Bengal’s 80s Retrospective Part XIV

Following this entry, I will be taking a break from this category to focus on films centered on Vegas, due to next month being my first trip to Sin City. For that reason, the naming joke inspired by Final Fantasy XIII will be scrubbed. That I felt I had to explain already ruined it anyway.

The impetus: seeing Gorillaz live for the first time. Well, you know, as live as the world’s most successful virtual band can be. If the background image for this website wasn’t any indication, Gorillaz is my favorite band and they will be part of the annual Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas. Other artists that I might check out for the one day of the festival I booked include Lorde and Pussy Riot. That latter act is quite something in terms of background but to keep focused, I would recommend looking them up on your own time.

Las Vegas is one of the few places in the world I can think up that can qualified as both the best and worst place to visit simultaneously. I don’t know if this registered with any of my readers over the years but I am not a fan of gambling. I don’t plan to do any kind of betting or game of chance in the one place other than maybe Monaco everybody knows it has in spades. There’s plenty of non-gambling hedonism to partake in, enough so that it will only mildly erode my soul. I’m there for two full days half a month from now so we will see how much more pathetic a human being I will be when I return home.

So, after this entry, I will be doing a series of films set in and around Vegas. They don’t necessarily involve gambling, but they do paint a picture of how our culture has come to understand or reckon with the artificial oasis. You can expect me to cover in the coming weeks the first of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films, Scorsese’s Casino, Levinson’s Bugsy, The first Hangover and a return to the beautifully sad mind of one Hunter S. Thompson, both through his immortal portrayal by Johnny Depp in the Fear and Loathing movie and a documentary about the man simply titled Gonzo.

But now, onto the 80’s cinema. This go-around, we’ll be coming some box office hits from early in the decade I hadn’t seen before and of course, another offering from Bollywood.

Scarface (1983)

Image from Taste of Cinema (Pacino may not be Cuban, but he does have that Cuban energy.)

Brian De Palma’s initially controversial remake of the early 30s’ gangster classic is now considered many things, all of them good. It’s considered one of the best remakes of all time, some would say one of the few that surpasses the original. It’s one of the best and most influential crime films. It’s one of Al Pacino’s best known roles with only his time as The Godfather’s Michael Corleone fighting for the spotlight.

Love or hate the movie, Pacino’s kinda goofy, kinda charming Cuban accent is unmistakably his. Everybody knows the voice, even the kids. The best known line of course is “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!”, which begins Tony Montana’s unforgettably violent last stand against the cartel he turned against, ironically for a moral reason.

It’s a line, taken out of context, that has made it’s presence known across all of popular culture, even extending to all-ages media. I certainly heard the line before I turned 13. Scarface is hardly a movie kids should watch. It’s less appropriate than even the most excessive stuff in any Godfather movie. There are moments where De Palma does leave some things up to the imagination and yet it makes it no less uncomfortable.

Scarface, no matter how you feel about it’s R-rated roughness, is a film that can’t be ignored, even after nearly 40 years. It’s influence as mentioned earlier continued to seep into later crime dramas. Alongside Miami Vice released the same year, it helped make Miami into one hell of a two-faced metropolis, beautiful and ugly, garish and artistic, tropical but very, very shady.

Regardless of the actual history of Miami as a 1980s’ nexus for drug smuggling and distribution, specifically cocaine, Scarface and Miami Vice did wonders in promoting this exotic Florida city with a bad side. Having visited Miami myself, first in 2006 back when I lived in the land of the Florida Man, despite its history and some really rundown aspects, I have perhaps a naive appreciation for the place.

Miami is one of the few things I missed about FL after leaving for greener(‘ricochet’) pastures in Colorado. It’s not just the cityscape and the public transit I loved, it was its immigrant flair through the great selection of foods from beyond our shores, predominantly Cuban.

Well, Scarface is the story of one Cuban immigrant trying to make it big in the land of opportunity. Following a real life exodus that Castro signed off on that sent many Cubans to America, Tony Montana goes from immigration holding camp, to street vendor to something just a little bit off the official channels of business offer.

At the time, one of the controversies surrounding Scarface was its accusation of anti-Cuban sentiment. Many of the Cubans that Castro was sending our way were considered “undesirables” by his government. Many had records that could or should be considered criminal or at least concerning. While we never get to know the full background of who Tony Montana was before he made it to Miami, it was certainly nothing that either the Cuban or American authorities would call “above board.”

The protagonist was viewed as an ugly avatar of all the potential bad that can come through allowing immigration. It’s a discomforting, bigoted notion that is more noteworthy now in the Trump era than it was back in the Carter/Reagan period. However, De Palma is never as simple as that.

Keep in mind that many of the “opportunities” that Tony embraces to eventually become a drug baron came from the circumstances that can be called a result of America’s (ongoing) failure to allow the newcomer to often have a chance, or at least a legal chance, at the big time. Sure, Tony had pre-existing skills from his life in Cuba to make him a violent enforcer for organized crime, but the people that hired him had been American for awhile or all their life. He gets his start going up the ladder from American criminals. In turn, he undergoes a journey into the dark underbelly of the American Dream.

Eventually, to expand his business, he gets involved with the Bolivian drug operation, but can it not be said, in a dark fashion, that Tony Montana is ultimately an American Made Man.

A lot of what Scarface has to offer can come across as pretty familiar, but that is the fault of this film’s impact. You have his elderly mother, herself an immigrant who does not approve of him becoming a cold-blooded criminal boss, all while he casually blows off his Madre’s concerns. He has his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who he slowly but surely gets her caught up in the hedonism that comes from his ill-gotten gains, all while acting overly protective, eventually to a tragic extreme.

He ignores the clear warnings from his higher-ups in the drug trafficking empire that no matter what, don’t screw with their plans. He gets a trophy wife, played by an early Michelle Pfeiffer, who he often ignores for all of the other riches he has. For those who have taken Scarface as an uncritical look at attaining power and wealth through criminal action, one should look at how increasingly lonely Tony gets as the film goes on, how it, as everyone is vaguely knowledgeable of, ends him with getting blown off a balcony in the back by a shotgun into a indoor fountain.

As a modern viewer, I was aware of Tony’s fate for much of my life. It’s not so much that the familiarity of the experience is a downer, it’s an appreciation for what Scarface captured in the zeitgeist. If what Scarface did didn’t work, would it have been repeated, referenced like it was?

What keeps Scarface fresh enough is enjoying Al Pacino’s performance. Yes, the accent is thick and can be distracting from the weight of a lot of scenes. But then again, it isn’t Scarface without that voice. Seeing Tony go from calm and collected yet cocky to a vicious, frightening beast of a man is maybe what redeems Pacino’s choice of approach best. Also, no matter what you have to say about Tony Montana as a person, in how he may perpetuate a bad influence on male masculinity, make no mistake. They’re worse gangsters than Tony Montana. Hell, he’s killed by those that are worse.

When it comes down to it, the biggest kick I got out of finally seeing the 83′ Scarface was its impact on the Grand Theft Auto series. 2002’s Vice City is essentially a massive love letter to Scarface among other things. You have a small time but talented mook, Italian-American not Cuban this time, who rises to the top of Vice City’s (Miami’s) criminal food chain.

He even gets a mansion almost exactly like the one Tony has. The final mission is an extended riff on the final moments of the movie. Except, Vice City’s “hero” Tommy Vercetti survives. The game goes out of its way to show the playable Tommy avoiding all the mistakes that sunk Tony. He doesn’t imbibe in his own product, cocaine, and is thus clear-headed to defeat the criminals storming his estate. You get to witness an alternate scenario where Tony wins in the end through Vercetti. And that’s before an actual Scarface game in the vein of GTA would do just that itself.

Scarface also has the Giorgio Moroder produced song “Push it to the Limit”, that was included along with some other pop songs from the movie in the car radio for Grand Theft Auto III, released a year before Vice City. That game made GTA into an undeniable force on both gaming and popular culture. You’ve heard much about Scarface’s impact on gangster cinema. Well, never forget that much of Grand Theft Auto’s early success can be partially credited to both Brian De Palma and Tony Montana.

Say goodnight to the bad guy, indeed.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Image from Youtube (You know this scene cause Simpsons.)

An Officer and a Gentleman would’ve been the biggest film of 1982 if it wasn’t for a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman and an alien dialing his buddies for a ride home. If nothing else, this film is all about showcasing how more often an R-rated movie could make crazy big box office gold.

As the header image shows, and really, could I show anything else, it’s how the film ends that is best remembered. With early 80s’ pop blaring, Zack Mayo (yes, that’s his name), having become at last the film’s title, marches over to garment worker Paula, shows her he’s gone the distance and delivers her to a world less depressing than being forever stuck as a factory seamstress. She, too, has made it. Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes then serenade us all with their hit single, “Up where we Belong”.

You likely know the ending, but do you know how it came to happen? That’s less known unless you were there yourself in 82′. Mayo, played with distinction by a young Richard Gere, is the son of a very disgraced Boatswain, played in a role tailor-made for Robert Loggia. He gets sick of living with his always drunk, always lecherous father in the Philippines. He wants to make something of himself, be better than a father who has long since given up on even caring.

He heads over to AOCS, the Aviation Officer Candidate School, in Washington State. Upon arriving, he is greeted by the expectedly nasty drill sergeant Emil Foley, played by Louis Gossett Jr. in an Oscar winning role. And boy oh boy, does he have some things to say to the cadets. OK, I know it’s the 1980s and that a drill sergeant is supposed to say demeaning things to you, but goddamn if it actually made it harder for me to like this guy, especially since over the course of the movie Foley becomes more of a father figure to Zack than his actual dad ever did.

If the crude, cruel imagination of Foley’s style seems familiar upon viewing this flick, there’s a reason. The guy who was the advisor on being a drill instructor is….

Image from The Guardian

Gossett Jr.’s Foley is also present for the other scene you might be familiar with even if you hadn’t seen AOAAG. I didn’t know about the scene beforehand, but it involves our boy Zack at the lowest point of his time at the Academy, making up for breaking the rules at his dormitory. Forced to perform manual labor outside in the scorching heat, all while Foley glowers and constantly belittles him. He keeps on egging him into asking why his ass is till hanging on to a place undeserving of him in which Zack replies “I HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!” He then proceeds to sob and even Foley is left with pause.

If it wasn’t clear from me summarizing one of the few moments you might remember from this flick, Zack struggles to make candidate for the Air Force. While he handles the physical stuff quite well, from an obstacle course, from an underwater cockpit ditching exercise to a pressure chamber, it’s the more “civil” training and following all of the absolute guidelines that he gets hung up on. Of course his father’s influence, by nurture and by nature, can be inferred. The same can’t be said for his cadet buddy Sid (David Keith).

A number of factors, internal and external, just break the guy overtime, leading to a pretty hard sequence to just look at. While he does pretty swell on the obstacle course, it’s the other two physical challenges that he blows pretty bad. On top of that, he like Zack, begins a relationship with a “townie”, young attractive ladies who try to make it big with potential candidates.

According to the film’s logic, and I have no way of ascertaining how valid this was and still is now, if the townie’s cadet lover doesn’t make it through the school, then they will be stuck forever at the nearby garment factory. Apparently it is impossible for Paula (Debra Winger) or Lynette (Lisa Blount) to achieve any other aspirations or success if their cadet boyfriends wash out. I don’t buy it, as an outsider looking in.

If his poor performance in the school wasn’t enough, Sid is further weighed down by thinking that his townie girlfriend Lynette is pregnant with his child. Thinking that does give Sid a second wind of determination. He eventually concludes he isn’t cut for AOCS, but still does the gallant thing and offers to support Lynette. What a Chad.

I’m inferring to 40 year old spoilers here, but that is not exactly how it plays out. After all, Sid’s failure must further emphasis Zack’s eventual success by contrast. Zack shacks up with Paula, portrayed by an early Debra Winger, who first came to attention two years earlier in Travolta’s Urban Cowboy. An Officer and a Gentleman remains one of her best known roles, even if the actress looks back on it rather apathetically, as little more than a paycheck role. We’re not done with Winger, as she will be the main character of the next movie to tackle.

Paula, compared to Lynette, certainly has more scruples as it will turn out. While she remains resigned to the idea that Zack won’t make it, she of course comes to also care for him anyway. I honestly view her not unlike of all things a Disney Princess, stuck in a mundane or banal position in life, waiting for someone or something to sweep her off her feet to a better future, a whole new world. An interesting comparison I just made, considering the frank love scene that occurs between Gere and Winger.

There’s an undeniable, of-its-time melodrama that hangs over Officer and Gentleman. It doesn’t feature the kind of 80s’ score I look forward to but to be fair, this is still the early 80s. But hey, despite my deep reservations about a piece of media, no matter how old, that uncritically espouses the virtues of being part of the American military machine, this is still an engaging story about a man, physically grown up, who gets to emotionally grow up and find a gal.

Before I close out this part, I cannot ignore Lisa Eilbacher’s performance as Cadet Casey Seeger, one of the few female cadets. It should be noted that this was actually an unlikely scenario to happen in real life at the time, a female cadet for the Aviation Office. There were roles then that could be available, like being part of a radar plane crew but not piloting a fighter jet. That option wouldn’t be around until the late 90s’.

Casey excels in the academic stuff but struggles with the physical, mostly relating to the obstacle course. Of course, near film’s end, Zack helps motivate her to cross over that last obstacle and beat the course, making her into a gentlewoman. You know, with Casey in mind, it would be kind of interesting to see a gender inverted version of this story with the officer female and the townie male.

The irony behind the scenes was that Eilbacher was actually a female bodybuilder. In truth, she stood a better chance of getting through the obstacle course faster than any of her male actors, including Gere and Keith. She had to pretend to be the least physically strong of the cadets, but isn’t all pretend anyway?

So, yeah, check it out, if you haven’t already. This declaration of mine seems less necessary when I cover movies that were blockbusters but then again, a lot of this movie hasn’t stayed common knowledge so maybe if need be, check it out again.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Image from IMDB (A mother, her boyfriend and a worn-down daughter in what I imagine is the blistering Houston sun.)

Quick, off the top of your head, what do you think was the second biggest film of 1983? Ignore this part if you’re entirely unknowledgeable of such matters. A hint is that the last original Star Wars movie was number one.

Second only to Return of the Jedi is this R-rated family drama starring a returning Debra Winger as a daughter becoming a mother under the shadow of her overly neurotic mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. As Winger’s Emma marries Jeff Daniel’s Flap( roll with it) and moves from Houston all the way to Des Moines for his College teaching job, MacLaine’s mommy Aurora deals with being without her daughter and finds companionship with the neighbor Garrett (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic astronaut.

As for what the film is about, it’s one of those movies where it’s not readily apparent while watching it. Directed by James L. Brooks, one of the three men responsible for giving us The Simpsons, I think it’s about how one person’s real life quirks and traumas (the mother) help mold the kind of person the child becomes (the daughter). How many of the actions: good, bad or inbetween Emma makes in her life going forward were the result, in nature and nurture, of her mother?

There’s also the dynamic of strained connection between parent and child. Despite being either in her late 20s or 30s by the time she marries and leaves her mom, Aurora clearly goes through some kind of empty nest syndrome and finding a potential new partner (from a guy who claims he’s not about that life) is to help alleviate that as well as the earlier issues she’s been dealing with even before her daughter’s birth.

Emma and Flap’s relationship starts off quite well, neither glorious or horrid. But, the growing strains of them being parents to ultimately three kids begins to chill the love. Both of them start to engage in extramarital affairs. We see Emma’s more closely with Sam (John Lithgow), an older, middle-aged guy who turns out to be pretty sweet-natured. Both ends of the coupling prove how hypocritical their disdain at the other’s cheating is, though because we see this almost entirely from Emma’s perspective, and we see the kind of guy she’s (maybe) sleeping with, I at least tended to be more forgiving of her infidelity compared to Flap’s.

Am I engaging in a double standard being more OK with her over his affair? Possibly, but then again, the framing of perspective might’ve convinced me to think against my own general stances on marital infidelity.

But all of the plot threads come to a head and connect through the unifying thread of Emma getting CANCER. DUN DUN DUN. A cancer development occurring in a narrative can seem like an overly obvious even cheap way to escalate the drama, but the handling of Emma’s slow decline helps reshape how you viewed her relationship with her family, especially her husband and mother.

Why is the film called Terms of Endearment anyway? Could be that once the cancer hits, mother and daughter are forced to come to honest reckoning with how they feel about one another, since the end, as it’s made clear, is near. Considering her mother’s psychological influence, can Emma look at her mother and really love her? She might’ve inadvertently helped along the deterioration in her marriage with Flap. A butterfly effect if you will, but without time travel. The conclusion they come to before it’s too late is up for you to see for yourself.

Danny DeVito’s also in it and has quite high billing. He acts as one of Shirley’s suitors following her daughter’s move up north. I’m honestly puzzled by DeVito’s billing as he really feels tangential to the story, especially when Nicholson arrives with his apparently, irresistibly snarky voice. He doesn’t have many lines or scenes and I honestly forgot at one point he was in it. I don’t know when DeVito started getting big to warrant such attention in the marketing, but here we are.

Why was this decent film the second biggest movie behind Star Wars? In all honesty, ROTJ had a massive lead in box office over TOE. Episode VI made $309 million in 83′ money while Terms of Endearment made $108 million. But silver place is still silver place. It could have been the cast, with MacLaine and Nicholson’s involvement. Winger is also a factor due to appearing in Officer and a Gentleman the prior year. It had positive word of mouth from the critics on top of that so it all combined to make it the hit film it was.

I seriously have no idea if a movie like Terms of Endearment could be a blockbuster in this day and age. If nothing else, that consideration helps further cement it as a noteworthy film of its time and a just saccharine enough yet grounded experience to have while looking back at the past.

Saaheb (1985) (India)

Image from Dailymotion (Anil Kapoor is back to suffer for your Bolly Entertainment!)

Anil Kapoor is one of the most recurring faces in my ongoing, nearly completed selection of 80s Bollywood cinema. He might well be the leading man of the time as other major figures like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan have appeared less from my recollection.

He plays the titular figure of Saaheb, a young man living the dream as a football (Soccer) star on the rise. And yet, the responsibilities of his extended family which all live together keep him tethered from moving out in the world.

Eventually, one of his sister’s is about to marry, and the expense of the marriage is so high that they will have to sell their ancestral home. Eventually, Saaheb learns of a risky alternative to that drastic measure: selling one of his kidneys. A wealthy business owner has a dying son and Saaheb is a valid donor. However, and this could speak more to the risks of the Indian health industry at the time than anything else but there is a risk that poor Saaheb could die on the operating table.

My mom is a nurse so maybe she could tell me what the current day risks, if any, for an American kidney removal operation. On top of that, the kidney removal, even if a complete success, would make it impossible for Saaheb to continue his Football career. I don’t remember what the film says happens to the body to make having only one kidney something to poo-poo an athletic career, but basically, for the love of his family, he’s putting more than his life on the line.

Why this self-sacrificial path he’s going through? It’s not simply that it’s the only way to afford the wedding without losing a house. Well, leading up to his dramatic decision, he is seen as the underachiever or the “black sheep” of the family. In spite of what I imagine would be considerable wealth attained from a successful football career (It’s commonly stated or assumed that one of the few ways a kid from a Brazilian favela can escape said favela is through becoming a Soccer player), his earnings aren’t really helping at all his family situation.

So, to prove to his family, especially his sisters and father, that he really does love them, in secret he gets an advance payout for the operation so the family may proceed with the wedding and on the wedding day does he grimly head over to the hospital.

The sequence showing the interplay of the happy family and friends at the wedding with Saaheb’s kidney operation is played for great effect. The million dollar question is if the operation works, does Saaheb survive? You should know by now that I rarely give away the result, unless for the sake of a point I want to make. Or, like in Scarface and Officer and Gentleman’s case, the conclusion is well-known or unavoidable.

To be honest and this wouldn’t be the first time, I have forgotten a lot of Saaheb since I saw it weeks prior. It runs around 150 minutes and the third act really is the part meant to linger in memory. I do wonder if the film being in Hindi, a language I do not know, does affect my memory. Often, when I think about many Japanese films I’ve watched, like from Kurosawa’s, I struggle to remember any lines of dialogue.

While looking at English subtitles, the delivery in Japanese or in Saaheb’s case Hindi does take away from recalling what was said. I remember the context and the outcomes of scenes based mostly on body language and the actions of the players, but I do regret it can’t be better than that for me.

I should recall more from a 150 minute movie, but maybe the other Bollywood films and just the great number of films I digest nowadays does a number on the memory banks. It’s a shame, I’ve been told my memory is great.

So, yeah, like with most films I’ve covered, give Saaheb a chance. Just it’s melodramatic but heartfelt climax is enough to recommend. I remember that, if nothing else.

Next time: VEGAS part I

Bengal’s 80s’ Retrospective Part XIII: CANNON’S REVENGE

Author’s note: the next three entries’ titling, including this one is an extended riff on the Final Fantasy game series. An inevitable joke since I chose Roman numerals to number this series. If you don’t get the joke, look it up if you care enough to find out. If you do get the joke, well then you do.

It’s time to return to the glory of 80s’ action cheese, where the adrenaline is matched only by its commitment to stupidity of varying degree. There were many sources for the especially tasty 1980s flavor of this cheese and one of the best purveyors was the American-Israeli film company Cannon-Globus or The Cannon Group. Last featured in my covering of the glorious NINJA trilogy, this often maligned side of filmmaking for the time would actually create some works that won respect or even acclaim, begrudging or otherwise. One of the films to be featured down this long pipeline will be Runaway Train. Basically Unstoppable, that OK Chris Pine/ Denzel Washington vehicle, but with a lot more balls.

