Friday, 13 April 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Sixteen: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Huh - didn't see that coming...

After the decent stab of Sony's first Sam Raimi effort, I pretty much tuned out of Spider-Man films. I know, I know; everyone else loved Spider-Man 2 more than I did. That's fine. You go right ahead believing that Alfred Molina had the first clue what he was doing with that accent. I won't get in your way.

Don't get me wrong; Spider-Man was my go-to superhero as a kid. I just wasn't that taken with the inexplicable facial contortions of the Tobey Maguire version. The Andrew Garfield ones somehow managed to do even less for me. Anyway, I had fairly low expectations of what Sony could accomplish, given the weirdly hazy idea they had about the specifics of their deal with Marvel. I mean - his solo films weren't going to be in the MCU, then they were. Then the sequel wasn't going to be, now it might. Then Venom simultaneously is and isn't and also somehow doesn't have anything to do with Spider-Man at all.

In the end, though, Spider-Man: Homecoming impressed me a lot. Here's why:

The Villain
Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a winner. This, right here, is how you build a solid villain for an MCU film. Michael Keaton's Vulture isn't needlessly evil, and he doesn't have a ridiculously unmotivated and/or over-complicated plot to take over, destroy or otherwise inconvenience the world. He's a skilled, ambitious father looking out for his family. He's got legitimate grievances, but never lets them dominate him. He's a thief and an arms dealer, but never goes out of his way to kill anyone. In fact, the single murder he does commit (the film's only death, I think) is accidental. Even when he's getting slammed around by Spider-Man, all he's focused on is trying to get the work done. In this case, that means heisting some technology from the Avengers as a last-ditch "final job" he only needs to resort to because Spider-Man's wrecked everything else he's got going on.

Speaking of Keaton, he completely owns this role. The scene in the car is a full-on classic. He suddenly realises he's got his nemesis in his back seat, apparently trying to threaten his family. He already knows what Parker's capable of, and how precarious this moment is. He's got a gun in his hand, but it's almost useless against the superhumanly fast, strong and alert kid in his car. All he's got going for him are that voice, that face and that single moment in time.

The Story
Spider-Man films have a certain convention that they all seem to cling to. The villain of the piece is necessarily mired in weird coincidences. In the Maguire days, the bad guy was always Parker's best friend's dad, one of his mentors or some sludge that dripped exclusively onto him. With Garfield, it was either a teacher or a guy he'd just rescued and who'd become instantly obsessed with him. In Homecoming, they took the bold step of having the villain pre-date the hero for once. Vulture's been quietly active for years before Spider-Man comes along and throws things off-balance. Despite that, the film still manages to come up with the most awkwardly unearned coincidence of any Spidey flick to date. Out of nowhere, we get a reveal that the Vulture is his would-be girlfriend's dad. I wince every time that scene comes around, but end up instantly forgiving the film because of the car scene that comes right after.

The Universe
Alright, Spidey's back in the MCU! That's great - although I find myself waiting for the inevitable moment when Sony shits the bed again. Tony Stark still hasn't retired as Iron Man, despite endless protestations to the contrary. Spider-Man may or may not have his danger sense - but if he does it's extremely temperamental. Like, he dodges things he probably didn't see coming one moment, then gets severely blindsided by an untrained thug with an unfamiliar science-vibrator the next. I don't think anyone's ever tackled the "spider-sense" particularly well or consistently on film, though, so it'd be weird to ding Homecoming too harshly over that. Also, The Prowler kinda exists, Scorpion possibly will in the future - and maybe Miles Morales too?

The Stinger
Literally anyone who matters knows Spider-Man's secret identity and Captain America thinks you're a moron for sitting through the credits to find out about that.

The Take-Away
I have very few major complaints about Spider-Man: Homecoming - with the one possible exception of the coincidence reveal. There's a solid cast of characters on both sides, and enough soap-opera stuff to balance out the heroics with a bit of "heart". Very interested to see what's next for ol' Webhead - but still full of confidence in Sony's ability to fuck it up yet again.

