Top Ten Medieval Movies

There are many different kinds of movies that stand strong over the years, but what usually stands up the strongest are the ones centered around adventure.  There’s something to be said about crowd pleasers that deliver on thrills, both on an intimate and epic scale.  Though you can find adventure films that span across all types of genres (fantasy, sci-fi, and so forth) what seems to capture the imagination the most for many audiences are adventures of a historic kind.  Human history is full of moments in time that have become the things of legend, and these historical moments in turn provide ample inspiration for cinematic treatment.  The historical epic was at one time the most dominant of all genres in Hollywood, especially during the advent of widescreen into cinemas.  Historical dramas, whether they be biblical, prehistoric, or medieval, gave Hollywood a chance to show off the craft of their trade on a scale unseen before.  They provided production design, costuming, and prop making a chance to indulge in extravagance while at the same time being grounded in a historical context that wouldn’t be too alienating to audiences.  But even though these kinds of movies were rousing crowd pleasers, they were at the same time enormously expensive to undertake, and each one would be a gamble once it hit theaters.  Over time, the gamble would prove to be too much for the industry, and the historical drama would recede as a force within the industry.  But, the movies that we have gotten over the years still stand out as shining examples of Hollywood working with all engines running, and taken out of the context of their performance at the box office, some of these movies eventually do find their audience, especially among those who wish to see epic cinema at it’s most ambitious.

Of the many historical epics that have especially stood the test of time, the most interesting group among them are those set within what we consider the Medieval Dark Ages.  This was the period of chivalry, mighty castle fortresses and epic battles between knights in armor.  At least that’s what we understand from a majority of the movies made in Hollywood about that time period.  But in reality, Medieval times really applies globally, with different parts of the world that shared many different upheavals that defined their history that also could be considered epic in scope.  While Europe was in the midst of the rising influence of their warring kingdoms, the Tsars were consolidating power in the Russian steppes, Genghis Khan was continuing his conquest of China and growing his vast Mongol empire, feudalism rose the samurais to ultimate power in the Japanese archipelago, and vast empires were rising in the Americas under the Mayans and the Incas.  Though separated by vast distances on the globe, every part of the world was experiencing their own epic stories during these tumultuous times, and they have been the inspiration for some of cinema’s grandest adventures.  In this list, I am going to list my own choices for the best medieval movies from across the globe.  Keep in mind, I am classifying these movies based solely on their place within a certain historical time and place.  Some of these stories can feature supernatural and fantasy elements, but they have to be earthbound, so no fantasy realms with medieval influence will be on this list (The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride) and they have to be entirely set in the Medieval times (no Highlander).  Before I begin, here are a couple noteworthy movies that didn’t make my list, but are still worth seeing: Black Death (2010), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), A Knight’s Tale (2001), The Name of the Rose (1987), El Cid (1961), Apocalypto (2006), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Sword in the Stone (1963), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Wolfwalkers (2020), The Court Jester (1955), and The Hidden Fortress (1956).  Now, let’s take a look at my picks for the 10 best Medieval movies of all time.



Directed by Anthony Harvey

Not all Medieval movies need to be centered around epic sword battles.   In this case, it’s centered around an extremely dysfunctional family who just so happen to be the sovereign rulers of the kingdoms of England and France all meeting together for a Christmas gathering.  That’s not to say it’s without it’s own thrilling twists and turns.  Adapted by writer James Goldman from his own play, The Lion in Winter centers upon the political machinations of King Henry II of England and his would be heirs.  Though the many members of the family come together out of obligations to their familial ties, it’s clear throughout the course of the story that each is trying to outwit one another in a pursuit of power.  Henry (played magnificently by Peter O’Toole, who also previously played the same role in 1964’s Becket) has sired another child with his mistress and he seeks to legitimize the child and give him a claim to the throne over his older, grown sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry).  Complicating the family matters even more are the visiting Prince Phillip of France (Timothy Dalton) and the Queen Mother Elanor of Aquitaine (Kathrine Hepburn), both of whom stir up more disunity within the family for their own quest for power.  Taking place over the course of one tumultuous Christmas Eve, the story is an intriguing look at the back-stabbing squabbles of the ruling class.  As a movie, it’s a beautifully constructed film with authentic medieval flavor.  It’s also a tour de force of acting, with many rising stars like Hopkins and Dalton commanding the screen.  But above all else, it is the absolute queen Kathrine Hepburn who commands the film.  Winning the third of her four Oscars with her performance here, her presence elevates the movie to epic heights, and really takes her real life historical figure into the realm of legend.  Though intimate in scope, The Lion in Winter is nevertheless a Medieval classic in every way.



Directed by Ridley Scott

Taking the opposite direction from The Lion in Winter’s intimate story of inter-family politics, we see here a prime example of epic filmmaking within a Medieval setting ramped up to it’s zenith.  Director Ridley Scott had already modernized the sword and sandal epic with his Oscar winning Gladiator (2000) just a few years prior, and he looked to do the same with this Crusades era epic centered around the Battle of Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out the same way.  20th Century Fox butchered Scott’s original vision to release it in theaters in a more palatable 2 1/2 hour runtime.  Sadly, the theatrical cut was an uneven mess that failed at the box office.  But, somehow Ridley was able to convince the studio to release his original 3 hour and 15 minute version on home video and audiences were able to see the movie as he originally intended.  What we discovered was not only a movie far superior to the one released in theaters, but probably one of the greatest medieval war epics ever made.  The character motivations made more sense, the flow of the story was more natural, and it was far more introspective of the themes throughout the story.  Written by screenwriter William Monaghan, the story focuses on a lowly farmer named Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) who through lineage and perseverance finds himself transported from the snowy fields of France to the scorching deserts of the Middle East, where he in turn ends up commanding a defense of Jerusalem from the Sarasin army of Muslim warrior King Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).  The epic adventure has all the grandeur you’d expect, but the longer cut also provides an interesting meditation on the morality of war.  What Scott and Monaghan do so well in the story is their fair portrayal of both sides in the battle.  Saladin is shown to be an honorable leader, as is his counterpart on the Christian side, the leper King Baldwin (a remarkable uncredited and masked Edward Norton), and it’s the Zealot agitators on the edges that are truly responsible for the atrocities of the Crusades.  The movie was made in the midst of the ramp-up of the War on Terror, and the movie illustrates the folly of “holy wars” and imperialist nation building.  Sadly, the movie that illustrated that the best was left off the big screen in favor of a truncated version free of controversy.  At least Ridley Scott was able to get his version seen in the end and it should be the only version anyone ever sees.



Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Even the Soviets knew the crowd pleasing force that epic Medieval adventure could have on the big screen.  Pioneering filmmaker Eisenstein, who made a name for himself and Russian cinema with silent epics like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927), continued into the sound era with rousing propaganda adventures meant to spotlight the glory of the Russian worker post Revolution.  However, his often extravagant films were criticized as too bourgeois for the more hard lined Stalinist regime.  Still, when Russia needed a rousing adventure film to move the masses, he was called upon to deliver.  During the 1930’s, the Soviets were concerned by the rising power of Fascism coming from Germany under the reign of Hitler.  To convince the Russian people of the evils of Germany, the Soviet regime enlisted Eisenstein to adapt a famous Russian legend of a noble Prince named Alexander Nevsky who successfully defended the Russian people from an invasion from Teutonic (i.e. German) invaders.  And deliver he did, with a magnificent Medieval epic that transcends it’s propaganda origins.  Alexander Nevsky is one of the most exquisitely crafted epic movies of it’s era, with Eisenstein pushing the limits of scale and drama to the extreme.  The production design is top notch, and has even set the standard high not just for Russian cinema, but even that of Hollywood.  The harrowing battle on a river of ice is a particular highlight that is still unmatched nine decades later.  What is particularly surprising is that Eisenstein was inspired not just by cinema from European contemporaries, but from an unlikely Western source as well; Disney.  His staging and camera composition, as well as his use of music, actually owes a lot of influence to some of the more epic cartoons that the animation studio was churning out at the time, including the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937).  The Western influence was perhaps too noticeable, because Stalin banned the film for several years after a peace treaty was signed with Hitler’s Germany in 1938.  That treaty didn’t last long, and war soon broke out, forcing the movie to be released in full finally, however it was too late for Eisenstein whose good standing with the Soviet government was never able to recover.



Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Eric Larson, and Hamilton Luske

Speaking of Disney, they’ve had their own long history with movies in a Medieval setting.  With fairy tales being the source of most of their most noteworthy movies, it seems only natural that one or two would be set in a Medieval period.  The already mentioned Snow White certainly centers it’s story in a vaguely Medieval, Germanic setting, and Disney also did their own spin on Arthurian and Robin Hood legends with 1963’s The Sword in the Stone and 1973’s Robin Hood.  But, if there is one movie that is unmistakably tied to Medieval times in both story and it’s visual aesthetic, it’s Sleeping Beauty.  Before you say that I’m bending the rules to include this here, I want to point out that despite the fantasy elements this version of the story is based on the Charles Perrault adaptation, which firmly sets the story of Briar Rose in a distinctly Medieval French setting.  And I think above all the other movies on this list, this movie does the best job of conveying the feel of the middle ages through art.  Walt Disney wanted this film to look different from any he made before, and in particular, he wanted it to look like a moving medieval tapestry come to life.  Long before the Renaissance would revolutionize the art of painting, the most common artform in the middle ages was weaving tapestries for the walls of castles.  Within them, they immortalized great achievements by kings and knights, and did so with remarkable, stylized graphic detail.  Disney translated this look into the angular, sharp edged style of Sleeping Beauty, which conveys a look of unmistakable medieval influence.  The forest scenes alone are spectacular in their attention to the tiniest details.  Disney also romanticizes the epic adventure aspect of the story in a way no one else could, with grand palatial castles that seem to extend on forever, and an epic battle between the forces of good and evil that is one of the grandest things ever put on screen.  The final battle between the Prince and the evil fairy Maleficent in her dragon form is the stuff of cinema legend.  It certainly sets in the audience’s eye the ideal for how a medieval adventure should look, and it certainly does a lot to spotlight just how interesting the artwork of that period was.



Directed by John Boorman

Sticking with a segment of the medieval era depicted on screen, we find one of the most imaginative retellings of the legend of King Arthur.  The origins of the King Arthur legend and his mythical kingdom of Camelot are still a mystery to many historians, but they are still a large part of the grander cultural identity of the British isles.  Much of what we honor as the ideals of the chivalry of knights and their codes of honor stems from the Arthurian legends.  And with this version directed by the always unconventional John Boorman, we get one of the most ethereal retellings of the age old legend, while still remarkably staying true to it’s source material.  You get all the expected extravagance of a typical medieval epic, as well as some the oddball touches that the Zardoz filmmaker was known for.  There’s a half demented Merlin hanging around (played to perfection by Nicol Williamson), a Knights of the Round Table cast that includes Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson in their earliest film roles, as well as Helen Mirren playing an evil sorceress.  But perhaps what makes the movie work as well as it does is the fact that it feels much less like a product of Hollywood and more like the product of an artist trying to convey a true feeling of the story’s medieval roots.  Boorman shot most of the movie in real castles in Ireland, and almost all of the movie is on location around these monuments or outside in the surrounding forests.  There’s a level of authenticity found here, where the medieval setting feels more lived in, than previous films had ever captured before, and it helped to set a new standard for many of the medieval setting movies that were to come after.  You can see from the rise of fantasy films throughout the mid to late 80’s the strong influence of Boorman’s Excalibur.  Though Arthurian tales are plentiful in the history of cinema, few have been as influential as this one was.



Directed by Michael Curtiz

On top of King Arthur, the other go to medieval legend that has been a stalwart in Hollywood has been that of Robin Hood.  It almost seems like every generation is eager to deliver it’s own new spin on the character, and we’ve seen Sir Robin of Locksley make it to the silver screen dozens of times now.  Whether it’s Disney’s fox, the aging version brought to life by Sean Connery, or the different star vehicle versions with Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe, there are plenty that first come to mind when we think of the name Robin Hood.  But, if we were to point out the greatest cinematic version of the legendary story, most would point to this adaptation from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Perhaps one of the greatest swashbucklers to ever come out of the Hollywood system, The Adventures of Robin Hood is the epitome of classic Hollywood.  With dashing Australian matinee idol Errol Flynn in the titular role, we get a Robin Hood that is all parts handsome, charismatic and worth rooting for.  His appeal as a rebellious figure in the face of injustice was particularly poignant for it’s time as both America and Britain were witnessing the rise of Fascism throughout Europe.  Making Robin Hood a champion of the oppressed helped to mold this centuries old legend into something that could motivate modern day audiences, much in the same way Sergei Eisenstein was doing at the same time with Alexander Nevsky.  Regardless of it’s higher meaning, the movie set the bar high for medieval adventure filmmaker for many years after.  Though glossy as most historical movies of that time were, Adventures of Robin Hood is a technicolor extravaganza, with the colors of all the costumes and the sets just leaping off the screen.  Though many Robin Hood movies have come after, I don’t think any have come close to being as thoroughly delightful as what what we see here.  It’s high adventure at it’s best.  Whether he’s swinging from tree to tree, firing arrows at far away targets, or doing one on one battle with the nefarious Sir Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone), Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood stands tall amongst all the rest.



Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Now we have a medieval movie that certainly lives up to that moniker.  Far from the sugar-coated view of Medieval times that Hollywood presented, Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on mortality is as grim as it gets.  Set in the midst of a breakout of the black death across Europe, we follow a set of common people living in Medieval Sweden who are constantly in fear of the specter of death that hangs around them.  Death even appears in physical form as a man dressed in black robes (played by Bengt Ekerot) who challenges a knight returned from the Crusades (the late Max von Sydow) to a game of chess.  Highly symbolic, Bergman’s story nevertheless is grounded in it’s medieval setting.  In many ways, this was the most accurate depiction of life in Medieval times that movie audiences had seen.  The hardship of the peasantry struggling to live in harsh times is certainly something that hadn’t been seen on the big screen, as Hollywood was more intrigued by the high chivalrous aspects of the time period.  Bergman’s medieval world is harsh, grimey and without much chivalry to speak of.  Even Max von Sydow’s knight is treated with much less chivalry than what was coming out of Hollywood.  Despite the grimness of the story, Bergman’s Seventh Seal is captivating as our band of characters try their best to stay out of death’s way, which we ultimately learn is a foolish endeavor.  Coming out of our most recent pandemic, The Seventh Seal takes on even more relevance, as we see so much civility and normality fall down around us in response to a microbial threat that we are still trying to come to grips with.  It’s a still haunting tale that uses it’s medieval setting to glorious effect.  In many ways, it echoes the kind of fables that would have been told in those times, which would have been shared in response to hardships that medieval people had to endure.  You probably won’t find a more poetic image in cinema than the danse macabre that closes the film, as Death leads our band of characters into the afterlife in an unforgettable hillside parade.



Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam

And now for something completely different.  The legendary comedy team behind Monty Python’s Flying Circus made their big screen debut with this parody of medieval epics, and did so in the silliest way they could.  Typical of their legendary irreverent style of comedy, the movie eviscerates every medieval movie trope known.  Each new segment of the movie is full of quotable lines and the most ridiculous slapstick, and each has become the stuff of legend in their own right.  There’s the Castle of the French Taunters, the Black Knight who defends his post to the point of lunacy, the Knights who say Ni, the viscous white rabbit guarding the cave who can only be bested by the Holy Hand Grenade, and the sexy adventure through Castle Anthrax.  Each episode is more ridiculous than the next and showcases the six person squad of comedic geniuses (Terry Jones, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam) at their very best.  In addition to all the insanity, the movie does feel authentic to it’s medieval roots as well.  It’s clear that these scholarly comedians are thoroughly familiar with Arthurian legends, and have a deep understanding of English history as well; all of which gets mocked incessantly throughout the movie.  At the same time, the movie’s micro budget actually works in it’s favor, as it gives the medieval setting a more earthbound, lived in feel.  Most of the movie was actually shot around a real castle in Scotland, which had to play the part of many different castles throughout the movie.  And the on location feel of the movie really helps to make it feel authentic; something Excalibur would also do a few years later with a more substantial budget.  Holy Grail is to many the pinnacle of the Monty Python output, and even almost 50 years later it’s still one of the funniest movies ever made.  How many people do you know have quoted some part of this movie, from “Tis but a scratch,” to “Go away or I shall taunt you a second time.”  But if there is one quote that perfect sums up the insanity of the movie’s medieval setting, it’s, “Let’s not go to Camelot.  Tis a silly place.”



