What the Hell Was That? – The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003)

Cinema right now is being driven by a creative indulgence in expressing a vast knowledge of other media with the stories we are telling now.  Movies today are playing to an audience that is very much savvy about existing canons and continuing storylines across multiple stand alone projects, something that has definitely been driven by the rise of comic book movies in the last decade.  What were once Easter eggs in movies have now become seeds for future narratives, with even the most obscure of references blossoming into feature attractions.  Certainly Marvel Studios and their cinematic universe has executed this kind of long form storytelling to it’s fullest potential, creating the most successful franchise in movie history.  But the same kind of connected universe storytelling extends into even more surprising places in our current cinematic environment.  Recently christened Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), also plays upon the pop culture knowledge of it’s audience to imagine different creative universes within it’s multi-versal story that includes references to the movies of Wong Kar-Wai and Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007).  But while cinema is only just now beginning to dive into this craze of combining universes together, the same thing has already been going on for decades in the comic books.  Not only have Marvel Comics and DC Comics been bringing their vast collections of characters together in event comics centered around the Avengers and Justice League teams respectively, but the two rivals have come together a number of times and had cross-over comics where their respective heroes and villains join forces.  Imagine what that would look like on the big screen.  But, what works on the comic book page doesn’t necessarily work all the time in movies.  Often when you are pulling multiple different characters together, all of whom are the centerpiece of their own stories, you also have to bring in the baggage of their continuing narratives as well, and it can sometimes make the story a tad bit messy.  There was a case back in the early 2000’s where Hollywood did try to create a shared universe super team, based on another comic book as it so happens, and it not only bombed, but it nearly killed the comic book movie genre in general and ended the careers of several industry veterans as a result.

That infamous movie was the 2003 adaptation of the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  The movie was based on a series of comic books written by the legendary Alan Moore.  Moore is an interesting figure within the comic book industry.  As a writer, he is often critical of the conventions of comic book storytelling while at the same time participating in that same medium.  His work often subverts the tropes of comic book stories, like his most famous work Watchman, which deconstructs super heroes and their place in society.  His work has been so well received by the comic book community over the years that even big publishers have given him the chance of writing stories for their most iconic characters.  And, he has taken those opportunities to craft some of the best storylines in comic book history as a result.  Working primarily with DC Comics, he is responsible for one of the greatest Batman stories, The Killing Joke, and one of the best Superman stories, For the Man Who Has Everything.  But perhaps his most divisive work has been one that has deconstructed the idea of super teams like the Avengers and the Justice League, which is The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  The league in question is not team up of various comic book heroes, but is instead a collection of characters from literary sources of all eras.  This is a comic book series where Captain Nemo teams up with Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Man, and several other characters from famous literary works, forming yet another society of heroes to take on evil forces, which again, are also from various works of literature.  While this does seem like a fun idea for a comic book series, in Alan Moore’s hands, it is anything but that.  The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is very much a subversive novel, and definitely not for kids, as graphic violence and sexual situations are litter very liberally throughout the pages of the comic book.  At the same time, Moore is deconstructing the meaning of these classic characters, with a critical eye for how literary canons have shaped society in general.  Of course, the series that Alan Moore envisioned with his take on super hero team-ups doesn’t exactly lend itself generously to cinematic adaptation, but that didn’t stop Hollywood.

The early 2000’s was an interesting time for comic book movies.  On  the one hand, you could see a falling out with audiences who had seen the genre fall flat on it’s face due to ridiculous commercialized fair like DC’s Batman and Robin (1997).  At the same time, we were also seeing the emergence of more mature movie adaptations that would go on to influence what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would eventually become, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000).  In the midst of this came the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s first two volumes of his League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  20th Century Fox held the rights to the comic book series, which Moore had published independently through ABC Comics, and they were intending to turn it into it’s own franchise to compete with the likes of the DC’s and the Marvel’s (though Fox was also stewards of the X-Men and Fantastic Four as well).  Though the movie does retain the core concept of Moore’s comic book series as well as some of the core characters that make u up the team, the similarities end there.  The film just fall into the same stock action tropes of every other other comic book movie at the time and leaves out the sharp witted commentary of Alan Moore’s writing.  It basically betrays what Alan Moore intended by becoming the very thing that it was meant to critique.  But that’s not exactly new for comic book movie adaptations.  And it is not the worst thing about the movie either.  It was obvious that Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman would be Hollywood-ized to oblivion, but the way it was makes it even more of a colossal failure than anyone would’ve expected.

It is very clear from the get go that the movie League of Extraordinary Gentleman focuses way too much on trying to appear cool without ever earning it.  The term that is most used to describe the style of this movie is Dieselpunk, which is retro-futuristic.  Think the image of the future that was imagined in the early 20th century, with diesel-based locomotion being the basis for aesthetics in everything from architecture to apparel, much like it’s spiritual cousin Steampunk.  As a result, the whole movie is murky and drowned out in this silvery sheen that makes the whole movie visually unappealing.  There are a lot of scenes that take place at night or in dark spaces, likely to hide the lackluster CGI effects, which definitely have not aged well.  And in addition to having the visual aesthetic and effects being hard to look at, the movie also dispenses with logic in order to make their ridiculous ideas work.  Case in point, a whole section of the movie that takes place in Venice, Italy.  We are introduced earlier in the movie to the Nautilus, the massive submarine transport of one of the league members, Captain Nemo.  In the movie, we are shown that the Nautilus is over a hundred feet in height when brought to the surface, and yet we also see the vessel traveling the canals of Venice, under it’s many bridges, which anyone with a brain knows is a city built in a lagoon with very shallow water.  The Nautilus being able to navigate like it does in the movie through Venice makes absolutely no sense.  Even more ridiculous, the heroes in the film also are involved in a car chase in the very same location.  I’ll excuse the movie for having Captain Nemo inventing the car long before Henry Ford created his first Model T; that’s an acceptable creative license.  But to have the car chase take place in Venice, a city without roads is far too absurd and illogical.  It’s clear that the filmmakers of this movie just wanted a car chase in their film and they didn’t care how they would make it happen.  They put it in there, because it’s a standard trope of comic book action movies.

