Flashback: ‘Spider-Man’

Before the genesis of the MCU, Marvel’s most treasured icon made his big-budget silver screen debut in Sony’s ‘Spider-Man’…

Poster art for director Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

Year:  2002

Starring:  Tobey Maguire, Willem Defoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson

Directed by:  Sam Raimi / written by:  David Koep (Spider-Man created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

What’s it about?

Bitten by a genetically engineered spider, teenager Peter Parker finds he is endowed with enhanced strength and senses which he utilises for good as the heroic costumed vigilante ‘Spider-Man’…

Retrospective/review

Whilst the great explosion of comic book films began in the summer of 2000 with the release of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men, the continued success of the genre was undoubtedly secured by the debut of Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man two years later.  Helmed by Sam Raimi, director of The Evil Dead – and a huge Spider-Man fan – with a screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), the first big screen outing for Marvel’s iconic webslinger is well worth revisiting.  Being Marvel’s most treasured character, Spider-Man had previously been adapted into live action in a short-lived late 1970s television series and had more recent success on the small screen with the hit animated series which ran between 1994 and 1998.  After an aborted attempt by Aliens and Terminator 2 director James Cameron to bring Spidey to the big screen in the mid-90s with Carolco Pictures, Sony’s Spider-Man would hit cinemas in the summer of 2002.

An origin story, Spider-Man sees high school student Peter Parker, gifted with the proportionate strength, enhanced senses and wall-crawling abilities of an arachnid after being bitten by a genetically engineered spider (a modernised take on the more atomic age inspired radioactive one of the comic book), turn to a secret life of costumed crime-fighting following the murder of his uncle, Ben – an act he finds he could have prevented but fails to do so.  His heroic vigilante alter-ego identified by the public as ‘Spider-Man’, Peter is soon faced with the challenge of the ‘Green Goblin’, a deranged villain who begins terrorizing New York from the skies above with his aerial military assault glider.

Kirsten Dunst as the iconic red-headed girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

In the lead role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man is Tobey Maguire, bringing to the screen the awkward, nerdy underdog qualities of the smart but meek Parker boy, with all the cares and ills of an everyday teenager to life whilst infusing his guise of the ‘Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man’ with the requisite dose of heroism, humour and good-heartedness.  He shares good chemistry with co-star Kirsten Dunst, who plays Mary Jane Watson, the seemingly unattainable red-headed girl next door he yearns to be with.  Equally suited is James Franco as Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborne, completing the central trio who will grow and develop over the course of the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy.  Filling the important parts of Peter’s Uncle Ben and Aunt May are, respectively, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris with both actors deftly providing the supportive and loving parental roles that are a key component of the Spider-Man mythos.

As Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, Willem Defoe delivers an increasingly unhinged turn with Osborn’s path to insanity unfolding as the chemically induced persona of the Goblin takes hold.  The scenes in which Osborn ‘converses’ with the Goblin (in the mirror/via the Goblin armour helmet) are an irrefutable highlight of Defoe’s performance.  Granted, the design of the Goblin suit is a little like something out of Power Rangers but that doesn’t detract from the overall threat.  There cannot of course be any discussion of Spider-Man without praise for the inimitable J.K. Simmons as the cantankerous chief of the Daily Bugle newspaper, J. Jonah Jameson.  Simmons’ energetic portrayal of Jameson is such a delight and his crusade against what he perceives as the menace of Spider-Man bringing another essential ingredient to the mix.

Sam Raimi directs with a genuine passion and clear understanding of the Spider-Man character and his world.  Raimi’s horror background adds a pleasing hint of the gothic and a dash of dark humour to proceedings accentuated by the music score from composer Danny Elfman, who also provides a main theme as recognisable as that of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon and as epically sweeping and heroic (complementing those exhilarating web-slinging scenes superbly) as Elfman’s previous work for Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns.  The action is engaging and expertly staged, with an exciting and tense finale that’s also shockingly brutal as Osborn’s Goblin proves his physical might over the young and inexperienced hero.

