All posts by James Humphreys

Evolution of Character – Hercules

When we think of the legendary heroes of Ancient Greek mythology, the one who probably comes first to mind is Hercules.  Hercules, the demi-god hero famous for completing the 12 labors to earn his way into Olympus and Godhood, may be a creation out of the myths of a long gone civilization, but his presence can still be felt today.  Many of the core elements of his story have become the inspiration for the mythological heroes of today; super heroes.  Hercules mighty strength can easily be seen as a template for many comic book icons like Superman, and his half-god half-mortal identity is found in the back story of a whole lot of other characters, like Aquaman.  Though the comic book heroes today are not quite worshiped like the gods and heroes of Ancient Myths, their purpose in their narratives are nevertheless very similar.  It makes sense that Hercules himself has also made his way into Comic Book pages, most famously as a sometimes friend and sometimes foe of Thor in the Marvel comics.  Even more than two Millenia after Hercules’ legend was first born, he is still a relevant character in pop culture.  For the most part, he is the quintessential legend of Greek mythology; the one that all the other legends aspire to.  That’s not to say that all the other heroes like Jason, Perseus, Theseus, Achilles, or Odysseus are forgotten.  But when it comes to pop cultures’ idea of what constitutes an iconic hero, his similarities with the comic book heroes of today is what helps Hercules to stand out that much more. This has proved true as Hercules has been the character of Greek Mythology that has made the most appearances on the big screen.  It is quite interesting to see how his presence in a variety of movies reveal how little of his key characteristics have changed, but at the same time also how depictions of him change along with the culture.  Below are a few of Hercules most noteworthy big screen appearances, and looking over most of them, you’ll definitely see a pattern form.


There weren’t a whole lot of cinematic depictions of Hercules in the early days of cinema, and that might be because the type of movie that could be centered around ancient myths had to rise up in an era where those kinds of movies were fashionable.  In the 1950’s, the movie industry began to invest in big, widescreen spectacle flicks to help the movie theaters compete with television.  This was the “swords and sandals” era, where the studios were interested in bringing larger than life stories from the ancient past to magnificent technicolor life.  A lot of these Hollywood productions also brought a lot of business to a war torn Europe that was still in recovery, and in particular, a lot of these sword and sandal epics were filmed in Italy.  The legendary Cinecitta Studio was founded during this time, and it was home to both foreign and domestic large scale productions.  After big Hollywood movies like Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963) came through the Rome based Cinecitta, they left behind all of these elaborate sets recreating the locations of antiquity.  What was the studio going to do with all of these sets?  Reuse and recycle them of course in cheaply made B-picture epics.  Quite a lot of lower-tier sword and sandals films were made out of the Italian film industry during this time, and naturally Hercules would be one of the characters ideal for crafting a movie or two around.  American bodybuilder Steve Reeves, with his signature broad shouldered physique, became ideal casting for these movies.  His performance is decidedly limited; it’s clear he had the part more for his looks than anything else.  But, the movies were cheaply made enough that they turned an easy profit for the Italian producers, and Reeves would continue playing the part a few more times.  The Italian Hercules films are notoriously cheesy, and are more well know today for being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  But, as far as Hercules on the big screen goes, this was just the beginning.


While Italy was making their own series of films centered around Hercules, Hollywood was trying out their own unique spins on legendary Greek myths.  One of the biggest highlights of that era was this adaptation of the Jason and the Argonauts myth, which Hercules did traditionally play a part in.  What this movie is most famous for is it’s amazing, ground-breaking visual effects, created by the legendary Ray Harryhausen.  In Jason and the Argonauts, Harryhausen utilized his stop-motion animation expertise to bring to life out of this world creations like flying harpies, a hydra, a giant bronze statue, and most famously an army of skeleton soldiers.  Aside from the effects work, much of it which still holds up very well today, there are some mildly interesting characterizations at play as well.  Perhaps the most interesting character of all in the film is Hercules.  He’s not present for most of the movie, but his brief time with the Argonauts is memorable.  What is particularly unique about this portrayal of Hercules is that it’s so different from the character we expect.  A far cry from the He-Man version that Steve Reeves played, this version played by South African character actor Nigel Green is more grounded and human.  He’s not a character in peak physical condition, but ratter a grizzled veteran who has been worn down over time.  Still, he’s incredibly strong and a reliable ally in a fight, but it is interesting to see a version of this character that deemphasizes his godliness.  Here, he’s more vulnerable, which offers up a bit more interesting character aspects, as he is pressured by the mission he’s undertaking with the Argonauts.  The movie on the whole certainly is remembered more for it’s iconic visual effects, but at the same time it gives us heroes worth rooting for, and one of the more relatable versions of Hercules that’s ever been put on the silver screen.


If there is one thing that more often than not helps to get an actor a role as Hercules, it’s having an incredibly muscular physique.  That’s why so many of these Hercules movies seek out bodybuilders who gained notoriety participating in competitions like Mr. Olympia.  One of the movies that pulled from that pool unexpectedly found someone who in time would become one of the biggest movie stars in the world.  That person was a young Austrian body builder known as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he made his movie debut playing none other than Hercules himself.  It might surprise many people that Schwarzenegger’s first movie role was not in an action film, but rather a comedy.  This very low budget production played around with the idea of Hercules ending up lost in modern day New York City, and mining all of the fish out of water hijinks that would lead to.  The movie is one of the more odd films to ever feature Hercules as a character, and it for the most part does little to portray any of the traits of the character that we know about him from legend.  His character in the film is pretty much limited to buff demi-god has adventure in the modern world.  Schwarzenegger definitely has a presence on screen, but it’s not in the way that reflects back well on him.  The movie even dubs over his voice, making him sound very different from the actor we know today.  Apparently his Austrian accent was still so thick at the time that his lines were indecipherable, so the change was made during ADR.  Of course, Schwarzenegger improved over time, which helped him to gain the attention of filmmakers like John Milius and James Cameron, who ultimately would change his career forever.  It’s no surprise that Arnold looks back on this film with embarrassment, and there is no blaming him.  For a big screen depiction of the mythological hero, this is certainly one of the least effective and is only noteworthy because of who was playing him.


Not long after Schwarzenegger made his screen debut in Hercules in New York, he would also be feature in an acclaimed documentary about the world of body building called Pumping Iron (1977).  Arnold would be featured alongside a few other noteworthy names in the bodybuilding competition circuit, and one of those other body builders featured in the documentary was another aspiring actor named Lou Ferrigno.  Ferrigno, who coincidently beat out Schwarzenegger for the role of the Incredible Hulk in the classic TV series, also got his chance to play the legendary Hercules on the big screen.  This opportunity came with this 1983 film production that felt very much like a throwback to the old Harryhausen effects driven spectaculars of Hollywood’s Silver Age.  Ironically, interest in making movies based on legends of Greek mythology again was the result of two unexpected hits, the Harryhausen involved Clash of the Titans (1981) and the Schwarzenegger starring Conan the Barbarian (1982).  So this movie’s existence is thanks in part to the legacy of two past Hercules movies.  Ferrigno, like Schwarzenegger, had his voiced dubbed over too, though it was less because of the accent and more because of Lou’s hearing disability, which made line readings difficult.  There is little doubt that Ferrigno’s impressive physique fits well with the character, and he for the most part does a serviceable job in the role.  Some of the effects used in the film are still impressive today, like when Hercules grows to massive size in order to split the continents of Europe and Africa apart.  Story wise, it’s nothing particularly noteworthy.  It doesn’t have the rich mythology of Conan the Barbarian nor the delightful campiness of Clash of the Titans.  It’s more or less a movie that is following a trend and trying to compete with more iconic movies.  Still, Ferrigno does stand out as the titular hero and some of the effects do recall back to the best parts of the old Harryhausen adventure films.


Like a lot of other classic stories, audiences’ first introduction to the legend of Hercules at a young age likely came from a Disney movie.  This movie in particular brings the story back to it’s mythological roots, but does so with a perspective that makes a commentary on modern day celebrity culture.  It’s interesting that the filmmakers behind this version, legendary animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Moana), drew a lot of inspiration for their version of Hercules from comic book superheroes like Superman, whose own origins are echoing the legend of Hercules from Greek mythology.  It’s everything coming into full circle.  Though not as consistently funny and resonate as past Disney Renaissance films, Hercules does have it’s fair share of hilarious spins of the Greek myth.  The film is very well designed with a pastiche of Ancient Greece mixed in with contemporary inspirations, and some of the action set pieces are real stand-outs, particularly one with the Hydra, which featured some ground-breaking computer animation for it’s time.  Oddly, the weakest link of the movie is Hercules himself.  The movie never really finds an interesting angle to play with the character, so he just comes off as bland and generic.  This is too bad, because the rest of the film is filled with some of Disney’s best characters, such as Hercules’  trainer Philoctetes (voice by Danny DeVito), the love interest Megara (voice by Susan Egan) and the villain Hades (voice by James Woods).  Tate Donovan does bring a nice tenderness to the character, which feels very much inspired by the good natured wholesomeness of Christopher Reeves’ Superman.  While the character himself is written a little bland, the vocal performance by Donovan helps to at least make the hero likable.  Unfortunately for Disney, Hercules came at a time of downward fortune for Disney after their Renaissance boom, and Hercules seemed to audiences to be a pale imitation of the the more beloved Aladdin.  Still, it has developed a following over 25 years, and there’s even talk of a live action remake.  And as far as portrayals of the legend of Hercules go, this one strangely enough is more in line with the original myth itself, though with a modern day spin of course.


It’s a bit surprising, but Hercules was passed over quite a bit during the brief revival of the sword and sandals epic during the early aughts.  Despite movies based on heroes like Achilles (Troy), Alexander the Great (Alexander) and even a remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), Hercules would have to wait until the following decade to be seen on the big screen again, and by that time the revival of these movies had died down considerably.  This film is another example of a movie trying to chase a fad, but ultimately missing the mark completely.  This movie takes us on a journey to Hercules’ early days as a warrior just beginning to come into his own.  The movie definitely takes strong inspiration from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), and that’s about where the similarities end.  It has the Gladiator look, but none of the captivating story, nor interesting characters.  The casting of Kellan Lutz, who at that time was best know for appearing in the Twilight series, clearly was due to his buff physique, but it is interesting that his body type is different from past big screen Hercules.  His is less of a body builder physique and more of a pro athlete physique; less for show and more for performance.  He’s a leaner Hercules, though still very physically imposing.  This is something to note about how the portrayal of Hercules has evolved over the years, as physical appearance standards have shifted over time.  There isn’t much else to say about the character in this film.  He’s far less mythological in this film because to put it in line with the Gladiator aspects of it’s presentation, this version of Hercules has his more human side emphasized.  The film even puts Hercules in arena battles, just like the other film.   Just looking at bits of this film made me think this was definitely an early January release, and sure enough I was right.  It’s forgettable for the most part, but it does show an evolving presence that Hercules would end up having on the big screen in the new millennia.


Released mere months after The Legend of Hercules, this second live action Hercules leans even more into the super hero elements that the legend has helped to inspire over the years.  This film features a much bigger budget than The Legend of Hercules which helps to make it a bit more visually interesting.  Story wise, it’s no worse, but it also feels small and a little cliched.  More than anything, this movie was clearly greenlit to be a star vehicle for actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  It’s interesting that Hercules evolved from casting body builders like Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Lou Ferrigno, to casting performers from another field that involves building up a lot of muscle mass; pro-wrestling.  Dwayne Johnson is by far the most successful box office star to come out of the wrestling circuit, and it seems only natural for him to step into the role of Hercules.  As underwritten as the character is, Johnson’s natural charisma does help to make his performance here at least a little engaging.  In the battle scenes, he really gets to shine, as he manages to do most of his own stunt work pretty effectively.  But, at the same time, you do feel like you are watching a Dwayne Johnson movie, and not anything that informs you about the myth of Hercules itself.  Like most of the portrayals of Hercules on the big screen, Hercules is treated more like an idea of an ancient hero, and less of an actual true to legend portrayal of the character.  Dwayne Johnson definitely looks good in the part, particularly with that lion’s skin draped on his head, but it’s more or less a standard action film with the name of Hercules slapped on top of it.  But it’s still clear that it’s a role that Dwayne Johnson loves to play, and it feels like a role like this inspired him to pursue an actual comic book role like he did with last year’s Black Adam (2022) with DC.

Hercules has more or less followed a predictable pattern on the big screen.  He is the prototypical strong man in many mythological stories and the films have more or less been showcases to present actors shirtless with large muscles.  That’s not to say that nothing special has ever been done with the character.  Disney’s meta commentary on celebrity culture in their animated film helped to bring some interesting perspective on the character and his place within the mythology.  Jason and the Argonauts did the interesting move of showing us a Hercules who was less of a God and more of a human.  And Dwayne Johnson’s film definitely leaned more into reflecting the kind of super hero portrayal of the character that in itself has been an inspiration to comic book stories throughout the history of the medium.  What I find interesting is that never once has any film based on the myth of Hercules actually shown the things that he’s most well known for; the 12 labors.  The closest any movie has ever gotten to doing that is the animated Disney film, and at most we just see the battle with the Hydra, plus a couple more shown as part of a musical montage.  I guess showing the labors would make for a boring film narrative; and I don’t quite know how you would depict something like the cleaning of the Augean stables.  When it comes to the big screen, Hercules has served better as a concept of a mythological hero and the filmmakers then form whatever story they want around that.  You certainly can’t overlook Hercules as an important character in the pop culture, given that his legend has endured for over 2,000 years.  And as sporadic as his time on screen has been, there are many filmmakers who like to revisit the myth again and again.  Perhaps it’s because his story is so universally known and is easily applied to changing cultural perspectives.  Given how different eras have their own take on the Hercules myth, it seems to reason that there will be quite a few more appearances of the character on the big screen, and it will be interesting to see how the character will find himself fighting on the big screen again and in what fashion.  Like the Disney film proclaimed, Hercules is a legend that is constantly going from “Zero to Hero” through many different and varied adventures.


A Summer Slump – The Perils of High Costs and Low Box Office and What Actually Defines a Bomb

So  a peculiar thing has been happening over the last month.  2023, by all accounts, was supposed to be a great big comeback year for the Summer box office season.  With the Covid-19 pandemic now thankfully in the rear view mirror and all restrictions having been lifted across the market, we could now finally get the movie going experience back to the roaring engine that it once was.  And up to this point in the year, things were actually looking good for the theatrical market.  We had a strong spring season, buoyed by films like John Wick Chapter 4 (2023), Creed III (2023), and also the surprise juggernaut that was The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023); the year’s first and only entry into the billion dollar club.  But, there were also some warning signs in the Spring box office.  The normally potent Marvel brand suffered an underwhelming box office run for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), but that was nothing compared to the historically low box office for rival DC’s Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023).  Hopes were still high, however, for the movies coming out in the summer.  The summer 2023 outlook looked especially promising given that many of the titles being lined up were from tried and true franchises that had served the studios well in the last couple decades.  Disney didn’t just have another Marvel film up their sleeve; they were also calling up a remake of one of their most beloved classics as well as a return of Indiana Jones.  Paramount had their Transformers; Universal their Fast & Furious crew; and Warner Brothers was about to give one of their key Justice League members the spotlight with The Flash (2023).  But, despite a bit of a promising start with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) opening the summer season, the Summer 2023 theatrical market has been less defined by it’s successes and more by it’s failures.  A big box office bomb in the Summer movie season is not very uncommon to see, but for a string of them to happen all in quick succession is enough to startle the industry and make them wonder where things have gone awry.

Now of course it’s easy for a lot of us armchair media experts to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, and in many cases we sometimes make excuses that merely just fit into the narratives that we want to put into place about the state of Hollywood.  For instance, there’s a segment of the online chatter that tries to put a political spin on why Hollywood is not seeing the success it would like to have; with one misinformed refrain being pushed that says, “Get Woke, Go Broke.”  Of course scrutinizing the actual data of the Summer box offices grosses shows that being “woke” doesn’t in fact affect box office.  Quite contrary, the movies with the highest grosses this Summer (Guardians 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse, and The Little Mermaid) are the most “woke” ones in theaters right now.  And that’s just a subjective reading of these movies, because “woke” is such an ill-defined term that most people just use to slander something rather than critically analyze it.  Seriously, can someone please explain what makes Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny “woke”?  The main hero is an 80 white man who reads maps and punches Nazis.  Politics aside, there is another reasoning as to why Summer box office is decidedly off this year compared to before, and it has a lot more to do with economics than ideology.  We are at a point where movies are underperforming because they are costing too much to make.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve gotten to the point where a movie now has to gross a billion dollars worldwide just to break even, and that a movie that takes in $300 million domestic is considered a disappointment.  But, that’s the reality we are in right now, and it’s starting to make the film industry reconsider it’s priorities.