Previously: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Next: Thor: Ragnarok

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Fifteen: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

You've got to admire the outright balls of this one. Not content with somehow capturing lightning in a bottle with the first Guardians film, James Gunn sets out to recapture the exact same bolt of lightning in an only fractionally different shaped bottle. On the one hand, it's absolutely one of the most enjoyable MCU films so far. On the other, it's set in a universe where David Hasslehoff exists and Kurt Russell doesn't - and I'm not completely convinced I can live with that.

The Villain
So, technically, we've got a villain who doesn't get revealed as such until pretty late in the film. Kurt Russell's Ego is (in addition to being the name of my first university band) basically the only kind of performance you get from a stunt-cast character like this. It's a fat slice of medium-strength William Shatner/Bruce Campbell cheese, and no less effective for that. Thirty years ago they probably would've spent the extra fiver and given the part to Doug McClure. Anyway, Ego's scheme is just moronic. He's disappointed in the lifeforms he's found in the universe, so he decides to wipe them out and replace them all with... himself, somehow? Why he needed to do that instead of just using his total control of all molecular matter to build from scratch isn't spelled out - but at that point you might as well ask why he didn't use that power to disintegrate the entire Guardians crew in an instant, instead of fist-fighting Starlord while an idiot shrub stuck a bomb in his brain.

Taking the stage as runner-up bad guys and endless tide of disposable grunts, we've got the Sovereign - but they're really only around for comedy and to make up the numbers in the action scenes. They provide more than decent value for money on both scores, though.

The Story
Right - we're slightly retconning, or at least back-filling, the final moments of Guardians 1 here. It turns out that Starlord is part-god, which is why he could hold an Infinity Stone for a few pivotal seconds. Exactly where that leaves other Stone-fondlers like Nick Fury is left entirely unclear, of course. Yondu gets reverse-engineered into a good guy and father figure, Nebula kinda-sorta gets the second dimension she was missing in the first flick and Quill and Gamora talk incessantly about their relationship to avoid the trouble of actually having one. Also, Rocket undoes virtually all the character progression he underwent in the previous volume and becomes an outright dick for most of the film.

Weirdly, it all works. I mean, it really works. It's glorious to look at, full of inventive action and pumps out dialogue that must've been sharpened with some kind of fancy laser device. It's a little too reliant on having characters laugh out loud to punctuate the funny bits, but I was generally laughing too anyway.

The Universe
Guardians 2 thoughtfully puts all its toys back in the box when it's done playing with them. Everyone's relationships get thrown into upheaval, but settle back into equilibrium in the end. Peter gets godlike powers for thirty minutes, then loses them. Nebula fights briefly for the good guys, then pisses back off. Yondu is made immensely important in Peter's life - then dies to restore the all-important "orphan" part of his character. At the end of the day, it's hard to suggest that anything major changed. The Guardians set aside their in-fighting and learn to work as a team just in time to overcome a greater threat. Again.

The Stinger
The director's brother nearly kills Drax, Stallone pitches his own MCU Expendables movie, Adam Warlock gets a tease, Groot's a sulky teen and Stan Lee's a... Watcher, I guess? In other news, Jeff Goldblum does a weird little dance.

The Take-Away
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an Age of Ultron kind of deal. A lot of the ground it covers has been gone over in the previous entry, but it's all done well enough to justify its own existence and identity. Despite the light-hearted tone, this probably has one of the more impressive MCU bodycounts at 289 largely anonymous on-screen deaths. Yes, there are people who keep track of these things. Vol. 2 is possibly a little funnier than the first one, but maybe a little less substantial as well. Killing off Ego seems like a wasted shot and the whole idea of The Expansion feels like a tacked-on and deeply generic Evil Plan (TM). None of that really dents the whole package, though. The characters are still a joy to watch and the story does a good job of delivering them to the screen. So yeah, this one's fun.

Previously: Doctor Strange
Next: Spider-Man: Homecoming
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