There are a lot of other instances where it’s clear that the filmmakers are more interested in pandering to an audience rather than delivering a more interesting story.  This can also be found in the casting of it’s characters.  The movie does retain some of Alan Moore’s core characters, including Alan Quartermain (played by the legendary Sean Connery), Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both played by Jason Flemyng).  In some cases, the casting of these characters is fine; Flemyng actually gives the film’s best performance in his dual role and I give credit to the movie for casting an actual Indian actor in the role of Nemo, which is true to Moore’s comic and also to the original text from Jules Verne.  But, some of the changes made to the team seem more in line with demands for what was expected for a comic book  movie at the time; which sadly meant more sex appeal.  One of the additions was the character of Dorian Gray, based on the character from the Oscar Wilde novel of the same name.  The character is not too dissimilar from his literary persona, but he’s kind of worthless as an element of this story, and it’s clear that he’s just here so they could hire an attractive actor in the role; in this case Stuart Townsend (who ironically took this role after being removed from the cast of a more beloved production called The Lord of the Rings, with Viggo Mortenson taking his place as Aragorn).  The even more cynical addition is the inclusion of Tom Sawyer as a character in this story, clearly as a means to include a character familiar with American audiences and make the team less Euro-centric.  Tom Sawyer’s inclusion here is ridiculous to say the least, and it again goes against Alan Moore’s intention of the story.  Tom Sawyer is far from his roots as the Mark Twain imagined scheming adolescent, and here is a secret agent trained by the American government; a literal Captain America.  Moore’s comic doesn’t glorify the characters by giving them these glow-up heroic arcs.  He’s critiquing the roles that these characters inhabit and examining what imagined encounters between them would be like.  For the movie, they clearly wanted to appeal to American audiences, plucked a character out of American literature, cast an up-and-coming American heartthrob (Shane West), and felt that it would do the same thing.  It clearly didn’t work.

What this movie is especially notorious for, and is rightly condemned for in general, is that it ended the legendary film career of Sir Sean Connery.  The man who turned Ian Fleming’s James Bond into a cinematic icon and gave us memorable roles in films as varied as John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975) to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), to Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), called it quits after playing the role of Allan Quartermain in this film.  Despite having the marquee role, Connery would later describe the shoot for this film demoralizing and the thing that convinced him that he couldn’t do this act in a movie any more.  So sadly the last image we have of Sean Connery on celluloid is this mess of a movie that is clearly beneath his talent.  At the same time, Connery himself is partly to blame for ending his career on such a sour note.  He chose to do this movie over more interesting roles that were offered to him, like the Architect in the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy and Gandalf the Wizard in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.  Sadly, many attempts to coax Connery out of his retirement failed; including Steven Spielberg trying to coax him back into reprising his role of Dr. Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  And what made this role so bad for Connery.  Honestly his performance is not bad, but it also lacks weight.  Quartermain in this movie is never interesting in the slightest, just a grizzled old veteran being called into one last fight.  Essentially he’s here to be the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Tom Sawyer’s Luke Skywalker; showing the level of originality on the filmmakers part.  And the un-original take that these characters inhabit again goes against what Alan Moore wrote.  In an interesting twist, Moore actually makes Mina Hartley the leader of the league, because of all the characters she has faced the worst kinds of evil (Dracula) and lived, making her a bolder leader.  Mina in this film is just there to be the girl on the team, and that they made her a vampire on top of that (she isn’t in the comic) is another failing of the adaptation.

It wasn’t just Connery’s career that was prematurely ended because of the experience of making this movie.  The film’s director, Stephen Norrington also stepped away from Hollywood afterwards, with this being his last film to date.  Norrington likewise has his own self to blame too, as his directing style (which was ill-suited for big studio driven films) made the shooting of League of Extraordinary Gentleman chaotic for everyone involved.  In particular, him and Connery never got along on set and at one point an argument during the shooting almost ended with fists flying.  This definitely was a clear sign that a movie like this should never have been attempted in this way.  It was not something to cater to the expectations of the genre, but rather to critique it.  The movie overall lacks an identity, utilizing it’s familiar name and characters but doing absolutely nothing original with them.  This whole experience pretty much ended up badly for everyone.  Connery’s early retirement, Norrington’s bruised reputation, Stuart Townsend and Shane West falling quickly into obscurity after turning down better roles in order to be a part of this one.  Alan Moore himself even chose to distance himself even more from Hollywood after the failure of this movie.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the last film to credit Alan Moore as a creator of the source material.  Even the better received Zack Snyder adaptation of Watchmen (2009) doesn’t include the name Alan Moore in any of the credits; which was Moore’s request.  I don’t blame Alan Moore for his cynicism over this.  This was very much a case where Hollywood took a project that the author took great pride in and completely trashed it, robbing it of all meaning and making the extraordinary just ordinary.

But, strangely enough, it didn’t deter Alan Moore from continuing on with his series of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.  He would continue writing the comics for another 16 years after the movie, all the while making it even more subversive and weird.  It could be argued that the failure of the movie adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen fueled his creative flames even more, as he took his critical eye towards even more subject in pop culture, including more recent ones from literature and, yes, even the movies.  And he doesn’t hold back in his cynical takes either.  There are some absolutely insane ideas in those later books in the series, including one where Harry Potter is the Anti-Christ and is defeated by God, who appears in the form of Mary Poppins.  Honestly, I think a cinematic adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen happened way too early in the history of these books, because some of the most out there ideas from Alan Moore have appeared on the page post-movie.  I can only imagine what an adaptation of this would be like now, if Alan Moore could trust anyone with it.  The movie adaptation in comparison now feels so small and insignificant, more valuable now as an example of how not to adapt a comic book into a movie.  Could another adaptation happen today?  Should it happen?  Given Alan Moore’s frosty relationship with Hollywood, I would definitely say no, but it would be interesting to see maybe a series adaption on like HBO or Netflix, with the intent of capturing the original subversive nature of Alan Moore’s narrative.  It would never happen given the sprawling nature of Alan Moore’s series, and the fact that there are references to so many things that still fall under copywrite law.  As it stands, it is far better to read the weird and demented League for yourself to get the true experience and to avoid the movie all together.  In a time where we see the combination of universes becoming these big cinematic events, it’s worth checking out a twisted version of that same kind of story which in many ways critiques the very nature of pop culture itself as well as the extraordinary stories that we tell within it.

Shazam: Fury of the Gods – Review

2023 is going to be an odd year for DC comic book movies.  For one thing it will mark the end of one era in the progression of movies they have put out, as well as the beginning of another era.  But, before the new can begin, the old must have it’s final say, and that’s what is happening with the DC films this year.  In a remarkable turn of events in the last year, the mega merger of Warner Media (DC’s parent company) and Discovery Entertainment caused a ripple effect across all projects in various levels of development.  One thing was clear as newly appointed CEO David Zaslev took over control of the company; changes had to be made.  For DC, this meant put a stop to the current flow of movies in the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU) pipeline and re-assessing the direction that they wanted to go with the properties that they had.  This is some ways was welcome, as the DCEU has been for the most part an un-focused mess.  Often dubbed the Snyderverse, because of the creative direction the franchise has followed built off of the movies directed by Zach Snyder, the DCEU for the longest time had been playing catch-up with their rivals at Marvel Studios, struggling to build a compelling interconnected universe on the same level.  While Zach Snyder’s vision can definitely be considered unique and in contrast with Marvel, the movies he made were often too dour and pretentious to be considered entertaining, and sadly it caused most of the other DC movies to feel lacking in entertainment as well.  There were bright spots like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), but the DCEU overall never could get it’s footing right, and many felt that it wasted iconic storylines in a hopeless pursuit of besting Marvel.  So, a refresh was definitely called for, and that’s what Zaslev has ordered from DC.  Sadly, this action came with it’s own drastic measures, including the cancellation of a nearly complete, $90 million Batgirl movie.  But, the issue at DC was a lack of cohesion in it’s overall vision, and to try to change course on the shaky foundation of the past would’ve been too much of a hassle for the new regime, so a fresh start is what they chose instead.  And the new DC would also be giving the duty of uniting it’s universe through one creative mind: filmmaker James Gunn.

