Film Review: ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’

It’s farewell to the ‘First Class’ as Fox’s X-Men series draws to a close…

X-Men Dark Phoenix (a)

The finale to 20th Century Fox’s Marvel film series – ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ (credit: 20th Century Fox/Marvel).

 

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Jessica Chastain

Directed and written by:  Simon Kinberg / 114 minutes

What’s it about?

Whilst on a mission to rescue the crew of a stricken space shuttle, X-Men team member Jean Grey encounters a mysterious cosmic force which amplifies her psychokinetic powers to dangerous and uncontrollable levels…

In review

Serving as the finale of 20th Century Fox’s mainline X-Men film series (although troubled spin-off New Mutants is still, presently, set for an eventual theatrical release) – the rights to the property now with Marvel Studios following Disney’s Fox acquisition – X-Men: Dark Phoenix follows 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse with a plot once again based on the iconic comic book storyline previously adapted (superbly) for the 1990s X-Men animated series and incorporated (not so successfully) into Fox’s original X-trilogy capper, X-Men: The Last Stand (released back in 2006).

Written and directed by long-term X-Men writer and producer Simon Kinberg, the 90’s-set X-Men: Dark Phoenix (simply known as just ‘Dark Phoenix’ in the U.S.) isn’t the rousing, wholly satisfying finale the series deserved but nor is it a crashing failure.  It doesn’t hit the heights of previous entries First Class or Days of Future Past but is comfortably superior to The Last Stand and a fair leap above X-Men Origins: Wolverine, arguably the franchise’s lowest point.  Aiming for a more grounded and character driven focus than the divisive Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix is unlikely to sway viewers left unimpressed by Bryan Singer’s X-sequel but it’s a laudable approach and Kinberg’s script packs an emotional punch whilst the sombre and dark tone lends some emotional maturity and tension to the proceedings.  The only issue here is that it doesn’t feel as though we’ve been given enough time to truly care about the newer X-Men team members introduced in Apocalypse and besides Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey they don’t actually get a whole lot to do in Dark Phoenix beyond playing their part in the action.  There’s also some drag in the pacing during the second act due to the slow-burn narrative, with much of the action saved for the finale which together with that desire for a more restrained and personal approach can leave Dark Phoenix lacking a larger sense of adventure and excitement, something First Class and Days of Future Past were able to accomplish whilst still delivering on character.

Cast performances are generally strong, Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) does a solid enough job with a lot of dramatic weight to carry as Jean Grey, unable to control the temptation and danger of the Phoenix force descends into turmoil.  Returning First Class alumni Jennifer Lawrence is suitably dour and weary as Raven/Mystique and fellow first generation X-Man Nicholas Hoult has a poignant and contemplative turn as Hank McCoy/Beast.  Interstellar’s Jessica Chastain makes for a sinister if underdeveloped villain, her manipulation of the increasingly fragile Jean and her Phoenix force heightened powers providing high stakes and a cause for our heroes to rally against.

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Tye Sheridan returns as Cyclops (credit: 20th Century Fox/Marvel).

Again though, it’s James McAvoy and Michel Fassbender – Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto respectively – who are the standouts and both actors are provided with some good material, especially McAvoy as Xavier grapples with fracturing friendships, a reluctance to acknowledge his mistakes and an uncertain future for the X-Men and consequentially, mutantkind.  Sadly, despite having roles to play in the action, Alexandra Shipp’s Storm, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler are not afforded a large enough presence for the majority of the film and tend to withdraw into the background with no significant character arcs of their own.  Tye Sheridan’s Scott Summers/Cyclops fares better but, again, there hasn’t really been time enough for the actors and their respective characters to grow beyond their debuts in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Making his feature film directorial debut, Simon Kinberg handles it fairly competently – keeping things level and focused in the more character-driven scenes whilst skilfully staging the action which aside from the initial space rescue mission (accompanied by some nicely atmospheric music from score composer Hans Zimmer), includes a climactic battle aboard a speeding train that ramps up the tension as Dark Phoenix reaches its denouement.  Despite the months of extensive re-shoots, Kinberg’s film hangs together in a coherent manner.

