Let’s just roll, as it’s getting close to my next marathon session for Asian cinema in honor of the Chinese New Year with a theme I think you’ll like.
Number 5: Werewolf by Night
Image from Decider (Horror is universal, not just Universal’s.)
There’s some divide over whether you could call Marvel’s fourth Phase actually experimental. For all of the out-there ideas like Wandavision’s TV sitcom through the decades aesthetic wrapped in a mystery to Moon Knight tackling subject matter grimmer and more psychological than what is expected from something under Disney’s banner, it’s also accused of staying too close to one thread, one tone, for too long at times.
I mean by that how 2022 Marvel seemed to be too “jokey” at the expense of narrative weight. The latest Thor movie is often viewed as the maypole for that accusation and well it’s hard to argue against when you bring that example up. No one is saying that humor in and of itself is wrong for the MCU, in some ways it’s one of the glues that helps less knowledgeable audience members gel with a particular property, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. It’s even welcome and expected in some respects. But, can we get back to something darker, more serious, more story-minded?
This year’s Black Panther suggested, yes, more serious Marvel can and will happen, not that Wakanda Forever is bereft of comedy but it feels more balanced compared to the Waititi antics that was viewed as distracting from what meat on the bone Thor: Love and Thunder did have to offer. Next year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania of all movies appears to be promising to weary audiences to fear not for the plot again thickens as even Scott Lang’s next adventure is wrought with an ominous tone for things to come beyond his own film.
However, one way that Marvel shows it can experiment and do something essentially different is with its first “special presentation”, a 40 minute introduction to a character that does not necessarily need to appear in a later portion of the MCU but it wouldn’t hurt if he did. A way of expressing tonally new more than with regards to an ever-expanding lore for just the Earth side of this universe.
It also suggests through it’s albeit black and white gore and carnage that the MCU is ready for something dare I say it not appropriate for all ages quite like before. Considering Deadpool’s long awaited third outing will be officially in the MCU and still R-rated, maybe Marvel is preparing to explore an adults only angle to their universe which is fine by me. Also when you consider the age of this multimedia project having started in 2008, some youthful fans have grown up and may be eager for something over PG-13. Why not, seeing as how Marvel Comics has long since done the same.
Werewolf by Night is Halloween special, character introductions, comic book fan service and love letter to both 30s/40s horror cinema and 60s/70s grindhouse horror but without the sex and language. Michael Giacchino distinguishes himself as more than a exceptional composer but as a director who had a surprising passion for tackling out of all of Marvel’s catalogue this obscure piece of material that’s most significant contribution was introducing Moon Knight on top of Jack Russell the Werewolf by Night.
Gael Garcia Bernal’s soft spoken take on the underrepresented character shines especially in luring you into a false sense of expectations over how the special will play out. You keep thinking, this meeting among monster hunters seeking to decide on a new leader for their guild, is set at night and well, when’s the were-wolfing gonna happen, especially since we have less time to spare than usual?
The course of events and their unorthodox approach to resolution isn’t just offering those who have grown familiar and thus contemptuous of Marvel’s formula something new to chew on, but it also leads to of course some kind of action based finale but with an emphasis more on dread and fear of how messy the result could become, not something you normally expect from Marvel faire.
Whether it’s set-up for yet more crossovers or it really is a self-contained look at one in the grand scheme of things unimportant side to the MCU remains to be seen. The answer may lie in whether I the viewer want more of Bernal’s Werewolf and his best buddy the Man-Thing. Since the answer is yes seeing as how this is listed halfway through “Best of 2022” then Marvel may do so, but it would be just as cool if it were just left as is, emphasizing a world so big that not everyone needs to meet each other.
Werewolf by Night represents Marvel branching out in the best way possible and that not every risk will be doomed to either failure or a polarizing response. All the more reason to keep doing so as the phases keep on coming.
Number 4: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Image from The Washington Post (Someone’s Time to Die.)
Where was this tightly crafted, dryly amusing Rian Johnson when he was handed the reins that one time to Star Wars? It seems like his best work involves tightly crafted narratives with some kind of mystery or dilemma to solve and SW is not something that should be devoid of that possibility.