Directed by Mel Gibson

Putting all the controversy about Mr. Gibson aside, there is no doubt that he captured something unique with his Oscar winning film Braveheart.  The only movie with a medieval setting to ever claim the Best Picture prize at the Academy Awards, Braveheart is not without it’s own controversies.  Historians, particularly Scottish historians, will tell you that this movie is filled to the brim with historical inaccuracies; to the point of being more fiction than fact.  But, given that Hollywood has had a long history of fudging with historical facts to make their stories more entertaining, it doesn’t seem that unusual that Braveheart would do the same as well.  And that’s the point behind Gibson’s story about the Scottish rebel known as William Wallace.  He wanted to make history into legend and tell a rousing story in the process like the historical epics that Hollywood used to make.  And while historians balked, audiences embraced this epic adventure.  Many claim it’s even been responsible for revitalizing renewed interest in Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.  For the most part, Gibson’s direction does what most great epics of the past have done which is take full advantage of the tricks of the trade that are at his disposal.  Before Braveheart, you usually would see epic battles shown from a distance, which allowed the audience to see the vastness of the scene in full.  But Mel puts the camera right in the middle of the action on the ground, showing the audience all the bloody mayhem up close.  It’s some of the most harrowing combat ever put on screen and in many ways it would set the standard for epic battles for the next several decades.  You can see the imprint of Braveheart in everything from Gladiator, to The Lord of the Rings, to even Game of Thrones on television.  At the same time, Mel keeps the internal story interesting, with a supporting cast that feels authentically at home in this world.  Of special note is Patrick McGoohan as King Edward Longshanks, one of the most unforgettable movie villains ever and a personal favorite of mine.  As far as medieval epics go, you’ll be pressed to find one that checks all the boxes as effectively as Braveheart does; one of the absolute benchmarks of it’s genre.



Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Strangely the greatest movie with a medieval setting isn’t what most people would consider typically medieval.  But, out East, while Europe was in the midst of it’s middle ages and saw the rise of kings and knights, the Island of Japan was also in the midst of it’s own feudal rise to prominence.  Instead of knights in chain mail and armor, Japan had Samurai who had mastered the art of swordplay.  This era too has been mined for cinematic retellings, and out of Japan’s cinema industry rose one of the greatest filmmakers of all time; Akira Kurosawa.  Though he worked in genres both historical and contemporary, Kurosawa had an special fondness for this period of his nation’s history and he would return to the Samurai genre many times.  Of all his movies set within this medieval period, none stands out more than what many consider (like me) to be his masterpiece; Seven Samurai.  Seven Samurai is not a specific fable important to Japanese history, but instead tells a more intimate story of common people trying to survive the hardships of their times.  Much like Bergman’s Seventh SealSamurai is more about a universal lesson in the nature of mankind that resonates far beyond it’s medieval setting.  Even still, Kurosawa tells this simple story in the most epic way possible.  The titular samurai all come together to protect a small village from a band of marauders who terrorize them daily, and over the course of the movie, we learn more about them as individuals.  It’s a story that can be transposed to any place in the world, and has as it’s been turned into everything from a Western to a Pixar animated film starring bugs.  There have even been re-imaginings of it in a medieval European setting, which is appropriate given the time period.  Still, the story feels most at home in it’s Samurai genre beginnings, and it showcases just how interesting that period in time was to Japanese, and world history.  Though half a world away from where we expect it, the finest example of a movie making the most of it’s medieval setting is found over in the land of the Rising Sun, and that’s first and foremost because it’s not only a great movie within it’s own genre, but one of the greatest movies ever made period.

So, there you have my picks for the best medieval movies ever made.  As you can see, I tried to look beyond just Hollywood and see the time period in a more global sense.  A lot of these cultures were more interconnected than you’d think, as things like the Mongol Empire and the Age of Discovery connected once disparate cultures faster than ever before.  Seven Samurai may be world’s away from the knights in armor epics of Hollywood, but at the same time it still has a lot in common, particularly with it’s themes and the way it stages itself.  Kurosawa himself was influenced by Hollywood epics, so it makes sense that they would also take inspiration from him in this cyclical exchange of creative ideas within the global cinematic market.  Still, I imagine that when most people think of Medieval set movies, they first will think of the films centered around legends like Robin Hood and King Arthur, and that’s a pretty good assessment of the genre’s identity in all of cinema.  Medieval movies are the homes of legends.  It’s where we go to find rousing adventures that transport us to a different time and place.  As we’ve seen, they’ve been used as powerful propaganda tools like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, and have also shaped the standards of cinematic art like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  They also help to turn unknown figures lost in the annals of history into instant legends, like Braveheart did with William Wallace.  They are also effective in preserving the legends of the past that we otherwise have little written records of; an effective continuation of oral tradition passed on into modern times.  I do wish that the historical epic wasn’t too much of a risk for Hollywood studios to undertake today.  There are some that try to revitalize this long dormant genre, like Netflix’s Outlaw King (2018) and The King (2019), and this year we are getting two ambitious twists on the genre with David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021).  Hopefully these two succeed in finding an audience and help to prove that medieval epic movies have their place in contemporary cinema.  Medieval tales of knights, kings, and yes even samurai, have their place in our culture as tried and true legends, and naturally their movies fulfill that same glory.

The Director’s Chair – Quentin Tarantino

In the years following Hollywood’s Golden Age, a new crop of filmmakers rose up that not only possessed the skills to make movies of their own, but were also keen on the importance and historical significance of the movies that had influenced them.  For the first time, a generation of filmmakers were making movies that were reflective of the movies that had come a generation prior.  Many new filmmakers not only sought to replicate the kinds of movies that they had grown up with, but they also began to deconstruct them as well, viewing old tropes through newer sensibilities.  You can see this through the works of French New Wave auteurs like Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut as their early films took heavy inspiration from pre and post-War film noir. And then there are the many directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone who breathed new life into the Western, with far more attention paid to the horrific violence that really did mark the Old West.  You can also see how  old sci-fi serials of the past were reimagined by a filmmaker like George Lucas into a groundbreaking gamechanger called Star Wars (1977).  It was a generation that made a profound impact on cinema for several decades, and brought the industry into a whole different identity than where it started.  Even still, there is a consistent line of new filmmakers standing on the shoulders of those that had come before them, and using their influence to inspire what was to come next.  So, it’s interesting to see what kind of new generation would follow in the footsteps of the first generation fully influenced by the cinema of the past.  It turns out that the cycle keeps moving along, as each new generation strives to replicate the kinds of movies that left a deep impression on them.  Particularly with a generation as rebellious and experimental as those that had risen up in the 60’s and 70’s, it was going to be interesting to many scholars of cinema how the next generation would develop in it’s wake.  Indeed, beginning within the early 90’s, a new crop of filmmakers did begin to emerge and change the face of cinema again, and one of the most noteworthy of those new voices was a fresh young rebel named Quentin Tarantino.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee but raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Tarantino seemed born destined to be a filmmaker.  Spending much of his early years going to movie theaters in the heart of Hollywood, Tarantino not only grew an appreciation for the movies that the studio system was putting out, but also the ones that were being made on the fringes as well.  Tarantino is an unashamed fan of what has been deemed over time as “grindhouse” cinema.  These were movies made on the slimmest of budgets, often dealing with taboo subjects and containing many button pushing elements, and were almost always showing in cheap seat theaters that were not always well kept.  These were movies that challenged the mainstream, and Tarantino ate them up with pride.  Whether they were Spaghetti Westerns, Blaxploitation, or just the average raunchy comedy, these movies spoke to the still developing mind of Tarantino during these formative years.  Before embarking on a filmmaking career, Tarantino worked in a video store, where his deep knowledge of cinema made him a natural source of recommendations to customers.  Through the encouragement of some industry friends, Quentin began working on screenplays that he hoped to one day sell and help him break into the film industry that he had such an affinity for.  In those early days, he would craft the stories that eventually formed the foundations of True Romance (1993) and From Dusk ’til Dawn (1994).  In the meantime, he earned a little extra money as a part time actor, including playing an Elvis impersonator on an episode of The Golden Girls.  The residuals for that gig alone help him secure enough money to start development on his first feature as a director, Reservoir Dogs (1991).  Though modest in budget and scope, Dogs nevertheless revealed Tarantino’s unique voice and it immediately put him in the spotlight.  The meteoric rise continued with his second feature, Pulp Fiction, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and helped Tarantino earn his first Oscar for the Screenplay.  Since then, he has remained a Hollywood fixture, and without a doubt the most influential filmmaker of his generation.  In this article, I’m going to examine all the noteworthy things about his movies that stand out and define him as a filmmaker.  And no, feet will not be one of the filmmaker trademarks I’m going to spotlight.  So, let’s put Quentin Tarantino in the Director’s chair and see what makes his movies both noteworthy and entirely unique.



