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.
From Guardians of the Galaxy 2 through Black Panther, Marvel’s been on a roll through their last four films. They’ve started new stories and continued others, bringing in idiosyncratic directors, a broader audience, actual recognizable themes and allusions to the real world, and hardly a mention of the glowing Macguffin gems that dimly power the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Avengers: Infinity War, that run and the entirety of a decade’s worth of interconnected entries, culminates in an intergalactic conflagration that functions like a season finale as much as it does a single film. Marvel’s rewriting the rules of what can be expected at the movies, and the test of Infinity War is if a single entry with 40 hours of prologue can be at all understood or appreciated for someone who isn’t interested in all that backstory.
If the Marvel Cinematic Universe were a network TV show, we’d be closing in on the season finale. By the time Avengers 4 comes out in the spring of 2019, that’s 22 feature length episodes in a series that acknowledges that TV is the medium with the more powerful cultural voice and therefore apes the format where possible. Sometimes there’s an overarching story that advances the larger plot, and sometimes there’s a bottle episode that reduces the scale and scope by focusing on one corner of the world. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is one of those MCU bottle episodes, shut off from the larger superhero world, and all the better for it. TV is for the living room and film is for the theater, and it’s refreshing when a studio can eschew the increasingly dominant model for a self-contained story. That Black Panther is also impeccably cast, richer than it needed to be, and a pleasure to take in doesn’t hurt either.
Phil discusses some big plot points for Avengers: Infinity War below the break. If you are metaphorically Captain America pushing back against the Thanos fist of spoilers, stay away.
Avengers: Infinity War is given a very difficult task in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With a whopping 18 movies preceding it and already all but confirmed to be a “part 1” sort of movie, Infinity War had to juggle a dizzying number of characters and plotlines while also providing a satisfying self-contained story. We’ve seen the MCU attempt to tackle this before in Avengers: Age of Ultron. While that movie suffered from muddled confusion without a good central focus, Infinity War manages to involve more characters and more plotlines while avoiding the pitfalls that Age of Ultron fell into. “Infinity War” takes a different approach to the MCU structure and while it doesn’t stand on its own, it does solve many of the issues that have plagued the MCU and accomplishes its ultimate goal of setting up on epic conclusion to the original Avengers saga come 2019.
With Thor: Ragnarok, the last of three 2017 Marvel films, the dominant superhero studio fully commits to idiosyncratic directors instead of the workmen guns-for-hire they started their extended universe with. No more Alan Taylors or Louis Letteriers churning out empty eye candy. Instead, Marvel has turned the keys over to weirdos like James Gunn and the refined vision of Ryan Coogler, and their films are all the better for it. Taika Waititi, the director of Ragnarok, splits the difference between the two, borrowing the wacky space opera flare from the former and the stealth critique of great powers from the latter. Waititi also happens to be the strongest comedic director Marvel’s worked with, and it’s no surprise that he would make a raucous action flick on par with something like Midnight Run or Hot Fuzz. That Ragnarok can be so much fun while also being about something beyond capes and magic powers marks it as one Marvel’s best outings.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.