Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Top 20 Supers

Top 20 Live-Action Superhero Movies 

Superhero cinema in the 21st century was enabled by advanced filmmaking technologies developed with varying degrees of creativity and triumph by the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-3), and Michael Bay’s robot-series launched by Transformers (2007). On the genre spectrum, superhero movies have elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery, so this assorted content blends many kinds of comedy-drama, including odd satire and spoofs, weirdness and surrealism. What’s a superhero? If not a costume or special powers, it must be thoughts and actions. Time and space are unlimited in these narratives and all of history folds with imagination. I considered including John Boorman’s greatest masterpiece, of Arthurian legends, Excalibur (1981), and auteur Terry Gilliam’s remake The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988), which ends his informal genre trilogy - after Time Bandits (1981), and Brazil (1985) - but soon decided that they belong to screen traditions still unrecognisable as superhero pictures.

In the last 20 years, dozens of movie-makers jumped on the Marvel & DC bandwagon for success, and their seemingly unrelated efforts established links to this ‘tent-pole’ genre, so that, for example, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) can be seen as a superhero movie. However post-millennial cinema cycles, adapted from various comic-books are viewed, some of the current trends for colourful adventure have influential predecessors in 1980s’ productions, not all of which are immediately obvious, or considered relevant. But, I hope this piece might change a few, rather limiting, judgements of what’s genuinely significant in this field. For my overview, this A-Z listing of genre diversity collects cult originals, Art house, and mainstream blockbusters.

Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984)

Looking back at W.D. Richter’s directing debut again, it’s clear this master-class of pulpy sci-fi action shifts like stormy weather, and its bizarre inter-dimensional invasion plotting makes overlong epics such as Avengers: Endgame (2019) seem plodding by comparison. Even though Richter steals, most blatantly, from Doc Savage: Man Of Bronze (1975), this boasts impressively quirky ensemble casting (Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Clancy Brown) who mesh so imperfectly, for Team Banzai, that any playfully confusing distinctions gives this jigsaw of characters an electrifying bravado, unmatched in mainstream cinema, until - again featuring versatile Goldblum - Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). Ellen Barkin plays the hero’s suicidal romantic-interest, but John Lithgow almost out-acts everybody, delivering a comically-demented portrayal of quasi-alien villainy that not even Christopher Lloyd can match for memorably hilarious one-liners. In too many of comic-books’ key works, the strange power of grotesque absurdity is neglected, in favour of a conventionally malevolent antagonism. Lithgow’s maniacal Dr Lizardo, later revealed as Lord Whorfin, enthusiastically promotes an awesomely funny insanity, so dangerously unpredictable he is always mesmerising. Comics fans might consider that the Joker is #1 for crazy, but measured against the obsessive rages of psycho Lizardo, he’s just a clown.  

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

Joss Whedon’s sequel gets my vote as the best Avengers movie, primarily for introducing one of my favourite Marvel characters, the Vision. Unlike the comic-books’ origin stories, this first screen appearance for Marvel’s android hero adds complexity and happenstance for a primal scene, where the baseline program from robot Ultron, and Stark’s A.I. butler, J.A.R.V.I.S, combines with the cosmic ‘Mind’ stone, for implanting in artificial ‘flesh’ bonded to vibranium metal (from Wakanda). Gifted with new life by a jolt of Asgardian lightning, the Vision has an explosive ‘birth’ that mimics Frankenstein movies. This is esoteric and quasi-mythical in the manner of Promethean meta-physics. The Vision proves to be too ‘perfect’ a creation for service to antagonistic Ultron, and a super-being of wise but naive intelligence and logical morality, proving worthy enough to handle Thor’s magic hammer. The brisk pace means there is no time for indulging non-fans to explain versatile powers. This revisionist beginning for the ‘synthezoid’ superhero is much better devised than any of the comics’ variations. SF action scenes with a keen sense-of-wonder, out-performing the source material, are a fundamental part of all great superhero cinema. Several changes are welcome alternatives to existing lore, re-wiring Marvel ultra-universe circuitry for a post-cyberpunk currency to emerge, evolved from much less intellectually challenging material, but with emotional charge preserved in fantastically imaginative content (we are not alone!) that always made Avengers canon such good fun in comics. Yesteryear’s fantasy reforms into today’s hyper-reality, so narrative development of this exploding franchise revels in exploring sci-fi genre variants of mythological archetypes and telling allusions to modern history.

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016)

Although it’s a stylish update, Man Of Steel (2013) was, basically, a fantastical remake of Superman The Movie (1978), and Superman II (1980). Zack Snyder established a unique trademark on DC movies with MOS, but this sequel offers something new in a franchised universe; an intensely dramatic super-team saga that rivals the spectacular genre impact of Snyder’s previous comic-book movie Watchmen. Whereas earlier efforts from DC's arch-rivals Marvel, like Avengers Assemble (2012), Fantastic Four (2005), and X-Men (2000), had to formally introduce most of their characters to audiences unaware of the heroes’ history in their decades of comics, BATMAN v SUPERMAN included Wonder Woman for its peerless trinity of icons, already easily identifiable in popular culture, following a variety of incarnations in cinema and TV. Snyder’s weighty approach, to childish source-material, is extraordinarily serious, with media-commentary and subplots about political corruption, for analysing these living legends driven to suicidal heroics. Confronting villainy shaped without a conscience, this super trio battle quasi-mythic weirdness formed like a cosmic Frankenstein’s monster after shocking mutation and re-animation by unknowable power. 'Doomsday' marks a fresh start for team-ups, and BVS is a welcome addition to DC’s rapidly expanding multi-verse. While four Avengers movies are usually leavened with too many inappropriate jokes, Snyder’s efforts turn sincerity to his advantage. By avoiding melodramatic farce, BVS concentrates on honesty and so delivers authentic SF plus fantasy that’s never trite or inconsequential. I hope that the 2021 director’s cut of Justice League (2017) finally consolidates the genre leadership role of Zack Snyder as the greatest artistic mastermind in comicbook movies.