The friendly neighbourhood web-slinger faces the deranged ‘Green Goblin’, played brilliantly by Willem Defoe (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

Spider-Man remains largely faithful to the source material and despite the contemporary setting it very much feels like the classic Lee/Ditko comics of the early 60s, adhering to the spirit and core elements of those original stories – not in the least the tragic death of Uncle Ben.  Driven by Ben’s wise words that “with great power comes great responsibility” (invoking Stan Lee’s immortal phrasing from the Marvel Comics) to use his abilities for good, it also reminds us that the burdened hero is often the most interesting and identifiable and part of the reason why Spider-Man is such an enduringly popular fictional character.  There is one significant change from the established lore in Peter’s ability to shoot webbing organically from his wrists, as opposed to the mechanical web-shooters and web fluid he would invent in the comic.  It’s a slightly odd element that was (supposedly) retained from James Cameron’s treatment that would later be rectified with The Amazing Spider-Man reboot and continued in the recent Marvel Studios iteration.

Received favourably by audiences, Spider-Man is a solid, highly entertaining first big-budget cinematic outing for the Marvel Comics character which would lead to a sequel that many still consider one of the best comic book films of all time.

Geek fact!

The Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell cameos as a wrestling ringleader and would also go on to appear in Spider-Man 2 and 3.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Flashback: ‘X-Men’

Summer 2000 saw the arrival of Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ on the big screen, leading to an explosion of superhero blockbusters at the cinema…

X-Men Xavier & Magneto

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan provide heaps of gravitas in Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

Year:  2000

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn (as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Bruce Davison

Directed by:  Bryan Singer / written by:  David Hayter (Story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer.  X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

The not-too distant future: as the U.S. Government contemplates the introduction of a registration act for mutants – evolved humans with paranormal abilities – the benevolent ‘X-Men’, led by Professor Charles Xavier must stop Xavier’s old friend, Erik Lensherr and his Brotherhood of Mutants from igniting a conflict with the rest of humanity…

Retrospective/review

Although it could be argued that the contemporary explosion of comic book superhero films was initiated by the success of Blade in 1999, it was actually X-Men that brought the genre to the masses – leading to an (at least presently) endless crop of big screen comic book adaptations.  Helmed by The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, X-Men would become a smash hit for film studio 20th Century Fox in the summer of 2000 and although it may now seem a little tame when placed alongside Marvel Studios releases such as the colossal Avengers Endgame, it remains an enjoyable superhero action adventure that has an important place in the history of superhero cinema.  It would also spawn a lucrative film franchise spanning almost two decades, concluding with last year’s unfairly maligned (albeit flawed) X-Men: Dark Phoenix…or technically, will conclude with the still as-yet unreleased New Mutants spin-off.

By enlisting a director of proven calibre and having its cast include two of the world’s most talented and experienced actors, Star Trek legend Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier – leader of the ‘X-Men’ and a mutant with incredible mental powers – and Ian McKellan as Xavier’s old friend turned enemy, fellow mutant Erik Lensherr – aka ‘Magneto’, with the ability to control magnetism – X-Men would take a serious and somewhat believable approach to the source material without betraying the core fantasy and socially aware elements Stan Lee and Jack Kirby infused into the original Marvel comics (and which was so well portrayed in the classic 1990s Fox X-Men animated series).  Some may have been upset by the lack of more colourful costumes, but the cool black leather X-uniforms are indicative of the style and creative intentions favoured in Singer’s film.

X-Men Wolverine

Hugh Jackman debuts as Logan/Wolverine (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

In X-Men, as U.S. senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) debates the perceived danger of those with mutant abilities and presses for the Mutant Registration Act, Erik Lensherr, with his ‘Brotherhood’, believing that a war between mutants and the rest of humanity is all but inevitable, plots a pre-emptive first strike which Charles Xavier and his benevolent mutant X-Men must prevent.  In order to uncover Magneto’s plans, Xavier must investigate the link with two stray mutants – the young and afraid adolescent girl going by the name ‘Rogue’ (Anna Paquin, future star of TV hit True Blood), with the ability to absorb the powers of other mutants and the mysterious Logan, otherwise known as the cage fighter called ‘the Wolverine’, who is unable to recall his past or how his skeleton was grafted with the indestructible metal adamantium – a process he only survived thanks to his mutant-healing factor.