So, although Dark Phoenix isn’t a runaway hit it’s not a disastrous misfire either resulting in an entertaining diversion that doesn’t live up to the high-points of the X-Men franchise or it’s potential as a grand finale but is a stronger take on a beloved story arc with some decent character beats and an action-packed final act.

The bottom line:  Not the train wreck it was feared to be nor the epic final chapter it could’ve been, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is still a reasonably enjoyable time for those willing to give it a chance.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is in cinemas now.

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Film Review: ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

The kaiju king returns as Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse continues…

Godzilla King of the Monsters

The mighty Titan himself: Godzilla (credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures).

 

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance

Directed by:  Michael Dougherty / written by:  Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields (story by Max Borenstein, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields) / 131 minutes

What’s it about?

Faced with the onslaught of gigantic creatures, awoken from their prehistoric slumber – the organisation known as Monarch find that there’s only one hope for humanity: the mighty Godzilla…

In review

Following Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, the 2014 Hollywood reboot of Japanese studio Toho’s most famous monster and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island (released in 2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters serves as the next chapter in Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ ‘MonsterVerse’ film series (which is set to culminate in Godzilla vs Kong next year).  Directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a visual feast that’s a little dumb and sometimes overly frenetic, but ultimately a whole lot of monster bashing fun.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters picks up five years after the events of Godzilla in which the titular apex predator – or ‘Titan’ – emerged victorious in his battle against the ‘MUTO’ creatures, saving humanity but at great personal cost for some with the city of San Francisco left decimated.  Since Godzilla’s disappearance the Monarch organisation has continued its research and investigation of the various ancient Titans – amongst them King Ghidorah (a three-headed dragon), Mothra (aptly, a giant moth) and Rodan (a sort of demonic Pteranodon) – discovered in their dormant states at various locations around the globe.  When the creatures are awakened by eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance), Monarch once again find their only hope in preventing annihilation may be Godzilla, the mighty king of all monsters.

Godzilla King of the Monsters (2)

Charles Dance and Millie Bobby Brown form part of the human cast (credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures).

Although characterisation is patchy, the dialogue occasionally ropey (and the persistent volley of wise-cracks from Bradley Whitford’s Monarch boffin aren’t entirely successful) and cookie-cutter gung-ho military types dumbing things down a tad, like Gareth Edwards’ film there’s a certain amount of human interest – the broken family unit (torn apart by tragic circumstances) is nothing new but it provides some emotional depth with Kyle Chandler’s estranged father Mark Russell (and former Monarch employee), whizz-kid daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown) and mother Emma (and Monarch scientist), played by Vera Farmiga, placed firmly at the centre.  Some of the character motivations are questionable, even far-fetched and Charles Dance is woefully underutilised but luckily a returning Ken Watanabe (as Doctor Serizawa) is well served by the script and given a satisfying arc.  The use of bio-acoustics as a method of controlling the Titans is also a neat concept as is the notion that their conflict as a way of restoring the balance of nature that humanity has corrupted.

Make no mistake though, this is a Godzilla film and not Citizen Kane and King of the Monsters is at its best when dealing with its monster action and it fully delivers in its CGI kaiju smack-downs (the creatures thankfully remaining faithful to their original Toho designs), saturated with jaw-dropping effects rendered on a behemothic scale.  An overzealous employment of quick-cuts and shaky-cam in the visuals makes the spectacle a bit messy and nauseating at times but that aside, director Michel Dougherty (who previously helmed the fantasy horror flick Krampus and has co-writer credits on Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2 and Superman Returns) maintains a steady grip on things.

In the end, King of the Monsters may lack some of the class and sophistication of 2014’s Godzilla (and there’s something to be said of that film’s divisive approach, the steady build-up facilitating a more rewarding pay-off) but with its spirited homage to the zany comic book B-movie sci-fi of Toho’s original films, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has value as a piece of popcorn entertainment and an enjoyable prelude to Godzilla vs Kong.

The bottom line:  Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a fun, undemanding slice of kaiju action that joyfully evokes the spirit of those kitsch Toho creature features.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is in cinemas now.

All images herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Alien’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Ash, can you see this?”

Alien - xenomorph

The central terror of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’.

