The Greatest Showman

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya

Director: Michael Gracey

Writers: Jenny Hicks, Bill Condon


The Greatest Showman is an upbeat, extravagant musical about love, diversity, and acceptance, centred on a man who was the antithesis of all those things. Far from the glitzy, broad-minded entertainer presented here, the real Barnum was a much more complex and questionable figure; someone who was known for being greedy, exploitative, opportunistic, dishonest, and cruel, and for having (at best) a problematic relationship with people of colour and ‘freaks’. This film brushes so much of Barnum’s darker side under the rug that it could only be called a biopic in the most liberal sense possible. But then, I think the filmmakers are aware of that. This film is so profusely romantic, fantastical, and sentimental that I don’t think any audience member is going to think of it as an accurate representation of Barnum any more than they would think of 300 as an accurate representation of Ancient Greece. Indeed, this story is so obviously phoney and is told in such a sensational way that, from that point of view, The Greatest Showman could be seen as the perfect representation of Barnum.

Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a dreamer living within his humble 19th century means but is waiting for a chance to shine. He is married to Charity (Michelle Williams), the daughter of a wealthy family whom he’s known since childhood, and together they have two daughters. After losing his job as a clerk, Barnum takes out a loan to start a museum of wax figures, hoping to create a sensation that will take the world by storm. When sales prove meagre, he sets out to enlist individuals of unusual proportions, characteristics, and abilities, including the dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and African-American trapeze performing siblings Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), to add some life to the show. The show is a hit, despite negative press, and Barnum renames his museum ‘Barnum’s Circus’. Seeking to improve his reputation with the upper classes, Barnum recruits playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his business partner and famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) as his star performer. As his success grows however, Barnum starts to lose sight of his family, both literal and metaphorical.

The story is crap, to put it bluntly. It is wholeheartedly transparent, eye-rollingly schmaltzy, and every single second of it rings hollow and feels fake. However, it is the most spectacular, vivacious, entertaining crap I’ve seen in a long time. This movie may not be the greatest show, but every member of the cast and crew sincerely believes that it is and their earnestness and effort shine through. The whole thing feel phoney, but not a single person who worked on this film was phoning it in. Every single song is sung, choreographed and shot as if it is the show-stopping number of the musical and the images and sounds throughout are simply teeming with life, imagination and feeling. There is a sense of purpose and clarity behind every shot in every sequence, even when they get as frantic and intense as Moulin Rouge, and there is always a strong attempt being made to utilise the props and sets to their fullest potential, from the tables, glasses, and stools in the two musical scenes that take place in the bar to the knotted rope hanging in the centre of the ring in Efron and Zendaya’s romantic duet. I can scarcely dream what this team might have accomplished with a story of actual substance.

Even when the film is at its most silly and sappy, each performer from the main stars to the background singers and dancers are trying so hard and so sincerely that it’s hard to hold it against them. Jackman is every bit the showman the movie wants him to be and is so charming and likeable, you almost want to forgive the film for his thin characterisation and unearned climatic redemption. Williams, Efron and Zendaya are all bright-eyed and vibrant in their roles and hold nothing back in their full embrace of the film in all of its glorious splendour and fundamental misguidedness. They’re just so darn enchanting and heartfelt that their lack of self-awareness only adds to their appeal. Humphrey and Settle, the latter of whom is a magnificent singer, do wonders in their small roles, as does Sparks, whose theatre critic character serves as a pre-emptive surrogate for all those critics who don’t ‘get’ the film and denounce it for its gaudiness and cheapness.

But The Greatest Showman is gaudy and it is cheap. As stunning and enjoyable as the style and performances are, it’s all to serve the weakest and shallowest of plots. The film wants to celebrate the outcasts of society and the way that show business can create a home for those who have been rejected by all else so much that it happily overlooks the exploitative qualities of Barnam’s character, portraying him instead as a child of poverty who identifies with the struggles the ‘freaks’ face in their everyday lives. Thus, when his ambition and pride cause him to neglect his wife and children and the makeshift family he has built, he must then be reminded of what’s really important in life, after which everything is fine and they live happily ever after. It isn’t about being historically accurate, it’s about being true to the hardships being depicted and the morals being conveyed and this film is far too one-dimensional and clichéd to offer any insights of actual worth. The Greatest Showman is a spectacle well worth beholding, but the showmanship is all there is.

★★★

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr.