Say what you will about Jon Voight now, but back when he appeared in this essentially “Mad Max but Train” flick, you couldn’t help but respect his integrity in seeing that kind of production through. As the excellent documentary “Electric Boogaloo” would delve into, Cannon were THE creators of fun, often not great B-movies of the era. Some were just plain bad, no cult following to really mitigate matters, others approached so bad, it’s good or reached an alternative plain of existence where they were good in an entirely different way.

Before we delve into two of these movies, starring one of the Cannon mainstays Michael DUDIKOFF, let’s tap into a non-Cannon B-film that had actually died in production in 1984 but was resurrected last year for all the world to see. Presenting: John Liu’s once thought lost NEW YORK NINJA.

New York Ninja (1984/2021)

Image by IMDB (No one will see this white-clad master of stealth…UNTIL IT’S TOO LATE.)

As far as I can tell, the biggest modern additions to allow New York NINJA to be released in an acceptable state is a massive redubbing of all the dialogue. This is especially true for the original director, writer and starring actor John Liu. I seriously doubt that Liu’s voice then and now sounds remotely like the dubbed voice, now voiced by kickboxing legend Don “THE DRAGON” Wilson.

We will probably never now how bad or (maybe ?) good the original performances were, but when you get into the bad acting of this 2021 cut, you know in your heart that the intention was to go for an overblown, decidedly not good take. Knowing it was intended to be bad, to capture the likely result of what this film would’ve been like had it actually made release in 84′ certainly gives it something of an edge in defense from any real criticism. It has a surprisingly great critical reception with the understanding that they know it’s supposed to be bad and that in doing so, it’s fulfilling its creative vision.

More than Cannon’s NINJA trilogy or the to be discussed next AMERICAN NINJA, New York NINJA shares a possibly unintentional identity with one of the cult greats of bad 80s action, martial arts based or otherwise: a film I love so much I got a poster of it: The Miami Connection.

Image from Enzian Theater (Bask in its splendor.)

Like NYN, Miami Connection was produced in 1987 by a South Korean-American man called Y.K. Kim. As that film will showcase well, his grasp on speaking English was not the best and it only makes the movie better. This guy was heavily involved in the whole thing, not unlike John Liu or for that matter, Tommy Wiseau.

Miami Connection and New York NINJA’S biggest connective tissue is not the similarity between creative heads, it’s use of martial arts and sharp weaponry to bring justice to ner’do’wells or that the acting is bad. It’s that both have plots and villain motivations that are hard to follow as all hell. Miami Connection eases you better overall through the confusing if even existent plot structure through its charming elements, one of which being its completely unironic, uncynical devotion to friendship and family above all else. The signature song, “Friends”, is a banger of a song to listen to, whether in an ironic or unironic mindset.

New York NINJA does not have those same strengths in carrying me through its muddled plotting. For that reason, whether the “bad” here was on purpose or not, I consider Miami Connection the superior movie. Some things about the synopsis are quite simple, certainly enough to hook the inclined like myself if they heard it.

Crime sweeps over the great city of New York. The Police are powerless to stop the roving gangs of eccentric thugs harassing, haranguing or worse the good people of the city. Women are especially prone to these street-level monsters and one Asian-American man, Liu, and Nita, his hot Caucasian wife, learn this ugly reality.

The poor woman is found by a gang and killed. Liu, upon learning of his wife’s fate, screams in the most hilarious manner fathomable up into the air, “WHHHHYYYYYYYYYYY???!!!!!!!!!!!” Trust me, it’s funny. Now, having lost the one he loves most to the worms of the Big Apple, he takes up his Ninjutsu Code and becomes: THE NEW YORK NINJA.

Mostly in broad daylight, he dons his all white uniform and confronts the many gangs of the city and shows them justice as only a NINJA can provide. One sequence involving roller-skates is quite amusing, to say the least. He becomes a bonafide vigilante, and he is embraced essentially as a superhero. Despite committing lethal vigilante acts against the criminals of the city, the people love him. Merchandise, especially for the kids, is created and distributed across town.

Liu finds it both amusing and hopeful, thinking it can inspire New York’s people to rise up and defend themselves, inspired by the NINJA’s example. It would be one thing if this was a non-lethal vigilante like Batman, Spider-Man or Daredevil. Instead, he is like the Punisher, but far less grimacing and more, well, NINJA than not.

While the public authorities have their qualms and apparently little more than that with an American citizen taking the law into their own hands, the rest of the non-criminal public can’t get enough of him. He is stopping what the NYPD seems completely incapable of even starting to do. I was going to make a joke about the Uvalde PD and I think it would still be allowable since I’m explicitly mocking them, not anyone else, but any connection to a group of dead kids makes me uncomfortable. It’s like a 9/11 joke where the punchline is aimed squarely at the terrorists and no one else.

However, dark forces within the rotten underbelly of NYC conspire to stop the New York NINJA from his plans to clean the streets with his katana, tanto, shruikens and what else. The lead bad guy is known only as The Plutonium Killer and he is something else. This guy apparently gets off on finding women taken off the street and exposing them to lethal levels of radiation.

He also points that radiation right at his face for pleasure. How this never kills him, never explained. The worst is that his face gets messier but otherwise he’s A-OK to keep being the most expensive serial killer ever. Why didn’t Doc Brown get his plutonium from him and his handlers? Ethics? Can’t be, he did go to Libyan terrorists in the end. But this guy’s not an ocean away, come on Doc!

Why does the Plutonium Killer and his handlers/ assistants, one who looks like Agent Smith crossed with a College age Yuppie, want to kill the New York NINJA? I guess it’s preemptive, as if the NINJA keeps on cleaning the city, eventually he will run into their bizarre and counterproductive form of human trafficking eventually. Turns out to be a wise assumption, as Liu does eventually start to target the trafficking ring, as it connects to his wife’s fate.

I will admit, good chunks of my memory for this film are shoddy. I did see it awhile ago, recorded on TCM. The dubbing might’ve done a number on sometimes understanding all the dialogue and I wish I could’ve had subtitles. It does end on quite a note I can tell you. I was first made aware of New York NINJA by the Double Toasted people, as part of their Bad Movie Roast segments, possibly the best reason to be subscribed to their YouTube channel. Their dunking of NEW YORK NINJA showed off a lot of the highlights of the film, so they weren’t as fresh or surprising when I saw the film in its entirety.

The funniest moment of both the movie and their roast was at the end, with the hilariously bad way the NINJA does in the bad guys. It is almost literally a cartoon. I won’t spoil it, so check the film out or watch Double Toasted’s deep dive on it.

Of course I recommend checking out New York NINJA. If you have already seen Cannon’s trilogy, it is a must. For the kind of “quality” I expect and desire from these movies, it’s not as good as the NINJA trilogy or the aforementioned Miami Connection. It’s not as good as the film coming up, but it is still good enough to see. If nothing else, seeing a film resurrected out of the blue thirty-seven years later is still an accomplishment in some way and viewing it honors it as such.

American Ninja (1985)

Image from Kung Fu Kingdom (The Gaijin with Honor.)

Michael Dudikoff, who is totally a dude, stated on the Electric Boogaloo documentary that he put his all into being Joe Armstrong, the titular Ninjutsu Yank. This was his first starring role and he wanted to show to the rest of the world that he was committed, he was hungry, he was a man who could get the job DONE.

Well, thanks to the works of Cannon, he is at least remembered. He created a legacy through his time with this beautiful schlock. I won’t lie, based on the two movies here to feature him, Dudikoff is actually a pretty good actor. Ironically, it was likely the stigma of being in numerous Cannon productions like the first, second and fourth American Ninjas that sunk his chances of reaching more prestigious work. This was not the Roger Corman School of Acting. Still, his undeniably confident presence with both American Ninja here and Avenging Force next does make him into what I think is a convincing and in some ways actually understated action hero. Perhaps in truth, too understated.

Joe Armstrong is an Army Private at an American military installation somewhere in the Philippines. The U.S. Colonel’s daughter is kidnapped by, what else, NINJAS during a convoy. Thankfully Armstrong is there to strongarm those dastardly NINJAS and actually manages to rescue and bring back the daughter back to the installation before the 30 minute mark! That obviously means, by the logic of cinema, that this won’t be her last hostage situation.

The skills he uses to dispatch the NINJAS and get the colonel’s attractive daughter back causes suspicion amongst the troops back at base. Those skills weren’t in any of their training. One of the most suspicious, Corporal Curtis Jackson, soon becomes Armstrong’s best friend and ally after a one on one bout where he gets to see his Karate skills used on him and good.

There is a very heartwarming connection here as Jackson is played by Steve James, a real life martial artist and was Dudikoff’s best friend in life. Dudikoff was the one to convince Cannon to not only feature him here but in later American Ninjas and Avenging Force. The real life friendship angle is much more strongly felt in Avenging Force. Tragically, James died at only 41 from pancreatic cancer a month after I was born in 1993. Had he lived, he could’ve endured as an black 80s action legend alongside Carl Weathers, Bill Duke , Mr. T and Keith David.

Together, the two of them unravel a conspiracy where the nefarious Black Star NINJAS are under the employ of the black market kingpin Victor Ortega and based on the guy’s name, would it surprise you terribly that much of what he smuggles are drugs? More significantly, he smuggles weapons and one of those weapon’s clients is the Colonel himself. DUN DUN DUN. The Colonel’s name, William Hickock, and lifestyle screams Texan and he wants to arm dissidents and terrorists so there’s an excuse for ‘Murica to swing it’s Florida-sized tallywacker around and show the world what’s what. Why this guy would need to create an excuse while Reagan was in office is a question meant for greater minds.

Eventually, the Colonel’s beautiful daughter, who of course by 80s’ cinema law starts a romantic relationship with our hunky hero, gets wind of the conspiracy and that is what gets her kidnapped again, against the Colonel’s wishes this time. Only Joe Armstrong and Curtis Jackson can save the day. But wait, you ask. When is this American going to NINJA?

Well, the answer lies with Ortega’s kindly gardener for his opulent estate. In truth, he is a Japanese holdout soldier, a veteran of WW2 who refused to believe or accept Japan’s surrender for years after. How did this particular soldier holdout? What else, with ninjutsu. Eventually, he accepts the hard truth but refuses to return home. He makes a new life for himself in the Philippines. One day roughly a decade ago, he comes across a lone white boy out in the jungle, with no parents in sight.

This orphaned boy is brought up by the soldier and learns not just karate but the ninja way. Eventually the boy grows up into Michael Dudikoff and seeks a new path in life with the skills he was taught. He decides serving the stars and stripes is the honorable path, in spite of his master/ father figure’s….strained relationship with the U.S. Now, the hour is nigh and to truly stop Ortega, save his dear Patricia and be a mostly All-American hero, he must don the armor of the NINJA and take on Ortega and his NINJA forces alone.

At first, at least. Even with the awe inspiring power of the NINJA, it is still too much for Joe. Not too surprising, seeing as how he faces other NINJA. However, the Colonel attempts to redeem himself and launches an all out military assault on the estate. Curtis Jackson is of course along for the ride, packing heat riding on a jeep with a light machine gun blazing.

The third act of American Ninja is essentially the best GI JOE movie yet made. You have a bare-chested African-American soldier packing serious heat, like in the toyline/cartoon. You have NINJA enemies on both sides like the Joe’s Snake Eyes and Cobra’s Storm Shadow. And there is plenty of explosions, soldiers running in guns firing, and a general compulsion to salute the flag. There really should be a cut of the film where this clip’s tune is interlaced with the climax:

(F*** YEAH.)

The film ends in just about the most appropriately expected way not just a NINJA film but a GI JOE-like film should end. It’s predictable, but wonderfully executed. All the slower, NINJA-less moments fall away to how perfectly this conclusion fulfills Cannon’s action movie mission statement. Again, for the ultimate NINJA action, you have their trilogy, but for featuring various microcosms of the Cannon touch, you could do much worse than the first American Ninja.

But what about the other ones, four in total? I’ve heard the second one, subtitled The Confrontation, is worth watching as it has also attained cult status. Based on the trailer I saw, I would want to watch it as we have the dream duo of Dudikoff and James kicking ass once more. Sadly, on no platform or service I had could I find a way to rent and watch American Ninja 2, not even YouTube. I guess this movie will have to remain sheathed for the time being.

The other three are not considered worth watching, even by defenders of the kinds of movies these are. Dudikoff was replaced as the lead for 3 and 4 by David Bradley (No, not that David Bradley). Dudikoff costarred for the fourth movie so there’s that. The fifth movie, despite involving NINJAS and David Bradley is barely considered to be part of the series, due to originally being a whole other movie not connected to the first four and he plays a different character than before.

So, watch the first two movies, if you can, is the recommendation. It is a key component of a NINJA to not overstay your welcome after all.

Avenging Force (1986)

Image from Kung Fu Kingdom (Don’t hassle the Dudikoff.)

Dudikoff’s next film after American Ninja is actually meant to be the sequel to one of Chuck Norris’ most recognizable movies, with or without Cannon’s involvement: Invasion U.S.A.

Image from The Action Elite (About as close to quintessential 80s’ fused with Chuck Norris as is humanly possible.)

In that movie, our boy Chuck plays Matt Hunter, a retired U.S. super soldier living a peaceful life in the last place a normal person like me would want to be in: Everglades Florida. However, vile Communist forces destroy his stilt-home and kill his war buddy, almost taking him down with it. Almost. Those dirty Commies, get this, launch an invasion of America, attacking the Deep South, the place most likely for the average American to be packing.

They waste precious resources on this already suicidal attack by firing rocket launchers into Norman Rockwell neighborhoods during Christmas time. Strategic targets, schmegic largets. Norris’ Matt Hunter begins a one man mission to stop the Communist invasion and kill their ringleader, who has a deathly fear of him, and for good reason.

At the admittedly pretty epic final battle where the Communist invasion force is cornered and defeated in downtown Atlanta, the ringleader Rostov is taken out by Hunter with an unfoldable rocket launcher and blown the hell up. Cannon was really in to this idea in 1985 as the same year Charles Bronson would dispose the lead bad guy of Death Wish 3 in the same way.

But that’s the background of Invasion U.S.A. How does it connect to Avenging Force? The main character is called Matt Hunter. That’s basically it. No mention is made of how, I’m guessing a year ago, there was a stupid but no less real ground invasion of the United States. Hunter played by Dudikoff looks entirely different from Norris, talks differently and his mannerism is distinct enough from Norris. Aside from being calm under pressure, badass killing machines with a hankering for justice, there is no connection to the Hunter of Invasion U.S.A. Fans of both movies basically separate the films as not being in connection with one another easily.

Instead of living in the worst place for a human to live in Florida (arguably), Matt Hunter now lives in a different American swamp, Louisiana boys and girls. Within driving distance of New Orleans, he and his teenage sister co-own a ranch with James’ Larry Richards and his family. Larry’s running for U.S. Senate and that makes him the target of some very, very unpleasant fellows.

During a Mardi Gras celebration, assassins start lighting up the parade with the intention of killing Larry and his family. Dudikoff’s Hunter dispatches of them in a battle that goes from the street to the rooftops. They soon learn that an extremely right wing cult called the Pentangle is responsible for the attack and want to bring down Richards and anyone else in their way for their horrid plan for America.

What is the Pentagle’s platform? Anti-immigration, extreme gun rights and you guessed it, anti-minority. The Pentangle is deadly clear that if you ain’t white, you ain’t right. It’s not explicitly stated, but they consider Matt Hunter to be little more than a race traitor. In fact, the politics of Avenging Force are distressingly relevant despite dating back from 1986. We now live in an era where the extreme Far Right have been ascendant in this country.

Whether it started under Trump with MAGA or there were earlier seeds, we now live in a frightening time when it comes to the positions of those in power. Look at the likes, with both their words and their actions of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tom Cotton and Ron DeSantis and you will see something familiar in the words and actions of those who make up the Pentangle.

Yes, I am saying that a dumb 80s’ action movie has a shockingly strong and prescient political message. To be honest, despite being placed under the category of “dumb 80s’ action”, Avenging Force is honestly not that bad or dumb. Maybe I’m missing something or I’m too enamored in the Cannon style of action/ drama cinema, but this is generally speaking a solid action thriller.

One component which adds to it being a “thriller” is that the Pentangle like to play a special game with enemies they capture. To their victims, including Matt Hunter and his sister, they sadly happen to be a fan of Richard Connell. Namely, his most famous work, The most Dangerous Game.

Donning a variety of creepy masks and grabbing their weapon of choice, the Pentangle members corral their “game” into the Louisiana bayou. Then, they get on a jet boat, enter the bayou and begin the hunt through the swamp individually.

It’s bad enough their targets have to navigate and survive in, you know, the Louisiana Bayou, now they have to deal with a bunch of predatory Conservatives. Hunter is a badass, no lie. But unlike the Norris Hunter, this one seems more vulnerable, more prone to making little mistakes that could cost him. The third act involving the Hunters vs Hunter involves desperate survival in the bog that leads to a no less desperate duel in the lead Pentangle’s mansion involving antique weapons. I thought it was quite thrilling stuff.

The film ends on a surprisingly intelligent, not naïve note about the kind of enemy Hunter is facing. He learns that the Pentangle’s reach goes further into the American government then at first thought. The metaphor at play here is not exactly subtle but it’s no less stirringly on the mark for it. In a more typical 80s/90s’ action flick move, Hunter coldly tells the Pentangle member hiding in plain sight that he’s coming for the whole organization and then walks towards the camera as the credits start rolling. Accompanied by some sweet 80s’ synth music that keeps you in that determined mood, like Hunter.

Avenging Force is possibly neck in neck with the NINJA trilogy for the best I’ve seen of the Cannon Group catalogue. It’s B-movie action is well executed, it’s themes and messages is more than you would expect. Even its handling of certain cliches endemic to both the genre and the time period don’t quite happen the way you think they would

. You’re probably guessing that Steve James’ Larry Richards, an African-American politician, is going to die. Well, I’m not saying you’re wrong. But the film actually surprises you when it happens and in terms of how it’s framed. You are likely expecting him to be bite the bullet earlier than it occurs. It’s not free of 80s’ convention but it’s also not beholden either. I give the heartiest recommendation so far for the not-sequel to Invasion U.S.A.

Now, let’s cap it off in the expected fashion, with a Bollywood film.

Meri Jung (1985)

Image from IMDB (This Bolly brother and sister go through a lot this go around.)

As I watch more and more of Bollywood’s extensive number of worthwhile films from the 1980s’, I keep thinking of declaring a single movie to recommend if you only have time to see one to get an idea of the Indian film industry’s tenets and trends at the time. Considering the often daunting runtimes, that’s not an unreasonable consideration.

To be featured in a later part is Karma, which while I wouldn’t call it the quintessential 80s Bollywood film, it is possibly the most patriotic film of them all. Hell, it might be one of the most patriotic films I’ve ever seen, regardless of what flag it salutes. There is also Shakti, which as a filmmaking effort, might be the best overall movie, no matter how it relates to ticking off the boxes of being Bollywood.

For a film that showcases the conventions of the older Bollywood experience, in that it has the musical numbers, the dance numbers, contemporary moralizing, dastardly villains you can’t wait (and you will wait) to see get comeuppance and this not having exactly the best staged but no less engaging action, Meri Jung has you.

This is also the time to talk about one of the most prolific figures of 80s’ Bollywood. Every other Bollywood film I’ve talked about and more has had Anil Kapoor, as you can see from the header above. This guy is just awesome. His youthful face and well-kept almost Tom Selleck mustache helps make him a distinguished leading man as he is here. No, his name is not Meri Jung. That’s Hindi for “My Battle“. What a battle it is.

Arun is a man who has lost so much. His father, innocent of a crime he didn’t commit, is nontheless tried in a court and sentenced to death by hanging. The prosecutor who convinced the jury to condemn the father to death is actually someone you might recognize if you’re not from India. G.D. Thakral, the utterly scummy and proud of it attorney that torments Arun and his family is played by Amrish Puri. Still don’t know, how about this?

Image from YouTube (A man after your own heart.)

That’s right, the villain of the Indy film you either love or hate is here. And that’s hardly the only villainous turn from him in his career. Puri was actually a go-to guy to play bad guys in Bollywood. I don’t know if Spielberg or Lucas saw a Bollywood film featuring him before beginning production of Temple of Doom, simply heard that this particular guy would be good for the role or what, but it’s a strangely comforting thought Mr. Puri has been a big screen menace for both the Indian and American moviegoer.

Now you can say plenty about Temple of Doom’s handling of Indian culture, let alone Hinduism (Not the best), but man does Mola Ram leave an impression. Puri’s signature, controversial scene of pulling a poor guy’s heart out not only helped inspire the PG-13 rating’s creation but it inspired one of the earliest and most iconic “fatality” finishing moves in Mortal Kombat, which in turn helped lead to the creation of the ESRB rating system for video games. So in a Kevin Bacon way, Amrish Puri helped push the envelope.

What makes Arun’s and his family’s hatred for Thakral even more stark is that Arun actually found evidence that would be enough to clear his father’s name. He races back to the court room to prevent the hanging. He’s too late. In turn, Arun studies to become an attorney at law so he can judiciously get not revenge but justice on Thakral, not just for what he’s done to his family, including his mother who suffers a psychological breakdown, but for everyone screwed over by the indifferent criminal lawyer.