A lot of what we are seeing right now is residual fallout from the economic shock wave that was the pandemic.  With movie theaters shuttered for significant amounts of time (including the key markets of Los Angeles and New York being closed for over a year), a lot of investment suddenly shifted to streaming, because it was the only avenue of distribution.  Much of that shift ran under the assumption that when the movie theaters were going to finally re-open fully, that it would be a significantly diminished market, and that streaming will have supplanted it as the foremost mode of distribution.  But, something happened that many in the industry didn’t quite expect; theatrical made a miraculous comeback, thanks to strong, record breaking box office performances from the like of Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).  These movies not only brought in big audience numbers in their opening weekend, but they maintained those audiences over the months that followed.  Suddenly, the the studios which had put themselves into a streaming mindset had to readjust to capitalize on a renewed interest in theatrical exhibition.  But, as evidenced by this year, not all movies are the same and as Hollywood is finding out the hard way, it really all depends on the kind of movie that’ll drive up box office numbers.  Sadly, it would appear that Hollywood saw the successes of these previous movies and misinterpreted it as business returning to what it was before the pandemic.  There is very much a fundamental difference today to how a movie will perform at the box offce compared to how it did in the past.

One big difference is the increased presence of streaming within the market.  In the last summer season before the pandemic, 2019, there were only a small handful of streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu).  Since that summer, the market has been flooded with new competitors, most of them coming from the big studios (Disney+, Max, Peacock, and Paramount+).  This really fundamentally changed not just the kinds of movies that were being made, but also what audiences would be paying extra to go out to the theaters for.  With the pandemic complicating things further, we saw what is likely the biggest shift in audience viewing habits since the invention of television.  But, there were those movies that indeed break through and were undeniably must see films in a theater.  Top Gun: Maverick drew in audiences with it’s incredible stunt work on screen, while Avatar: The Way of Water dazzled with it’s fully immersive environments.  These were not cheap films to make, but they still managed to capture their audience in a way that many others in the industry seem to fail to grasp.  So, what made these films soar while others are failing so miserably.  The primary reason is that the films being made are not justifying the exorbitant costs that are attached to them.  Relating back to the big push made during the streaming wars, a lot of the studios wanted to flex their muscles by delivering movies and programs that would outshine their rivals and put greater value into the library of projects that were going to be found on their streaming platforms.  This meant a greater investment on the most popular brands that are a part of each studios portfolio.  If people were excited about the ability to stream all the Tranformers movies on Paramount+, or all the Marvel movies on Disney+, or all the DC movies on Max, then it made sense to the executives to continue to invest a bunch more money into expanding those library titles; no matter the cost.  But, as we’ve found out, not everyone is as thrilled about these franchises as we thought.

In some cases, the cost associated with some of these movies seem excessively frivolous.  To have an Indiana Jones movie cost nearly $300 million in just production alone is particularly hard to justify, especially considering that it’s more than the past 4 movies in the franchise combined.  Whatever accounting made this acceptable for Disney has got to be based on pretty suspect or outdated consumer research.  Sure, Indiana Jones is a valuable brand that has produced some of the greatest action films that have ever been made, but it’s heyday was over 30 years ago.  A more accurate reading of audiences today will tell you that Indiana Jones as a franchise will not perform like a Star Wars or a Marvel project would.  And yet Disney still poured a fortune into this movie.  Disney would be in a much precarious position if this wasn’t a problem affecting all the major studios.  Pretty much every studio has seen slumping box office returns from this Summer.  Fast X (2023) and The Flash (2023) are just as big of disappointments as Dial of Destiny for their respective studios because of their out of control costs, though Fast X has saved face a bit from better international numbers.  The studios are having to come to the realization that not only have they miscalculated the value of their franchises at the box office, but they have also inadvertently undermined their ability to convince audiences that these movies are worth seeing in theaters at all thanks to their years of aggressively pushing their presence in the streaming market.  There are a lot of audiences now who would rather stay home and wait for these movies to release on streaming, which is knee-capping these films upon their initial releases and making it appear like the brands themselves are failing.  One of the most illogical choices made during the streaming wars was taking so many movies that were clearly made for theatrical exhibition and pushing them straight to streaming instead of waiting for theaters to recover.  This made sense when the pandemic was at it’s peak, but when Hollywood was still doing it a year out, it just undermined their brand because now you had made an audience more used to seeing these movies appear on streaming.  No more brand suffered from this more than Pixar, which saw three of their films go straight to streaming; Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022).  The necessity could be made for the first two, but Turning Red should have absolutely been given a full theatrical release based on it’s critical acclaim and broad appeal.  Because Pixar’s brand has been associated more with streaming as of late, it has shackled the releases of their films that have made it to theaters like Lightyear (2022) and Elemental (2023) because their audience is more inclined to wait for them to be on Disney+.

It should be understood that while the box office slump looks bad now, it doesn’t mean that this is somehow a sign of Hollywood’s downfall.  Hollywood has gone through these boom and bust cycles before, and they have often involved big adjustments that the market had to undergo in the past.  In the 1950’s, America had a booming post-war economy that helped to grow the middle class, who were keen on spending their disposable income on entertainment.  And yet, movie theaters initially struggled in these post-War years, because there was a new challenger to their business model; television.  To bring people back to the movies, a lot of experimentation in the presentation of movies began to occur, which included 3D, smell-o-vision, and the one that took hold the most, Widescreen.  With the advent of widescreen technologies, movies began to feel bigger than ever and that helped to make the theatrical experience more of a draw for audiences, because it was something that television couldn’t replicate.  However, to take advantage of the widescreen process, the movie industry invested more into movies that would be bigger than life and spectacles worthy of the more massive size of the image.  In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the film industry was deeply invested in the business of biblical and historic epics as well as over-the-top musicals, and while in retrospect all of these movies are wonders to behold for their scale and artistry, they were also drains on their studios bank accounts.  The catastrophic production of Cleopatra (1963) in particular became a wake-up call for Hollywood.  While the 4 hour epic was extravagant and later became one of the highest grossing films of that year, it’s enormous cost could not be overcome, and it nearly sank it’s studio (20th Century Fox) into financial ruin.  The excesses of the spectacle driven era of Hollywood eventually gave way to the more modest budgeted films of the radical 70’s, though even this era came to a head later on when maverick filmmakers from that era also saw budget overruns occur on their own vanity projects; most notoriously with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  As history has shown, these cycles occur all the time, and are often a teaching moment for Hollywood.  The same is likely happening now as the industry is learning to adjust to a post-pandemic and streaming wars world.

It should also be understood that a movie bombing at the box office in it’s initial release isn’t necessarily a sign that the movie is bad.  None of the movies this year that have underperformed are doing so because people hated them.  At worst, people just find these movies to be okay or mildly disappointing.  Unlike what a lot of naysyaers out there are trying to project upon the performances at the box office, these movies are not losing money because of outright rejection; that nobody wanted these movies and that Hollywood is forcing them down our throats.  The disappointments are more to do with the ratio of box office compared to cost, and Hollywood’s inability to properly sell these films on an audience who’s viewing patterns have changed.  Hollywood needs to find a way to make opening weekends of $60 million seem impressive again, and that means that the movie costs really need to be brought under control.  The worry is that making things more cheaply also means loss in quality and artistry.  But, one thing that Hollywood should observe is what is actually working in the industry right now and how that can be applied industry wide.  A big change certainly should be made to the marketing of movies.  Emphasize why movies should be seen in a theater.  Perhaps the industry should reconsider it’s shortened theatrical window push that occurred during the pandemic, because theatrical gives movies a stronger up front boost.  And I hope both audiences and the studios realize that initial box office returns are not the end of the story for most movies.  In fact, for most films they find new lives beyond the big screen.  There was one animated movie in the Summer of 1999 that performed so poorly that it actually shut down the animation studio that made it.  That box office failure was called The Iron Giant (1999), which is now universally praised as one of the greatest animated films of all times.  Great films always find their audiences eventually, so we shouldn’t be looking solely at box office performance as a barometer of the quality of a movie.

All those spelling doom right now for Hollywood should keep this in mind; the Summer season isn’t over yet, and there is still a chance for the 2023 season to rebound.  Sure it was a bad couple of months, but the upcoming films this next month are actually promising.  Amazingly enough, it may come down to Tom Cruise coming to the rescue again for movie theaters, with his highly anticipated new Mission: Impossible sequel coming next week.  We’ll also see how well that Barbie vs. Oppenheimer social media feud actually translates into strong box office for both films.  And some wild cards could be Disney’s Haunted Mansion and DC’s Blue Beetle, considering that they were more modestly budgeted tentpoles than the films earlier this summer.  And even with the low attendance out of the gate for most of the films this summer, it should be noted what films have legs and what films don’t.  Movies like Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and The Flash have fallen like a rock since their opening weekends, but Pixar’s Elemental, which had the lowest opening weekend in the legendary studio’s history, is still holding strong week after week with small drops; having now grosssed $100 million and quadrupling it’s opening weekend.  It may still be a money loser for parent company Disney, but hopefully they see that Pixar films can still maintain audience growth over time and benefit from strong word of mouth.  For some movies, it’s a marathon and not a sprint,  which may not be ideal for people wanting to see immediate riches, but good in the end for long term strength in a brand.   Hopefully, the lessons learned from this season lead to improved investment in the future that will benefit both Hollywood but also the theatrical business too.  Hollywood has got to learn that it’s muscle flexing when it comes to budgeting their summer tentpoles is not generating the kind of business that it once did, and that they could still do well if they invest more in their marketing capabilities and less on the unnecessary spectacle elements of their films.  Your movies don’t need 20 minute action scenes that needlessly bloat the films to make them feel more epic.  They just need good stories and good characters to get audiences invested.  We are definitely not in the last days of Hollywood like so many who don’t know what they are talking about are trying to express right now as punishment for the industry going “woke.”  Disney in particular is not going away any time soon.  They’ve weathered box office bombs before, and if they can survive Treasure Planet (2002), The Alamo (2004), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), John Carter (2012), and The Lone Ranger (2013), they can survive Dial of Destiny too.  The same goes for most of the other studios too.  It’s about recognizing a pattern of success and failure and adjusting to meet the changing market.  We are in the grips of an industry trying to find it’s identity post-pandemic and streaming wars, and a couple box office disappointments will tell them exactly what isn’t working.  For someone like me, theatrical is still ideal, and I hope the best outcome of this era of change is that Hollywood’s presence on the big screen gets better and not worse.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – Review

There will never be a better pairing in cinema history of actor and character than Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.  To say that he was born to play the part would be an understatement.  The moment we first saw him walk out of the shadows and into the spotlight wearing that trademark leather jacket and fedora we knew an icon was born.  And this was fairly impressive for an actor like Ford who already had the character of Han Solo on his resume.  It helped that the greatest filmmakers in the industry were there to make Harrison shine on screen as the character.  Developed from the mind of George Lucas and brought to life on screen by Steven Spielberg, Indiana Jones’ debut in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a timeless classic that still stands as a high water mark in blockbuster filmmaking.  And unlike the work that he put into the Star Wars franchise, this was a movie completely formed around him as an actor.  Surprisingly, it’s a match that almost didn’t happen, as Tom Selleck was at one time going to play the character, before his commitment to Magnum P.I. pulled him out of the running.  While Selleck might have done alright as the character, it’s hard to imagine this role without Harrison Ford.  The gruffness of Indiana Jones as well as the ability to dive into the silliness of the character are unmistakably things that Ford brought to the character that no other actor would have.  Despite having a career that now spans 6 decades and a body of work that includes many of the best action films ever made, as well as a couple very good dramas and comedies, Ford will always be known best for his performances as Indiana Jones, and it appears that he is happy with that distinction.  Ford has been vocal of his affection for the character, believing that the character is among his best work, and it’s the thing that has allowed him to return time and again over these 40 plus years that Indiana Jones has been around.

The Indiana Jones franchise as a whole has been one that’s inspired a wide range of opinions, both good and bad.  The good thing is that the Indiana Jones films are not serialized, so each movie can stand on it’s own as a stand alone adventure.  But the choices of which adventures he goes on bring out a different mix of emotions in audiences.  Critics initially were not happy with the follow-up film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), with many saying it was too dark and lacked a cohesive plot like Raiders had.  Of course, over time the movie has been re-assessed, and people of my generation who grew up with the film regard it very highly; even putting it ahead of Raiders.  The third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was generally better received as it was reviewed as a return to form after the riskier Temple of Doom.  For the longest time, the series stood alone as a trilogy, with Crusade working very well as a fitting end to Dr. Jones’ adventures.  But, that’s not where George Lucas saw it ending.  There was always talk of another Indiana Jones movie, but it would take 19 years for it to become a reality.  The resulting film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) did bring the whole team back together, with Harrison Ford once again cracking the whip and Spielberg guiding the adventure behind the camera.  Unfortunately, the reception to the film did not get the same result as the original trilogy, and in fact the movie was widely panned by the fandom.  Time has also not been kind to the movie like it has been to Temple of Doom, as the majority of Indiana Jones fans still consider Crystal Skull a low point for the series and even a betrayal.  Many people lamented that this was going to be the final note that Indiana Jones left the silver screen on, but fortunes would change as new leadership took over at Lucasfilm.  After being brought into the Disney Company, many hoped that there was a shot of another Indiana Jones movie possibly in the works. With the revival of the Star Wars series, that possibility seemed strong, but it would take some time.  Eventually, it was announced that a fifth Indiana Jones movie would get made, and that Harrison Ford would indeed step into the role one final time.  The movie would be delayed multiple times, with the pandemic being especially disruptive, but now, over 40 years since his debut, we are finally getting the long awaited sequel Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023).  The only question is, does the movie end the series on a high note, or does it further sink the franchise to a new low?

The movie opens with a flashback to Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) during the final days of World War II.  He has been captured by the Nazis, who are in the process of mobilizing their stock hold of stolen artifacts to get them away from allied forces.  Among the Nazi soldiers is scientist named Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been brought on to authenticate all the artifacts.  Among the artifacts, there is one that sparks Voller’s interest above all others; a device known as Archimedes’ Dial.  Jones manages to make his escape, with the assistance of another archaeologist named Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), and the two manage to steal away the Dial from the Nazis, with Shaw being particularly knowledgeable about the artifact’s importance.  25 years later, Indiana Jones is living alone in New York City, with his marriage to Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) on the rocks, and is on the brink of retirement.  His final lecture at the university is attended by a woman who reveals herself to be Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), daughter of Basil and Dr. Jones’ goddaughter.  Helena inquires about the Dial that her father and Jones found all those years back, but Indy is reluctant to share any information, knowing how the Dial ended up driving Basil crazy in his final days.  Still, Jones helps Helena find the Dial which he’s kept in storage, but they soon learn they’ve been followed by some hired guns also seeking the Dial.  The henchmen (Boyd Holbrook, Olivier Richters) are working for Dr. Voller, who has been working in America on the space program as a beneficiary of Operation Paperclip.  Voller is adamant about finding the Dial, because he believes it has the power to re-shape history, which he believes could lead to a different outcome for the war.  Unfortunately for Indiana Jones, he loses track of the Dial as Helena runs off with it, leaving him having to make a daring escape again, in the typical Indiana Jones fashion.  Despite his advanced age, Jones seeks to go into harms way to find Helena and the Dial, and solve the mystery behind it, with the help of old friends like Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and new like diving expert Renaldo (Antonio Banderas).  But, will this be the adventure that will Indiana Jones make history or become history?

Considering how much time has passed from when this series has started to where it is now, it’s pretty amazing that Harrison Ford is able to still play this part again at all.  Now in his 80’s, Ford definitely is unable to pull off some the same kind of action sequences that made the original trilogy movies so memorable.  But, as long as the movie is able to work with the limitations that the actor now faces rather than try to force him into the impossible mission of going all in again, there’s a way to make an older Indiana Jones work while still being true to the character.  One thing that helps this movie is that it’s being helmed by James Mangold, who has a history of sunsetting legendary characters in one final blaze of glory.  He helped Hugh Jackman say goodbye to the character of Wolverine in the poignant film Logan (2017), so giving him the responsibility of bringing Harrison Ford’s time as this character to a close is well within his capabilities.  He definitely has big shoes to fill, with Spielberg passing the reigns on to someone else for the first time in the series’ forty years.  Mangold has many talents as a filmmaker, but he’s not anything like Spielberg.  The question remains whether or not the injection of a different directorial vision is exactly what the series needed.  The fandom surrounding the Indiana Jones movies is a very vocal one, and making a misstep is bound to rile up some feathers.  I for one am in a minority within the fandom in that I actually like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the most reviled film in the series for a lot of people.  Considering my tastes, I seem to like when the series takes chances and does things in a very different and unexpected way.  Temple of Doom is my favorite film in the series, so I’m a bit more forgiving of the series as even the ones with flaws have their charms.  So, considering that I am more forgiving of Crystal Skull, it would stand that I may feel more positive about Dial of Destiny than most.  For the most part, I would say that Dial of Destiny in no ways changes my view of the series, as it ultimately is a very serviceable sequel.  At the same time, it does have it’s share of flaws, but those flaws to me put it mostly on par with Crystal Skull, which is not a knock against the movie given my scale of judgement.