Even in his earliest movies, it’s readily apparent that Tarantino is not one to sugarcoat onscreen violence.  Throughout the entirety of Reservoir Dogs, actor Tim Roth’s character is bleeding out from a gunshot to his gut, the result of a botched robbery he played a part of.  And that’s one of the least gruesome acts committed in the movie.  Another character, Mr. Blonde (played memorably by Michael Madsen) cuts the ear off of a hostage he has taken.  Tarantino drifts the camera away when the gruesome act is committed, but you do see the aftermath, grotesque ear cavity and all.  This unflinching look at violent acts extends all the way through his filmography.  Even the movies he wrote and didn’t direct (True Detective, From Dusk ’til Dawn and 1994’s Natural Born Killers) have the same focus on violence.  But at the same time, it isn’t violence without reason or purpose.  Tarantino purposely wants you to feel something viscerally when you see it on screen.  A lot of the reason he puts it in is movies is due to the influence he took from the grindhouse movies of the past.  Just like how those movies pushed the envelope with their depictions of on screen violence, making liberal use of blood packs and gory make-up to drive home the fact that these movies were outside of the mainstream and proud of it.  Some would see it as exploitive and there have been complaints from some that Tarantino glorifies violence.  But he has pushed back on that claim many times, stating how essential the violence is in his movies.  One of the things that you commonly see in his movies is how the violence usually erupts when you least expect it.  The ending of Once Upon a Time Hollywood (2019) for instance is a particularly shocking outburst of violence, that’s both uneasy and hilariously abrupt.  The montage of a gory car wreck in Death Proof (2007) also showcases how Tarantino pushes the envelope to get a reaction out of his audience.  Other films that aren’t quite as gory, like Inglorious Basterds  (2009) or Django Unchained (2012) still have a fair share of their movie centered around acts of violence, so it’s something that is present throughout his work.  He’ll agree, these movies aren’t for everybody, but at the same time, he holds true to the fact that violence in his movies should never be done as a compromise.



Tarantino by trade is a film director, but he will probably tell you that his foremost talent is in screenwriting.  There is no doubt that the thing that most people take away from his movies is just how fresh and memorable the dialogue in it is.  Quentin’s voice really is what distinguishes him the most, and it’s what has set him apart from most of his contemporaries.  There have been many independent filmmakers in his wake that have tried to imitate the Tarantino style, but almost all of them have failed.  No one writes like Tarantino, and I think that it’s because he puts so much of his own mind into the things he writes.  Quentin’s special talent is his use of non-sequiturs in his dialogue, which is the characters talking about stuff that means nothing to the overall plot, but at the same time, reveals so much about the characters themselves.  The back and forth discussion about McDonald’s menu items in France between Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules and John Travolta’s Vincent in Pulp Fiction is a perfect example.  Talking about the “Royale with Cheese” ultimately is just two old colleagues wasting time on a way to a job, but from that discussion, we learn so much about who these two are.  Tarantino loves his character building monologues, and it’s especially fulfilling for him when he can base so much of his character interactions on film nerd discussions that he’s probably had with his own friends over the years.  The opening of Reservoir Dogs I almost guarnatee is based on a real discussion he’s had at parties over the meaning of Madonna’s discography, and it makes it all the more interesting that this is how Tarantino chooses to introduce these characters to us.  It’s not all pop culture though.  Quentin has often said one of his most favorite things he has ever written is the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, which introduces the fearsome Colonel Hans Landa (played spectacularly by Christoph Waltz), and it’s easy to see why.  It’s one of the most unnerving introductions of a villain in cinema history, and Quentin brilliantly conveys the true menace of the character not through actions but through words alone.  Even the way Tarantino structures his movies, often in a non-linear way, is done only in the way that makes sense when he does it.  There have been so many copycats, but Tarantino the writer is still an unmatched original.



On top of Tarantino’s cinema influences, it’s also easy to see what kinds of music left a deep impression on him as he grew up.  No doubt, listening to the top 40 radio stations in the Los Angeles area stuck with him as throughout all of his movies, he likes to underscore his scenes with a carefully chosen selection of classic hits.  Sometimes he’ll include a universally known song, or he may use a deep cut.  Part of the fun of watching his movies is not knowing what you’ll hear next, and being surprised by the ingenious selection.  Even more interesting is when he subverts a scene by setting the mood with an unexpected track.  The already mentioned ear slicing torture scene in Reservoir Dogs is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays through it all; with Michael Madsen dancing unnervingly to the beat.  Even when working in a bygone time period, Quentin will throw in an anachronistic choice like David Bowie’s “Cat People” into Inglorious Basterds or Jim Croce’s ” I Got a Name” into Django Unchained, and it will still make complete sense to the story he’s telling.  The man just has an ear for music, and knowing which popular songs work best in the stories that he’s telling.  Some music that otherwise had fallen into obscurity over the years sometimes have been revived thanks to it’s placement in one of his movies.  The now iconic use of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” for the opening credits of Pulp Fiction cemented that guitar heavy instrumental in pop culture, and is often used whenever anyone does a parody of Pulp Fiction in any other medium.  He doesn’t just use any kind of pop music; it’s music from a specific period in time that was influential to Tarantino in his formative years.  It’s another part of his own character that he injects into his movies and helps to make them uniquely his own.  We are listening to the soundtrack that he himself would hear if he were living in the world of these characters.



There is definitely one thing to say about the characters in Tarantino movies and that’s for the most part nearly all of them should be judged on a morally relevant scale.  Because his movies often deal with characters living in a violent, crime ridden world, it’s often hard to say if there truly is a pure soul in any of his movies.  This is definitely true with movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Because of Pulp Fiction’s non-linear, anthology style plot, you’ll actually find instances where characters that are heroes in one plot thread turn out to be villains in another.  Another example of judging characters based with moral ambiguity is with the Basterds brigade in Inglorious Basterds.  In normal circumstances, we would be looking at these characters, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), as war criminals, but their atrocities are painted in a favorable light because they are committing them against the Nazis.  It’s probably the only movie in history where we are actually rooting for suicide bombers.  Even still, Tarantino makes sure that there are characters with righteous intentions behind their acts of violence.  This includes the Bride (Uma Thurman) in the Kill Bill duology, or Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) in Inglorious Basterds, or Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) in Jackie Brown (1997).  Just as violence is a part of the fabric within all of Tarantino’s movies, so is the impact it has on the characters, and it asks us the audience to consider the moral implications along the way.  Yes, in many cases, these are bad people doing bad things, but in the context of these stories, it asks us to question if there is a morally justified reason to use violence in order to seek justice.  It could be that, or sometimes it’s just Tarantino showing how messed up a world we live in, like putting a sympathetic spin on a character named Cliff Booth (Pitt again) in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood who probably, almost certainly killed his own wife.