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

I am certainly not against humour and jokes being used in superhero movies, but it only works, for me, when the funny scenes also display some intelligence. John Carpenter is a craftsman of genre cinema, so his BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA delivers farce and larking-about with a grinning charm. It is never blithely inane, like Marvel’s wholly disappointing spoof Thor: Ragnarok (2017), or dismally vulgar like Deadpool (2016). Kurt Russell plays blundering lorry-driver Jack Burton as the best amusing parody of John Wayne, although Jack is really a sidekick to the story’s actual Asian hero, Wang (Dennis Dun, Year Of The Dragon). So, buddy-movie racial stereotypes are pointedly subverted with dry witticism, and many traditional elements of Hong Kong fantasy-comedy are disrupted, in favour of role-reversals and refreshing interpretations. In this world’s hyper-reality, magical tricks and psychodrama seem interchangeable, just as magic metaphors become dangerous truth. In the villainous and guru roles, James Hong and Victor Wong play westernised versions of iconic eastern mystics. The result is a rock ‘n’ roll party with circus clowns and monsters. BTILC didn’t win enough popularity to match Ghostbusters (1984), but it's much greater genre entertainment. Carpenter adapted Burton’s adventures into comic-books (2014-7), for a series that includes the sequel Old Man Jack.

Birdman (2014)

It’s not often that a superhero movie wins big at the Oscars (although Black Panther was at least nominated for ‘best film’), but this delightful comedy-drama scooped four awards including ‘best screenplay’ and ‘best director’. Michael Keaton stars in Alejandro Inarritu’s genre satire BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), a picture with off-beat stage work, filmed mostly in very long takes. While quietly exercising levitation and telekinetic powers, washed-up movie-star Riggan risks everything by doing his Broadway play based upon Raymond Carver talking about love. Still haunted by his costumed alter-ego, Riggan roams about backstage and ruminates while his theatre troupe are exploring the meaning of mass-media celebrity, and exposing a seemingly fraudulent existence for professional actors. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk, 2008) plays the super-annoying replacement star Mike. Naomi Watts and Emma Stone form a cadre of supporting players here, but Andrea Riseborough easily out-acts them both, and Lindsay Duncan is outstanding as scathing critic Tabitha. Preparation meets humiliation during rehearsals, but previews are saved by resolute Riggan’s quirks of improv showmanship, flitting between ego-frenzy and Zen-styled calm. An ultimate kind of genre comeback movie, BIRDMAN has Keaton soaring above city streets like a daredevil Icarus, to indulge in retro wish-fulfilment of starring role-play as Bruce Wayne in Batman (1989). So, yeah, let’s break a leg, and blow many Art-snobs' minds, before shooting off the hero’s nose (to spite his face?) for an uplifting twist of wryly philosophical self-determinism. You might never believe a man can fly, but Keaton’s commitment here proves he can dream. 

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Although it’s loosely based on Marvel comics’ popular event-series, this movie drastically reduces the epic scale of its source material, to focus on a dozen heroes. Iron Man heads a U.N. group - supporters of ‘registration’ for Avengers, while Steve Rogers leads a rogue team, escaping from Euro custody to uncover terrorism by vengeful soldier Zemo. Although it lacks Thor and Hulk, CIVIL WAR launched ‘Phase Three’ of MCU’s franchise and, basically, it’s now ‘Avengers 2.5’ charted on the Marvel timeline. Directing two Captain America sequels, the Russo brothers took inspiration from spy-fi movies, continuing links to Soviet plotting about Bucky Barnes, alias Winter Soldier. After the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D, trails of destruction by Avengers spread from New York (see Avengers Assemble, 2012), and Washington DC, to Sokovia (Avengers: Age Of Ultron), and now Lagos. Bombing a U.N. building in Vienna does a rascally job of building upon this continuity of spectacular property-damage, and also introduces African prince Black Panther. There’s a new version of Spider-Man appearing for the centre-piece appeal of this movie’s 23-minute combat sequence, at a German airport, that starts with Hawkeye’s arrival at Avengers’ base, and ends with the flying-suited War Machine shot down by Vision. Happily for Cap’s team, the android Avenger takes only a minor part in the battle, but superb combinations of stunts and effects, especially when Ant-Man becomes Giant Man, who tips the fight’s balance, make this one of the very best super-team rumbles. Encounters between such different powers means their conflict only results in catastrophe. The coda, of course, is that revenge turns all sides into victims, or failures. Tony and Steve both get an ethical message. There’s no winner in this scenario.

Captain Marvel (2019) 

A tricky balancing act, performing strongly as an immediate prequel to the MCU franchise of 21st century adventures, this mixes a UFO-abduction mystery and space-opera action, with spy-movie details about shape-shifters. Kree heroine amnesiac Vers, alias MIA USAF test-pilot Carol Danvers, becomes immersed in a galactic war, and several identity-crises involving enemy Skrulls. Genre in-jokes (ET phones home, OK?), are to be expected here, but CAPTAIN MARVEL almost perfectly blends a variety of comicbook-style comedy thrills, set in 1995, during the cultural heyday of popular genre TV show The X-Files. Delivering origin-story intrigues, ensures a narrative complexity, and cool escapism with witty asides in the recovery of Carol’s lost memory. Elements previously explored in DC movies Green Lantern (2011), and Wonder Woman (2017), are combined for this Marvel production but with better coherence and a more balanced tone, so that comics traditions are respected, without compromising a dedication to modernity. This results in a hugely enjoyable, often exhilaratingly hectic, and - retrospectively - an expansively influential movie on Marvel’s timeline. Juggling its vastly cosmic and broadly comical themes, Captain Marvel maintains MCU brand quality while adding layers of feminism to its male-dominated field.