Arun begins to make waves as a justice-driven, law-abiding attorney who fights not for the most money he can get on a case (you know, like the stereotypical lawyer), but for the fairest outcome of the case. Alongside the supremely melodramatic subplot involving her mother’s condition, the seemingly Bollywood desire to be entirely, gloriously unsubtle flares up when Anil Kapoor’s Arun is on the court room floor, orating heartily his stance about justice, about what he’s fighting for. It’s here where the film’s opinion about how the Indian justice system should be better is most apparent.

But slowly yet surely, Thakral makes plans to ruin Arun’s life all over, not knowing he had already done so. A new case opens up over the supposed malpractice of a female doctor, who, shocker, becomes Arun’s love interest. Well after I had seen Meri Jung, very recently in fact, I watched Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer fighting a seemingly impossible medical malpractice case, with him pitted against the slimy defendant lawyer played by James Mason in one of his last roles.

I won’t talk about The Verdict much as I watched it to be featured later on the 80’s Retrospective. But having just seen it, that Meri Jung has a plot element involving a doctor accused of malpractice involving a villainous lawyer versus heroic lawyer seemed quite peculiar. The Verdict released in 1982, Meri Jung in 1985. The details between movies are not exact and the malpractice case is the bulk of the Verdict, the one in Meri Jung is only in the second act, to help establish Arun and Thakral as being opposing forces and to start up the former’s relationship with the doctor.

Because the movie is 167 minutes and it’s been a good number of weeks since I’ve seen it, forgive me if I don’t recall every plot element or moment in general. You might have to get used to me making that apology as the series pushes forward. I actually want to spare you details on how the film reaches its third act here due to me positioning Meri Jung as being the sole Bollywood film for the curious but time-conscious reader to watch.

What else I can say is that the music, as is expected, is quite good. I was so compelled I checked iTunes to see if the soundtrack for this 1985 Bollywood movie was available and to my surprise it was, along with a good number of other soundtracks. The song that plays in the accompaniment of Arun showing off one of his other talents, with the piano, is the standout track. It’s a somber yet dramatic song about his family’s struggles, struggles for not just justice but just trying to live as happy a life as is possible in 80s’ India.

Meri Jung winning the “gateway” selection from me is also important due to Anil Kapoor’s appearence. Many consider Meri Jung to have one of his finest performances of his career and the presence of a more likely familiar face in Puri also helps ease it into being chosen here. If only it could’ve had other Bollywood heavyweights like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan and then it would be overqualified.

Come for the Indian Judicial drama, stay for the sudden but welcome dancing and singing.

Next time: Dunno.

One’s a Master, the other’s a Learner: Reviews for Top Gun Maverick and Obi-Wan Kenobi (spoilers)

Image from Deadline (Cruise in control.)

Top Gun Maverick is for me an emotional paradox. Tom Cruise is himself a paradox when it comes to one giving him sympathy and respect. You know, the most visible member of the most visible American cult that isn’t a major political party.

Top Gun Maverick is a masterfully produced popcorn summer film that goes even harder than Cruise’s recent selection of Mission Impossibles in pushing actual risk to the art of entertaining the masses. It is frankly an experience I haven’t had at the multiplex even with those recent MIs in mind since George Miller’s triumphant return to the wasteland with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Where movie magic successfully maintains the illusion that bankable stars like Cruise and Miles Teller are in absurd amounts of danger in the air, with even the act of being in these expensive fighter jets a gamble.

Obviously, plenty of the flying sequences involve actual fighter pilots doing the maneuvers. With the modern age of CG, no matter how compelling, detailed or utilized, you will still know most of the time how the computer generated imagery is covering for something much riskier, which adds to the assumption that Hollywood is in most respects a risk-free venture in the 2020s’.

With Tom Cruise’s pull in the industry, he manages to make you not just more thrilled at what is happening, but potentially more frightened at what the outcome this fictional story will have. It is a minor miracle at not only what the film’s outcome ultimately is, but as far as I know, it was a production which didn’t have a horrific freak accident.

On the other side of the paradox, it is also the best imaginable propaganda for both the U.S. Air Force and Navy you could conceive of, making Captain Marvel’s condemned use of it seem tame by comparison. I know what the American Navy and Air Force is often used for when it comes to my nation’s involvement in foreign affairs. I can’t necessarily speak for the types of pilots who fly the jets you see in movies like Top Gun, but it’s still the same institution that double taps with missiles innocent civilians checking the rubble of a building we decimated and after the tap call it neutralization of “fun-sized terrorists.”

In the marginal defense of Top Gun Maverick’s politics and maybe even the politics of the original from a time long past, certain things are done to make it more palatable to a wider audience, to have a less mindlessly jingoistic attitude. Both films are more preoccupied with the “how” and are often obfuscating or disinterested with the “why”, though that itself can be used as an effective critique of what Top Gun is.

For one, the film has a displeased attitude about the idea of the Air Force becoming slowly but surely an unmanned program, no humans required. While it certainly protects human lives from risking a lot in the pilot’s seat, there is something uncomfortably cold and detached about AIs doing all of our air based military stuff. Potentially ominous for what happens when that tech gets out of our hands. An old but never outdated fear.

A decade ago, the Call of Duty series managed one of its more astute political commentaries with the second Blacks Ops game, where a political dissident getting his hands on both America and China’s unmanned military forces results in sheer, destructive chaos. Of all the political takeaways of that particular COD, that’s the one that will likely remain the least disagreeable. Top Gun Maverick is about the dying days of the “human” element of military air power and about that era going out in a blaze of glory….metaphorically they hope.

Regardless of your feelings on Reagan-era military thought as espoused in the 1986 original or the general attitude of the new 2022 flavor, Top Gun maintains an attractive pull through its frankly genius melding of war and sports drama. The 86′ original was basically a football movie, locker rooms and hot love interest on the side and all that. The spontaneous final showdown is for all intents and purposes the “big game”. Maverick follows in many respects the same playbook as the original, almost a soft remake akin to how Evil Dead 2 essentially redid and improved upon the first Evil Dead.

The difference is greater focus on an overall beginning to end goal in mind. The “big game” this time is extrapolated early on and remains a cloud over the cast’s heads until it’s time. Pay no attention to how it’s basically the Death Star trench run or maybe do as the movie all but brags about how it’s that basically. Aside from the practical effects done to perform this new version of one of the most recognizable third acts in film history, the details of this run would make Luke and Wedge squirm harder than they did in their own movie.

Let’s just say the optimal way to pull off this assault on an illegal nuclear test site in what is either non-descriptistan or based on the filming location, a far more malevolent Canada, would be hard to pull off in a video game. The sheer difficulty of the plan and that the Top Gun recruits under Maverick’s command are plain scared of the odds adds to how often the third act is more nerve-wracking than thrilling.

Peter “Maverick” Mitchell, warts and all, is just the man for a crazy stupid plan. He knows the alternatives are stupider and even a reckless guy like him has found some wisdom in age. In contrast to other legacy sequels, where a decades later continuation starring veteran characters and their actors in an older capacity, Maverick is refreshingly at peace with how his life has turned out by the time he’s reached I’m supposing his late 50s’ like Tom Cruise in real life. Aside from one obvious thing that haunts him from his past, he’s far more concerned with external factors affecting his career as king s**t of flying expensive as hell military planes.

The phasing out of humans flying the Air Force’s toys is one thing. Even his chance to try out experimental planes, for just the thrill of breaking records of speed and just being there and doing it, is coming to an end. Like the Deans of endless 80s College movies or da Chief from Police movies of the same period, Ed Harris and Jon Hamm play two superiors for Maverick who have put up and continue to put up with his antics and finally have the ability to ground him. Following his unauthorized use of a super hyper turbo alpha jet, he is given the best punishment he could ask for: going back to Top Gun.

But, once he’s done training the cadets for that mission brought up earlier, it’s time to turn in his wings, he’s off the force. Maybe then he’ll have the chance to get back with one of his past sweethearts and stick with her this time. No, not Kelly McGillis but Jennifer Connolly who honestly looks even younger than Cruise. Tragically, it’s often the reverse when it comes to the sexes aging.

Of course, the training for the “Oh, holy gee” operation gets even more complicated for Maverick when the son of his departed co-pilot Goose arrives as part of the squad. Miles Teller plays Rooster (dignified like his dad) who remains extremely resentful for Maverick pushing him constantly back from the Air Force big leagues.

The enmity one holds over the other intentionally mirrors Maverick’s legendary rivalry with Val Kilmer’s Iceman, though with less suggestive teeth chomping and general homoeroticism for obvious reasons. Iceman himself makes a surprising appearence, considering the actor’s rather sobering real life condition. As many have already said, it’s probably the best scene not involving flying planes.

Actually, the surprising thing is how engaging Top Gun Maverick manages to be when jets are not flying overall, like the original. While the dread over the mission’s outcome is part of what keeps Top Gun 2 maintaining a need for pacing, it also helps land the more reflective moments on how Maverick tries to, nearly 40 years later, still get over a freak accident that got one of his student’s dad killed. On whether he in fact does have regrets other than that over the course of a sizable period of his life. On whether his way of doing things can still work in the age of what are over and over called “FIFTH GENERATION JETS”. Yes, I know that stands for “more advanced”, but how more so? The film’s third act gives you an idea, courtesy of the dastardly non-descriptistanian air force.

In terms of callbacks and fan service, it ranges in bluntness though there’s an earnest melancholy or sense of genuine rather than corporate nostalgia. The opening crawl and sequence of jets taking off an aircraft carrier( replete with Harold Faltermeyer and Kenny Loggins) and how the end credits are done are essentially exactly the same as they were 36 years ago, leading some to wonder if this movie is stuck in the past. Like Maverick it kinda is, actually, but in the best way fathomable.

Top Gun Maverick takes the idea of a legacy sequel that is common now and refines it almost perfectly. You will not care at all how often this movie smells its own farts as those are farts that a considerable amount of work was put into. You will also stop caring about what it says about the U.S. military and its framing of force on a sovereign nation and the almost certainly hypocritical standards it puts forth. More than any other contemporary piece of pop culture I’ve come to second guess out of concern for my moral integrity (like a lot of the MCU sadly), in this instance I happily look the other way.

Like a lot of old works for whom their political and cultural frameworks come off sorely lacking, Top Gun Maverick has layers to enjoy that can be done without eroding your own sense of how you view the world, how you view the U.S. itself today. It’s not unlike Miyazaki’s own story of the joy of allowing flight screw the ethical concerns that was The Wind Rises. That liberal with the facts dramatization of Jiro Hirikoshi, the man who designed the notorious “Zero” Japanese military plane, is all about a man, who like Miyazaki, has a lifelong fascination with machines that enable which was once simply impossible: Man flying through the clouds. So great is his love for that potential he ignores what those planes he’s creating will be used for (something that Miyazaki loathes) and that it also keeps him apart from the other love of his life, his wife, as she dies from tuberculosis. What price are one’s dreams?

The price of enjoying Top Gun Maverick and it’s expert use of practical over computer movie spectacle and the drama of a man forgiving himself for his past errors and presenting the universally appealing fable of Man being potentially yet better or as good as Machine is to let yourself ignore that the real life utility of these men and women with their flying machines will rarely be as heroic as you want them to be.

Perhaps that is the biggest throwback Top Gun Maverick is to being “old or older Hollywood”. If nothing else, it’s a notion that still works in this changing, potentially post-American Century world, enough to earn over a billion dollars and counting. That plenty of people from outside the States can and will accept that notion too is quite something altogether.

I don’t know, maybe Cruise asked Xenu to put something in the water.

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Image from Tom’s Guide (Blue turns to Grey.)

Should you watch Ewan Macgregor’s much desired reunion tour with Hayden Christensen? Even though most will have already made that assessment by this point? …..Yeah?

I knew how to feel easily about the Mandalorian. I knew how to feel about the Book of Boba Fett. I just don’t know how to feel about Obi-Wan Kenobi. It could be that in spite of what Obi-Wan has said (hypocritically) before about absolutes, I often find myself categorizing the quality of maybe too much I consume in certain absolutes.

I’m not saying there is nothing out there that I have or continue to hold conflicting feelings over. Sometimes my opinions change. I for instance have to recognize redeemable aspects to some of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, relegated to The Force Awakens and Last Jedi (Rise of Skywalker can shove it). I even think some of Last Jedi’s philosophy might be necessary when it comes to whatever amounts to Episode 10 and after.

And yet, here we have the latest Disneyplus show, containing some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the Disney era for Star Wars. The final episode’s confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader with an absolutely stellar use of both Christensen and James Earl Jones’ voice in conjunction is on point for what Darth Vader simply is thematically and it acts as subjective proof that yes, Hayden Christensen could perform Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader without making you laugh or regret your Star Wars fandom. It only took 17 years.

But that same episode featuring a perhaps not needed yet supremely welcome piece of prelude for Darth and Obi’s for real last confrontation in Episode 4 also has the most baffling piece of villain behavior leading up to a redemption moment that left me feeling even colder than I did when Kylo Ren became a good guy.

Much like how George Lucas had to bend and contort the logic and believability of the prequels’ narrative to get to the part you were all waiting for: Darth Vader’s birth, so too must a six episode arc of characters, plotting and behavior bend and contort itself to get to a pretty sweet duel and grim conversation between two former best of friends.

Had this been a one episode length short story not featuring all the laborious and contradictory bells and whistles leading up to it, I would risk declaring this essential Star Wars to view, making the Original Trilogy just a little bit richer. Not unlike how Filoni’s Clone Wars brought richness if nothing else to the prequel era.

It starts off well, showing how ten years of hiding on Tattoine has given Obi-Wan a lot of time to think and it’s left him weary and full of guilt at what he thinks he let happen. How the deaths of not just most of the Jedi but every victim of the Empire should be on his soldiers.

He is brought back in to the wider conflict surrounding the Empire and its activities, when he was content just making sure Luke was doing OK on the farm, when the other Skywalker in hiding, little Princess Leia, gets herself kidnapped by a Red Hot Chili Pepper. Jimmy Smit’s Bail Organa pleads to Obi for help and he reluctantly goes forward on his quest, knowing that the Inquisitors, force sensitive Jedi hunters, are just waiting for his scent.

Moses Ingram’s Reva is the featured Inquisitor and she might be the most polarizing element of the show. Before and shortly after the series began, the actress received some rather raw attacks online from the scum of the internet all over ,what else, her race. That there continues to be racism from Star Wars fans over black characters in SW puzzles me.

I mean, I get it, racists are as racists do. But why would racists preoccupy themselves with a franchise that has featured black characters since 1980? Lando Calrissian, while certainly a “player” type of stereotype often associated with African-Americans, was ultimately a heroic figure whose act of betrayal in Empire Strikes Back was ultimately due to the guy having no choice in the matter.

He did have a floating city full of innocent people to think about. He manages to become one of my favorite characters from the OT era as well as a great foil of sorts to Han’s own type of roguish personality. We’ve also had Mace Windu from the Prequel era and Finn from the Sequel era. On that note, ironically for what is called the “SJW/ Woke” period of Star Wars from a certain group of dissenters, Finn and his actor John Boyega got the rawest deal of all the featured black characters. Like basically everyone starting off in Force Awakens, his arc starts off strong and with promise and is utterly squandered as the trilogy plays out.

By Rise of Skywalker, aside from being a guy like Poe who has the protagonist’s Rey’s back and that he might either be in love with Rey, force sensitive or both, he’s got nothing. His biggest purpose is to fight the bad guys, about as significant as any of the heroic named extras of the movie. An argument could be made that Disney’s handling of Finn and giving him a quasi-love interest in a brand new female black character rather than you know, working with what was possibly set up in a gay love story with Poe was at least insensitive on some level, though the biggest reason can be chalked up to corporate incompetence over malicious intent.

So, yeah, there’s the bare bones history Star Wars has had with black characters and their actors, more positive than not, which might help speak to the franchise’s enduring mass appeal. So after Lando, Mace and Finn( though the character very early on was attacked by online racists), now out of the blue does a new black character and her actress got mercilessly bullied.

Star Wars fans bullying an actor online for a perceived bad performance goes back at least as far as Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best for Episode 1, but the added inference of racist motivations for their displeasure has grown more frequent. I don’t know, maybe something in the contemporary American culture has emboldened such types, can’t quite put my finger on it but it might have something to do with a guy who has a bizarre, vaguely orange complexion. And was also President once and may to everyone’s detriment be President again.

Starting off, Reva didn’t get on my nerves for how the character was portrayed and acted. I actually found her quite disturbing as even before the reveal of where she comes from, she is very likely connected to the Jedi of the past and represents what Palpatine’s Empire does to the Jedi it “spares.” Her cutting off the hand of a dissenting voice in a crowd as she yells for information on Jedi in hiding was adding up for me to be a character that was at least decent for its purpose. But, by the fourth episode, she was starting to get on my nerves.

I’ve heard that Ingram has done good work before starring in Obi-Wan. She played the Lady Macduff in a recent version of Macbeth and recieved awards for her work on The Queen’s Gambit. And yet, how she was portraying Reva at times felt…awkward, unconvincing. A lot of that can and should be chalked up to the awkward way the show details her tragic history as a narrow survivor of Order 66, from the Jedi Temple massacre no less, to becoming a vengeful Inquisitor who ultimately wants to bring down the guy who killed her childhood friends and nearly her: Darth Vader who she extrapolates as Anakin Skywalker based on seeing his visage before the mask and lots and lots of burning. That too was hard for me to fully swallow.

Her plan on how she does it…will either leave you thinking that maybe she should’ve gone over the details in her head a bit more or it will leave you wondering if her plan really was as simple as sneak up on Darth Vader from behind. I mean, Vader or not, force users are pretty good at detecting threats nearby anyway unless the plot demands they should be a little more sluggish like the whole Jedi Temple stuff.

The strange or contrived behavior of Reva, especially showcased in her bizarre and nearly continuity shredding actions in the final episode, played inbetween the awesome stuff with Kenobi and Vader just so everyone can contrast the stark difference in screenwriting being done is of course not limited to her. Characters old and new are victim.

In the earlier, generally warmly received episodes, our biggest gripes surrounded the lackluster security detail that little Princess Leia had frolicking in an Alderaan forest on top of how a bunch of pirates couldn’t catch up with a ten year old who wasn’t even running that fast. Leia’s magical and certainly not forced based ability to outrun grown adults would return next episode when Obi-Wan can’t keep up with her.

Some plot contrivances aren’t limited to strange, even out of character actions, sometimes it’s just logic being again contorted so the plot can happen in spite of the circumstances established. Just as you’re wondering why after Reva’s woeful assassination attempt on Vader he didn’t ensure she was dead you then will wonder how a wounded woman not only found a nearby ship after being left for dead and managed to get to Tattoine even though it’s made pretty clear that perhaps mere hours or less has passed due to the circumstances involving Obi-Wan and Leia occurring at the same time.

Just as you piece that together, you bare witness to essentially a repeat of one of if not the dumbest moment from The Last Jedi where a heavily armed Star Destroyer is having difficulty taking down the shields of a rinky-dink shuttlecraft. TLJ was less stupid comparatively because at least the Resistance had a full on cruiser they were using, something you imagine would have good shields. But on that same note, nobody on the Destroyer let alone Vader considers having additional star destroyers drop right in front of the tiny vessel, surround it and/or further whittle down the surprisingly strong defenses of the little ship with their many tie fighters.

If you couldn’t tell, I am getting tired of Star Wars screenwriters not having the same foresight for the scenarios they brainstorm of someone like the 28 year old blogger I am. If I could realize these contrivances, couldn’t they?

Many more moments like that litter Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’m not even wholly against some stupid moments so long as it’s a little harder to pick up on them. People have noticed some pretty glaring plot contrivances in the all but sacrosanct original trilogy like why the Death Star doesn’t simply hyperjump right in front of Yavin 4 and blow it up instantly. The answer was actually due to the original movie’s troubled production and how it was re-edited to make it more exciting than the original cut. Yes, I am saying that Oscar winning editing created possibly the biggest ignored plot hole in Star Wars history. And yet, nobody cares. They might acknowledge it, laugh it off and go about their day.

So, why this greater scrutiny over plot holes or contrivances nowadays, let alone in Star Wars? Are audiences smarter? That can’t be true, due to Jurassic World Dominion’s box office. Maybe it extends to how much we care about a property, how if we care or are invested, we are then more willing to blatantly ignore such things, with a smile even.

How much more bitter would my consumption of pop culture be if I was hyper attuned to noting any and all possible plot contrivances in media? How much more sour would I be on stuff I love with that mindset? Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve distanced myself from Cinemasins.

I’m currently watching and loving stuff like The Boys and the surprisingly stellar reimagining of all things, She-Ra. I imagine some potential contrivances and holes exist in those shows. Would I then call those shows bad if someone compiled the flaws of those shows? Hell, even knowing its flaws I have a soft spot for Star Trek Voyager, whose premise might be predicated on a plot contrivance.

In spite of me mentioning its high marks which include Obi-Wan vs Vader, Obi’s relationship for the most part with little Leia which actually ties very well into Episode 4 and maybe even recontextualizes the moment where she comforts a heartbroken Luke after escaping the Death Star, why do I still feel cold overall towards the show?

It’s not just because I only cared in bursts rather than for the majority of the ride (like I did with Top Gun), but because the reason why plot holes and contrivances can be forgiven is if they ultimately don’t upset the flow of what the story is doing. The plot holes and contrivances might make Obi-Wan Kenobi have a pace worse than even Boba Fett, though I would still call this better than Boba Fett.