It’s an almost unmistakable fact in watching Tarantino’s movies that he is a man who is in love with the art of cinema.  Whether it’s referencing movies throughout his different films, or actually incorporating them as an element of the plot, the movies are always a fixture of his filmography.  You can see the Tarantino’s cinephile side come out strong in moments like the Jackrabbit’s Diner scene in Pulp Fiction, where the waiters and waitresses are all dressed like 50’s pop culture icons, and John Travolta’s Vincent Vega knows the difference between Jane Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe.  Cinema also plays a key role in the plot of Inglorious Basterds, as the big climatic finale is set within a movie premiere.  More recently, Quentin devoted an entire movie as an ode to a bygone era in the dream factory itself with Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, even going so far as to actually recreate the look of Hollywood Boulevard in the 1960 by redressing the facades of the real place to make them exactly as they word decades before.  Even apart from that, Tarantino loves to honor past generations who were a major influence on him by including them in his movies.  He helped to bring back long overlooked actors like Laurence Tierney, Robert Forester, and Pam Grier and gave them important roles that helped to revitalize their long dormant careers.  And even outside of his films, Tarantino has been a passionate champion for traditional cinema.  He refuses to work with digital cameras, working exclusively with good old fashioned film stock, and he even has experimented with using long out of use film formats, like the ultra wide Panavision 70 on his movie The Hateful Eight (2015), a format that hadn’t been used in over 50 years.  He only is so adamant about the kinds of equipment he uses on set because it’s his way of honoring the history of filmmaking that means so much to him, and he wants to preserve it as much as he can.  His passion for physical film media even extends to presentation, as he became the owner of the New Beverly Cinema, a single screen venue south of Hollywood, where movies are shown solely with actual film stock.  Just this year, Tarantino added the legendary Vista Theater in the Los Feliz neighborhood to his collection, which shows that his commitment to preserving the theatrical experience, with a strong emphasis on real, physical film, remains strong to this day.

There is little doubt that years from now the name Quentin Tarantino will remain a prominent one in the annals of film history.  Carving out his own, uncompromised niche in the Hollywood community, he has become one of the rare, unvarnished talents in the whole of the industry.  Very few filmmakers have the kind of creative freedom that he has managed to secure for himself, and that’s mainly because Tarantino has been especially effective in endearing audiences to his unique style and consistently managing to bring people back to the cinemas solely based on his own brand alone.  Everyone now knows what they are getting with each new Tarantino movie, and he hasn’t failed to deliver yet.  In fact the only thing that may get in his way is his own self.  For years, Tarantino has stated that he is quitting directing after his 10th film, which should be the one that comes next.  It seems like a premature time to hang things up, but Quentin insists that he’s rather go out at ten films, than continue on and lose his edge like he’s seen happen to so many other directors that he loves.  I personally don’t buy that, and I think he’s being a tad too hard on himself thinking that mediocrity is his ultimate destiny if he continues to make movies into his twilight years.  It’s where his obsession with movie history ultimately becomes a hinderance on his own self worth.  I hope that Tarantino sees it a different way in his later years, and I believe that a premature retirement are not in the cards for him.  He’s too talented, and I for one don’t believe that talented people just stop cold turkey.  The creative bug will catch him again and he’ll make more than 10 movies in his career.  As for now, we have a pretty eclectic body of work to appreciate from the last 30 years, and most of them have stood the test of time and can still be viewed just as well today.  What will be interesting is if another Tarantino like individual will rise up in the years ahead whose style owes itself in part to that of Quentin Tarantino.  Like how Quentin has used his movies to honor the ones who came before him, I’m sure that some future filmmaker will do the same, and Quentin will see that as it’s own reward.  He knows he stands on the shoulders of giants of the past, and I’m sure that the greatest joy in his life is knowing that the next generation that will redefine cinema will be the ones that stand upon his.

Black Widow – Review

It is pretty remarkable to look back and see where Marvel had managed to get to in 2019.  It was closing out the Phase Three era with the conclusion of it’s Infinity Stone storyline that had crossed over nearly two dozen films over 10 years.  With the double whammy releases of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel Studios claimed the crown as the ultimate kings of the box office.  But they weren’t done yet.  Even as Endgame put a nice button on all the events that had led up to it, Marvel was still setting the stage for what was going to come next.  On the horizon was Phase Four, which looked to be even more ambitious than what Marvel had done before, expanding their cinematic universe even further (and even into a multiverse).  The ambitious plan not only called for continued stories on the big screen, but also mini-series releases streaming on Disney+, the platform of Marvel’s parent company.  Given how huge a year Marvel had in 2019, with an extra assist from Captain Marvel (2019) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), it only looked like the next year was going to be even grander.  Cue global pandemic.  The Covid-19 virus outbreak ground everything to a halt, including Marvel’s plans for the year 2020.  Every planned release in that year had to be pushed back, including the ones that were done and in the can.  For the first time since 2009, we had a year without anything new from Marvel Studios.  After a decade long run of dominance, this was an unusual sight.  But, as the pandemic has thankfully waned, those delayed projects are also finally making their way to audiences, although done in a way that none of the team at Marvel likely intended.  Instead of relying on cinemas, which are still recovering, Marvel launched Phase Four instead on Disney+ with Wandavision, and continued through the Spring and Summer with The Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki series; none of which were supposed to lead the charge originally.  Instead, that distinction was originally intended for a movie that finally gives the spotlight to one of the founding members of the Avengers: Black Widow (2021).

Black Widow’s history in the MCU goes almost all the way back to it’s very beginning.  She made her first appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010) played by Scarlett Johansson, who would continue on through the next ten years, playing the character in several crossover events during that time.  Though not given much to do in her first outing, Black Widow’s presence grew over time in the MCU, eventually becoming one of the six original Avengers.  And though Scarlett Johansson brought a great amount of strength to her performance, there has been an unfortunate aspect to Black Widow’s place within the MCU.  She essentially was there in the beginning to be eye candy for the male centric audiences that Super Hero movies originally catered to, especially when you take notice of the skin tight costumes she used to wear and the provocative hero stances she would pose in the movies.  Not only that, but there was an element of tokenism with her placement in the team.  But, thanks to Scarlett’s influence over the character, she was able to rise above these controversial aspects of the character, and helped to make Black Widow not only a standout in the Avengers team, but also an essential member who takes on leadership, even over those more physically powerful than her.  And in turn, Black Widow became a positive role model for young girls who over the last ten years have become the most rapidly growing segment of comic book fandom.  Not only that, women were now pushing to tell their own stories their own way within the genre.  She was the trendsetter in proving that these movies were not just for teenage boys anymore; they were for everyone.  So, over time, demand grew higher for Black Widow to get a movie of her own, which Marvel eventually agreed to.  Despite the long wait that resulted from the 2020 pandemic, we are now finally able to see Black Widow take to the big screen in her own story.  The only question is, is it a story worth telling or is it one that doesn’t do justice to a character we’ve grown to love over the last 10 years.

There are some small spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Avengers: Infinity War, as this story takes place in between the two.  Following the events of Civil War, which saw the break-up of the Avengers and leading the likes of Captain America, The Falcon, and Ant-Man to become fugitives of the law, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) aka Black Widow, also finds herself on the run, after she helped the others escape by attacking Black Panther.  Now a fugitive herself, she is having to escape General Ross (William Hurt) and his forces, who are in hot pursuit.  With the help of her tech engineer Mason (O-T Fagbenle), she manages to find a safe haven off the grid, but the peace and quiet doesn’t last long.  After receiving a mysterious package from an unknown sender, she is immediately attacked by a masked assassin known as Taskmaster, who has the special ability to mimic any fight move against an opponent.  After evading Taskmaster, Natasha follows some clues to that leads her to another safe house in Budapest.  There she meets up with the one who sent the package, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), another Widow assassin who shares a history with Natasha, as they were pretend sisters in a sleeper cell family cover set up by the Russians 30 years ago in rural America.  Yelena thought she could trust Natasha with the package, which contains vials of a mysterious red liquid, because of her Avengers connections, but Taskmaster and other Widow agents have caught up to them.  After nearly escaping, Yelena tells Natasha that the Red Room where both of them received their training is still operational, and under the stewardship of notorious Russian criminal Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who Natasha thought she had already assassinated years ago in a mission that granted her a place in S.H.I.E.L.D.  They resolve to take Dreykov and the Red Room down, and to do that, they need the help of the two people who pretended to be their parents all those year ago; Alexei (David Harbour) who was Red Guardian (Russia’s answer to Captain America), and Melina (Rachel Weisz) who is still Dreykov’s chemical expert.  With the “family” back together, will they be able to take down the mighty machine that is the Red Room, as well as their ultimate weapon, the Taskmaster.