Maybe the issue arose from Johnson trying to attempt his style from a storyline he didn’t start but for which J.J. Abrams did. The Knives Out movies are from Johnson whole-cloth so the rules, characters and set-ups are his first and foremost. Johnson not only had to continue and work with a framework from a prior movie in The Force Awakens he had no involvement in, he also had to work without a vision for what the Sequel trilogy would be from beginning to end. So no, The Last Jedi’s problems are not Rian Johnson’s fault alone and to be marginally fair, even the Star Wars fanboys quickly came to realize that. Glass Onion’s multi-layered qualities re-affirm this.
When it comes to a follow-up of his own material, Glass Onion is an exceptional outing. While I was not the biggest fan of two of his pre-SW works that I’d seen, Brick and Looper, I certainly respected what he was trying to do and did. Knives Out was the first Johnson movie I was thoroughly impressed by and the second mystery adventure of its Benoit Blanc protagonist may be even better.
Seeing Daniel Craig in a role where you can tell he had enthusiasm for unlike 007 is something else, more so considering Blanc is sort of an anti-James Bond. He goes on adventures that now span the globe as here we go to Greece, but he’s not in it to kill the bad guy but expose them for their crime. He’s not there to woo the girl but protect and befriend her, though this entry in the Knives Out series all but states that Blanc isn’t in to the fairer sex like Bond. He’s warm and approachable though shy on occasion, nothing like Craig’s most famous role. His southern fried, Foghorn Leghorn voice could almost be no more further from the coldly soft interpretation of Ian Fleming’s secret agent.
It’s this knowing contrast that helps along the proceedings of both movies on top of Johnson’s vision for “who-dun-its” being loving deconstructions yet evolution of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle’s genre of work. That he manages to input some obvious but no less cutting (pun intended) social commentary shows that Rian Johnson is indeed a man of true talent and in the right environment a comically sound one too.
Benoit Blanc receives a wooden box full of intricate puzzles to solve and so do the four friends of a wealthy and eccentric tech bro played perfectly by Edward Norton. Turns out, he wasn’t supposed to get the puzzle box and upon solving it an invitation to an unforgettable weekend on billionaire Miles Bron’s insane Greek island, replete with a literal glass onion for its central building in the complex and a clock that every hour gongs to the voice of Joseph Gordon Levitt.
Bron, who has his own seemingly harmless “murder” mystery to engage in with his fellow influencer friends is first confused as to Blanc’s presence and then later aggravated that his sleuthy wit upends the whole game he had planned. But that course of events leads to ever more layers, being peeled off so to speak to the point where I couldn’t believe how deep the onion really got, even though the film is advertised as promising as much.
It’s a difficult film to talk about in specifics in spite of having to tell you why it’s high on this “best of year” list, because like any given mystery story, murder involved or not, it does no one any favors to give away too much. Like the first Knives Out, there is a flashback sequence that recontextualizes the entire story and it happens fairly early. This similarity is loose in that the circumstances of the context twist are quite different than before. That I didn’t see it coming could either say much about a literary illiteracy on my part or it speaks a lot about what Johnson had to do to put some wool over my eyes.
It’s a gorgeous looking movie, one of the most pleasant looking films of the year, which if nothing else helps lead one like myself into something approximating a false sense of security, even though at the same time I wait with bated breath for the other shoe to drop. And how it does. The colorful and in some cases intentionally cartoonish depiction of what makes up the suspects in Benoit’s latest case helps add to a surrealism that is mirrored well with it being a black comedy, maybe even blacker than before.
There are so many props and chekov’s guns laid around in Bron’s island mansion that it almost becomes an adventure game you can’t interact with, but that’s no complaint. The style of the place reminded me of games like Myst except a whole lot more populated. It creates a sense of fun no matter how serious things can get. It’s all wrapped up in a glorious send up of real life figures you and I are quite familiar with that I yet can’t say who because that would ruin the fun.
Glass Onion is intellectual yet fun which I suppose is one of the unspoken objectives of a mystery story. It’s colorful, crass and always makes you second guess yourself without getting upset that it made you that way. Like the first, it’s a movie that begs you one day to revisit it. so you can see the clues that were laid out in the open and yet somehow not truly visible.
This itself may be seen as a spoiler but I would prefer to call it an enticing clue: Rian Johnson has given us a new spin on Occam’s Razor, and even that may not mean what you think it means. Again, with all the layers and what not.
Number Three: God of War: Ragnarok
Image from NPR (Not pictured here with Kratos: Jesus. But he would turn the other cheek like Jesus.)