Gunn has taken over the role of Creative Director for the DC Comics film division with the unenviable task of restructuring the direction of the now dubbed DCU.  Having won acclaim from his time at Marvel, turning the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy comic book line into a billion dollar franchise all on it’s own, James Gunn is entering his new position at DC with a lot of high hopes resting on his shoulders.  A few weeks back, we saw our first glimpse at what his team has come up with for a fresh new direction for the universe, including a mix of familiar faces (Superman and Batman) alongside obscure characters from deep within the DC library; something that Gunn holds especially dear.  Some welcomed the news, while others were cautious in their optimism, knowing how they’ve been disappointed in DC before.  And then there are the Snyderverse stans who refuse to let the past die and are already grinding their axes to take down James Gunn.  Suffice to say, it is going to be interesting to see how Gunn and company manage to roll out their slate of projects after the turbulent ride that DC has been through.  One thing that is going to be interesting to see though is how the remnants of the old DCEU play out, knowing that their storyline is largely coming to an unceremonious end.  There are four DC movies releasing this year: the long awaited and controversial Flash movie, the little known Blue Beetle movie, the sequel to the Jason Momoa headlined Aquaman, and of course, the sequel Shazam: Fury of the Gods, coming out this weekend.  With the knowledge of the DCEU coming to an end, and the DCU rising from it’s ashes, is Shazam: Fury of the Gods a movie at all worth seeing, and is it a bright light on a dark road or an even clearer sign of what needed to change at DC?

Shazam: Fury of the Gods pretty much picks up where the last film left off.  Young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been gifted super human power when ever he says the magic words “SHAZAM,” which turns him into an adult super being of the same name (Zachary Levi).  His foster family of fellow orphans that he shares a home with, including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Glazer), Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand) Mary Bromfield (Grace Caroline Currey), and Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman) have also gained the same ability to transform into super beings (Adam Brody, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Currey again, and Meagan Good respectively) and together they have formed a super hero team to protect their hometown of Philadelphia.  The only problem is that despite outward appearances, they are still kids and they make a lot of mistakes that other more experienced super heroes do not.  This has earned them the unflattering nickname of the ‘Philly Fiascos” by the fed up citizens of the city.  At the same time, Billy is beginning to feel unsure of his ability to lead the others and keep them together as a family unit, knowing full well that he’s going to turn 18 soon and age out of the foster care system.  Meanwhile, the wizard staff that gave them all their powers has been stolen by super powered being known as the Daughters of Atlas.  Two of the sisters, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) have also imprisoned the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) himself and forced him to repair the damage to the staff to bring it’s power back.  Their intent is to reclaim the power of the Gods that the Wizard has stolen from them, which now is possessed by Shazam and his family, and bring back the power to their realm.  There is also a girl who has befriended Freddy named Anna (Rachel Zegler) who may hold a few answers of her own about what is at stake.  Dealing with a threat of malevolent Gods in their city, the family of Supers must figure out a way to overcome their inexperience and rise to the challenge, and Billy must confront the thing that he has long been avoiding, which is the realization that he has to start growing up.

When the first Shazam movie came out in Spring of 2019, it was a breath of fresh air after the depressing Zack Snyder movies and the underwhelming DCEU movies that surrounded it.  It was light and airy, and also not afraid to poke fun at itself and other DC comic book characters.  Most of all, it had a sense of fun and was charmingly irreverent; a stark contrast to what the rest of the DCEU had to offer.  And it did all this, without feeling like a Marvel clone.  For the first time, it looked like Shazam had managed to crack the formula, and give us a DCEU movie that could indeed entertain while still staying true to it’s comic book origins.  Sadly, it’s reign at the box office was cut short as Marvel had it’s record breaking Avengers: Endgame (2019) hit theaters a few short weeks later, but it made enough to convince Warner Brothers to greenlight a sequel.  The only question was, could they capture the same kind of magic a second time around?  Fury of the Gods is coming out in a far different kind of environment.  The movie had to be made during the pandemic and of course the whole shake-up at the top of the company suddenly made the future of this series irrelevant.  So, it is at least a consolation that if this is the end of this series of Shazam movies, at least they are going out on a positive note.  It doesn’t quite surpass the original, but Fury of the Gods is a worthy companion to the first film.  It thankfully maintains the sense of fun and irreverence that made the first so likable.  I think that it’s a result of the same team returning for this production, picking up right where they left off.  Director David F. Sandberg just has a good sense of tone; knowing when to incorporate the humor at the right moments, while also making clear what the stakes are in this story.  He also does a great job of directing the action beats in each scene.  All the action is clear and visible (which really made the first film also stand out against the Snyderverse films) and there is a lot of creativity in how the scenes are staged.

If there is something that I feel like the movie falls short off it’s predecessor with in comparison, it would be some of the character development.  In particular, there is something lacking with the character of Shazam/ Billy Batson.  The first film created this compelling story about Billy’s desperate search for his birth mother, only to lead him towards accepting the family he chooses rather than the family that abandoned him.  It was a heartwarming aspect of his character development that helped to balance out more humorous aspects of his personality when he was in super-powered mode.  This time around, the movie leans more on the sillier side when it comes to Shazam, and that kind of robs the movie of the heart that defined the original.  Here Billy’s story is far less of a factor, with some of his adopted brothers and sisters taking more of the spotlight.  As a result, they stand out more and he’s more or less just present as a comical diversion.  Also, it seems like in the interval between films, Shazam has gotten somewhat dumber.  I understand that part of that is the fact that he still technically a kid and that Billy is fearful of growing up; but there is a level of immaturity with the character in this movie that seems like even more of a step backwards from the last film.  To me, it just seems like the filmmakers wanted to utilize Zachary Levi’s man-child schtick a bit more in this movie, and he carries most of the screen-time in this film.  Asher Angel, who had about equal screen-time in the last film is barely here this time, and there seems to be even more of a disconnect between how the two actors are playing the character.  Levi’s playing him more broad, while Angel’s more toned down, and it makes the conceit of the transformation feel far less effective.