Part of the excitement surrounding the release of Black Widow is the fact that we had to wait so long for it to happen.  In addition to the tragic consequences of what the pandemic did to the theatrical industry, it was also just strange not having anything from Marvel for over a year after they had been so omnipresent in the years before.  There were several worries over that time that Marvel was going to just end up skipping theaters overall and release Black Widow on streaming, which would’ve been a devastating blow for the theaters.  But, thankfully Marvel and Disney remained resolute in giving Black Widow the big screen treatment, though they did have to compromise with a hybrid Disney+ Premiere Access release as well.  After multiple date shifts, we now are able to see the movie that we’ve long been waiting for.  But after a year of delays, how does the movie play today after all that has gone down.  To be honest, I think the delay may have actually favored Black Widow in the long run, because had it come out in the summer of 2020 right on the heels of what we got from Avengers: Endgame, I think audiences might have been a little underwhelmed by this movie.  Black Widow is a serviceable movie, but not a big game-changer like many of the more recent Marvel movies we’ve been seeing.  It’s giving us more or less a Marvel version of a Jason Bourne movie.  It does fit with the character of Black Widow, but there’s not a whole lot beyond that as something that fits within a larger Marvel narrative.  Essentially, we are just seeing a stand alone side story focused on Black Widow  and nothing more.  It might be satisfying to many, and there is plenty within the movie that does satsify long time fans; but anyone expecting huge earth-shattering twists and turns should probably look elsewhere.  It’s hard to say how that would’ve played out in 2020 with Endgame so fresh in people’s minds.  With a little extra distance from that monumental achievement, a more standard film like Black Widow plays a little bit better, and removed from it’s original intention of launching Phase Four also helps the movie out as well.  It’s a movie that in many ways feels like an obligation, but even still, it works on it’s own merits.

The one nagging aspect of the movie is the question of whether it was a story that needed to be told.  It’s kind of strange watching this movie after having seen Endgame because (spoilers), Natasha ends up sacrificing her life to see the mission to it’s end.  Knowing that, it takes away some of the drama surrounding her character in this movie.  We know she’s going to live by the end of this story so that she could be a part of Infinity War and Endgame, and we also know that beyond that she no longer will be a part of the cinematic universe due to her death in Endgame.  So, Black Widow is a story very much out of place in the continuing Marvel storyline.  It’s like Marvel intended this story to be made way back in Phase Three, but the train had already left the station and they couldn’t make any more room for Black Widow’s story, so this movie is a make-up for having missed the stop before.  Honestly, I wish there was more to this movie, because a character like Black Widow and her actress Scarlett Johansson deserves a better sendoff than just a basic spy thriller.  She’s one of the original Avengers; a character that has done so much to increase female representation in Comic Book movies.  The movie Black Widow just assumes that audiences will accept it’s awkward placement in the timeline, which I’m sure that many will, but a character like her should have been given a more monumental sendoff.  Still, Marvel isn’t delivering a bad movie by any means.  There is still plenty to enjoy in the movie, with the usual slick balance between action, comedy, and suspense that Marvel has excelled at.  As a swan song, it falls short, but as an action packed spy thriller, it is definitely better than most.  You just have to go in with tempered expectations, because this movie is just going to deliver enough to warrant your time, but not enough to place it within the all time greatness of Marvel at it’s peak.

One troubling thing you’ll notice while watching the movie is that Black Widow is the least interesting character in the movie.  True, most of her character development has been spread out over the ten years that she was a part of the Avengers team, but even still, it’s a shame that she doesn’t command an even greater presence in her own movie.  The more meaty character development here belongs to the members of her “family,” which really belies the true intention of this movie; it’s here to pass the baton to the next generation.  It’s very clear that Florence Pugh’s Yelena is being set up as Scarlett Johansson’s successor in the Black Widow role in future Marvel projects.  And in that regard, the movie does do a very good job establishing her.  Yelena is great character, which Pugh plays to perfection.  She’s tough, funny, and more than holds her own in any conflict.  Her future is going to be pretty bright in the MCU, and I’m happy that she makes the obvious changing of the guard aspect of this movie feel earned.  David Harbour’s Alexei is also a great addition, as he provides a lot of the comic relief in this movie, as well as a genuine bit of charming vulnerability that makes his a character worth rooting for.  I especially love his fixation on how he stacks up against Captain America, with him at one point asking Natasha straight up, “Does he talk about me much?” much to her annoyance.  Rachel Weisz has much less of a presence in the movie, but she does use it well.  Indeed the best part of the movie is seeing this dysfunctional faux family come together and work off each other.  It does offer a little insight into Natasha’s character as well, and why protecting family is important to her.  Being an orphan who had her childhood stolen from her, she would do anything to protect any semblance of family that she had, and in time, she managed to become a part of two families of her own choosing; the one in this film and the Avengers.  Sadly the biggest letdown in the cast are the villains.  Ray Winstone is a great actor but here he is just a stock villain, which is disappointing after a string of strong Marvel baddies like Thanos, Killmonger, and Hela just to name a few.  And though Taskmaster looks pretty badass, there isn’t a whole lot beyond that, and the mystery of who is behind the mask is easily pieced together.  It’s a mixed bag, but thankfully the best characters in the movie are going to be the ones that have a future in the long run with Marvel.

As far as the action goes, the movie lacks the grandiosity of Marvel’s more out-there projects, but that’s kind of the point.  Black Widow is a much more grounded film, taking it’s visual cues from the likes of the previously mentioned Jason Bourne movies, as well as some James Bond and a little sprinkling of Mission: Impossible.  Director Cate Shortland proves to be perfectly capable of making these big set pieces work, but what I find she does best with are the more intimate action beats in the movie.  My favorite fight is actually one between Natasha and Yelena early in the movie.  It’s a scene that shows you don’t have to rely upon a bunch of CGI tech wizardry to pull a suspenseful scene off.  Sometimes you just need two really skilled stunt women throwing each other against the walls.  There’s also a really solid car chase through the streets of Budapest that rivals any that I’ve seen in other spy thrillers.  It’s at the point where CGI becomes ever more present that I think Shortland begins to lose her grasp of the action, and unfortunately that’s what makes up the final act of the movie.  The finale is honestly one of the messiest and least affecting that I have ever seen from Marvel, and it’s one of the main reasons why it knocked the movie down a peg for me with regards to other Marvel films.  Marvel, especially in recent years, has done a stellar job with building their movies up to satisfying resolutions, especially in the last two Avengers flicks.  But the finale to Black Widow is just loud and dumb, and so far removed from the grounded reality that made the rest of the movie work as well as it did.  It makes it even less effective when the movie just wraps everything up in a pat resolution, like the writers realized they needed to quickly wrap things up, and the audience is left wondering, “was that it?”  Overall, it is pleasing to see this kind of genre made through the guidance of women behind the camera just as much as in front of it.  Shortland, despite her lack of long term experience with action thrillers, does actually deliver some tense scenes that are on par with the genre.  But, given the way the movie ends, the whole thing turns out to be a mixed bag.

