The vast meat grinder that was World War I doesn’t often serve as the setting for war films. There’s so little triumph or catharsis to be had amongst the millions of lives spent, all so the various relatives of Queen Victoria can decide whose boot gets pressed on the neck of the colonized world. At an individual soldier’s level, cinematic heroism is an impossibility; no one’s writing a tribute for the man who avoided the rats in the trenches and successfully hid in an artillery crater during today’s suicidal charge. For Sam Mendes, these impediments don’t stop him from crafting a technically-immaculate tribute to his WWI veteran grandfather in 1917. Mendes’ desire to honor his ancestor brilliantly splits the difference with a thrilling solo mission that transcends its ahistoricity with a dedicated resistance to triumphalism and a commitment to fatalism. 1917 imagines the best possible 24 hours of the war, and leaves the viewer with the bitter sense of how fleeting such a period would be.
Trailers for the latest Marvel Spider-Man entry, Far From Home, tipped their hand to the lazy venture that could have been, wherein multiple dimensions were introduced to a franchise that was getting deeper and deeper into science fiction. One could smell the saccharine coming off a film where Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, mourning the death of his mentor Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame, is briefly reunited thanks to wormholes or whatever. Audiences sniffle, stakes are undone, nothing means anything in the elongated television soap that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, a film is not its marketing department, and Spider-Man: Far From Home is smarter and less sentimental than one might be led to believe. Jon Watts, one of those big-budget directors who has his corporate blockbusters and two underseen indies on their resume, steers a film with a lot of baggage into the MCU’s comfortable middle, pleasant and entertaining enough but not even the best Spider-Man to be released in the calendar year.
The subtitle of the third John Wick installment, Parabellum, is Latin for ‘prepare for war’ and is majestically intoned by Ian McShane’s Winston at a pivotal moment. A viewer might assume that the war takes place in the film itself, but it’s instead mere skirmishes and more preparation in a franchise that started strong and has since become plotless and clogged with borrowed mythology. Maybe the war will come in John Wick 4 upon its release in 2021, or maybe in subsequent sequels after that one. I’ll never know because after the drudgery and repetition of a franchise that has wholly turned itself over to video-game action and episodic filmmaking, I say goodbye to Mr. Wick.
DC comics movies continue to operate in the shadows of the Marvel juggernaut, but they’ve at least figured out how to avoid critical derision. Wonder Woman took stirring advantage of its place as the first female-led superhero film of the previous ten years, and Aquaman used a mythic, anything-goes approach to bludgeon its audience into awed submission. Both went back to the well-trod heroism well and left Zach Snyder’s overwrought approach, grasping futilely for insight, behind. With Shazam, DC continues its embrace of adolescent filmmaking with some old-fashioned wish fulfillment, while retaining, in pieces, the violent and dark tone from Snyder’s earlier output. This collision produces whiplash and makes it impossible for the very different parts of Shazam to work in harmony.
Twenty-plus movies in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had to rely less on the origin stories that fans have long been exhausted by. However, as the last ten years of superhero flicks gives way to the next hundred, new characters must be introduced, at least before CGI de-aging allows actors to portray superheroes well into their 70’s and Disney’s monopolistic growth captures the whole of Hollywood. Captain Marvel, the first female-led MCU film after twenty prior entries, is also the first origin story since the previous year’s critical and commercial juggernaut Black Panther. With that kind of immediate predecessor, Captain Marvel has very big shoes to fill. However, while the character herself might be the most powerful in the franchise, the film about her struggles to find a new way into a pattern that kids raised on Iron Man could now recite in their sleep.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.