Madame Web – Review

The once resilient comic book movie genre that dominated the box office in the 2010’s has had a rough time of it lately.  It’s no longer just the reliable moneymaker that it once was, and it’s a problem that is growing increasingly problematic across the whole industry.  It’s even affected the undisputed champ of the genre, Marvel Studios, who suffered their own worst year in a long while in 2023.  The problem is not so much the characters or the stories that are being told on screen, but the fact that the productions of these movies have become so over bloated and the market has been over-saturated to the point where box office revenue can no longer cover the costs of making the movies.  There are still some bright spots, as movies like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) still managed to check off a box office victory, but overall audiences have made it clear that they are growing tired with a genre that looks to be well past it’s peak. The studios seem to be getting the message at the moment, as both Marvel and DC have pulled back on their production slate in order to reassess their upcoming futures.  Marvel Studios only has one theatrical release in the whole of 2024, with Deadpool & Wolverine coming in the Summer, while DC is working on a full reboot of their Cinematic Universe starting in 2025.  And it’s probably a good thing for both them and the audiences that we’ll have a bit of breathing room that will help us to fall in love with the genre once again.  It’s too bad that Sony Pictures and their licensed Spider-Man Universe didn’t get that same memo.  If there was any hope for a comic book lite year at the movies, it’s been dashed with Sony’s onslaught of new films that are already built on a flimsy foundation of what Sony considers to be a cinematic universe.

Since the turn of the millennium, Sony has retained the cinematic rights to the character Spider-Man and his affiliated cast of friends and rogues; a result of Marvel’s then plan to spread their characters around to all interested parties around Hollywood.  As Marvel began to reconsolidate it’s cinematic rights into a singular studio, with the help of parent company Disney, Spider-Man remained the sole holdout purely because Sony continued to have box office success with every film.  They believed that if they continued to release a new Spider-Man affiliated movie every year, their rights to the character would remain intact and they could sustain a franchise on it’s own without having to relinquish it back to Marvel.  The plan, however, hit some speedbumps as The Amazing Spider-Man reboot of the franchise didn’t have the strongest legs.  In order to keep the rights in house, the set up a special deal with Disney where the Spider-Man character could participate in the mega-successful MCU while Sony would continue to produce the standalone Spider-Man films in conjunction.  Marvel was thrilled that they could have a say in the cinematic representation of their A-list hero again, and Sony could now benefit from the exposure that could spill over into their own movies.  While this arrangement was happening, Sony also looked for other ways to maintain their hold onto the Spider-Man rights, and they believed the best way to do that was to build up a cinematic universe of their own; not just centered on Spider-Man, but all the characters in his orbit too.  Soon, famous spider-foe Venom received his own solo film, which itself turned into a surprise success, thanks to the star power of Tom Hardy in the role.  After this, movies based on other Spider-Man linked characters emerged, including a movie for Dr. Michael Morbius and Kraven the Hunter.  This hope for a Spider-Verse seemed short lived however, as the Morbius (2022) movie opened to dismal box office and terrible critical reviews.  Right now, despite early success with Venom, the Sony Spider-Verse is looking very much like the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the super hero genre right now, and things don’t any brighter as Sony is premiering a film this week centered around one of the truly most obscure characters in the Spider-Man storyline; the mysterious Madame Web.

The movie follows the story of New York City based EMT Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson).  She spends most of her day saving as many lives as she can alongside her fellow ambulance driver and friend Ben Parker (Adam Scott).  On a routine assignment helping out victims of a factory explosion, she starts to have peculiar visions; almost like time slipping backwards and forwards without warning.  She soon learns that some of her visions end up coming true, which becomes an alarming revelation for her.  As she heads home from a psychiatric exam, she has her most troubling vision yet.  She witnesses three girls aboard her commuter train getting assaulted by a mysterious man.  As she regains her composure, she alerts the three girls and guides them away from the man who is pursuing them.  After a chase through the city, Cassandra manages to find a hiding place, and she tries desperately to explain the very peculiar situation to the three frightened teens.  She quickly learns that each of the girls have actually interacted with her in the past couple of days, right before the visions manifested.  Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney) was the step-daughter of a victim that Cassandra helped deliver to the hospital.  Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) was nearly run into by Cassandra’s ambulance on the same run. And Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) lives in the same building as Cassandra.  All of them are somehow linked together by what seems like chance, but Cassandra believes there might be more answers elsewhere.  She decides to consult the journal written by her mother, the one thing she has from her as her mom died during child birth, leaving her an orphan.  In her journal, Cassandra finds a photograph of the man that was trying to hunt after her and the girls earlier; a rich tycoon named Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who was after a source of power that comes from a certain Spider species deep in the Amazon jungle.  It turns out that Ezekiel and Cassandra’s powers of foresight are linked, as Ezekiel has had visions of his own of his life ending at the hands of the three teenage girls, who themselves will be bestowed with powers in the future.  Does Cassandra manage to gain control of her special ability and help save the future heroes, or will Ezekiel manage to undo his own fate by destroying the lives of these girls in a time when they still have no idea what is happening?