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

John Milius was very lucky to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger for this adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian hero. Austrian Arnold was the perfect choice to play Conan. He simply looks the part, talks with a suitably foreign accent, and his limited ability as a Hollywood actor was actually a bonus here, not a liability. In retrospect, it’s as if body-builder Arnie was born to star as savage Conan in the world’s greatest swords ‘n’ sorcery movie. Drawing upon samurai traditions, and Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, varied design elements for CONAN THE BARBARIAN ensure this is one of cinema’s best realised fantasy realms. It’s a tale of sorrows. Surviving his tribe’s massacre, growing into slavery and a gladiatorial pit, young Conan is tempered like steel for swords. Schwarzenegger’s first speech as Conan is: “Crush your enemies...” After killing a witch and a monstrous serpent, warrior Conan is crucified, but resurrected by a wizard. Arnold is most ably supported by dancer Sandahl Bergman, excellent as Amazonian heroine Valeria. Top thespians Max von Sydow, and James Earl Jones, bring heavyweight appeal to roles as a troubled king, and cult-leader Thulsa Doom. Conan beheads the cruel baddie in a finale recalling the bleak ending of Apocalypse Now (1979). A magnificent score by Basil Poledouris super-charges operatic violence in CONAN to shine through its gruesome scenario, for success despite studio censorship and critical indifference. Richard Fleischer’s enjoyable sequel Conan The Destroyer (1984) is more of a fun adventure than Milius’ more sombre saga. CONAN was the finest picture in its subgenre, until Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-3). The remake Conan The Barbarian (2011), starring Jason Momoa, with a huge budget and some good visuals, turned out OK. But it’s a poor cousin to Milius’ masterpiece.

The Dark Knight (2008)

From its first action sequence, where the Joker un-masks himself, explaining: “I believe, whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you stranger,” this second movie of Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy blends urban sci-fi and crime thriller into a stylish drama that quickly and easily banishes Adam West’s 1960s’ TV show, and Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, into the genre-history dustbin of obviously weaker efforts. Following Nolan’s reinvention of DC media canon, for Gotham’s hero in Batman Begins (2005), this outstanding version of the caped crusader sheds its mythic and dumb comedic influences for a supremely insightful perfection of the shadowy champion. He becomes a fearsome protagonist who provokes utterly psychopathic mayhem from his worst enemies. The Batman is always a stunt-man’s dream-job, while Christian Bale portrayal of Bruce Wayne is nuanced with social awareness and acute physical agony of his moralistic failures and human limitations. Because even a city-superhero with dual lives and a secret identity cannot be in two places at once, injustice wins in the end. Turning Batman into a tragic figure and the victim of cruel fate makes Nolan’s ambitious production a groundbreaking example of superhero cinema, that eventually became one of the century’s most popular entertainments so far. Unerring use of noise in a rumbling soundtrack that soon cranks up tensions for electrifying drama ensures a hyper-realistic tone. The siege-thriller sequel The Dark Knight Rises (2012) adds plenty of equally astonishing action scenes, boosting THE DARK KNIGHT’s appeal with a double-bill worth re-watching.   

Doctor Strange (2016)

TV movie Dr Strange (1978) introduced comics’ superhero magician to media audiences, following shows like The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-9), and The Incredible Hulk (1977-82), but no series about Marvel’s sorcerer supreme was produced. Other attempts failed until British TV actor Benedict Cumberbatch was signed up, with Scott Derrickson directing. It resulted in a major expansion of genre themes for the MCU franchise, not just in magical wonders and impressive visual effects, but a breakthrough for blending sci-fi and fantasy in ways that impose the reality of miracles, and mysterious dimensions, on the core bio-tech and super-science of Marvel’s wholly improbable worlds. DOCTOR STRANGE enables the esoteric and impossible with such ease that quirky gestures shatter even open minds. As master of the mystic arts, Stephen Strange bends space-time with sheer imagination, so dreaming and thinking become more powerful than typical superhero attributes, such as futurism or muscles. Wizardry turns monsters and even gods into pawns. Psychedelic illusions or distortions of reality are possible in cinema today because of several radical developments in visual effects. The process began with CGI, and became PRA (photo-real animation), where anything imaginable could be put on screen with a new verisimilitude. Stunning battles of wit fought in twilight zones of cosmic fantasy, where logic is laughable raise the magnificent scope of tragic events, and high-stakes conflict seems hallucinatory when death is irrelevant, while counter-clockwise reasoning presents weirdness as only a new normal. What it lacks in horror, Doctor Strange makes up for with its many edgy surprises, and with Dr Strange’s involvement in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), his miracles of sorcery helped to make that super-team saga a climactic addition to Marvel’s grandest franchise.   

Dredd (2017)

In the wake of Marvel’s homicidal vigilante, the Punisher, British comic 2000 AD published a futuristic satire where Judge Dredd is a killer with a badge, on streets of black-comedy gold. Created by John Wagner, this comic-strip about fascistic anti-heroes was developed by various writers for decades, before its screen adaptation, spawned a franchise of industrial scale. I enjoyed Danny Cannon’s spectacular sci-fi actioner Judge Dredd (1995), and thought it was quite unfairly criticised just because of Sly Stallone, but this lower-budget remake simply gets the soiled Mega-City of Cursed Earth solidly realised with conspicuous dystopian style. Pete Travis directs Karl Urban who, just like Dredd in the comics, never takes his crash-helmet off. Although Stallone played Judge Dredd as very much a larger-than-life super-cop, Urban’s version is a far more down-to-earth character, partnered with a mutant recruit, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), for a ‘drugs bust’. Dredd and his resourceful psychic rookie, are opposed by a vicious gang, led by nasty Ma-Ma (scar-faced Lena Headey). Action heroics are stylised by cinematic enhancements, linked to a ‘slo-mo’ drug stretching a user’s perception of time. Perhaps inevitably, DREDD was compared to Gareth Evans’ martial-arts thriller The Raid (2011), and also steals imagery of long falling scenes from Jodorowsky and Moebius’ The Incal (1980) comics, but director Travis and Dredd screen-writer Alex Garland, do justice to such copycat examples, so their obvious borrowings are suitably blended into superior and relevant narrative concerns. Dredd lacks the satirical asides of its comics source, but filming on South African locations helps to generate the essential atmosphere of terminal wasteland, most appropriate for the hideously over-populated sprawl of Mega-City One.