Year:  1979

Starring:  Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / written by:  Dan O’Bannon (story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett)

What’s it about?

Investigating the source of a mysterious transmission, the crew of a commercial starship discover a derelict alien craft which houses a deadly cargo…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Carrying the ominous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” and celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction horror, Alien remains one of the all-time greats of cinema.  Growing from an idea by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (originally titled “Star Beast”), Alien sees the crew of the deep space commercial towing vehicle Nostromo awakened from hibernation when the ship’s computer intercepts a transmission of unknown origin.  Tracing the signal to a nearby planetoid, the crew touch down and discover a gigantic vessel where an encounter with a parasitic organism leads to unforeseen horrors and a fight for survival against a relentlessly lethal alien life form.

Alien is a benchmark in both science fiction and horror, but whilst there are otherworldly elements and futuristic (but credible) technology, much like Star Wars before it, there is a worn, lived-in quality to the production in respect of the Nostromo and its equipment.  This sense of believability extends to the memorable characters of Alien – essentially wary space truckers bickering about bonuses and regulations, sharply written and wonderfully acted by the cast – comprising Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role as Lt. Ellen Ripley (in turn creating one of the most iconic screen heroines), Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, John Hurt as Kane, Ian Holm as science officer Ash, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert and Harry Dean Stanton and the excellent Yaphet Kotto as engineers Brett and Parker, respectively.

Alien - Ripley

Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ripley.

Another standout aspect of Alien is undoubtedly the incredible ‘bio-mechanical’ designs of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, startling and unsettling gothic creations used to bring the Alien and its world – principally the mysterious derelict ‘bone’ ship found by Dallas and co – nightmarishly to life.  The central creature itself (which would become known as a ‘xenomorph’ in James Cameron’s outstanding 1986 sequel, Aliens) is a thing of horrific beauty, intricately detailed and all the more terrifying thanks to Carlo Rambaldi’s Alien head effects and Bolaji Badejo’s simple but effective performance, making it something more than just the staple ‘man inside a rubber suit’ of old SF and horror ‘B’ pictures.  With Giger’s work and Michael Seymour’s production design there’s a lot of fine craftmanship on display and coupled with the meticulous model and miniature effects (the team including Brian Johnson, who had previously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and on Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 television series) that provide a tangible sense of reality in a way that CGI just cannot replicate.

Scott’s direction is flawless, gently leading the viewer through darkness and shadow then catching them off guard with several shocks and scares.  That approach, with the serious attention to detail and ambition for the project, coupled with Giger’s designs lifts Alien above the more primitive and potentially schlocky imaginings of Dan O’Bannon’s initial concept.  Music is of equal importance and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie, tense and atmospheric score is the perfect complement to the visuals, accentuating all the terror, unease and chills of Scott’s unforgettable haunted house in space.

Standout moment

Exploring the cavernous belly of the derelict alien ship, Kane stumbles across a cargo of egg-like objects.  Taking a closer look at one of the eggs, Kane sees signs of movement from within…

Geek fact!

H.R. Giger would later contribute designs of the xenomorph in director David Fincher’s second sequel, Alien 3.

If you like this then check out…

Aliens : James Cameron’s sequel pays reverence to Scott’s film without repeating it as Lt. Ripley returns to the planet where her nightmare began with a unit of marines.

Predator : a spiritual sibling to Alien, John McTiernan’s science fiction action classic sees Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crack military team being hunted by a deadly extra-terrestrial.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Marvel Studios’ ‘Infinty Saga’ reaches its conclusion…

Spoiler-free review

Avengers Endgame

Preparing to avenge the fallen: the heroes of Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Endgame’.