My own experience with the Sony Spider-Verse has been fairly mixed.  Excusing the animated Spider-Verse movies, which are definitely separate from the live action productions (and might I add also much better movies), the overall value of Sony’s films is a far cry from what’s been put out by Marvel Studios itself.  I for one didn’t mind the first Venom (2018), which while not a great movie was nevertheless helped greatly by a winning performance by Tom Hardy as the titular anti-hero.  Morbius was very much a mess of a movie, though I didn’t have the same hatred for it as most other people do.  It was bad, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve seen much worse movies and Morbius was just boring for the most part, with Matt Smith’s vampy villainous turn being the one bright spot.  Now we have Madame Web, which seems even more superfluous than a Morbius film, and the timing for it couldn’t be worse as it seems the super hero fanbase is drying up.  It is possible that a movie like Madame Web could overcome these roadblocks to stand on it’s own as an engaging action thriller.  Unfortunately, this movie has ended up being exactly what we expected it to be, and honestly even worse than that.  This movie is the worst Sony Spider-Verse film thus far, and it’s not even close.  Morbius had some redeemable moments by being entertainingly bad at times.  Madame Web is a movie devoid of any entertainment value.  It isn’t even the fun kind of bad.  This was without a doubt one of the most difficult sit throughs of a movie that I have had in a long time; almost reaching Dear Evan Hansen (2021) levels of discomfort.  At a time where the super hero genre desperately needs to win back goodwill with it’s audience, this movie is unfortunately going to remind everyone of all the bad things about the genre, because this movie is full of every single one.

I honestly don’t know where the genesis of all the problems with this movie lie.  The script is certainly one of the worst factors.  Remarkably, Sony decided to go with the same team of writers that had written Morbius, showing that that they learned nothing from that experience.  Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless are also the scribes responsible for such cinematic gems like Dracula Untold (2014), The Last Witch Hunter (2015), and Gods of Egypt (2016), which makes you wonder how some writers somehow manage to fail upward in the movie business.  Madame Web may be their worst script left, because the whole thing reads like a first draft from someone who just completed a Screenwriting 101 course.  The movie has the clunkiest expositional dialogue I have ever seen.  Nobody speaks like a human being, they are just information dumps simply there to move the story forward.  There’s absolutely no interesting scenes of character development.  Every motivation is forced and the situations are contrived.  The main character herself, Cassandra Webb, suffers the most from this.  We don’t get any insight into her character, such as quirks or desires.  She’s just a passive pivot point for all the events of the movie to center around.  If the powers that be at Sony thought she was deserving of her own film, than make her a interesting enough to make us care.  The same can be said for all the other characters as well.  Ezekiel Sims is likewise also hollow as a character.  We only get the most miniscule of reasons as to why he’s a villain.  He’s sole purpose here is to look menacing in a Spider-Man like suit, and he fails pretty hard at even that.

The performances are also likewise pretty subpar.  I don’t know what kind of direction Dakota Johnson got (if any), but her performance as Cassandra Webb is like watching a mannequin emote.  There is nothing there but barely above a whisper line deliveries and the occasional eye roll.   Dakota Johnson may get a bad rap based on her past work in the Fifty Shades of Gray franchise, but she is capable of strong performance, as seen in movies like Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) and The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019).  She may have had the capability of crafting a more interesting performance here, but the lack of direction just leaves her lost.  That’s true of pretty much all of the leads in this film.  The three teenagers lack chemistry with each other, which makes their interactions more grating than endearing.  They feel even more awkward interacting with Dakota Johnson’s Cassandra, who’s supposed to be the guiding mentor to all of them, but in the end just feels like another moody teenager.  Tahar Rahim doesn’t help matters much more with his performances as Ezekiel Sims.  His one-note, understated performance is the blandest possible route to take with a character that’s supposed to be a terror.  Honestly, his performance is better when you can’t see his face once it’s behind a mask.  It doesn’t improve his performance much, but it’s better than the dead eye dour expression that makes up the rest of his performance.  Honestly, the only salvageable performances in the movie are from the film’s smallest parts; that of Adam Scott as Ben Parker and Emma Roberts as Mary Parker, the future mother of Spider-Man (the movie takes place 20 years in the past by the way).  They don’t add much to the overall movie, but these characters at least offer their actors a little bit of personality to hold onto, and Scott and Roberts are at least trying.  That’s the big takeaway from the performances in this movie, a very big lack of trying.  These actors are certainly capable of emoting, but whether it’s the lack of direction or the actors just not invested in the whole production itself, what we are left with is a movie lacking in any personality whatsoever.