So, fair warning, don’t go into this movie expecting another Avengers level event.  It’s a perfectly serviceable movie in the Marvel canon, but nothing truly spectacular.  Like I mentioned before, the delay may have done the movie a service, because the pressure to follow up on Endgame was taken off of it’s shoulders.  Because of Marvel’s stellar track record, I think it’s at the point where we have to judge these movies on a curve compared to other Hollywood movies, much like what we do with Pixar now.  Compared to other spy thrillers out there, Black Widow is certainly a cut above, and especially groundbreaking in the fact that it shows this genre through a female perspective.  But, as a Marvel movie, I’m sorry to say that it actually falls into the bottom half.  It’s not bad by any means, but it falls short of the high bar that Marvel has set for itself.  It’s especially disappointing in the fact that it is the last we’ll ever see of Natasha Romanoff in the MCU.  What Scarlett Johansson has brought to the character over the last ten years should not be understated.  She transformed a sexist old trope into a genuine positive role model that has transformed the Marvel fandom for the better and opened the door for so many more female super heroes in her wake.  Marvel should have honestly given us a little more to digest than a “look what she was doing after Civil War” storyline.  I would’ve liked to have seen more of her backstory with regards to how she left the Red Room and joined S.H.I.E.L.D.  There’s so much to be mined there like what made her turn and how did she befriend Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  They could have also done a soul-searching story about how she learned to cope with the tragedy that took place at the end of Infinity War.  Overall, I feel like there were better stories to tell than the one we got in this movie.  Natasha deserved better.  Even still, as a set-up for the future Black Widow adventures for Yelena, it does the job well enough.  Of course, there’s a not to be missed end credits scene that does indeed set up the next chapter.  Despite it’s disappointing elements, it is satisfying to see Marvel return to the cinemas once again after such a trying period.  And with exciting things on the horizon like Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao’s Eternals and sequels to Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Thor in the near future, along with all the Disney+ projects upcoming, Marvel is going to do just fine regardless how this movie performs.  As of now, it should be noted that despite it’s shortcomings, Black Widow magnificently sends off Scarlett Johansson’s decade long legacy as Natasha Romanoff with a movie that firmly establishes all the great changes she brought to the character that made her an icon for a generation.  It was perhaps a little too late, but better now than never and hopefully it’s the start of greater things down the road for Black Widow in the MCU.

Rating: 7.5/10

Flight of the Rocketeer – The Making of a Cult Classic that Laid the Foundation for Today’s Super Heroes

The transition between the 80’s and 90’s in cinema is often not a widely examined period of time.  But it does offer some interesting insight into what would happen in the decades that followed.  Building off a decade that marked the rise of the blockbuster, the major movie studios began to change dramatically from how it operated in the past.  The primary drive of this new phase of Hollywood had less to do with the star power of movie stars and filmmakers and more to do with franchises.  It was the decade of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Robocop, Rocky, and Back to the Future.  People were less interested in watching a movie based on who was in it; they now were just interested in something that would show them a good time.  The problem for Hollywood though was what constituted a certifiable franchise.  Oftentimes a blockbuster might blossom out of nowhere like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Back to the Future (1985), and the many attempts to chase after those successes ended up falling way short.  There was a lot of major attempts at building a bone fide Hollywood blockbuster, but very few actually succeeded.  All that Hollywood knew was that movies needed to be bigger and larger than life, but there were so few trends that lasted that actually panned out like people thought they would.  That’s why in addition to the mega-blockbusters that made the 80’s noteworthy, there was also a healthy handful of cult favorites that emerged; movies that were perhaps too ambitious or bizarre to be appreciated in their time, but have over the years grown in esteem.  It leaves just as much of a handprint on the blockbuster decade as the big blockbusters, and those movies contribute just as much to the identity of Hollywood at that time.   For every Star Wars, there was a Blade Runner; for every Ghostbusters, there was a Fletch; and for every The Little Mermaid, there was a Secret of NIMH.  And unbeknownst to Hollywood at the time, the movies that often relegated on the trash heap in their time would over the years end up laying the groundwork for the blockbusters of the future.

As the nineties began to go into full swing, a new tool began to redefine the blockbuster once again; computer animation.  If the 1990’s had a defining aspect of it’s cinematic impact, it was the proliferation of this new technology; going from the lifelike dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993) to the bullet time of The Matrix (1999) in just six short years.  But what CGI also enabled Hollywood to do was stabilize the productivity of their franchise output.  There was less risk-taking because now people were packing the theaters to just marvel in the technical wizardry of the movies, regardless of the quality of the story (1996’s Twister, for example).   But in addition to that, Hollywood power players were also branching out as a new generation was pushing for different kinds of movies being made.  That was certainly what was happening to Disney at the time.  The new regime under Michael Eisner in the mid-80’s began to shift the entire culture at the legendary studio, moving away from the mentality of “what would Walt do?” to the mindset of “what are we doing right now?”  This meant a renewed investment by the company in live action films (as the animation side had been in decline for years) which would help fuel better box office returns to reinvest throughout the rest of the company.  Eisner and company knew that Disney needed to tap into a different, adult market, which led to the creation of Touchstone Pictures.  A steady stream of successes like the movies Splash (1984) and Three Men and a Baby (1987) helped revitalize the fledgling studio, and even gave them the capital to renew the troubled animation studio that was core to their identity.  But what also followed at the end of the decade was a string of more ambitious, envelope pushing movies that not only gave Disney more identity in Hollywood, but would also endear them to a generation of movie-goers who like Disney’s new mix of the gritty and the fantastic.  This included the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Dick Tracy (1990) and a movie that has especially withstood the test of time, The Rocketeer (1991).

Disney’s The Rocketeer was based on a small but beloved series of comics from the early eighties, which were themselves homages to the Golden Age of DC and Marvel from the 50’s and 60’s.  The Rocketeer focuses on a stunt pilot named Cliff Secord who stumbles upon a rocket pack that enables the wearer the ability to fly.  Using the pack on himself, he begins to master the aerodynamics of the device, and decides to use the gift as a means of helping others.  Over the course of the comics, he does battle with many adversaries, including secret Nazi spies, given that it’s a war time set story.  What really made the character distinguishable was his slick, art deco inspired design, with the flight pants, letter jack, and iconic helmet all creating an unforgettable profile.  It’s wholesome, idealistic nature also made the character an appealing choice for cinematic interpretation.  With the likes of Michael Eisner at the helm, The Rocketeer seemed like a perfect choice to build a new franchise upon that could give Disney their own Indiana Jones style franchise figurehead.  Given the task of adapting the comic books to the big screen was director Joe Johnston, a former special effects wizard that rose through the ranks of Industrial Light and Magic, working on films such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark before making the switch to directing.  Only a couple years prior, Johnston had delivered a surprise hit for Disney with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which many praised Johnston for with his command of the movie’s complex visual effects.  The hope was that he would likewise give The Rocketeer the same, effective steady hand that could help launch it into franchise territory.  And the situation could not be more fortunate for The Rocketeer as well.  Only two years prior, Tim Burton broke box office records with his mega-hit adaptation of Batman (1989), proving that there was indeed a viable market for comic book movies.  And so, The Rocketeer was positioned by Disney for a mid-Summer release with a lot of expectations.  With a proven director, a solid, promising source material, and a studio that was eager to flex it’s wings as a major player, everything seemed perfectly set up for The Rocketeer to big the next big Hollywood franchise.

And then of course, it turned out not to be.  In the words of Joe Johnston himself at an anniversary screening years back, “The movie opened on June 21st 1991.  There was a lot of sequel talk on June 20th, and almost none on June 22nd.  After the first day box office returns came in, it was clear to Disney that The Rocketeer was  a non-starter for the company.  It opened in 4th place behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, City Slickers, and Dying Young, and tough it managed to recoup it’s modest budget of $35 million, it did not turn a profit thereafter, and quickly faded from theaters.  It was disheartening for a studio like Disney which put so much hope that this would be the next big franchise.  The truth is, it’s not the movie’s fault that it underperformed at the box office.  It was well received by critics, who likened it to past blockbusters like Indiana Jones.  And when viewing the movie now, it’s remarkable how perfectly paced and expertly crafted it is.  Most people who watch it outside of it’s original release have nothing but good things to say about it.  What really was behind the failure of The Rocketeer in 1991 was the fact that it was the wrong kind of comic book movie for that time.  Tim Burton’s Batman had dramatically altered audience expectations of the genre, as it spotlighted a much more dark and gritty angle.  The Rocketeer’s more earnest and colorful style was in stark contrast with Batman’s brooding nature.  And indeed, over the course of the next several years, we would see more comic book movies that followed the Tim Burton formula rather than what was seen in The Rocketeer.  But despite it’s initial failure, The Rocketeer did not disappear entirely.  Though Disney had largely abandoned it, a small but growing audience held the movie in high esteem and would carry it’s torch even through the multiple fluctuations of the comic book movie genre over the next twenty years, making it a bona fide cult classic.  And, to the movie’s benefit over time, some of those cult fans would themselves be in charge of redefining the comic book genre once again.

