Five years after its release, it remains impressive that The LEGO Movie managed to rise above its explicitly mercenary origins and distract viewers from an attempt to sell more toys. Some of this goodwill was surely generated by universal warm feelings towards the plastic Danish bricks, reminiscent of the wistfulness that greeted 2018’s Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. In the intervening years, those warm feelings have been tested with two other LEGO movies and now a direct sequel. The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part has the challenge of a stretched nostalgia, losing the meta surprise of its predecessor, and needing to build upon the madcap animation and comedy. With masterminds Phil Lord and Chris Miller out of the director’s chair in place of Mike Mitchell, the magic in this film isn’t fully replicated, as if several pages have been ripped out of the manual by an errant foot or a reckless younger sibling. The finished kit can still be achieved, but the builder is less confident it’s going to hold up.
Everyone’s favorite intergalactic trophy hunter, the Predator, shouldn’t be a difficult creature to build a movie around, but there’s somehow only been a single strong film about one of them and a string of mediocre follow-ups. Shane Black continues this tradition with The Predator, yet another entry that can’t measure up to the original. Having previously spent time in the jungle, the inner city, and a planetary game reserve, Black considers where the series hasn’t been yet and settles on suburbia, an environment that allows him and his impressive cast to hunt and be hunted on unimpressive grounds. The Predator doesn’t need to be bursting with ideas as the root premise is so simple, but this film lacks anything novel and the ideas it does have are terrible.
DC takes a big swing at Marvel with Aquaman by throwing everything possible at them in one tsunami of spectacle. The grandiosity of a shark vs giant crab clash of thousands, interrupted by no less than a leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews, exists alongside a fight for a fantastical throne, a revenge quest, a brief sojourn into an undersea horror flick, and a surprisingly earnest romance between a lighthouse keeper and an ocean queen played by Nicole Kidman. Director James Wan goes for the gusto in Aquaman, providing the movie equivalent of a joke dense half-hour sitcom: if you don’t like one massive setpiece, wait a few minutes for the next one.
The X-Men has always been my favorite set of superheroes. This group of mutants endured a tremendous amount of peaks and valleys throughout its inception. X-Men's greatest adaption - outside of the comics - was the 1990's cartoon television series. It was simply incredible. What made it great was severalfold but one of its high points was the Phoenix Saga. That story is so important to the show that it takes up most of season three and it worked because it was a continual series. Trying to repeat what happened in a television series in a two to three hour film is not only dangerous to the brand but also confusing to the audience.
Coinciding with the centennial of the end of WWI, the latest adaptation of the British play Journey’s End manages to remain potent and devastating, no matter how many casts and directors take a crack at it. So few films are set during this, the crucial event of the 20th century, that there may be some scarcity-induced grade elevation. It’s so important for audiences to consider a war that didn’t have simple good and evil dichotomies, but the material is so bleak and dreadful that it’s also understandable for studios to shy away from depictions of grinding trench warfare. Journey’s End might situate the viewer on the side of the eventual victors, but the film communicates the minimal comfort that status conveys.
Back in the mid-2000’s when Kevin Feige was first dreaming up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, did he know that everything would culminate in the 22nd entry in the franchise? This number just happens to coincide with the amount of episodes typically included in a network series of television, and Avengers: Endgame certainly feels like a season finale, with some characters saying goodbye and others beginning new arcs that will take them into season two. This blurring of media lines makes me somewhat uneasy for reasons I’m not completely sure of, but whether looked at as a single film or the artificial ending of a decade of big-budget, candy-colored filmmaking, Endgame does what the MCU has long been good at: satisfactorily entertain while making stabs at something deeper, most of which fall short because landing credible or coherent emotional beats aren’t required for their movies to be successful.
Joseph Kosinski sheds the high-flying science fiction of his earlier career to get down in the dirt for the gritty saga of Only the Brave. The director of Tron Legacy and Oblivion is on far firmer ground here, able to omit fantastical world-building in exchange for a surprising grasp of character and chemistry. In adapting the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew of Southwestern wildfire fighters, Kosinski and writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer make an appealing and affecting tribute to benevolent masculinity, the kind that betters instead of levels and values self-knowledge instead of repression.
Tom Cruise’s efforts to distract from his high placement in Scientology while simultaneously advertising for its apparent rejuvenating powers continue with the sixth entry in the Mission Impossible franchise. A series that has continually topped itself with each entry, Mission Impossible: Fallout is the first to experience diminishing returns. Make no mistake; Christopher McQuarrie and his team are producing peak action filmmaking. Fallout contains what could be the best fight scenes, the best skydiving scenes, and the best land/air chases possible, but the bar has been raised so high by skyscraper climbs and underwater safe cracking that the best is no longer good enough. The film’s mastery of technique is appreciated, but it’s ingenuity that Mission: Impossible thrives on, and there’s just not enough of it here.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe released entries in 2018 with the highest and lowest stakes over the course of their twenty films. Avengers: Infinity War placed half of all life in the universe at risk, while Ant-Man and the Wasp put some trade secrets on the line between parties that don’t seem particularly adversarial. That the former came out two months earlier than the latter was no favor, and the Ant-Man sequel had to alter its timeline so that it takes place before the cataclysmic events of Infinity War. Those events, while surely transient and at the mercy of comic-book backtracking, make the jaunty feel of many MCU films, including anything involving Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, seem like the end of a tone that’s differentiated itself from darker superhero outings and endeared this lengthy franchise to its fans. Ant-Man and the Wasp may be something of a last hurrah for the MCU, a place where snark and repartee now no longer feel acceptable.
In its standalone offerings, the X-Men franchise has cracked the code on a formula that had gone stale. No more unformed ensembles and global stakes, like in X-Men: Apocalypse when hundreds of thousands died in a distant CGI churn and a gaggle of barely differentiated teens ganged up to stop the bad guy. Instead, Deadpool and Logan successfully kept things focused on their protagonists, with the former going meta and vulgar while the latter went tragic in a dystopian Western. That success is at stake in Deadpool 2, a sequel with twice the budget and an inability to surprise as easily after the fourth-wall tricks of the original. The film’s increased resources mean that the temptation to borrow from the X-Men’s vast roster of super-powered mutants is irresistible, diffusing Deadpool’s (Ryan Reynolds) charm. At the same time, the pathos of Logan, a film that Deadpool the character knows all about and often references, is another siren, calling for Deadpool to smash onto the rocks of an emotional rooting that he cannot possibly earn. Leitch and Reynolds, who gets a script credit along with original writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, sense these barriers and attempt to avoid them, but as Deadpool becomes a ubiquitous cultural icon, the commercial pressure to flatten him into another superhero archetype is too great to fully resist.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.