Is there anything about the film that is worthwhile.  The only good things I can say is that the movie does do some interesting things with the time slipping that Cassandra experiences.  I did find the editing of these scenes effective, as it does a fair job of disorienting you while also making it clear how these visions appear from Cassandra’s point of view.  It doesn’t do the time travel thing as well as similar sequences found in Groundhog’s Day (1993) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014), but it works just enough to give the otherwise stale action sequences a little bit more flavor.  It seems like the editors were the only ones making this movie that actually did their jobs right.  Otherwise, visually, this movie is another mess that ruins the experience.  Some have rightly pointed out that this movie feels like a throw back to the mid-2000’s era of super hero movies, with it’s washed out color scheme and bland camera work.  While there were definitely some super hero movies of that era that had that kind of look, which thankfully went out of style once the bright and colorful MCU emerged, the 2000’s still had plenty of visually impressive movies in the genre too; especially the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy.  Madame Web definitely feels like it’s a movie stuck in the past, and not in a good way.  It’s only compounded more when the very generic looking visual effect appear in the climatic final act.  The movie for the most part doesn’t so much feel like a super hero movie from 20 years ago, but rather an action film from 20 years ago; the kind of filmmaking that was coming out of the school of Jerry Bruckheimer.  For Marvel’s sake, at least no one will mistake this kind of movie for one of their own; as they’ve been pretty good at keeping their own house style consistent and appealing.  There’s nothing really offensively bad about the way that the movie looks; it’s just that Madame Web’s visual style is as devoid of character as everything else in the movie, again pointing to the whole pointless nature of it’s existence.

In many ways, this movie honestly puts the problems with Marvel and DC’s recent films in a more favorable light.  As much as films like The Marvels (2023) and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023) have struggled at the box office, those movies at least tried to do something to be entertaining.  I for one actually quite enjoyed The Marvels and a recent re-watch has confirmed my positive view.  All of the complaints that other critics have levied at The Marvels I feel are more pronounced in the nothing burger that is Madame Web.  It is by far the lowest effort super hero film I have experienced in a long time; maybe even ever.  It’s astounding to see so little passion put into this kind of movie.  It’s like even the actors and the filmmakers knew just how pointless this whole thing was from the get go, and they just gave up caring.  There was no love put into this movie.  The only reason it exists is so that Sony can extend it’s cinematic rights to the Spider-Man corner of the Marvel library.  Madame Web was perhaps a stretch too far, as no one outside of the most knowledgeable comic book reader even knows of the character’s existence.  And I’m sure even that kind of devoted fan will be angered by the butchering of Madame Web as a character in this movie.  It’s likely that Sony’s going to learn a lesson from this experience, as the film is very clearly going to bomb, even harder than Morbius did.  It’s hard to say if there was any valuable reason why this movie should exist at all.  If someone put their heart into it and had a worthwhile story to tell, then it’s certainly possible.  But, Madame Web is far from that movie and another example of Sony missing the mark when it comes to building a cinematic universe in the vein of the MCU.  I don’t know if I would say it’s the worst comic book movie ever made, since we do live in a world where Fant4stic (2015) still exists, but it certainly feels like the most pointless super hero movie ever made.  And in the end, the Sony Spider-Verse has found itself caught in a web of destruction that I don’t see them ever finding a way of escaping; except solely through animation.

Rating: 3/10

He Rode a Blazing Saddle – 50 Years of Mel Brook’s Comedy Classic and Why It’s Good That You Can’t Make it Today

Mel Brooks, undoubtedly one of the most influential comedic voices of his generation and of all time, has left behind an incredible legacy over his near century long life and even at the ripe old age of 97 (as of writing) he’s still capable of making us all laugh.  Under the mentorship of Sid Caesar, Mel found his way through Hollywood as a successful joke writer before eventually deciding to expand into film.  His debut, The Producers (1968) was a smash hit, and earned the multi-talented comedian his one and only Oscar for Original Screenplay.  What particularly made The Producers stand out was that it bravely tackled a taboo subject, namely the horrific legacy of Adolf Hitler in a post-WWII world.  After the horrors of the Holocaust came to light at the end of the war, many people believed that it was in bad taste to make any jokes about the atrocities committed during the war, including any mention of Hitler himself.  Mel Brooks felt differently, seeing ridicule as the best answer against evil in the world.  He believed that by mocking Hitler and the Nazi regime through his comedy, he was robbing them of their power to inspire others that want to emulate them.  Mel knew very well that Fascism and xenophobia didn’t go away with the defeat of the Nazi regime during the war, and that the specter of Hitler still haunted humanity for many years afterwards.  That’s why his ability to mercilessly mock the imagery of Hitler and the Third Reich in The Producers was such a profound breath of fresh air when it premiered.  But Mel would continue to look to other targets for ridicule in many of his future films, including a place that rang a little too close to home in Hollywood.

