Shazam!

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Writer: Henry Gayden


With the global phenomenon that superheroes have become and the weightiness and maturity that many fans have come to associate with the genre, whether it be the disturbed philosophy of The Dark Knight, the reflective politics of Black Panther, or even the obscenely adult humour of Deadpool, a lot of people forget that most of the superheroes we love originate from comic books and Saturday morning cartoons aimed at children. The early DCEU films in particular tried so hard to adapt these stories into an esteemed, multifaceted saga with the kind of dark, gritty tone, densely complicated narrative and bleak (some might even say nihilistic) morality that they hoped would establish them as Marvel’s mature older brother, that I couldn’t help but feel that DC found their universe’s childish origins to be downright embarrassing. When The LEGO Batman Movie came out, a film that unashamedly aimed itself towards children and eagerly celebrated its hero’s colourful, campy history, I was as dumbstruck as I was impressed. This was a movie that wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to treat the mythology of the Caped Crusader as ‘kid’s stuff’, practically a blasphemous statement to make in this day and age. Shazam! follows in this tradition as a superhero movie that was gleefully made for kids and has absolutely no problem leaning on the inherent silliness and childishness of superhero movies.

Based on a 1940s comic book series about a superhero called Captain Marvel (a name that unsurprisingly never gets uttered once in this film), Shazam! is the story of the un-titular hero’s alter-ego Billy Baston (Asher Angel). Billy is a 14-year-old boy who has been living in foster care since he was little but has never stayed in any single place for long due to being a difficult and rebellious brat. He gets into trouble with the police thanks to a stunt he pulls in an attempt to track down his birth mother, leading him to be relocated to yet another foster home run by the welcoming and loving Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans). Their home is a large and diverse one that houses the paraplegic wisecracker Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), college hopeful Mary (Grace Fulton), tech genius Eugene (Ian Chen), uncommunicative loner Pedro (Jovan Armand), and bubbly sweetheart Darla (Faithe Herman). Billy however has no desire to become a part of their family and resolves to run away as soon as possible. He does however demonstrate a capacity for nobility and kindness when he defends Freddy from a pack of school bullies, a deed that catches the attention of a force far beyond his comprehension. Billy is thus transported to a mystical lair where he meets the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows his magical powers onto the young boy so that he might defeat the great evil that is to come.

What follows is essentially Big if it were also a superhero film. Billy discovers that by saying the word “Shazam!” he can transform himself into an impressively buff, superpowered adult man in a red spandex suit (played by Zachary Levi). Whether the spandex suit is actually a part of his physical body or if it’s simply an impractical outfit that offers no apparent means of relief when nature calls, Billy never figures out. Confused and beside himself, he brings Freddy in on the secret and together they set out to discover just what exactly Billy’s new body can do. Through a series of tests they learn that Billy’s powers include super strength and speed, invulnerability, and lightning magic. Their initial response however isn’t exactly that with great power comes great responsibility. Instead the adolescent boys take advantage of Billy’s abilities by buying beer under his adult guise, using his lightning powers to charge their phones, and uploading his stunts onto YouTube. Levi proves himself to be an ideal casting choice, looking imposing enough that anyone would be awed by his presence but also making use of his comedic talents to show that there is a young kid in there who cannot believe that he is inhabiting this kind of body. Even if his brash and awkward portrayal of the character isn’t exactly consistent with Angel’s performance as the rather quiet and level headed Billy, it still works.

Soon enough the big bad comes along in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), the unfortunate child of a rotten family who was summoned by Shazam as a young boy but was rejected from the call for power and greatness when his heart proved impure. Having dedicated his whole life to returning to that magical realm and claiming what he believes to be his destiny, Sivana has struck a deal with the devil (or, rather, seven demonic entities personifying the deadly sins) in order to realise his goal. Strong is such an intimidating figure throughout that his mere presence is enough to make you forget that Shazam! is a kid’s film. One scene where Sivana marches straight into a board meeting and casually tosses a character out of a skyscraper window mid-sentence caught me completely off guard. What makes him a great foil to Levi in this kind of movie is that Sivana has absolutely no idea he is the villain in a children’s comedy, making his puzzlement at the adult Billy’s amusing antics and juvenile humour all the funnier. The best example of this comes in their climatic showdown where Sivana’s obligatory bad guy speech about how much more powerful he is than the hero and how futile his efforts are doesn’t quite land with the effect he intended.