To expect that this movie is going to reach the heights of the series in it’s heyday during the trilogy is kind of an impossible high standard to reach.  Dial of Destiny does not have the benefit of 40 years of rose colored nostalgia to build it’s reputation upon.  Sadly, it has to contend with a very demanding fanbase that wants to feel the magic that the original movies had once again, and I don’t think it’s going to be able to live up to that for many.  That being said, can the movie stand on it’s own as a rousing action adventure.  I’d say that there are definitely moments that shine in this film, and help to at the very least remind us why we love Indiana Jones in the first place.  What I would say is the biggest problem with this movie is the bloated run time.  At nearly 2 1/2 hours, this is by far the longest film in the series, and it really doesn’t need to be.  One really longs for the economy of storytelling that Spielberg always exceled at with his direction in these movies.  The original trilogy movies have all the fat cut out and each action sequence is perfectly paced for maximum  effect; my favorite in particular is the climatic sequence of events at the end of Temple of Doom, which is an all time great example of how to build tension in a final act.  The action scenes in this movie feel too busy and complicated.  There is one scene with a cart chase through Moroccan streets that was so chaotic and repetitive that it took me out of the film for a moment.  Honestly, where the movie worked best for me was not in the action scenes, which used to be a staple of the series, but rather in the quieter moments where we see Indy doing the actual tomb raiding.  It’s in those moments where it does feel like the old glory days of Indiana Jones again.  There are good action sequences to be sure, like a very well done prologue scene on a train, and none of the action sequences are insultingly horrible by any means, but you can really feel in these moments the absence of the Spielbergian touch.  Mangold is a very capable director, but in this case his instincts are pretty uneven.

The thing that definitely lifts this movie up the most, without a doubt, is Harrison Ford himself.  You can tell that the reason why Ford wanted to come back to this role one more time was so that he could give Indy a proper goodbye.  Crystal Skull it would seem was an unsatisfying exercise for him, and with Dial of Destiny, he is clearly trying to dig a bit more into the character and bring out a sense of Indiana finally coming to terms with the history that he left behind and the history he wishes he could forget.  This movie digs a bit deeper into the psyche of Indiana Jones, seeing him grapple with mortality as time begins to take it’s toll.  He’s not the same death-defying Dr. Jones that we once knew, and I liked the fact that the movie leans into that aspect, showing that while Indy is still a force to reckon with, at the same time he is also bearing all the scars of those adventures.  And yet, the sparkle in his eye when he discovers things once lost to time found again is enough to make you fall in love with the character all over again.  Harrison Ford doesn’t miss one note, and he easily carries this movie, making us all fall in love with Indiana Jones once again.  And the way that the movie settles his narrative in it’s final act is poetic and quite fitting given the legacy of the character.  The supporting cast, while not quite as memorable as characters in years past, are still doing their best with the material.  Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Voller is in no way within the same category as legendary adversaries like Belloq, Toht, or Mola Ram, but Mikkelsen still gives him a presence that works well enough.  As underwritten as he is, I still found him to be a better villain than Last Crusades’ Donovan, played by Julian Glover.  Sadly, the other main lead, Helena Shaw, is not as good of a character.  Phoebe Waller-Bridge is trying her best in the role, but her smarmy, quippy attitude feels out of place in the movie, and she ends up being more obnoxious than endearing.  Even Temple’s Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), as corny as she was, still left an endearing impression.  Other than that, it’s also nice to see John Rhys-Davies, another Raiders alum make a return as well, and there are other actors like Toby Jones and Boyd Holbrook who make the most of their limited roles.

One thing that I think will likely be debated hotly about this film is the heavy reliance of CGI.  For a series that was renowned for it’s mix of practical and state of the art visual effects, to see so much of this movie be reliant of CGI is kind of disappointing.  At the same time, it was almost inevitable, as you couldn’t rely upon Harrison Ford to do as much of the on set spectacle as before given his limitations at this age.  There are some effects that do indeed look good and were necessary for the moments in the film, like with a climatic storm near the end.  One moment that I think will either anger or impress viewers is the de-aging effect on Indiana Jones in the opening prologue.  You can tell that the de-aging technology has gotten better over time, and some shots do look pretty believable.  But there are other times when it crosses into uncanny valley territory, and it will be interesting to see how audiences overall accept it.  Given that the de-aging effect happens in the best scene of the entire movie, it didn’t end up being a critical distraction for me, but there were times when it does pull you out of the scene for a moment.  I understand why they did the effect, but I have a feeling that it’s an effect that probably won’t age well over time.  Once we get to the modern day, the movie does have a good sense of capturing the time period.  It’s interesting to see how Indiana’s world has changed through the whole progression of the series, from the pre-WWII era art deco pastiche of Club Obi-Wan in Temple of Doom   to the Vietnam War era grunginess of New York City in Dial of Destiny, each era becomes a character in it’s own right within the movies of this series.  Of course, one of the other things that will indeed earn due praise for this movie other than Harrison Ford’s performance is the new score provided by the great maestro, John Williams, in what will likely be the last big studio production he’ll ever work on.  The 91 year old Williams insists that if Spielberg ever calls him for an assignment he’ll answer, but for now there is a strong likelihood this will be the legendary composer’s swan song at the end of an unparalleled career.  So it is fitting that he is putting down the baton with and Indiana Jones score.  There are some repeating themes in this film, including the iconic Indiana Jones march, but remarkably the vast majority Dial of Destiny’s score is made up of original music, showing that even in his old age, Williams still has got it.  I guess he and Harrison Ford have that in common.

For the things that count the most, mainly doing the character of Indiana Jones justice, I do think Dial of Destiny is a success.  But, it still comes up short of the series’ greatest hits.  I certainly think expecting this to rise to that level is a bit unfair, because it’s impossible to make an Indiana Jones movie feel as fresh and groundbreaking as it was when Raiders of the Lost Ark first came out.  Time has changed and so have the audiences.  It’s clear that the time has come for us to bid farewell to the Indiana Jones that we knew, because a lot of the past glory has clearly faded.  All that said, the movie doesn’t do an insulting job of trying to bring back Indiana Jones to the big screen.  It’s clear that the people who made this film put a lot of love into it.  Unlike a lot of other cash grab sequels, it does not feel cynical in any way.  I certainly felt it does a more honorable job at continuing an old franchise based on classic IP than say what Jurassic World does, and it’s certainly a better series finale than what we got from Star Wars with The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  Despite a script that features some wild leaps in logic and characters that aren’t as endearing as they should be, the movie does stick the landing when it comes to Indiana Jones and how the story puts this era of his to rest.  The final scene in the movie, without giving anything in the way, is almost perfect and is exactly the way I want to remember Harrison Ford’s final scenes as this character.  It’s poignant in the best way possible, a fitting final note to leave on.  I don’t think it will be the end of Indiana Jones entirely as a franchise.  There is always the possibility of Disney doing a James Bond situation and starting fresh with a new, younger actor in the role.  It might even be worthwhile to reboot the Young Indiana Jones TV series again.  Whatever happens, the Harrison Ford comes to a close in a satisfying, if not exactly perfect, way.  Thank you for all the years of fun over the years and for making one of the greatest cinematic heroes in history.  Fortune and glory forever.

Rating: 7.5/10

Focus on a Franchise – The Matrix

You’ve got to hand it to Keanu Reeves.  The man is very good at remaining relevant as a movie star over the course of a nearly 40 year career.  Often derided for not being the most versatile actor in the business, the man is nevertheless a good judge of projects to attach his name to.  Starting off as one half of a goofy duo of dimwitted teenagers in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Reeves successfully made the jump to action movies with the box office hit Speed (1994).  In an era when the action movie star fit a specific mold, mainly muscle bound stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean Claude Van Damme, Keanu Reeves was very different.  His more lean build allowed him to feel like a more natural, everyday hero than the He-Men that normally appeared on screen.  But, even if Hollywood wasn’t satisfied with him yet as an action movie star, Keanu still proved to be a surprisingly forward thinking movie star.  He wisely turned down appearing in the ill-fated sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997), which proved to be one of the biggest box office disasters in history.  Over the years, he’s also developed a reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the business; using his stardom to uplift others and creating a generally positive atmosphere on whatever set he works on.  It’s probably why his recent success with the John Wick movies has been so fruitful, because so many of the best in the business wants to work with him.  He may not be a Shakespearean level performer; though he has done that as well, appearing in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) early on in his career.  But, he has shown through his own example how best to exemplify the meaning of movie stardom and, more importantly, earn it as well.  When looking at Keanu Reeves career as a movie star, many highlights come to mind, but the movies that will likely be what defines his place in the annals of movie history are the films in the Matrix series.

It can’t be understated how earth shattering The Matrix proved to be, not just as a film series, but as a cultural touchstone.  The Matrix is one of the most oft quoted and referenced films in cinema history.  It also sparked a revolution in visual effects, as audiences were wowed by new techniques that truly defied the laws of physics in a way thought unimaginable before.  And it also sparked a renewed interest in new age philosophies and sociological theories.  Not bad for an R-rated studio film that was dumped off in the box office wasteland of April.  Initially, Warner Brothers didn’t have much faith in this film connecting with audiences, but afterwards it became a different matter.  Suddenly they had a new IP that could take on the likes of Star Wars, which while The Matrix didn’t overtake the juggernaut at the box office, it ended up sweeping them in the awards season, with The Matrix winning a respectable 4 Oscars and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace going home empty handed.  Of course, this kind of success demanded a sequel, and Warner Brothers called upon the filmmakers, The Wachowskis, to deliver.  Instead of just one sequel, the Wachowskis convinced the studio to make two back to back.  It’s not an uncommon practice, as Back to the Future shot two sequels back to back, and of course The Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot as a whole together.  But the interesting thing about The Matrix was that both films would be released in the same year (2003 to be exact) and only months apart.  It was ambitious to say the least, but Warners was confident that all the hype would deliver them huge results.  While the two films didn’t exactly loose money, they also didn’t deliver as big as the studio hoped it would either.  As a result, The Matrix would also prove to be a text book example of failing to harness lighting in a bottle a second time.  Of course, that didn’t stop Warner Brothers from trying again almost 20 years later, and the result also spoke for itself.  Still, The Matrix series is a fascinating oddity in film history, and examining each film offers some interesting insights into the ups and downs of building a franchise.


The one that started it all.  Before The Matrix came along, The Wachowskis were still fairly new on the filmmaking scene.  They had only made one film prior; the erotic thriller Bound (1996).  But, their pitch for a cyberpunk thriller set in the virtual wonderland existing within the realm of the internet was ambitious to say the least.  It also made the film a hard sell.  What ultimately helped the Wachowskis sell their vision was getting the assistance of illustrators like Steve Skroce and Geoffrey Darrow, who together created nearly 600 storyboards and concept drawings for the filmmakers to show to interested parties.  Eventually Warner Brothers gave them the green light and they were allowed to make their vision a reality, with a surprising amount of free reign.  That amount of creative freedom proved to be useful for the directors, as they used their film to experiment with new filmmaking techniques.  The most noteworthy technique, and the one that is today synonymous with The Matrix itself; bullet time.  This was different from the slow mo we had been accustomed to in the movies.  Here, the Wachowskis could freeze the action on screen and yet still move the camera around in a three dimensional action, creating a hyper-surreal visual on screen.  This was accomplished by having the actors perform an action within a rig of cameras mounted in a circular ring around them.  Each camera would snap a picture all at the same time, each from a different angle, and then the images would be combined together digital creating the illusion of movement around a static image.  Of course, “bullet time” got it’s name from a specific moment in the film when it appears that Keanu Reeve’s Neo is moving so fast that he can literally dodge bullets.  The were many other ground breaking effects, some of which look quaint over 20 years later and others that have held up pretty well.  This stuff alone would’ve made The Matrix noteworthy, but the film was much more than that.

The story itself, about a mild mannered computer programmer named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) suddenly being thrust into a mind-altering adventure where he learns that the life he knew was all a simulated lie blew away many audiences minds when they first saw this film.  The Wachowskis didn’t just make a movie; they started a conversation, about society, the meaning of life, what our identities are, and what responsibility we have over our use of technology.  It helps that the Wachowskis assembled an ideal team to get their vision onto the big screen.  Keanu Reeves was ideal for the role of Neo, the reawakened protagonist that was formally known as Mr. Anderson.  Reeves limitations as a dramatic actor actually proves to be an asset in his performance here as his stilted demeanor gives Neo a more hard edge identity.  But it’s not just Keanu that stands out.  Carrie Anne Moss became an instant star with her scene stealing presence as Trinity, the skilled freedom fighter that recruits Neo.  Laurence Fishburne completely re-invented his already varied career with his personification of the wise and steadfast Morpheus. And not to be overlooked, but Australian rising star Hugo Weaving delivered a truly unforgettable villainous turn as Agent Smith, one of the programs designed to keep order within the Matrix while having a sneaky agenda of his own.  While Warner Brothers liked what they saw with The Matrix, they were also hesitant.  An stylish R-rated, effects heavy film was not not an easy sell in the late 90’s, so they cautiously opened it up in a quiet Spring box office weekend.  That strategy proved to be wise, as the film managed to stand out immediately and gain attention from audiences.  By the end of that summer, even with a new Star Wars in theaters, people were still talking about The Matrix.  It was immediately clear, The Matrix had started something new in Hollywood.  Particularly when it comes to visual effects you could see the Matrix effect, as CGI took over in a much bigger way.  The Matrix would also be parodied relentlessly in the next few years, particularly with variations on the “bullet time” effect.  But, the question remained, what would the Wachowskis do next now that they had a film that changed the face of cinema as we know it.


It didn’t take long for a sequel to be assembled for a groundbreaking film like The Matrix, and like mentioned before, Warner Brothers granted the Wachowskis’ wish to film both movies back to back.  Looking at the two movies that released months apart, it’s clear that the two were meant to be a continuous narrative broken into two parts.  The Wachowskis wanted to keep expanding upon what they had built with the first movie, giving the world more definition than what we had seen before.  For the first time, we would be seeing Zion, the stronghold of all the humans who had freed themselves from the Matrix.  The cast would also be expanding, with actors like Jada Pinkett Smith, Harold Perrineau, Monica Bellucci, and Lambert Wilson taking on new important characters.  By the time the movie was ready to release in theaters, the amount of hype was definitely at the peak for Matrix mania.  The first film, The Matrix Reloaded, broke numerous opening weekend records, especially for an R-rated film, grossing an impressive $91 million.  But even though the movie found financial success, the reception from audiences and critics became a different matter.  It was almost universal that people felt Reloaded lacked the magic of the original film.  While the production values in the action scenes were impressive, now that the Wachowskis were given the full confidence and support of Warner Brothers, people felt that they were too noisy and lacking in gravity.  The whole film felt like a watered down version of the original movie.  It also didn’t help that the movie seemed a little too self aware and up it’s own ass when it came to the philosophical elements of the movie.  The scene where Neo meets the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) particularly drove audiences nuts because they felt it ground the film to a halt in order for the Wachowskis to inject even more sermonizing about the nature of reality, which is not what most people came to these movies for.  Despite The Matrix having the reputation of being a thinking man’s action film, the audiences unfortunately were unforgiving of a movie that was attempting to be too smart for the room.  They just wanted to see Neo kicking more butt on screen.  So, despite strong box office, Reloaded was ultimately greeted as a disappointment among fans.  Which did not bode well for a third film.


It seemed like every problem that plagued Reloaded upon release was carried over into Revolutions and amplified.  To spread their vision across two movies, the Wachowskis likely struggled to figure out an interesting angle to build their character development on.  Ultimately, and possibly pressured by Warner Brothers, they ultimately decided to play things safe.  Neo’s journey to becoming “the One” doesn’t exactly deviate into any new territory that we’ve seen in the heroes journey found in so many other action films.  He, in the end, basically becomes no different than Superman, with a little not too subtle Christ allegory thrown in.  And that becomes a fairly disappointing final destination for this series to head towards as the culmination of this trilogy.  The movie more or less ends not with mankind overcoming the oppressive machines that threaten them.  The war pretty much ends on a truce, with Neo sacrificing himself to the machines in exchange for their promise to leave the Zion settlement alone as a bargain to unify against a common enemy; that being an out of control Agent Smith who has evolved into an apocalyptic computer virus.  While the movie does have an effects heavy show down between humans and machines in the climax, it ultimately feels pretty hollow and cliched.  The movie’s saving grace though is Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith.  Elevated from a standard action film baddie into a near god like threat level villain by the end makes him the only character that got more interesting as the series went along, and Weaving relishes every moment he’s on screen.  He truly makes Agent Smith one of the great movie villains, and the showdown with him and Neo feels epic in the right way, and also eerie with all of the Smith clones standing by to watch the battle to end all battles from the sidelines.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to salvage the film as Matrix mania had fully died down in the wake of Reloaded.  Revolutions opening in November of that year, and was beaten by of all things the Will Farrell Christmas movie Elf (2003).  It was perhaps wise to make both movies back to back so that the downfall of the series would be swift and not dragged out over several years.  As much as cinema changed in the wake of the original Matrix, the industry also changed to where a movie like The Matrix wasn’t going to cut it anymore, especially with franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings beginning to take hold.


