Does anyone know how many films we’re at now? We’re coming up on ten years of the MCU and it’s been a hurricane of films, TV shows, shorts, games, tie-ins in the actual comics, and desperate, laughable attempts from other companies to try and recreate the Marvel/Disney success that it’s no longer funny when they try. Does it still need discussing?
Well yes. Because as hard as direct rival DC/Warner tries to fight back with their dark and gritty universe built on the back of Nolan’s success with the Batman trilogy, Marvel seems to be reactionarily becoming more comical with their titles. Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and now Thor have added three of the funniest films to be released this year, and under the “Super-Hero” genre rather than typical comedy. Perhaps it’s just the appeal to the geekier sense of humour that drags me in, or maybe it’s that we’ve become so comfortable laughing alongside some of these characters after years spent in their company.
I fully intended today’s article to be pure ranting, but something came along to soften my mood.
In a bid to catch hold of the rising star of the Marvel shared universe, Universal announced a while back that they had plans to bring together their classic horror properties into a single entity. It was initially slated to begin with Dracula Untold, the rough diamond that could have gone onto far greater things in smarter hands. It’s a shame, I for one enjoyed Luke Evans in the titular role as a king who embraced a curse in order to save his people, but I can respect why the cliched, overly romanticised and effects-heavy film might have grated on certain audiences. So instead the franchise begins with a new approach on The Mummy.
Tom Cruise was on the list of stars optioned for the role of Rick Connors in the 1999 action fantasy that ultimately went on to immortalise Brendan Frasier. It was a fun film, suitably terrifying while still light and fun enough that anyone could enjoy it, and Frasier, Rachel Weiss, and John Hannah formed a team of capable but humorous characters that richly deserved a third instalment that instead ended in tragedy, sadly dooming the future of that particular franchise without a reboot.
Of course, as we’re looking at a broader horror franchise, perhaps for the new film horror is the angle to take, rather than the kitsch family adventure we’ve come to associate with the Mummy title. I love the look of the new Mummy. No more Imhotep, introducing Ahmanet, cursed priestess come to conquer the modern world with her ancient magics, complete with giant screaming face in a wall of water, very cool. But for good quality horror we’re missing a few key elements, highest of which must be vulnerability.
Ahmanet is presented in the trailer as an overwhelming force, utterly daunting and positively apocalyptic in scope, a foe to be fought with wit and desperation. In the trailer we see guns which will doubtlessly be useless, but the rest of the footage is a sizzle real of Tom Cruise doing awesome things and surviving certain peril, not a trace of the calamitous pulp adventure stylings of the ’99 film. We have an action hero in a horror film, thus negating both. Whether I like Cruise or not (I don’t) he’s still a bad fit for the job, and I have a profound sense of foreboding.
Russel Crowe has adopted the role of Henry Jekyll, and here I must also levy a certain amount of scepticism. I suppose I have a little more respect for him as an actor, and I can certainly see him as the intimidating alter-ego but as the sympathetic and vulnerable doctor? John Hannah rather immortalised the part for me a long time ago.
I want to go see the new Mummy film, but I go with some preconceptions, the promotional work is not filling me with optimism for this or any other attempts Universal might make in the future. The MCU has been brought about as a labour of love, and everyone scrabbling for a piece of that shared-universe action is coming across as sad and desperate. Something new might be needed, something with a unified universe to build upon that could be brought to life by a director who already has a passion for it. Something like H.P. Lovecraft’s works assembled by Guillermo Del Torro perhaps?!
Anyway, let’s get to the good news from the week. We got a new Thor trailer, and it looks both epic and hilarious!
Immediately I’m struck by a lot of elements in the art direction that are screaming Guardians of the Galaxy at me, bold colour schemes, 1980’s graphics, industrially styled settings populated by a wide variety of alien species, and Immigrants Song – very fitting for a Norse god. We might finally see the tie-in we’ve been waiting for, a character connection that goes beyond the Infinity Stones and Thanos, a formal introduction to the more Earth-bound Avengers. All of this assuming nothing crops up in the new Guardians film coming out in a week or two!
Cate Blanchett as Hela looks truly epic, unclear is Loki’s allegiance in her war with Asgard. We get a fleeting glimpse of Karl Urban as Skurge dual-wielding automatic rifles, a look at the back of Valkyrie’s head, and out first shots of Jeff Goldblum in the role of Grandmaster. That’s a lot of stuff to take in all at once! So much detail, a spectacle that may yet escalate all that we have seen so far, a veritable tour-de-force for the series, but what’s everyone going to be talking about?
And may I say, “Awww Yeeaaah!”
Had the narrative not nimbly removed them from the fray, this is the rematch we all wanted to see in Civil War. Last time Thor took the upper hand by dumping Mjolnir on Hulk’s chest and pinning him to the deck of the helicarrier while the audience laughed at his frustration… at least they did at my screening. This time Hulk has scrap metal armour and no magic hammer, smashed to bits by Hela.
At least one meta-series is going according to plan, despite the people claiming it’s on its last legs or starting to look like it’s in trouble. Ragnarok is still while away, we still have Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man to go. In the mean time I will be watching developments in Universal’s efforts with curiosity. They’d better get Jekyll and Hyde right.