Shazam! isn’t just a kid’s adventure with some silly gags and action scenes. Billy’s main concern before acquiring his powers is searching for his long-lost mother, a pursuit that eventually leads him to some tough truths and complicated feelings. What Billy wants more than anything is to have a family that loves and accepts him and he gets so consumed both by his fruitless search and the preoccupation of being a superhuman with god-like powers that he doesn’t even notice how close he is to seeing his dream come true. The Vasquez family have invited him into their lives and are only too willing to offer the belonging and affection he has always desired, but Billy is so blind to the chance that it isn’t until an external threat appears and threatens to take them all away that he even realises what he actually had. It’s a strong lesson with such a satisfying payoff that the movie doesn’t care if it comes across as a bit schmaltzy. Such sweetness and sincerity is almost unheard of in a modern-day superhero blockbuster and the movie wears its own hokiness like a badge of honour. This is a movie that was made with the whole family in mind and it wants viewers to walk away feeling not only thrilled and amused but also moved.

Shazam! feels like a movie that was made in the Spielbergian spirit of the 1980s, an era where PG actually meant something. It’s a kid’s adventure through and through, but with enough of a personality and an edge to make it feel like there is something grown-up happening amidst all the adolescent jokes and cartoonish action. Unlike the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things though, it doesn’t rely on direct references and callbacks in order for the connection to be made; it’s all there in the style and tone. The movie is goofy, but it’s also action-packed. It’s a movie that’s capable of being silly and light-hearted in one moment soberly dark the next without it feeling like a dissonant clash in tones. It’s a movie where not all of the digital effects look top notch, but that’s sort of part of its child-like charm. It is also, much in the spirit of such 80s classics as E.T. and The Goonies, a movie that lends much weight to childish personalities and experiences. Freddy in particular, a kid whose disability has rendered him to as much of an outcast as Billy, is a character whose voice counts for a lot as he assumes the role of both friend and (seriously unqualified) mentor. The rapport they share is one of the many pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable movie.

★★★★

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Aquaman

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman

Director: James Wan

Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall


Aquaman, the latest instalment in the DC canon, is this preposterous miracle of a movie that manages to be fantastically, stupidly ridiculous without ever seeming to laugh at itself the way so many of us used to laugh at the fish-talking hero. That’s not an easy effect to pull off and it takes more than creativity, talent and a blockbuster budget to sustain. You need an unreserved sense of sincerity and a total, wholehearted, unironic love of the material in all its campiness, weirdness and silliness. That is part of the reason why Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed where Wonder Woman and Aquaman succeeded; they were produced by a studio that was embarrassed to be making comic book superhero movies. This doesn’t mean that superhero movies can’t be serious and adult, Christopher Nolan proved that they can, but too many filmmakers (Zack Snyder in particular) mistake that gloominess and grittiness for maturity. Aquaman is a mythological opera, a Shakespearian family drama and an Arthurian fable with themes of love, duty and diplomacy and an environmental message. It also happens to have a nation of crab people, a 1,000-foot leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews, and an octopus playing the drums.

Despite having already appeared in two previous films, Aquaman is very much an origin story for Jason Momoa’s scruffy, roguish swashbuckler. We learn about the circumstances of his birth, which was brought about by a forbidden romance between stranded Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and her rescuer, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). Their union and the life of their son however are both threatened by the Atlantean forces sent out to bring their absconding queen to justice and so Atlanna is left with no choice but to return home where she is sentenced to death for the crime of birthing a half-breed son. Since then Arthur (Momoa) has had to grapple with being the outcast of two separate worlds. He grows up to become the long haired, impossibly buff, ornately tattooed aquatic superman we know from Justice League; a guy who just wants to be left on his own to drink, brood and protect endangered ships and submarines from the perils of the ocean. In his first solo movie Arthur emerges as a reluctant hero who, at the behest of the fiery-haired Atlantean idealist Mera (Amber Heard), embraces his destiny to save the nation that rejected him and killed his mother from the tyranny of his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who plans to launch an attack against the land dwellers in retaliation for all of their polluting of the sea.

Aquaman adds a bit of an Indiana Jones tweak to the traditional superhero origin formula by sending Arthur and Mera on a quest in search of the legendary lost trident of Atlan, which according to the Atlantean councillor and Arthur’s mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), will give he who wields it the authority to rule the seven seas as Ocean Master. Thus we’re treated to an adventure story that spans the globe, bringing us to the Sahara and Siciliy, with occasional interruptions, usually by the pirate mercenary David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), so that a fight scene can happen. Personally I could have used a little more of the riddle and puzzle- solving expedition because the movie can get a little tiresome and repetitive as it gets bogged down in the underwater political conflict between the armoured shark-riding and the armoured sea horse-riding (because it’s that kind of movie) tribes. When the action starts, it is awesome and silly in equal measure. There’s a delightfully childish charm to the way Wan is so ready and willing to embrace the absurdity of scuba suited Atlantean troops and their balloon-headed leader emerging on land in broad daylight to engage in some rooftop, hand-to-hand combat. Rather than shrouding them in darkness or using choppy editing to hide the kitschier elements, Wan presents the fight and chase sequence with all the barefaced glee of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers kung-fu showdown. The camera view is far-reaching and the movement free-flowing, ensuring that not a single goofy detail gets missed.