Although he may be taller than his comic book counterpart, Hugh Jackman – receiving top-billing – is instantly and effortlessly Logan/Wolverine, perfect casting in a role that would quickly become popular with audiences and fans alike.  Jackman simply is Wolverine, aside from matching the obvious physicality of the character (minus the height difference, which really isn’t an issue given the strength of Jackman’s performance) he embodies the spirit of Logan, from the raging temperament to the emotional depth arising from his nightmare flashes of lost memory and his befriending of Anna Paquin’s Rogue.  It’s a sublime portrayal right from the outset in X-Men and one that would only become more refined and assured in later instalments.

The cast of X-Men is filled out commendably with a generally strong group of actors who are a good fit for their characters.  James Marsden, Famke Janssen (previously a femme fatale in the James bond film Goldeneye) and Halle Berry make for pleasing live action versions of fan-favourite X-Men, respectively: the optic-blasting team leader Scott Summers/aka Cyclops (the conflict between Cyclops and Logan intact from the comics), the telekinetic Jean Grey (with no X-alias) and Ororo Munroe/aka Storm, with the ability to control weather effects.  Magneto’s Brotherhood boasts Rebecca Romijn as the shape-shifting Mystique, Tyler Mane as the feral Sabretooth and Ray Park (Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) as the agile, whip-tongued and slime-spitting Toad.  They may not be afforded anything in the way of character development, but non-the-less help facilitate the threat to the central heroes.

X-Men Cyclops

‘Cyclops’ (James Marsden) leads the X-Men as they attempt to prevent a war with the rest of humanity (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

From a story by Singer and Tom DeSanto, the script is provided by David Hayter (best known for voicing iconic video game character Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid) which captures the essence of the X-Men comics, it’s characters and the themes of prejudice and persecution which sadly remained as prescient in 2000 as they were in the 1960s, transposing it all into a more grounded reality.  Despite the more serious elements of the story (immediately evident from the bleak flashback opening at a World War II concentration camp, where the young Erik Lensherr is separated from his parents and his mutant abilities are first demonstrated) there’s still some fun to be had with a smattering of black humour and entertaining action sequences which complement the human and emotional aspects of the film.  The narrative wisely focuses on Logan and Rogue as the lone outsiders who cross paths with the X-Men, acting as a mirror for those in the audience unfamiliar with the world and characters of Marvel’s X-Men.  Bryan Singer’s direction is tightly and expertly executed, with a clear sense of visuals, tone and character deftly balanced with the action set-pieces which meld seamlessly with the special/visual effects which make full use of the $75 million budget (a princely sum back in 2000 but small change compared to today’s cinematic superhero offerings).  The Liberty Island finale is suitably tense and exciting bringing X-Men to an action-packed crescendo which may pale in comparison to the more epic and effects saturated climaxes of subsequent entries but is a satisfying close for Singer’s first effort.

Whilst the overall quality of Fox’s X-Men franchise may be inconsistent, the films are generally entertaining and sometimes excellent (see: X2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men is certainly one of the better early Marvel Comics big screen adaptations, the success of which (along with Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man) would allow more comic book blockbusters to hit the big screen and inevitably become the dominant genre in film and television.

Geek fact! 

Amongst the serving producers of X-Men was later Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, mastermind and guardian of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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

Have You Read… ‘Hulk: Gray’?

The comics and graphic novels you may not have read that are worth checking out… 

Hulk Gray (a)

Cover art for the original hardcover collected edition of Hulk: Gray by Tim Sale (image credit: Marvel Comics).

 

Written by:  Jeph Loeb / art by:  Tim Sale (The Incredible Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

Seeking out an old friend, Dr. Bruce Banner recounts the first hours following his exposure to Gamma radiation – the very event which unleashed his raging alter-ego, aka the Incredible Hulk…

In review

Following their collaborations on Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale (the creative team who produced fan favourites Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman: For All Seasons for DC) reunited for another Marvel Comics limited series – Hulk: Gray, originally published in 2003/2004 as six single issues under the more mature and less creatively restricted Marvel Knights banner.