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Josh Brolin

Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 181 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of the devastation wrought by Thanos, Captain America and his allies set out to avenge the fallen…

In review

So, here it is, the cinematic event of the year or perhaps the last couple of years…but does Avengers: Endgame satisfy? Absolutely it does – not only is Endgame an epic and visually exciting ride but it’s an emotionally effective (and genuinely affective) journey that successfully ties together over a decade of a cinematic universe, bringing numerous story arcs to their conclusion and providing closure whilst gently laying the groundwork for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s almost impossible to discuss Endgame in any great depth without verging on spoilers but suffice to say the film picks up in the wake of last year’s incredibly successful Avengers: Infinity War in which galactic overlord Thanos (Josh Brolin), wielding the power of the infinity stones, extinguished half of all life in the universe. With Tony Stark stranded in space and the remnants of the superhero community back on Earth trying to come to terms with all they have lost, the outlook seems bleak and uncertain until events provide Captain America and his comrades with an opportunity to avenge the fallen. Beyond that lies an adventure that’s simply a landmark achievement in comic book blockbusters. There are moments where the plot of Endgame becomes a bit muddled and difficult to grasp, but in all likelihood this will diminish with repeat viewings and in the end it doesn’t matter too much given the pay-offs viewers ultimately receive as well as all the call backs to previous MCU outings, some of which can now be seen in a new light.

As with Infinity War, Endgame comprises an expansive roster of characters and each have a pivotal role to play, yet, wisely, the focus largely remains centred on the primary Avengers – mainly the trio of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor but with significant support from the likes of the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Ant-Man. The cast performances are great, especially in respect of Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans – arguably the pillars of the MCU who are afforded rich arcs for their characters and likewise, Mark Ruffalo gets to explore the continued evolution of the Hulk which began in Thor: Ragnarok. As for the Odinson himself, Chris Hemsworth gets to flex his humour muscles again with a dishevelled and drunken Thor providing a number of laughs – it’s perhaps a little too dialled up in places but along with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man it provides a necessary measure of levity and doesn’t devalue the dramatic aspects of Endgame. Of course, it’s no secret given her own recent solo outing (and following Infinity War’s post-credits tease), that Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel joins the fight and although her role is somewhat smaller than expected it’s still of importance to the overall proceedings.

Despite its lengthy running time, Endgame doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Sure, It unfolds at a steady pace and it may feel a tad leisurely for some but there’s a sense of building momentum throughout as the film progresses towards its rousing and spectacular final act – an exciting, gigantic, effects-laden showdown on a scale that even exceeds what we saw in Infinity War but without sacrificing the deep and personal elements of Endgame as it integrates a lot of small but wonderful character moments into the chaos. At this stage, directors Anthony and Joe Russo are masters at what they do and deliver on all fronts – that the duo have managed to guide Endgame to completion with such skill, care and unwavering enthusiasm is no small feat and helps make the final product all the more exquisite. Coupled with a screenplay (from returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) that provides plenty of pathos, humour, heart and action and superb cast performances, Avengers: Endgame is a total triumph.

The bottom line: Avengers: Endgame is an impressive and fitting finale to an era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with rich characterisation and powerful visuals.

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas now.

Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ (2009)

In 2009, the ‘Star Trek’ franchise made a bold return to the big screen…

Star Trek 2009 a

The cast of J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ (c. Paramount Pictures).

Year:  2009

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / written by:  Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman

What’s it about?

A young James Kirk and Mr. Spock meet for the first time aboard the newly commissioned U.S.S. Enterprise where they soon find themselves tasked with saving the universe from a vengeful out-of-time Romulan…

Retrospective/review

With the underwhelming box office and tepid critical reception of Star Trek Nemesis in 2002 and the cancellation of television series Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005 due to declining ratings a creative refresh of the Star Trek franchise was needed in order to rekindle fan interest and bring in a whole new audience that would help carry Gene Roddenberry’s creation into the future.

Whilst Star Trek would remain dormant on the small screen until the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, it’s theatrical voyages would recommence just four years after the conclusion of Enterprise.  Enlisting J.J. Abrams (together with his Bad Robot production company) to produce, direct and help craft the story – with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (co-creator and executive producer of Discovery) – Paramount Pictures commissioned Star Trek for the big screen.

Released in May of 2009, received to favourable reviews and a healthy worldwide box office of around $385 million (a fairly respectable figure at a time when $1 billion grossers were few and far between and comparable to Marvel’s Iron Man), Star Trek would prove to be a rollicking action adventure that, although favouring popcorn spectacle and Star Wars-style visual grandeur over the deeper philosophical explorations of previous iterations, excels in its characters and engaging story.  In order to be free from the burden of decades of continuity whilst still tying into the established universe, Star Trek would employ the popular time travel trope by bringing Leonard Nimoy’s (gifting the project with true Trek royalty) Spock back in time in an event that would create an alternate reality – now referred to as the Kelvin timeline – allowing a new series of Star Trek films to forge their own creative path.