The year 1974 was the zenith of Mel Brooks’ career as a filmmaker.  In that year, he released not one but two comedy masterpieces, both of which remain just as potent and hilarious as they were when they first released.  In the Fall of 1974, Mel produced and directed the classic horror spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), which was a farcical delight that at the same time was also reverential to the movies it was spoofing.  While most of the movie still holds up as a comedy, it’s also clear that Mel’s working in more of his comedy comfort zone with Frankenstein.  The other film, released in the early part of 1974, was a much more risky project for Mel, and one that fifty years later remains the most controversial film of his career.  But surprisingly enough, Blazing Saddles  (1974) didn’t start out as a Mel Brooks project, but was instead the brainchild of writer Andrew Bergman.  Bergman’s premise of a sleepy Western town that’s forced to change once they receive a new sheriff who’s Black instantly appealed to Mel Brooks, who saw the comedy potential in the material.  He worked with Bergman to flesh out the comedy even more, insisting to Bergman to write without being “polite.”  And touching up the comedy even further, Mel enlisted the help of one of the hottest stand up comedians of that time, the legendary Richard Pryor, who was also instrumental in shaping the racial commentary of the film.  But even with all of the comedy legends working together on this movie, the film was certainly going to be a hard sell.  Because of the no holds barred nature of the racial comedy, with shall we say very liberal use of a certain racial slur, the script was certainly going to face some roadblocks on the way to getting made.  Eventually it found a home at Warner Brothers, and Mel was granted access to one of the most legendary Western movie backlots in Hollywood to bring to life his silly little film.  In the shadow of Western sets that the likes of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Randolph Scott all shot their movies on, Mel Brooks would stage iconic comedic moments like a horse getting punched out by football star Alex Karras, the stunned silent arrival of Sheriff Bart to town, and the climatic brawl that spans the entire studio lot.

What makes the comedy so special in Blazing Saddles is the complete and full sincerity of the cast.  Each and every performer fully embodies the absurdist reality of this farcical spin that Mel Brooks has put on the Western genre.  The most instrumental casting of course is that of Sheriff Bart himself.  Though there was speculation that Richard Pryor himself would step into the role having contributed to the screenplay, Mel was insistent on getting an actor without a comedy background to play the part, as Bart needed to be a grounded character compared to the caricatures of the  rest of the cast.  He found his Sheriff Bart in Broadway actor Cleavon Little, who perfectly slipped into the role.  The crucial part of the character of Sheriff Bart is his confidence; he has to be the smartest person in amongst of whole slew of buffoons, and Cleavon plays that aspect to perfection.  His escape from a tense situation at his arrival is brilliantly realized as he uses the townspeople’s blind bigotry against them, leading to a satisfactory punchline where he says to himself, “Baby, you are so talented, and they are so… dumb.”  It’s a great summation of his character and Little’s subtle performance aids in making Sheriff Bart work as the heart of the movie.  He’s also perfectly matched with Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid.  Wilder, who previously work with Mel on The Producers, was not the original choice for the part, as veteran actor Gig Young had originally been cast.  However, Young’s drinking problem made him a liability on set, so Mel had to make the choice to let him go and re-cast the part.  It took a while for Mel to find the right actor to play the Waco Kid; he even attempted to enlist John Wayne himself at one point, who graciously declined due to the more objectionable aspects of the script.  Gene Wilder was reluctant to take the part, think that the part was too restricting for him as a performer, as he referred more bombastic comedy roles.  Eventually Wilder relented on the condition that Mel chose Gene’s script as his next project and that’s what led to the making of Young Frankenstein.  Despite Wilder’s misgivings, he was perfect for the part and some of the movie’s biggest laughs come directly from him.  Rounding out the cast, there are tons of comedy legends including Harvey Korman as the villainous Hedley Lamarr, Madeline Kahn as the vivacious Lilly Von Shtupp (who received an Oscar nomination for her role), Slim Pickens as the dim witted cowboy Taggart, and Mel Brooks himself playing the distracted Governor LePetomane.

Initially, Warner Brothers executives were hesitant in releasing the movie, as the subject matter and unvarnished language made this a very taboo project.  Upon the first screening, the executives were stunned silent by the uncomfortably frank way that Mel Brooks addressed racial issues within the film.  It was thought that the movie would either get shelved or dumped quietly into theaters in order to bury it as the studio had little faith in it’s success.  In the time in which this movie was made, racial tensions in America were still fairly raw.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s had been a tough fought battle for equality and it eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which broke down the Jim Crow segregationist policies of the South.  But even a decade later, racial tensions endured, especially as they were inflamed again by political opportunists like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.  There were certainly more opportunities growing for black  voices in entertainment at the time, as subgenres like Blaxploitation began to emerge, but Hollywood itself was slow to progress with the times.  What was particularly pointed in the subtext of Mel’s film was how the Western genre was itself complicit in creating this myth about America’s past; specifically putting an almost exclusively white face on it.  There were numerous stories of the old west that centered around African American cowboys and lawmen, but none of them were being told.  Sure, Mel Brook’s was approaching this subject in a humorous way, but the critique of Hollywood’s lack of diversity was certainly there as well.  Warner Brothers knew very well that this was going to be a controversial movie no matter what.  What ultimately led to the film making it to theaters was an internal screening with Warner Brothers staff, much of whom were better representative of what the typical movie going audience would be like, and they were hooting and hollering with laughter the whole way through.  Thus, Mel Brooks got his film out into theaters and of course it would go on to become an instant classic.