A lot happened in the 18 years since the Matrix trilogy came to a close.  Perhaps the most astonishing change came with the Wachowskis themselves.  Originally known as the Wachowski Brothers during the making of the original trilogy, the duo surprised everyone by coming out as transgender over the span of a couple of years.  First Lana made the big step during the making of their epic film production Cloud Atlas (2012), and a couple years later Lilly would make the transition as well.  One thing that the Wachowski sisters revealed during their public announcements was that working on The Matrix was instrumental in helping them grow more comfortable in expressing who they really were and gave them the drive to transition in front of the world and set an example.  They confirmed the theory that their trilogy was a metaphor for transitioning, as Neo and the other humans shed the programmed life they knew before and embraced and fought for the identity that they knew to be true.  Sadly, that theory is one that many in the Matrix fandom rejected outright; a fandom that unfortunately turned toxic in the two decades since the movies released.  This is likely what prompted Lana Wachowski to step forward to make a fourth film on her own.  Too many people had been co-opting The Matrix and all of it’s quotes and iconic scenes for their own toxic ideologies, and Lana wanted to reclaim some of that legacy back.  Working solo without Lilly, Lana Wachowski managed to get the greenlight from Warner Brothers for a fourth film.  What likely helped to move the project forward was Keanu Reeves having a career resurgence thanks to the John Wick films, and having him return to the role of Neo was too good to pass up.  Carrie Anne Moss also thankfully agreed to return, though they were unfortunately without Laurence Fishburne, so Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stepped into the role instead.  The film unfortunately ran into trouble with the Covid-19 pandemic delaying it’s release, and sadly it was one of the films undercut by Warner Brother’s disastrous decision to release all of their 2021 films in both theaters and streaming day and date.

The resulting film is certainly a mess and very much doesn’t re-capture the magic of the first film.  But, it’s also the most fascinating film in the series since the original, and that’s largely due to what Lana Wachowski did with the movie.  The film is less of a continuation of the Matrix trilogy and more of a meta commentary on not just toxic Matrix fandom but also of the corporatization of franchises in general.  Neo finds himself back in the Matrix, after having seemingly dying in the fight with Smith at the end of Revolutions.  Not only that, but he has no memory of before and works as a video game developer.  In this life, he has created a successful trilogy of games called “The Matrix,” and as his boss (played by Jonathan Groff) says to him, “our parent company Warner Brothers is demanding a sequel.”  You could say that Lana is biting the hand that feeds her, and that’s probably the point.  She also takes aim at people who misinterpret the meaning behind The Matrix, getting all of the philosophical questions wrong and using the Matrix as an excuse to justify their own toxic ideas.  There is a story in this film, with newly resurrected Neo trying to bring Trinity back to reality, but it seems like it’s just there to get the movie rolling to what Lana Wachowski really wants to say with this movie.  In the 18 years, she has seen her films be co-opted by bad faith actors who misquote and reference the original films all the time in the online atmosphere.  The utilization of the red pill metaphor as a recruitment message for online right wing agitators must really upset Lana, given that so many in that community are actively hostile to the transgender community.  By calling out the misuse of her movies and in turn deconstructing the legacy of The Matrix as a whole, it’s as if Lana Wachowski is purposely burning down the house she built so that the wrong kind of people cannot make a home in it.  It makes Matrix Resurrections not very good as a continuation of the Matrix series, but in turn it’s also a brave defiant statement against the reality of toxic fandoms, and honestly I respect the hutzpah it took to make a movie like this.

So, it may not be the perfect series that many had wished for with the promise of the original movie, but there is no denying that The Matrix is one of the most monumental cinematic statements we’ve ever seen committed to celluloid.  The Wachowski Sisters had a bold vision that could not be easily categorized, and yet it found it’s audience and forced a change within the industry as a result.  Even to this day one can’t think of a more iconic image in cinema than that of Keanu Reeves in the black trench coat and shades bending over backwards to dodge the bullets in slow motion.  What really helped to define The Matrix the most was it’s bold experimentation.  It dared to be different in every way, both in visuals and in it’s story-telling. It was also a big budget action film that also dared to ask bold philosophical questions.  For the Wachowskis, it was also a bold expression of the challenges they were facing in finding their true selves, and thankfully they have remained powerful voices in the transgender community.  The two sequels from 2003 may be a perfect example of how the pressure to build a franchise out of something that defied conventional wisdom in the first place often leads to disappointing results.  Reloaded and Revolutions are by no means the worst sequels ever made, and often they have moments that really shine; but they are also rudderless and conventional in ways that the original was not, and that’s likely the thing that led them to be disappointments in the end.  On the surface, The Matrix Resurrections seems to be a shameless cash grab, and it is for the most part, but Lana Wachowski utilizes her moment with the film to air our her frustrations at all of the pseudo-intellectuals who misquote her film all the time online, and it kind of gives Resurrections  this hidden subversive element to it that I kinda love.  Lana probably saw too many “red pill” tweets from Elon Musk and wrote this movie as a cinematic middle finger to faux “geniuses” like him who proclaim to know the “truth” of the Matrix. There’s a lot to say about the Matrix  movies, and there will likely be debates that will happen for as long as there is discourse about cinema, but it’s a series that for the most part helped to push the movies in the right direction.  Having an action film that made you think was definitely something desperately needed going into the new millennium, and while many may have taken the wrong message from the movies, another large part of the fandom has picked up from it’s example and strived to make better action movies that were more than mindless entertainment.  We certainly wouldn’t have gotten to John Wick had Neo never worked on the big screen.  The Matrix is a lot of things, and all of it is enough to make you go, “Whoa.”

The Flash – Review

The Flash as a character in the comic books has had quite a long and storied history.  First introduced in 1940, the character was an immediate hit with comic book readers thanks to his colorful appearance and affable personality.  During the Silver Age of comic books, DC elected to make The Flash one of the founding members of the elite Justice League, the super team made up of all of their top tier characters, putting Flash in the same company as Superman and Batman.  Over the years, the mantle of the Flash has carried over to a number of different people, from Jay Garrick, to Barry Allen, to Wally West and several more.  But it’s the Barry Allen years that defined the character the most, mainly because it’s with him that most of the iconic elements of the character’s story emerged, including the famous Red and Yellow suit.  Being a Speedster type super hero, Flash is defined by his ability to run super fast, to the point where he can even out run the speed of light.  This ability in particular has led to a certain set of problems for the character, as going faster than the speed of light has led him to be able to travel through time, and of course messing with time carries it’s own consequences.  This was the dilemma the character faced in what many consider to be the greatest Flash storyline, Flashpoint, published in 2011.  Though Flash has enjoyed consistent popularity on the comics page, his screen presence up to now has been minimal compared to other DC icons.  He has been the star of two television series, one short lived one from the 90’s and another in the 2010’s that was part of CW’s Arrowverse which just ended it’s run after 9 successful seasons.  Flash has also been featured a lot in DC animated projects.  But it wasn’t until Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) that we got our first true big screen debut for The Flash.  Played by Ezra Miller, Flash was to be a key player in DC’s Extended Universe plans, playing a part in the Justice League (2017) film as well as getting his own standalone film.  A bright future for the character indeed, or at least that’s what DC thought.

Problems began to rise almost immediately in the rollout of projects featuring The Flash.  Despite being announced at San Diego Comic Con as the director, Rick Famuyiwa left the project soon after citing creative differences, eventually leading him towards his eventual work on The Mandalorian series on Disney+.  Other directors came and went through the years and eventually the project was given over to horror film director Andy Muschietti, who was just coming off his successful duo of adaptations of Stephen King’s IT.  Several re-writes occurred as well, with DC making a lot of course correction in the wake of the disappointing returns for Justice League.    But, towards the end of 2019, it looked like the cameras would finally be rolling on the feature.  Then, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic happen, putting a freeze on The Flash yet again.  Eventually, production did resume, but it had been a long time ever since the film was first announced.  But, Muschietti and his team did get the production across the goal line, with the hope that it would be ready once the theatrical business was running smoothly again.  Unfortunately bad luck struck again, this time from the lead actor.  Ezra Miller had been something of a loose cannon before, but in 2022, without going too much into detail about what happened, they became what is referred to in the entertainment business as a PR nightmare.  The brushes with the law were also coming at a volatile time for DC’s parent company Warner Brothers, which was about to form a merger with Discovery Entertainment, leading towards a huge disruption in DC’s plans.  The newly formed company of Warner Brothers Discovery began to restructure heavily, with many projects getting outright cancelled while still in production.  With the cancellation of projects across all parts of the company, including DC, and Ezra Miller’s public meltdown, some were wondering if The Flash  would even be seen at all.  If Batgirl didn’t survive, what hope would Flash have?  Despite all this, Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslev still spared The Flash and let it remain on the release calendar.  That being said, they made it clear that Ezra Miller’s future involvement with the character was over and that this movie was not going to be one of the last of the old DCEU line-up of movies, with a re-boot in the works as the DCU, shepparded by new creative head James Gunn. So, that’s the atmosphere in which The Flash movie finally releases into theaters, and the only question remains is if it’s worth all that wait and can it stand out amidst all that off-screen drama.

Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is struggling to manage his new life as a member of the Justice League.  He remains on-call with the other members, basically being relegated to clean-up duty while Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) do the more exciting work.  The hectic schedule runs into conflict with his day job working in a forensics lab, where he ironically always ends up being late.  Part of his drive to work in forensics is because he is hoping to exonerate his father Henry (Ron Livingston), who has been in prison for the murder of his wife Nora (Maribel Verdu), though Barry is convinced of his innocence.  On a particularly difficult night dealing with his grief, Barry learns that if he runs fast enough, he can actually turn back the flow of time.  He shares the discovery with Batman/Bruce Wayne, but Bruce warns him that time travel carries dire consequences.  Barry still believes that if he’s careful enough, he might be able to save his mother.  He, travels back far enough in time to prevent the moment that would have left his mother vulnerable and begins to head back to his time, only to be knocked off his pace by a dark stranger in the realm between time.  He visits his home again to find his mother alive and well, and his father out of prison.  But, there is another problem; another Barry also lives in this timeline.  He intercepts his younger self, tries to fill him in on what happened, but soon learns that his altering of the flow of time had a dire significant consequence.  In this timeline, there is no Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Aquaman.  However, he does learn that there is indeed a Batman in this universe, and he takes the other Barry along with him to find this Batman.  At a dilapidated Wayne Manor, they run into a very different Batman than who Barry knows.  This Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is much older and mostly retired.  Still, the older Bruce Wayne has all the gadget and gear stowed in his Batcave, and he agrees to help out Barry find who they believe to be this universe’s Superman.  Hidden in a secret Siberian prison, they discover that it’s not Kal-El that landed on Earth, but instead his cousin Kara (Sasha Calle).  Though Barry has the help he needs to return to his own time, another problem arises that could complicate things, the arrival of General Zod (Michael Shannon), with no Superman on Earth to fight against him.

To say that this movie is arriving into theaters with a lot of baggage is saying the least of it.  One thing that seemed to keep this movie afloat within the halls of DC and Warner Brothers was the strong word of mouth from all the executives at the company.  Even the ones who were going to be tasked with re-booting the DCU, James Gunn and Peter Safran, had high praise for what Andy Muschietti did with The Flash.  They felt so confident in the movie’s ability to perform even despite all of the controversy that they gave an exclusive first look screening to visitors at this year’s CinemaCon.  Many came out of the screening very happy by what they saw, and Warner Brothers Discovery CEO even began to feel confident in the film’s release.  The movie was even shown to an A-lister like Tom Cruise, who also sung it’s praises.  In a short amount of time, they were able to turn around the bad buzz surrounding this movie, helping to generate excitement around it that it otherwise would’ve not had.  But, what would the average audience think.  One thing that still loomed over this film even up to it’s release date was whether the Ezra Miller factor would make any difference.  It’s hard to sell a movie when your lead star isn’t even able to participate in it’s promotion.  Plus, the movie has to get over the cloud of controversy that they carry.  I’m one who in most cases can separate the art from the artist.  One of my favorite films is still Braveheart (1995) even with all the Mel Gibson baggage that that film carries.  So, is DC right to feel confident in this Flash movie.  For me, it’s complicated.  For one thing, the movie does manage to deal with the whole Ezra Miller situation pretty well, as I never was thinking much about their offscreen problems while watching the movie.  One the other hand, I do feel much of the hype that DC  and Warner Brothers were trying to drum up in the last few months weren’t warranted either.  It’s neither the worst things I’ve seen from the DCEU, nor is it in the league of their best either.  It’s a very average movie in the end.

There certainly is ambition behind this movie, much more so that quite a few other recent comic book movies, but the film doesn’t gel together as effectively as one would hope.  I think the issue boils down to there never being a grounded point to where we feel the gravity of the events in this movie.  It’s a lot of spectacle without the human factor to make it resonate.  The character of Barry Allen just haphazardly trips his way through a bunch of situations and that essentially is the story.  In some regards, it is refreshing to see a comic book film that doesn’t have to devote so much of it’s run time to backstory.  We are essentially picking up Barry’s story from where we left off after Justice League, and flashbacks are integrated sparingly with the context of them having meaning to Barry in his journey through time.  There isn’t even really an antagonist in this movie, with Barry proving to be his own worst enemy, and that’s an interesting way to go with a stand-alone super hero film.  Still, it seems that even with a run time of 2 hours and 20 minutes that a lot of stuff still ended up on the cutting room floor, so there are gaps in logic a plenty throughout the film.  Ironically, the thing that does manage to hold the film together from becoming an incoherent mess is Ezra Miller.  Muschietti wisely molded Miller’s performance closer to what Zack Snyder had the actor do in his Snyder Cut, which is far more full of depth than the obnoxious turn he had in the theatrical cut of Justice League.  Miller, particularly in the older Barry role, is giving a measured and compelling performance.  One moment toward the end of the film in particular, where Barry has to say one final goodbye to someone, is actually the best acting I’ve seen from them in all of the DCEU movies he’s appeared in.  Their performance as the younger Barry is more of a mixed bag, where they can deliver some of the movie’s biggest laughs but at other times can be a little grating.  But for all the movie’s faults, Ezra Miller is definitely not the one who drags the film down, and at some moments they are the one who actually delivers the best parts of the movie.

But, even though this is The Flash’s movie, the best part of the film is unequivocally the return of Michael Keaton to the role of Batman.  For many people, particularly those of my age who grew up with the Tim Burton directed films, Keaton is the reason why we are excited for this movie, and boy he did not disappoint.  Despite being 71 years old at the time of this release, Keaton slips effortlessly back into the cape and cowl like he never left, and it’s been a whopping 30 years on now.  Even with my misgivings about the movie in most of the first half, I indeed got a chill up my spine when we see him appear on screen again in the Batsuit and saying the line, “Yeah, I’m Batman.”  This was definitely the big applause moment in the movie for the audience that I saw the film with.  And while a lot of the Batman moves are enhanced this time around with CGI, there are a couple moments where you do see Keaton’s Batman do some hand to hand fighting.  Just the fact that he still looks good in that big rubber batsuit, and was willing to put it back on in the first place is really impressive, but Keaton also gives a nuanced performance as well, showing the years that have passed him by as he’s put Batman aside while still maintaining some of the spark.  Though she has less to do in the movie, Sasha Calle does make the most of her screen time as Kara, or Supergirl.  It’s a performance that allows her to say a lot purely through her expressions.  It’s a shame that with the upcoming reboot of the DCU that we are likely not going to get any more of her version of Supergirl on the big screen.  So, given that this is a one and done performance, it’s good to see her make the most of it.  Some of the returning faces are also welcome here, particularly Ben Affleck as the Batman from the DCEU timeline.  It’s definitely apparent that Affleck is having a better time playing the character here than he did during his difficult experience on Justice League.

One thing that I think most people are going to pick apart about this movie are the visual effects.  I do have to agree that most of the effects in this film look rushed and incomplete.  And in some moments of the movie, this actually undermines the film.  Not every effect looks bad, but there are definitely some moments where the characters suddenly lack detail and depth and instead feel like Polar Express quality digital puppets.  The subpar CGI especially sabotages a moment late in the movie that should have been one of the most epic moments in comic book movie history; an Easter egg filled extravaganza that sadly comes across as looking fake and filled with a bunch of unnecessary visual noise.  I don’t know what led to the visual effects looking so mediocre here, but it honestly becomes a distraction the heavier they are relied upon deep into the movie.  That being said, I do give Muschietti credit for at least attempting some interesting visual moments in this movie.  The man definitely had a vision, and I bet the pre-visualization of these effects scenes showed a lot of promise.  Some of the highlights include the visualization of the hyper-speed cross country trip that Barry makes in the film’s opening scene to get to Gotham City across hundreds of miles.  The design behind Barry’s perception of time travel is also unique and creative, and you really wish that with better executed CGI that it would have looked even better.  I don’t know if the post-production budget got slashed midway due to the upheaval at Warner Brothers, but I feel like Muschietti is not the one to blame for the visual effects looking as bad as they do.  He had some good visual ideas that you can see on screen in the bare bones of the image, and unfortunately to get them up to the standard he wanted was too much for a studio uncertain about the film’s future to risk ballooning the budget even further.