It makes what was in practice a heartwarming encore on the set for two Star Wars actors a frustrating demonstration of growing pains episodic Star Wars is not managing to grow past. How the great idea that existed in this show was not translated correctly possibly at the behest of Disney’s demands that this show must be this long to justify their needs for a streaming service. The needs of the market over the needs of the story.

As for what Disney offers up next on streaming, Andor has potential, especially if it manages to use its setting to allow fewer instances of fanservicing at its audiences and tell a straightforward, gritty tale of how the Rebellion took root. It’s grimmer setting with an apparent lack of force-users actually makes it potentially something different if still set in an era we are quite accustomed to. Obviously there’s Mandalorian’s third season and Ahsoka is oh so promising, even if it is a glorified live action fifth season for Rebels. There are branches to some sides of Star Wars I am quite eager to see continue, perhaps giving us in time a real send off for one of the best Star Wars characters created without Lucas’ involvement.

But as has been regurgitated plenty of times and even a feeling reciprocated by those at Lucasfilm like Kathleen Kennedy herself, Star Wars has to move on from the three eras we know, especially the first two chronologically. This is despite the SW line up consisting entirely of stuff from during or near the Skywalker Saga as we call it now.

That the latest Star Wars experience is a story that is basically chained between two already determined points in a concluded story echoes where Star Wars finds itself creatively. Ahsoka conceptually feels more liberated despite being in that era and so does Mando’s ongoing tale as the end of their stories haven’t been realized. I want to know where they have yet to go.

Audiences worldwide learned where Obi-Wan was going the year Star Wars itself began, in 1977.

Two Stephens, a Mark and a Wanda: Spoileresque reviews of Marvel’s Moon Knight and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Image from Variety (Dr Strange and the Strangeteers in an adventure that very much includes “evil” and the “dead.”)

When it comes to Marvel’s fourth phase in their cinematic universe, more than prior phases, your mileage varying seems to be the dominant thought process. The MCU in terms of attendance has hardly waned if the box office from last year’s Spider-Man and this month’s Dr. Strange has anything to say but in terms of quality it’s in the kindest terms a case by case basis.

Where Moon Knight stacks for me in the now six series’ strong Disneyplus lineup is not something I can easily gauge even after I give my thoughts on the latest and darkest chapter in this now 14 year venture. If that and this latest Master of the Mystic Arts misadventure is any indication, for an assembly line of superheroic struggle, it is at least an experimenting assembly line, wondering what can and will stick after the climatic events of 2019’s Avengers Endgame.

Before I get to the latest superhero adventure to successfully prop up the theatre business, I will get Moon Knight out of the way. Oscar Isaac, the world’s most attractive middle-aged Guatemalan has been both a make-up heavy supervillain in the ill-executed X-Men: Apocalypse and a dashing Rebel pilot in search of a character arc in the also ill-conceived Star Wars sequel trilogy. Now he gets to play a role offered by the House of Mouse that own both of the earlier roles: as a dissociative identity disorder suffering Jewish mercenary trapped in a pact with an Egyptian God of Vengeance. How’s that for novelty?

Moon Knight

Image from Forbes (This looks silly as a still image. The context makes it anything but.)

For the majority of Moon Knight’s six episode run, it does distinguish itself by distancing from the stuff that people have found some contempt through familiarity: super-powered fisticuffs, often in a third act. Like the first and third Disneyplus Marvel shows: Wandavision and Loki, much of its best moments don’t so much involve punching someone but talking to others and in this instance yourself.

Two men inhabit the body of a mysterious individual: Marc Spector, the base personality as we discover is a Jewish-raised private mercenary who has some truly startling demons to bear for something produced by Mickey Mouse and Stephen Grant, just the sweetest British accented gift shop owner you could imagine. There may or may not be a third personality lying within…who am I kidding, if you’re reading this, you already know there is one and he makes the future of this three-minded person in the MCU one I want to follow, to whatever end.

For the majority of Moon Knight, Marc and Steven fight each other over what to do not just with the life they are forced to have with one another, but with a common enemy: Harrow, Ethan Hawke finally convinced to be in the MCU by playing Jim Jones and David Koresh by way of Egyptian God worship rather than Christian.

Before Marc/Stephen/? became the avatar Moon Knight on behalf of that God of Vengeance Khonshu, Harrow took the lunar cowl. They had quite a falling out but Harrow never lost that hunger for justice.

The proceedings basically amount to Minority Report meets Gods of Egypt though in all fairness, if you’re gonna do Gods of Egypt better this is certainly one way. Ironically, despite running on a (high) TV budget, the CG is ultimately more convincing and coherent than the visual mess that was that Alex Proyas misfire.

In order to judge all the world’s sinners before they can commit their ills, Harrow needs another Egyptian God or in this case Goddess freed from imprisonment, which was contained of course by other Egyptian Gods. Ammit is that Goddess and you know she’s bad news when she appears half human/half crocodile. That being said and much to Moon Knight’s credit, Khonshu is not much better.

In spite of Harrow and Ammit being a threat that should be stopped, the show makes no bones about Khonshu being a problem in and of himself. Voiced wonderfully by F. Murray Abraham, his latest choice for mortal Avatar (yes, this does all sound familiar to Dr. Fate, doesn’t it?) is a mentally compromised man, whose three personalities are all distinctly different in ways that make Marc ultimately one of the saddest and most frightening figures thus seen in the MCU. As my thoughts on Doctor Strange 2 will entail, Marvel seems to now be in the habit of exploring characters that are sympathetic yet monstrous.

When it comes to the base personality of Marc, you will find him a flawed individual who through help from the kind Stephen and estranged wife Layla, yearns to be better and perhaps become a new player in the MCU’s lineup of heroes. Following Infinity War and Endgame, there are vacancies to fill.

Stephen’s truly moral and kind nature seems to support that idea and yet personality three, as revealed in what is possibly one of Marvel’s best and darkest stingers yet, takes that possibility and wonderfully balls it up and throws it in the bin. Oscar Isaac’s days as the underwritten Poe Dameron might be at an end, but he can’t help but be in a story that subverts expectations.

As to what a Moon Knight season 2 would entail, I couldn’t tell you for certain and that is quite great. More so than the Disneyplus shows that suggest or will have a follow-up like Loki and Hawkeye, Moon Knight is the most diabolically intriguing and may suggest one of the more complex conflicts to offer the MCU in the coming years.

Moon Knight is flawed in ways that are more forgivable than earlier missteps seen in shows like Wandavision and Falcon and Winter Soldier. It’s not so much flaws but aspects that didn’t work as much for me as I would like. The final super-powered fight that, like Isaac’s time as Apocalypse, just so happens to also go down in Cairo, Egypt, is fine but unspectacular. It is saved by, of all things, an anti-climax with ominous implications. An earlier fight in London involving Stephen’s sillier version of the Moon Knight, Mr. Knight, is better choreographed and more engaging due to the circumstances.

Some of the moments involving Layla with Marc or Stephen’s presence weren’t as compelling and in spite of their very best efforts, like actually filming in Egypt, Moon Knight feels more like a television production than the earlier Disneyplus entries though with exceptional sequences here and there.

Most of this Moon Pie’s (Poe’s) inner goodness comes from the ever entertaining dynamic between Marc and Stephen. That alone makes a season two a worthwhile venture for Feige and the MCU. Especially when inevitably, they get to meet their mutual fiend. And from that, possibly other familiar faces in this universe.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

The critical and to some extent public reception to Stephen Strange’s second titular adventure after playing major supporting fiddle to Spidey and the Avenger’s most recent excursions has been positive yet more muted than I would have thought. Some complain that the weight of a nearly 30 film cinematic franchise including canonical television shows is part of the problem. Others think it’s yet another CGI spectacle-thon in a time where we are growing pretty weary of this almost unavoidable aspect to the genre. Perhaps part of The Batman’s success this Spring came from it eschewing much of those aspects for something more grounded and practical looking.

Could it be aspects distinct to the handling of this Dr. Strange installment? Some of the acting and writing has been given negative marks. Despite being shorter than the last two MCU films and nearly an hour less than the aforementioned bat-flick, pacing was also part of some naysayers’ complaints.

As for me, there are issues certainly, but none that I would call detrimental really. This is not another Eternals. If anything, I’m debating with myself whether The Multiverse of Madness is better than the first Doctor Strange. Part of me thinks yes, the other thinks maybe not.

There are two important things a story dealing with multiversal theory needs to have: Focus and actual consequence. Both are accomplished here. I was never lost in the weeds with Stephen while exploring the multiverse this go around. There was one moment admittedly where the focus did shift from Stephen to other players in the story around the mid-point during a sequence that elicited the most cheers and the most “oh shits” from the theatre audience.

Because it was tied into the story centering on our three key players: Doctor Strange, Wanda the Scarlet Witch and promising newcomer America Chavez, this detour into different characters was more than forgivable. It is definitely one of the most discussed parts of the film to be sure.

What is most reassuring about the end result of Sam Raimi’s contribution for the MCU is that in spite of the bridges it is expected to build into latter entries and all the Multiverse fun that can be had visually, it is at the end of the day a continuation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent, distinct interpretation of the Marvel character as well as a grim yet appropriate conclusion to another’s, Wanda Maximoff. That alone may send off TMI waves to you, my readers, yet I did warn you at the beginning and the film opened to $185 million domestically this weekend, I feel at liberty to risk as much.

Despite the gap of time between Doctor Strange 1 in 2016 and Doctor Strange 2 in 2022, buffeted by his appearences inbetween, the film does not forget that Stephen has a personal story to continue in spite of his contributions to the wider narrative seeming to be more important up until now. I felt this way before I saw What If’s first season last year, but it occurred to me that Doctor Strange is a figure that can be easily imagined as a villain.

He has the name, he has the personality to an extent. He kinda resembles Vincent Price, a horror movie icon not without roles that were heroic or neutral, but come on, you think of him as a villain actor first. To younger audiences, he’s the guy who narrates Michael Jackson’s Thriller and ends it with a diabolical laugh. I don’t know if it was direct inspiration on creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s part, but the Sorcerer Supreme was born in Price’s 1960s’ heyday.

Doctor Strange 2 correctly guesses that me and others have suspected as much, especially with how his methods to win the day with figures like Dormammu and Thanos seem a little..devilish. Maybe it was true there was only a single way to defeat Thanos. Or as this movie’s dramatic conclusion suggests, maybe there was another.

People compare Tony Stark/Iron Man and Doctor Strange all the time and not just due to their preference in facial hair. These two heroes are known for their egos that both make them closer to the dark side than either would want to admit. Hell, they start off as dicks in their stories and it’s only through personal loss and revelation that they aspire to something that makes them likable.

In spite of his incontrovertible success in saving not just Earth and eventually the whole universe, there is a side to Stephen Strange that remains disquieting and that was not by accident. This entry is all about Stephen discovering that if anything he might be the exception to the multiversal rule that Doctor Strange is not a good guy and that exception has no guarantee of lasting.

Strange’s internal arc is contrasted with one that has already been both hero and villain, like her comic counterpart: poor Wanda Maximoff. In spite of the excuses her history would bring up, overtime Wanda’s behavior turns it into no excuse at all.

What Wanda does in the Multiverse of Madness is downright horrifying (again, spoileresque review). I go from maintaining my sympathies at the start from feeling that no matter how sad, what she does can’t go unpunished. Most felt the same at the conclusion of her titular Disneyplus series. She hadn’t truly atoned on behalf of the people of Westview and the catharsis she had by accepting both Vision’s passing and that their children together weren’t truly real was seemingly short-lasting or not genuine. If you were like me miffed by Wandavision’s conclusion, congratulations, you were supposed to. Not the same contrived takeaway as the next Disneyplus show to come after, Falcon and Winter Soldier.

Though some have expressed disappointment in the direction Wanda takes here, it’s not as if it was out of nowhere, it was actually a carefully maintained fall to darkness that was established as early as her mid-credits appearence in Captain American: Winter Soldier eight years ago. Lest we forget, she and her brother Pietro began their arcs submitting themselves to illegal experiments for a terrorist organization: Hydra. Their excuse is revenge for losing their parents on behalf of Tony Stark’s weapons. Seeing the man who indirectly slaughtered them being held up as a hero would rub me the wrong way too and yet, Hydra. You know, a fascist organization that was borne out of Nazi Germany.

We think at first Wanda is on the road to redemption early in her story arc through turning on Ultron once they realize innocent people will be hurt (extinction does that). They didn’t recognize that when working with Hydra but you know, blinded by vengeance. Hawkeye’s little speech in the middle of Age of Ultron’s climax to convince her to get up, get out there and help is the first step in really being a hero, if the earlier heroics in Seoul weren’t enough.

But just because someone starts down the path of redemption and heroism does not mean they will be set down that path. Would be disheartening if the villainous path was absolute too. I hope that down the road, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets to learn Wanda’s fate here. It was bad enough when Clint had to deal with Natasha’s death and his actions as Ronin but then this happens. Poor guy. At least he has a one eyed dog, a young protégé to carry on his mantle and a loving family.

Much like how Wanda’s first fall to darkness came from tragedy, new tragedies are inflicted on her almost as soon as she becomes an Avenger. She loses her brother, accidentally kills innocents on a mission in Lagos, is forced to turn on Vision and half the Avengers for a while, loses Vision and gets to see that happen twice and then the government prevents her from really saying goodbye to him. This all culminates in her accidentally taking control of a full town in New Jersey through her no longer latent Scarlet Witch mystical abilities. But once she learns how it happened, she keeps on doing it.

I am reminded of another figure owned by Disney that has a fall from grace, starting as a sad kid turned brave hero who then becomes a frightful monster who may or may not earn redemption through a sacrificial death. Who could that be?

Image from Den of Geek (Heroes becoming villains are best denoted by the color Red.)

So, yeah, it might be best for those with the free time and care to look back on Wanda’s history and realize that what she does in Doctor Strange’s second outing is not as inappropriate as you might think. To be honest, it is rather bold and dare I say it, refreshing, that not every MCU hero is going to stay a hero forever. That’s not how life works out.

Stephen’s dilemma is not only to protect newcomer America from Wanda for her own ends but to cheat the probability proven by the universe that he is also doomed to fall. Much like how it took lots of teaching and practice to become the badass wizard he is, he must also learn from himself and know that there are some things he cannot have in spite of his power.

Seems awfully deep for a film that has had above average marks this go around. So why is there some disdain? It can’t just be Wanda’s depiction or superhero fatigue. I have some further guesses and whether they’re an actual problem I will chalk up to personal preference.

This is directed by Sam Raimi, the man you might be most immediately familiar with for his Spider-Man trilogy that continues to enjoy much love from people in my age range and beyond. The opening fight against a Lovecraftian monster in which Strange meets America for the first time I think was deliberately set-up to recall some of the action set-pieces from Raimi’s time with Spidey. With help from Danny Elfman as composer, it particularly reminded me of the first fight Spider-Man had with Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, with poor Aunt May stuck in the middle.

That was me referencing Raimi’s time in the superhero genre. Now, due to Doctor Strange’s predilection with supernatural subject matter to say the very least, this gives Raimi the strongest opportunity he’s had to reference the trilogy that made him big before Spider-Man: Evil Dead. And trust me, it’s more than just a Bruce Campbell cameo, which itself makes cute reference to one of Evil Dead 2’s most famous sequences.

To be honest, you could come close to calling Doctor Strange 2 not just Evil Dead 4 but how to do an Evil Dead movie in a PG-13 format. Not every part of this movie is like the Evil Dead series, don’t get me wrong. Plenty of moments where it’s, well, Doctor Strange or a Marvel movie. But when the knowing person spots the Evil Dead stuff, it’s hard to ignore and it comes close at times to distracting from what we were originally here for. Certain camera angles or camera techniques that Evil Dead became renowned for are present in The Multiverse of Madness. My favorite is where, as Strange, Wong, America and a fellow sorcerer are waiting for Wanda to breach the room, the camera suddenly jerks into an askew shot of the doors, very much referencing the paranoia of Campbell’s Ash Williams inside the cabin.

Other moments might be nods to Evil Dead like camera angles in relation to Wanda and her selfish multiversal search for “her” children from Wandavision, a shot of two different Wandas looking at each other in a mirror and one very spoiler heavy section where a bunch of souls are streaming and circling around a character while shouting different things in high strung voices. I was waiting to hear one of them scream “DEAD BY DAWN”, but I suppose Raimi does indeed have some restraint.

Again, to the unoriented with Evil Dead, these will fly over their heads and just think it quirks of this particular Doctor Strange entry. Thankfully, Raimi knows to include some magical, mystical fun in relation to Doctor Strange and not his earlier body of work including a brilliant section involving classical music and the very soundtrack of the film. I will say this much: I can deal with more of the MCU, assembly line or not, so long as some imagination is along for the ride. It certainly is here.

Before I forget, I should mention that oft brought up newcomer America Chavez, played by Xochitl Gomez. It doesn’t hurt that the character’s powers from the comics is very much integral to the plot of this movie. Hell, without America, there wouldn’t be a movie, probably. There are times when America’s presence can feel like she is just here for the mcguffiny nature of her multiverse-traversing power and then there are moments where no, she actually is her own character, one with motivations that go beyond survival, let alone from evading a fallen Avenger.

As I’m sure conservative/right-leaning sources will bring up, she has two moms instead of ‘ahem’ the correct pairing don’t you know? America herself is one of the most upfront LGBTQ characters in Marvel comics nowadays and the presentation of that aspect to her is deliberately in your face with a “What’s it to you?” attitude that naysayers will just blow off as “woke” or worse.

Aside from her wearing a gay pride pin on her jacket, there’s no indication that this America is also gay though I can’t possibly imagine why she wouldn’t be. It could be just a badge in support of her parents or a subtle bit of coding that doesn’t distract from the conflict she’s facing here and now. Of course I’m quite comfortable with who America is and it doesn’t hurt that Gomez’s performance makes her a quite likeable character, one whom I’m more than happy to see the further adventures of which is basically a given at this point.

I’m expecting America to be a companion of Strange in later installments, mirroring and contrasting with the heated dynamic between the Doctor and Peter Parker from earlier. Give the film further credit, like Moon Knight, it successfully lays out crumbs to care for future MCU outings. It’s honestly a crumb more tasty than the sudden and kinda lamely executed one that occurs with the mid-credits scene.

Speaking of gripes like the mid credits scene, despite the shorter than usual runtime of 2 hours and six minutes, the pacing can make the film seem longer than it is. I’m never bored in spite of that but to say that it can seem as if the plot is a little too busy and by extension has effect on the pacing I would in turn say not untrue. It does all wrap up very well though again the mid credits scene does open up implications on the release schedule of the MCU that is not optimal unless of course Feige is hiding something which is probably the case.

Doctor Strange 2, for its uncomfortable character arcs and implications for the MCU, might result in a movie that does not have the same commercial staying power than the ludicrously successful Spider-Man: No Way Home. Of course, the reasons for that film’s results was something greater than just it being another MCU Spider-Man. We all know the answer there. Because we are approaching 30 movies with the fourth Thor this July making 29, it is very hard to know where to rank The Multiverse of Madness, much like how one would rank all of Bond’s films.

It succeeds at being the proper next step in Doctor Strange’s story, a somber last step for another’s and a hopeful first step for yet another. Maybe it’s better to just match it up with the MCU’s entries for just the year of 2022. How will it compare to Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and anything else that might be in waiting? That’s a thought process more worth your time and for what’s it’s worth, this assembly line we are getting more cranky about does bother to make you think at all.

Leagues ahead of the competition: A review of Arcane: League of Legends (with mild spoilers)

Netflix Arcane Season 2: Release date, episodes, trailer, where to watch |  ONE Esports
Image from ONE Sports (What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.)

I have never played League of Legends.

I never plan to play League of Legends. I can’t fully describe what kind of game League of Legends is. It’s playerbase has long held the dubious distinction of being among the most toxic in the entire gaming community which further alienates me from trying it.

Yet, it has crafted a new Netflix animated series and its first season is the best thing I’ve seen all year. It’s one of the best animated productions I’ve ever watched. More than anything else expected to arrive in 2022, Arcane‘s second season has rocketed to the top of the list. I wasn’t even aware this show existed until a week ago.

There is only one other adaptation of a video game property that is worth a damn and it’s also from Netflix: the recently concluded anime of Castlevania. For more on that, check out my review of its fourth and final season alongside Invincible’s first. Some would also include the anime adaptations for Persona 3 and 4, but having not fully watched those I’m not at liberty to judge.

Arcane is a tale of a city split into two, facing class strife that relates to a certain Charles Dicken novel: the rich elitist side of Piltover and the poor, mostly underground district of Zaun. Tensions boil over and the poor underclass rises in resistance but is crushed by the ultimately more powerful upper class, their power maintained by the brutal enforcers. Two little girls lose their parents in the strife and one of the resistance leaders, Vander, emotionally broken by the result of his rebellion, takes them into his custody.

Who's Vander In the Arcane League of Legends? Character and voice Actor  Explained - Game News 24
Image from Game News 24

Their names are Vi (Violet) and Powder. Vi tries to restrain her vengeful fury at the literal upper class with trying to keep the loved ones that remain alive. Powder wants nothing more than to do right by Vi, her adoptive father and the other orphaned kids that come into her life.

Their surrogate father Vander is trying to keep the peace with the aboveground as best he can but his extremist former best friend and surrogate brother Silco changes everything. Their mutual bad blood puts the orphaned children in harm’s way by way of Vander getting kidnapped and being used as bait for his kids. Vi and Powder’s rescue attempt goes spectacularly wrong in a way that neither of the brothers would have wanted. One brother dies, the other left to grieve.