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Eric Bana as Nero (c. Paramount Pictures).

Star Trek opens with the arrival of the Romulan ship Narada, thrust back in time after the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in the wake of a catastrophic supernova, which Ambassador Spock and the Vulcan High Command pledged, and fail, to avert.  The Narada, under the command of the embittered Nero, is discovered by the U.S.S. Kelvin which is subsequently attacked and its captain killed – leaving Lt. George Kirk (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth) in command.  The Kelvin’s crew, including Kirk’s wife (played by Jennifer Morrison) – about to give birth to their son, are evacuated as Kirk sacrifices his life to save others.  Jumping forward several years we meet a young trouble-making James Kirk and an equally troubled Spock, struggling to reconcile his half-human/half-Vulcan heritage.  Little do both know that destiny awaits (which for Kirk includes the captain’s chair of a certain starship), events drawing them together as the fate of both their worlds hang in the balance.

Finding new actors to inhabit the roles of the beloved original series crew was undoubtedly a daunting task and fortunately, the casting of Star Trek is exceptional.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are perfect choices for the roles of Kirk and Spock, respectively, both actors bringing respectful and recognisable performances to classic characters whilst making it their own and their chemistry helps drive the core narrative.  Likewise, Karl Urban is a revelation as the cantankerous but loyal Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy – the final component in the celebrated Kirk/Spock/McCoy troika that was such an important part of the original series.  There are equally strong turns from Zoe Saldana as Communications Officer Uhura, John Cho as Helmsman Sulu, the late Anton Yelchin as the incredibly eager Ensign Chekov and Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter in Star Trek’s original pilot episode, “The Cage” and by Anson Mount on Star Trek: Discovery) is also a highlight, particularly in his relationship with Pine’s Kirk as he inspires the bright but directionless young rebel by daring him to be better and enlist in Starfleet.  Playing the part of the villainous Nero is Eric Bana, who had previously starred in Ang Lee’s Hulk.  He’s not necessarily the most complex of antagonists but Bana gives it his all, delivering a decent measure of menace.

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A slick redesign for the U.S.S. Enterprise (c. Paramount Pictures).

The design of Star Trek is exemplary, from the Academy Award winning make-up, costumes and props (both nifty updates from the original series) to the lavish, brightly lit sets by Scott Chambliss and the sleek redesign of the Enterprise herself, providing viewers with a pleasing new look which respectfully adheres to the overall configuration conceived by Matt Jeffries.  Whilst there’s a comforting sense of the familiar, Star Trek also takes some creative risks – primarily the destruction of Vulcan by Nero and his cohorts in retribution for the failure to save Romulus from its own obliteration in the future.  It’s a shocking and dramatic sequence that establishes the highest of stakes to unite the Enterprise crew and allows for a more emotionally vulnerable depiction of Quinto’s Spock.

As director, J.J. Abrams (who made his feature film debut in 2006 with Mission: Impossible III) brings energy and enthusiasm to Star Trek, keeping the viewer invested whether it’s in his execution of action and visual splendour or the tight and attentive focus in the quieter, more intimate character moments.  A good film is always enhanced by a great musical score and composer Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack is a memorable one, exciting, emotional and wonderfully intertwining cues from Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek theme with fresh themes to take the new big screen franchise forward.

Star Trek may have been divisive so far as the fanbase is concerned but there are those that enjoyed it for what it was, a polished and highly entertaining rejuvenation of an ageing franchise that opened up the universe to a whole new audience which is something that shouldn’t be undervalued.

Geek fact!

The story of Star Trek was fleshed out via tie-in comic books from IDW Publishing (and overseen by co-screenwriter Roberto Orci) with prequel titles Star Trek: Countdown and Star Trek: Nero adding a lot of insightful detail and background to the narrative of the 2009 film.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Shazam!’

The Worlds of DC greets its newest hero…

Spoiler-free review

Shazam

Zachary Levi enters the Worlds of DC in ‘Shazam!’ from Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema (c. Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema).

