Bengal’s 2022 First Review Roundup

I have been distracted from doing a post following my Chinese New Year entry due to reasons big and small. I have the typical questions of enthusiasm,, other things I want to do in my decreased free time and work stuff. Then there is the existential fears over climate change (and mankind’s horrid sluggishness towards confronting what should be a unifying threat) and wouldn’t you know it, full scale war on Ukraine from Putin’s Russia.

Empathy and sympathy reasons to pay attention aside, Russia’s widely condemned invasion of Ukraine gained extra amounts of scrutiny due to the fact that the aggressor has a nuclear arsenal, the world’s largest in fact. One must without exception tread carefully when dealing with a nuclear power. Whether by intent or by accident, once the nukes fly, it is extremely unlikely an end of the world scenario won’t materialize then.

And on top of all of that, I have a cold which has further dimmed my mood and my outlook in general. Why should it matter to me to write about recent pop culture when shit of this magnitude is in my metaphorical peripheral vision?

Well, because getting this done clears me up for future blog entries like the new Horizon game and latest Batman feature. And it’s something to do that doesn’t involve surfing the web or playing a game. It puts my mind off things that should be in focus but not so much it debilitates matters

Let’s start with the latest Star Wars product under Disney, representing the highs and lows of the brand as it stands now.

Image from Empire (All hail the king…….ha.)

The Book of Boba Fett’s wild inconsistency in quality is baffling. One of the memetic badasses of Star Wars, one who was that way before memes were even really a thing, should’ve had a wild, exciting and rougher ride to partake in then other sides to the Star Wars universe.

We consciously forget that the Boba Fett of the original trilogy was in truth not all that great. He stood around all cool, rarely speaking, did admittedly manage to track the Millennium Falcon to Cloud City and took a frozen Han Solo to Jabba. After giving him to Jabba, he stuck around as muscle and ultimately made a fool of himself in confronting our heroes over a giant mouth. Even before a blind Han Solo accidentally sent him tumbling into that immobile sandworm, he wasn’t making the best impression fighting Luke.

True, he was facing a jedi master, but considering the slowness of how Boba was facing a Jedi, he basically had it coming and not really because he wasn’t the good guy in the equation. It’s a miracle that Boba Fett’s legendary status endured for decades when his contribution in the canon ended with him screaming hilariously as his jetpack flies toward a sand barge, slams into it and then slides right into that giant mouth, capped off with a burp.

It’s his physical appearance and how his depiction in the now largely non-canon expanded universe portrayed him that led to him maintaining a status well above “joke”. Robert Rodriguez, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s depiction of Boba as a seemingly reformed yet ass-kicking figure in Mandalorian’s second season inspired confidence in the further adventures of the most significant ancillary figure of the Original Trilogy not called Wedge Antilles.

Now, when people think of Boba Fett, they think of one scene where while teaching Tusken Raiders to use speeders, he gives them visual cues in what was ultimately seen as a goofy manner: “Like a Bantha”, says Boba, replete with a derpy expression off of Temuera Morrison’s face.

We see a figure that goes from silent badass to bumbling crime-lord in the making, hardly inspiring the same quiet awe of either the Boba we once knew or thought we once knew. In truth, Boba Fett’s haphazard and successful by sheer luck conquest of the Tatooine underworld might actually be closer to the Boba that is undone by a blind, hapless Han Solo.

Ok, so maybe Boba isn’t quite the super professional bounty hunter we thought he was. Doesn’t mean that his new adventures following his embarrassing defeat in Return of the Jedi can’t be awesome right? Aside from three noteworthy moments (raiding a desert train, taking out a bar full of bandits by himself, and killing the Sarlacc that nearly digested him), no.

Instead, Boba, with assistance from a cooler bounty hunter portrayed by Mulan’s voice actor, a big, slow-motion Wookie bounty hunter, a bunch of high-tech teenage street urchins who seem out of place in this universe, two fat barely agile green pigs, a better helmeted bounty hunter with his adopted merchandisable son, and finally a rancor, stumbles his way to victory over a crime syndicate over reasons you’re barely given reason to care about.

Sure, the Pyke Syndicate is an unabashed and provably ruthless crime group and they do hire one of the most badass characters Dave Filoni created for the Clone Wars show. But, other than that Boba could be a better alternative to them in regards to morals, in terms of competency his narrow victory in the end, that came off the backs of a bunch of more competent figures, would not inspire confidence that he keeps himself in that position for long.