I can’t in the end say that the movie failed to live up to the hype.  The movie was always going to be a problem for DC.  The fact that it got released at all in theaters is in itself a triumph of perseverance.  I do like quite a bit about the movie; especially Michael Keaton’s return to the Dark Knight which absolutely lived up to my expectations.  Ezra Miller, for all their off-screen issues, successfully managed to make me forget about all that while watching this movie and allowed me to appreciate his character work as The Flash in this film.  But, after seeing this movie, I don’t exactly care any more about the Flash than I did before going into this movie.  The film is just another super hero movie, adding little but at the same time not insulting the genre either.  I don’t know what the future holds for the Flash in the DCU reboot.  Thankfully, James Gunn recognizes the strong contribution that Andy Muschietti brought to the film with his direction, and he’s already offered him the assignment of directing the next Batman movie; The Brave and the Bold.  Ezra Miller has certainly burned any chance of returning as the Flash, and though it’s hard to excuse the things that they did, one hopes that they’ll get the help they need in order to set their life back in order and make things right with the ones they wronged.  It’s likely that the DCEU is going to go out with a whimper, with not much hype being felt around it’s closer, the Aquaman sequel releasing this holiday season.  And hopefully something worthwhile comes out of those ashes as Gunn and Safran launch the DCU in the years ahead; maybe with an even better take on the Flash character.  I really wanted to like this movie more, and there are indeed things to like, but in the end, it’s just a confused mess.  I enjoyed the pair of Shazam movies much more, mainly because they had a consistency of tone to them that helped to make them work.  Flash, much like the character in the film, is trying to do too much in a short amount of time, and ultimately just runs out of energy as a result.  Despite “flashes” of greatness, this Flash is stuck in the middle of the pack.

Rating: 7/10

Out and Animated – Why Queer Representation in Cartoons Matter and What It Means For The Future

It’s once again Pride Month, where members of the LGBTQ community and their allies take part in celebrating the freedom of expressing ones self the world and honoring the hardship it has taken to bring a better world for those brave enough to show the world who they are.  It’s a relatively new phenomenon, the widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community, which had long been forced to remain unseen in the public eye.  But, with landmark accomplishments like the overturning of sodomy laws and repealing the ban on same-sex marriage that had long made life dangerous and difficult for the queer community here in America, the stigma of being gay, lesbian, bi or trans has lifted and not only are members of the community now granted rights they should have always had but society at large are now finding ways to show they are more accepting of this once oppressed community.  At least, that what most people want to see.  Most polls show that a majority of Americans today are in favor of rights and protections for the LGBTQ community, but there are those who still are strongly opposed to equality.  A very vocal minority more recently has started a fierce, and sadly in many cases, violent backlash to the gaining representation of the Queer community in all aspects of society; most especially in pop culture.  This backlash is most commonly known as the Culture War, a ridiculous campaign against cultural representations of not just the Queer community, but of people of color too in areas where they had not been represented before.  Before, it was called a fight against “Political Correctness,” now it’s called a fight against “Wokeism,” but it’s still they same disingenuous game of holding back progress as a way of preserving the status quo, which favors a power structure that is decidedly self interested in holding up a hierarchy that places straight white men on the top.  And sadly, it’s a group that despite being fewer in numbers now is still potent in their ability to make their own hateful words heard.

At the moment right now, the trans community is receiving much of harshest backlash.  Any sudden acknowledgment of the rights of the trans community to exist within the pop culture are immediately met with often violent rhetoric, that includes several people making symbolic gestures that includes destroying any product associated with a company that expressed support for the trans community.  It’s often a ridiculous spectacle (destroying a product from a company doesn’t hurt them in the least, because you’ve already bought what they are selling and thereby have already given them your money), but the viral nature of people showing their hatred online adds to the unfortunate effect of amplifying their hateful voices.  And sadly that in the long run can hurt the LGBTQ community, because if companies feel that it is in their best interest to stay out of the conversation, then they are giving these hateful clowns a victory, and the LGBTQ community as a result has less protection in the larger conversation.  And it’s clear what the hateful “anti-woke” forces are aiming at with their relentless attacks on the trans community.  They want to roll the clock back on rights for the whole LGBTQ community, and the tactic is to attack the one part of that community that is still the least understood.  The term “groomer” has been misappropriated by the anti-LGBTQ forces, using it to slander trans people as sexual deviants who are preying on children and trying to convert them over by making them, as they put it, confused about their gender identity.  No proof is ever given how a person going through gender transition publicly is in any way a pedophile predator, nor of transgender representation having a corrupting influence on children, but the same claims are still relentlessly made and amplified.  And the goal in the end is to turn support for the trans community toxic, which will of course spill over into the rest of the Queer community, thereby undoing years of hard won fights to gain fair representation in the culture.  Overall, the most aggressive and potent argument made against the LGBTQ community is that they are “going after the children,” which is a gross mischaracterization of what the fight for Queer rights has been.  And the aim of the “culture warrior’s” attacks particularly has sought to shake the resolve of the part of culture that has the furthest reach with younger audiences; animation.

Queer representation has been a particularly long gestating progression in the pop culture.  Because queer identity has in the past carried this “sexual deviant” stain on it for most of the history of animation, animators have been reluctant to showcase queer identity in their work, even if they themselves are either a part of that community or are supporters of it.  Animation has been a medium primarily for young audiences, and for the longest time, things like homosexuality or gender dysphoria were just too taboo of subjects to take on.  Earlier animation could only go as far as to have a cartoon character dress in drag on occasion, which Bugs Bunny often did in many of his cartoons, but it had to be played off as a joke.  Any express support of anything that went against the heteronormative status quo was strictly forbidden in animation; at least from the mainstream.  That, however, didn’t stop the queer community for declaring icons of their own in their favorite animated films.  You’ll find that animation has a particularly large fanbase across the LGBTQ spectrum, and despite not getting the initial public support from the animation studios in return, the queer community still found some places where they felt represented if not explicitly at least in subtext.  These included characters such as the aforementioned Bugs Bunny, or Velma Dinkley from the Scooby-Doo cartoons, or Peppermint Patty from the Charlie Brown shorts, and of course so many of the Disney Villains.  Though Disney Villains were not exactly ideal role models, the Queer community still adored the flamboyant nature of these characters and valued them for the campiness they represented.  As time progressed, Disney would even throw a little nod to the LGBTQ community in this aspect, as when The Little Mermaid (1989) was made and the film’s Villain, Ursula, had her appearance based on famed drag queen Divine.

Despite the little bits of things that the LGBTQ community had clung onto in all their favorite cartoons growing up, once the fight for equal rights had intensified as they grew older and more open about their identity, the desire grew to have that subtext in so many of their favorite cartoons become text.  Now that things have become more acceptable over time and queer representation is more commonplace in the large society, it was now time for that same progress to be reflected in the culture at large.  Like most other things, cinema takes it’s time to actually catch up with progressive cultural movements, as most mainstream studios are reluctant to antagonize any social group in fear of losing out on certain audiences.  But, as more and more of the LGBTQ community is found represented in most areas of the culture at large, it becomes ridiculous trying to ignore them any longer.  Animation of course is an even harder area to shake the status quo, because of the conception that it’s meant just for kids.  Still, as more and more people see that the queer community is not a threat to young people, that too helps the animated market to change.  One big difference now is that there are a lot of families today that have children raised by two parents of the same sex, and many more children will probably be aware of a family member who is gay or transgender.  Most of these modern day children don’t see the queer community today as an oddity like past generations, but rather as a normal thing that they grow up around, and nothing at all a threat to them.  But, that’s a change that is largely just representative of our own culture.  Animation is still a multi-national artform, and what may be fine here will not be accepted in other parts of the world.  This is an issue that affects animation a bit more compared to live action filmmaking, because of the high costs of producing animation involved.  So, to get animation closer towards fully embracing queer representation is a bit of a harder sell in general.

Like most other big movements in the culture, it takes one first big step forward to get the ball rolling.  Surprisingly, it’s wasn’t one of the big names in animation that made the first step in presenting an openly gay character in the movies.  Laika Animation, the Portland, OR based stop motion animation studio that put themselves on the map with the beloved Coraline (2008) delivered a rather surprising twist in their second film Paranorman (2012).  In the film, the older brother of the main character’s best friend is this goofy, thick-headed jock named Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck).  Throughout the movie, the main character Norman’s sister has been lusting after Mitch, so in the film’s finale she finally makes her move only for Mitch to reveal that he has had a boyfriend this whole time.  Sure, the moment is meant to be a punchline, but it’s also significant because it’s the first ever acknowledgment in a mainstream animated movie that one of it’s characters is openly gay.  Now Laika is a smaller studio with more progressive social views and far less to lose than the bigger studios, but the example they made showed that a queer character could exist openly in an animated movie and that it wouldn’t be a very big deal in the end.  It was still difficult for a while for the bigger studios to jump on board still, given that international market.  Where you did see more progress made in animation, surprisingly, was in cartoons made for television.  Animated shows, even ones made for young kids, like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Arthur and many more have gone out of their way to show same sex relationships and gender transition as perfectly normal things that shouldn’t be condemned but rather celebrated.  This is where a lot of the hatred coming from the Culture War is aimed, attacking these shows as attempts to indoctrinate children.  Watching any of these shows shows that they don’t center at all on any of these issues, but rather treat them as common sense lessons on tolerance and understanding; something that children of all kinds can take with them to become more accepting of people who are different from them.  While a lot of attacks have come at the makers of these shows, they nevertheless have shown a lot of backbone in remaining supportive of queer representation in their cartoon worlds.

Strangely enough, a lot of the attacks against queer representation in animation have been leveled at a studio that for the longest time has remained pretty silent when it came to LGBTQ issues.  Disney right now is in a firestorm of attacks from the anti-woke mob, primarily due to their vocal condemnation of the State of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.  If you listen to the hateful rhetoric from that side, you would think that Disney is Enemy #1 and the biggest propagator of what they consider the “gay agenda.”  In reality, Disney has been reluctant to step into the “culture war.”  To be fair, they have been supportive of LGBTQ staff that work for their company in all departments; granting equal benefits decades ago to same-sex partners long before most of the corporate world did.  But, when it came to queer representation on screen, Disney has often been accused of merely paying lip service.  One thing that they had been consistently mocked for in the past is their habit of making a big deal that an upcoming movie was going to have Disney’s first openly gay character in it, only for that character to be a blink and you’ll miss them background character that doesn’t matter a whole lot.  Eventually Disney did introduce an openly gay main character in their latest animated film, Strange World (2022), but sadly a lackluster ad campaign caused the film to flounder at the box office.  This gave the false impression that the anti-woke mob had gained a victory over the LGBTQ community since the movie was a box office bomb, ignoring all the other factors that led up to the result, and that the movie failed because it leaned into queer representation.  The aim of the Culture War is to deter big corporations from embracing the LGBTQ community by saying that doing so will lose them business.  But, that only happens if the corporations see it as so.  Disney saw the failure of Strange World not as a result of their embrace of the queer community, but rather as mismanagement that occurred under their past regime headed by former CEO Bob Chapek.  Bob Iger, on the other hand, is far more embracing of the queer community as part of the Disney fan base, and this is evidenced with the way he’s handled the fall out from the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida.  Instead of reversing course, Iger has punched back at the homophobic leaders who passed the bill, mainly because they were attacking Disney’s economic interests in the state.  In response, Iger has cancelled a nearly billion dollar investment in corporate offices in Florida.  In the state of Florida, they are realizing their homophobic backlash is backfiring on them, and that in general it’s a big loss for them instead, because they’ve only emboldened Disney’s commitment to the LGBTQ community.  And when you lose Disney, the largest media giant of all, you lose a major chunk of the cultural collective as a whole.

So, what does that mean for the future of queer representation in animation?  If anything, I think that there will be a lot more representation in the years ahead thanks to the shift made at a big studio like Disney.  The company has gone through bigger losses before than what they went through with Strange World, and they’ve bounced back stronger.  Thankfully, they are not blaming their struggles on the LGBTQ community like the anti-woke crowd wants them to.  One hopes that they try again to bring more upfront queer representation into their upcoming movies.  One thing that would really silence the critics is if that representation came in one of their already successful properties; with Frozen being the most likely place for that to happen.  One of the things that frustrated LGBTQ Disney fans was that there was some strong hints about the sexuality of the character Elsa sprinkled in to the first two Frozen movies, but it was never fully fleshed out.  This was especially frustrating in Frozen II (2019) as the movie gave some strong hints that this is where they were going with the character, only for the plot point to be dropped towards the end with nothing getting resolved.  The recent announcement of a Frozen III gives LGBTQ Disney fans the hope that Elsa will finally get that girlfriend that we’ve been teased with and that the subtext about the character will finally become text, in a franchise that is honestly too big to be ignored.  At the same time, if Disney can prove that they can achieve success with an openly gay primary character in their animated film, then all the other studios like Dreamworks and Illumination will follow suit.  Hey, some may even jump ahead and try to beat Disney to it, like Sony Animation which had a lesbian main character in The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) and all of the pro-LGBTQ messaging sprinkled throughout the Spider-Verse movies.  Overall, the signs are encouraging that none of the backlash is deterring the animation studios from embracing the idea of queer representation in cartoons.

It’s just difficult sometimes to see how queer representation can take hold in media when the voices opposed to it are so loud and even worse amplified by powerful people.  Sadly, social media values negativity because it causes the most discourse online and as a result generates more traffic.  You would think with all of the anti-woke think pieces that clutter the internet atmosphere that the backlash towards the LGBTQ community is strong, but in reality, the progress towards representation is still what remains strong.  The thing is, the anti-LGBTQ forces represent an ever shrinking demographic that is growing older and dying out, while younger audiences, the consumers of tomorrow, are far more accepting of the LGBTQ community and that is what the corporations are recognizing more now.  Sure, we would love to see them do more than just post a rainbow flag across their social media pages during pride month (like, I don’t know, stop donating to the campaigns of homophobic politicians), but big business rightly recognizes that antagonizing a generation that is more embracing of diversity and inclusion is not good for their long term success.  So, as fierce as the bullying from the anti-LGBTQ crowd may be, they can not stop the arc of progress.  And one of the most useful places for ensuring that future generations will be open minded about their LGBTQ brothers and sisters is through representation in the cartoons that they view when they are kids.  There is no sexualization of children if they see two members of the same sex either holding hands or giving a small loving kiss in their cartoons.  It’s something that they likely see as normal from their parents or another family member who never is a threat to them at all, and watching it in a cartoon will be both affirming of the reality that they themselves know.  Even better, if that child then grows up realizing that they are part of the LGBTQ community, they’ll have the added benefit of affirmation from the cartoons that helped them to see it as a perfectly normal human condition.  We in the LGBTQ community have always adored the cartoons that we grew up with.  It’s just now heartening to see that those same cartoons are starting to love us back.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Review

The comic book super hero genre has dominated the box office for the last decade and a half, but for the most part, the dominance has been represented in live action.  What we haven’t seen too much of are super hero films in the realm of animation; at least on the big screen.  Both DC and Marvel have produced a number of animated features through their respective animation arms, as well as a number of series, but those films have been relegated to either direct to video releases or straight to streaming.  But there have been some animated comic book films that have managed to make it to the big screen.  In 1994, DC released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm briefly into theaters; a film spun off from their popular Batman: The Animated Series.  Surprisingly, despite being owned by a company founded on art of animation since 2009, Marvel didn’t have an animated feature based on their comics until 2014, and it was based on one of their more obscure titles; Big Hero 6.   Despite there not being a lot of familiarity with the Big Hero 6 comic series in the general audience, the Disney animated film still managed to be a box office success and even won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, which just shows how strong the Marvel brand had become up to that point.  But, what a lot of comic book fans were wondering was if there would be any animated representation on the big screen from one of the marquee characters within the pantheon of super heroes in their library.  Though Disney has a legendary animation department at their disposal, they have mostly decided to use their Marvel brand in live action on the big screen, with the streaming arm of Disney+ being the place where they are more comfortable bringing Marvel into animated form; most notably with the What If? series.  However, a different studio which still maintains their license over one of Marvel’s premier characters is not afraid to take Marvel super heroes more into the realm of animation on the big screen.

Sony, which has it’s own animation department, sought to make the most of their legacy license over the character of Spider-Man and do so both in live action and animation.  Though their live action films have been pretty hit (Venom) or miss (Morbius), a very different result occurred with their animated attempt.  Produced by the creative team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the same mad geniuses behind The Lego Movie (2014), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018) not only managed to hit well with audiences as a comic book movie; it significantly changed the market of animated films in general as well.  While computer animation has for nearly the last 30 years been following the lead of Pixar and Disney Animation, with soft edged character models and detailed environmental design, Sony Animation decided to take their film in a whole different direction.  While still computer animated, Spider-Verse’s design was far more stylized, utilizing an aesthetic that felt more hand drawn while still three-dimensional.  Every character and environment looked like they had leapt right off of the comic book page.  Not only that, but their movement on screen was very stylized, utilizing a slower frame rate that made the characters’ animation feel even more hand drawn.  Combine this with the hilarious comedic sensibilities of Lord & Miller, and Into the Spider-Verse was not just a great comic book movie, but arguably one of the greatest animated movies of all time.  It solidified it’s hit status by additionally winning the Oscar for Animated Feature; breaking a monopoly on the award by Disney and Pixar.  The graphic art style has even influenced all animation in general, as more animation studios are ditching the traditional Pixar look for something more like Spider-verse; as seen in Dreamworks’ recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) and Nickelodeon’s upcoming Ninja Turtles reboot.  Even Disney’s upcoming Wish (2023) is adopting a more hand painted aesthetic to it’s animation.  But of course, Sony is also keen to continue building on this franchise as well, especially since it gives them a successful Spider-Man franchise that they don’t have to share with the Disney owned Marvel Studios, like they do with the Tom Holland Spider-Man films.  And this year, we are finally seeing the next phase of their Spider-verse plans with the highly anticipated sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).