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers


This movie is a big deal for Marvel. For decades Spider-Man has been the comic book company’s flagship character; he is to Marvel what Superman is to DC. After two movie franchises in a little over a decade, one that became too silly for its own good and one that crashed under the weight of all the characters and stories it was trying to juggle, Sony has finally made a deal with Marvel to bring Spider-Man into the MCU. After a wonderfully received debut by Tom Holland in Civil War, Homecoming now marks the character’s third cinematic introduction a mere fifteen years after his first. It’s a bit different this time because Peter Parker is now a part of a larger world, one where the idea of the superhero has already been well established and where the world has already been threatened by gods, aliens, an artificial intelligence, sorcerers, and a guy with energy whips. Thus, to focus more on the themes of growing up and taking responsibility, Homecoming scales back on the epic fantasy and instead gives us a high school movie with superheroes.

After being drafted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to fight for the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is told that he’s not ready yet to join the superhero team and is sent back to school to focus on his studies. In the meantime Stark encourages Peter to be more of “a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” and assigns Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to look after him. Peter however struggles to balance his school life with his crime-fighting life. His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) keeps pestering him about his ‘Stark Internship’, his decathlon team, led by Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier), is getting frustrated with his inability to commit to the upcoming championship, and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) must be kept in the dark about his alter-ego. Meanwhile Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager who was driven out of business years ago by Stark Industries, has gone into the arms trafficking business, dealing weapons based on Chitauri technology recovered from the Battle of New York in The Avengers. When he learns of Toomes’ activities, it falls onto Spider-Man to stop whatever it is he has planned.

Holland plays a much younger Peter Parker than either Maguire of Garfield ever played and his youth plays a prominent role. Spider-Man’s arc as a character has always been that he’s a young man learning to grow up and take responsibility, which is exactly what makes him so identifiable and relatable, especially to teenagers. In Homecoming his youth is emphasised in order to set him apart from the Avengers, most notably Tony Stark, who are pros at being superheroes and who understand the dangers and responsibilities of the job far better than Peter does. Although Peter is smart, talented and well intentioned, he’s also just a kid and he possesses all of the liabilities of youth. He is cocky, naïve and is in way over his head. Spider-Man has never just been a superhero fantasy, it is at its core a coming of age story and this movie embraces that by drawing inspiration from the filmography of John Hughes (which is good, but a little on the nose in one scene referencing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Angst, awkwardness and adolescence all come in abundance and the movie does a great job of showcasing those sides of Peter Parker.

The superhero side is also very good, but there is a slight disconnection there. The one thing I never really got from this incarnation of Spider-Man was a sense of what was driving him, a motivation. It’s hinted at in his first scene in Civil War but in this movie it is never elaborated in any meaningful way. Now, I’ve seen the other movies, I’ve read the comics, and I’ve watched some of the cartoon. I know full well what Spider-Man’s motivation is. The problem is that this movie throws us straight in without giving us some kind of foundation on which we can plant our feet. Uncle Ben, the lessons he taught Peter, and the role Peter may or may not have played in his death, we have no idea how relevant these are to this version of Spider-Man because they are never addressed. There is something of a stigma these days against superhero origin stories and not for no reason (we have after all seen two Spider-Man origin movies within ten years of each). I’m not saying that Homecoming had to be origin movie, but the crucial details of the backstory that fundamentally make Peter who he is do have to be addressed, even if it’s only in a couple of sentences. Leaving that out is bad storytelling.

Homecoming however is far from a bad movie. It is engaging, funny, thrilling and just delightful. Not only is Holland terrific as Spider-Man, he is hands down the best Peter Parker in any of the movies. His Peter is nerdy and awkward enough to make him a believable social outcast but also charming and eccentric enough to be likeable. Keaton as the Vulture is spot on and for me is easily the second best villain in the whole MCU after Loki. He is menacing, but also entertaining; villainous, but understandable. In addition, there is a twist with the villain (because there always are these days) that works incredibly well, bringing the conflict between him and Spider-Man to an entirely higher level. There are a couple of action scenes that don’t quite work, such as the climatic fight that takes place almost completely in the dark, but the ones that do work really well. As well as being his usual acrobatic self, this Spider-Man also makes effective use of the gadgets at his disposal such as his iconic web-slingers and a ton of other goodies provided by Stark’s suit. It’s not the best Spider-Man movie ever made but there is a lot to enjoy and a lot to be excited about going forward.

★★★★