Powder, under Silco’s wing, takes on the name of Jinx following the horrible incident she caused and in turn begins her journey into becoming one of Piltover’s most feared residents. This is further spurred by the poor girl never really being right in the head, even before the tragedy that ripped her original parents from her. The brokenness of the world she lives in further shatters her mind and forms her into a new nightmare. One I can never fully hate in spite of the terrible things she will come to do.

As for Vi, she is taken into custody by the enforcers following that same catastrophe Powder caused and spends the following years hardening her body and her spirit, yet still trying to never forsake the better angels Vander tried to keep within her.

Arcane: League of Legends: What to watch, play, and know if you love season  1 - Polygon
Image from Polygon

Vi is freed from prison years later by the enforcer Caitlyn, who is investigating a crime related to her sister’s new anarchic life. Unlike the enforcers Vi grew up despising, Caitlyn wants to be a genuine keeper of the peace, no matter what class you are part of, all the more striking considering her own background, but more on that later.

During the time the sisters spend apart from one another, an aspiring young scientist called Jayce teams up with a handicapped, like-minded inventor called Viktor and together they advance Piltover’s technological prowess centuries forward through the successful harnessing of magic into utilitarian purpose, the “Arcane” if you will.

Who is Jayce in LoL Arcane? Character & voice actor Explained? - Game News  24
Image from Game News 24

Years later, Piltover has become a nexus for the world commercially and culturally through the Hexgates, basically teleportation made manifest. Jayce is the symbol of a new era. But can that new era really come into being on the rotten foundation of the old? Can Jayce’s good intentions for all stay that way as he enters hesitantly into the political game that led to Piltover and Zaun’s mutual animosity?

Arcane‘s first season is a beautifully tragic beginning to a story of love(of more than one kind), family, duty, honor and technological innovation with the fear that it musters. It will make you laugh, cry, leave you in awe and apprehension. It’s incredible art design is bolstered by an animation technique seemingly derived from the technology that powered 2018’s amazing Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. It’s mixture of 2D art and 3D motion is mesmerizing.

It’s such a cliché but, yes, Arcane really is a painting come to life.

Netflix's 'Arcane' is a masterpiece of animation
Image from Mashable (The best and worst of times.)

You can and likely will get swept up in what much there is to appreciate visually alone from the nine episode-long first of hopefully many expertfully made seasons. To say that expectations for video game-to-TV/Cinema adaptations has suddenly gone through the roof is an understatement.

What makes Arcane much more than a pretty face is that it has a complex yet never complicated narrative, all centered on how a sisterhood’s deterioration sets in motion events far graver than anything its world, called Runeterra, has ever seen before.

It’s ripple effects coming from decisions made from its all too human, flawed characters give it a feel to something akin to Game of Thrones though comparatively less adult, but no less mature. For one, the sex scene here would be agreeable to a PG-13 rating, if only just. It’s violence, much harsher than the game it’s based on hovers between PG-13 and an R, often landing between one or the other. What makes the violence hit so well as to elicit either a “Hell yeah!” or an “Oh s**t!” is how the animation exudes emotion brilliantly.

The facial expressions in and out of fighting often felt more real to me than real life. Sadness, rage, despondency, horror, desire, shame, guilt, hope and happiness are colored in splendidly through the French animation studio Fortiche.

The voice acting is also indispensable to Arcane’s success, as well you would hope. Hailee Steinfeld must have the best agent in the world right about now as on top of perfectly voicing Vi, she also voices Spider-Gwen in the aforementioned Into the Spiderverse and portrays Kate Bishop, Clint Barton’s probable replacement as Hawkeye in the now streaming Disneyplus series of the same name.

Elia Purnell’s portrayal of the adult Powder/Jinx is just as compelling, maybe more so. Jinx is clearly inspired by both the Joker and Harley Quinn, arguably as a fusion of the two. While her voice can recall Harley at times, her personality and heartbreaking descent into deeper madness is more similar to the Joker. Rather than being an anarchic force that just wants the world to burn, Jinx was once someone simpler, less destructive.

Again, she might’ve always had some type of mental illness lying beneath the surface, but a less brutal, sorrowful childhood would have at least made her someone with a chance for an untroubling life, especially living among loving people.

In spite of still having people that love her, her mistakes and the mistakes people make in responding to her errors, namely from Vi, unleash her inner psychosis. As Jinx, Powder becomes schizophrenic, finds it difficult to empathize with those that aren’t in her immediate circle of loved ones which in turn make it easier for her to blow up innocents with her colorful collection of explosives. She loves explosives all their own and has found a quite unhealthy outlet for that obsession, pushed by her loving but still corruptive third father Silco.

A concept that I love Arcane for exploring is the nature of relationships, both paternal and intimate. How the result of those relationships can be just as healing or damaging as a decision made by a politician or a crime-lord. As stated above, Silco does actually care for Jinx as an adoptive daughter in a way that is actually heartwarming. But it can’t act as excuse for the terrible lessons and lifestyle he instills in Jinx, all tied up in his vengeful designs for Piltover.

Arcane's Silco makes a surprise debut in Riot's Teamfight Tactics - Polygon
Image from Polygon

His ends justify the means outlook on how to get the downtrodden people of Zaun free of Piltover is often indistinct from his desire to exact pain on others for what he himself suffered. The classic dilemma of the revolutionary-minded: is it for revenge or justice? You can’t really have both in the end.

This is in reflection with major characters and their own familial ties. Jayce has loving and well adjusted parents who never discouraged him from seeking to technologically uplift Piltover into a new age. He also has a more argumentative but still caring mentor-apprentice connection to Heimerdinger, the adorable yet stately scientist who also acts as a co-founder of Piltover and a member of the city’s council.

Who is Heimerdinger in Arcane? – Esports | Esports.gg
Image from esports.gg

Caitlyn (voiced by Katie Leung, Cho Chang from Harry Potter) has two distinct relationships, which are for myself the most investing of the bunch, save for Vi and Jinx’s fraught sisterhood. Despite coming from an aristocratic family, with her mother part of the council, she wants her title of “Noble” to be more than just a title, she wants to be noble full stop.

Against her parent’s wishes, she joins the city’s Enforcer police and shows herself to be a great detective which in turns sends her on a journey which brings her into Vi’s life as well as allow the sisters their reunion. The friendship she effortlessly strikes up with Vi in their search for Jinx is clearly evolving into something that’s more than friends. The subtext between the two is barely subtext from where I’m standing.

Arcane: What Should We Expect From Caitlyn In The Series?
Image from Blog of Legends

This is derived from how in League of Legends the game, the dialogue between the two as playable characters was brimming with hints of something more occurring between the two. I would be surprised and a little crushed if Season Two doesn’t all but completely affirm what was always there. It doesn’t hurt that the chemistry between Steinfeld’s Vi and Leung’s Caitlyn is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Some of the best visual storytelling comes in how you can read so much in how the characters facially express themselves. A certain look that Vi gives to Caitlyn in one episode is where silence being golden most certainly applies.

Another romance subplot also works more in its subversion of expectation than anything else, and based on how the season ends, it’s a romantic arc that seems almost certainly doomed for tragedy. As Jayce rises in prestige amongst Piltover’s higher ups, he meets Mel Adarda, another of the council members and the one that is most interested in his designs for the future being fulfilled.

She comes across in how she interacts with Jayce as a Lady Macbeth-like femme fatale, often whispering and coaching Jayce in how to push forward with his plans for implementing magic as a tool for civilization. Much to my pleasant surprise, Mel herself is not the straightforward, manipulative dame you would think she is.

Is 'Arcane' Teasing Mel Medara As A New 'League Of Legends' Champion?
Image from Forbes

Her own background shows her as someone with a benevolent, altruistic side. It’s that side of her that got her banished to Piltover from her people due to concerns that it would make her a weak eventual ruler of her country. The relationship she begins with Jayce also reveals her as someone who does care for Jayce in truth in spite of the seemingly seductive tactics she uses for her own ends. Maybe because want she really wants in the end is what Jayce wants. Less a deconstruction of her archetype but a defiance of it.

There is so much more to the characters, their motivations and the placement they are given in the infernal game over Piltover’s, Zaun’s and perhaps the world’s future. What matters is that everyone, including those I didn’t have the time to mention, have a place in this world in its machinations. Few if any characters feel as if they don’t really belong in the story unfolding before us.

That was a trap that Arcane’s creators could’ve easily fallen into considering the huge number of characters to draw from, not to mention the characters newly introduced through this show. League of Legends has champions, which act as the characters players choose to control in the game. As of now, the number of Champions numbers over a hundred. For the first season of Arcane, Riotgames (the developer of both the game and show) and Fortiche had to carefully consider who among that vast roster was to play a role in this take on LOL’s narrative.

I seriously doubt every champion will appear as a character in the story to come, it would be a terrible choice. As they have now, they should only include characters that contribute to the wonderfully realized tale they are building. It’s less obligation and more necessity when it comes to Arcane’s choice of who is and is not up for screentime and that is wisdom that is often ignored when adapting anything that includes a large cast.

As you would expect, I read up on the video game version of the characters featured in Arcane and was surprised at the great number of changes made to those characters’ background and narrative purpose. Some have entirely new arcs that are distinct from what Arcane is doing so you can view this show as inspired by the world and story of the game, but not a direct adaptation of it.

The fandom has thus far been strangely not enraged by these big narrative changes, perhaps won over by how simply great Arcane comes across in its own telling. It’s an alternate history of the world of Runeterra that has echoes of the original story but is not whatsoever beholden to it. It gives newcomers and veterans of LOL’s world something fresh and excitingly unpredictable.

Speaking of exciting, Arcane’s dramatic moments are some of the best I’ve seen from something in the post GOT world. Moments that left me anxious, terrified by potential outcomes that seemed borderline inevitable. The cliffhanger ending is one of the greatest I’ve seen possibly ever as it leaves me wanting to watch season two immediately.

It’s a saddening, shocking season ender that left me basically dead quiet as the credits rolled, just trying to process that what had happened had happened. No matter where you fall into exposure with regards to its source material, to not call this fantastic television would be a straight up lie, with the potential to be even greater down the road.

Arcane inspires intense optimism that so much more can come of adapting video games into another medium. It frankly leaves me mad that we are approaching the 30th anniversary of the first, awful adaptation for a video game: Super Mario Bros, and only in the last couple of years have we seen successful attempts by people who cared and had the talent to back up their enthusiasm.

In the same year as both Arcane‘s arrival and Castlevania’s conclusion, we also had lackluster or simply bad new attempts at bringing beloved franchises to a different medium. Last April’s Mortal Kombat ( though not without its moments) and this month’s tepid Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Arcane’s subsequent release with the latest “attempt” at a decent RE movie only highlights what we have been missing so badly in the translation process.

An important step is to not pander relentlessly to fans of the original material. To a fresh-faced consumer of something League of Legends related, it was pleasing that I never once felt that I was watching a moment explicitly meant to cater to fans looking for a reference or easter egg. In spite of there being clear callbacks, namely through the characters gaining clothing and equipment like in the game, it felt like it was natural to the plot’s own progression, rather than just “Oh, it’s from the game, better include this.”

It makes Arcane feel welcoming to the lay viewer, not needing to know a single thing from anything before its release. It can honestly be enjoyed separately from the viewpoint of being based on a game. At times, I forgot it was based on a game and even better, I didn’t care.

As has been breathlessly commented on in recent weeks, Arcane is the new standard for properly and imaginatively translating a video game into a new medium. Not that there was much standard at all save Castlevania. It leaves me eager to see if other prospective filmmakers and animators take notes on what Arcane did to not shoot itself in the foot.

Let it lead hopefully to a new wave of adaptations that finally give the relatively young artform of interactive entertainment a new lease on life. To appreciate the world and characters of those games for those without the time, patience or ability to experience them like I do.

Phase Fourward: A review of Shang-Chi, What-If and Eternals (with spoilers)

How Shang-Chi's fighting style changes in the new Marvel movie's ending -  CNET
Image by CNET (How can I try to explain? When I do, he turns away again…..)

I have started to feel that dreaded superhero fatigue as Marvel’s Phase 4 begins over the course of this year. From unsatisfying conclusions to the first two DisneyPlus shows to the overall allrightness of Black Widow, my enthusiasm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe has slowly but surely begun to wane. Maybe it’s just waiting for the next big hook of what will make the MCU come together again or maybe it’s because the formula that Marvel has all but perfected is starting to show its limitations in terms of how to continually impress me.

I’m weighed down by the criticisms that have become harder to ignore as time goes on relating to what the MCU represents in today’s popular culture. An assembly line of entertainment that is often by itself lesser than the sum of its parts. The “assembly line” statement is almost unavoidable to completely dismiss when you consider the load of content that is now being given to this shared universe in just one year, let alone several.

There was a time when Marvel Studio’s ambitions to plan out films years in advance and then advertise them was seen as too much, too reckless. Going from two films a year to three, now four and on top of that several Disneyplus shows combined make the MCU busier but not necessarilly more fastidious.

Next year alone will be four new films: the next Dr. Strange, Thor, Black Panther and Captain Marvel features, on top of TBD releases for Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, She-Hulk and even a continuation of the beloved 90s’ X-Men cartoon, though that is reportedly unrelated to the MCU. With the Multiverse’s official debut in Loki, maybe that’s not as true as you would think.

I’m not saying that none or any of these upcoming projects will be good or great, some do have my rapt attention like Dr. Strange and Wakanda’s next appearances. Others can go either way, though I still hope for the best.

The problem that is compounded by this perceived bloat is that it starts to make individual entries of the MCU seem less important, perhaps lost in the overall picture. The more there is, the less special it can feel, regardless of the quality contained therein.

I still want Marvel to succeed in years to come, if only for the possibility of recapturing some of that earlier MCU magic I have felt in the past. This Christmas, the third Tom Holland Spider-Man film seems to be the best bet in the lineup to do so. But you can’t quite always strike gold and one of the entries on this lineup of MCU to look over is an intriguing strike-out if there ever was one.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Like with Dr. Strange before his first movie in 2016, I read the early classic stories of Shang-Chi, co-created by none other than Thanos’ daddy Jim Starlin. In spite of his stereotypically yellow appearance and his even more stereotypical looking father, literally Fu Manchu, the beginning of one of the more under the radar Marvel figures is actually quite wonderful.

Written in the early 70s, and in spite of the appearences of the Master of Kung-Fu and his father, Shang-Chi’s tale of forsaking Fu Manchu and his evil criminal empire is riveting stuff. The honor-bound hero, while of course full of East Asian philosophical wisdom, comes across as a relatable wanderer. Trying to both outlast and perhaps one day outdo his bad dad, Shang-Chi travels the world, relaying his inner conflict to the reader gratefully not in broken English.

His mental description of how he fights foes big and small is both entertaining and demonstrates effortlessly why we should believe he is the “Master of Kung-Fu.” The artwork for the most part is strikingly beautiful and goes against the assumptions often reality that American comic book art at the time was cheap and poorly constructed. Not here, Shang-Chi is among the best visually of Marvel’s work in the 1970s and as a result manages to be more than an obvious cash-in on the martial arts craze that hit the States following the rise of Bruce Lee.

How does Shang-Chi as a film work compared to his early comic days? Obviously, a lot of comics history has passed since the era I read of. A half-century in fact to borrow and utilize for the MCU’s interpretation. One notable and inevitable change to Shang-Chi’s background is changing the identity of his father.

It was already changed in the comics as Fu Manchu is a character that simply can’t be done anymore, no matter how tasteful the attempt. The character was a result of the xenophobic “Yellow Peril” of the early 20th century. A figure not just meant to be feared as an individual, but a ugly reflection of an entire group of people. Perhaps making Fu Manchu’s son into an unambiguously heroic figure who openly opposes his father was meant almost as apology. See, not all Chinese people are shady, lizard faced, Machiavellian monsters that will commit unspeakable atrocities on you? Shang-Chi, he’s one of the good ones. See what I mean?

Of course, Shang-Chi’s arch-enemy remains his dad and we all love a story every now and then of the son or daughter who are in the moral right showing up their in-the-wrong parents. Luke and Darth Vader are to modern generations the defining example of Generational Divide being translated into a Good vs Evil struggle. Darth Vader as the villainous father taught me an important though hard-kept lesson that was important to a young child: Sometimes, maybe more often than you think, your parents may not just be wrong, they can be evil. Being your parent is no excuse.

I don’t recall who is Shang-Chi’s father in the current comic continuity, but in the MCU he is the result of one of the biggest walk-backs Marvel has ever done in regards to criticism over character translation: The Mandarin.

Iron Man 3’s release in 2013 was met with controversy by the fandom over reducing the titular character’s comic arch-enemy, long expected to one day show up in the MCU, into a joke. It was a funny joke, a twist that landed very well with me. I’ll admit, the third Iron Man was starting to drag when I first saw it and the reveal that Ben Kingsley was merely an actor pretending to be a terrorist warlord gave me one hell of a second wind when it came to my enjoyment of the film. My takeaway was not in the majority.

Iron Man 3’s home release had a short called All Hail the King, which showed what happened to Trevor Slattery, the actor who portrayed the fake Mandarin in the main film. He ends up serving time in prison quite happily, not bothered all that much that he was caught up in trying to kill a freaking Avenger. At the end of the short, he is kidnapped out of prison by agents of the actual “Mandarin”. All this to reassure upset fans that yes, there is a real more or less comics-accurate Mandarin lying in wait to one day end up in this cinematic universe.

It’s a pity that Tony Stark never lived to face his comic book nemesis as having Robert Downey Jr. face down Tony Leung’s version of the character would’ve been quite fun. In the end, if Tony did have a nemesis, he had two: Thanos and himself. Worthy opponents that he both managed to defeat in the end.

Making the Mandarin Shang-Chi’s father was just too perfect. Not only does the Mandarin’s presence along with his terrorist empire The Ten Rings make it tie in with the very beginning of the MCU’s run, it also creates the perfect space to include possibly the highest profile Asian villain in Marvel’s history without any unfortunate implications.

Since the film’s been out since early September, I will give some plot details including over the third act but will continue to leave out one fun surprise in store even though I’m sure you may have learned of it by happenstance by this point.

The Mandarin joins Thanos, Ego and the Vulture in affirming the notion that one of the MCU’s enduring themes is daddy issues. Daddy issues that can have cataclysmic, cosmic consequences. I don’t know if this is a reflection of Kevin Feige trying to air out some of his issues but man the nasty daddies keep on coming.

Before I get to the titular Shang-Chi finally (don’t worry, just reflecting how sidelined he is in his own film half the time), let me just state that the best part of Shang-Chi’s first movie is Tony Leung as Wen-Wu/Mandarin. Leung is considered one of the best Hong Kong actors of his generation, an icon born out of an arguable golden age for HK cinema that bore Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Michelle Yeoh (also starring here), Donnie Yen, Stephen Chow and of course, the guns akimbo master Chow Yun Fat.

I was first exposed to Tony Leung in the fourth and best of John Woo’s “Heroic Bloodshed” features, 1992’s Hard Boiled, co-starring alongside Fat. Hard Boiled is my pick for the best action film I have ever seen with gun based action sequences that are as operatic as they are blood-soaked and stunning in their technical execution. Violent as they are, Hard Boiled and Woo’s The Killer are fantastic introductions to the man who will be Shang-Chi’s dad.

One enduring aspect to Chinese culture is the concept of family and the honor that comes with maintaining it. Virtually every human culture gives some amount of consideration due to it being an instinctual aspect of our species, but Chinese family structures are particularly placed into the forefront when demonstrating themselves to other non-Asian cultures. To some extent, striving on behalf of the family or society over yourself is a wide-spread aspect of all Asian cultures, at least to the ones I am knowledgeable of.

High-context cultures are less individualistic than low context ones like mine and I see both wisdom and issue with that mindset. Having your mind be attuned to the needs of a community is a mindset that would benefit the whole world to no end right about now in 2021. Shang-Chi reflects both an earnest and dark reflection on the family structure. Shang-Chi comes to blows with his father running a thousand year old criminal empire, maintained with the titular Ten Rings that give him both deadly power and eternal youth.

This is much like how Shang-Chi of the original comics was initially devout to his father until he realized what he would have to do to not only serve him but one day replace him. He retreats from his father and tries to live a normal, somewhat boring life in the states, making new friends like Katy (Awkwafina), being a car parker, enjoying after hours karaoke and miracously affording rent in San Francisco.

To take a page out of Cowboy Bebop, which recently suffered an awful live action adaption on Netflix, Shang-Chi tried to outrun his past. But in the end, doing so simply isn’t possible. In return, he has to kung-fu punch his way right back at it.

He ends up embroiled in a plot which gets both his not-love interest Katy and his sister Xu Xialing right back in his father’s presence. Turns out, daddy Wen-Wu plans to extend this big-old family reunion to a member who should be dead: his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother.

Tony Leung’s Wen-Wu is the best character in the movie and pulls off the “approachable yet still villainous” archetype of a figure as well as I had hoped. He elicits a particular specialty seen with Asian characters made out to be badasses: tranquil fury. Things happen to Wen-Wu in his long life that would make you understanding of him being angry, even if you still oppose him ideologically. Yet rarely if ever does Wen-Wu appear pissed or outraged.

An act of vengeance he commits to those that wronged him is witnessed by a child Shang-Chi. He wipes the floor with them in front of his son. He is ruthless in his action but dead quiet while doing it. Perhaps for a man who has lived a thousand years, pure action, not facial expression or words, is all that really matters to him. The point is made to both those he hates and those he loves.