The film picks up the story a year after the events of Into the Spider-Verse.  Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is trying to balance his new life as the new Spider-Man protecting the citizens of New York City.  His mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) are concerned that he is shirking his responsibilities at both school and home, unaware of his double life as a super hero.  Things become more complicated when a strange new super villain named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) has shown up on the scene.  The Spot, who gained his inter-dimensional portal opening abilities from the super collider incident that Miles thwarted in the last film, has a personal vendetta against Miles and is seeking revenge, which Miles initially ignores.  Things, however, get more complicated when one of Miles’ old Spider Friends, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) aka Spider Gwen, shows up.  She has in the past year been recruited by a team of interdimensional Spider heroes to help set things into order within the multiverse.  The team is led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), known as Spider-Man 2099, who takes the protection of the multiverse very seriously.  His second in command is Spider-Woman, aka Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), and another member of the elite squad is Miles’ old mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who now has a baby daughter named Mayday.  There are also some outsider assistance provided by Spider-Man India (Karan Soni) Pavitr Pradhakar whose fairly new to the job, as well as Hobie Brown, aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), whose rebellious instincts conflict with most of Miguel’s plans.  Miles sneakily follows after Gwen, who has been on the trail of The Spot, who’s seeking to enhance his powers.  The mayhem as The Spot leaves behind prevents what Miguel O’Hara calls a Canon Event from happening, which he tells Miles is essential to holding up the framework of the multiverse.  When Miles learns that a canon event is meant for his future, he seeks to be sent home in order to stop it, which Miguel refuses.  Miles determination puts him at odds with the team, and soon a whole city’s worth of Spider Heroes is chasing after him.  Is Miles right to determine his own fate, or is he making a selfish decision that could threaten the stability of the multiverse.

It definitely has to be said that when the original Spider-Verse movie came out in 2018, it was a breath of fresh air in an animation market that felt very homogenized.  Animation really lacked variety in the later part of the 2010’s.  Because of the dominance of Disney and Pixar, all animated movies throughout the world market just copied their same style to a degree; even rivals like Dreamworks and Illumination.  Animated movies to that point were not so much judged on the quality of the animation since it was all so interchangeable, but more on the strength of their stories, which of course helped to put Pixar up at the top with their excellently written films.  Into the Spider-Verse however was not just excellent in it’s storytelling, but it equally wowed audiences with it’s wild animation style.  The movie was wall to wall creativity, with surprising details in every frame.  Not since Toy Story (1995) had an animated film challenged the established order of things in the world of animation, and it did so with a story that also tugged just as hard at the heartstrings as any Pixar film.  Suffice to say, it’s a tough act to follow, but of course anybody who knows the super hero genre well will tell you that a sequel is inevitable.  So, five years after the fact, Sony Pictures Animation has finally released a sequel to their ground-breaking hit film.  Surprisingly, the team behind the movie not only had enough story for one film; they had an idea that was big enough for two.  Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the first of a two-part arc, which will conclude next year with Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse (2024).  The question is, did Sony manage to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.  For the most part I would say yes, but I did find a couple issues with this sequel that I will point out.  On the whole, this movie does deliver exactly what you would want from a continuation of the Spider-Verse storyline.  It builds upon what we’ve already seen and even ups the ante in terms of creativity in the art style.  But, as I was watching the movie, and generally having a good time with it, I couldn’t get over this sense of maybe it was all too much of a good thing.

Here’s where I have my issues with the film.  At 140 minutes, this film breaks the record for the longest animated film ever produced by a Western animation studio.  Even Disney has never gone far beyond the 2 hour mark, with Fantasia (1940) being their longest film at 125 minutes.  Most animated films fall within the 90-120 minute mark, so Across the Spider-Verse really has shattered the record.  On one hand, this is a typical length for a standard live action super hero movie.  The longest Spider-Man movie on record is the 148 minute Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), which felt appropriately lengthed.  It’s possible that the time needed to tell a story in animation isn’t as much to tell it in live action, as movement plays by different rules in each medium.  In any case, I really felt the length of this movie, particularly in the slow build first half, and it kind of robbed the movie of some momentum in the story.  While there is still a lot of moments to love in the opening half, you do feel a bit of the bloat in order to get this movie up to the epic length.  Some character moments feel like they would have been better trimmed down without loosing the essentials.  Thankfully, the movie picks up steam in the second half, and culminates in a heart-pounding cliffhanger finale, but I do wish it had kept up that level of energy throughout the film.  The original Spider-Verse was a taut 117 minutes, and it used every moment wisely.  The one other thing I feel worked against the sequel was the fact that it no longer had the novelty of the first film.  Into The Spider-Verse felt like such a discovery when we first saw it; like we were witnessing the beginning of something new in cinema.  Across the Spider-Verse gives us more of the same, which is still amazing to look at and incredibly creative, but it just isn’t the groundbreaking achievement that the original film was.  These issues still don’t ruin the movie as a whole, but I do feel like they hold the film back from truly achieving iconic status in the same way that the original did.

Still there is a lot to praise about the movie.  One of course is the animation.  The Sony Pictures Animation team clearly wanted to build upon what they already achieved in the last film.  One of the most interesting ideas that they executed for this movie was giving each new dimension of the Multiverse it’s own distinct art style.  In the original movie, the art style remained mostly the same when it came to the environments, with much of the diversity of styles saved for the character designs.  This made sense, as we were seeing the world through the prism of Miles Morales’ reality.  Here, the characters jump into multiple universes, and each one is stylized to match the characters that inhabit it.  Spider-Man India’s home world, which is cleverly named Mumbattan, is designed to resemble Indian poster art, including a change in the onomonopia text to reflect Indian lettering.  The various Spider-Man are also creatively animated in their own styles.  One of the visually creative ones is Spider-Punk, who is animated in a way to make it look like he’s made out of a collage of newspaper clippings; making him a clever nod to British punk rock artwork of the 70’s and 80’s.  The movie integrates so many different animation styles together, including having versions of the Spider-Man characters from the animated television series sharing the screen, as well as the ones from the video games.  There are even live action characters integrated in seamlessly.  All the while, the artwork is kinetic, but still services the story effectively.  There is an especially beautiful scene late in the movie with Spider Gwen where the backgrounds change in every single shot, reflecting the change in mood, and each one could be put on the wall and framed as a work of art on it’s own.  The fact that this animation team still is able to pull off a visually creative scene like that, one that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a mainstream studio animated film before, this late in the game is a real testament to their commitment towards driving the capabilities of animation even further.

I also want to spotlight the talented voice cast of this movie, who again bring so much life into these characters.  Hailee Steinfeld is given much more to do here as Gwen Stacy, with the character becoming something of a co-lead alongside Miles Morales this time.  She really brings a sense of gravitas to the character that helps to build her journey across the multiverse.  Of course Shameik Moore once again does a brilliant job of voicing Miles Morales.  His performance definitely reflects the growth the character has gone through between films; finding him in a far more confident place.  Once Miles Morales makes his live action debut eventually, it will be a hard act to follow, as Shameik has done such a good job capturing the infectious exuberance of Miles so far in this animated version.  Though his role is smaller this time around, it’s also good to see a welcome return of Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker.  This time around he has traded in the dad bod to become an actual dad, and Johnson hilariously plays up this Spider-Man’s new domestic situation.  Of the many new characters, the one who stands out the most is Oscar Isaac as Miguel O’Hara.  While Isaac did make a first appearance in the post credits scene of the first Spider-Verse movie, that cameo was played mostly for laughs, poking fun at the “Pointing Spider-Man” meme.  Here Oscar Isaac really gets to chew into this character, and you really feel the weight of his tragic paste playing out in the portrayal of the character.  Miguel O’Hara isn’t exactly cast as the villain of this movie, but his contrasting worldview clashes in a harrowing way with Miles Morales, and Oscar Isaac carries those scenes with ferocious power.  I also liked Daniel Kaluuya’s heavily accented Spider-Punk, which matched the art style that he’s personified with.  As far as the villain goes, Jason Schwartzman does an interesting thing with The Spot, where he’s played off as a bumbling joke of a bad guy in the beginning, but as he builds his power over time, Schwartzman begins to voice him in a much more menacing way, and it’s effectively done.  It’s good to see that in terms of the art style and the voice acting, Across the Spider-Verse is continuing to keep the standards high and giving us the things we really want the most out of this series.

It certainly looks like Sony Animation is pulling out all the stops when it comes to creating these Spider-Verse films.  I definitely love the collection of art styles used throughout the film.  I feel like I’m going to need a few more watches in order to catch every little detail found on screen.  My issue, however, is that I feel like the movie was a good twenty minutes too long.  It takes almost an hour just to get to the actual multiverse jumping that the movie promises.  Once we finally get there, the film definitely gets rolling, but I wish that it had that same kind of energy throughout the film.  A tighter paced first act might have helped with giving me a more satisfactory experience, but at the same time, there are quite a few things to love in that first half of the movie.  The cast of characters namely helps to make the movie an engaging experience.  The film still makes us fall in love with Miles Morales and his journey, and it also helps to flesh out returning characters like Miles’ mother and father, as well as Gwen Stacy, who gets the most additional character development in this film.  I also loved the new characters introduced here, with Spider-Punk being an easy new favorite.  Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara is also a fascinating new addition to the series, and I’m very interested in seeing where the series takes his arc in the next film.  One thing that I wonder if it had a possible impact on my viewing experience is that this film is the middle chapter in a planned trilogy.  There are certainly many great examples of brilliant middle chapters on the big screen like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), but I wonder if I may like this movie better once I have the full context of it’s story which will conclude with Beyond the Spider-Verse next year.  I do think I may like this movie better once the trilogy is complete, but for now my first impression is one of admiration, but with a reservation for some uneven pacing.  For now, I would put it under the original film slightly, though there are some individual scenes that I do think exceed the brilliance of the first movie too.  I hope that once the trilogy is complete that the full scope will be seen in all of it’s brilliance.  The thing I appreciate the most is that Sony Animation with this series is really shaking up the animation world and holding it up to a higher standard.  Especially coming off of the stale storytelling of The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023), this kind of film with it’s bold brushstrokes in both art and storytelling is so refreshing to see, and my hope is that the other animation studios, including Disney and Pixar, continue to up their game in order to compete.  You got to appreciate a game-changer like the Spider-Verse series, and it’s definitely the hero we deserve right now.

Rating: 8/10

Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2023) – Review

You’ve got to give credit to Disney, they’ve always found a way to make a boat load of money no matter the circumstances.  Sometimes, however, their money making ideas come at a cost of damaging their brand.  Take the later part of the Michael Eisner era at the Disney Studios.  The Disney Renaissance that heralded the return to glory for the Animation Studio at the core of the company was beginning to wane in momentum going into the new millennium, with many films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Brother Bear (2003) all performing well under the average of what films like Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) took at the box office.  Couple that with the rise of computer animation from places like Pixar and Dreamworks, and Disney’s once mighty money making machine was just not able to compete anymore.  Unfortunately, the way that the Disney Team saw as a lifeline through the hard economic times was to turn towards the home video market.  Disney Television animation was in the middle of creating a weekly series spinoff for the film Aladdin, and their epic two part series pilot included a return of the film’s villain, Jafar, as part of it’s central plot.  Disney, seeing the potential appeal of the television event, decided to repackage the pilot into a direct to video movie release, declaring it the official sequel to the original film.  The Return of Jafar (1994) had none of the glossy animation, nor the popular songs, nor even Robin Williams as the Genie, and yet it still made a lot of money for Disney in home video sales; even rivaling the original film with it’s video release.  With the waning box office for their movies happening at the same time, Disney saw this as a lucrative new market for them, so the focus in the early 2000’s shifted away from spending money on new expensive movies, and instead towards raiding the Disney library to make cheap direct to video sequels to their classic films.  They found their way to make money, but at what cost?

From Walt Era classics to Renaissance era new masterpieces, no original Disney film was spared from getting a sequel treatment.  Most of the films made of course were lazy retreads of what had worked before with most of the original magic missing.  If you ask most Disney fans, none will consider any of the movies made in this era canon.  The direct to video craze was thankfully short lived as there was a renewed drive to revitalize the Animation brand with the arrival of Bob Iger as CEO of the Disney Company.  Disney went so far as to close the DisneyToon studio that had been set up specifically to churn out these low grade film and consolidate everything back to it’s roots; even bringing Pixar Animation fully into the fold.  And this led to another bright era for Disney, with films like Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016), and Moana (2016) all performing magically for Disney.  But, while the direct to video era had come to an end, there were still minds within the studio who wanted to find ways to make money off of all the legacy titles they still had in their library.  In 2010, director Tim Burton created his live action version of classic story Alice in Wonderland with the Disney company.  The film became a surprise hit at the box office, grossing nearly a billion worldwide.  The results suddenly made Disney look at what other movies they had that could be given the live action remake treatment.  Suddenly, the new money making machine for Disney became taking their classic animated titles and giving them the live action treatment.  And the results, unfortunately, feel reminiscent of the direct to video craze at Disney.  Yes, they are making a lot of money off of these films, but in doing so, they are stripping away the things that made the original movies so memorable in the first place.  Thus far, they have gone through most of the biggest titles in the Disney canon, with less than stellar results.  This year, they have gotten to he film that launched the Disney Renaissance era itself, The Little Mermaid.  The big worry for many long time Disney fans is that this film will for the best pale in comparison to the original and at worst, stain it’s legacy by being a soulless money grab.  What kind of movie did the new Little Mermaid end up being.

The story of course is familiar to anyone who has either read the original Hans Christian Andersen story or seen the original Disney animated classic.  The ocean is ruled over by the mighty King Triton (Javier Bardem) who welcomes his daughters home for a festival celebrating what they call the Coral Moon.  Unfortunately, he finds his youngest daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey) is missing, so he sends his majordomo, a crab named Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to go out and find her.  Ariel has secretly been collecting artifacts from the human world with the help of her friend, a fish named Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and has consulted with a seagull named Scuttle (Awkwafina) to know what humans use those artifacts for.  Ariel’s collection is part of her obsession with life above the ocean surface, which Triton has forbidden her from reaching.  However, one evening she is drawn to the surface when she sees peculiar lights flashing above.  There she sees fireworks being fired from a passing ship, and on board the crew of humans are celebrating the birthday of their highness, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King).  Ariel is immediately smitten with the young prince, but the celebration is cut short when a storm hits.  Eric ends up nearly drowning when the ship is destroyed in the fury of the storm, but is rescued by Ariel.  He is too weak to see Ariel’s face, but he can hear her siren song and it sticks with him, leading him to vow to find her anywhere on his island if she is real.  Meanwhile, Triton learns of Ariel’s infatuation with the humans and punishes her by destroying all of her artifacts.   Ariel is left heartbroken, which then leads to a intervention from a sinister force that has been spying on her the whole time; Ursula, the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy).  Ursula promises Ariel that she can make her human for three days, allowing her to finally reconnect with Eric in the surface world.  However, Ursula’s spell is purposely meant to entrap Ariel, with Ursula intent on using her to get Triton’s crown and trident.  Can Ariel find her true love before the witch’s spell ends and become a part of that world?

There is no doubt about it; the original Little Mermaid is a landmark classic in the Disney canon.  It’s the movie that jump started the Disney Renaissance and brought back Disney Animation back from the dead.  To this day, it is a beloved film to a generation of Disney fans who came of age during this era; myself being one of them.  So, you can expect me to be a tad bit worried about how a live action remake would reflect on a movie as beloved as the original animated film.  Disney’s track record as of late with the live action remakes isn’t great.  Some are definitely genuine good films (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella, Cruella) while others are just average (Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan and Wendy), while sadly most are just downright awful (Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pinocchio).  Given that, I was anxious about what might happen to The Little Mermaid, but at the same time, I have to go in with an open mind and just accept the movie on it’s own merits.  And after having seen it, I am grateful in saying that the new Little Mermaid is one of the better Disney remakes I’ve seen.  I even dare say it’s worth seeing, even if you are against the idea of it existing in the first place.  To be clear, it’s not without it’s flaws.  The novelty of the original is not here, but there is a lot of creativity still on display that it still kept me engaged as I was watching it.  While most of the other Disney remakes feel like pale imitators, made I might add without passion, The Little Mermaid does what I hope for all the Disney remakes to accomplish, which is to justify it’s reason for existing.  Sadly, too many of the Disney remakes feel like the direct to video sequels, which are just movies existing solely as a product rather than a work of art.  There are times in this Little Mermaid where you do feel the pressure of corporate mandates, but there’s also a sense from the people who made this movie that they are trying their best to give us something special, and that helps to elevate it above the other remakes.

