Having directed the groundbreaking action flick John Wick together in 2014, stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch parted ways three years later. With each releasing their own films in 2017, Stahelski and Leitch invited a friendly contest between them. Stahelski’s John Wick sequel was more of the same, stylish but drained of the emotional throughline that made the original’s high body count somewhat meaningful instead of outright exhausting. With Atomic Blonde, Leitch appears to be uninterested in repeating himself outside of capturing more visceral, bone-crunching action. His film trades the criminal underworld for Cold War espionage, casts a far-better actor in the lead, and retains a passable amount of resonance, all combining to demonstrate that he’s the more talented director of the two.
The conclusion of the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy takes heavy biblical inspiration in its story of series protagonist Caesar (Andy Serkis) leading his people to their land of milk and honey, or whatever the equivalent is for apes. Director Matt Reeves returns following his successful turn in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but this time out, it’s darkest before the dawn. War for the Planet of the Apes features no idyllic interregnum before things deteriorate. There isn’t time for a peaceful bonding period between a younger Caesar and a kind James Franco like in Rise, or a prolonged demonstration of the cohesive ape society like in Dawn. Reeves is making a full-on war epic to match his film’s title, ramping up the stakes to survival or extinction for the titular apes or the humans they’re fighting against.
Christopher Nolan takes a break from ponderous superhero epics and/or space operas to make one of the most compact and straightforward films of his career. Dunkirk eschews any of the speechifying or puzzle-box plotting that drags down films like Interstellar and Inception for a historical snapshot where the players are simply in one place and would like to get to another. While Nolan is shucking most of his crutches, he’s accentuating his strengths, particularly the generation of unbearable tension and the capturing of performances borne out of high stress. This distillation results in Nolan’s best film, an unmissable reclassification of what it means to be heroic.
It remains somewhat ridiculous that three actors have played Spider-Man in the last decade, making the Marvel teen superhero the most unstable character in the ever-expanding superhero genre. The latest incarnation, played by Tom Holland and folded into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, differentiates himself by committing to the adolescent aspect of the character. Previous Spider-Men like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were never believable as teenagers, probably because they hadn’t been ones in six or seven years when they were cast. Holland is barely into his 20’s and has retained a boyish enthusiasm that neither earlier incarnation contained. The difference is a surprising freshness that merges well with the lower stakes of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. As far as superhero films go, this is the fluffiest and lightest yet, though not so impermanent as to be disposable.
The second prequel trilogy to start in 2011 after X-Men, Planet of the Apes seemed like the more desperate choice of the two. Tim Burton’s failed attempt at restarting the dystopian franchise had failed a decade earlier, and Rupert Wyatt, director of first installment Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was an untested quantity. However, Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance has proved to be one of the best things in the last six years of big-budget filmmaking, and the scripts from the team of Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver told a coherent story of a conflict with an obvious end but one that the losing party would fight tooth and nail to prevent. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes finds that losing party clinging to hope while the apes, led by Serkis’ Caesar, continue their ascent up the food chain. With Matt Reeves replacing Wyatt in the director’s chair, Dawn improves on the prior film by deepening the conflict and the protagonist.
Edgar Wright made his reputation with lovable misfits happy in their average station. Shaun of Shaun of the Dead isn’t asking for much more than nightly video game sessions with his best friend, Scott Pilgrim wants to date a woman too cool for him, and the nerds of Spaced want to maintain the low-key status quo for as long as possible. Overweight, slovenly, and unpretentious, Wright’s characters are awkward and unambitious, and his films give them ways to be satisfied with who they are while also allowing for some level of self-improvement. Wright’s Baby Driver is a new frontier for him, stocked with characters who believe they’re cool, but this time, the film doesn’t take pains to prove them wrong. From protagonist Baby (Ansel Elgort) on down, this is unquestionably Wright’s best-looking cast, made to look like suave bandits operating outside of the law and given the scenes to solidify the impression. It contains Wright’s flair and style and love for his protagonists, but Baby Driver provides the furthest distance between Wright’s love and the character’s entitlement to it. It’s harder to tolerate affectation in perfect human specimens.
In the creation of an extended superhero universe, DC was always going to have to play catch-up with Marvel. The five-year head-start gave Marvel the luxury of patience in building their line-up, and with fluffier creative minds like Joss Whedon and Jon Favreau in their quiver, Marvel put yet more distance between itself and DC, especially when DC entrusted their hopes to the cartoonishly self-serious Zack Snyder. The one area where DC has managed to get a leg up on the competition is with the first lead female superhero of the post-2008 superhero glut. Wonder Woman, out-grossing Marvel’s 2017 entries thus far, opens up the genre beyond Marvel’s assorted Chris’s, offering a new perspective and setting on mythic derring-do. Director Patty Jenkins is on firm ground for much of her welcome return to cinema after a long and baffling absence, but Snyder, who co-wrote, is all over this film at key moments, diluting its message and ultimately turning it into a standard superhero confection.
Hugh Jackman's portrayed Logan, otherwise known as Wolverine, in nine films dating back seventeen years. Over that period, the X-Men films featuring Jackman have been all over the map, spanning from the execrable to the entertaining. However, he's never been at the center of a film like Logan, his final bravura outing in the role. While the X-Men films keep getting bigger, with larger casts and greater destruction, the stand-alone Wolverine films keep getting smaller as the casts constrict and there's a turn toward the internal. That focus bears substantial fruit in Logan, by far the best X-Men film in the extended franchise, and one of the best superhero films in the present era that Wolverine and the X-Men arguably kicked off.
The follow-up to the Wolverine solo series did not have to try too hard to surpass Wolverine: Origins. Burdened with ineffective CGI and crowded with characters that were bungled or unnecessary or both, Origins remains the worst film in the entire X-Men franchise despite some serious competition. In James Mangold's The Wolverine, the series washes its hands of its predecessor and moves Hugh Jackman's feral, adamantium-infused super-healer from North America, with its large and distracting cast of intertwining characters, to Japan and its low mutant population. This first step avoids one of the many traps that Origins fell into, namely a temptation to stuff too many characters, with their respective mutant powers, into a rickety narrative. The setting also affords Jackman's Logan the chance to work in a culture that has long mirrored and inspired Western films. Cowboys and ronin have a lot in common, and lone heroes sauntering into unjust situations fit just as well in Japan as they do in the American frontier. In adapting comics that correctly saw Logan as a claw-fisted Man With No Name, and in having the good sense to not have Logan screaming 'NO!' to the heavens, Mangold helps Jackman expunge the memory of Origins.
Cinematic extended universes have been all the rage in Hollywood for several years, and Legendary Entertainment attempts to add a second chapter to their Monster-verse in Kong: Skull Island. Taking place decades before 2014's Godzilla remake, Jordan Vogt-Roberts sets his giant monster film at the end of the Vietnam War, paying homage to the movie staples about that conflict (Apocalypse Now plus some Rambo) while also poking fun at the muscle-bound action flicks of the 80's. More fun and dynamic than the cinematically-impressive but dramatically-bland Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is a step in the right direction for Legendary.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.