What I find frustrating yet about Shang-Chi as a movie in spite of Leung’s performance and his relationship with his estranged son is that more often than not, the titular character is sidelined for other characters. While I’m not saying that Katy and Xu Xialing are unimportant, considerable time will pass before we see Shang-Chi again on screen. Much is established exposition-wise leading up the third act and time must be rationed accordingly, but a problem occurs if one begins to notice the lead’s absence.

This is a criticism that was made for Natasha Romanoff in relation to her own movie earlier this year. I was more forgiving due to the title of Black Widow meaning more than just one person. Her sister Yelena, her “mother” played by Rachel Wiesz and that the plot centers on the Black Widow spy program itself made it much easier to excuse when Natasha had to share more time with other people. The same applies to the now streaming Hawkeye show, as Clint Barton is not the only one with that moniker now.

Yet, Shang-Chi is not a title, it’s a person’s name and considering this is our first exposure to the character, unlike Natasha and Clint, I expect more of the dude to take center stage. What is set-up with Shang’s two companions is not without merit and in the case of the sister is actually quite important, especially when factoring the future of the story arc regarding the Ten Rings organization. Maybe this is in truth a quibble more than a structural issue, but if I noticed it, I can’t be the only one.

The third act takes us to a Chinese mythology fantasy land, a pocket dimension that runs on more or less the same logic as Asgard. The supposed source of much of Chinese lore and folk stories, which is bountiful considering how simply old China is as a civilized land, this Shangri-La like location is pretty interesting and only let down by how somewhat artificial it is in presentation, though not to a disrespectful degree.

The final battle, which is a near pre-requisite for an MCU movie starts off promising, presented as an honest to god battle between two small but formidable armies, not just a super-powered melee as we are accustomed to. However, after a certain point, the big giant CGI spectacle rears its expensive, semi-ugly head once again and that’s where I just have to put up with it.

Conceptually, how the battle concludes is actually kindof cool. I feel it would’ve gone down much better for me had it been a completely animated sequence as part of an animated movie. Matters aren’t helped when in the aftermath one of the characters literally compares it to an anime.

It distracts from the purpose of it being a personal yet still visually stimulating duel between father and son and with it two opposing moral sides. Smaller scale to be sure, but impressive enough. It’s also a weak denouement to the style of action that up until a point had made Shang-Chi stand out: honest to god great martial arts fighting.

In spite of occasional spotty camerawork and lighting, the actual hand to hand Mortal (Marvel?) Combat that occurs is among the best I’ve seen in the MCU, eliciting if not the reality but the suggestion of physical risk that marks the best sequences done by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. This practical fighting being tweaked with the bells and whistles of a modern Marvel picture, including the much advertised SF bus fight and the skyscraper scaffolding scuffle, helps give new life to what Marvel’s action based entertainment can offer.

It’s there up until a point in the final battle and it rather symbolically ends once Wen-Wu is taken off the board. In spite of my gripes, Shang-Chi’s first outing leaves me quite open to witnessing future adventures with him involved. Seeing how he interacts with other figures in the MCU as the mid-credits of course tease is to be looked forward to.

It’s the most solid introduction to a new character and his stand-alone set of work so far in Phase 4, but I would not call it a black-belt result.

What-If

Marvel 'What If...?' Season 2 - Release Date, Cast, Spoilers
Image by Men’s Health (Why not…..)

What-If, in terms of promising new exciting possibilities for storytelling in the MCU, very much something on the minds of the average MCU consumer, gets it half-way there. Intriguing ideas are explored or at least on paper given some kind of story to be delved into.

Much like the actual What-If comics, results will vary. Some stories are touching and give off considerations I had genuinely never thought about (the T’Challa as Star-Lord scenario), others are surprisingly dark and yet emotionally harrowing (Doctor Strange goes bad) and others are just not given nearly enough time to be fully explored (Kilmonger meets and befriends Tony Stark).

The first of potentially many seasons for the MCU’s variation on What-If does elicit in me a desire to see more of it, if that is any endorsement. But, at the same time, the handling on a narrative and script-writing level can be frustratingly less than I had come to hope for.

Take for instance the Zombies episode, which depending on who you ask is either among season one’s best or worst episodes. I’m in the middle, as that episode crosses boundaries I didn’t think were possible on Disneyplus, which for me should be cause for celebration in terms of what else can be allowable on the Mouse’s streaming service. On the other hand, the tonal inconsistency between a Return of the Living Dead-like black comedy and a dark horror story can be distracting toward my overall approval.

There is also the idea that some of the episodes like the Zombies one feels like it can and should encompass more than 23 minutes of time.

To once again rag on Netflix’s ill-advised live action take of Cowboy Bebop, it’s a matter of how much time is needed to really sell an idea, too much or too little. The new show starring John Cho and Mustafa Shakir has to take episodic stories from the original anime that lasted between 20 to 30 minutes and stretch it to an hour in length.

The youtuber Cosmonaut Marcus demonstrated that problem by comparing two different scenes of exposition over the same basic plot. The acclaimed anime summed up the conflict of the episode to be addressed in around ten seconds, effortlessly. The exposition in the new show for that same conflict takes over 30 seconds and not succinctly. All because we’ve got to a fill an hour of Netflix somehow.

Here, the reverse is the problem. Some episodes do manage to fit well enough under half an hour and some feel like they deserve a full hour to be properly addressed. The final couple of episodes do tie together into one narrative and much to my surprise, the entire set of seemingly stand alone episodes do come together. That in turn makes the episodes that feel over before they should be come across as more forgivable in hindsight.

What-If’s style of humor can act as a barometer for how funny you find the MCU in general, though I can remember laughing much harder in earlier entries than I had in What-If. One of the lesser regarded episodes, at least by user review on IMDB is the “Thor as party animal” scenario. It’s actually one of the more enjoyable and better written ones in my estimation. The reasons for Thor being a super-powered frat boy are actually well-justified and have an intriguing hook behind it, which makes the “College age but not too College age” humor land better.

What I’m looking forward to when it comes to the further narrations of Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher, aside from more consistent writing quality and perhaps longer episode run-times is seeing if any of the alternate versions of the characters you see in What-If are translated into live action in future MCU installments. Shouldn’t be too difficult and considering the number of upcoming movies like the next Spider-Man, Doctor Strange ,Ant-Man and Loki’s second season, it should be quite a rewarding treat for those who saw through What-If’s first outing. Maybe even a live-Action Uatu the Watcher could be in store.

Despite some standout moments that help make you realize how much further Marvel could take it than they ultimately did, What-If is overall just OK. Like with Shang-Chi before it, I’m up for more of it. And no matter what I say of what’s up next, the same applies there as well.

Eternals

Image from Screenrant (Ikaris and his SuperAncientFriends in a story that, yes, flew too close to the sun “ricochet”)

Eternals, the more I think about it, is such a maddening installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not really because it’s too complex, too expository or that structurally, is far weaker in result than you would expect from the people who made it.

It’s because in some respects, Chloe Zhao’s maligned entry in the MCU is a concept and a story that could have very well been one of this universe’s greatest achievements. It could’ve given so much of what the good-faith MCU nay-sayers have been wanting: not only something that looks more artful, but is more artful.

Budgetary concerns aside, but come on, considering how much money Disney/Marvel have in their coffers now, maybe screw those concerns, Eternals should have been an epic mini-series on Disneyplus. Unlike the other DisneyPlus offerings which are generally of a higher budget than most television, Eternals should have had the budget of a movie or several movies poured into that show. Again, if anyone on this planet could afford to pull off that financial gambit, it’s the company that is swallowing up other companies like it’s the Sarlacc they now own the intellectual rights to.

Eternals is a lengthy movie that is begging to be expressed over the course of quite a few episodes of TV. Based on the structure the movie actually has, being translated and expanded into episodic format is actually quite easy to picture. What makes this need for a different format even more apparent is that two veterans of a mostly incredible TV show phenomenon that adapted a book series that was once thought unadaptable are in this movie: Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington and Richard Madden. The answer was staring them right in the cast listing.

Eternals is based off of one of Jack Kirby’s latter day contributions to Marvel’s comic universe, created around the time when the fandom proclaimed “King” was having an uneasy relationship with the comic company he helped propel into legend.

In the 70s’, inspired by a thought of movement that can be ascribed as “Ancient Aliens”, in which humanity had been visited by extraterrestrial life much in our history, Jack Kirby created two different groups of godlike groups for two opposing superhero comic lines.

Kirby first gave us the New Gods for DC, best known for introducing one of that comic universe’s most iconic and frightening antagonists: Darkseid.

Image from AlphaCoders (You exist because Darkseid allows it and you will end because Darkseid demands it.)

Later on, Kirby gave us the Marvel equivalent to the New Gods in the form of, you guessed it, the Eternals. While the New Gods were too busy waging an endless war against each other far off away from Earth, the Eternals were involved in human history, helping inspire mythical figures across the world. Ikaris=Icarus, Makkari=Mercury, Phastos=Hephaestus, Thena=Athena, Ajak=Ajax, Gilgamesh….Gilgamesh, you get the idea.

The Eternals got up in our business for the most part due to the presence of the Deviants, a malevolent sister race to them who wanted to mess us up and stilt our progress. Those heroes from their Chariot of the Gods said “nuh-uh” to all that and have remained up until modern times at least one of the most covert groups of superheroes in Marvel’s world. The similarly themed Inhumans are more in the open than them.

The cinematic Eternals are called upon by Arashim, one of the Celestials, part of a group of basically God-like entities first glimpsed in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. They are tasked with helping an up and coming sentient species called humanity both get better at growing a civilization and also protecting them from a more predatory, wholly CG iteration of the Deviants. They must do so as long as the Celestials desire, as one day they will be relieved of their duties for Earth.

The concept of the Eternals as suggested through their new major motion picture is one with potential that again should be explored and made part of that cinematic universe we have been experiencing since 2008. The themes Eternals explore is certainly rich enough to justify something. Well, I guess we did get something either way.

What Eternal life does to an individual, psychologically, emotionally and with regard to relationships. What is more important, loyalty to a higher cause regardless of what that cause asks of you or to the people that are with you in life? With great power, comes great responsibility, isn’t that right? Well, what if that aforementioned “higher cause” told you not to use that great power save for only one purpose, no exceptions?

What if in truth, you might have wasted the life you had to live? This is more pronounced than for any one of us considering that the Eternals time on Earth alone measures thousands of years. What if all those millenniums you spent doing your job was for something you didn’t like or want? I mean, come on, this is narrative gold for Marvel and it’s exploration is stunted all because it has to be addressed in 2 hours and 35 minutes.

One of the most pronounced examples of this tragically wasted material is with the relationship between arguably the two most showcased eternals, though that can be occasionally hard to register due to their being up to ten of them to juggle: Ikaris and Cersi.

Richard Madden’s Ikaris and Gemma Chan’s Cersi are two eternals who over the course of 4,000 years fall in love, get married and then break up over irreconcilable differences( a break up that might have been nice to see, by the way).

Even with a well-paced mini-series, it might be impossible to really capture a romance that covers that much time. Considering that no human, no nothing on Earth can live that long, it really is a matter of theory. And yet, it would be fascinating and much more emotional to have more time spent with just this kind of dynamic of two individuals starting off as friends, becoming lovers, spouses, spending a great life together longer than you or I can ever have and then something heart-breaking bringing them apart.

That’s enough for one story in the MCU and yet there are eight other Eternals. To be fair, not every last Eternal needs to have as much attention given as the other, some can fit well as just secondary characters. Ironically, one of my favorite Eternals, Makkari the deaf speedster, is so because the movie allows her to just be a side eternal, not given even more pressure to the narrative by having a back-story to look at.

It could also be a consequence of her being deaf (for some reason) and having to use sign language to communicate, which simplifies her purpose altogether. I’m very aware I might’ve insulted actual deaf people with these words and I apologize. If it’s any further consolation, Marvel is about to give us another deaf character, Echo, to be seen in Hawkeye. Marvel sees so much potential with this hearing impaired character in fact, they’ve already greenlit her own DisneyPlus show. Maybe Makkari has to play a smaller role because of the room she has to share with her cosmic brethren, and the deaf thing was perhaps an excuse.

Ikaris and Cersi’s love story is not the only thing incapable of having the time to be not only explored enough, but to make us feel emotionally attached to. The two other standout eternals in terms of room to explore all on their own is Angelina Jolie’s Thena and Lia McHugh’s Sprite. The latter I am especially aggravated by, as her plight is something that I really wanted to see more time spent on.

Thena, the most warrior like of the Eternals (She did inspire the Greek Goddess of warfare), starts to develop a mental illness which becomes a dangerous liability to everyone in her life including her maybe (?) lover Gilgamesh (Don Lee). It stems from having so many memories in her incredibly long life that she basically experiences a magical form of Alzheimer’s. It reminds me of a mentally deteriorating Vulcan, like Spock’s dad Sarek.

Great idea, especially interesting to be coming from not only a character portrayed by Jolie, but by an otherwise badass female warrior. Her condition does come into play with a pretty dark revelation that helps move the plot forward, but otherwise it is a fascinating idea not given the time to breathe well.

Sprite is an eternally teenage looking Eternal who unlike Makkari does question why her Celestial master cursed her with an arbitrarily cruel impairment. While she can mimic any given thing, including a grown woman, as seen in an early scene with her at a London night club, she cannot actually just be a grown woman. Being thousands of years old, she obviously no longer has the mind of a child, if she had one to begin with, and wishes there was some way to magically augment herself permanently, rather than a temporary illusion.

She also cultivated one hell of a crush into eventually full-on romantic love for Ikaris in the thousands of years she was on Earth. Can you blame her, just look at Richard Madden.

Image by DailyPioneer (Such a shame about that very Red Wedding he attended once…)

Ikaris’ love for Cersi and the fact she couldn’t become an adult kept her from confessing her feelings so she manages to be the Eternal that does her job on Earth most begrudgingly. Save for one.

Barry Keoghan’s Druig, if for nothing more than his power set and that he is portrayed by a guy that looks like he has an unremovable scowl, is interesting in that he is the eternal that you would expect most to take a villainous turn.

He has the ability to straight up mind control people, an ability that’s very easy to abuse. Keep in mind Druig has been around the block for twice as long since the time of Jesus. Perhaps it was his fellow Eternals that reined him in or some amount of nobility he has by nature, but Druig is the most critical Eternal when it comes to the mission statement preventing them from interfering in human matters.

The other Eternal who is especially beaten down by this “prime directive” is Phastos, who witnesses the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima. All the Eternals are certainly bothered to some extent by the heartlessness of this directive, but only Druig openly rebels against it. Knowing he can’t do much by himself, he becomes a recluse deep in the Amazon, living among other humans in a perfect community. His mental power makes sure everyone behaves.

While you can and probably are called to question Druig’s manner of “retirement” from the Eternals’ mission, his philosophy that questions the Celestials leads him to creating a resistance against their mission for Earth, especially when they learn why they are really there to begin with. Not all the Eternals fall in line with this revolt and the ones that resist the rebels are genuinely surprising, which does give the movie credit at actually being novel in ways that click.

I would talk more about the remaining Eternals, like Phastos( Brian Tyree Henry) with his happy gay family, Gilgamesh being Thena’s minder and Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) awesome Bollywood career, but you know what, I haven’t the time really, much like this movie does not have the time to be what it is trying to be.

In the right framing, in the right format of storytelling, I genuinely believe that Eternals could be one of the MCU’s best installments, perhaps an expansion and evolution of what this long running cinematic universe can be. Visually, when the lighting isn’t obnoxiously low, it can be a beautifully different looking MCU film, another thing that is welcome within a universe that is attempting to stay in the spotlight for another decade.

But as I stated at the end of my thoughts on What-If, I do want to see more of the Eternals as the MCU pushes on. Why wouldn’t I, considering this section is all about lamenting lost potential. Perhaps when in unison with other MCU figures on their own adventures or given a new format to tell their story, the Eternals can succeed as new figures of this franchise.

What the Eternals accomplish at the end does suggest quite a ripple towards the narrative trajectory of the MCU and will be just as interesting when it is in concert with the developing multiverse plot. To say the Eternals debut appearance is unimportant would be a lie. But just because something is or might be important doesn’t always translate as good. The Eternals were striving within their limitations to make humanity grow, be better despite our self-destructive nature.

If they are to make us better, they must first make themselves grow, be better as well.

Next up: Maybe Arcane, maybe more 80s retrospective, I don’t really know yet.

Gunning from Trouble: A review of The Suicide Squad (mild spoilers)

The Suicide Squad movie review (2021) | Roger Ebert
Image from Roger Ebert.com (Not the best people, but also not the worst…for the most part.)

The success of a motion picture is never one thing. If you consider James Gunn’s soft reboot of DC’s Suicide Squad film series under only a financial lens, it is a tragic failure, an undeserved one.

If you view it in basically any other category, it is a deserving relief of a success. The biggest consequence being that James Gunn, who all but made a bunch of unknown space rogues into household names at Marvel can’t continue exploring his vision of this grittier but no less enjoyable side of DC’s intellectual property catalogue.

Actually Gunn can, but not on the big screen. A spin off series about one of the Squad members, Peacemaker, played perfectly by John Cena, will be having his own HBO Max exclusive show next year. When it comes to the feature length adventures of Amanda Waller’s Task Force X, that time has ended, barring some strange miracle. Then again, getting a rebound from the reportedly atrocious 2016 Suicide Squad movie was kinda of a miracle to begin with.

Many factors play into the sad fortunes of Suicide Squad 2021. The most obvious example being the resurgence of COVID-19 as a deleterious effect in American public life. The Delta and to a lesser extent so far Lambda variants have once again led to a rise in COVID cases/deaths and to those oblivious, stubbornly ignorant or without good faith, the blame is on too much of the American population being averse to receiving a free vaccine.

Be it buying into lies, understandable (to an extent) distrust in American institutions or just selfish to the point of validating ugly assumptions about the American character, we were unable to reach a 70% or higher threshold needed to create herd immunity and largely put COVID behind us as an aspect of life. It’s so bad that the success of the movie theater business is once again in question with major new titles like the next three MCU films, the second semi-promising Venom film, Daniel Craig’s oft delayed final Bond film and perhaps most painfully, the long awaited Dune film by Denis Villenueve being left in a concerning state.

It wasn’t just COVID. There was an understandable confusion over what exactly The Suicide Squad was in light of the 2016 film by David Ayer. The original movie was and remains panned by critics, disliked by audiences and held in low esteem by the DC fanbase. Some consider it one of the worst superhero films ever made. So, a sequel to a bad movie. Sound like fun!

But it’s also not called Suicide Squad 2. Instead, it is called “Suicide Squad” but with a “The” at the beginning. So, it’s a reboot? Sorta yeah. But it also has actors reprising their roles from the prior movie with Viola Davis as Suicide Squad manager Amanda Waller, Joel Kinnaman as Col. Rick Flagg( the field commander of the squad), Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn all returning.

None of this is to suggest it will be a bad movie of course, but then again poor marketing and being a follow-up of any sort to a badly regarded movie in a mostly badly regarded cinematic universe is a recipe for disaster. Even though James Gunn’s Suicide Squad received acclaim and the marketing heavily promoted Gunn himself as a new bright feature of this film, it wasn’t enough.

Of course, The Suicide Squad was also released on HBO Max as part of a strategy Warner Bros. started last year to get their films out in spite of the pandemic, starting with the ill-conceived Wonder Woman 1984. It being available to anyone who had a subscription to the streaming service also cut into box office but on the other hand it does mean the actual viewership of the movie is actually higher than its paltry theater returns would suggest.

Like many cult classic films which fizzled and burned at the cineplex, like personal favorite of mine Big Trouble in Little China and by extension most of John Carpenter’s filmography for that matter, The Suicide Squad will likely be seen long term as a success of some sort. It being a good even great superhero picture will make that process easier.

The Suicide Squad as the comics make them out to be, are a group of convict supervillains forced to do black op work for the US government under the aforementioned agent Waller, finding some use for DC’s scum and villainy. They incentivize the super-crooks to do Waller’s bidding with two methods: reduced prison time/and or better standards of living in prison and a bomb implanted in their head that will blow their craniums up if they disobey or try to leave the squad. Persuasion and coercion in equal measure.

Of course, despite having a bunch of villains make up the squad’s makeup, you have to have some in the Task Force who are not wholly evil or perhaps not evil at all. James Gunn already showed his strengths in taking characters who starting off at least were more than a little morally compromised in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peter Quill/ Star Lord was a thief and former member of a space pirate group called the Ravagers. Gamora was an assassin and the best agent for her adoptive father Space Emperor Thanos, Drax was a criminal who was happy to use violent ends to get revenge on those who had killed his family. Rocket Raccoon and Groot were perhaps the most innocent, with them being bounty hunters.

The only other Guardian barring Nebula( Gamora’s fellow “sister” under Thanos) was Mantis and well, she was a slave of a planet sized, lower-case god. Unlike Captain America and Thor, who essentially start off as heroes, the Guardians of the Galaxy were antiheroes or even probable villains who gradually become irreverent full blown heroes.

If it worked at Marvel, why wouldn’t it work at DC? Well, it does.

Compared to the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, The Suicide Squad is more crass, adult and clearly meant to echo James Gunn’s early career among Troma Entertainment, one of the premiere independent studio success stories. Troma stood out for its gives-no-f**ks attitude and very low brow humor which was still charming enough to allow a cult following to occur.