Hulk: Gray is a standalone story recounting a previously untold tale in the history of the Incredible Hulk, within the first 24 hours of Dr. Bruce Banner’s fateful exposure to Gamma radiation and his transformation into the raging gray – or “grey” – giant.  That’s right…as aficionados will likely be aware, the Hulk was originally coloured grey for his debut in 1963’s The Incredible Hulk #1 and was subsequently recoloured green due to issues with printing reproduction (although a grey version of the Hulk would later feature in Peter David’s popular run on the title).  But aside from honouring this aspect of the character’s origin, the title Gray has more of a thematic meaning as it ponders the shadier middle moral ground between black and white.  It also explores the Frankenstein parallels that have often been linked to the character – something that was there from that very first classic issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  The story is presented in a straightforward manner, weaving its ideas neatly into the narrative.

Hulk: Gray opens as a forever on-the-run Bruce Banner, mourning the death of his late beloved wife, Betty (nee Ross), on the night of their wedding anniversary, takes a brief pause to seek the counsel of an old friend, psychotherapist Dr. Leonard Samson.  Tired of being pursued and eternally haunted by his beastly alter-ego, Banner bares his soul to Samson as he recalls his earliest moments as the Hulk and how the only true salvation in his life was Betty.  Yet, as we learn, Betty’s initial encounter with the Hulk is not exactly a sympathetic one and adds to Banner’s heartbreak in the face of an inevitably irreversible change in his life.

As well as Banner’s relationship with Betty, Hulk: Gray also looks at the conflict the Hulk’s appearance incites with the U.S. Military as Betty’s father, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross begins his relentless campaign to hunt down the creature.  What’s interesting is that Gray really conveys the sense that Ross, with his traditional air of “might makes right” (again in-line with how he was originally conceived by Lee and Kirby), is equally as raging and destructive as the Hulk, the difference being that his actions are deemed lawful and sanctioned by the U.S. government.  He may be more in control and less unpredictable than the almost mindless (or more child-like) Hulk, but the maniacal, near-psychotic Ross faithfully depicted here is proven to be just as dangerous with the resources – the “might” – at his command.

There’s still an element of hope in the story as the Hulk is not totally alone and has one person he can call “friend” (notwithstanding an unfortunately brief meeting with a desert-roaming bunny rabbit) – teenager Rick Jones, whom Banner had saved from the fallout of the Gamma Bomb test.  Gray highlights the ever-important friendship between Banner/Hulk and Rick and touches upon the burden of guilt that Rick carries as he blames himself for Banner being caught in the blast that leads to his ‘condition’.  Despite his troubles, Banner doesn’t hold his new young friend responsible and both as man and beast finds, at this point, his only trusted ally.  It underpins Banner’s inherent sense of morality and benevolence that prevents the Hulk from becoming a force of evil without removing the element of danger that accompanies an unrestrained and primal creature.

Throughout its six chapters, Gray serves up a pleasing dose of Hulk-Smash! entertainment and facilitates a secret, undocumented pre-Avengers confrontation between the formidable grey behemoth and Tony Stark’s Iron Man (with his classic early 60s bulky, golden tin-man appearance).  The desert-bound battle between the two future allies is a standout moment with Stark quickly realising that he’s bitten off more than he can chew as he’s beaten and tossed around by the Hulk.  Despite the technology at his disposal, Stark is unable to counter the threat that he and the U.S. Military have, perhaps unwittingly, provoked.

With the opening and closing of Gray taking place in the present, most of the story is told via Banner and Banner/Samson’s conversation, threaded throughout and serving as a narration.  Jeph Loeb’s entertaining script grapples onto the thematic concepts to present a poignant and thought-provoking tale of a man and a simple-minded and powerful but misunderstood monster, examining the dichotomy between the two personas and Banner’s startling revelation of why he really believes Betty loved him and stood by him for so long.