The rest of the cast though feels more in tune with different roles they are playing.  I definitely buy the fact that Jack Dylan Grazer and Adam Brody are playing the same character, as they both are bringing the same fast-talking nerdy vibe to the character.  The even better match is Meagan Good and Faithe Herman as the different versions of Darla, as they both perfectly capture the sweet innocent femininity of the youngest member of the super family.  As far as the villains go in this movie, both Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu bring the right amount of menacing presence to the movie without undermining the overall lighter tone.  Helen  Mirren in particular really understands the assignment, as she uses her high thespian skills to bring sincerity to her portrayal of an all powerful goddess, while at the same time knowing how to have fun with it.  There is one scene where her character read a letter that has to be hands down one of the funniest moment I’ve seen in a movie in a long while.  Her delivery in particular makes the moment work perfectly, and I was cracking up in the theater.  And while I have my reservations about how his character development progressed in this movie, I will say that both Zachary Levi and Asher Angel still do a good job of playing the character of Billy Batson/Shazam.  Levi in particular really manages to put hilarious spins on his line readings that makes the character genuinely funny to watch.  But overall, it’s Jack Dylan Grazer that stands out the most in this movie.  He was clearly the scene stealer of the first Shazam and it makes sense to expand his role further here.  The movie definitely leans into his sense of comedic timing, but I was also impressed with how well he handled the more dramatic moments too.  There are parts of the climatic ending of this movie where he really puts in an emotional performance, and it’s really good to see how well he has progressed as an actor between movies.

The movie also follows in the footsteps of it’s predecessor by being visually pleasing as well.  I appreciate the fact that the movie takes place mostly in broad daylight, which helps to keep everything coherent visually.  Many super hero films, particularly the DCEU ones, cast their color palette in darker tones, probably as a means of softening the look of less than stellar visual effects shots.  Shazam on the other hand keeps things bright, even if it doesn’t help the CGI effects.  The CGI is about on par with most movies in the genre, but with Shazam, the filmmakers thankfully don’t worry too much if a few things don’t look 100% realistic.  As long as the special effects remain inventive and engaging, it doesn’t have to be photo-realistic.  This is definitely evident with the monsters in this movie, which very much look like digital creations.  The designs are unique enough and their actions inventive enough that it becomes acceptable having them appear a little off.  There are good visual effects here too.  One character in the movie has the ability to manipulate environments like they were on a turntable, and it’s a really neat looking visual.  There’s also a very cool looking dragon made out of wood that is beautifully designed and even looks good mixed in with the live action environments.  Sandberg’s direction also keeps the movie briskly paced even with so many characters and plot elements to juggle.  Considering how so many super hero films as of late feel disjointed and meandering, it’s refreshing to see a movie like this keep things simple and clear.  Essentially, the movie centers around a central McGuffin and it’s all about the heroes trying to keep the villains from gaining what they want; simple textbook story structure, but executed to near perfection.  Especially in comparison to the movie that this is most associated with in the DCEU, last year’s Black Adam (2022), this movie thankfully keeps it clear what it’s heroes’ motivations are, and that’s proving oneself worthy of great power; something this movie carries over from the first film.

The movie’s timing is unfortunate for a variety of reasons.  It’s coming at a time when DC is about to re-organize and start their connected universe from scratch, making this movie irrelevant.  On top of that, there seems to be a sense of Comic Book movie fatigue starting to set it with audiences.  This is evident by the recent disappointment of Marvel’s own Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023).  My worry is that this kind of environment is going to cast an unfair pallor over this film, which may sadly cause many people to overlook this very entertaining sequel.  It’s definitely got it’s own flaws, but those shortcomings are overwhelmed by the sincerity and sense of fun that Shazam: Fury of the Gods has.  I really hope that audiences don’t overlook this movie and give it at least a chance.  Whether it’s the lively performances of the cast of actors or the inventive and engaging action sequences, this is a sequel that at the very least matches it’s predecessor in many ways.  The big disadvantage that it has is that it’s not the introduction to the character and his story, taking some of the initial novelty away.  But, enough surprises keeps this movie from disappointing and the overall experience is one that I think that audiences will react to favorably.  It remains to be seen what Shazam’s fate will be in the newly laid out plans for DC’s future.  The end credit scenes don’t give us a definitive answer either (it honestly could go either way).  Hopefully James Gunn still will consider a place for Shazam in the future of the DCU, though it may have to be with different actors.  Asher Angel is growing up fast, and the novelty of a young boy turning into a full grown super hero won’t work as well as he himself ages more into manhood himself.  For a movie on it’s own, Shazam: Fury of the Gods delivers enough of the good things that made the original such a standout delight while adding it’s own special treats to the mix and if this is the end of the line for this story, it at least makes the most of it.  Definitely have a super time with this super hero sequel.

Rating: 8/10

The 2023 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts

The time has come again.  With 2022 standing as a recovery year for the film industry after the subsiding of the Covid-19 pandemic, the same sort of return to normalcy is also happening with the biggest Awards show of the season.  The Oscars, after spending the last couple years in a later to early spring time slot, is now settling back into it’s late winter placement, creating a much tighter frame for Awards season to build momentum for any certain movie.  But, apart from scheduling, the make-up of these Oscars are also looking more like Awards seasons of the pre-pandemic past, and then some.  For the first time in a long while, the year’s top grossing movies are contending in the Best Picture race; those films this year being Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).  Neither has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, but still it’s a good sign that the Academy is beginning to recognize that it’s in their best interest to acknowledge that blockbuster films beloved by the masses are deserving of these honors too.  Apart from those two films, the overall race this year is a very interesting collection of different kinds of movies that typically are overlooked by the Academy; a good sign of different attitudes taking hold within the Academy ranks.  It will remain to be seen if the actual award winners reflect those changing attitudes, or if the Academy will still default towards their safe bet choices.  Like in years past, I will be taking a look at the top eight categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, and Adapted Screenplay) and give you my thoughts as well as my pair of picks; those who I think will win, and those who I think should win.  Keep in mind, I’m an amateur when it comes to picking winners with a so-so track record, and my own biases certainly come into play, so don’t put any money on my choices here.  I will say that I make these picks having seen all the nominated movies, so I at least come to this with an informed mind.  With all that said, let’s take a look at the nominees for the 2023 Academy Awards.


Nominees: Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, All Quiet on the Western Front; Rian Johnson, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery; Kazuo Ishiguro, Living; Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Peter Craig and Justin Marks, Top Gun: Maverick; Sarah Polley, Women Talking

Pretty easy to dismiss off the bat is Top Gun: Maverick.  Even the most die hard fans of the movie will admit that the blockbuster film’s best asset was not it’s screenplay.  And there is no doubt that it will be well represented in the technical awards categories.  Usually every year, one of the blockbuster movies sneaks into a screenplay competition, and this was the one for this year.  Rian John follows up his nomination for Knives Out (2019) with another nod here, and his satirical sleuth sequel is definitely the kind of smart and twisty script that the Academy loves.  Unfortunately, being the only nomination for that film probably hurts it’s chances here.  Novelist Ishiguro gets his first nomination for screenwriting here, but it’s for a movie that many acknowledge is not as strong as the Japanese original made by Akira Kurosawa.  What I think has the advantage in this race is Sarah Polley’s Women Talking.  It’s a screenplay where the dialogue is the driving force of the movie, as the whole film is essentially a prolonged debate between women deciding whether or not to leave their Mennonite colony after years of abuse.  The themes of the film will probably resonate strongly with Academy voters as well, given the political climate and the reckoning over the last few years with regards to the #MeToo movement.  Polley is certainly deserving of the honor, but my own favorite in this category is the one film nominated not in the English language.  The screenplay for All Quiet on the Western Front breathes new life into the nearly century old anti-war novel and really brings the harrowing horrors described on the page to terrifying life.  But what is special in the movie is the way it expertly humanizes it’s characters and makes every moment they share on the battlefield all the more agonizing.  On top of that, it expertly weaves in the ticking clock of signing the armistice treaty that ultimately ends WWI.  I’m sure that Sarah Polley will be the victor here, given her victory already at the WGA awards, but if All Quiet has a good night overall in the other categories, it could be a surprise spoiler here, and one that I would be happy to see win as this was indeed one of my favorites of the year.