It’s interesting to consider how far superhero movies have come since the days of the first X-Men movie where they decided to adorn their characters with plain black leather rather than yellow spandex for fear that they might look too silly. This is something that the earlier DC Extended Universe movies struggled with as well when they opted for a grim, murky colour palette, presumably because they felt it would help sell the audience on a superhero cinematic universe that was altogether grittier, darker and more serious than Marvel’s. Aquaman himself was assigned a steely costume dominated by black and grey. Now he’s in a movie that adorns him with the radiantly orange and green armour he wears in the comic books, where the heroine’s hair shines in lava-red splendour and where the ocean is brought to dazzling life through sparkling shades of pale blue and aqua green and every colour in between. This movie adopts such saturated hues that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you missed a deleted scene where Arthur stumbled his way into the Technicolour world of Oz. By giving the film such a rich and diverse colour scheme, Wan makes it all the easier to appreciate the wealth of detail contained within each frame from the way that Atlantis is so luminously lit by the array of sea creatures that inhabit it to the ostentatiously varied choice of armour that sea-dwellers sport, including those that come with oversized crab and lobster claws.

As outrageous and over the top as Aquaman can get, Jason Momoa grounds it all with the confidence and charm of a star destined to have a lucrative career in the movies. He adopts a persona much like that which Dwayne Johnson has spent the last decade or so perfecting; the tough but loveable doofus who could just as soon join you for a drink and get rip-roaringly plastered as he could beat you into a bloody pulp without breaking a sweat. He can be solemn and thoughtful when he wants to be and he can be badass and funny. Supporting Momoa in his star-making turn is a cast that is devotedly committed to the movie in all of its total campiness. There’s something utterly enjoyable about watching Oscar worthy actors give themselves over to a thoroughly bonkers movie and whether it works (see Alec Guinness in Star Wars) or doesn’t (see Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons) the result is always magical. Dafoe and Kidman are such actors and watching them wield tridents and ride hammerhead sharks with such sincerity and gravitas is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Another is Wilson playing the kind of whiny, diabolical villain you just love to hate, (imagine Commodus from Gladiator and you’re not far off).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about Aquaman is what a surprisingly progressive movie it is. Despite the numerous fight scenes that occur and the thrillingly invigorating ways in which they’re shot, Aquaman proves itself more willing than your average superhero blockbuster to challenge the notion that all conflict can be resolved through violence alone. Even when modern Hollywood movies preach about the value and necessity of peace, co-existence and empathy, too often that idealism gets undermined when the hero ends up having to take up arms to defeat the baddie. This was one of the issues I had with Wonder Woman, a movie whose hero was a paragon of compassion, and Black Panther, a movie of political daring almost unheard of in Hollywood, which both had their heroes win their victories by punching and blasting their foes into submission. In the moments where it matters most, it isn’t strength and might that win the day in Aquaman but de-escalation, diplomacy and forgiveness. It’s not as subversive in its aversion to violence as, say, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it is an outstanding break in the precedent set by the nihilism of the Snyder DC movies and could mark a revolutionary step forward in the evolution of the superhero genre.

★★★★

Justice League

Cast: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon


The DCEU does not have the best track record. Between the four movies that have been released so far they have all suffered from some combination of messy storytelling, overreliance on darkness as a substitute for drama, conflated self-importance, unfocused and clashing tones, lack of humanity, and fundamentally misguided acting choices made by a couple of certain castmembers in villainous roles. Even the inspiring, colourful, focused, refreshingly superb Wonder Woman wasn’t able to avoid all of these trappings as a couple of them seeped their way into the third act. Thus we come to Justice League, the movie it’s all been building up to. It’s been a long and turbulent journey getting here and through all the highs and lows, after all the disorder, disappointment and division, Warner Bros. has beaten the odds and created a superhero team up movie that turned out miraculously okay.

As the world mourns the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) learns that a global threat is imminent and executes his plan to form a team of extraordinary people. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) joins his cause after receiving a warning from her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) about an attack on Themyscria by the ancient villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). While Wayne sets off in search of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), an aquatic being from Atlantis, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a young man with superhuman speed, Diana tracks down Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), whose body is more machine than man. They learn that Steppenwolf is searching for the three Mother Boxes, prehistoric devices of immense energy hidden all over the world. As Batman attempts to bring what will become the Justice League together however, he finds that he isn’t able to inspire them in the way that only Superman could have done and fears that they will not be able to save the world unless he can find a way to unite them.