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Directed by: David F. Sandberg / written by: Henry Gayden (story by Henry Gayden & Darren Lemke, Shazam created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck) / 132 minutes

What’s it about?

Foster child Billy Batson, granted god-like powers by a mysterious wizard finds he must grow-up sooner than expected when he finds himself faced against the threat of an ancient evil…

In review

Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema’s Shazam! Is the latest offering from the ‘Worlds of DC’ cinematic universe, a sweet, fun and funny superhero romp that wears its childlike innocence and sense of adventure with pride. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or stand amongst the very best of the genre but Shazam! is non-the-less a good time and a crowd-pleaser with a spirit that harkens back to the Christopher Reeve Superman films.

Based on one of DC’s lesser known – but oldest – characters (who at one point was selling more comics than Superman and originally known as Captain Marvel until legal issues got in the way), Shazam! sees troubled fourteen year old foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), struggling to adjust to life with his new adoptive family, encounter a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who believes Billy to be pure of heart and selects his as a successor to his incredible powers – by merely saying the word “Shazam” (which on the face of it seems silly but is actually an acronym of Greek gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury), Billy’s body transforms into that of a muscle-bound adult (Zachary Levi) endowed with an almost limitless range of powers and becomes the only hope of preventing evil demons, known as the Seven Deadly Sins, from being unleashed upon the world by the crazed Dr, Sivana (Mark Strong – formerly Sinestro in Warner’s ill-fated Green Lantern) who plans to seize the power of Shazam for himself.

Shazam! doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s essentially a superhero version of Tom Hanks classic Big (with a hint of Spielbergian magic) and much like Spider-Man: Homecoming did with the coming-of-age films of John Hughes, it simply goes along with it. Although the opening act may be a little sluggish it serves to give viewers a proper introduction to the characters and draw you into Billy Batson’s story – a significant part of which is his friendship with his foster brother and superhero fanboy Freddy, superbly played by It’s Jack Dylan Grazer and it’s the chemistry between the cast and their respective characters (which also includes an undeniably cute turn from the talented Faithe Herman as young ‘sister’ Darla) that really makes things click. Angel and Grazer are obvious standouts but it’s when Zachary Levi enters the frame that Shazam! hits its stride. The former Chuck star is absolutely the perfect choice to play the empowered version of Billy and he exudes the right combination of youthful excitement, awkwardness and physicality the role demands, handling all the action, heart and humour (an integral and well executed element of the film) with equal skill and with a believability and vulnerability that sells the idea of a boy in a man’s body. As Sivana (whose father is played by John Glover – Smallville’s Lionel Luthor), Mark Strong provides a decent amount of menace and danger – pitched with an appropriate touch of corniness. Sivana is by no means one of the all-time “great” villains but Strong does well with the character, for which we do get a bit of a backstory that helps define his motivations.

Shazam! is not as action orientated as other comic book blockbusters but it still has a fair measure, mostly reserved for its hero-forging middle section where Billy/Shazam must quickly master his abilities in a deadly face-off with Sivana and the climactic finale as he grapples with the creepy CGI-horde of the Seven Deadly Sins and director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) has a firm grip on it all. These moments are certainly exciting but in the end it’s the family-focused, character driven aspects of Shazam! that make it all-the-more appealing and whilst it may make some fans hungry for a return of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman it expands the DC film universe as it continues to find itself on firmer footing.

The bottom line: a solidly entertaining comic book flick with a great leading cast, Shazam! successfully balances emotion, laughs and superhero punch-ups to engage the masses.

Shazam! is in cinemas now.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Iron Man 2’

Marvel’s path to ‘The Avengers’ continued in the 2010 sequel to ‘Iron Man’…

Iron Man 2 - IM & WM

Iron Man and War Machine unite in ‘Iron Man 2’ (c. Marvel Studios).

Year:  2010

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Clark Gregg

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Justin Theroux

What’s it about?