Who Will Win: Sarah Polley, Women Talking

Who Should Win:  Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, All Quiet on the Western Front


Nominees: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin; Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, The Fablemans; Ruben Ostlund, Triangle of Sadness; Todd Field, Tar

One of the big narratives that has emerged out of this Oscar season is the dominance of Everything Everywhere All at Once.  The film that came out in theaters in March, around the same time as the Oscars last year, and stuck around in people’s minds long enough to lead all other Awards nominees, is not only not loosing steam going into Oscar weekend, but it also seems to be gaining momentum.  The film, if it keeps this up, could be one of the biggest winners at the Oscars in recent memory and this could indeed be one of their pick-ups in an overall successful night.  The Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert), as they are known in the industry, have already picked up the WGA award (a strong precursor), so they are likely to do the same at the Oscars barring any surprise upsets.  It’s overall a strong category, as each screenplay is for a film nominated for Best Picture.  My favorite film of the year, The Fablemans, is recognized here, but it’s a screenplay that may be too middle of the road for the Academy this year; though it is interesting that this is Spielberg’s first screenplay nomination in 45 years, the last being for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  A possible spoiler here could be Martin McDonagh’s pitch black comedy The Banshees of Inisherin, which I would certainly agree is one of the cleverest scripts of the year.  But, it’s also very bleak compared with the rest, which is why the Academy may overlook it.  However, my pick here would be the screenplay that took the longest to write.  Todd Field supposedly worked on the script for Tar over a 12 year period, refining it multiple times until it became the intricate character study that the final film became.  Of the nominees here, it’s the least showy script, playing much more with subtleties of character, but like his two other films In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006), the brilliance of Tar is in the unexpected and ruthless turns it takes.  So, if Everything Everywhere has a big night, expect it to win here, but Tar for me would make for the most satisfying of upsets.

Who Will Win:  Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Who Should Win:  Todd Field, Tar


Nominees: Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin; Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin; Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway; Judd Hirsch, The Fablemans; Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

As we get into the acting categories, let’s get the most sure thing out of the way.  This one is Ke Huy Quan’s to lose.  All the way through Awards season, Quan has been the favorite for this award, not just for the great performance he gave in Everything Everywhere All at Once, but also because of the incredible narrative of his own real life comeback story.  He was a child actor in the 1980’s, best known for playing Short Round opposite Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), but he quit acting as a teenager because of the lack of good roles for Asian actors in Hollywood at the time.  After over 30 years out of the spotlight, working mostly behind the camera with stunt choreography, he was inspired to return to acting after having seen the hit film Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which was a movie that he believed showed him that there were better opportunities now for Asian actors in the business.  He miraculously landed a role immediately upon returning, and his return has been met with universal praise across the board.  Thus far, he has been a darling of the awards season, bringing people to tears with his heartfelt acceptance speeches, and there is little doubt that he’ll also be doing the same on the Oscar stage.  The Academy loves a comeback story, and his is one of the most inspiring in recent memory.  Are there any spoilers in this race.  The only ones I can think of might be the duo of actors nominated here from Banshees of Inisherin;  Barry Keoghan and Brendan Gleeson, who like Quan are first time nominees here.  They both give great performances, but they also don’t have the comeback story factor putting wind in their sails.  I for one will absolutely be happy to see Ke Huy Quan win, and not just because of my fandom for Temple of Doom.  His performance is clearly the standout in this category, and it will be a wonderful cap to an improbable comeback story that has defined his road to Oscar.

Who Will Win:  Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Who Should Win:  Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once


Nominees:  Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; Hong Chau, The Whale; Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin; Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once

We go from the surest thing to the category that is probably the most open-ended.  The supporting actress race is interesting for a variety of reasons.  One, the nomination of Angela Bassett is historic because it’s the first acting nomination ever for a film from Marvel Studios; a big feather in the cap for the brand which has been trying hard and coming up short over the years in getting the Academy’s attention.  For a while, Bassett also looked like the favorite in this race, but fellow industry veteran Jamie Lee Curtis is coming on strong in the last couple of weeks, buoyed by her win at the SAG awards.  Both Angela Bassett and Jamie Lee Curtis have storied careers over many decades working in Hollywood, and a win for either would be a strong acknowledgement of their contributions to cinema over the years.  But, neither are a sure thing either, as there is the opportunity for an upset here as well.  Jamie Lee Curtis’ co-star Stephanie Hsu may not have the same stacked resume, but her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the one that stands out a bit more in the film, and is far more layered and experimental than many of the other nominees here.  But my own personal choice would be Kerry Condon for her tragi-comic performance in The Banshees of Inisherin.  Here clear-minded character in that movie is a wonderful counterbalance to the understated lunacy of her male co-stars, and she especially excels at making her character feel fully human and lived in as part of the film.  It’s hard to say which way the category will go, but if Everything Everywhere All at Once has a huge night, it might lift the tide in Jamie Lee Curtis’ favor, given her career up to now, and she’ll be deserving too.  It’s honestly better to be an established movie star in this category this year than a fresh newcomer, and that’s something that could put either Bassett or Curtis on top in the end.

Who Will Win: Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Who Should Win: Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin


Nominees: Austin Butler, Elvis; Bill Nighy, Living; Brendan Fraser, The Whale; Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin; Paul Mescal; Aftersun

Interesting thing to note, everyone in this category is a first time nominee, which is surprising for some given that actors like Colin Farrell, Brendan Fraser and Bill Nighy have been around in the movies for decades.  As of right now, one of the fresher faces is carrying the momentum going into Oscar night.  Austin Butler is following in the footsteps of other past winners in this category who won for playing a famous figure in a biopic.  In this case, he is looking to be the odds on favorite for his transformative performance playing “the King” himself, Elvis Presley in the Baz Luhrmann directed film Elvis (2022).  Don’t get me wrong, he is amazing in the movie and clearly the highlight of that film by a wide margin.  But, like most awards given to actors for playing famous figures in entertainment, is the academy really rewarding the performance, or the transformation.  I honestly feel like Austin Butler will win her, but for all the wrong reasons.  The Academy are just suckers for performances that are imitations, and it sadly leads to more original performances that are more deserving getting overlooked in the process.  Case in point, I feel like the buzz around Butler’s Elvis transformation is going to take away from the absolutely groundbreaking work done by Brendan Fraser in The Whale (2022).  Fraser, like Ke Huy Quan in the supporting category, is having a triumphant comeback story unfolding this year, after returning from a long hiatus with a renewed sense of what he wants to be as an actor.  His performance in The Whale, completely disappearing into the persona of a dying 600 pound man, is one for the ages, and I would love it if it gone the due recognition from the Academy.  We’ll see if the Oscars can break out of it’s comfort zone and help give Fraser’s comeback story a powerful benchmark with an Oscar win, but we’ve also seen this scenario play out before, and it’s likely they’ll go with the safe pick of Austin Butler for his noteworthy but still standard performance as Elvis.