The first great thing I’d like to highlight about this movie is the thing that I’m sure most people are going to be talking about the most with this film, and that’s the performance of Halle Bailey as Ariel.  Bailey is transcendent in her performance as the titular Little Mermaid, giving far and away the best performance that I have ever seen in any of these Disney remakes.  From the first moment she appears on screen, she commands this film and elevates the movie as a result.  Throughout the movie, she exudes this infectious charm on screen, even in the moments where she has to act without her voice.  And man, what a great singing voice.  If there was anything that needed to translate directly from the original to this new live action version, it’s that Ariel had to have the most beautiful voice in the world.  Ariel’s original voice actor, Jodi Benson, is a tough act to follow, but Halle more than meets the challenge.  This is definitely evident in Ariel’s iconic “I Want” song, “Part of Your World,” which Halle performs to absolute perfection.  The audience I saw the movie with were spellbound during that scene, and even applauded at the end, demonstrating just how well she nailed the performance.  I am extremely happy to see her shine so brightly in this movie, given the controversy that surrounded the news of her casting in the film.  Because Halle Bailey is a different skin tone than the animated Ariel, there arose a racist online backlash towards the movie.  Sadly, many attacks were levied at her specifically, and she had to weather a firestorm of negative attention from people were pre-judging the movie before a single frame had been shot.  To see Halle rise above all that and give the kind of heartfelt performance that she did is the best outcome out of all this, and I hope that the undeniable power of her performance silences all the trolls and haters online as a result, especially if it leads to Halle becoming a major star because of this role.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie for the most part rises to the level of Halle’s performance as Ariel.  One thing that I think helped is that the film is directed by Rob Marshall.  Marshall has a mixed record as a film director, but where he has done his best work is in adapting musicals, and more importantly, staging musical numbers.  Drawing from his Broadway experience, the guy knows how to make visually interesting musical numbers for the big screen, something that he demonstrated very well in his big screen debut; the Oscar-winning Chicago (2002).  In The Little Mermaid, he’s working with a very different kind of musical, dependent on a lot of visual effects, but to his credit, he managed to make those musical numbers just as visually inventive as the ones he does with no visual effects.  The “Under the Sea” sequence in particular is perfect example of what Rob Marshall managed to bring to the movie.  Every shot is choreographed well to the song itself, and at the same time it doesn’t merely just copy the original film either.  That’s the one thing that made the Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King remakes so frustrating for me; the lack of creativity in the musical sequences.  They either were copy and paste jobs of the original animated sequences, or they lacked any visual stimulation at all.  With the Little Mermaid, Rob Marshall wants to make these songs feel special, and that thankfully carries through in all the classic Howard Ashman/ Alan Menken songs carried over from the original, as well as the new ones written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Not only that, but the movie benefits from a cast that can actually sing.  While I was worried about the more realistic depictions of the animal characters of Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle, the voice cast helped me to get used to them, and they turned out to be entertaining on their own.  Daveed Diggs’ performance as Sebastian especially works well, making the character just as entertaining as his classic counterpart (voiced by the late Samuel Wright).  The only actor that I wished had gone a bit further with her performance is Melissa McCarthy as Ursula.  She’s not bad by any means, and thankfully exceeded my dire expectations, but at the same time her performance seems too grounded and more of an imitation of the late great Pat Carroll’s vocal performance in the original.  At the same time, I did like McCarthy’s overall look as the character, especially with the bioluminescence they added to Ursula’s tentacles.

The one area where I think the movie may fall behind the original is it’s depiction of the ocean world.  The visual effects are not the worst that I’ve seen in these Disney remakes, but you still get this unfortunate artificiality that encumbers many moments within the movie.  For one thing, the underwater sequences still feel too murky, which dilutes some of the colors.  Coming right off of the heels of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), which revolutionized the ways digital water scenes can be filmed, doesn’t help.  The effects to turn the actors into merpeople is also mixed.  I feel like most of the resources for the mermaid effect went into the characters of Ariel and Ursula, both of whom come off as convincing as the iconic characters.  Other merpeople look unfortunately not as great, which is especially true for poor Javier Bardem as Triton, who often looks awkward in the role, buried under too many layers of effects both for his tail fin as well as for his beard.  The above water scenes fare much better, and the production design team did a great job of crafting Eric’s kingdom into this colorful, vibrant place, complete with a Caribbean flavor to it.  One thing about the visual effects that I really think helped out a lot was actually giving expressions to the animation of the animal characters.  After seeing the cold, lifeless faces of the household objects in Beauty and the Beast as well as those of the animals in The Lion King, it’s refreshing to see the digital animators make an effort here to be less adherent to limitations of live action and actually make the animals a bit more cartoony.  There’s also a lot to be said about the structure of the movie as well.  At 135 minutes, the movie is nearly an hour longer than the original, which ran a tight 83 minutes.  But, even with all that extra length, the movie never feels padded with unnecessary scenes.  All the extra time instead is devoted to extra character development, particularly with Ariel and Eric, whose courtship is fleshed out much more here.  Too often Disney chooses to fill their remakes with plot elements that either add nothing or effectively ruin the story as a whole (the idiotic teleportation book from Beauty and the Beast for example), and that’s thankfully absent here.  This is essentially the same story, but just with more meat on the bone.  And to director Marshall’s credit, it flows just as well as the original.

Out of all the Disney remakes, only Pete’s Dragon is one that I would say exceeds the original, which frankly didn’t have that high of a bar to clear.  In the case of all the Disney remakes, none of them ever have been better than the original animated versions.  But, with The Little Mermaid, I would say it joins the likes of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella remake, which doesn’t exceed the original, but at the same time compliments it.  After so much disappointment, it’s nice to actually say that about one of these Disney remakes.  The film is especially worth your time just for Halle Bailey’s performance as Ariel alone.  I can’t think of a better live action embodiment of one of these iconic Disney characters than her version of Ariel.  She really rose to the challenge, taking on a difficult role, and shone through magnificently.  Thankfully, the rest of the movie is worthwhile as well.  It’s not perfect, and sometimes suffers whenever it has to adhere too close to the original, including some unnecessary shot for shot imitations.  But, there’s a lot of care put into this film that feels absent from so many other Disney remakes.  Somehow, Rob Marshall managed to succeed in a way that other acclaimed directors like Tim Burton, Bill Condon, Robert Zemeckis and Jon Favreau have all failed to do, which is to make a movie that doesn’t feel like a hollow cash grab.  Don’t get me wrong, this movie is still a cash grab, and I worry that Disney will take the wrong lesson from it if it becomes a success.  But, for the first time in a long time, they got the remake formula right.  Much like Cinderella, it changes enough to make it feel like it’s own thing, while still fulfilling the expectations of what we remember from the original.  Despite it’s success, I do wish Disney would get out of this trend of remakes and get back to making original films again.  They’ve got a valuable brand and they are doing no favors for themselves by rehashing their glories from the past.  At least with The Little Mermaid they didn’t stain the legacy of that beloved classic, and at the very least gave it a deserving companion; one where you can definitely say both are worth watching, even though the original is still the top choice.  Thank you Disney for not spoiling your lovely Little Mermaid and letting her be part of our world once again.

Rating: 8/10

The House That Iron Man Built – 15 Years of Marvel Studios and Where It’s Going Next

Roll back the clock to the 2000’s.  The state of Comic Book movies in the mainstream was in a much different situation than it is now.  The 90’s came to close with the genre in it’s worst state, following the box office and critical failure that was Batman & Robin (1997).  While the  DC Comics properties were firmly in the control of a single studio, that being Warner Brothers, their comic page rival Marvel was not so lucky to have a sole proprietor making decisions over it’s cinematic fortunes, both good and ill.  Marvel was coming out of near bankruptcy in the mid-90’s, and to salvage their financial status, they freely spread out the cinematic rights to their characters and storylines to whomever was interested in them.  As a result, the rights to Marvel properties were spread around to most of the major studios in Hollywood.  Sony took Spider-Man and his associated company of heroes and villains.  Fox won the rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.  Meanwhile, fitting of their history of monster movies, Universal became the home of The Incredible Hulk.  The rest, who many believed at the time were second tier characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, went to Paramount, who for a while did little with their Marvel properties.  In the early part of the 2000’s, the studios that did have Marvel characters in their possession did quite well.  Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) broke box office records for Sony Pictures, while Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) was hailed as a refreshingly mature take on the often silly genre.  There were, however, some disappointments as well, with Ang Lee’s Hulk (2002) becoming a convoluted mess, and Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005) feeling like an undercooked portrayal of Marvel’s first family.  Sequels to the X-Men and Spider-Man movies also fell off for fans in later years, and many were wondering if Marvel was even capable of competing with the likes of DC in sustaining long lasting franchises.  The ante was upped even more after Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins premiered, a critically acclaimed revival of the Batman franchise that put DC back on firm ground again.  Marvel would answer, but the way they would do would change everything we thought we knew about comic book movies.

The Spider-Man franchise over at Sony Pictures was spear-headed by a powerful Executive Producer named Amy Pascal.  To this day, she still retains exclusive rights to produce Spider-Man movies, but her time in the comic book world left a much different impact than that.  One of her assistants that she mentored during the making of Spider-Man was a up-and-coming producer named Kevin Feige.  Feige was very much a person who lived and breathed comic books, and he was eager to change the way super hero movies were made by pushing them to adhere closer to what was on the page.  There seemed to be a feeling in Hollywood that comic book movies needed to be more like action movies.  Storylines were more grounded and simple.  Gone were the tights and in were the dark leather suits.  It’s almost like the industry was ashamed that these popular characters came from such a colorful and imaginative source such as the comic book page.  Feige didn’t believe any of that.  He wanted to see the characters pop right off the page in all their colorful and sometimes cheesy glory.  He understood that these characters were larger than life, and that the movies needed to embrace this aspect about them in order to do the characters justice.  You can feel that a bit in the Spider-Man films from Sam Raimi, which definitely embraced more of the charming quirkiness of the comic books, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this is what Feige imagined for all the other characters as well.  By the time Spider-Man 3 (2007) came out in theaters, Feige was already working a plan to change the future of Marvel on the big screen.  He convinced the leadership of Marvel Comics to invest in a new in-house production company that would supervise the creation of all future Marvel movies at all the studios, insuring a consistency across all their properties that would define them first and foremost as a Marvel film.  Thus began the existence of Marvel Studios.

Marvel Studios would work with all the different studios on their selectively held properties but all the creative choices, such as casting and which stories to tell, would be run through Marvel Studios offices.  As a result of this change in creative leadership, the decision was to abandon most of the franchises that had been developed up to that point and instead reboot many of the characters.  This, however, was easier said than done, as Fox was insistent on continuing on with their popular X-Men franchise as it was; especially since they had a bankable star like Hugh Jackman still going strong as Wolverine.  The other studios were more inclined to rethink the future, and at this point, Paramount was ready to finally begin using the Marvel properties they had been sitting on.  It was with Paramount that Feige saw a really golden opportunity to try something that hadn’t been done before ever with the super hero genre.  Instead of having each character exist within their own stand alone franchise, Feige and company theorized the possibility of having all their comic book characters share a single connected universe.  Not only would they have their own stand alone movies, but the characters would be able to meet each other and crossover; even forming a super team.  Kevin Feige knew this would be an ideal thing for Marvel to undertake, because it’s exactly what the comic books had been doing for decades before.  It’s not a novel idea; DC had been trying to jumpstart a Justice League film for years before, and both the Superman and Batman franchises featured Easter eggs referencing the different heroes in their films many times; same with early Marvel films too.  But the stars had not aligned until now.  With Marvel Studios now assuming creative control, they were ready to give it a try, and the starting point would be with the trio of heroes that the industry had before believed were second tier.

Paramount announced that they were greenlighting new films based on the Marvel super heroes Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.  These were untried properties, with only Captain America having one cheaply made for TV movie in the past.  But, Marvel Studios believed that this was the right batch of characters to begin plans for a bigger universe.  But, the all important question was who would be the one taking on the responsibility of starting this new era on the right foot.  The answer came with Iron Man (2008).  There had been attempts to bring Iron Man to the big screen before.  For a while, Tom Cruise was attached to play the role of Iron Man and his alter ego, billionaire playboy Tony Stark.  However, Cruise’s busy schedule conflicted with Marvel Studios’ plans, and the team decided to go in a much different direction than what he was planning to do with the character.  For Iron Man, Marvel Studios needed to not just make the actor look good in the suit, but they also needed to make him interesting outside of it as well.  The task of adapting the character to the big screen fell to actor/filmmaker Jon Favreau, who was coming off of a successful stretch of films such as Elf (2003) and Zathura (2005).  He too was an avid comic book fan who was eager to do justice to the character of Iron Man on the big screen.  But, who other than the unavailable Tom Cruise would be ideal for the role.  Favreau’s first choice was a rather surprising one.  Robert Downey Jr., a long time character actor in Hollywood, was not what many would consider to be a bankable star.  His career was nearly destroyed by his drug addiction and the time he served in prison.  He had recently earned high marks for a comeback performance in Shane Black’s Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2004), but many still thought he was too much of risk to headline a major studio film.   But, Favreau saw in Downey’s persona exactly what was needed for the role of Tony Stark, and he convinced Marvel and Paramount to take a chance by giving him the role.  The rest of course is the stuff of legend.  Downey was the perfect Tony Stark and his presence on screen carried the film to remarkable commercial and critical success.  But Iron Man the movie also offered up another surprise for audiences.  A post-credit scene introduced another famous comic character named Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was there to introduce what ultimately would be the future of Marvel films for the next decade and beyond; the Avenger Initiative.

Marvel Studios had proven itself with the crazy success of the first Iron Man movie, and they were ready to continue with the next phase of their plans, which was to get the other films in the pipeline going.  They got a strong assist that same summer with Universal successfully rebooting The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton playing Dr. Bruce Banner.  They were even able to tie that film in with Iron Man by giving Robert Downey Jr. a surprise cameo at the end before the credits.  But, a surprising development happened in the wake of Iron Man’s success.  In 2009, Disney, which had up to this point been out of the super hero game entirely, decided they were ready to get in on the action.  Unfortunately for them, the other Hollywood studios had already licensed all of the prime properties that Marvel had to offer.  So, what did they do?  Well they decided to buy up Marvel outright, to the tune of $4 billion.  This purchase included Marvel Studios in the package, so now Kevin Feige and company had a new set of overlords to answer to.  Thankfully for them, Disney CEO Bob Iger was willing to be hands off as long as they could deliver the same way they did with Iron Man.  Surprisingly, Disney was also able to secure back the licenses from Paramount without struggle, which meant that they would be the ones in charge of the upcoming Thor, Captain America, and Avengers releases, as well as an Iron Man sequel.  Universal maintained their Hulk license, but were willing to work with Disney in adding the big green guy to the Avengers team up, which became necessary because Edward Norton left the franchise after one film.  Sony and Fox remained defiant in holding firmly to their exclusive rights and keeping them out of Disney’s hands.  Still, Disney was able to work with what properties they had.  Then unknown Australian actor Chris Hemsworth was given the role of Thor, while actor Chris Evans (who previously played The Human Torch in Fox’s Fantastic Four) was cast as golden boy super soldier Captain America.  Mark Ruffalo replaced the absent Edward Norton in the role of Hulk, and lesser know heroes like Hawkeye and Black Widow were added to the mix, played by Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson respectively.  This was the original team assembled for The Avengers (2012), and again Marvel changed the world of comic book movies forever.

It became clear after The Avengers that Marvel Studios was not just a Hollywood success story, they were a force to be reckoned with.  Now that they finally had a home studio base with deep pockets like Disney to finance all of their future plans, they could indeed create that shared comic book universe that Kevin Feige had long dreamed would be a reality on the big screen.  The first four years of Marvel Studios output was deemed Phase One, and that every collection of films thereafter that would ultimately culminate in another Avengers team up would be another new phase.  Over time they introduced a whole lot more of the Marvel family to the big screen, including long anticipated debuts of fan favorites like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, The Vision, and Captain Marvel.  They even managed to turn a very obscure comic property like Guardians of the Galaxy into a smash hit with audiences and critics alike.  Sony even decided it was in their best interest to play nice, and they granted the use of Spider-Man in their Avengers team ups.  At that point, only Fox remained the lone hold-out; but Disney and Marvel were still able to build their universe without the presence of the Fantastic Four or the X-Men.  The question however was where it was all going to lead.  Audiences had become invested in this cinematic universe to the point where they were following it like it was the biggest serialized TV show ever made.  But in every narrative, there had to be a purpose to it, and for Marvel’s endgame, they turned to the comics for inspiration.  Typically, comic books lead their ongoing storylines to major events, and one of the most famous in Marvel comics history was an arc known as the Infinity War.  In the first three phases of what had become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) there was this connecting thread of powerful gems known as the Infinity Stones being discovered by the characters.  The stones were coveted by a powerful being known as Thanos (played by Josh Brolin), who ultimately used its’ power to reshape the universe.  Marvel Studios masterfully wove in this storyline across 20+ films, and it resulted in two monumental films Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), both of which wrapped up the decade long arc in perfect fashion.  The MCU managed to achieve the unthinkable, which was to successfully tie in all of their many franchises into a satisfying conclusion to an epic storyline.  Kevin Feige had achieved his dream of bring the comic book universe completely to life.