Ghost In The Shell (2017)

Casting white American actress Scarlett Johansson as Japanese super-heroine Mira Killian prompted an outcry about cultural appropriation, but any $100 million movie might never have been made without a bankable Hollywood star for its marquee value. Even following so many animated movies and TV serials, based on manga comics, this cyberpunk franchise only became a live-action picture directed by Rupert Sanders, because of Johansson, with Takeshi Kitano and Juliette Binoche as main supporting players. GHOST IN THE SHELL is set in the dystopian Asian megalopolis, where the mostly-robotic super-cop Major Killian investigates terrorists, while also uncovering dark secrets purged from her own memory. Johansson turns in a good performance as the stoic Major, a coolly violent operator in an urban jungle of hacked tech, broken minds, and ubiquitous corporate criminality. GITS is a sometimes chilling but spectacular thriller, where human virtues struggle for survival in wholly intrusive systems of omnipotent control and brutal corporate exploitation. With its brisk character development, GITS adapts its sci-fi horror comics-source into a cinematic milieu that’s every bit as polished and stylish as Blade Runner 2047, but also manages to avoid the overly slow pace that makes Denis Villeneuve’s movie a leisurely experience of cyber-futurism compared to Ridley Scott’s SF-masterwork Blade Runner (1982). Exhilarating on every level of its astonishing visuals, intriguing plot, and several fascinating characters, here’s a exceptional superhero movie that finds a heart and soul hidden inside the body electric.

 

Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes (1984)

Created in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs, jungle survivor Tarzan was tragically orphaned but became a superhero 25 years before Superman and Batman. Hugh Hudson’s grandly revisionist adventure GREYSTOKE is a colonial mystery drama of surprising maturity and exquisite hyper-realism. Older fans might well remember Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan movies, or Ron Ely on TV in the 1960s, but this classic picture stars Christopher Lambert as John Clayton II, and the name Tarzan is never mentioned except in the film's title, although he is still presented as proto-conservationist, and something of an eco-warrior. Newcomer Lambert gets admirable support from Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, and James Fox. For her pivotal role as Jane, US model Andie MacDowell was dubbed by Glenn Close. Peter Elliott, now Hollywood’s celebrated ‘primary primate’, and special make-up effects wizard Rick Baker, both worked on realising a group of great apes. With roots in classic SF, like Wells’ The Island Of Dr Moreau (1896), Greystoke presents a dramatic version of ‘uplift’, delivering a superb character-study of the archetypal noble savage. Raised from infancy by apes, he adapts quickly, but remains untamed by man’s world. Confronting, and then dismissing, blasphemy, it’s amusing that Lord John’s first decisive act against civilisation is burning a British flag. Learning English from a Belgian officer, who guides John towards accepting another family-life in Scotland, Lambert has a brooding stare, and a tremendous charisma in this role as the deeply troubled outsider with an uncanny talent for mimicry. He struggles with the absurd etiquette of social grace, but has no difficulty expressing basic humanity, with a fearless love, and a feral grief. Of course, after inheriting the Clayton title and vast estates, the new Earl of Greystoke returns to the jungle, because that’s his adoptive family’s home. For its visual style in early sequences, David Yates’ The Legend Of Tarzan (2016), owes much to Greystoke, but that remake soon develops into a more typical superhero adventure, despite a finale packed with tree-top stunts and the disaster-effects of stampeding animals.

Hellboy (2004)

Establishing that superhero comics are the finest medium for combining elements of science fiction and fantasy, Guillermo del Toro’s magnificently inventive movie HELLBOY offers a startling verification for masterwork cinema, like only a very few distinctive screen adaptations (Hulk and The Dark Knight are others). It offers grander entertainment value than similar genre pictures, of impressively scaled verisimilitude, resulting in a dimensionally supreme version of esoteric narrative concerns that arguably improves upon the comicbook source material. Much as I really admire del Toro’s Spanish fantasy productions - like The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), I do prefer the accomplished mix of quirky humour, and uncanny action sequences, that distinguish Hellboy from the rest of recently produced superhero-cinema, although Timur Bekmambetov’s appealing and imaginatively conjured Russian offerings, Night Watch (2004), and Day Watch (2007), explore similarly horrific territory. For Hellboy, the director continues the good work that he put into Blade II (2002), adds a doomed romance to existing B.P.R.D. secret agency relationships, and weirdly composed Otherness, so this adventure fields more levels of madcap fairytale fun, stylish chills, and winning pathos, than either of those equally light-hearted, but less interesting, SF super-team movies about The Fantastic Four (2005/ 2007). HellboyII: The Golden Army (2008) is also very good, and last year’s Hellboy remake has its own fair share of strange tropes and gory horrors.