Who Will Win: Austin Butler, Elvis

Who Should Win: Brendan Fraser, The Whale


Nominees: Ana de Armas, Blonde; Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie; Cate Blanchett, Tar; Michelle Williams, The Fablemans; Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once

This category certainly drew some controversy immediately after the nominations were announced.  Andrea Riseborough’s out-of-the-blue nomination took everyone by surprise, and the unlikelihood of her inclusion in this category even drew speculation of unlawful campaigning on her behalf that led to her nomination.  The probe turned up no wrongdoing, but unfortunately Ms. Riseborough’s nomination is unfairly tainted by the controversy that surrounds it; with even more controversy surrounding it because it came with the exclusion of Actresses of color in this category, including Viola Davis for The Woman King (2022) and Danielle Deadwyler for Till (2022).  But, Riseborough has little chance of winning here, as the category is pretty much a two woman race going into the final stretch.  Cate Blanchett came into Oscar season as an early front runner, with her virtuoso performance as the titular figure in Todd Field’s Tar.  Her character, Lydia Tar, is a fascinating figure all the way through the movie and it’s an utterly original kind of performance from the legendary performer; fearlessly taking on a character that in many ways is hard to like as she sinks deeper into self-destruction throughout the movie.  But, in recent weeks the groundswell of support for Everything Everywhere All at Once has also lifted up it’s star Michelle Yeoh to being a potential spoiler in this race.  If Yeoh wins, it would be historic as she would be the first Asian actress to ever win the Oscar for a Leading Role, and that would be a landmark too good for the Academy to pass up.  Still, Blanchett is an icon in Hollywood, and many consider her performance in Tar to be her best yet.  She may still yet be the victor, but I would love to see history made with Michelle Yeoh this year.  I’ve loved her work since seeing her in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and all the way through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and many other great performances.  We’ll see how mighty Everything Everywhere All at Once’s dominance is at the Oscars.  Despite having liked the movie Tar more, I still would love to see Michelle Yeoh win the Oscar here, just because her performance is the more dynamic of the two, and I also like seeing history made at the Oscars.

Who Will Win:  Cate Blanchett, Tar

Who Should Win:  Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once


Nominees: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin; Ruben Ostlund, Triangle of Sadness; Steven Spielberg, The Fablemans; Todd Field, Tar

One would expect the Daniels to be triumphant here given that they have picked up the lions share of past Awards this season, including the indicative DGA award.  That’s quite the feat for a team that is only on their second feature film (the first being Swiss Army Man).  It’s also not unusual for the award to be shared by two individuals; it’s happened twice before in 1961 with West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) and 2007 with No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen).  If Everything Everywhere All at Once has a monster of a night, this will be an easy one to call.  Is it the one that I choose.  I do love what the Daniels have done and their win would be a great boost for filmmakers that work outside of the studio system with visions that cannot be so easily pigeon-holed within this industry.  But, given my own bias here, my own favorite runs contradictory to that idea as he is the most insider-y of Hollywood insiders; Steven Spielberg.  The Fablemans was my favorite movie of the year and Spielberg’s direction was the work that impressed me the most of any movie this last year.  It is amazing how well Spielberg’s style works so well in even telling the personal story of his own life.  All of Spielberg’s trademarks are there in the movie, and it takes on a whole different level knowing that the film is a self-portrait.  Another worthy alternative in this category is Todd Field, whose subtle work on Tar shows that he hasn’t lost any of his directorial talent in the 16 years he was absent behind the camera.  So, I do expect the Daniels to win here, but I also would love to see my favorite movie win something at this Oscars, and I feel Spielberg is the best shot it has in the ceremony as a whole, and I would indeed love to see a possible upset here, but it’s highly unlikely, and it’s not like Spielberg hasn’t won here before.

Who Will Win:  Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Who Should Win:  Steven Spielberg, The Fablemans


Nominees:  All Quiet on the Western Front; Avatar: The Way of Water; Elvis; Everything Everywhere All at Once; The Banshees of Inisherin; The Fablemans; Top Gun: Maverick; Triangle of Sadness; Tar; Women Talking

Some interesting developments this year in the Best Picture race.  Not only are the two highest grossing movies of the year represented, but this also shows a shift from trends in recent years that favored movies from streaming platforms.  Only one movie on this list (All Quiet of the Western Front) was made by a streaming producer; Netflix in this case.  All the others were made for theatrical distribution.  During the pandemic years, up to half of the nominees had been streaming exclusives, which shows just how much the dynamic has changed in favor of the theatrical model.  I personally think this is a strong field, mainly because 5 of the 10 nominees made it onto my list this year.  Of all of these, I of course would like to see my favorite movie of the year, The Fablemans, take home the top honor, though I do recognize that this is now a long shot prospect.  Everything Everywhere All at Once has had the strongest legs I’ve seen in the Oscar race in very long time.  Typically, the movie that earns the most nominations at the beginning of the race loses momentum by the time that the awards are given out, but that doesn’t seem to be happening with Everywhere, as it is sweeping up the precursor awards left and right.  A full guild award sweep is always a strong indicator that the same film will win Best Picture here, but stranger things have happened before to “sure things” in the past (La La Land for example).  We’ll have to see how much the Academy’s ranked choice voting system plays a factor, and if some of the older Academy voters are able to wrap their heads around the weirdness of Everything Everywhere.  I do expect that Everything Everywhere All at Once has enough goodwill behind it to get past the goal line, and the question will not be so much if it can will, but how big of a win will it have throughout the ceremony.  More traditional Oscar films like Fablemans or Tar, or even Elvis could play spoiler, but safe money is on Everything winning the night overall.