The show ultimately does give you a general idea of why Boba would bother going off in this direction following both his defeat from Han and his time with the Tusken people, but ultimately the explanation does not translate into feeling involved with the why and more often than not my mind wandered to the how too often. It was rather amusing how many people just up and decide to join Boba’s cause when the incentive he offers really wouldn’t make them that committed to him, if I’m being honest.

The Vespa kids, often called the Power Rangers of Star Wars though that might be being disrespectful to the actual Power Rangers to be honest, after one conversation they have with Boba, show no indication of doubting their role as servants to him. Boba gives them plenty of reasons to consider jumping ship, considering how hilariously he’s presented as the underdog in the scenario and to boot, not the most sympathetic one.

Like all streaming shows, the entirety of the Book of Boba Fett was pre-produced, all seven episodes made before release. And yet, as has been brought up endlessly since it occurred, the two penultimate episodes suddenly switch gears to a bunch of star warriors we would be more interested in watching. Suddenly, Mando, the man known as Din Djarin, is back and with it the tone and quality of the entire show suddenly screams up into the air. Despite barely if at all featuring Boba Fett in those two episodes, I can’t recall being bothered honestly.

Mando and by extension Grog-Baby Yoda’s return to the fold lifts up the spirit and makes just about anything that is happening on screen immediately more interesting, even if it still includes awkwardness like Mando and a middle-aged Jawa-curious female mechanic talking and doing shop like it’s Ford v. Ferrari on a Naboo Starfighter. You know, the same one from possibly the worst Star Wars movie not involving J.J. Abrams. For what it’s worth, it manages to make that same Starfighter into something greater than the sum of it’s cinematic introduction back in 1999.

We also get the return of de-aged Luke Skywalker with a generally better if at times still uncannily valley face, Rosario Dawson’s better than expected live action Ahsoka( possibly the best “girl power” character in Star Wars history), Timothy Olyphant’s Marshal Cobb Vanth, other “Helmet or the Highway” Mandalorians of Din’s acquaintance, an adorable BD droid first seen in 2019’s stellar Jedi: Fallen Order and the aforementioned Cad Bane, where Star Wars truly, unabashedly goes spaghetti Western.

Like the rancor carrying Boba at the end, all of these characters carry “The Book of Boba Fett” into something approximating required viewing. This is doubly true considering how it very much sets up Mandalorian’s third season and Ahsoka’s first.

But it can’t be thrown aside that the Book of Boba Fett is indeed at it’s best when Boba isn’t just silent, but not on the screen. In truth, we did get those much imagined new adventures of Boba Fett as a super cool, super mysterious bounty hunter that you had hoped for from when you were a kid seeing the OG trilogy for the first time. Those adventures were instead featured under the name “Djarin” rather than “Fett”.

Jackass Forever

image by IndieWire (Camaraderie: the ultimate pain reliever. Maybe.)

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Jackie Chan became an international star for daring to put himself in greater physical danger than just about anyone else. Echoing the Do-It-Yourself bravery of silent film slapstick, Chan shocked the world with the audacity of what he actually did to impress audiences in Hong Kong and beyond. In one case, the finale of the original Police Story, he literally shocked himself by sliding down a pole flinging through a series of electric lights careening to the glass below. In truth not the stunt that brought him closest to death, but it still came close enough.

In a far more irreverent and grotesque manner, the crew of MTV’s Jackass have set out to continue Chan’s legacy on both the big and small screens. Safe to say that the four cinematic outings pulled off far more than even an MTV show could dare. They were controversial, they were hilarious, they were indisputably brave on top of knowingly stupid. Not so stupid, in that paramedics and doctors were always standing by. These are professional morons, mind you.

The latest and possibly last Jackass flick, at least to feature more or less the original crew (barring one’s absence over legal dispute and the other over a tragic untimely death), is a film that’s all about affirming two things: despite reaching middle age, Johnny Knoxville and friends still got it and that ,yes, intentionally abusing one another can create earnest friendships.

I’ll be honest, I’ve always gravitated towards the more physical skits than the ones meant to inspire queasiness. The gross stuff which is still very much on the table here is able to inspire in me at least admiration in that ,hey, they did that gross stuff pretty well and creatively. But the stuff involving almost certain pain is what I look forward to in terms of more or less seeing a live action Looney Tunes cartoon on display.

It’s analogous to the Mountain question. “Why climb a mountain?” someone asks. “Because it’s there,” says the other. Out of sheer curiosity, the Jackass boys and girls ask themselves if this really dangerous, overseen but still quite stupid scenario is feasible. Time and time again, the answer is a laughter and groan inducing yes.