Tim Sale’s art is great and makes for a suitable accompaniment to Loeb’s script, with a classic, cartoon style that is reverential to – but exaggerates – Jack Kirby’s original visual design and which was also influenced by celebrated Hulk artist Marie Severin and her parody take on the character, ‘The Inedible Bulk’ (appearing in Marvel’s superhero spoof comic Not Brand Echh).  The use of colouring and shading is simple and effective (the black and white bookending sequences between Banner and Samson adds a touch of noir that also accentuates the central ‘grey area’ concept), creating a strong sense of atmosphere and the use of grey ink wash for the Hulk himself provides a subtle highlight that helps the iconic character standout on the page.  Whilst Sale’s style wouldn’t necessarily work as successfully in regular issues of The Incredible Hulk, the art he produces for Hulk: Gray is befitting of the pulpier approach taken by a story rooted in atomic age sci-fi.

Lovingly executed by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Hulk: Gray is a salute and homage to those early tales of the Incredible Hulk crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, simply told whilst broadening the depth of a decades-old Marvel Comics icon and reiterating the core elements that make the character most appealing.

Geek fact!

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale would team up once again in 2008 for a further ‘colour’ Marvel hero limited series – Captain America: White in which Steve Rogers recounts a special mission during World War II.

Hulk: Gray is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

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

Comic Review: ‘Daredevil’ #11

Chip Zdarsky’s run on ‘Daredevil’ returns to form…

Daredevil #11 (2019)

Cover art by Julian Totino Tedesco (image credit: Marvel Comics).

 

Written by:  Chip Zdarsky / art by:  Marco Checchetto / colours by:  Nolan Woodard

What’s it about?

“Through Hell”, Part I: as the NYPD continues its crackdown on masked vigilantes, Matt Murdock faces his ongoing remorse for the death of an innocent and finds he must heed the warnings of an old face…

In review

Writer Chip Zdarsky (whose most recent Marvel works include Marvel Two-In-One, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man and Invaders) continues his run on Daredevil with issue #11 (of volume 6, the comic’s legacy numbering being #623) which marks the beginning of the next story arc and the return of Marco Checchetto on art duties.  Although this is the first instalment of “Through Hell”, it’s not really an ideal jumping on point for new readers as it builds on the events established in this Daredevil series thus far, but luckily it’s early enough to catch up but please note that some spoilers will follow.

Going in to “Through Hell”, Matt Murdock is in a relatively low place – having abandoned his Daredevil persona (albeit continuing to answer his calling to help others) after causing an accidental death and succumbing to an affair with a member of the Libris crime family he has lost his way.  In the wake of Daredevil’s absence, copycat vigilantes have been filling the void and Daredevil #11 opens as a DD impersonator (his true identity a neat twist that only complicates Matt’s situation further) intervenes in an impending assault – only to be hindered by the arrival of the Police, currently enacting a policy of zero tolerance in an effort to crackdown on masked vigilantes.  Otherwise, this issue is, given the Man Without Fear’s status quo, light on Daredevil action but that in no way makes it uninteresting.  There’s a lot going on here and Chip Zdarsky not only has a good handle on Matt Murdock and various characters (all of who he juggles admirably, along with the various subplots without creating a mess) such as the Kingpin and the Owl but also sets the right tone for Daredevil which, although on the face of it seems bleak, is always strongest when dealing with the darker, more adult elements of the character and the brutal world of Hell’s Kitchen.  It’s always more interesting when we see Matt in a hole and how a writer eventually drags him into the light and there’s a sense that Chip Zdarsky has plenty up his sleeve.