The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke em’ High are among Troma’s best known contributions to cinema so to speak and Gunn was involved in the fourth Toxie movie, Citizen Toxie, considered by many including Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman to be the best in that series, save for the original. Kaufman has had cute blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameos in Gunn’s movies including the first Guardians of the Galaxy and there’s one here too. Gunn’s biggest movie with Troma and arguably his first real film he did was Tromeo and Juliet.

To an extent, The Suicide Squad is a Troma film with a Hollywood budget, though it is much more than that. It’s not all gross out or sexual humor, some of it is directed in a manner not too dissimilar to a Deadpool film though the self-deprecating humor isn’t as blunt due to DP being a fourth wall breaking figure and not even Harley Quinn goes quite as far in bringing attention to what movie she is in.

It’s a film which juggles many different tones and manages to not slip up surprisingly well. Some moments of violence are definitely played for laughs like an insanely violent sneak-in to a camp of enemies with one gut-busting twist to the end of the scene. Others play the violence more seriously and even sadly, like with the fates of some Suicide Squad members being tragic, sudden and without heartlessness. There’s one moment of violence that actually pans away before the carnage to emphasize this as not funny at all.

Not everyone will appreciate Gunn’s juggle of superhero comedy and military/espionage drama. But at the same time, it’s easy to emphasize with the squad members meant to be liked, to despise the members meant to be despised and to feel conflicted about the members that fall inbetween.

The crazy thing is that not every squad member is necessarilly evil or even criminal: it is the circumstances of who they are and their abilities that make them unable to be among the general population. Poor Polka-Dot man. One of Batman’s dumbest adversaries is played as a guy with an absolutely awful life that was brought upon him rather than by choice.

His abilities, which do involve polka dots in some fashion, were not used for a life of crime but were instead the consequence of having one awful, awful mother with access to STAR Labs technology. For a host of reasons, he’s quite alright being in something called a suicide squad.

Ratcatcher 2 is also a supervillain who hasn’t, as far as we know, done anything wrong to anyone personally. The worst she’s done is that she’s a thief and she steals through proxy by being able to, well, summon rats. Being raised with a drug addict father in Portugal meant she wasn’t raised in a context where she could use her in truth, very useful technology for a clear good. In another world, she would be a superhero and now she is forced to become something she doesn’t mind being.

Then, there’s King Shark, voiced beautifully by Sylvester Stallone. A spiritual analogue to Groot in some ways, Nanuae/King Shark is simple-minded, has a limited but growing vocabulary and he is taught like a dog or the Iron Giant not to eat people willy-nilly, especially if they’re his friends. He’s terrifying when he’s angry, adorable in every other context, strangely enough. Of course, the people that make him angry more or less deserve what comes next.

There are two teams to this film’s Task Force X, one headlined by Col. Flagg and Harley Quinn and the other by Deadshot replacement Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Cena’s Peacemaker. The team led by Flagg has too spoilerific a role to delve into and it is the team led by Bloodsport that is more or less the team for the film.

Waller sends the larger suicide squad/task force X into the Caribbean island nation of Corto Maltese to infiltrate, steal information and destroy the base of a Project Jotunheim, which was once under American control through the puppet government. That government had a coup and now a duo of power hungry brothers want to use what’s inside Jotunheim to get their country into a place of real prestige on the global stage.

The Squad’s mission through Corto Maltese and how they interact with its denizens, both in friendly and aggressive ways, act as commentary on American imperialism and the deep state. It’s hardly a surprise that a story about the American government using hardened criminals to do their dirty work undercover wouldn’t have a positive opinion of that system.

Waller is a cruel, cruel person and you can just feel the cold ruthlessness come off of Viola Davis’ performance almost like a chill. In spite of Task Force X consisting of some who are not whatsoever decent, you still feel sad at them being forced into the position they’re in. It’s almost akin to the teenagers in both Battle Royale and the Hunger Games forced against their will to fight and die all while being monitored by an uncaring and somewhat amused authority.

They’re many different arenas of thought on how The Suicide Squad’s politics can be extrapolated but it is, dare I say it, much more clear cut in its intent than this year’s Falcon and Winter Soldier show. It’s almost brave in how brazen it’s political intention is though if there is one thing Gunn has more or less succeeded in, it’s getting away with something brazen.

What makes it work is that for all the lowbrow or sometimes middlebrow humor and content Gunn presents here, there is a earnest sense of heart that makes it easy to follow and be invested in the squad’s trials. Much like the thematic mission statement of Ayer’s Suicide Squad, Bloodsport’s group overtime go from being interested in simply surviving their mission to wanting to be more than they are.

Elba’s Bloodsport is especially prone to this positive compulsion due to his mercenary lifestyle all but ruining his relationship with his understandably angry daughter. His talents made him a killer for money but can he use those same skills for something more worthwhile?

Harley Quinn, who has long since dumped his utterly evil boyfriend The Joker, is still an insane individual but one who wants to express her insanity in ways that are helpful, not just to others but to herself. Like Bloodsport, her talents often lead to messy results, but at least she’s there enough mentally to not to express them on victims. After all, she was a victim herself.

The Suicide Squad pulls off the impressive feat of being an entertaining, wacky story that deals in grey morality but with a rare optimistic conclusion. That even people you and I would consider either criminal or to step back from can do the right thing in their own way. That maybe blanket assumptions of certain people and their lifestyles should not doom them to certain fates.

It’s a film that seems nihilistic for its colorful expression of violence and dark comedy. It is anything but a meaningless film about meaningless people and their meaningless actions. It’s a shame that the DCEU’s best film seems destined to be their least profitable.

The film financially, will not survive the mission. Doesn’t mean the mission was a failure.

The New Now: A review of Loki(with spoilers)

Marvel just explained 'Loki' episode 4's mind-blowing moment
Image from Yahoo (Loki and Slyvie Loki, where self-loving and self-loathing meet.)

Appropriate to its character, Loki is a quieter, less bombastic show that will still jolt you with a twist and turn, often with something approximating a knife.

For a dare I say it, more low-key experience than is typical for Marvel, it nevertheless manages to capture a sense of scale left to be explored in a cinematic universe that is over a decade old. It’s a sign of Marvel and Disney’s commitment to Disneyplus succeeding where Netflix, ABC and Hulu failed in terms of having this universe be more than just a feature film world.

While Wandavision and Falcon and Winter Soldier end on something significant occurring in its universe, whether it be a woman coming to terms with bearing godlike powers or a man accepting an uneasy mantle with wide-ranging implications and expectations, none of that compares to a moment that has implications among universes, let alone finally affirming a narrative direction that fans have been hoping for for years. It’s a show about getting past smoke and mirrors, both in its own universe and in our own and seeing and knowing what really is around the next corner.

Ironic, considering its titular character’s use of such for his own ends. Loki, or at least, a Loki timecoded from the end of the first Avengers film, tries to shed self-deceptions about himself and what he is and could be, especially when he learns that the path that his nature takes him ends either in failure or tragedy. Loki is unique in respects to its own universe and its rules, while also reminding one intentionally or not of other things.

It brought to my mind the rules of time travel and time itself that Doctor Who has pondered for nearly 60 years. It’s examination of alternate universe or timeline selves as the totalitarian Time Variance Authority defines as “variants” recalls the exhausting existential implications of Rick & Morty and Bioshock Infinite.

In terms of pure set design and it style, it recalls the 2019 video game Control and its supernatural, metaphysical location of the Oldest House, the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a deadly serious Men In Black. In that game from the creators of Alan Wake and Max Payne( who just celebrated his 20th anniversary of this writing, Happy Birthday Maxie!), Control allows you to explore a strange place with the oppressive feel of an American government building from the mid-20th century. Please compare the look of the FBC to the TVA and wonder if Feige and co. didn’t take notes.

Welcome to the Oldest House Walkthrough - Control Wiki Guide - IGN
Image from IGN

Loki: Every MCU Easter Egg In Episode 2 | Screen Rant
Image from Screenrant

Both locations suggest something darker and weirder than what you immediately see and more importantly that the full truth of the place can never be fully known because the location itself won’t allow you to know. It only lets on what it deems necessary for you to know in the immediate.

As a mythological trickster, Loki doesn’t just take umbrage with the look of the place, but the intent. For reasons both selfish and gradually selfless, he detests the mission statement that the TVA must do all in its power to keep other alternate universes from existing, essentially safeguarding against what fans have wildly speculating must come next for the MCU: the multiverse. The show essentially boils down into three ideas, first being that if a bad person by nature can become good by nurture and the second being what is more preferable and even ethical: the supposed comforts of order or the utter freedom of chaos.

For some, freedom doesn’t just mean freedom to do whatever, as is the Loki we know, it is the freedom to be left alone or better to know why you can’t be left alone. Sylvie, the female Loki that soon becomes our Loki’s partner across time and space, wants to know why a little girl who hadn’t done anything wrong in her version of Asgard is forever being hunted. And why they can’t seem to realize that their torment of her won’t come back to bite them.

As much a character study as it is a long-awaited vanguard for the next big thing, Loki manages to stick the landing narratively that its two Disney+ entries couldn’t. The abruptness of the show’s conclusion is buffeted by the dire note it ends on and the quick reassurance that this won’t be a one season affair. Hell, it will be something that effects basically everything coming down the road for Feige’s vision of Marvel.

This Loki becomes our Loki. He starts to recognize faster than the one we last saw choked to death by a madman’s hand that it cannot be all about himself. He wants answers rather than power. He wants connection rather than revenge. He wants to know that someone can trust a person trying to be more trustworthy. Easier to come by that perspective when you realize what exactly is hidden behind the curtain that the other never did or ever will. But can he rid himself of what he was without sacrificing the aspects of who he is that could still favor him?

Loki’s journey for both discovery and rediscovery becomes complicated when he meets his female alternative self. Perhaps Slyvie alone was enough to make him realize faster that is not all about him. There are plenty of other hims/hers/its which felt/feel the same way he used to.

That journey to fight the TVA and who really controls it becomes a question about the third them: deception. What deception is and is not appropriate? Some deception or distraction can in action be altruistic though it can be and often is narcissistic. It can be justified in the moment or after the fact or maybe it can be found unjustifiable. A reveal at the end which sets in motion the creation of the Multiverse suggests that maybe both at the same time can be the case.

When it comes down to how I feel ultimately about Loki as a project, it is confirmation if nothing else to convincingly committing to change. That a major event in the MCU can and will happen on a streaming television show that will affect theatrically released movies is a gamble but one that perhaps only this property will pull off. Much like our green and gold clad antihero, it is a question of whether that change sticks or not.

Die another Day: A [spoiler] review of Marvel’s Black Widow

Black Widow review: Marvel meets spy thriller - The Verge
Image by The Verge (It’s not the end of Natasha’s story but you can see it from here.)

Author’s Note: Despite declaring this a spoiler review for Black Widow, I don’t feel I need to describe the synopsis of a film that most people will likely watch anyway or read up on. From now on, I might give off my mid-review summaries of plot to properties that are either new like Invincible’s first season or are likely more niche, though doesn’t necessarily denote a lack of popularity like Netflix’s Castlevania.

The last film I remember seeing in theaters was back in 2019: Sam Mendes’ 1917, a brilliantly constructed and exhausting 2-shot WW1 movie that was anything but the worst choice for me to temporarily end my theater experience on.

At the same time, returning to the theater for the long belated first film for Marvel’s fourth phase reminded me of what I was not missing. Too many ads, patronizing self promotions for the theater-going experience and a general whiff of desperation that still lingers in the air and almost makes you feel a little sorry for what might still be a dying method of watching movies.

Of course, the box office success of this film’s opening, a more than welcome $80 million that follows a trend of new successes with F9 and A Quiet Place part II suggests that maybe that existential anxiety is less well-founded than say, what we should definitely fear from climate change nowadays.

I couldn’t help but reflect on that troubling topic while watching Natasha Romanoff’s send off movie in spite of this supposedly being a time and place to forget such things for a couple of hours. Of course, I have a medically diagnosed and medicated anxiety disorder, but that the particular theater me and my family went to near the Greeley Mall( another institution with well founded fears of extinction) had poor air conditioning made it easier for my mind to pick up on certain stressors. No matter what can be said of the state of the world for better or for ill in 2021: It must be said that the heat is on in one form or another.

It wasn’t so distracting that I couldn’t enjoy the 24th film entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is very difficult for me to rank the MCU’s offerings on a best to worst scale. I can easily tell you the entries that are on the lower scale( Iron Man 2, Incredible Hulk, Avengers: Age of Ultron, maybe Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel) but it is often harder to rank what is the best for me in this ongoing saga that has changed Hollywood for both the best and worst.

The James Bond series is much the same in my experience. I can tell you the movies I dislike the least with confidence( Die another Day, Spectre, Quantum of Solace, Diamonds are Forever) but to rank my favorites or those in the middle is nearly impossible. Like the MCU, there are the few that don’t work or don’t work well enough and then there’s all the rest of that goodness, so long as you ignore or compartmentalize the problematic nature of OO7 as a character( which I just gotta).

Considering the number entry of this particular MCU title, it feels oddly fitting to be the most upfront about copying from James Bond’s 25-26 numbered filmography. There have been MCU films that aped a spy thriller feel with much success, namely the Captain America sequels and the Disneyplus series, Falcon and Winter Soldier. Yet, I didn’t feel Bond so much as Bourne or more cerebral thrillers like the acknowledged Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men or Enemy of the State. Less about how impressive the main protagonist is of those cat and mouse dramas but about how absolutely stressful it is to be in direct or indirect conflict with America’s deep state.

Black Widow has shades of those “Spy” movies for the MCU, makes sense considering Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow’s been part of two of them. But it is again, the most about reflecting the go-to example of the “Secret Agent” genre, OO7 himself. There is a cute reference to Moonraker, the dumbest Bond film that is also the most enjoyable in spite of being dumb. That’s the one where he goes to space, well before Dom Toretto’s F&F family succeeded in doing so just recently.

It’s not just a reference, it’s a surprising number of plot elements and visual cues that still somehow find themselves conforming pretty comfortably into what is one of the darker and more violent entries in the MCU. There’s a plot device involving “pheromones” that for me recalls two things: Moonraker’s baritone Bond villain Hugo Drax wanting to use a pheromone in a plant to wipe out the population of Earth so he can replace it with his Aryanesque super people. The plot device here isn’t a 1:1, it’s actually the inverse in purpose to a genocidal plant. There’s also this movie’s villain’s secret lair: a floating fortress hidden in the air which is shaped surprisingly close to Drax’s space station in Moonraker.

The film ends with a death defying descent in the air which involves a fight over parachutes much like the incredible cold open for Moonraker where James Bond is thrown off an airplane and wrestles both the evil pilot and iconic henchmen Jaws for a means of landing safely. Speaking of Jaws, the main henchmen of Black Widow may or may not have something of a redemption arc in store like Richard Kiel’s Jaws.

There is a surprising amount of respect for one of the more love it or hate it entries in 007’s career. That I happen to love Moonraker goes a long way in making me also like Black Widow more as a film as well. The film is still a victim of something Kevin Feige, director Cate Shortland or Scarlett Johannsen couldn’t have prepared for nor helped: being delayed a full year longer than anticipated. All thanks to a virus that is still around and can still mess your life up or end it if you aren’t vaccinated.

Due to the arrivals of Disneyplus shows like WandaVision, Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki, audiences are getting a feel for what to expect and what may become the driving force of the saga that follows Thanos and the Infinity Stones. Rampant speculation, often to absurd lengths in regards to Marvel’s very own devil Mephisto, is in vogue.

Despite it being for the most part not the intention of Black Widow to give you more of a view into the “big picture” of what is coming next, save obviously, for one emotional and alarming post credits scene, audiences are conditioned to want that and some have said that can come at the detriment of enjoying what is there in the present. Perhaps the relatively muted audience reception to Black Widow is a consequence of that. Few if anyone is saying Natasha’s one and only solo movie is bad, but it doesn’t give them enough of that itch for what comes next.

It’s an interquel set inbetween the events of Captain America Civil War and Avengers Infinity War. One last major film set before Thanos’ snap and Bruce Banner’s snap back changed everything. I imagine it can be jarring for some of the viewership to be thrust back to before Thano’s big moment on stage or its aftermath, especially with those three aforementioned Disneyplus shows in mind.

Of course, Marvel were transparent in their intentions of what Black Widow as a movie was supposed to be: giving Scarlett Johannsen something that fellow Avengers Downey Jr, Evans, Hemsworth, and sort of-not really Ruffalo had received: their character’s own movie. The only other remaining OG Avenger, Renner’s Hawkeye, will have to make do with a Disneyplus series. Thankfully for him, it is shaping up to be a consequential series at least, if this film’s final moments are any indication.

If you view Black Widow as what it is trying to be rather than what you were conditioned to want it to be, it’s another solid mid-tier effort that is trying to fill in some gaps in the MCU’s history that aren’t exactly needed but feel welcome all the same. Almost all of these regard Natasha Romanoff and her dark past, naturally.

Black Widow does a successful job of finally giving us more insight into who Natasha is as a person psychologically and what made her into a remarkable assassin/international woman of mystery. It somewhat subtly implies that she might actually be superhuman. Natasha survives some injuries and falls that would at the least incapacitate her, as well as her wayward sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). But not unlike Cap’s super soldier serum, which is given a Russian brand with David Harbour’s gloriously hammy Red Guardian, the Black Widows as a program were given something a little extra beyond “psychological conditioning”.

There’s a certain moment in the first Avengers movie where in the final battle in New York, Natasha manages to grab on to a speeding Chitauri vessel in midflight without it breaking her arms and sending her plummeting to her death. Finally, 9 years after that contrivance of a moment, it seems it really wasn’t so contrived. So yeah, Clint Barton/Hawkeye might’ve been the only “normal” Avenger after all. Of course, his upcoming show might also reveal he has some “skills” that aren’t solely the result of training.

What Black Widow accomplishes best in this respect is making all the moments we’ve spent with Natasha have a new context which can make returning to those moments more enriching. This would be especially notable with her story arc in Infinity War and Endgame. Her somewhat controversial or disliked heroic sacrifice in the latter movie will now feel quite different after watching her solo outing. Whether or not it is wholly better now is for enquiring minds greater than mine.

This could’ve been a combination of fatigue on my part and the lack of A/C in the theater, but Black Widow’s pacing felt somehow both fine and sluggish at the same time. It’s not a case of predestination getting in the way with regards to Natasha as her spy family consisting of “sister” Yelena, “father” Alexei the Red Guardian and “mother” Melina had their own unknown fates to mine for drama. It was the feeling that while there was no scene too many or one scene too long, it still felt kind of long.

I couldn’t tell you if the feeling was strictly from external factors or if there was something off in the pacing, but as much as it held my attention, Black Widow could feel a little too sluggish for a generally action-heavy spy drama. It’s anything but a deal-breaker of course, but it’s safe to say the next time I peruse this film, it will be on Disneyplus and possibly not all at once.

While Black Widow manages to do well enough in regards to its own set of characters and their complicated The Americans-like narrative, I have been growing weary of some of the tenets of a Marvel action sequence even if the execution isn’t really all that bad. It could be that some of the technical aspects are starting to tire me. Namely, I am growing tired of how MCU films and to be honest much modern blockbuster films seem to have a lack of desire to push for actually good CGI.

While waiting for the film to start through the long litany of ads, one of them was Dwayne Johnson’s Jungle Cruise, which is based off the ride from Disney’s Adventureland( if it worked for Pirates of the Caribbean that one and a half times, then why not?). While I find Johnson’s brand of acting ever charming with its self assured bravado with a lack of irony, the film he is part of is chock full of utterly unconvincing CGI, which much like a theme park ride, just not the one this film is based on, feels like it’s trying to be a ride full of thrills meant to pop out at you, while still feeling very hollow.

For all the crap that is packed on screen, The upcoming Jungle Cruise movie feels both expensive and cheap simultaneously and it is not helped that the set up and execution of what Johnson and Emily Blunt’s wild adventure will be seems even empty and bereft of any apparent cleverness or wit.

Black Widow by comparison is much, much more grounded in reality of course. Plenty of moments, action or otherwise are filmed on something that was real. After all, a notable motorcycle turned car chase through the streets and alleys of Budapest was indeed filmed in Budapest or in other urban locations that can replicate the look of Hungary’s capitol. The compelling and lore expanding story at the heart of it all also does much to forgive when certain moments feel a little more fake than they should.

Of course, some CGI shots, especially involving crashing and flipping vehicles did stand out for their obvious lack of actually being what they are supposed to be. After awhile, it starts to wear on me that I’m seeing a level of quality lesser from a company like Marvel/Disney, which is flooded with money nowadays. I get it, the MCU is producing multiple films a year now, having gone from 1 to 2 a year to three now four. There’s also the resources being partitioned to the Disneyplus series, which have production values that are for the most part commendably higher than most.

There are obviously effect shots regarding sequences that are either far too risky to do for real or too outlandish/ impossible to recreate in real life. The best computer effect shot regards an impressive avalanche as Natasha and Yelena try to extract Alexei from a Siberian prison. The avalanche is brilliantly shot and framed, though the surrounding CG regarding collapsing buildings and the helicopter Natasha and Yelena are flying looks less impressive.

Then there’s the flying villain’s lair where when nothing is happening looks quite incredible in detail. Then, when shit inevitably goes down in a fiery finale meant to reflect the fates of most bond villain lairs, you can find minor forgiveness that the sometime unconvincing CG is representing something that as of yet can’t be reproduced from reality.