‘Okay’ is not the word I want to use to describe a Justice League movie but, after the example set by the prior DC movies, I’ll take okay where I can get it. There are issues with the story as there have been with every other instalment (to varying degrees), but there are also two saving graces: the characters and the tone. The film does struggle to find the right balance between focusing on those characters we’ve already met, namely Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman (it’s not a spoiler to say that Superman returns (Henry Cavill’s name is on the poster) it’s only a spoiler to say how and when), and focusing on those we’re meeting for the first time, namely Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. It works though because the characters are all likeable and enjoyable to watch. Affleck continues to shine as a Batman whose cold-heartedness in Batman vs. Superman has been tempered, humbled even, by his awe over Superman’s sacrifice and his guilt for the role he played. Gadot is also once again stellar as Diana as she provides the league with its moral centre and a bit of a motherly presence as the combative and often childish acts of the guys often forces her to be the level-headed one (but thankfully not in a way that does a disservice to the character).

Meanwhile the new guys on the block do their best with what they’re given. The Flash is essentially there to provide comic relief through one-liners, bewildered reactions, and just general eccentricity. It’s hit and miss, but when it hits it really does hit. Aquaman has a couple of cool moments and brings enough appeal and attitude to the role that when he butts heads with Batman it doesn’t feel like conflict for its own sake, it feels authentic. The triumph of Miller and Momoa is making their respective characters interesting and entertaining enough that I actually want to see them carry their own movies. The downside is that Cyborg is mostly sidelined to make room for these characters despite being key to the film’s climax. As for Superman, Cavill is finally allowed to use his charm and charisma to play the Man of Steel the way he was meant to be played. I still think the decision to kill off Superman was a fundamentally stupid one, but Cavill’s performance was so good that I now find myself excited about the character’s future.

With the divisive reception of the previous non-Wonder-Woman DC films, the DCEU has put itself through a lot of self-correcting and, while I can’t say that Justice League was a fantastic movie, it did feel like a definite step in the right direction. A major part of this self-correction has been with the tone and with Justice League, Warner Bros. is ever closer to capturing that tone where it can be serious and funny without coming across as pretentious or childish. There are some scenes that hold real emotional weight, as when Batman shares his private fears and anxieties with Wonder Woman or when Superman is briefly reunited with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Then there are some genuinely funny moments as we witness the banter and conflicts that ensue between this unlikely collection of unlikely characters (Aquaman’s accidental use of the lasso of truth is a highlight). More than that, there were even a couple of moments that I found truly awesome and exciting (my favourite is one that I cannot go into because of spoilers but basically it involves Superman turning his eyes in slow-motion).

Justice League is not the gamechanger that The Avengers was and is by no means a great film. The villain is as bland and forgettable as the MCU’s were at its most unremarkable, the movie relies on clichés and routine dialogue to get things moving, and the third act is about what you would expect. There are also a bunch of big ideas and themes, something that the DCEU has always been much more interested in pursuing than Marvel, that don’t quite get the development they need. The idea of Superman’s death leading the world to a place of despair where the people feel like all hope is lost and where the darker side of humanity is able to roam free without the presence of this benevolent, god-like symbol of truth, liberty and justice to keep it in check is one I would’ve liked to see more of. Still, I’m glad that I saw this film. Even though Wonder Woman is far and away the stronger film, it was so divorced from the other DCEU movies that it could pretty much be regarded as a standalone. This movie had to build something on top of the mess that the other films had left and that, along with a tempestuous production that saw Whedon take over directorial duties when a personal tragedy forced Snyder to drop out, was no easy task. Justice League is a studio movie through and through, where each and every detail has been calculated according to charts and demographics, but a part of me feels like Warner Bros needed to make this movie as a way of decisively bringing this chapter of the DCEU to an end and allowing themselves to start a new one on a new, blank page. Now, much like the people of Earth at the end of this film, I finally feel hopeful about the franchise’s future going forward.

★★★

Wonder Woman

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

Director: Patty Jenkins

Writer: Allan Heinberg


Whether it wants it or not (and whether it’s fair or not), Wonder Woman has got a lot of pressure and expectation riding on it. Not only is it the first solo movie for one of the most iconic female characters of all time, it is also the single biggest movie to ever be made by a female director. For years studios have been pointing towards flops like Catwoman and Helen Slater’s Supergirl as evidence that female superhero movies don’t work (as if male superhero movies have such a perfect track record). With the MCU so far neglecting to make any female-led movies in spite of having a popular character and marketable star in Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, it falls onto DC to finally break this glass ceiling. While it’s not up to me to judge this movie from a feminine standpoint, I also cannot ignore what a big deal this movie is or how significant its success will be. And it is by all means a resounding success.