Hulk (2003)

Watching interior-monologues by Gollum in Lord Of The Rings trilogy made it so perfectly clear to me that photo-real animation was now developing from motion-capture technology, so it could match a live-action performer to create a genuine character. But what about a non-speaking role? Ang Lee’s true masterpiece HULK remains the greatest superhero epic. Getting a film director who’s best known for Art-house dramas, to helm such a highly commercial blockbuster, was a daring approach, and yet all the risks paid off, handsomely, resulting in the best picture of its year, and of that decade. What Lee did was the very first serious drama of its type, rich in mutated genre themes, and supremely iconic images, derived in part from the same influential mythic sources and literary classics that had most inspired the original comic-book Hulk’s creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, back in 1962. Ang Lee’s singular tour de force blends sci-fi adventures, monster-movie traditions, and miraculous wonders of modern heroism with bravura visuals. It remains far superior in every way to its unnecessary sequel/ unfortunate remake, or needless franchise-reboot, The Incredible Hulk (2008), which I did enjoy, but still think is rather unexciting and formulaic, when it’s compared to this instant classic. For a lot more comments by me, explaining why HULK is the very best 21st century superhero movie, so far, please read my book (HULK by Tony Lee).

Logan (2017)

Blending western themes into a superhero’s finale, this X-Men movie was based on comic-book Old Man Logan (2008) about Wolverine, an iconic rebel mutant whose longevity and popularity spearheads Marvel’s genetic outcasts from Lefty school to revolutionary action. Easily the finest of this weaponised character’s movies, James Mangold’s LOGAN eclipses X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and The Wolverine (2013), with its study of the retired and doomed hero, suffering melancholic failings before a fateful atonement. This is also a road-movie with skilfully plotted tributes expanding the range of richly thematic references that superhero cinema is fond of circling, not simply tick-box listing details but also encompassing sublime allusions to reinvigorate this golden age of superhero cinema, now over-exploited by Hollywood. A significant cycle of cross-genre adaptations began with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) was the gunslingers version. Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) has a super-team gather in outer space. Recent additions include Tsui Hark’s wuxia tribute Seven Swords (2005) bringing the process full circle. Another strand of movies relevant here is the 'weird western', some of which should be re-interpreted to find links to superhero cinema. A few, like bounty-hunter, Jonah Hex (2010), comedy steampunk remake Wild Wild West (1999), and that most iconic masked cowboy The Lone Ranger (2013) challenge or blur the existing lore, between lawmen and outlaws. However, making a modern-styled western that so fully respects cowboy tropes pledged to be something very special, and Logan is exactly that. Remixing elements from the influential Shane (1953), cited on-screen, and True Grit (1969, Coens’ remake 2010), ensures that horrific violence, permitted here by Logan’s genre revisionism, never loses sight of moralistic borrowings from earlier adventures in frontier heroism.

The Right Stuff (1983)

What seems more obvious now, than during the 20th century, is how THE RIGHT STUFF was the first great modernist superheroes movie. Produced in the gap between Superman: The Movie (1978), and Batman (1989), its witty episodes, and chaptering of big adventures that span decades, cleverly deconstructs the legendary exploits of pioneering test-pilots (‘flyboy’, etc), and navy aviators. It humanises America’s astronauts as space-men with character-flaws, then rebuilds their mythology as demon-slayers and sky-breakers for a soaring finale, after forging their super-team: the Mercury seven, solo voyagers into the unknown. These spacers became famous as real-life equivalents of comics’ superheroes, like Buck Rogers (cited twice in the movie), and Flash Gordon, although astronauts were celebrities even before they had done anything important. Archive B&W news-reel clips, and contemporary footage by NASA, enhances the documentary style of this drama in many sequences, while recreations using an artistic licence guarantee that events deliver heavy wallops of emotional impact, despite certain historical inaccuracies. The flyers of Project Mercury (1958-63), were succeeded by the two-man missions of Project Gemini (1961-6). Marvel first published The Fantastic Four in 1961, about a super-team adventure that began with their own experimental rocket-ship, action clearly inspired by America’s burgeoning space programme. Five names of the Mercury astronauts - Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon, and John - became pilots of International Rescue in TV puppet-show Thunderbirds (1964-8), a classic example of unique machines cast in superhero roles. Adapting Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book for The Right Stuff movie, this race-into-space saga now cements the clear influence of 1950s' science and technology on popular sci-fi in 1960s’ media, specifically helping to kick-start superhero fantasy trends. Going boldly where no director had been before, Philip Kaufman’s movie did all of this even before Alan Moore’s Watchmen was published.

RoboCop (1987)

Partly inspired by the anti-hero Judge Dredd (created for British comics in 1977), director Paul Verhoeven’s queasily prophetic satire ROBOCOP, established the Dutch filmmaker in Hollywood, leading to a loose thematic trilogy of SF-horrors, with Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997), exploring an escalating wave of dark futurism, even as studios exploited the iconic character of lawman Murphy portrayed by Peter Weller for increasingly comic-book styled sequels, plus franchising spin-offs. The long history of mechanical characters on screen, ranges from Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis (1927), to Robert Wise’s classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and George Lucas’ debut THX-1138 (1971). The cyborg hero in TV-movie The Six Million Dollar Man (1973), led to a popular series, before Future Cop (1976-7) put its android in uniform, and sitcom Holmes & Yoyo (1976-7) reduced SF formula to farce. Ridley Scott’s genius in Blade Runner (1982) only suggested the anti-hero was a robot, but hits like Blue Thunder (1983), and The Terminator (1984), most clearly promoted the blending of intelligent SF and grisly humour, that forged RoboCop into an urban western. Its media satire in a cultural dystopia with unashamedly grotesque set-pieces, included a ‘product violation’ program, a plot harking back to The Golem (1920), that awarded executives the corporate insurance of ‘Directive 4’, stopping the Robocop from arresting yuppie villains. Splashy critiques of consumer society and jaded futurism, overcome the pulpy limitations of low-budget origins, so that its man-against-machine themes ultimately transcend the rather silly title. Frankensteinian science and Christian resurrection allegory are background sources of influence, within the subgenre of robot-man movies, but it’s an uncanny re-emergence of human identity and sense of morality that drives this narrative through agonising ordeals of bitter grief and betrayals to win an emotionally satisfying conclusion. “They made this to honour him” forgives Irvin Kershner’s actioner RoboCop 2 (1990). Its social commentary on corruption extends Murphy’s humanity, but this fades most of Verhoeven’s astutely cynical attitudes about the USA. Fred Dekker’s funny RoboCop 3 (1993) delivers amusing hokum with a jet-pack that now (restored, uncut on Blu-ray), reminds us this trilogy pre-dates Iron Man (2008). Jose Padilha’s slick remake RoboCop (2014) is a worthwhile update. 