For brevity’s sake, both because this part of “Best of 2022” is running into mid-January now and because I already reviewed this title, let me just sum up why this made number three. It manages to be more of the same from the 2018 God of War soft reboot without being lazy about it.
That prior game is viewed as one of the finest games that ever graced the PlayStation 4 and for good reason. It reinvented tragic Greek God and God-slayer Kratos for both a new realm of mythology while still keeping enough of its identity from the old games intact,not unlike the brilliant yet reverent rebirth for the Doom series. By the time I was nearing 100% completion for GOW2018, I was curious how much more Sony Santa Monica Studios could push this new take on Kratos and son’s adventuring and combat dynamic. Turns out, a whole, whole lot more than I realized and I’m grateful.
The gameplay expansions in Kratos and Atreus’ set of moves and abilities, replete with new weapons that also serve a puzzle-solving utility alongside deep-diving ever further into Norse lore helps make up for admittedly quite a few slow sections, narratively necessary as they may be. In fact, the game often surprises with how much more is left for you to uncover across the Nine Realms even as they hurl towards seeming apocalypse through the titular Ragnarok. Some secrets or content completely flew under my radar until I saw on a YouTube playthrough someone had figured it out.
For those who want strong narrative let alone as a follow-up, God of War: Ragnarok is there for you. If you want, ultimately, a content rich piece of work that doesn’t forgo quality as is often the issue these days, Kratos and friends got you. If you want proof that, no, Sony exclusive titles have not lost the ability to impress, let alone in their first party use of Sony hardware, well, you need only check out the most epic adventure to be had on a console last year. It wasn’t the strongest year for games in my experience and the same was true for 2021. But don’t let that keep you in the way of the Ghost of Sparta’s latest odyssey.
Number Two: The Boys: Season 3
Image from Entertainment Weekly (The whole “He who fights monsters” dilemma rears its diabolical head.)
Few pieces of media from 2022, hell, from the last few years manages to cram as much relevant social commentary as the Boys does, all while being a skewering yet thoughtful examination on the superhero concept and how we as a society approach it. By its third season, The Boys has long past been just a take-down, both figurative and literal, of the superhero and its over-exposure nowadays.
It is it’s intelligent handling of essentially all its topics of discussion which lands it on the high place on this list, all while still having its highly crass cake. There are sights in this show which I didn’t think was possible even in an TV-MA setting with perhaps the sheer outlandishness and impossibility making it acceptable. It being tied to a show with heart to beat back its probable fall into sheer mean-spirited helps too.
Time and again does it manage to be more than the “at face value” superhero send-up the Garth Ennis comic it’s based on. The only thing it really shares at this point with its source material is it’s brazen audacity. In doing so, it ironically taps into possibilities for the genre its attacking that other superhero media cannot. Well, except maybe for Deadpool or the animated Harley Quinn but the Boys is keen on exceeding even them.
The non-powered mercenaries in charge of keeping the Supes in line begin to fracture as they come little closer to toppling their hold on society and by extension, their symbiotic connection to a toxic status quo. So, their leader Butcher (Karl Urban), gets his hands on a drug that can temporarily give him a super-powered edge. He also finds and tries to recruit a superhero trapped in time who may be even worse than their most feared opponent, the anti-Superman Homelander. Even he is now more sad than frightening though the fear of the guy is hardly gone.
A wide web of characters, powered or non-powered, good, bad or most often in-between litter it. Where trauma from the past becomes motivation for both the evil and the nominally good. Rarely has an irreverent, darkly comic piece of work had such a mind behind it and more importantly does the Boys rarely try to tell you how to feel. Its bluntness in action often lets you make up your own mind.
it’s sick and twisted, yet sweet and beautiful. It’s ugly and pessimistic, yet holds out hope that some good can win out from the people with power and not just with “super” next to it.
At its heart, the third season of the Boys is really a timely reaffirmation of the old adage to be wary of power, no matter what form it takes. As disheartening as it may be to some to see this series give such a brusque perception of what it would be like if superpowers were real you then realize especially if you’re perceptive of the real world that the Boys is actually being quite reasonable with its prediction.
Humans are really not cut out to handle power. That alone makes this show for all its excesses disturbingly real. One of the greatest myths superhero media knowingly or not perpetuates is not that there would be people willing to use their superpowers to fight crime or defend people, but that it would be the majority rather than the minority.