The most significant moment for Matt in Daredevil #11 is his encounter with Elektra (the point at which Zdarsky left readers in the last issue) which demonstrates his loss of focus in the current circumstances, the death of an innocent weighing heavily on his soul and as Elektra points out has ‘softened’ him, a situation which his ex-lover warns is going to lead to his death if he doesn’t get a grip and accept Elektra’s offer to retrain him in the teachings of their mentor, Stick.  The main highlight in this issue however is the appearance of Spider-Man, drawn into a trap by Detective Cole that our Friendly Neighbourhood hero skilfully turns on his pursuer.  Again, Zdarsky nails the character of Marvel’s Webslinger perfectly (no doubt aided by his experience of writing Spider-Man comics previously), balancing the action with the wisecracks and a healthy dose of pathos as Spidey debates the virtues of justice and the need for masked heroes to save lives in a place where the law just isn’t enough.  It’s a wonderfully well-written and thought-provoking exchange that’s made even more enjoyable as Zdarsky utilises the one-hour dissolve of Spider-Man’s webbing to nifty effect.

Artist Marco Checchetto makes a welcome return to Daredevil (along with colourist Nolan Woodard), sorely missed since issue #5 and returning the book to its previous visual glory which was diminished greatly during the previous arc (although the stellar Jorge Fornes was a sublime fill-in for last issue) which was arguably beginning to hurt the book.  Checchetto’s style is the perfect match for the dynamics of Zdarsky’s script, establishing the mood and rendering some exciting action scenes, particularly in those Spider-Man sequences.  Here’s hoping that Checchetto can remain onboard for a longer stretch this time.

The bottom line:  Daredevil #11 is a solid and satisfying issue of the series in which Chip Zdarsky continues to build his ongoing narrative, enhanced by the return of artist Marco Checchetto and a nicely executed guest appearance from Spider-Man.

Daredevil #11 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

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

Film Review: ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’

Peter Parker packs his web-shooters as he heads to Europe for Spider-Man’s latest adventure…

Spider-Man Far From Home (a)

Spider-Man returns to the big screen in ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Studios).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori, Cobi Smulders

Directed by:  Jon Watts / written by:  Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers / 129 minutes

What’s it about?

Embarking on a school trip across Europe, Peter Parker is called upon by Nick Fury to help battle a new threat…

In review

The cap to Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man: Far From Home is the sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and follows the enormously successful Avengers: EndgameFar From Home, whilst an entertaining comic book romp isn’t as good as Homecoming, or Sony’s Marvel Studios-less Academy Award winning triumph, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

On the positive side it’s generally fun, humorous, heartfelt and offers a reasonable measure of spectacle and excitement striking the right sort of tone in the wake of Endgame.  Tom Holland once again proves he’s perfect casting for this iteration of the teenage Peter Parker – a.k.a. our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man – and brings the same commitment and likeability to the role we’ve already seen in Spidey’s previous MCU appearances.  Holland is, again, well-supported by Zendaya’s wonderfully amusing ‘MJ’ and Jacob Batalon’s reliably hilarious Ned, Peter’s best friend.  There are equally pleasing returns for Jon Favreau’s ‘Happy’ Hogan as well as Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May and Tony Revolori as the bully we all love to hate – ‘Flash’ Thompson.  Samuel L. Jackson brings gravitas and star-power as he reprises his role as the ever-popular Nick Fury (with his right-hand women, Maria Hill – played by Cobie Smulders – at his side once more).  Yet, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal (at one point under consideration to replace Tobey Maguire as the titular web-head) who arguably steals the show as the world’s newest heroic figure and a new mentor for Peter, Quentin Beck, otherwise known as ‘Mysterio’.  Gyllenhaal and Holland have solid chemistry, bolstered by some nice scripting that leaves the viewer invested in their relationship.

Spider-Man Far From Home (b)

A new hero in town – Peter Parker (Tom Holland) meets Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) a.k.a ‘Mysterio’ (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Studios).