What Will Win:  Everything Everywhere All at Once

What Should Win:  The Fablemans

And now to quickly run down all the other categories with my picks for what and who I think will win:

Best Cinematography: All Quiet on the Western FrontBest Film Editing: Everything Everywhere All at OnceBest Production Design: ElvisBest Costume Design: Elvis; Best Sound: Top Gun: MaverickBest Make-up and Hairstyling: The WhaleBest Original Score: Everything Everywhere All at Once; Best Original Song: “Naatu Naatu” from RRR; Best Visual Effects: Avatar: The Way of WaterBest Documentary Feature: Navalny; Best Documentary Short: Stranger at the GateBest Animated Feature: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio; Best Animated Short: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse; Best Live Action Short: Le Pupille; Best International Feature: All Quiet on the Western Front

So there you have my picks for the 2023 Oscars.  In the Best Picture race, I can definitely say that I had a positive reaction to each of the nominees, with 5 in particular making my Top 10 for the year.  Those 5 will certainly be the ones that I’ll root for at this year’s ceremony.  One thing to look out for is if Everything Everywhere All at Once is picking up a lot of Awards early in some of the down ballot categories.  This will give an indication of how much momentum it took into the final stretch of the voting, and if it looks as good as it has in the last couple of weeks, we might see the biggest Awards winner in this ceremony in a long time.  It won’t be Titanic (1997) or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) big, but given how light Best Picture winners have been lately (like last year’s CODA with just three wins) a night with a movie winning as many as 5-6 or more would be great to see.  Since it’s March release last year, Everything Everywhere All at Once has been the talk of Hollywood ever since, and it would be natural if it swept all the way to the top of the pack at this years Oscars, considering how much it stuck with so many people.  For the most part, I hope this is a year where the Academy Awards gains a bit of it’s respectability back.  The last couple years have been defined by missteps and controversy.  Sadly the only thing that people remember about the last Oscars was the slap that Will Smith gave presenter Christ Rock on stage; a disgusting act that sadly overshadowed the show overall.  It should be a ceremony that looks more like Award shows of the past, with Covid protocols no longer needed to keep people in the Dolby Theater spaced apart.  One thing I’m definitely looking forward to is how RRR‘s (2022) show-stopping dance number “Natuu Natuu” gets translated onto the Oscar stage.  If it’s even remotely like what we saw in the movie, we are in for a good show come Sunday.  Here’s hoping for a good Oscar ceremony that sees deserving and even historical wins, as well as a general positive improvement in the audience interest in the awards overall.  And of course, let’s look forward to seeing what may show up at the Oscars a year from now after all the movie premieres lined up in the months ahead.

Creed III – Review

Back in 2015, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding the release of the film Creed.  The film was a revival and continuation of the famed series of Rocky movies starring Sylvester Stallone.  It was a franchise that quite honestly had been in sharp decline over the years, though many fans will acknowledge the 6th film Rocky Balboa (2006) was a satisfying final note to leave the series on.  To keep going with not only another film, but another film without Rocky himself as the lead seemed foolish, but some brave filmmakers with a vision did come forward to take on the challenge.  Up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler surprisingly chose to take on a new Rocky movie for his sophomore project after getting positive notices for his first film, Fruitvale Station (2013).  But instead of making the movie about the famed former boxer, he instead chose to make it about the son of Rocky’s first challenger and eventual friend, Apollo Creed.  But, Rocky would not be forgotten either, and instead he would have the roles reversed this time, playing the part of mentor as he uses all of his years in the ring to give the younger Creed the kind of training he needed to become a champion just like his father.  As a result, this was exactly the kind of story the Rocky franchise needed to become relevant again.  Audiences, both long time fans and newcomers to the series, fully embraced this new twist on the Rocky franchise, and the movie became a box office hit, as well as a critical success.  It even helped to put Stallone back in the spotlight, with him earning an Academy Award nomination for the first time since the original Rocky (1976) forty years prior.  The movie also propelled it’s leading man Michael B. Jordan to new heights as a movie star, and it also helped director Ryan Coogler get the most ideal job in the world for a filmmaker of color at the time.

Building off his success with Creed (2015), Coogler was wooed over to Marvel to be the one in charge of bringing it’s ground-breaking Black Panther franchise to the big screen.  With his time now being taken up working on this massive new project, it seemed like Creed would stand as a one and done revival of the Rocky franchise.  But, the franchise’s stakeholders, MGM Studios, had other ideas.  Plans were immediately started for Creed II, but this time it would be made without Ryan Coogler at the helm.  Some believed that this was a mistake, since much of the reason why Creed worked so well in the first place was because of Coogler’s unique vision, and doing a sequel without him might end up spoiling the franchise as a whole, right after they had successfully brought it back to life.  Still, Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone committed to returning for the sequel, and despite not being in the director’s chair, Coogler still was involved as a producer.  Remarkably, in the hands of new director Steven Caple, Jr., they not only managed to make a sequel that didn’t ruin the franchise, but in many ways it actually was as good as the first Creed film.  Creed II (2018) worked as well as it did because it found the right angle to take in it’s story.  It very much involves Rocky even more in the story, as an adversary from his past, Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren making a return to the role) has been training his own son to fight and he now has his sights set on defeating the young Creed in the ring as a way of getting revenge on Rocky.  This battle of wits between the trainers gave this extra bit of weight not just to the film, but to the franchise as a whole, as it helped to bring the whole life and career of Rocky into the context of this new revival, making the whole series relevant again.  Certainly, the success of a sequel ensured that there would be more films down the line as well, but with Coogler still working within the Marvel family on his own sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2023), questions arose over who would be the one to keep the series going.  The answer, in many ways, was history repeating itself, as Michael B. Jordan would follow again in Stallone’s footsteps and step behind the camera himself for the sake of the franchise with this third installment titled easily enough Creed III (2023).

Not long after defeating Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) in the ring, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) further solidifies his status as the greatest boxer of his generation, becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  After reaching the pinnacle of his profession, Adonis decides to retire from professional boxing in order to focus on his family and business.  Managing his gym, he’s now the one bringing up the next generation of fighters, continuing the legacy that Rocky had instilled in him.  At the same time, he is supporting his wife Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) music career, as well as being an involved dad in the life of his hearing impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent).  One day at his gym, a face from his past makes an unexpected visit.  Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) was a one time close friend of Adonis’ back when they were both taking part in amateur matches in their youth.  However, their lives together parted ways after Damian was arrested for possession of a firearm and he was given a harsh sentence based on his prior record.  Now out of prison, Damian hopes to rekindle their dormant friendship and Adonis is very willing to welcome him back into his life.  He invites Damian to spar at his gym with the professional boxers that train there.  However, Damian fights far more aggressively than the other boxers, which alarms the head trainer there Little Duke (Wood Harris).  Sharing concern about Damian’s return is Adonis’ adoptive mother Mary-Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who always saw him as a bad influence.  Still, Adonis keeps giving his friend second chances, but over time, Damian’s alternative motives are revealed, and Adonis realizes the only thing to stop Damian’s unethical rise is to step back in the ring himself.  But, have the years out of practice made Adonis too vulnerable and unable to compete at that level now?