The movie starts off with Diana (Gal Gadot) as a child on the secret island of Themyscria, the home of the Amazonian race. There, as the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she is forbidden to partake in training as a warrior, but does so anyway with her aunt, General Antipone (Robin Wright). Years later, having grown into a strong and capable woman, she rescues a downed pilot as his plane crashes nearby. The pilot is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he is an American soldier fighting in the First World War as a spy. He was being pursued by the Germans as he was escaping with a notebook stolen from the infamous chemist Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and must return to London as soon as possible. Diana, believing that the war god Ares, whom her people have sworn to oppose, is orchestrating this war in the form of General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), arms herself with the Amazons’ ‘Godkiller’ sword and accompanies him. Thus she joins the war to end all wars where she will discover the true extent of her powers and find her destiny.

This film marks the fourth instalment in the DCEU, a franchise that has so far proven uneven in its storytelling. Batman v. Superman for example was a movie that felt messy and overblown because it took on too many storylines and spent too much time on world building. One of the strengths of Wonder Woman is that it tells an entirely self-contained story. There are no forced cameos, no tangential set ups for upcoming titles and no unnecessary subplots. This is Diana’s story and the movie keeps the focus on her. When approaching a character such as Wonder Woman, one might have been tempted to sculpt her simply as a strong, badass warrior woman, essentially a female Braveheart. The movie however is more thoughtful and complex than that. Diana is indeed tough and vengeful, but she is also curious, compassionate, earnest and brave. She is an inspiring hero of a kind that movies haven’t really seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman. When Diana runs into battle to face the enemy, there isn’t a childhood trauma that forces her, no words of wisdom from a mentor that move her, no inner conflict about responsibility and morality that compels her. Diana is a kind, virtuous person who wants to help simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Joining Gadot in her wonderful turn as the DC legend is a strong supporting cast, the best of whom is Chris Pine as the dashing WWI pilot. Whereas Diana is hopeful, naïve even, Trevor is altogether more pessimistic and world weary, a quality to which Pine brings both charm and humour. There is a clear attraction between them on the outset which feels utterly authentic and organic due to the electrifying chemistry they share. Not many superhero movies can make their romances work, but this is definitely one that can. Also great are the Amazonian women, particularly Wright, who are every bit as fierce, steadfast and awesome as a warrior people ought to be. Watching them in action is one of the most thrilling parts of the movie as Jenkins does away with the rapid editing and generic framing we see in most blockbusters. Instead we get to see the warriors in their full glory, fighting in a variety of styles that make the combat feel more like an epic ballet than a punch-by-numbers.

Jenkins is to applauded on more than just the action scenes. Much of Wonder Woman feels unlike anything we might’ve expected from recent blockbusters, including and especially those of the DCEU. For one thing, Wonder Woman has actual colour in it. The magnificent gold of the Amazonian armour and the luscious greens and deep blues of their paradise island can all be seen in their splendour. Even the reds, greys and browns of the Western Front show that dark colours can be dire without being murky and stale. The movie also installs much humanity and humour into its story which, far from undercutting, help to enhance the film’s more serious moments. When we see Diana charging into her battle with her comrades, which include Charlie (Ewan Bremner) the sharpshooter, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) the Native American smuggler, and Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) the Moroccan master of disguise, its all the more affective because the movie has actually taken the time to show these characters bonding. Wonder Woman, being set in 1918, also does a good job of tackling issues of sexism and racism without beating us over the head with it.

The fatal flaw holding this movie back from greatness is its third act which sadly slips into the more generic territory we’ve seen in recent blockbusters. In starts off promisingly enough with a reveal for the villain that is surprising in its sophistication, suggesting that Ares is not in fact the simple baddie we took him for, and there is an excellent final scene between Diana and Steve that I found moving. Otherwise, unfortunately, the climax is typical of the sort of explosive finales that modern blockbusters like with overwritten, pretentious dialogue and a morally confused resolution. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a weak ending and it certainly doesn’t kill the movie, but it was underwhelming given how strong and fresh the first two acts had been. Still, even if I would have preferred an ending that took a few more risks, Wonder Woman is despite its flaws a great watch. It is gorgeous, exciting and inspiring and is entirely worthy of the comic book icon it has brought to life.

★★★★

Suicide Squad

Cast: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Karen Fukuhara, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne

Director: David Ayer

Writer: David Ayer


Watching Suicide Squad has made one thing about the DC cinematic universe clear to me: it isn’t just Zack Snyder. The trouble with this franchise is not the brainchild of a single overseer, it’s happening on an institutional level. It pains to write this because I watched the cartoons growing up, read the comic books as a teenager, and deeply love this universe and its characters.. Nothing would please me more than to sing the praises of the movie franchise that has brought this universe to life. I can’t do that though because for three films now they’ve made the same mistakes again and again. All three movies have been entertaining on a spectacular level, but their stories and characters continue to suffer from an aggravating inability to realise these fundamental flaws. Suicide Squad is an improvement on this front, but at the end of the day it suffers from the same overall problem as the other DC movies. The ultimate problem is that Warner Bros is more interested in making movies with good trailers than it is in making good movies.

