Sam Raimi created his own superhero universe in the early 2000’s and he returns to a totally different landscape with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, a title that wildly oversells itself. Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy ultimately collapsed under studio notes, but the best chunks of it belonged to his idiosyncratic sensibilities and resulted in some of the best superhero movies of the 21st century. Now, Raimi is one of a dozen auteur directors that Marvel has tried to incorporate into its corporate vision, and whatever he wants to do with a Doctor Strange sequel has to gel with a prequel miniseries. When Raimi is able to assert himself, the film tentatively explores new genre frontiers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the space for directors to take control within this huge multimedia cash cow is shrinking.
Marvel and Sony’s uneasy alliance over Spider-Man comes to a head in Spider-Man: No Way Home. The third solo entry in Tom Holland’s run as the character can no longer rely on Tony Stark for toys and linkage to the broader MCU world, so Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange tags in for the purposes of corporate synergy mixed with nostalgia, as the sorcerer conjures a way for the last two decades of Sony franchise service to show up onscreen and prod Gen Z fans to goose the online rental sales of old Spider-Man movies. No Way Home keeps up the inoffensive and ill-considered, albeit entertaining, tone that has marked Holland’s run as the character. This has been a weightless series of movies helmed by Jon Watts, but massive box office receipts means more of the same will keep coming.
The most famous case of bad timing for the Oscars has to be Eddie Murphy, who was the favorite to win for Dreamgirls, at least until Norbit came out while ballots were still open. If not for Covid delays, one wonders if Chloe Zhao might’ve suffered the same fate in 2020 had Eternals come out alongside Nomadland, the film she won several Oscars for. Zhao’s bizarre opportunity to transition from tiny, open-hearted indies that exalt the constriction and the possibility of the vast American West towards a CGI-laden action maven doesn’t work. Her participation is a mystery and so is the film itself, a Marvel outing that runs in the opposite direction of its proven, if tired, formula. What might’ve been something new becomes nothing at all.
Daniel Craig’s five movie arc as James Bond comes to an end with No Time to Die. Craig’s tenure has lasted 15 years, and his Bond has always felt captured and bested by other franchises. He was first imitating the Bourne movies, a darker and more ruthless look at spy tactics and assassins that is all over Casino Royale. Then, as Marvel’s long-running TV series thrived during the 2010’s, someone got it in their head that these movies, previously standalone adventures with a minimal throughline, needed to link together and explain Bond’s backstory, leading to films that alternately contained some of the best filmmaking and worst storytelling in the franchise. Cary Fukunaga’s entry, like Skyfall and Spectre before it, continues this frustrating tradition. No Time to Die provides a fitting end to Craig’s run because it embodies so much of the promise and the frustration that have characterized it.
James Gunn’s brief time away from Disney and Marvel was filled in exactly the way it should have been. With The Suicide Squad, he made a film that, for reasons both obvious and surprising, the film industry’s leading monopoly would never have allowed. Having demonstrated his utility with a team-up film with two Guardians of the Galaxy films, Gunn again takes on lesser-known comic book characters and makes the fifth or sixth one on the call sheet more interesting than characters who’ve appeared in half a dozen superhero films. It’s generally not a good thing that this genre dominates the cinematic landscape, but the idea becomes more tolerable when directors like Gunn are allowed to take big and irreverent and even challenging chances like this one.
The long-delayed and overdue Black Widow provides Scarlett Johansson’s longtime Marvel Cinematic Universe character her first standalone film in the ongoing franchise. A superspy who’s also one of the main cast’s few non-superpowered characters seems like an obvious Bond-esque film waiting to happen, but the studio instead chose to wait until after Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff had been killed off. Black Widow jumps back a few years in the MCU timeline to give Romanoff her due in a film that doubles as a means to fold in new characters, placing Romanoff on the back burner in her own starring vehicle. Now free to do whatever else she wants after tying herself to the globally successful MCU, Johansson will be fine going forward. However, Black Widow feels like one final slight towards a character who’s been around longer than almost every MCU major player. Studio kiss-off aside, director Cate Shortland puts together a perfectly competent version of a globe-trotting espionage thriller, albeit several years too late.
After an outpouring of support following a 2021 heart attack revealed him to be one of the culture’s most beloved figures, Bob Odenkirk is primed to move forward into the next logical phase of his career. The pioneering sketch comedian turned compelling dramatic actor goes the Liam Neeson route in Nobody, staking out the next decade as one that will put Odenkirk in plenty of old-man action flicks once Better Call Saul wraps up next year. Produced by David Leitch of John Wick fame and directed by Ilya Naishuller, Nobody recapitulates the John Wick arc of a retired violence-dealer brought back into action when his home is invaded. Odenkirk’s a better actor than Keanu Reeves, but not as fluid a physical presence. Nobody could’ve leaned into that distinction but the lure of mowing through goons is too tempting to pass up. After Wick films ran out my personal bloodlust two entries ago, middle-aged white-guy brutality has run out its thread.
Half military recruitment ad and half confirmation of everything the Village People implied about the Navy, Top Gun is somehow more than its reputation. Quentin Tarantino wrote himself a long diatribe about the film’s homoeroticism, but it’s so much more aggressive than one mere the volleyball scene. It’s known as one of the first coproductions with the Department of Defense, but the militarism is apparent on every frame. The culture has undersold the most notable aspects of Tony Scott’s breakout film. Top Gun is shocking in its shamelessness, a perfect vehicle for a mid-80’s America that needed the smallest of shoves to fall back in love with the military and all its wet-butted studs.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.