Taking on the role of director for a franchise with this kind of legacy without any prior experience is certainly a tough job to undertake.  This is a nearly 50 year long franchise that is beloved by millions all over the world.  But, Michael B. Jordan has certainly had the best possible tutors around to teach him everything there is to know about making a movie like this.  Ryan Coogler, Jordan’s closet collaborator who has cast him in every movie he has made (including famously playing Killmonger in Black Panther) has no doubt been a heavy influence on him, both with his sense of story-telling and a visual eye behind the camera.  And Sylvester Stallone, who directed 4 of the original 6 Rocky movies, as well as writing the screenplays for the bulk of the series including Creed II, no doubt demonstrated to Jordan how to succeed at pulling double duty in front and behind the camera on these films.  And the results stand for themselves as this is a fantastic directorial debut for Michael B. Jordan.  There is a great deal of confidence in his direction here that is really impressive to see.  The movie feels very much in line with the previous two movies, hitting all the same notes that we expect perfectly.  Jordan’s direction is also measured and subtle.  He is not trying to show off like so many first time directors are apt to do in order to flex their muscle for attention.  There is an excellent control of pacing, tone, and style found in this movie, and it shows that Michael B. Jordan learned a lot of good lessons about filmmaking from both Coogler and Stallone.  He also knows when to take chances, bending the rules a bit for artistic license at the right moments.  This is definitely evident in the fight scenes in the ring, where Jordan brings in some flashy techniques like slow-mo at just the right time.

It should also be noted that the choice of story here is a worthwhile one to delve into for a continuation of Creed’s story.  I for one was very worried when I heard that Sylvester Stallone was not going to be in this movie.  My worry was that they were going to kill off the character and, even worse, do it off screen.  Thankfully, that was not the case.  Rocky is not in this movie, but his fate is also never brought up, indicating that in universe Rocky is still living; just not involved in this story.  It would’ve been a shame to dispose of one of cinema’s most iconic characters in such an unceremonious way, and I’m glad they didn’t go there.  My hope is that eventually they involve Rocky in the story again down the line, but for this film, it makes sense why they would leave him out.  This is first and foremost Adonis Creed’s story.  Rocky was a supportive player in the first Creed, and he had a much more central part to play in Creed II, but here, he would’ve just been in the way of the conflict that needed to happen in this movie, which is Adonis coming to terms with his past.  That’s why the introduction of Damian is a brilliant new direction to take Adonis’ story.  His meteoric rise certainly echoes that of Rocky Balboa, but what did he overcome to get to where he is.  Damian’s return brings back all the trauma of Adonis’ youth, his abuse in juvenile detention and the guilt of turning his back on Damian after the arrest.  The movie is much more concerned about having to overcome all that as it is about the fighting in the ring.  For the first time, we are really peeling back the layers of Adonis Creed as a person, and seeing more of his faults which helps to make him a much more overall interesting character.

The performances are certainly going to be the thing that people take away the most from this movie.  In particular, this movie features a, for lack of a better word, knockout performance from Jonathan Majors as Damian Anderson.  Majors is right now at a breakout point in his career, not just featuring as the antagonist in this movie, but also appearing in theaters at the same time in Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania as the new big bad of the MCU, Kang the Conqueror.  There’s no doubt that he has the acting chops to stand out as a memorable villain, but it may surprise a few just how well he does it here in Creed III.  He just commands the screen in every scene he’s in.  He masterfully handles the moments where we see his vulnerable side, like the scene where he reconnects with Adonis Creed after a long time away.  At the same time, when we see the sinister turn halfway through the film, he becomes quite a frightening presence on screen.  I honestly wish we had seen more of this kind of performance from Majors in Ant-Man, because in that movie he kind of toned it down too much.  Here, he gets to let loose as Damian, and it’s captivating.  Not to be outdone, but Michael B. Jordan also excels in his third time around as Adonis Creed.  In many ways, this is actually his best performance as the character to date, because we see more of the broken side of the character come out this time around.  There is vulnerability in his performance that is handled very well, and it’s nice to see Jordan directing himself into that zone fearlessly.  There are also great performances from the ever reliable Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad, and a very special acknowledgement to deaf actress Mila Davis-Kent who holds her own in scenes with these seasoned professionals.  I also have to spotlight Wood Harris as “Little Duke,” who continues the franchise’s legacy of crusty, smack-talking trainers who steals every scene that they’re in.

The movie also is visually one of the more striking in the franchise as a whole.  If Creed II has a flaw, it was it’s more basic style of filmmaking; not bad but also a bit uninspired.  Creed III on the other hand takes some risks when it comes to the visuals, and that makes it far more akin to the original Ryan Coogler film.  In particular, the fights inside the ring are spectacularly well filmed.  Michael B. Jordan doesn’t get in close like Coogler did in the original Creed, but instead he weaves in and out of close-ups and full frame shots.  There seems to be a real effort to actually show the fight in full view for the audience.  For the most part, Jordan shows us the fight from the perspective of what the referee may see, which is both fighters in full view.  The visceral throws of the punches carry more weight as a result, and when a devastating punch is landed, Jordan goes in for the close-up and slows the film down to capture the full devastation of the hit in bullet-time.  There were several instances of watching these scenes with the audience in a theater where I witnessed people having a visceral reaction to the fights on the screen.  I heard a lot of people audibly go “Oooh” in my theater when a big hit was landed.  That’s a good sign that you’ve done a good job filming the fight scenes.  But, Jordan does something very brave with these fight scenes as well, which we’ve actually never seen in the franchise before.  He gets inside the headspace of these characters and imagines an almost dreamlike state in which they fight in.  A flight of fantasy like those moments could be a step too far for a series that has relatively remained grounded up to now, but the context of them here does make sense, and Michael B. Jordan is a capable enough filmmaker to make it work without going too far into the surreal.  And yes, of course there is your standard training montage sequence; a franchise staple.  The one here doesn’t disappoint, and it stands up well against all the others; though I do miss the underscore of Bill Conti’s original “Gonna Fly Now” theme from the original Rocky.

In total, this is the ninth film in the Rocky/Creed franchise that has spanned over five decades, and it’s amazing that it still hasn’t run out of steam yet.  From Stallone, to Ryan Coogler, to now Michael B. Jordan, this franchise has still managed to find new threads to pull in this story about overcoming the odds in the world of boxing.  Perhaps it is fitting that this is the first film that doesn’t feature the underdog boxer that started it all in the picture, because the cycle of change has now passed on to the next generation.  I think there’s still a chance that Rocky will be seen again, and that Stallone can have the chance to sunset the character in his own way.  But, that’s not the story that needed to be told now, as Adonis Creed had to make a major turn in this film in order to continue into his next phase.  There is an indication now that Adonis Creed will be stepping more into a mentor role in future film within this franchise, if there are any more (most likely there will be).  And as a result, the full legacy of Rocky and Creed’s purpose will be seen in the cyclical passing of the torch from one underdog story into another.  We’ll see how that torch is passed down in the future, but for right now the franchise continues to be in good hands under the direction of it’s star Michael B. Jordan.  If there is anything that could be improved upon from this movie it’s the need to handle the set ups better.  The movie does kind of take it’s time when it doesn’t need to and it also uses some narrative shortcuts that kind of undermine the drama a bit.  But, it’s still an impressive debut for a first time director, and he remarkably does a good job of directing himself on screen, as well as get some astonishing performances from his cast; in particular a standout Jonathan Majors.  Here’s hoping that if they ever make a Creed IV that it continues to build upon the insightful character development found here.  Creed III is another champion in this long running series and a match you definitely don’t want to miss out on in theaters on the biggest screens you can find.

Rating: 8.5/10