Looking back on the movie as it now approaches it’s 50 year mark, it is remarkable how well the film holds up.  A lot of the comedy, particularly the more slapstick gags still feel timeless.  A group of cowboys eating beans and blowing gas around a campfire definitely feels evergreen, especially with the hilariously over the top sound effects used.  But, the time that has passed with regard to the racial subjects in the movie put the movie in a different light today than it did then.  Race relations are somewhat different today than they were 50 years ago, though there is still a lot about the movie that feels sadly relevant as well.  Black representation on film has improved over time, both in front and behind the camera.  There are still some lagging factors when it comes to equality though.  Just because milestones like electing the first Black president have happened in the recent years doesn’t mean that racial tensions are gone forever.  Some would say that they are getting fired up again.  This is one aspect where Blazing Saddles is especially relevant to this day.  In the film, Hedley Lamarr appoints Bart the sheriff of Rock Ridge knowing full well that the bigoted townspeople would rather abandon the town rather than accept him as their new protector, and that will help him gain control of the land for his own aspirations.  A disingenuous politician stirring up racial tensions for his own gain feels all too familiar in today’s political climate.  There certainly are aspects of Mel Brook’s comedy that have not aged as well either.  Mel certainly is an equal opportunity offender in his many comedies, but there are times when some of the racial jokes fall into the point of gratuitousness.  Also if there was something that I think he would rethink in the film, it would be the depiction of the musical performers in the “French Mistake” number as reductive gay stereotypes.  It’s all still in good fun, and it’s clear that Mel’s intent is to poke holes in the absurdity of racial bigotry and not to indulge in the ugliness of it.  However, over time, some people have lost that context when it comes to celebrating the comedy of Blazing Saddles over the years.

One of the things that has been said a lot about Blazing Saddles is that it’s a movie that could never be made today.  There’s a lot of truth to that, as the making of the movie was very much a response to the racial politics of the time in which it was made.  But, for some, they use Blazing Saddles as an example of how Hollywood has lost it’s way.  There are many critics online who point to this film to say that movies have gotten too “politically correct” or Hollywood has gotten too “woke.”  It’s interesting that they would single out Blazing Saddles of all movies as being the film that represents a time in Hollywood that wasn’t “woke” as it’s a movie that honestly is one of the most socially conscious films ever made by a major studio.  It was “woke” before that ever became a term.  Mel Brooks is and has always been an outspoken defender of civil rights movements in America.  Even in his late 90’s, he still speaks his mind on these issues.  One of the last social media posts made by his late friend and fellow comedy legend Carl Reiner before his death in 2020 was pictures of Carl and Mel at the latter’s then 94th birthday party, with both of them proudly wearing shirts that said “Black Lives Matter.”  Being called “woke” would be a compliment to Mel and not an insult.  But, for some reason, the anti-woke crowd wants to claim Blazing Saddles as a movie that speaks for them.  You have to wonder, what is it exactly about the movie that they like?  It certainly can’t be the criticism of naked racism, as Mel Brooks is clearly making fun of the complicit nature of white bigotry that pervades the Western genre.  I shudder to think that the only reason some people like this movie is because of it’s un-censored use of a certain word.

Here’s the thing about the way the movie uses racial slurs in the film.  Never in the whole movie is a racial slur meant to be a punchline for laughter.  Sure there are situations in which the n-word is skirted around in a hilarious way, like the old prospector character Gabby Johnson getting drowned out by a church bell right as he says the word or when Governor LePetomane asks Hedly Lamarr, “What are you nuts?  Can’t you see that that man is a Ni?”  But when the actual word is spoken, it’s not taken as a joke, but is instead intend to be a shocking jolt.  It also is important to note that the word is said by some of the dumbest and most ignorant characters in the movie.  They are the subjects of ridicule in the movie first and foremost, and that’s the intent of the story Mel is trying to tell.  Stories of the American West have long glamorized the image of white Americans taming the old west, while whitewashing all of the racial injustices that happened along the way.  Primarily it was the slaughtering of Native American tribes that got left out of the myths of the Old West, as indigenous people were reduced to savage obstacles in the way of progress, but also at the same time settlers of other races, including Blacks and Asians, were also left out of the Western myths too.  Blazing Saddles breaks down that myth by making it clear to the people of Rock Ridge that bigotry is their own worst enemy and that using a slur is just a sign of their own stupidity and blindness.  If there are people out there who find the n-word usage to be the one funny thing from this movie, and that it’s the thing that they lament as not being able to be done today, well, they are telling a lot about themselves then; and also making Mel Brooks’ point for him.  As the Waco Kid succinctly says in the movie, “These are people of the land.  The common clay of the new West.  You know… morons.”