The long anticipated and lesser known title to emerge onto the MCU’s steamroller of success is Doctor Strange, and despite a little controversy over the appointment of Benedict Cumberbatch to the role it’s everything we’ve come to expect from this media leviathan. Oh sure, it’s formulaic, but it’s Marvel’s formula, which has been working rather well for the last eight years and thirteen films. That’s halfway to the number of James Bond films there are in one seventh the time and barely any changes in lead actors.
Phase Three; Episode 2 delivers new levels of mysticism layered on top of the flimsy scientific justifications that Marvel has been getting good at, so long as you bear in mind a quote from the first Thor film you’ll be doing fine:
“Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.”
Sounds about right.
Our hero is pretty much the centre of our formula, practically a carbon copy of Tony Stark all the way down to the facial hair: an egotistical genius who excels in his field who suffers a life changing event, and his pursuit to put things right eventually land him the role of a superhero, in this case a brain surgeon seeking to restore the use of his hands turns to mystic arts. There’s a lot of Sherlock Holmes in Stephen Strange, and not just because Cumberbatch played both, but the degrees of obsession, arrogance, intelligence, and cunning make a comparison inevitable.
Tilda Swinton appears as herself, an ageless mystic capable of incredible feats of contorting the material world. Her character actually raised bigger concerns about Hollywood whitewashing, but she actually cuts a very original take on the eastern sensei that breaks a few cliches that would have seemed hackneyed in modern cinema. It’s a performance that demanded great verbal, emotional and physical delivery, and Swinton delivers on all counts.
All told we have a fairly slim cast of characters. We have a love story that is blown through fairly quickly and leaves us with a rather interesting little slice of narrative that helps us develop Strange and something we might revisit at another time, although I feel it could have been abandoned altogether with minimal effort. I’m sure most of us will find love for Wong, the deadpan comedy foil and all-round awesome librarian. Mordo presents an interesting figure so far as sidekicks go, eluding to a rather unpleasant history that led him to uncover the mystic arts, something I’m sure we’ll learn more about in the future.
Dormammu I knew to be a major villain in the Marvel Universe, one of those elder-evil types, bigger and badder even than Thanos, so when my Marvel expert on-call said they shouldn’t jump straight to the big guns, they should leave some room to escalate the situation. However using a minor villain – Mads Mikkelson as Kaecilius – as a mortal vessel of the Dark Dimensions puts a limitation on Dormammu that makes him a fearsome enough adversary without overwhelming the new sorcerer. Kaecilius actually reminds me a lot of Tai Lung from Kung Fu Panda, the student who excelled so far before turning on their master for withholding some incredible power, only to be struck down by the new prodigy who seems more willing to learn the truth.
Keep your eyes peeled for the thinly veiled future villain. Trust me, he’s not hard to spot, and he gets more and more obvious as the film goes on. If you need it spelling out for you just wait until the end-of-credits scene, the second one. And if you’re one of those people who leaves before the credits are over in a Marvel film then I automatically assume you’re the kind of person who doesn’t recycle and habitually throw away large amounts of food; it’s wasteful and frankly rude.
Villainy and threat are often second fiddle to origin story in films such as these, it’s something to which Yellowjacket, Ronan the Accuser, and Francis all fell prey in their respective appearances, and Doctor Strange presents us with a similar case where focus on the hero leaves us with an underdeveloped and readily forgotten villain. Oh, not that any of them were bad villains, but they’re not what people will take away from their respective titles.
On seeing the trailers I was a little concerned at the shifting worldscapes might be too much detail to bombard the senses. Well maybe, but cinematography made life easier, flat colour palettes typical of New York architecture make the outlandish costumes of the main cast stand out a mile, camera work keeps the focus on the action, leaving the whirling details to emphasise the speed and dynamics of every moment. I also had my concerns about the Cloak of Levitation becoming a little too adorable and “mascot-ish” but it balanced personality with entertainment value without swallowing the whole show for itself.
Though the bulk of the film is visually stunning I found one particular fight a little hard to watch, a brawl between two astral projections that seemed a little too unreal for me to buy into the tension of the scene. The ghosts of the two combatants seemed to have almost a Casper-like glow and translucency about them, and while the setting may have been intended to feel claustrophobic it just made everything harder to follow where other, more elaborate scenes had done the job so much better.
Biggest question: we learn that there are three sanctuaries placed around the world that emanate suitable protection from extra-dimensional forces to cover the globe, London, New York and Hong-Kong. Nothing in the southern hemisphere? Why does Johannesburg not get a chapter?
It took me longer than I’m proud of to spot the Infinity Stone. I’m not entirely sure how so many of these are ending up on Earth but seriously can someone try keeping them separate? We have two, and that feels like too many. We now have five out of six with only the with only the stone of the Soul remaining, meaning Ragnarok should see the beginnings of Thanos’ collection, and if you stick around long enough you’ll see how it’ll all tie together.
In short, watch Doctor Strange, it is a good film, and while that may sound like an over simplification I can’t honestly say that there’s much more to Doctor Strange than that. Visually it is a spectacle of a standard we’ve come to anticipate, action takes standards laid down by the Matrix to their next logical step, drama gives us comedy and tragedy in fairly even handed measures, and we are left with a new character who no doubt will make the Avengers that little bit richer for his presence. It’s still looking like a boy’s club but given the source material they’re working on we can’t expect much else just yet.