It just so happened that a couple of the movie’s fans wound up working for Marvel towards the end of the 2000’s.  And one of them happened to be head honcho, Kevin Feige, the man behind the creation of Marvel Studios.  After nearly 20 years of the comic book genre defining itself with gritty, action oriented adaptations, Marvel wanted to take things in a different direction; moving away from the tendencies of past super hero movies that tried to distance themselves from their pulpy comic book origins.  Feige and the Marvel creative trust wanted the genre to return to the earnest, character driven super hero movies of the past, without ever feeling ashamed of the cheesy elements that often gave the comic books so much enjoyable flavor.  Iron Man (2008) was the first attempt at this, which was a nice bridge between that idea and still keeping the genre relatively close to what people were familiar with.  But, for Feige and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they had a particular movie in mind when they were looking for a style to define the cinematic premiere of one of their most important comic book heroes: Captain AmericaThe imprint of The Rocketeer is unmistakable in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), with it’s unashamed retro style, and it’s earnest depiction of super heroes origin free from any cynicism.  It’s easy to see that when the movie was set in motion that The Rocketeer was the movie they were trying to emulate; so much so that Joe Johnston himself was given the task of directing it.  Though the characters are wildly different, the style of the movie is unmistakably in line with Joe Johnston’s work on The Rocketeer.  It’s refreshing to see that even after 20 years, Johnston still had the ability to pull this kind of style off and make it work in a whole different franchise.  In many respects, Captain America is the spiritual successor to The Rocketeer, and it’s impact would even extend beyond just that one film.  Captain America set the tone for the remainder of the Marvel Cinematic Universe just as much as Iron Man by helping Marvel fully embrace the more pulpy side of their stories; in a sense, being unafraid of reminding audience that yes, indeed, this is from a comic book.  The combo of Iron Man and Captain America would eventually lay the foundation out for the decade of classics that followed, but the people behind the Marvel empire will tell you that the have movies like The Rocketeer to thank for showing them how it could be done.

So what is it within The Rocketeer that helped modern comic book movies find that right tone and style that has connected with audiences around the world.  For one thing, it’s a movie that doesn’t try to deconstruct it’s origins.  A large part of the comic book genre in the 90’s and 2000’s was based around grounding the heroes in reality and examining what exactly makes them tick.  Sometimes it would work, but other times it just dragged some comic book movies into needless melodrama.  The Rocketeer on the other hand is not about all that.  It’s less about what is at issue with the main character and more about what he has to do to save the day.  The character of Cliff Secord (played by Billy Campbell) is not a flawed, brooding anti-hero; he’s just a good guy wanting to do the right thing.  His character flaws are more about his clumsiness rather than anything psychological, and that makes him far more appealing than if he was a scoundrel that got his act together, which was an overused trope in the genre for many years.   The stakes are also pretty clearly defined in the film, with Cliff going up against Nazi spies who have their eyes on the jet pack as well.  They are led by a spy operating in plain sight as a movie star named Neville Sinclair (based on a real life rumor of Robin Hood leading man Errol Flynn being an allege Nazi sympathizer).  I should add that Sinclair is played by actor Timothy Dalton in a deliciously hammy and entertaining villainous turn for the former 007.  The movie is also unafraid to lean into it’s corniness from time to time, without trying to apologize to the audience about it later.  This is especially the case with a very on the nose patriotic streak found in the movie, with the Rocketeer literally taking to the skies next to a waving American flag at one point; an image that has been countlessly imitated in other super hero films like those of Superman and Spider-Man.  It’s colorful supporting cast, including two future Oscar winners (Jennifer Connelly and Alan Arkin), Paul Sorvino, and future Lost castaway Terry O’Quinn playing Howard Hughes, all would themselves continue to set the standard with which future comic book movies would cast their films.  Overall, the reason why it continues to inspire the comic book movies of today is because it fulfills the fundamental rule that all movies must follow; it’s just a fun ride from beginning to end.

Is it a movie that directly inspired all modern day comic book movies?  Of course not, but it was certainly one that provided the blueprint in which it could work.  If it was made today by the likes of Marvel or DC, would The Rocketeer have managed to be a major hit.  The conditions of the market certainly would favor it now, but The Rocketeer is a property that doesn’t have the longevity of say a Superman or Batman.  The Rocketeer has only been around as a character for the last almost 40 years, itself being a throwback to the comic books of the past.  It’s tricky to expect such a franchise to emerge out of those conditions, because despite acting like a story from a different era, it at the same time won’t carry over the legacy of that era.  Superman already had a 50 year head start on it.  So while a Batman movie can open to enormous success thanks to a built in audience that spans multiple generations, the Rocketeer must hold out hope that enough people are attracted to it’s unique concept in order to compete.  Sadly it wasn’t the case in 1991, when it was asked to perform in Batman’s shadow.  It was also another in a string of disappointing returns for movies that tried to copy Batman’s formula, including Disney/Touchstone’s own Dick Tracy, which tried way to hard to be just like a Tim Burton Batman movie (down to the Danny Elfman score).  What has helped The Rocketeer endure was that it went in a different direction than those others, expelling the broodiness of the Tim Burton’s style and instead embracing the colorful cheesiness of 1940’s pop serials.  So, even though it failed to find an audience initially, it managed to attract more people over time thanks to it’s earnest retro style, very similar in a way to another cult hit of the 90’s, The Iron Giant (1999), which by the way had a title character designed by Joe Johnston (seriously this guy’s an underground legend in cinema).  It’s a testament to good movies that never fade into obscurity and over time have a more profound impact on the history of cinema than we initially realized.

For me myself, it’s extremely satisfying to see a movie like The Rocketeer grow in esteem over the years.  I remember seeing it in the theater upon it’s original release when I was a month shy of 10 years old and loving it immediately.  I even went to school that next fall with a Rocketeer lunchbox in my backpack.  In my childhood photos, I have even found a picture of me and my brothers getting our picture taken with a Rocketeer walk-around character at Disneyland from that same summer;  and by the way, all three of us really loved the movie too.  Unfortunately, Disney was in a period of time where box office mattered the most, and they tended to bury their failures for the longest time.  That made The Rocketeer extremely hard to find for a while on home video.  And even when the movie did get a release, it was minor one; such as a DVD or Blu-ray with no bonus features.  Thanks to a streaming service like Disney+, The Rocketeer is readily available to anyone who is curious to watch it, and thanks to the site’s algorithm, it even offers it as a recommendation to anyone who’s been consuming multiple Marvel titles that are also available on the platform.  Even still, Disney still can’t quite figure out what to make of the property that they still hold onto.  Hopes for a direct sequel are still pretty slim as it’s been 30 years, and the original cast is much older today.  There are hopes for reboots in the future, as it’s apparent that Disney is aware of the cult status of the property.  Marvel Studios themselves can’t do anything with the character, as The Rocketeer rights belongs to a different publisher, but Disney could maybe pull one of Marvel’s creatives to work independently on a new project, since it’s all under the same roof now.  And there certainly have been attempts, like animated cartoons, in the past.  However, The Rocketeer’s cult status is still pretty limited to that cult following.  It’s not anywhere near MCU level in esteem, but it’s big enough now to where it can’t be ignored either.  In any sense, we at least have the original movie itself, which has aged like a fine wine these last 30 years.  And perhaps the greatest impact that it left behind was that it changed the expectations of the super hero genre.  Over time, it’s fanbase grew and demanded a different kind of comic book movie; one that was unafraid to call itself a comic book movie.  And eventually, that fanbase would spawn the people who would end up making comic book movies themselves, thereby delivering on that promise made by The RocketeerThe Rocketeer in many ways is the grandfather of our current comic book movie dominated culture, and its a satisfying end to see this little movie that could turn into the touchstone that it is for so many other hit movies in it’s wake.  Marvel and DC’s current status is carried on The Rocketeer’s broad shoulders, and it is rocketing off sky high.