That’s why it’s a good thing that a movie like Blazing Saddles couldn’t and shouldn’t be made today.  Blazing Saddles is a comedy that needed to exist in it’s own specific time; a time where naked bigorty needed to be called out and that Hollywood had to be confronted over it’s own shameful history in perpetuating the stereotypes that fan the flames of racism.  It’s a movie that should stand on it’s own and speak across generations.  The reason why a movie like it shouldn’t be made today is because I don’t think anyone would be able to offer the same thing that Mel Brook’s added that made the difference; a feeling of hope.  Today, comedies are far more cynical and geared toward the irreverent, because the belief is that positivity is a gateway to sappiness.  What is important in Blazing Saddles is that in defiance of all the bigotry he faces, Sheriff Bart fulfills his duty as a protector of his town and ends up saving the day in the end.  Even more than that, he does so by using his intelligence to win the day, not just outsmarting his enemies but also winning them over to his side.  The movie is hopeful about overcoming prejudice, even though it’s still aware about the long arduous road that is, with Sheriff Bart at one point saying, “Someday, they’ll even address me in broad daylight” when talking about the townsfolk he just saved.  There are many people who have tried to emulate what Mel Brooks has done with movies like Blazing Saddles, but few capture the same amount of wit and intelligence that his movies contain.  There is a very nuanced and pointed commentary about race in America amidst all of the fart sounds and sex jokes.  That’s what makes Blazing Saddles such a special comedy; it truly hits so many levels when it comes to comedy, with a sharp satirical edge and a fair amount of broad slapstick for good measure.  And it never fails to make us laugh, even after 50 years.

Argylle – Review

Matthew Vaughn’s career has been a turbulent one as a filmmaker.  He first made a name for himself as a producer, specifically as the one who guided the early films of Guy Ritchie.  After the success of Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Vaughn believed that it was time for his own foray into directing.  Staying within the comfort zone that he was familiar with through his collaboration with Guy Ritchie, he debuted as a director with his own take on the British gangster film genre; 2004’s Layer Cake.  Starring a pre-007 Daniel Craig, Layer Cake was generally well received by audiences and critics.  And while many would have thought Matthew Vaughn would’ve followed Guy Ritchie’s continued success within this gangster film genre, Vaughn surprisingly went in a much different direction and spread his wings out into the realm of fantasy filmmaking.  His follow-up would be the fantasy adventure Stardust (2007), which while being a big departure from Layer Cake it still showed Vaughn’s talent for mixing action and comedy together, something that he would continue to expand upon in his later films.  Those skills would especially propel him to further success as he extended into the comic book genre.  His next film, the hyper-violent super hero send-up Kick Ass (2010) would be the purest expression of Matthew Vaughn’s cinematic style yet.  The cartoonish excess of his action scenes would become the staple of his directorial style, and it would be the thing that guided his career as a director through the next decade.  Almost a year after making Kick Ass, he was called upon by Marvel and 20th Century Fox to help revive the ailing X-Men franchise, and he managed to succeed there as well, giving that franchise the reboot it desperately needed with X-Men: First Class (2011).  But where Matthew Vaughn would take his talents next would be a turning point for him as a filmmaker.  He would soon launch a franchise that both gave him the best showcase for his talents yet but also would end up holding him back and begin a decline in what had been a momentous career up to that point.

Working again with source material from comic book writer Mark Millar (Kick Ass), Matthew Vaughn set out to bring the comic series Kingsman to the silver screen.  Kingsman: The Secret Society (2015) was all of Vaughn’s best cinematic tricks put together in one fun romp of a movie.  The mix of cartoonish action and excessive violence mixed in with a cultured English aesthetic was a winning formula, and the film became Matthew Vaughn’s biggest success to date.  The church massacre scene in particular, where Colin Firth’s secret agent character takes out an entire congregation of crazed zealots in a brilliantly choreographed oner is seen by many to be one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed.  The success of this film led Vaughn to undertake a first in his booming career as a director; he was going to direct a sequel.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) was quickly churned out in two years, and anticipation was high given the beloved status of the original.  Sadly, lightning didn’t strike twice as the reception of The Golden Circle was not as warm, making this the first misfire of Vaughn’s career.  What had been his strong suit up to this point was now starting to become his weakness; namely the irreverent comedic tone of his action scenes.  When Elton John, in an extended cameo, is doing obvious wirework fight scenes in the movie, the humorous tone begins to fall apart.  Add to this a lot of plot contrivances and a bloated 2 1/2 hour run time, and many Kingsman fans came away disappointed.  You would think after this disappointment that Matthew Vaughn would want to move on, but shockingly he remained committed to this franchise.  He chose to next direct a prequel to the Kingman franchise by showing the origins of the organization in the awkwardly titled The King’s Man (2021).  The film suffered from the affects of the Covid-19 pandemic, delaying it over a year, and while it was more consistent in tone than it’s predecessor, the film still failed to generate renewed interest in the waning franchise.  Cut to now and Matthew Vaughn is still finding himself in the espionage genre, but he’s hoping to begin again with a new potential franchise launch with the film Argylle (2024).