Watchmen (2009) 

Zack Snyder’s director’s cut, boasting 24 minutes of extra footage, enhances the cinema version with its subtle character moments and the interplay of dystopian themes. Alongside this movie’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal comics, WATCHMEN reaches beyond the scope of purely artistic creativity or intellectual enlightenment, becoming a witty statement of socio-political philosophy about humanity’s gross limitations, confronting a universe that maintains a terrifying indifference to any such fictional concerns. There can be no doubt, the use of surrealist montages here enjoys links to inventive pop-video streams, while its cultural significance varies, depending upon audience education standards, or generational heritage. What seems undeniable now is how, ten years later, this picture has become a foundational tale in the overall jigsaw-puzzle scheme of superhero cinema’s golden age. Its distinction from notable contemporaries, like Avengers Assemble and Justice League, or Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four (aka: FANT4STIC, 2015) remake, are so pronounced that most if its movie rivals appear trivial, in comparison. Weighty issues of immortality, technological ascension, and the unavoidable corruption resulting from authoritarianism, converge in sinister mastermind plotting that exposes the essentially frivolous nature of mankind’s morality. Throughout a comprehensive future-history that’s packed with chills and thrills, incidental jokes and ultimate horror, Watchmen combines its literary and visual genius, and professes a deeper understanding of what 'superhero' means, like nothing else on this list. Damon Lindelof’s TV series Watchmen (2019) is a sequel that begins strongly with a dark futurism in an alternative world, and its nine-episode run concludes with plenty of spectacular action scenes. However, its fractured tale of racism sags quite horribly, in the middle, with a weakly contrived B&W episode.  

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)

In marked contrast to the usual heroic-actioner themes of ‘one man can make a difference’, team-work is actually the core message of all modern cinema about superheroes. It’s crucial to Avengers, Justice League, and Watchmen movies but its philosophical depth is simply too often ignored by critics and viewers unable to see, or look, beyond the surface of colourful costumes, endless punch-ups, and property-damage spectacle. Condescending attitudes are frequently offered by snobs as if sneering is a legit critique, especially with dismissive comments about ‘men in tights’, forever mistaking the shameless TV parody of Adam West’s archly camp Batman as part of DC's canon (it isn’t, really). Using time-travel to change the world for everybody, in order to erase a history with 50 years of catastrophic warfare is, perhaps, the ultimate example of a socially benevolent dictatorship. In more ways than one, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is also about man versus machinery, where humans and militant or peaceful mutants must all face mutual destruction by fearful mankind’s runaway ideology for weaponry systems, here geared to exterminate further development of life on Earth. The good fight means ending history’s cycle of repetition, turning back from the march to genocide. This movie promotes co-operation instead of competition to a point of acceptance that nobody is indispensible, but everyone who is still sane should be involved, so its plot hinges on imitations by Mystique, and (in the extended ‘Rogue Cut’), Kitty is replaced by Marie as facilitator of projecting Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973. There are clever interactions between various super-powers, especially in the case of Xavier’s telepathy as mental projection or tele-presence, and Blink opening portals with imaginative choreography for extraordinary combat scenes. 

10 Runners-up (honourable mentions)... 

Unbreakable (2000) - followed by Split (2016), and Glass (2019), this ‘Eastrail’ trilogy by M. Night Shyamalan, explores the most realistic of superhero dramas.   

Superman Returns (2006) - Bryan Singer’s essentially revisionist version of Superman The Movie (1978) is a wholly under-rated tribute. 

Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007) - overcomes blandness of F4 playing to a family audience, with its cosmic menace in good attempts to depict Galactus, and his spacer herald.

Ghost Rider (2007) - paired with its overlooked sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance (2011), this stylised cult movie imperfectly captures an essence of zombie weirdness that Deadpool lacks.  

Clash Of The Titans (2010) - this remake of 1981’s adventure offers excellent spectacle and it’s a great improvement on the original.

Immortals (2011) - before Man Of Steel, Henry Cavill played Greek superhero Theseus, slayer of a mythic Minotaur, in this stunningly designed, ancient-world movie directed by Tarsem Singh.

Avengers Assemble (2012) - most notably, this landmark movie is one that I waited 40 years to see.

Wrath Of The Titans (2012) - this apocalyptic sequel is exactly the kind of epic fantasy that Thor: Ragnarok should have been, but they decided to make a super-spoof instead.

Gods Of Egypt (2016) - very best of the recent Nile-side superhero movies, this fantasy plays its game of thrones for keeps.

Godzilla: King Of The Monsters (2019) - a magnificent spectacle, blending mythology into rousing sci-fi adventure, this escapes from its pulpy origins and implausible scenario to become a new classic about gigantic creatures, saving humans from conquering aliens.

 * * * * * 

My top 20 list in chronological order...

Conan The Barbarian (1982) 

The Right Stuff (1983) 

Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984) 

Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes (1984) 

Big Trouble In Little China (1986) 

RoboCop (1987) 

Hulk (2003) 

Hellboy (2004) 

The Dark Knight (2008) 

Watchmen (2009) 

Birdman (2014) 

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) 

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015) 

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) 

Captain America: Civil War (2016) 

Doctor Strange (2016) 

Dredd (2017) 

Ghost In The Shell (2017) 

Logan (2017) 

Captain Marvel (2019)  

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Top TV

Top 25 TV Shows: 2000 - 2020

Listed in A-Z order...