Perhaps it is the fatigue of the genre we’re experiencing at the moment that makes this really obvious truth digestible more so than ever. Perhaps it really does come down to being the right thing at the right time. As I said last year in my review of the season I say again now: The Boys is the parable of our time: That makes it the most enjoyable horror show too.
Number One: Top Gun: Maverick
Image by Los Angeles Times (L. Ron’s chosen one outdoes himself. And everyone else.)
Not unlike The Batman, I really should be at odds on moral grounds over any amount of support for Top Gun: Maverick. In manners implicit and explicit, it endorses a worldview that has proven time and time again to be deleterious to the United States and every nation it engages in.
While the film does make a not incorrect assertion that the end of the human manned air force in favor of an unmanned arsenal is concerning, it still implicitly acts as promotion for a military institution that is complicit in America’s imperialistic ambitions, cloaked in an aura of seeking protection or plain ol’ good intention. This same arm of the American arm that is connected to a war crime involving “fun size terrorists”, albeit not from a fighter pilot but the same unmanned technology that is bemoaned here nontheless.
It is important and thanks to Cruise’s charm not that difficult to view Maverick in a particular vacuum. A vacuum of an aging man with a passion not so much for furthering the advances of his nation’s interests, but of pushing himself and the human ability to literally soar. That similar to the men of the Space Race era, is willing to risk his life to push us beyond what we have done in exploration.
Maverick is a man who is going through a refreshingly different dilemma than at first glance while also dealing with one that is expected. Despite (presumably based on Cruise’s age) nearing the age of 60, he has not sought higher military rank nor office as he has been content for decades to stay at the rank that lets him play with the military’s aerial toys. Like an aging James T. Kirk, he would eschew Admiral status gladly to be a Captain again, his true calling and talent. Maverick belongs in a plane, any plane, not in an office.
However, for matters not of his, well, titular behavior, he will be forced to give up the fighter jet life because the world is moving on from his kind. This eerily mirrors the real world perspective that Tom Cruise is himself a dying breed, of a Hollywood actor or actor in general who can by his mere presence in a production attract moviegoers. Despite his best efforts and his efforts have been of much avail, maybe he knows he is postponing the inevitable.
Maverick, unlike Cruise, knows his time is running out and like we all should strive for, wants to make the most of the time left, as an instructor for a squadron tasked with a pants-sh***ing assignment. This ties into his other more familiar dilemma, of his departed best friend and copilot’s now grown up son, joining not just Top Gun but his squadron to train.
Maverick has really only one regret in his life and that is the now well known accidental death of Goose, so renowned that I knew he died well before I saw the original Top Gun. Maverick doesn’t want the twilight of his career to end with repeating history. It’s a film that is about exploring the stress of air combat and the stark decisions that must be made as much as about stressing yet thrilling its audience.
So adept it is that it practically copies one of the most recognized third act climaxes in cinematic history while not having you actually care. I mean, it doesn’t completely copy the Death Star assault and it eventually becomes both its own thing and yet a deliberate but earned piece of fanservice so audacious you’re more impressed than annoyed. That the film has tethered you through its astonishing use of camerawork in conjunction with actual fighter jet footage that it leaves you gnawing at the bit for the expected outcome to occur rather than be resigned to it.
It’s this laser focused and crafty use of the familiar from the original Top Gun that makes it both an obvious follow-up and stealth remake. A lot of the beats from the original return but welded into something more tight, organic and thought through, to the point that Maverick becomes essentially an unlikely 34 year later improvement on the original’s framework. Legacy sequels rarely fly as high as this one and the last time it really did was, depending on who you asked, a return to Mad Max’s wasteland or Rick Deckard’s cyberpunk nightmare. I think of both highly but if little else Top Gun is the most crowd-pleasing of these unlikely quality-decades-later resurrections.
There is so much to what makes Top Gun: Maverick the best thing of 2022. It is a technically excellent, even risky piece of blockbuster work that flies in the face of most of what Hollywood offers. It is a surprisingly heartfelt Part II to a Part I that most of us don’t necessarilly hold emotional attachment towards. It is popcorn entertainment without a shred of cynicism where its authenticity is intoxicating.
It’s a piece of military propaganda that everyone should see once and if nothing else in the coming decades could prove academically useful like examples before it. That is on top of being definitive proof as much as the new Avatar that the theater experience is not obsolete. We won’t or should not need films that promote provably dangerous worldviews like Top Gun Maverick. But we should need films that make us feel like it did. The fear is that maybe one day we won’t get them anymore, ever.