Argylle follows the life of a lonely espionage novelist named Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose Agent Argylle books are international best-sellers.  Though she is immensely popular for her writing, she chooses to live a solitary life in her secluded Rocky Mountain getaway with her beloved feline companion Alfie.  Occasionally she’ll receive feedback on her books from her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara), who tries to needle her into being more outgoing.  While she writes her newest novel, she vividly pictures in her mind how it will look, with Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) being a dashing super spy who is assisted by his tech wiz Keira (Ariana DeBose) and his musclebound back-up man Wyatt (John Cena).  When she hits her writers block moment, Elly decides to travel cross country to visit her mother and father in Chicago.  While taking the train, she ends up sitting across the aisle from a stranger who just so happens to be reading her book.  He introduces himself as Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell) and bluntly tells her that he’s in the business of espionage, which she dismisses as a joke.  However, the two are approached by another fan seeking an autograph who suddenly tries to attack Elly.  The attack is thwarted by Aidan, who disposes with a dozen or so would-be assassins, and the two manage to escape by parachuting off of the moving train, along with Elly’s cat Alfie in a carrying pack.  Once safe, Aidan confides that Elly’s Argylle novels have predicted real events in the past, and a shadow organization is trying to get to her because they believe her oracle like senses will lead them to a black book of secret files.  The leader of the shadow organization named Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston) is hell bent on getting to Elly before Aidan can bring her to his own director, also named Alfie (Samuel L. Jackson).  Elly embarks on a harrowing mystery that turns up many surprises along the way, all of which makes her realize that Argylle is more than just a character she made up for her book.

It is certainly nice to see Matthew Vaughn pull away from the Kingman funk that he has fallen into over the last few years, but it leaves us with the question as to whether he has something new to offer as a director.  Sadly, Argylle is not the revitalizing tonic that he needed as a filmmaker.  Even worse, this movie is actually the worst film he has made so far.  While the Kingman films became a little scattershot over time, they still displayed a strong sense of style that at least kept them watchable.  Argylle on the other hand doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.  This movie is one of the most unfocused films I have seen in a long time, as it tries to be so many things all at once.  It wants to be a comedy, but it tries way too hard to be shocking with it’s twists and turns; it wants to be cartoonishly violent, but seems to be undermined by it’s PG-13 rating; and it wants to be grandiose and operatic in it’s scale, but just looks artificial most of the time.  I think that the problems with this movie stem mostly from the screenplay itself, written by Jason Fuchs, whose credits to date include Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) and notorious box office bomb Pan (2015).  Fuch’s script tries way too hard to be a Romancing the Stone (1983) style action romantic comedy, with plot twists that think they are clever but are telegraphed way too clumsily that you can see them coming a mile away.  While Vaughn’s flashy style can overcome shortcomings in the script, it sadly becomes it’s own problem simultaneously as the excesses become more obnoxious than engaging and the film brings out Vaughn’s worst tendencies as a filmmaker.  Every problem that started with his sequels in the Kingsman franchise are amplified here.  As well choreographed as the action scenes are, they just don’t land as well when you don’t care about much else from the movie.