This is a minor problem that builds as more and more MCU material comes out but it’s a problem that I don’t know if there is any solution for or if it’s even one with long term consequences. It could have been my mindset at the time or maybe it’s me looking to seem more even-handed so as not to feel as if I give this property too much of a pass over long term loyalty. I was rather critical and even disappointed with WandaVision, almost entirely for its final hours than the overall product mind you and I’m also more open to hearing good faith critique of Falcon and Winter Soldier than I was originally. I’m waiting nervously to see if Loki will end on a more solid note than its two predecessors.

Black Widow, for what it’s worth ends on a note that feels like thorough wrap up for an era over material you might’ve been curious about but weren’t chomping at the bit to have resolution over. Barring the post-credits scene that gives you that teasing for the future you are Pavlovian trained for, it ends on a note both tying up Natasha’s own internal story while clearing up a path leading in to her part to play in Infinity War.

I appreciated it and will as mentioned earlier now have a new lens to observe many past moments in the MCU from now on. It might seem backwards for the first phase 4 feature film of the MCU to be an experience looking back rather than forward but if you felt that Natasha’s last moments and tribute in Avengers Endgame was too slight, well maybe this is the film for you.

It was enough for me. And hey, we only have three more movies and three more shows including Loki to enlighten us further on what comes next to tie it all together. Again.

Animated Heads will roll: a double feature review of Invincible Season One and Castlevania Season Four (Spoilers of some kind)

Invincible' Season 2 Release Date, Plot Spoilers, Cast News, More
Image from Men’sHealth Two expressions one may have from watching Invincible.

In the span of two months, two animated shows based on pre-existing properties that are known for their considerable violence premiere their debut and final seasons respectively.

One is the darling of Robert Kirkman, the man who gave us The Walking Dead. The other is the fourth, final season of what is arguably the best adaptation of any kind for a video game series. Both involve strained relationships between sons and their terrifyingly powerful fathers. One is upfront about that dad being bad news, the other informs the audience near the start and everyone else catches up to one hell of an ugly truth.

Both are great examples of a growing trend in Western Animation: violent content. Sure, there have been plenty of adult cartoon shows that have played with violent imagery for decades for the purposes of black humor like South Park, Family Guy, Rick and Morty and arguably The Simpsons.

Invincible and Castlevania are not satirical comedies rather straight faced depictions of their genres, one for superheroes and the other a fantasy-action-horror-adventure with surprisingly potent social commentary.

Castlevania is drawn in the manner of an anime, despite being developed in America. It’s fitting considering the game series’ origin in Japan and that many of the original designs for characters like Dracula and his son Alucard are based off an anime design. On the matter of Eastern Animation, especially in Japan, it has been acceptable and profitable to boot to have adult subject matter longer there than it has over here.

While adult animation for the West was coming to attention in the 1970s, largely thanks to the efforts of one Ralph Bakshi( Fritz the Cat), it didn’t quite have the same mainstream recognition that quickly came to become a norm in anime by the 1980s. Having an American equivalent to Anime powerhouses like Grave of the Fireflies, Akira and Fist of the North Star was all but unthinkable.

Even now, when it comes to adult Animated movies, traditional or CG, there are only exceptions that often lampoon the overly family friendly market of the cartoon film industry like Sausage Party and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. For whatever reason, adult cartoons on the small screen has gained traction and Invincible and Castlevania are somewhat unique in telling an R-rated but not overly comedic story.

Invincible Season One

The first thing that caught my attention was how remarkable the voice acting was to how I had imagined it in my head when I first started reading the comic back in 2012.

With the small exception of Walton Goggin’s’ take on Cecil Steadman, the shadowy yet amiable deep state agent for superheroes in America, every last vocal performance had remarkable fidelity to my subjective interpretation of how these characters sounded in the graphic novel. True, I wasn’t necessarilly envisioning J.K. Simmons as Nolan Grayson/ Omni-Man, the father of Invincible but man if it doesn’t now feel like he was only ever the voice for the character.

Steven Yuen, who played everyone’s favorite ill-fated Korean American, Glenn, on TWD is now the voice of Mark Grayson, the once and future Invincible. While the Grayson family was originally a Caucasian family, it is now multi-ethnic with Nolan/Omni-man being a Caucasian-looking alien( like Clark Kent) and the mother and son being Asian-American, presumably Korean like the voices that portray them.

Other ethnic changes, supposedly to make the cast more diverse than before, include changing Amber, Mark’s high school girlfriend from a white blonde to an African-American. Rex Splode, one of the most dickass teen superheroes you can imagine also goes from being white to some unspecified brown.

The change in race is nothing really major as the characters are still faithful to their comic depiction, though it’s a matter of debate whether Amber is more or less of a bad girlfriend to Mark here than she was then. Only those that are really caught up on race for whatever reason( a lot of it I imagine for unsavory reasons) should really be bothered here.

Invincible is hardly the first superhero story on or off the comic page to deal with a coming of age, learning to grow into an adult story. Superman, the Teen Titans and especially Spider-Man are all known for this. The key difference with Invincible in how Mark Grayson is distinguished from those examples is that extra weight is placed on the consequence of superpowers existing, showcased in a way that is mostly impossible for something below an R rating. That isn’t the only distinction, but much more on that later.

What the powers in this superhero universe can do, especially in relation to super strength is terrifying, both when an accident and on purpose. When Mark, the son of the world’s most beloved hero Omni-Man finally grows into his powers in his teenage years, it’s not instant or easy mastery. Learning to fly can be dangerous, more so for everyone in the vicinity than Mark himself. Knowing when and how to use his super-strength can be a delicate matter.

Even when dealing with heroes young and old who have a good understanding of their powers or trained ability, emphasis is always placed on the deadly seriousness of collateral damage and what one simple mistake can cause. While civilians getting caught in the crossfire is always acknowledged on some level in superhero media, Invincible through it’s mature content rating shows you often what those powers can do to folks whose bodies can’t take the punishment.

It can be messy and grim viewing and I wouldn’t put it past some daring to call it exploitative, but Invincible always has a purpose to its violence. Even with the context in mind, it won’t restrain most from a healthy amount of screaming “Holy Shit!”, and is maybe most disturbing when Invincible and fellow superheroes feel the hurt themselves. The fifth episode’s comical title of “That actually hurt” undersells one horrifying as hell encounter that Mark and co. go through. I won’t lie, I felt a little queasy in that one brutal fight.

Though I normally have a strong stomach for such stuff( I’ve seen both seasons of the Boys with little difficulty), that this was a fight that I remember going much less gruesomely in the comics or with seemingly much smaller stakes made the onscreen depiction all the more unsettling for being an apparent change in the story.

I was told there would be some narrative changes from the comic and that is somewhat true based on my comic recollection. It feels more compressed though hardly choked in its narrative. Some moments happen much earlier or later than expected. The moment that made me realize Invincible was not going to be your normal superhero comic, that moment happens in the very first episode. A moment which occurs several issues in the comic surprised me by it’s early inclusion.

Much like how much of the suspense of Amazon Prime’s The Boys comes from what the anti-Superman Homelander might do next, the dread in Invincible relates to both what Omni-man will do following that moment and how will he do it, not to mention the moment that Mark discovers who his father really is. Seeing as how Omni Man revealed his true, bloody colors to comics readers back in 2003 and how people have made memes about his true villainous nature following his TV debut, I feel safe mentioning this “spoiler” of a plot detail. As if the header image wasn’t some tip off for you already.

Invincible does a remarkable job in both versions of being a genuine superhero story with optimistic messages and ideals that also gives off a sense of fun and discovery while still being a dark deconstruction of older superhero stories. Unlike the critical and pessimistic examination of superhero identity and ethics in Moore’s Watchmen, Kirkman goes more for a “what if” scenario that comes around to still pondering much of the same questions Peter Parker and Clark Kent tell themselves.

That “what if” is as such: What if Superman was raised on Earth by his father Jor-el and what if his dad and the Kryptonians were f***ing evil as hell? While Kryptonians are as strong as you and me on a planet with a red sun and only become godlike in power when not near a red sun, Omni-man’s Viltrumites have no such weakness. Hell, they may have no weaknesses at all.

When a race of sentient beings have terrible, world-ruining power, is it any surprise they would develop a sense of exceptionalism and become a galaxy conquering empire? If a Superman was to arrive on Earth without that nurtured humility that living in Kansas apparently brings, what would happen? Mark and the rest of humanity will find out and they will need a lot of therapy thereafter.

Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s polarizing 2013 take on the Superman mythos was given particular criticism for its final battle between Supes and Zod making it look less like a one on one duel and more like Godzilla had a really bad day and took it out on Metropolis.

Despite being perhaps the most archetypal superhero ever created, it didn’t feel right that not once did Superman consider taking this unavoidable fight with Zod to a place that could avoid innocent deaths. Dragonball makes a point to have Goku and his super-powered friends fight in unpopulated arenas. Even the villains are oddly ok with this. Here’s a visual example for you.

Dragon Ball Z - Goku VS Vegeta -Kamehameha vs Galick Gun - Video Dailymotion
Image from Dailymotion See, that’s not so hard ain’t it Zack?

When Mark learns who his father actually is in the penultimate episode, it starts off in an empty field somewhere in the great plains. In order to teach him an important lesson about being a real Viltrumite, Omni-man forces Mark to populated places and to show how strong he and his kind are and how absolutely weak we are by comparison.

The people getting stuck inbetween Mark and Omni-man isn’t a case of lack of foresight or care like in Snyder’s case, it is the intentionally unsubtle point. But, **** me, what a point it still is. Invincible here also relates to a near universal anxiety we have when it comes to reconciling who we are or who we think we are compared to who our parents are or what we think or want them to be.

Luke Skywalker learning the identity of his father was and remains shocking not just because his father is still alive, that Obi-wan apparently lied to him or even that his father is the second most evil person in the galaxy. It’s also because it makes Luke himself wonder how good he himself actually is if Darth Vader is who he is a descendent of.

When it comes to Mark and his father, it’s not just a new fear of what his Viltrumite nature is, it’s wondering how earnest the good fatherly nurturing was as well. How well are his own moral convictions coming from a guy that can and will deftly pop a guy’s head with a single hand with no moral conflict? The age old question of whether we are our parents is more distressing when your pa can single-handedly destroy the world.

Mark isn’t alone and much like how The Walking Dead was characterized by a strong body of characters that certainly changed hands often due to it being a zombie apocalypse story, Invincible does well in having major characters that are given great attention other than him. Eve, who takes on the guise of Atom Eve as a super heroine, is in the comics Mark’s main love interest and eventual wife.

It’s pretty obvious then and it’s obvious now that Mark and Eve rather than Mark and Amber are meant to be the power couple of the series. It’s not a problem even if predictable due to how well Mark and Eve hit it off well before any of them had a romantic connection. Yuen’s Mark and Gillian Jacobs’ Eve interact so well that they would still work as friends or comrades in arms. For all I know, Invincible might throw a curve-ball and not have them get together. Unlikely, but at least when it comes to adapting something I know well from the graphic novel, it’s coming together smoothly thus far.

It has become more important overtime when it comes to writing relationships to give the love interest, male or female, something important to do or have motivation aside from being the love interest. While Eve is not yet with Mark, It is good they are giving time to her already so you know there is more to her than just someone dear for Invincible to worry about.

If there was any group of characters in Invincible that I liked and am glad are being given great attention other than Mark, it would be Robot and Monster Girl. No subplot in Invincible that doesn’t directly relate to Mark felt as consequential, thought provoking or moving as theirs. Again, I have not finished Invincible’s comic run so maybe Kirkman doesn’t stick the landing in some aspects.

Robot is the seemingly synthetic leader of the Teen Team, a superhero group that Mark declines the offer to join up with in spite of Atom Eve being in it. Robot and Eve are accompanied by Rex Splode: the dickass character I mentioned earlier and DupliKate: who can make many copies of herself like the X-Men’s Multiple Man.

Following the tragedy regarding Omni Man and that moment at the start of the show, the Guardians of the Globe need new members. As in, the entire roster has to be replaced. Robot and the Teen Team all volunteer for tryouts and all succeed in joining. Other successful tryouts for the new Guardians include Monster Girl. What makes her stand out is that she transforms into a muscular orc-like being, imagine a Uruk-Hai as the Hulk. However, when she’s in her “normal” form, she appears as a 12 year old girl.

In truth, she is around my age of 27 years and due to receiving a witch’s curse that gave her that “Monster” power, she starts to age backwards like Benjamin Button. She will eventually “die” from this reverse age process, unless something saves her from that fate. Robot, being of a very scientific mind, takes an interest in her case among other not so subtle implications. Saying anything else would be too much. Just giving away Omni Man’s real nature is big enough as it is.

Invincible, for what it’s worth, and it is worth quite a lot from where I’m standing, is a fantastic introduction or re-introduction to Kirkman’s less gloomy yet no less visceral comic work. Half the time I wonder which is better. You are much less likely to feel depressed like with Walking Dead though both in comic and cartoon form, it is no less stress inducing.

If any third party superhero story deserved a chance to strike it big in the saturated genre, I’m glad Mark and his friends and enemies have now.

Castlevania: Season 4( and a review of the whole series)

The Second Season For 'Castlevania' On Netflix Is Genuinely Fantastic
Image by Forbes (Here they come to stake the day. Sorry.)

Castlevania for the laymen and women is a Japanese series of action-adventure games which almost always involve going through Gothic European environments and whipping, stabbing and slicing the ever loving shit of monsters big and small, often ending in a battle with the big vamp himself, Dracula.

It is renowned for its difficult challenge, rocking soundtracks and being emblematic of a then running trend in game design that was often a result of hardware limitation in the 80s/early 90s: 2D side scrolling. Once the series attempted a 3D environment during the Nintendo 64 era, it didn’t work. At all. It looked ugly, it played poorly even for the standards of its time and it was just not as fun as its predecessors of two prior generations. Based on what I’ve heard, seeing as how I have not played any of the games, the classic entries to check out are the 1986 original, Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse and the SNES’ Super Castlevania 4.

At the same time as the two ill-conceived N64 entries, the PlayStation had the 2D side scroller Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, widely regarded as not only one of the PlayStation’s best games, one of the best games in the series, but even one of the best games ever made. The guy in the middle of the header image for this segment is Alucard, Dracula’s heroically wayward son. Symphony of the Night is responsible for both Alucard and his Daddy’s look in the Netflix show, just to let you know how highly regarded that PS1 title remains.

I could delve ever deeper into the game series, but the great thing about Castlevania’s four seasons is that you don’t really have to to get it. To be sure, there are callbacks or references to the games. The story of the first two seasons, that of a vengeful Dracula wanting to punish all humanity for an anything but petty slight is based off of Castlevania 3. The three leads of the Netflix series: Trevor Belmont, Sypha the mage and the aforementioned Alucard all originated from that game, each as playable heroes.

There is of course, fighting through a host of terrifying monsters to defeat Dracula, a Belmont and his trademark whip weapon, some other weapons that I’m fairly certain are of the games like a big mcguffiny one in the fourth and even an awesome rendition of the franchise’s most beloved songs: Bloody Tears.

Ironically, that song originated in one of the more polarizing entries, that being the second overall game, Simon’s Quest, notorious for it’s puzzles so difficult that only sheer accidental luck or buying a copy of Nintendo Power magazine could allow you to figure them out. I will link the original 8 bit theme and then the rendition from the second season of the show. Enjoy.

Spirit of 1987/88

Spirit of 2018

This adaptation of Castlevania was spear-headed by Warren Ellis, who you should probably know from his graphic novel work for Marvel and stand alone series like Transmetropolitan and Red. I’ve not read much of his work so I couldn’t tell you high or low Castlevania ranks in his works.

Castlevania’s fourth and final season follows the third in having Trevor Belmont, Sypha and Alucard deal with the ramifications of a post-Dracula world following his demise in the second. Trevor and Sypha more or less become a couple traveling throughout what is modern day Romania hunting anything remotely monstrous and demonic all the while hoping their efforts make Dracula’s return less likely.

The lord of darkness’ son Alucard watches over the castle so no one can abuse the supernatural and scientific wonders within. An encounter with two guests from the Far East last season turned really ugly and he has become more isolated and reserved than ever, in the process risking becoming like his tormented misanthrope father. Ironically, answering a cry for help from a nearby town provides him a chance to open up in ways that adventuring with Trevor and Sypha couldn’t.

Trevor and Sypha are the “Are they, aren’t they” couple of the series, one being the last of a monster hunting family of former prestige and the other being part of a magical warrior monk group known as the Speakers who when not fighting monsters try their best at being their era’s Red Cross.

The duo’s journey takes them back to Targoviste( a real Romanian city to this day), the beginning of Dracula’s rampage following the Church burning his mortal wife at the stake. A conspiracy involving vampires, many that were once part of Dracula’s war council, soon threatens to bring Dracula back to life for real this time following the failed attempt last season and it is interesting how the two unrelated story paths between Trevor/Sypha and Alucard come together at the end, all culminating in an iconic enemy of the games taking surprising center stage.

Some of Dracula’s former lieutenants are unaware of their part in this conspiracy and are attempting their own designs, both for better and poorer. Carmilla has the relatively banal desire to succeed where other male vampire lords failed in conquering the known world while Isaac, whose job it was to forge demons for Dracula’s armies, seeks to improve the world rather than conquer it with his own demon horde.

Stuck in the middle between Carmilla and Isaac is Hector, another demon forgemaster once under Dracula, now imprisoned in Carmilla’s fortress and ever observed by one of her vampire lieutenants, Lenore. Hector and Lenore relationship is quite complicated and while Hector is bitter at her treachery in keeping him truly enslaved, Lenore views him back with the mindset of a pet owner and yet also one who has genuine romantic feelings.

There is also Saint Germain, a traveling professor who goes from being a lovable scoundrel with uncertain veracity to his background and ethics to being a man driven to save the one person who ever took him seriously in a world that saw him very unserious to say the least. That drive makes him a much darker figure than before, though with that same tinge of pitiable sadness.

The assembling and placing of characters can remind one of Game of Thrones with various subplots intermingling with the main one, mostly culminating in something focused and satisfying. To be blunt, some of the character arcs don’t quite feel finished or better yet, felt finished in the background more than the forefront.

I can say that the resolution of Castlevania as a whole is quite good, even great in some parts. When it come to the resolution of the three leads as well as a really surprising reveal in the epilogue, it feels that Castlevania saw to its end well. Yet, some story arcs mostly revolving Hector and Isaac feel more rushed or left with little concrete conclusion.

What is most interesting about Netflix’s Castlevania being an unlikely success story is that it’s trying to capture more than the heart pounding supernatural action that could only be inferred from the original games. It’s also a surprisingly sound set of critiques of Human society from around 600 years ago.

It’s a fantastical prelude to the Renaissance period, due to its setting in the 1470s. Europe is about to exit the medieval age and enter a time that would come to define or at least create the groundwork for the modern world. Dracula, in spite of being the vampire to end all vampires, is a man of science first. It takes an inquisitive young woman to brave coming to his doorstep and tell him that for all the evil that he might or might not embody, his work could benefit all the world.

The events of Castlevania, from Trevor and co. defeating Dracula to the trials and tribulations that follow act as a fictional fantasy counterpart to the evolution the world was itself going through. An old world of superstition and brittle traditions giving way to something new yet colored still by that old world.

Castlevania, seeing as how it was showrun by an out and out humanist in Warren Ellis is critical not just of the Catholic Church and how it held back human progress but in the idea we are tied to our supposedly essential identities. Can Dracula be more than an apex boogeyman? Can his son, who is both vampire and human, chart a course in life that is unique from his heritage?

The most explicit example of this questioning of one’s nature is with Isaac the Forgemaster. He goes from wanting to avenge Dracula’s defeat to realizing how little that would accomplish. Rather than have everyone experience the pain he has suffered (echoing his deceased master), why not use his seemingly evil abilities to do good? He can raise up demons and make them his servants but should they be used for terrorizing the innocent? Can’t they do better, be better than their purposes or can they at least put their vicious talents towards taking down other monsters like Carmilla?

I wasn’t expecting this much philosophical insight that connected from a game that in its early years really only could be as simple as “Dracula bad. Go kill him.” But here we are.

Perhaps Ellis accepted the job of making a Castlevania show not just because he might be a fan of the games but that there was something in the series’ DNA that could be extrapolated into a beast more complex and nuanced than the sum of its parts.

If the politics, historical references and ideology exploration doesn’t seem like a fit for you alone, the show never fails to make its fights and battles as viscerally cool as possible. Just the motion of those fighting, like with Trevor’s effortless utilization of his whip to Sypha’s finger based spells to Alucard motioning his levitating sword and shield out and about, Castlevania is just enticing to look at when the time comes to whip it good.

The monster designs rarely fail to inspire terror, even if you know they are due to be dispatched with awesome ferocity. At times, I wondered if Ellis was not secretly making his own American version of the late Kentaro Miura’s Berserk. More so than possibly even Invincible, in Castlevania the blood will flow.

It is an intoxicating mixture of anime-inspired action, philosophical dialogue anchored by it varied cast of characters and exploring subject matter that you wouldn’t expect from something titled Castlevania. If anything, a lack of reliance in focusing strictly on the game series’ tenets might have saved it from the fate of too many game adaptations. Adaptations that either fail to recognize the series’ identity or strive for it too messily and narrowly. Castlevania is a faithful to its source material while being identifiable as something separate and different enough still to attract those not in the know.

It’s not unlike the man of two worlds Alucard himself. Neither just his mother nor his father but something else.