After revealing to the world that he is Iron Man, Tony Stark faces the scrutiny of the U.S. Government and the wrath of Ivan Vanko, the son of one of Howard Stark’s former colleagues…

Retrospective/review

When 2008’s Iron Man proved to be an immediate success, Marvel Studios moved quickly to greenlight a sequel for release two years later.  With Jon Favreau once again in the director’s chair (and also appearing in front of the camera as Happy Hogan), Iron Man 2 would allow Marvel Studios to push forward with the first ‘phase’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which would culminate in 2012’s The Avengers (Avengers Assemble as it was released in the U.K.).

Whilst not as effective as the first Iron Man, Iron Man 2 is still reasonably entertaining and delivers much of what audiences loved about its predecessor.  Picking up six months after Iron Man and Tony Stark’s revelation to the public that he is in fact Iron Man, the sequel sees an overly cocky and self-assured Stark falling foul of the U.S. Government – who have classified the Iron Man armour as a weapon – and drawing the ire of Ivan Vanko, whose father passes away without his work with Howard Stark on the design of the revolutionary arc reactor being acknowledged.  Meanwhile, Tony has learned that the substance powering the arc reactor fitted to his chest is poisoning him and that he’ll face an early death if he doesn’t find an alternative.

Robert Downey Jr’s return as Tony Stark is a confident one and Justin Theroux’s script serves the leading star with some decent material that deftly combines humour and heart.  Although the wisecracks can feel a little too dialled-up, it doesn’t necessarily feel forced like some of the later MCU films and helps fuel the motivations of the embittered Ivan Vanko who seeks to knock Stark down a peg or two.  Beyond the lighter elements, Downey Jr gets further opportunity to delve deeper into the humanity of Tony Stark, frails and all, as he grapples with issues of his own mortality which drive him to excess (Stark’s drinking binge touching briefly on classic comic book storyline “Demon in a Bottle”) and the fraught relationship with his late father, Howard (John Slattery).

Iron Man 2 - Vanko

Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko (c. Marvel Studios).

Gwyneth Paltrow is equally assured in her reprisal of Virginia “Pepper” Potts whose chemistry with Robert Downey Jr continues to be a highlight and Paltrow’s character is given room to grow as she takes up the role of CEO at Stark Industries.  Don Cheadle makes a pleasing debut as Rhodey, taking over from Terrence Howard and proves a superior fit for the role, even more so when he suits up as War Machine.  As Ivan Vanko, Mickey Rourke does well with what he has to work with providing a serviceable antagonist (a sort of mixture of iconic Iron Man comic villains Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo) that does the job but doesn’t quite have the same weight as Jeff Bridges’ Obidiah Stane from the original Iron Man.  The threat to Tony Stark is bolstered somewhat by Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer (a recurring vilain in the comics), the boisterous rival industrialist seeking retribution when his government weapons contract is revoked thanks to Stark’s ramblings during the senate hearing.  Rockwell effortlessly shifts between being funny and formidable adding both tension and wit to proceedings.  The cast’s other most notable addition is Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow whose introduction, in terms of performance, feels a bit flat compared to her later MCU appearances.

Iron Man 2 - Black Widow

Scarlett Johansson makes her MCU debut as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (c. Marvel Studios).

One common criticism of Iron Man 2 is that there are times when the story takes a back seat in favour of building its ties to the wider Marvel universe and the set-up for the impending assemblage of the Avengers.  In fairness that’s a bit of an overstatement – the inclusion of Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t too overbearing and has some significance to the plot as Fury helps Tony unveil his father’s unfinished work and search for a new power source for the arc reactor.  It also builds on that post credits scene from the first film, providing a gentle push toward The Avengers.

Iron Man 2 has its flaws.  It’s perhaps a little too sure of itself at times and there’s some loss of the irreverence that made the first Iron Man feel so unique and fresh.  As mentioned earlier, Rourke’s villain doesn’t pack as big a punch as one would hope and it doesn’t help that, although the attack on the Stark Expo leads to an exciting finale, the final showdown between Vanko and Stark is rather anticlimactic with no real emotional payoff.

Ultimately, Iron Man 2 isn’t a sequel in the same vein as The Dark Knight or Aliens or Terminator 2, nor does it rank as one of the best MCU entries but as a comic book blockbuster, viewed with realistic expectations it’s a fun ride.

Geek fact!  Iron Man 2 is dedicated to DJ Adam Goldstein who appears in a cameo filmed prior to his tragic death at the age of 36.

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