But, where do you go after you’ve conquered the world.  By the time Avengers: Endgame had been released, Marvel had become the most valuable entertainment brand in the world.  Not only did Disney make back their $4 billion investment; they were able to use their gains to acquire Fox itself, thereby bringing in the last holdouts of the Marvel properties still out in the wild.  With no more roadblocks in their way, they really could do anything they wanted post-Endgame.  So, what were they ready to do in Phase Four.  This new phase was something of a reboot for Marvel.  The storylines that led up to the Infinity War were now complete, with legacy characters like Iron Man and Captain America getting their farewells.  Now it was time to look towards the next event.  For the new phase of Marvel, Feige and company decided the new direction would focus on what is known as the Multiverse.  And once again, Marvel is finding itself in uncharted territory with this new undertaking.  The multiverse is a concept that’s a bit harder to sell to audiences than easy to identify McGuffins like the Infinity Stones.  The plan has offered up some fun ways to explore the multiverse, like current Spider-Man Tom Holland getting the chance to appear alongside his predecessors in the role, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).  But other uses of the concept feel underdeveloped like with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) which didn’t go far enough into the multiverse.  Plus, you see the struggle Marvel is having with establishing their new big baddie for this long arc saga; the multiversal menace Kang the Conqueror (which isn’t helped by Kang actor Jonathan Major’s on-going, at the time of this writing, legal troubles).  For the first time in it’s 15 year history, Marvel seems to showing some growing pains; like the level of success that they have managed to achieve is now starting to weigh down on them and undermining their focus.  One thing that could be affecting this shaky ground that they now stand on is the fact that Marvel is also devoting part of their master plan to Disney’s aggressive expansion into the streaming market, with Marvel Studios creating long form series and specials for Disney+.  Where in past years there was room to build anticipation between each new Marvel film, now Marvel is releasing new properties throughout the entire year.  And for audiences, it’s proving to be too much of a good thing.  That’s why Marvel’s Phase Four has had the most mixed response to date of any of Marvel’s MCU plans.

Now, looking back in all the fifteen years of existence of the MCU, has Marvel finally lost it’s golden touch?  In many ways it’s still relative.  Compared to it’s own past success, Marvel is underperforming a tad bit in it’s recent offerings.  Earlier this year, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), the film meant to launch Phase Five of the MCU, became the first film widely accepted by both the fans and the critics as the least successful film from Marvel to date.  It’s not the biggest money loser, which goes to Eternals (2021), but it can’t blame it’s poor box office on lingering effects of the pandemic either.  Even still, most of their movies are still out-performing competitors from other studios.  Sony’s non-MCU Spider-Man character movies have not performed as well, with last year’s Morbius (2022) being a pretty embarrassing flop for them.  And the whole last decade for Marvel’s rival DC Comics has been defined by Warner Brothers desperately trying to play catch-up, with some pretty disastrous results.  The failure of their Justice League (2017) movie is a particular case study in how studio interference can ruin a franchise, and it took a grass roots effort on line to get a better director’s cut released to finally satisfy the fans.  Even the less successful Phase Four projects still perform well when compared to the rest of the market; I’m sure DC wishes they had Quantumania’s over $200 million take in domestic box office.  Honestly, Marvel has been in this boat before.  Phase Two had it’s shaky moments too before things finally revved up in Phase Three leading up to the Infinity War.  For any studio to maintain this kind of level of success this long is pretty miraculous, and Kevin Feige, Disney and everyone who worked on these movies should feel a sense of pride that they are still doing fairly well even as audiences are a bit mixed lately.  You definitely have to credit all the things they have done right to make themselves the juggernaut that they are.  Having the strong foundation of Iron Man was a key part of that.  It was risky trusting the future of comic book movies with someone of Robert Downey Jr.’s reputation, but he persevered and his career resurrection is one of the greatest redemption stories in movie history.  15 year later, Marvel is on top of the world and it still has more stories to share, which will hopefully continue to fulfill the hopeful vision that Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios set out to accomplish.  As the legendary Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee always said: “Excelsior.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Henry V: Olivier vs. Branagh

Of all the plays written by Shakespeare, the one that many believe to be the most inspiring is his historical play Henry V.  Written in 1599, Henry V touches upon the life of the famed English monarch.  The play itself is actually part of a tetralogy of historical plays written by Shakespeare that all combine into a singular narrative, those other plays being Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II.  The character of Henry V actually becomes the central character of the duo of Henry IV plays because those are less about the titular king and more about his rebellious son, Prince Hal, who will one day take his place as king.  Prince Hal of course is crowned king by the end of Henry IV and the play Henry V shows us the key moment that defined his rule; the war against the French.  While Shakespeare’s other historical plays were about coming of age and the makings of kings, his Henry V is very much an epic showing the glory of kingship and has long been seen as the most rousing of patriotic statements by the Bard with regards to presenting the English monarchy as a powerful force in the world.  Given that his patrons were the English aristocracy, most notably Queen Elizabeth, it’s clear that Shakespeare knew his audience.   But, the masses also loved Shakespeare’s take on history, as Henry V is a rousing piece of theater representing the Bard at his most bombastic.  With the inspiring centerpiece of the Battle of Agincourt as the defining moment within the play, Shakespeare gives us action and suspense on the stage that is far more alive on the page than the usual Shakespearean text.  To this day, Henry V remains one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and often re-staged plays, with many actors relishing the chance to take on the pivotal role of the inspiring boy king.

For many Shakespearean trained actors, the role of Henry V is an especially good one to undertake as a young performer.  A lot of the great actors of the stage and screen that we know of throughout the decades have at some point played Henry V on stage.  Multiple generations of actors, from Richard Burton to Timothee Chalamet have at some point donned the bowl cut and played the boy king.  For many, it’s an ideal launching point to show their skill not just with the Shakespearean text, but also with their ability to command the stage or the screen.  Henry V is a play about a man showing strength and courage beyond his years, and a kind of role like that demands attention from it’s audience.  If the actor pulls off the role perfectly, it can be a star making performance.  That’s probably the reason it’s a coveted role by so many actors.  The play of course has translated to the screen a number of times, but there is little doubt that the most substantial adaptations are the ones from the two men whose film careers are inexorably linked to Shakespeare; Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.  Olivier and Branagh both came into the film business pretty much in the same fashion.  They began as actors in the Royal Shakespearean Theater before eventually transitioning into film acting, and then they later took their experience in film to undertake their own cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, and in the process both fundamentally changing the ways these plays are presented on screen through their own unique styles.  You can see many parallels between both Olivier’s and Branagh’s approach to Shakespeare on film, though often with focus on different plays.  Olivier was more focused on Shakespeare’s more stately plays centered around kings, while Branagh often looked for more of a mix, adapting some of the Bard’s comedies like Much Ado About Nothing (1993).  But they did overlap a couple times, including with Henry V, which coincidently was the movie that marked both of their film directing debuts.

“We would not seek a battle as we are, yet as we are, we say we will not shun it.”

It is interesting to examine the differences between both Olivier and Branagh’s versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Despite using the same text, the approaches to the play are very different, which in many ways is reflective of the different eras that they were made in.  The production of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) is significant specifically because of the era in which it was made.  When Olivier returned to England after his years in Hollywood, his homeland was deeply embroiled in the midst of World War II.  This was the “Keep Calm and Carry On,” moment in English history, as the nation tried it’s best to press through, even while German bomb raids became ever more frequent.  It’s not any surprise that Olivier chose in this moment to bring Henry V to the big screen.  Taking advantage of the play’s patriotic fervor, Olivier very much intended for his screen adaptation to be a rallying cry for his fellow countrymen; to inspire them to fight as well as they can to defend their country, much in the same way that Shakespeare’s Henry V did.  Sure, it’s turning the centuries old piece of theater into wartime propaganda, but honestly isn’t that what William Shakespeare intended with his original also.  Regardless, Olivier’s plan worked.  The movie was an inspiring piece of cinema that was warmly received by war time audiences, many whom were also inspired to live out the example of the historical king and do what they could to fight the good fight abroad and at home.  At the same time, it satisfied Olivier’s desire to adapt Shakespeare’s play onto the big screen that he felt honored the vision of Shakespeare himself.  Many filmmakers before Olivier had adapted the play before on film, but they were often tied closely to how they were performed on stage.  Olivier broke that mold and showed how Shakespeare could be cinematic without being unfaithful to the text.  This included being creative with how shots were blocked and how the camera moved, making the whole thing less stagey.  It boosted Olivier into a prosperous career behind the camera as well as in front, and inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers who would present Shakespeare in a whole new way on screen.

“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.”

One of those inspired filmmakers to come after Olivier of course was Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh likewise chose to undertake Henry V (1989) as his directorial debut, but his approach was very different from Olivier’s; one that was far more reflective of the time in which it was made.  In Olivier’s time, England was engaged in a very clear cut war where the good and bad sides were clearly drawn.  In that spirit of the times, a rousing patriotic statement without contradiction is far more understandable.  But, by the eighties when Branagh made his Henry V, the world was a much different place.  It was the Cold War era, where the lines between good and bad were not so clear cut.  In the years since Olivier’s adaptation, England went through many different political upheavals, with future generations becoming far more cynical about the idea of patriotism and national identity.  In that time, the effects of the Vietnam War and smaller skirmishes like those in the Falkland Islands led many English youth to look less favorably on the power of the English empire that was in heavy decline.  So, in the midst of this, Kenneth Branagh took this traditionally rousing patriotic story and deconstructs it in a way that would appeal to a more cynical audience.  His Henry V is a far grittier take on the play than Olivier’s technicolor wonder.  And within it, he creates a version of the character that is far more nuanced and complex.  His Henry V is not the saintly monarch of past adaptations, but rather a fierce warrior that can both inspire the men around him, but also inspire fear in them as well.  Branagh is far more interested in the flaws of Henry V, and wishes to make them a crucial part of his version of the story.  Even with that, his adaptation is remarkably faithful to Shakespeare’s original text; almost using every word, as opposed to Olivier’s which abbreviated several parts.  It’s clear upon seeing both versions of the play that both filmmakers knew the kinds of audiences they wanted to reach with their adaptations, and in both cases they achieved what they wanted.  Olivier wanted to inspire, while Branagh wanted to examine.

The different approaches they took in presenting the character of Henry V through their performances reveals a lot about what they saw in the character and why it was important to re-tell the play in their own different ways.  For Olivier, his approach to the part of Henry V is very much a regal one.  Olivier’s style of performance is very direct and commanding.  He plays Henry with the authority of a noble king, unwavering in his duty and one who commands attention in every moment.  It’s the same kind of performance that Olivier honed throughout his career, whether he was doing Shakespeare or not.  And it is a style of performance that is effective in his version of Henry V.  The command of his voice brings out the power of Shakespeare’s words, and you can see why many war time audiences were inspired by his portrayal in the film.  In contrast, Branagh’s fluctuates far more with the way he portrays the role of Henry V.  Depending on the scene, Branagh’s Henry can go from fiercely growling his lines at his most angry to gently speaking his lines at his most intimate.  His performance commands in the same way as Olivier’s, but while Olivier presents more the idea of a king, Branagh presents us more of a depiction of a human being.  His Henry is complex, and full of a wide ranging array of emotions.  It definitely is reflective of a different kind of school of acting that Olivier and Branagh come from.  For Kenneth Branagh, his generation came up in a time where acting Shakespeare on film was more commonplace, so actors like him needed to find ways to make performing Shakespeare feel more natural.  This is definitely evident in the ways they both perform the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, the most famous monologue from the play, and perhaps one of the most rousing speeches ever written in the English language.  Olivier delivers the speech like a great orator at a podium would; clear, commanding and easy for everyone to hear.  Branagh’s version is a calming speech delivered from the heart like a passionate declaration of love, making it feel like Henry is opening himself up to the men under his command and even trying to inspire himself as he speaks to them.

“Customs curtsy to great kings.  We are the makers of manners.”

While the performances are distinctive, it can be said that both Olivier and Branagh take the same approach to adapting the play to the big screen with their direction, which is to be very creative with how they stage everything.  Olivier, out of the two, surprisingly takes the more experimental approach.  He starts his film with a recreation of how the play would’ve been staged in the original Globe Theater.  Starting off with an amazingly well shot descent from the rooftops of Renaissance London, across the different levels of the theater, and down to the stage itself, the movie begins with a narrator asking the audience to imagine the spectacular sights that only the stage production can hint at with it’s limitations.  For the first few scenes, Olivier begins the movie showing us just what the play itself would have looked like in the Globe.  The subsequent scenes move us into large interior sets that feel lest like they are on the stage and more like they were constructed on a soundstage.  And then once we arrive at the Battle of Agincourt scene, the movie has now moved outdoors onto a real field in the English countryside.  It’s as if the further into the play we go, the movie is reflecting what the audience would’ve imagined seeing the play performed on stage.  Through this clever staging, we see Olivier literally bringing a Shakespeare play to life before our eyes, blurring the lines between the stage and the screen.  Branagh by contrast keeps the staging consistent throughout his adaptation, while at the same time being creative with many of the shots in his film.  He dispenses with the whole stage conceit and just adapts the play straightforward like it’s a historical epic.  But, at the same time, he does some daring things on film, particularly with lighting and editing.  The more gritty tone is carried through in this adaptation through the visuals, with Branagh utilizing real castles as a part of his staging.  Combine this with very violent recreations of the Battle of Agincourt’s skirmishes and you’ve got an adaptation that definitely de-mystifies the shiny image of the original play.  Branagh’s gritty portrayal of medieval times would prove to be highly influential beyond the film, inspiring movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Braveheart (1995) in it’s wake.

But what ultimately separates the two films is in how well it actually remains true to Shakespeare’s play.  The different eras in which these plays were written again determine how well the adaptations hold up compared to what Shakespeare wrote.  In that regard, Olivier’s version for the most part is a film for it’s own time for a specific purpose, while Branagh’s version is more timeless and faithful to the story and character of Henry V.  That’s not to say that Laurence Olivier faulted in his adaptation.  His film is a spectacular piece of cinematic art, and a film largely responsible for ushering in a whole new way of adapting Shakespeare for the big screen.  But, it is clear that he was using Shakespeare’s text for a different purpose altogether.  With some very noticeable omissions in the adaptation, it’s clear that Olivier wanted to present a version of Henry V that was a bit more sanitized.  England needed a war time hero to inspire them, and that’s why he made his Henry much more regal and saintly.  This kind of approach is understandable given that time period, but it’s a far cry from the complex character that Shakespeare put down on the page originally.  In many ways, Olivier’s Henry V is contained more within a bottle of it’s own specific narrative, with the intent of making us aware of it’s purpose to present heroism in it’s purest form.  Branagh by contrast brings the character of Henry V back to what he is on the page, which is a king with a complex past.  It’s clear that there is an awareness of the background of Henry’s character in Branagh’s adaptation based not just on the original play itself, but from the real historical account of King Henry V, as well as the story that had been built up through the past Shakespearean plays in which Henry was the focus.  Branagh demonstrates the more modern idea that leaders are not born, but rather made through adversity, and that’s why his version of Henry is flawed and yet still worthy of his sacred place within English history.  His film far more seeks to get to the truth of who Henry V was rather than just make him a symbol.  That’s why he’s a better fit for a more complex time in which morality and honor are not so easily defined in a world that sees things more in shades of gray.

“We charge you in the name of God, take heed how you awake our sleeping sword of war.”

In either case, both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh created incredible adaptations of the same source Shakespearean play.  What is most important from either version is that they show us the ideal ways to adapt Shakespeare for the big screen.  Their films are not merely straight from the stage adaptations, but instead versions of Henry V that take full advantage of the language of cinema.  Olivier’s version in particular is remarkably ahead of it’s time with it’s unique framing, and it showed many filmmakers thereafter exactly how to take Shakespeare’s words and make them come alive on film.  Kenneth Branagh picked up the mantle set by Olivier and modernized the Bard even more with his version of Henry V, getting back to the complex character of the original text, while at the same time grounding the style in a very lived in depiction.  While both actors do their best to make their heroes stand out, they are at the same time supported by other Shakespearean trained talent that likewise rise to the challenge.  Branagh’s film in particular is filled with a who’s who of some of the greatest British character actors from that time, including Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and even a young Christian Bale.  What is really interesting about comparing the two versions of Henry V is how the context of the times in which they were made are reflective in the presentation, even as the text itself is still eternal and true to Shakespeare’s words.  Olivier’s version was a clear statement of war time resolve with the complexities of the play smoothed over, while Branagh’s version embraces the complexities and is not afraid to create a grittier version of the story for a more cynical time.  Overall, I feel like Olivier’s version is more of the time capsule, looking far less timeless than Branagh’s more earthbound version.  In a more complex world, Olivier’s unvarnished Henry V feels far less realistic.  But, that’s not to say it’s not worth viewing.  Despite it’s datedness, it’s still a great cinematic achievement and is enormously entertaining.  The crown goes more to Kenneth Branagh’s more complex and interesting version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, but Laurence Olivier’s Henry is still a movie fit for a king.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.  For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”