Agent Carter
Alphas
The Blacklist
C.S.I.
Damages

Da Vinci’s Demons
Dead Like Me
Elementary
The Expanse
Fringe

Game Of Thrones
Grimm
Legends Of Tomorrow
Legion
The Magicians

Masters Of Horror
Mr Robot
Orphan Black
Penny Dreadful
Person Of Interest

ReGenesis
Rizzoli & Isles
Tru Calling
24
Utopia





Honourable mentions (from short-list) ...

ASHES TO ASHES
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (remake)
BONES
DOLLHOUSE
JOHN FROM CINCINNATI
LIE TO ME
MEDIUM
SMALLVILLE
SPOOKS
SUPERGIRL

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Millennial Bond

Pierce Brosnan was Bond, James Bond, 007

Although I always liked some of Roger Moore’s adventures (especially: Live And Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker) as James Bond, my favourite of all the 007 movies remains Licence To Kill (1989), starring Timothy Dalton. It was the prototype for later evolutionary change to a basic Bond-movie template, switching from the self-parodying quips (of Moore), and the action-adventures of Dalton’s two pictures, to a spy-thriller format that proved to be such a revival formula for Daniel Craig, particularly in Skyfall (2012), and Spectre (2015).

I bought a 007 on Blu-ray box-set, to re-watch this franchise, but soon realised my views about these movies have not changed much. You Only Live Twice (1967) stands out from 1960s’ Bonds, especially for its international scope, and aerial action spectacle - including the gyrocopter Little Nellie, the first new superhero machine of its kind, probably inspired by a modified helicopter appearing in Batman: The Movie (1966). Another aspect I found unchanged by seeing all of these movies again is traditional Bond theme-songs. 'Live And Let Die' (by Paul McCartney & Wings) has the strongest and most effective tune, by far. I still think it works best as one of the very few 007 lyrics that sounds great as standalone recording, distinct from its connection to the movie.          

The next decade saw Bond producers EON (‘everything or nothing’) re-mix an established cinematic blueprint, while including some broadly comic-book tropes of 007 super-villainy into repetitive pro-west espionage plots and flag-waving export scenarios. Moore’s efforts as increasingly-campy Bond reached sci-fi zenith with Moonraker (1979), most watchable for its obvious Star Wars influences, eagerly adopting high-frontier imagery for its classic space-marines finale. In addition to keeping pace with many technological developments, Bond movies always followed popular cultural trends, so blaxploitation pictures prompted Live And Let Die (1973), just like late 1980s’ box-office hits Lethal Weapon and Die Hard shaped the approach to 007 for Licence To Kill, which broke many Bond rules, and so got the first ‘15’ certificate in this usually PG-rated franchise. 

When budgets were increased, creativity flourished with greater possibilities, and so unofficial remake Never Say Never Again (1983) proved a superior entertainment than Thunderball (1965). Promoted from within the producers’ regular crew, film-editor John Glen became the record-setting director of all five official Bond movies during the 1980s. His work may well be lacking much great visual style beyond simple refinement of several recognisable elements, but his unfussy approach, and vast experience gained on previous adventures, mean that Glen remains the most accomplished individual on the standards of this whole franchise. Even if he is viewed as just a creative journeyman, Glen is the closest there is to a genuine 007 auteur, a director who, after nearly two decades of variable efforts - by Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, and Lewis Gilbert (making three Bond films each), clearly redefined the main approach, moods, and themes of what makes a Bond movie so easily recognisable a signature in cinematic terms.

Pierce Brosnan’s quartet of movies in this variable franchise include the favourable usage of sci-fi gadgets with better integration into story-telling, so that any hi-tech tools of spy-craft might be more than just gimmicks in the manner of ‘Chekov’s gun’ style plot-points. Pre-credits sequences of witty stunts also show much improvement, instead of a fall-back dependence upon fairly juvenile action. This greater sophistication of the typical 007 wow factor builds overtly modern cross-genre content into scenarios for a Bond of today’s era. Blockbuster cinema quickly evolved through many global cultural changes (Cold War and Space Age), supporting characterisations from Sean Connery to Roger Moore, so shifting political emphases of Brosnan’s outings kept sci-fi gadgetry and a broad sense of humour aboard while also trying to adapt Bond’s crude ‘dinosaur’ persona for survival in a society where multicultural growth, mega-corporate competition, and inspirational feminism, had practically crushed his renowned masculine prowess. With four pictures, by four different directors, Brosnan now became the main focus for any sense of creative continuity.

Gaining a significant upgrade in production values, with its near-doubling of budget, after a six-year break since Dalton appeared in LTK, Martin Campbell’s GoldenEye (1995) was cause for celebrations in 007 fandom, despite this franchise finally abandoning any direct narrative links to Ian Fleming’s books. Addressing political concerns about global stability in the post-USSR era, Brosnan’s debut as Bond cleverly bridges Gorbachev’s ‘Perestroika’ years, with its prologue set in 1986, before picking up threads of its story a decade later. Judi Dench brings an amusingly maternal authority but wholly matriarchal instincts to her vital role as the new M. No glib remarks or pithy comebacks are warranted here when the hero faces a betrayal of trust. Tightly edited and better polished, and considerably slicker than many previous 007 movies, GoldenEye shares a few aspects with several early Bond movies, although on-going modernisation is roundly characterised in Bond himself as less of a maverick talent, except for his impulsive reactions to mortal threats, and far more of a dedicated team-player. Emerging from a career of dark lies and deceptions, he remains a smooth individualist, yet now the hero’s politically-incorrect shortcomings are identified and examined, and skewered by critique as never before.

