Now in Theaters: May/June 2016

We’re in the peak of the summer movie season, and the results are mixed. Let’s examine:

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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I’m calling it now, this is going to go down as an important movie. Captain America: Civil War represents the full potential of Marvel’s brand of serialized filmmaking. It took Marvel Studios almost a decade of careful planning and patience that their distinguished competition seems to lack to arrive at a film that could not have existed until now. Marvel could slam-dunk this due primarily to the strength of their brand, their audience was already fully on-board before even buying their tickets.

Civil War blasts out of the gate so assuredly, it doesn’t even bother with opening credits. Besides the Marvel after the cold open, there are no title cards or credits of any kind, even for the title  of the film. Instead of sitting politely in the corner of the frame like they would in any other blockbuster, location cards blare in massive white block letters that fill the entire screen. Characters are referred to by their first names almost exclusively, even if we haven’t seen them in a while (he’s Clint, no need to call him Hawkeye). The film also unafraid to put characters we like in a morally ambiguous situation in which nobody is fully right.

Civil War is an interesting adaptation of tricky source material. Some of the biggest moments in the comic arc simply can’t happen in the current state of the MCU (Spider-Man unmasking himself, a bunch of X-Men and Fantastic Four stuff), and personally I wasn’t in thrall of the comics anyway. The film retains some of the bigger things from the comics (the Superhero Registration Act becomes the Sokovia Accords, the Raft goes from being trans-dimensional space prison to sea prison), but instead performs the tricky high-wire act of being both a second sequel in the Captain America series and an Avengers-level cinematic event.

Civil War is big, and plenty of stuff blows up, but the story unspools itself in a  manner that deliberately deconstructs the structure of typical superhero fare. The movie builds in the scope of its action and ensemble of characters until it reaches the masterful and thoroughly cathartic airport sequence, then pares itself back down until only three characters remain to duke it out by the end of the third act. An even dozen heroes (all of whom we actually know) come to blows in the best action sequence in any superhero film ever, but we never forget this is a Captain America movie first.

Civil War is still a Marvel Studios joint, and the genre still has its limitations. The musical score is useless. Besides some second-unit work from the guys that shot the Raid films and some interesting decisions in the final fight, much of the cinematography would blend in with any other Marvel movie. This is all par for the course, though, and doesn’t detract from this film’s set of mammoth accomplishments. Civil War is an absolute tour de force. Go see it again.

 

NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING

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This one was a pleasant surprise. Neighbors 2 is not tremendously substantive, but it’s smarter than you would think and takes a bemused but thoughtful look at our modern expectations of feminism. The films mirrors the structure of the first Neighbors‘s battle between adjacent lots (same houses, too), but instead of just settling entirely for gross embarrassment comedy acts as an exploration of gender dynamics. The word ‘sexism’ is bandied around a lot and examined in multiple contexts. It also goes out of its way to normalize gay relationships in a way that’s a little heavy-handed but nonetheless appreciated.

Neighbors 2 is a lot of fun, and doesn’t waste time getting too dark. In its own quietly amusing way, it sets up some situations that could be escalated to disastrous levels, but never do. It moves right along and while some of the gross-out stuff isn’t very helpful, it doesn’t get bogged down in endless riffing and remains almost entirely affable and well-meaning. Even Rose Byrne tones it down a little bit. I also continue to find myself surprised by how much I consistently like Zac Efron. I laughed maybe half a dozen times, which is pretty good for me. It’s not essential, but definitely worth a rent when it shows up at your corner Redbox in a few months.

 

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

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I don’t know what it is, but I can’t bring myself to care about the X-Men. I didn’t watch them on TV growing up, and the first X-Men movie I saw in theaters was Days of Future Past. For whatever reason I never connected with the property, and unfortunately Apocalypse did nothing to change that.

X-Men: Apocalypse is by no means a terrible movie, but it has the grave misfortune of being released on the heels of the titanic critical and commercial successes of Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War, both of which make this movie look antiquated by comparison. Every silly superhero trope that Civil War attempts to deconstruct or Deadpool skewers, Apocalypse barrels into with a grimace and energy beam blast. An awful lot of stuff, especially in the first act, happens because, plot. We now live in a post-Civil War world where just seeing everyone together looking like we expect them to isn’t enough anymore.