There’s humor in how the skits sometimes involve tricks or surprises that other members of the Jackass team aren’t privy towards. Those that end up falling for a painful surprise are just as bewildered and stunned as the audience is. It also amounts to a guessing game for the audience and occasionally the team member as to how the skit will resolve and in what way? Was your guess to the resolution on point? Or, were you humorously off the mark? Sometimes, an accidental, unintended result in the skit works just as well in being considered a success.

I can’t really rank my favorite to least favorite skits nor which member I consider my favorite. That being said, Steve-O, the one who seems to willingly partake in the skits most likely to hurt or cause revulsion I have a respect for the most. Though he does stuff regularly that I wouldn’t ever dare do, his rather infectious enthusiasm for the job and him rarely ever losing that optimistic, cheerful expression in spite of the context of his job description is where the heart of Jackass really is: putting on not just a brave face, but a happy one in the face of quite possibly perilous pranks.

Another member, Ehren, is the one meant to inspire sympathy more than anything else. He’s the one, who despite being part of a group that regularly does stuff that would incite apprehension at performing, is the most freaked out and put off by the particular skits he’s part of. Much like how in every season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the character of Miles O’Brien had a episode all about putting him through hell, Ehren seems to be the one whose role is to get seemingly the shortest end of the stick by both the crew and the audience’s estimation.

You know it’s all going to be OK in the end, nobody died making it and if they had, it would make the news and possibly kill the movie too. In spite of the comical, self-knowing Schadenfreude intended through a regular production of Jackass, there really is a heart-warming message involved.

Preservation through (self-inflicted) hardship and the friends you make in the process, all while showing the world that this really dumb and dangerous idea that might have entered your head once is not only feasible, it can be construed as a funny gag for all the world to enjoy: if you have the guts to see it in any way similar to how Knoxville and co. see it.

I don’t know what Jackie Chan thinks of this raucous American interpretation of risk-taking for entertainment. Well, Chan did co-star with Johnny Knoxville in a film not too long ago so maybe taking one or several for the team is something that East and West really can both appreciate.

James Gunn’s Peacemaker

Image by Indiewire (Where the fit and the fat unite.)

James Gunn’s mission statement is to make gross, bawdy R-rated entertainment, which was his modus operandi under indie legend Troma Entertainment, that also involves superheroes and heart. He has succeeded in a PG-13 interpretation of that vision with his Guardians of the Galaxy work. He succeeded again with a proper R-rating with last year’s The Suicide Squad. Now, on HBO, he has perhaps mastered it with the spinoff Peacemaker.

Say what you will about John Cena. Many took umbrage for him apologizing in Mandarin for calling Taiwan a country on behalf of the PRC. For a long time, he was simultaneously one of Wrestling’s most famous and yet most hated superstars under the WWE. Now, he’s making a great new niche for himself as an honest to God actor who might be a genuinely better actor than the go-to example for ring to cinema transition: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Who else could it be? Well, Bautista maybe.

His performance of Christopher Smith, the self-proclaimed superhero Peacemaker, is likely a self-satire on his profile as being a buff, patriotic wrestler and action star. His first movie, The Marine from 2006, is an uber-patriotic and stupid action film, that is tied together by the sense that at least Cena is earnest about his intentions with the film undeniably pro Marine corps stance.

With his work under Gunn, Cena, now in his 40s and no less jacked and ready for the role, might have a bit more introspective even pessimistic outlook on American patriotism as it stands now in the 2020’s, as well he should. Or, he’s following along with Gunn’s perception and is simply acting so well it doesn’t betray his actual feelings on the matter.

Peacemaker is both a joke and yet the real deal at the same thing. Almost as literal-minded as Bautista’s interpretation of Marvel’s Drax the Destroyer though less deadpan, Christopher Smith is undeniably good at using weapons, killing people and being in truth excellent in combat scenarios. Amanda Waller would not have picked him as a serious candidate for her Task Force X, the Suicide Squad otherwise.

And yet, his delusional worldview on why he exercises his combat proficiency, to make the world more peaceful, is laughable to just about everyone else. It’s not surprising he makes friends with Freddie Stroma, who straight up calls himself “Vigilante”. Like Peacemaker, he has no qualms with killing for a supposedly moral cause and for any crime, up to and including vandalism. Unlike PM, it’s almost certainly to mask his sociopathy in spite of the seemingly genuine friendship he makes with Christopher.