Roger Spottiswoode’s Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) has media baron Carver (Jonathan Pryce) launching his info war, using truth as a super-weapon for attacks upon democracy while his ‘edifice complex’ means being a successful celebrity influencer to provoke WW3. As a back-seat driver in a remote-controlled BMW getaway vehicle, Bond’s gadget-phone adds tremendous fun to a combat and chase sequence in a German car park. Following a precedent, set 20 years previously, in The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond is forced into team-work with Chinese agent Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh). The dynamic duo are especially effective when they’re handcuffed together for a motorbike escape, pursued by an enemy helicopter, through Saigon. Playful and yet physically quite formidable, Lin is 007’s equal, not just another Bond girl. She’s definitely the first proper action-heroine in this franchise and it’s about time, too. With its crucial elements of mass-media exploitation, 'Big Data' manipulation, and fake-news campaigns, the techno-terrorism plotting in TND now seems remarkably prescient. 

The World Is Not Enough (1999) features the best Bond tune of two decades. Scottish singer Shirley Manson and her rock band Garbage here produce a somewhat melancholy ballad. Unusually, there’s also a superbly designed promo video for the song. As leading lady, Sophie Marceau plays heiress Elektra King as a twisted schemer, using Bond’s own nagging conscience against him. Robert Carlyle makes a suitably deranged henchman as anarchist villain Renard, a romanticised bogeyman of sorts. A US physicist, Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), is amusingly cast as the most blatant Bond girl, who’s certainly more effective as welcome comedy-relief than John Cleese is as veteran Q’s understudy. Nuclear terrorism holds no mystery for Bond, of course, but a criminal conspiracy and an atypical use of supporting characters manages to redeem this movie’s re-deployment of several 007 clich├ęs. Putting Bond’s lady-boss M into distress and danger was an inspired move by the screen-writers. Michael Apted’s direction of TWINE is sincerely respectful of Bond conventions, but not afraid to break away from traditional 007 jokiness, so that all the patented innuendo here is grimly sarcastic, or ironic, instead of cheerful and cheesy.

With its dreadfully inapt theme song by Madonna, who also gets a pointless cameo, and a role for talentless Halle Berry, Die Another Day (2002), loudly signals its artistic failures with unfortunate surrender to celebrity dictates for the sake of marketing. Only its glossy style and Brosnan’s routinely sterling professionalism save this from becoming a creative disaster. Decadence and snobbery is customary in this wacky worldview of paranoid 007, where one man’s tourist is another’s terrorist. Typically topical, Bond faces North Korean aggro here, but DAD struggles to cope with some very wrong women chosen for its cast. Madonna seems to have imagined a Bond movie would look good on her CV, even though she can’t act and never even tries here. With her wet-bikini walk-up, as a low-rent Ursula Andress, charmless Berry appears so full of herself with a laughable over-confidence that there’s no room at all for anything resembling a character. Throughout Jinx’s competitive co-operation with Bond, she indulges her childish fantasy about winning a spin-off action-franchise, yet it’s impossible to take Berry seriously as a disposable starlet, never mind a genuine actress. Ambitious ‘entrepreneur’ Graves (Toby Stephens) is a bland antagonist, but, at least, Rosamund Pike is good value as double-agent Miranda Frost, and Rick Yune makes a suitably psycho henchman. Easily the weakest of Brosnan’s Bonds, DAD benefits from classy production spending and some worthwhile effects, adding enough spectacular explosions to brighten Brosnan’s efforts in his final 007 adventure.


Despite a few minor hiccups in characterisation and performance qualities, Brosnan is the very best Bond. He has looks and charm, sharp humour and a measure of sheer coolness that no other actor has ever quite managed, consistently. Most vitally, he demonstrates a profound calmness, and a wholly unique super-heroic ability for playing 007 with a streak of ruthless efficiency. Brosnan was Bond, perfected. His motivated portrayal just delivers the goods without stooping to Connery’s gruffly smirking machismo. There is not even an ounce of spoofy Moore’s smarmy Lothario, and he’s certainly nothing at all like empty ex-model George Lazenby’s place-holder. All the while he’s trying, with grace under pressure to avoid matching up to Dalton’s bleeding-over stunt-furniture approach. Brosnan’s Bond simply revels in the widescreen magic of boldly suave antics.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

DC TV Crisis

Crisis On Infinite Earths (2019)

Following the parallel-world cross-over TV shows Crisis On Earth-X (2017) and Elseworlds (2018), now it’s multi-verse apocalypse time, from Big Bang to an ultimate cosmological annihilation by anti-matter. Defence of DCEU depends on seven Paragons. Core TV series cleverly mixed together include variably-powered fighters and capes in -
Arrow
The Flash
Legends Of Tomorrow
Supergirl
Black Lightning
Batwoman

But that’s not all, of course. This comprehensive story-line also draws in -
The Flash (1990)
Smallville (2001-11)
Birds Of Prey (2002)
Constantine (2014)
Lucifer (2015)
Titans (2018)
Swamp Thing (2019)
Doom Patrol (2019)
Stargirl (2020)

Movies cited for key scenes, then often sourced (some more than others) for themes re-visited and re-mixed into clever riffs - 
Batman (1966) 
Superman III (1983)
Batman (1989)
Superman Returns (2006)
Jonah Hex (2010)
Green Lantern (2011)
Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016)

Although some of these links and references only amount to little more than in-jokes, or cameo appearances, the sheer wealth of material here adds up to the greatest TV cross-over event, about genre comic-books and franchise shows, while folding its truly epic sci-fi and fantasy narrative into many-worlds theory. This story is big enough for amusing Easter eggs leading to a ret-con finale.

So, although TV event-series Crisis... obviously lacks production values of mega-budget movies like Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, this DC effort manages to catch up and overtake Marvel’s grandest nightmare with the wish-fulfilment of even greater utopian fan-fiction dreams, emerging from a chaos of corporate media (competitive studios, TV networks) plus episodic adventures within multi-verse complexity. Doing its best with a hectic pace and tightly-corralled repertory-style cast, COIE brings cumulative mythology (that includes iconic images from DC book Kingdom Come), fused with a pure comicbook joy, creating this new Age of Heroes.