With a title like Apocalypse, the movie pigeonholed itself before the script got its first scene heading. As you’d expect, the “stakes” are world-ending, but for all the buildings crumbling and metal particles flying around, I didn’t get a feeling of massive scale like I expected. This is probably due in part to some unfortunately shoddy CG work that disassociates the massive destruction from the spaces the characters inhabit. The film also shoehorns in a few scenes of destruction in places that have no relation to the plot. The action’s climax is staged amid boring piles of rubble.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have much familiarity with the property outside of the films, but I thought there was a lot of stuff in this movie that wasn’t particularly helpful. Like Days of Future Past there’s a flashy Quicksilver sequence that stops the narrative cold for several minutes, but there’s less novelty value this time around. (minor spoiler ahead!) Following the Quicksilver sequence, there’s a lengthy detour that exists just to put Wolverine on-screen for a few minutes, after which he literally scurries away to get back to his own movies. In terms of character motivations, everything to do with the titular villain and his posse is a little too far on the side of implausible. We don’t really need yet another Magneto redemption arc, as serviceable as this one is. It’s all a little too much.

If you’re already in the bag for this movie, there’s plenty of stuff you’ll like. I’m just not sure what the point of the whole thing is.

Thoughts: DEADPOOL is a (slightly) different kind of superhero movie

Deadpool is a film in conflict with itself.

The story of this movie’s greenlighting process is well-known at this point but it is a huge part of this film’s meta-narrative and internal struggle; Deadpool has both the freedom and burden of being the first studio superhero film developed due to popular internet demand. The film is pulled between two sets of demands: the need for this (ostensibly) niche product to make a demonstrable profit, and to please the hordes of fans who clamored for the Deadpool flick after leaked test footage from Comic-Con went viral.

So what’s the ruckus about? Different people will give you different answers, but at the end of the day it all boils down to the one thing about Deadpool (a.k.a. mercenary Wade Wilson) that makes him different from any other mainstream comic book character: he knows he’s a fictional character. This notion has tremendous dramatic power; unlike any other hero, Deadpool has the unique ability to elevate or completely derail any scene he is in at any time. By the character’s very nature, anything involving Deadpool is going to be deeply meta and the potential is limitless. Deadpool is also filthy and violent. He’s a member of the X-Men family of Marvel superheroes, and therefore falls under the purview of 20th Century Fox who eventually proved game enough to fund an R-rated film of this character, as is befitting his violent and crude nature.

In trying to please both the suits and the fans, Deadpool talks a big game while resting on the standard superstructure of pretty much every other Marvel Comics-related movie of the last decade. All the pieces are there, from the team-up with a few minor characters, to the plucky-but-still-imperiled heroine, to the bit at the end when stuff blows up. The film presents a recognizably standard superhero origin story, a little more graphic than what we’re used to seeing in this kind of movie but not particularly distinctive. Deadpool, both visually and aurally, fits neatly into the shiny Marvel aesthetic.

As a direct link between the reader and the story Deadpool has always served as an audience surrogate, making the MST3K-style jokes you’d crack with your buddies. The film’s running commentary is often very funny, but masks the fact that underneath the lewd exterior, Deadpool isn’t actually all that subversive. Everything you’d expect to see in a superhero film is here, and nothing I saw on screen actually surprised me. T. J. Miller is good, but feels a bit misplaced as comic relief to a character that’s already a clown. Morena Baccarin is delightful as Wade’s love interest (a new addition for the film not present in the comics), but by the middle of the third act is tied up by the villain like superhero love interests are so often wont to do.

Deadpool hits the ground running with a thoroughly clever title sequence skewering comic-movie tropes and barrels gleefully through an expanded version of the highway action setpiece from the original test footage, but begins to sputter during the flashback sequences detailing Wade Wilson’s metamorphosis. Once the film is solidly and the third act and things need to get resolved, the film loses some steam and ends on a bit of a weak note (although the post-credits stinger, some pure fan-candy, perks everyone up on the way out the door). Maybe I was expecting too much, but what I was hoping would be a new kind of superhero movie really was just a naughty version of what I’m already used to seeing, and this sort of thing no longer feels filling.

This isn’t to say the film is bad, because as far as comic book movies go Deadpool is pretty solid. It chugs right along and I never once thought about checking my watch. Ryan Reynolds has found the role that will define him. The jokes comes fast and furious, and just enough of them land. Some of the inside-baseball quips (at one point Reynolds quips about fondling Wolverine’s balls while affecting an Australian accent, the writers are credited in the opening titles as “The Real Heroes here,” etc.) are pretty refreshing.

I really did like Deadpool, and the fault may lie more with me wanting it to be an art film. I’ve seen it twice and both times the audience gobbled it up. It’s crushed all opening-weekend records for an R-rated film, and that’s without 3-D. All’s I’m saying is, Deadpool is good but let’s not get carried away.