Following Superman’s death, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has determined that the Earth needs a new force to protect humanity against inhuman threats. Her proposal is a mercenary team made up of dangerous criminals kept in check by chips implanted in their brains. The villains selected for this team are the skilled assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), the insane Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the incendiary El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) the rugged thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the genetic deformity Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and the ancient sorceress Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). Leading the team is Waller’s trusted colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a soldier with little patience for the criminal scum he must work with. When Midway City is besieged by a horde of monsters powered by some mystical weapon, the Suicide Squad is sent on their first mission to combat them. Hot on their trail is the Joker (Jared Leto) who is on his own mission to liberate his beloved Harley Quinn.

The movie’s saving grace is its main cast. Despite some illogical inconsistencies, a feeble villain and a weak second half, the ensemble managed to carry this movie most of the way through and made it more fulfilling to watch than either of DC’s first two offerings. Viola Davis is fantastic as Waller, a ruthless government official who gives orders and combats threats with a cold, business-like attitude. Will Smith succeeds marvellously in playing Deadshot both as an adept assassin and as a concerned father trying to do right by his daughter. Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as Harley Quinn and delivers a crazed and layered performance that was regrettably undermined by the movie’s excessive objectification of her character. I was also a big fan of Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, a fundamentally good man cursed with a destructive power that he cannot entirely control. Leto however, considering the enormous publicity surrounding his performance and the standard set by Nicholson, Hamill, and Ledger, was a let-down. While his portrayal as the Joker was somewhat intriguing, his screen time is minimal and his role is almost entirely immaterial to the main story.

The films starts off promisingly enough as we are introduced to these characters and get to know them a bit. The numerous flashbacks are quite disorienting due to some messy editing and there were also some parts that can only be described as bizarre (The one that stands out is that mindboggling moment featuring Batman and Harley Quinn), but I was still on board when the team was finally assembled and ready to set out on their mission. From this point onwards Suicide Squad becomes the same generic action movie we’ve seen a million times. There’s the bland villain with the vague motivation, the expendable, faceless army sent to combat the main cast, and the same old indefinably destructive portal from movies like Fantastic Four that threatens to destroy the world or something. The characters do help to make the movie’s second half somewhat entertaining, but the threat facing them is bland and forgettable and the amount of tension the film is able to conjure up is almost nil. This made for a movie that was fun to watch, but not particularly engaging or thrilling.

I think that the critical panning this film has received has more to do with the audience’s frustration with the DC franchise than it does with any of the movie’s particular faults. When held to its own merits and demerits as separate from the franchise, I don’t think it deserves the hate it has received. Suicide Squad is an often entertaining movie with many colourful and memorable characters that falls apart in its second half. It doesn’t suffer from the stale tone of Man of Steel or from the severely overblown plot of Batman v. Superman. It is however symptomatic of a misguided franchise that is more interested in making movies that look good than in making movies that actually are good. The gimmick of seeing iconic characters from the comics come to life on the big screen will wear off for most viewers and already has for some. Unless Warner Bros wakes up and starts to offer something more substantive in these movies, the audience’s exasperation will only continue to grow.

★★★

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer


I desperately wanted to love this film. I’ve been a fan of Batman and Superman since childhood and couldn’t wait to finally see them together. I went into this movie with great anticipation and when I finally saw the two go head to head against one another, it was an epic spectacle that was astonishing to behold. But it was done for the wrong reasons. Amazing as it was to finally see the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel in the same movie and engaging each other in battle, some of the choices that were made in terms of story and character defy sense and reason. I don’t know if the fault belongs to Snyder for masterminding the whole thing or with the studio for their interference, but the result is a visually stunning yet fundamentally misguided mess of a movie.

In the aftermath of Metropolis’ destruction in Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) has become a controversial figure in the world. Half of the public view him as a saviour while the other half sees him as a monster. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who witnessed Superman’s destructive abilities first-hand, believes Superman to be a threat to the planet and seeks to stop him as Batman. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is also threatened by Superman and hatches a plan to assure his demise using the discoveries he has made from studying Zod’s corpse and his Kryptonian ship. A congressional hearing led by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) meanwhile is held to determine whether Superman is indeed a threat to humanity and invites him to appear before the world to speak. Thus Superman must confront the responsibility he holds for his power and actions and must decide what kind of man and what kind of hero he wants to be.

When it was announced that the sequel to Man of Steel would introduce Batman into the DC universe by pitting him against Superman, I think that the excitement that arose was more than a reaction to the iconic status of the two characters. I think the reason that so many people were excited for this fight is because there is actually a valid ideological conflict to be had. Superman stands up for liberty and justice and believes in the power of hope to save people. Batman in contrast fights crime through fear and favours methods that are altogether more ruthless and brutal. Fans of the comics, the animated shows or of the previous movies featuring these heroes can understand and relate to both of their creeds which is why a clash between the two would allow for a complex and engaging dispute of epic proportions. Either the makers of Dawn of Justice did not understand this or the heart of this conflict simply got lost in the middle of all the many overlapping and convoluted stories that were crammed into this movie.

