The superhero fever is so close to breaking, but the major studios still have to follow through on franchise plans they made when it was raging. As Disney and Marvel limp into the future behind a supervillain played by an alleged abuser and a series of movies that ended with some of the most uninteresting character teases in the history of the genre (remember when Patton Oswalt voiced a troll), they still have to close the book on one of their major successes, even as its auteur decamps for another flailing comic book franchise. The Guardians of the Galaxy showcased Marvel at the peak of its powers, a studio with such box office power that it could turn characters few people had ever heard of into the highest-grossing movie of its year. Almost a decade later, writer and director James Gunn finds something like an ending for his team of misfits. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 3, goes for maximum pathos within a franchise that previously relied on this team for jokes. The result is a marginal improvement on the forgettable to awful streak that Marvel’s been saddled with, but this is also the least of the Guardians trilogy and a bad omen for Gunn’s next job at the head of DC Studios.
John Wick was fighting for something in his initial outing nine years ago. That film’s scale, while certainly heightened, felt at least knowable, hinting at something deeper under a surface that established the rules and stuck to them. Three films later, gravelly voiced officials and globe-spanning locations have taken over and Wick has been fighting for his own life against crime bosses who keep changing the rules. Rooting interest in the characters left the franchise around the time Wick was cutting off his finger in the Moroccan desert to appease the chief assassin, a figure who gets unceremoniously dispatched in John Wick: Chapter 4’s opening minutes. A new entry in the Keanu Reeves-led franchise has become a deadening and compulsory chore, like being assigned a sniper job that requires the shooter to wait for days by an open window. Imagine my surprise when Chapter 4 remembers that there are other characters in the universe besides Wick, and that there has to be some kind of grounding influence that motivates these killing sprees. Longtime director Chad Stahelski can’t maintain a division of labor between character and action for the film’s entire 169 minutes, but the effort is an appreciated step up from his previous entries.
Despite only being a little less than five years apart, the two Black Panther films were released in different cinematic landscapes. The original Black Panther came out as the superhero movie genre was at its peak, riding a cresting wave of critical acclaim for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It featured some of the franchise’s best world-building, its best villain, and introduced a new cast of characters who could conceivably lead their own entries. The sequel, Wakanda Forever, is without its lead after Chadwick Boseman’s tragic death mid-production, and it’s coming in the middle of a creative slump for the MCU, dogged by overproduction and the distillation of the brand thanks to a dozen Disney+ series. The money still gets made, but Wakanda Forever doesn’t linger like Black Panther did. A world that seemed endless after the original feels constrained by the sequel. It’s time for director Ryan Coogler to get out while he still can.
A miracle is still one of the criteria for sainthood in the Catholic church. Per their miter-wielding referees, it’s a real thing with a real definition, but in the secular world, it’s just a term for something statistically rare. Meaning can be ascribed, but it’s not a requirement. A random event is just that, a reminder of an indifferent universe and the cold physical laws that govern it. Jordan Peele’s Nope wonders at miracles from all sides: where they originate from, how they’re observed, and how they’re interpreted. Informed by cinematic history and laden with religious imagery, the film creates distance from the ‘social thriller’ subgenre that Peele brought to prominence while proving himself as a filmmaker capable of thrilling daylight setpieces alongside his haunting nighttime bonechillers.
If Thor: Love and Thunder does anything right, it finally frees the waning MCU fan from having to continue caring about this bloated vampire squid of a franchise. Why should the viewer be invested in the fourth Thor film and MCU’s 29th when the makers can’t be bothered to put forth any effort in a cynical cash grab whose laziness nevertheless gets rewarded at the box office? Marvel’s been struggling to find a way forward after all the magic stones have been put to rest, and Taika Waititi’s latest cements how lost in the woods the franchise has become. After Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness’ experiments in TV streaming synergy and Thor: Love and Thunder’s abject disdain for its audience, the spell has been officially broken and these movies will now be taken on a case-by-case basis. The amount of screaming goat jokes I can stomach before I realize I’m being treated like an idiot is less than the number contained in this film.
Legacy sequel Top Gun: Maverick begins with a prologue that puts fighter pilot Pete Mitchell, callsign Maverick (Tom Cruise) in the cockpit of an experimental aircraft. He takes off in direct opposition of the orders of Admiral Chester Cain, callsign Hammer (Ed Harris), who’s more interested in drones than manned flight. Nevertheless, Cruise proceeds to break Mach 10 and vindicate manned flight, though he doesn’t know when to slow the plane down and it disintegrates in a stunning explosion. With this sequence, Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski have framed their film as an assertion of Cruise’s singular star power. The industry doesn’t mint new Hollywood icons anymore and has moved into the building of interconnected cinematic universes, but a relic of the 80’s emerges to show that the old way still has the ability to bring the goods, especially when he pushes the medium and what the human body is capable of past what’s imaginable. Even if it goes wrong, at least the aftermath will leave a beautiful corpse. Top Gun: Maverick proceeds to demonstrate how there’s no one like Tom Cruise, and that if there’s anyone coming behind him, it’ll only happen with his blessing. The wild success of the film validates its premise, though the same problems that plagued the original Top Gun and its imitators have lingered just as tenaciously as its star.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.