That’s not to say that the movie gets everything wrong.  While the movie is a failure in most places, one thing they do get right is the chemistry between the two leads.  What helps to keep this movie from becoming a total disaster is the performances of Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard as Aidan and Elly.  They are not awards worthy performances, but they do help to ground the movie and give it a bit of redeeming power; particularly with Rockwell.  Sam’s performance as Aidan is the clearest high point of the whole movie, as he seems to be the only actor that understands the assignment.  He’s charming, funny, and surprisingly adept in the action sequences which he gets quite a few moments with before he’s replaced with the stunt double.  You can definitely see a Bruce Willis in his prime quality with Sam Rockwell’s work here, as he perfectly balances the humor with the sincerity of his duty as a figure within an action movie scenario.  Bryce Dallas Howard does the best she can with a character whose whole story gets more and more convoluted as the movie goes, and it’s in the moments she shares with Sam Rockwell on screen where her performance shines the most.  Honestly, it’s in the brief moments where the two characters are aloud to actually connect on a human level that the movie actually finds it’s brief footing.  I wish the movie was more about them working off each other and solving the mystery together rather than series of plot detours and action set pieces that it ends up devolving into.  The ingredients are certainly all there, but Vaughn just refuses to pick a lane and decides to go for the loudest and most insane trek possible.  And it ruins what otherwise would’ve been a fun romp of a spy action comedy.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag.  The imaginings of the Agent Argylle books give very little for the actors to do, but that seems to be the point as the characters are meant to be archetypes.  Still when you have a trio as talented as Henry Cavill, John Cena, and Ariana DeBose together on screen, you’d like to see them emote just a little bit.  Cavill’s part in the movie is especially confusing, as Matthew Vaughn doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with the Agent Argylle character.  He flashes in and out of Elly’s imagination throughout the movie, as if Vaughn wanted to keep Cavill in as much of the movie as he could beyond just a cameo.  But for someone who is supposed to be the movie’s namesake, Argylle is such a throwaway character and Cavill’s whole participation just comes down to looking literally like an action figure.  I feel bad for Henry Cavill as he is very much a talented actor, but he sadly gets dumped into these failed action franchises that end up wasting his talents.  There’s a bit more gained from the inclusion of veterans like Bryan Cranston and Catherine O’Hara.  O’Hara especially gets to shine here, taking her comedic chops and working them surprisingly well into a more action packed movie.  Cranston has a nice menacing presence, though his villainous character is sadly underdeveloped and is fairly bland overall.  Strangely enough, it’s really just the cat that comes across as the most sympathetic screen presence, and half of the time he’s a visual effect, given the dangerous situations that they put him through.  Overall, the movie has an enviable all-star cast that it ultimately just ends up wasting.  It’s not surprising that the movie was bankrolled by a mega-corporation like Apple, as they clearly had the money to cast big names in all the parts.  But none of that promise with this kind of cast translates as they are all just lost in the shuffle of Vaughn’s excessive direction and the unfocused story that values shocking twists over actual character development.

Another big problem is the visual degradation of Matthew Vaughn’s style that this movie seems to demonstrate.  Vaughn, for most of the early part of his career, was able to balance his excesses as a visual story-teller with a clear sense of vision that was cohesive.  But through the Kingsman sequels and Argylle, the style is clearly overwhelming the substance.  One of the big issues is that he seems to be relying too heavily on CGI to get the style he wants for his action scenes.  The reason why movies like Kick Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Society worked is because they had a lot of thought put into the fight choreography first and foremost, and then later used visual effects to accentuate.  This was definitely evident in the church fight from Kingsman, which had the visceral mayhem of a handheld shot, but was aided by CGI to help add the blood and cover up the edits in the quick pans.  This is also why The King’s Man worked better than The Golden Circle, because there were more scenes involving real stunts than visual effects.  Sadly, it’s all too obvious that most of Argylle’s big stunts were constructed using computers.  There’s two visually operatic action sequences late in the movie that might have worked better had they not felt so artificial.  It’s where Vaughn’s instincts are working against him, as his need to go big are robbing the movie of it’s impact.  It’s the unfortunate desire on his part to go further than he had in the Kingman movies, but using a shortcut to get there.  He went from cartoonishly violent to just a cartoon by the end of this movie.  It’s also laughable that this is supposed to be a globetrotting movie, but it’s obvious they never left their London area soundstages as most of the movie is reliant on greenscreen for all the locales.  It’s a sad result for a film director like Matthew Vaughn who for the longest time was one of the most inventive and exciting filmmakers of the moment.

Argylle is sadly another step down for Matthew Vaughn as a filmmaker.  It’s like everything from Kingsman: The Secret Society on has been one big audition reel for a James Bond movie, but it just keeps getting sloppier the longer it goes on.  While James Bond has it’s own excesses, it does know how to play by it’s own rules and also it’s a franchise that knows when to revitalize itself with fresh blood.  Matthew Vaughn for some reason seems to be chasing his own bad instincts and letting them undermine the work that he does.  He has a creative eye for action, but he seems to be losing the confidence to make that work in a realistic way.  Argylle shows a director at odds with himself, unable to reign in a big project with the same kind of focus that he used to.  Perhaps he needs to step away from the spy stuff for a while and find a different kind of movie to make that his talents would be best suited for.  It was certainly interesting when he stepped into the fantasy genre with Stardust; I wonder if he still has that kind of movie in him.  He’s also been pretty vocal about what he’d do with a property like Star Wars as of late.  Perhaps he should get a shot at a sci-fi film like that.  He basically just needs to have a reinvention of some kind, because his creative juices are just not flowing anymore as a spy film director; or even as a comedy director.  As someone who was very much on board with his first five films, I found Argylle to be yet another crushing let down for a director that needs to do better.  In the end, all the flashy style and many twists and turns do nothing to resurrect a bare bones effort and it just ends up being a bore by the finale.  It’s a waste of top tier talent and will likely not be the franchise starter that it’s aiming to be.  The best it could do is to wake up Matthew Vaughn from his career stagnation and help him see the shortfalls that he’s been mired in for far too long.  Hopefully then, we can get back to the fun, inventive action packed material that we got excited for in Matthew Vaughn’s earlier work and hopefully forget Argylle as a footnote in the grand scheme of his cinematic body of work.

Rating: 5/10