Maybe the bloated state of this movie is a reaction to the enormous success and widespread adoration of the Marvel franchise, as if DC thinks it needs to catch up as quickly as possible by doing in one movie what Marvel did in five. Even though the conflict between Batman and Superman had more than enough material to make a compelling, action-packed movie, Dawn of Justice also decided to include an inquiry into Superman’s actions, a mystery for Batman to solve, the appearance of Wonder Woman, a diabolical plot by Lex Luthor resulting in the creation of a villain the trailer saw fit to reveal, some set-up for the future Justice League movie, a number of dream sequences and an iconic storyline from the comics that occurs during the climax. While some of these stories do work, the simple reality is that the film as a whole suffers from a severe absence of focus and direction. The movie tries to juggle so many different elements that it never finds the time to adequately explore any of its characters’ motivations or the deeper meaning of its themes. Although we do get our Batman vs. Superman fight, and it is breathtaking, the investment just isn’t there.

Anyone who has seen 300 or Watchmen knows that Zack Snyder is a superb visual director. The action in Dawn of Justice is some of the best to ever involve these characters. Snyder however is not Joss Whedon and in this film he doesn’t seem to understand what it is audiences actually want from a Batman and Superman movie. He displays little understanding of the characters themselves or of how to use the story to serve them. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the virtue of establishing and developing this universe over successive chapters rather than trying to do it all in one go. Most infuriating of all was the ending where he saw fit to include an iconic event from the comics that was wholly and entirely unearned by the film’s story. As much as I admire his talents as a visual artist, I still cannot believe how profoundly misjudged some of his choices were.

I feel torn about criticising the movie in this way because there are genuinely amazing things in it. Batman himself is stupendous from the look to the action to Affleck’s performance. The inclusion of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman worked well and now has me very much excited for her solo movie next year. The visuals and action scenes were masterful with only some of the highlights being the vision of an apocalyptic future, the actual fight between Batman and Superman and also what is perhaps the single greatest Batman action scene ever put onto film. Even the climatic battle that has no business even being in this movie was impressive to watch, especially in the way it employed Wonder Woman. No other movie this year has managed to inspire such an ambivalent reaction out of me. Although I’m giving this movie three stars, I must stress that I do not think Dawn of Justice is in any way an average film. There are parts of this film that I utterly adore and there are parts that I bitterly hate. Even though I am disappointed that Dawn of Justice was not the movie I wanted it to be, I must admit that I was drawn in by the spectacle and that, all things considered, I am glad I saw it. I just hope that Snyder learns from the backlash when the time comes for The Justice League.

★★★

Top 10 Superhero Films

After watching Avengers: Age of Ultron and three episodes of Daredevil I’ve found myself in a superhero mood and thought I’d compile this list. The superhero genre has scaled to such incredible heights over the last decade and a half that it is almost hard to believe there was once a time when these kinds of films were not held in high regard. There was actually a time when any film with a superhero was considered a joke and box-office poison. Now superhero films are everywhere. Today the superhero genre is one that audiences are taking seriously and that has seen a lot of success and praise. These films are now being made by talented filmmakers who actually care about the source material and who put in the work and the effort to ensure that the result does them justice. What follows is a list of my 10 personal favourite films within this genre.

 

 10. Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen film

A vastly underrated film in my opinion, I think that the main trouble with Watchmen is that it didn’t really find its audience. Those who had read Alan Moore’s seminal book about an alternate history where superheroes are a driving force in the Cold War were unsure whether it could even be translated to film while those who hadn’t were perhaps put off by their unfamiliarity with the story and the lack of star-power. As someone who has read the book, I think that the film Snyder gave us is the best that any of us could have ever hoped for. I’m scratching my head trying to work out what he could possibly have done differently. His faithfulness to the source material is unquestionable as can be seen in his painstaking recreations of Gibbons’ visuals, the film is in keeping with Moore’s dark and gritty tone and the translation of the story and characters to the big screen is simply astonishing.

 9. X-Men: First Class (2011)

X-Men First Class film

This was a tough call and I’m sure there are a lot of people who prefer X2 or Days of Future Past to this one, but I had to go with First Class. It actually kind of annoys me that this is my favourite of the X-Men films because it barely has any of my favourite X-Men in it. However I had to go with it because it is such a good film. McAvoy and Fassbender are perfectly cast as the younger versions of Professor X and Magneto and the story of their shared past is such a compelling one. In addition it has a great story, the characters who are in it are well-used and the 1960s setting is fantastic. At a time when the X-Men series was struggling, following its two prior failures, Vaughn’s decision to reinvent the franchise by going right back to the beginning was a bold one and it worked out brilliantly. It was smart, it was fun and it saved the franchise. It also has one of the best cameos in any film ever.

