said. “That would have been cool”.

I kept quiet, pondering their words. How many people spend fifteen dollars hoping to see something cool on the big screen? Is that why superhero movies are so popular, since they feature a CGI infused extravaganza of explosions and shiny costumes? Why do so little people pay mind to the human element, and the pains and the joys of life on this earth?

Logan might be the story of a 200 year old mutant who cannot die, but his tale is agonizingly human. Hugh Jackman inflicts Logan with so much sorrow that a mere glance is enough to break your heart. I would say that Logan is a man battling his demons, but it would be a misreading of the film. Logan lost that conflict many years ago. What’s left is a man who is in constant agony every waking hour, considering death a welcome change to the life filled with regret and loss he’s led up until that point.

That the script for this was approved is some sort of miracle. Consider the scene in which Laura (Dafne Keen) is riding a mechanical horse, and Logan approaches to call her back to the car. She looks at him asking for one more ride, so Logan pulls out a quarter from his pocket and says “One final time okay?”, before inserting the coin into the mechanical box next to the contraption. Logan pulls away and Laura starts to ride again.
A moment like this, lasting about thirty seconds and meaningless in the grand scheme of things, becomes beautiful not only because it survived executives overseeing it making sure they made every penny back, but because it speaks volumes about the world we all inhabit. This is real life. A kid riding a mechanical horse; an old man lifted from his wheelchair and into a public toilet; a young man saying he will drop from college to go travel across the country.
Small, fleeting moments are what make up our lives, and small, fleeting moments are what Logan is incapable of grasping. He says the adamantium inside his system is slowly killing him, but that’s only partly true.
Logan has been dying since the day he let his sorrows overtake any glimmer of hope for a better future he might have had.

Again, Hugh Jackman delivers the performance of a lifetime. It will take me a while to get rid of the images of a bruised and battered Logan out of my head, his gaze lost somewhere where the camera cannot reach. Watching it in the dark in a packed room, I felt knots in my stomach, and I wondered if my neighbors felt the same. I wanted the movie to be over and go home imagining Logan living his remaining days somewhere happily ever after.

While not a perfect movie, mainly because the quasi generic bad guys keep reminding the audience that they are watching a Marvel adaptation every time they are on screen, it reminded me of the immense power cinema holds whenever a story is well told. It reminded me that even in the midst of all the deafening noise and chaos resounding that has been ruling our world for the past year, there is still room for the intimate, and that hope should not be given up on. But most of all, it reminded me that true heroes don’t wear capes after all.

B+

Doctor Strange

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I have never abandoned a movie theater as sad as I did on the night I watched Doctor Strange.

The evening began with a promise, with my friend graciously buying me a ticket to attend the opening night showing of Marvel’s latest. As soon as I took a seat in the packed room however, illusion turned to disenchantment. 
The barrage of trailers assaulting my senses consisted of pure noise; a series of sequels, prequels and incredibly expensive looking blockbusters was the only thing adorning the screen before the Marvel Studios logos hushed the crowd into submission.

And then, the origin story. The bad guy. The love interest. The training montage.

Doctor Strange is a very entertaining and fun movie. Visually, it is splendid, aided by the finest CGI money can buy and performers who bring class to even the silliest of one liners. The action sequences are competent and the score is unique enough to at times make the movie seem like it is not part of a massive superhero universe, but something that can stand on its own.

In the decade or so Marvel Studios’ been around, the only movie of theirs I have not liked has been Iron Man 3, and not because the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) turned out to be a fraud. I remember being annoyed by a little kid that pops up halfway to help Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and by how Pepper Potts (Gywneth Paltrow) ends up defeating the bad guy, when everybody was tricked into thinking she had died. 
I bring this up not to rail against Marvel for toying with my emotions for cheap drama, but to commend them for consistently keeping me entertained with the fun and entertaining movies they produce.

This factory line of movies that Marvel has perfected is what ties into my sadness from Friday night. They will keep producing decent and enjoyable pictures for as long as the audience demands it, which judging by the response from the crowd that night, will seemingly last forever.

If cinema is truly an art form, then surely it must provide more catharsis than the sense of satisfaction brought about every time planet earth is saved from annihilation.

My sadness began when I realized, halfway through Doctor Strange, that I could not summon the necessary enthusiasm to care for what was happening on the screen. This not out of bad will, but out of the weariness that having already seen this play out many times before takes on me. The world can only be threatened so many times before peril becomes obsolete; thousands of faceless individuals have perished in the name of spectacle that human loss is neither tragedy nor figure, but the catalyst for kicking the climax into motion.

In attempting to bring the universe to earth, what these movies have done is get rid of the personal. And what motivation to engage with them do I have if the only thing movies have to offer is fun by way of witticisms and entertainment by way of explosions? Marvel is so adept at delivering consistent good entertainment, that pretty soon that is all I will have. Perhaps bad movies will cease to exist, but when that happens, great film will cease to exist as well. Marvel is not interested in making great cinema; if that were the case, their pictures would not feel so depressingly interchangeable. And that would be fine, except everybody seems to be taking a page out of their playbook. And when that happens, cinema ceases to be cinema and becomes something mundane, predictable, and worse of all, average.
Average will become the new norm and nobody will object as long as it keeps making them chuckle.

How long until viewers stop engaging with fare that is challenging, or even just plain different, on account of it not fitting the parameters dictated by their blockbusters? And when that occurs, how long until different movies stop being made altogether?

On the way home, my friend kept talking about the inevitable sequel and the teased team up between Doctor Strange and another Marvel hero. When he finally stopped, he shifted his focus to another established property that will have a sequel soon.

“How about Life?”, I asked, the only trailer for an original idea we watched all night.

“It will most likely bomb”, he said, unaware that he, just like Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) can peer into the future.

B

Deadpool

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Superhero movies are entertaining at best, and mediocre at worst. I’ve yet to see a Marvel adaptation that makes me go “what a great film” or , excluding the Nolan trilogy, a DC one that resonates with me beyond a “ooo, fancy explosion” level.

And while Deadpool is not great cinema, not many things go kaboom in it, nor is the fate of thousands of innocent souls decided by a mano a mano between the goodies and the baddies.
In an age in which everything is a retread of a retread, Deadpool might not necessarily shatter the mold for superhero movies, but it does let audiences know they could get more shapes to it, if only they asked.

B+