In truth, Smith’s reasons towards being Peacemaker are tragic, no laughing matter. Living with a traumatizing upbringing under his racist Klan leader father, played perfectly by Robert Patrick, and being indirectly responsible for killing his beloved brother in a pit fight, Christopher Smith wanted to make amends for things that were much more the fault of his father than himself. He pledges to God that he will use the skills his evil father teaches him for the betterment of mankind. Also unlike his father, he has no bigoted inclinations. He comes to work alongside Adebayo, Amanda Waller’s daughter, who is both black and gay and only comes to blows with her over a reluctant act of treachery she commits on him.

Like with both the Guardians and the Suicide Squad, Gunn is all about taking figures that at a glance and even with some digging into one would reasonably write as “bad, shady, evil” and making them into genuine heroes and not just for one day.

All five of the original Guardians in the MCU came from backgrounds that were criminal, even Groot. And yet they have become two time galaxy saviors and contributed one time to saving the universe. Sure, they may maintain some amount of roguish behavior, but they are unambiguously on the side of the Angels.

The Suicide Squad as Gunn depicts them in last year’s excellent retooling of the concept are even more “bad guy” than the Guardians. Some are considered outright villains in general in the DC pantheon of characters. And yet, over the course of a mission set in a stand-in for Cuba, they come to recognize that their talents can be used for the greater good of all and not just for the whims of a deep state agent like Waller.

Due to circumstances from that film, Peacemaker didn’t get to have that epiphany like Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and the rest. He seemingly died a reluctant villain at Bloodsport’s hand no less. And yet, miracously he lived and now under a new black ops team under Waller’s control, he now has a chance to actually be the good guy in fighting a “Body Snatchers” like invasion and better yet, be the good person he deluded himself into thinking he already was.

Peacemaker is just as much a character study as it is a meditation on the American character as it now is. With all the horrible realities of what America is revealing to itself, to those who are willing, what is one to do? Even when still operating under the CIA’s thumb, can one better themselves and save the world?

At first, it’s Peacemaker attempting to make up for failing in his mission last time. Overtime, it’s to find that same type of family that Bloodsport discovered and Peter Quill/Star-Lord discovered, but with its own even more profane interpretation.

Peacemaker might be the most adult Superhero production Gunn has yet made. There are plenty of moments that you thought you would never see in something involving the DCEU or a DC project in general. Those same moments are also played for laughs while still, in spite of it all giving insight into the particular character at the heart of the joke.

It’s violence is able to know when to be darkly comic and when to be just dark, moments meant to inspire horror for the sake of the drama. A moment which involves assassinating a politician and his family on the suspicion they might be something akin to Body Snatchers is mostly given discretion where the act of assassination is mostly offscreen but still unsettling. Yes, I am saying that a veteran of Troma has taste. Another moment involving a mercenary masquerading as an FBI agent is bone-chilling, him psychopathically killing agents and having fun while doing so is treated as messed up as it is.

Peacemaker and other characters who confront or must commit violence are often haunted by its repercussions. Christopher Smith is haunted by a major character he killed in The Suicide Squad and he comes to see the violence his evil father committed on him or had him commit as being as monstrous as it was.

Most characters in the show have to come to terms with their violence their roles involve as well as the philosophies behind the roles there are in. Is there not perhaps an alternative to the obvious? What is unavoidable and what isn’t? Is the world they’re supposedly safeguarding worth protecting? The same world that indeed has a Justice League in it?

You might be saying that those same questions seem rather similar to the same questions that Zack Snyder’s vision of this universe posited. You’d be right and leave it to a darkly comic, highly irreverent dramedy to one up what might be the most self serious director working today, though Snyder’s recent Army of the Dead movie suggests he can try to be more lighthearted every once in a while. Emphasis on “try.”

Even if the emotion that is attempted in Peacemaker works for me often more intellectually than it does in genuine emotion on my part, it is no less successful in being at times the bloody laugh riot it was marketed to be. While not all of the gross or bawdy jokes land for me, it is made up for in the moments that do work and for the sheer recognition that such humor is actually working in conjunction with the structure of over the top violence, serious political observations and honest to god character arcs.

Maybe more than anything else, this is James Gunn at his most James Gunn, tempered with actual craft at not overdoing it and becoming himself a self-parody. He wants you to think about what Christopher Smith and his own peculiar Suicide Squad’s adventures are all about. Some takeaways can be uplifting, some can be disquieting, some can be sobering. All yet fit. The series brokers peace with its differing tonal priorities.

In that respect, it very much is truth in advertising. And Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith at the end of the day, delusional or not, does wish to fight for truth, justice and the American way. This go around, the truth he must first fight for is in himself.

Next time: Dunno either more 80s retrospective or The Batman.

Originally posted 2022-03-02 02:56:10.

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