8. Batman (1989)

Batman film

This one is a classic. Breaking away from the campy tone that defined the Adam West era, this film was a dark and serious take on the Caped Crusader that depicted him as a conflicted, unhinged vigilante. Michael Keaton’s excellent portrayal of Batman is overshadowed only by Jack Nicholson’s crazed performance as the Joker, by the marvellous production design and by the dark, brooding atmosphere that only Tim Burton could bring. This is the film that transcended superhero films beyond the action genre by providing a psychological insight into one of pop culture’s most famous characters.

7. Unbreakable (2000)

Unbreakable film

The only film on this list not based on a comic book or a graphic novel. Made back before Shyamalan became, well… Shyamalan, Unbreakable is a dark, enthralling film that provides an insightful commentary into this genre. It brought a philosophical element into the discussion on the superhero mythology by asking whether becoming a superhero is a matter of choice or of destiny. It questions what it really means to be a superhero and the sort of implications and ramifications that come with such an idea. Unbreakable provides an intelligent deconstruction of the superhero genre and shows that superheroes films aren’t all about action and thrills.

6. V for Vendetta (2005)

V for Vendetta film

I was surprised to find that this isn’t a film often featured on lists of superhero films. Maybe this is because a lot of people don’t consider V to be a superhero (although if Batman and Daredevil count, surely he counts as well). In any case V for Vendetta is an awesome film about a vigilante who, rather than fighting against a bad guy, chooses to fight against an idea as he takes a stance against an Orwellian totalitarian regime in the name of freedom. Hugo Weaving is impeccably cast as the theatrical, morally ambiguous V in a film that provides a unique portrayal of a superhero whose real power is that of an idea. It is well worth watching, even if it does take a lot of divergences from the original graphic novel.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy film

More of a sci-fi film than a superhero film but still counts regardless. Guardians of the Galaxy was a risky move on Marvel’s part, considering that only devoted comic book fans were at all familiar with these heroes or the world that they inhabit, and so its monumental success is a testament to the characters that made this film as great as it was. There is not a single weak link amongst the five leads as we see them working with and off each other to make what is an incredibly fun and entertaining film. Groot alone makes this film worth watching. (Incidentally it is now my dream to one day see Rocket Raccoon and Tony Stark meet).

4. Superman (1978)

Superman film

Even though I actually like Man of Steel, this film remains far and away my favourite Superman film and Christopher Reeve remains the quintessential Superman. Back before superhero films showed that they could be intelligent, dark, complex and thought provoking, Superman was a fun, uplifting and exciting film that made us all believe that a man could really fly. This film didn’t need to be dark or gritty to be effective, all it needed was spirit and imagination. The iconic hero, the inspirational John Williams score and the thrilling action have ensured that this film remains a classic that still holds up today.

3. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Spider-Man 2 film

Back when films like Spider-Man, ­X-Men and Blade were bringing the superhero genre back to the big screen and were still experimenting with the format, this was the film that finally perfected it. It has everything that a fun, exciting superhero film needs. It has an iconic hero, an entertaining villain, excellent action, a great sense of humour, and groundbreaking visual effects. Even though I preferred Marc Webb’s take on Spider-Man to Sam Raimi’s and felt that Andrew Garfield was a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, this film nevertheless remains the best Spider-Man film to date and without question one of the best superhero films ever made.

2. The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers film

This was the film that changed everything. After five films over the course of four years building up to this momentous occasion, The Avengers was the film that finally brought these heroes from their different franchises together for the first time. It marked an important step in the evolution of the superhero genre and it was executed to perfection. Not only did these characters work together incredibly well and complement each other perfectly, but The Avengers is also an excellently scripted, well-directed, action-packed film that pitted the Avengers against a villain who remains the best baddie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whatever doubts the audience may have had about the idea of a shared universe, this was the film that put an end to them once and for all.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight film

I know that picking this film for the number 1 spot may be a bit of a cliché, but that’s how amazing this film really is. Batman is hands-down my favourite superhero and Christian Bale remains my favourite portrayal of him. Heath Ledger’s Joker is not only the best incarnation of that character, he is one of the greatest film villains of all time. Under Nolan’s direction, The Dark Knight is an intelligent film that explores the nature of chaos and provides an insight into the twisted relationship between Batman and the Joker. It is a thrilling film that gets the blood pumping with its intense action and its dark tone. The Dark Knight is one of those rare films that actually lived up to every single expectation that the audience had and is still just as exhilarating to watch today.