To say too much about the plot for Far From Home would lead to spoilers but the basic premise sees Peter enlisted by Nick Fury to team-up with Beck/Mysterio to battle a new threat in the form of powerful and destructive entities called ‘Elementals’, but Peter, on a European school trip and pining after MJ (facilitating a number of sweet moments between the two) just wants to live the life of a normal teenager, leaving him torn between using his gifts to help keep the world safe and just being an average 16-year old.  As such, Far From Home functions more as a teen road trip rom-com than an actual full-on Spider-Man adventure.  There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that and it’s great for exploring and developing the characters but previous, prior MCU, Spider-Man films were able to achieve that whilst still delivering a more satisfying interpretation that genuinely felt like an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man.  Despite some decent action set-pieces (accompanied by some great visuals), there’s just something absent from Far From Home to make it a real “classic” iteration of Spider-Man.  It also feels a little overstretched during its first act and the pacing tends to suffer as a result and whilst those action scenes offer the requisite popcorn spectacle, they are driven by the effects leaving the sense of jeopardy and tension lacking.  The humour is pretty much on point but there are times when it seems to override everything else, as if serving to paper over some of the narrative cracks.

Spider-Man: Far From Home, if not a contender for the best big screen outing for Marvel’s wall-crawler (or a top-tier MCU entry for that matter) remains an enjoyable enough diversion and provides some interesting set-up for the character’s cinematic future and that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The bottom line:  A fun comic book adventure with some great cast performances, Spider-Man: Far From Home leans more towards teen-romance and comedy hijinks over delivering a truly classic big screen outing for Marvel’s iconic web-slinger.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is in cinemas now.

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

R.I.P. Stan Lee

The Marvel Comics legend has died…

RIP Stan Lee

The incomparable legend, Stan Lee (image used for illustrative purposes only and remains the property of the copyright owner).

The Pop Culture world has been shattered by the sad news of the death of Stan “the Man” Lee at the age of 95.  The founding father of Marvel Comics, Stan worked with legendary artists such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck to co-create a plethora of superhero characters that continue to be loved by millions of fans all over the globe. It all began with The Fantastic Four in 1961 when a bored Stan, on the verge of quitting comics which at that time were dominated by the crime fiction and Western genres, conceived the idea of the titular superhero team when his wife Joan (who passed away last year, also at the age of 95) urged her husband to create the kind of characters and tell the types of stories that he wanted to.  The rest is of course history and a new age of comics was born when Timely Publications evolved into the mighty Marvel where Stan served as President and despite leaving the company in 1972 he continued to be credited as ‘Chairman Emeritus’.

With the genesis of Marvel many more creations followed, including (but not limited to) the X-Men, Daredevil, Thor, the Hulk, Black Panther, Iron Man and perhaps the greatest of all the Marvel heroes: Spider-Man.  Co-created with artist Steve Ditko (who also died earlier this year), Spider-Man is the finest example of what Stan Lee strove for when writing comic books and the colourful characters within their pages – finding the human in superhuman.  By infusing these characters with the same day-to-day trials and tribulations everyone faces, Stan presented stories that were relatable and more relevant to the reader whilst providing hope as the extraordinary people he wrote about surmounted their problems.

Whilst Lee and Ditko parted ways acrimoniously, with Ditko feeling Lee had downplayed his contributions in the creation of Spider-Man, Stan Lee always spoke fondly and respectfully of the artists he worked with and his love for, and work in, the comic book medium together with his boundless and passionate devotion to the fans helped shape the Pop Culture landscape as we know it today.

With Marvel superheroes being more popular than ever, in no small part thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in which Stan would regularly make cameos in the various Marvel films, his many appearances commencing with 20th Century Fox’s pre-MCU X-Men feature film in 2000), Stan Lee’s legacy will live on for decades to come and most likely, beyond.

Stan Lee died 12th November 2018 aged 95.

Film Review: ‘Venom’

Sony Pictures launch a Marvel universe of their own…

Tom Hardy stars in ‘Venom’ (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate

Directed by:  Ruben Fleischer / written by:  Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg & Kelly Marcel / 112 minutes

What’s it about?

Infected by an intelligent alien parasite, former journalist Eddie Brock succumbs to the yearnings of the creature to become ‘Venom’ in a symbiosis that will ultimately benefit both…

In review

Released to scathing critical reviews, Sony Pictures’ Venom is actually a fun popcorn flick that’s not nearly as awful as those opinions would have you believe.  It’s not the greatest comic book film adaptation you’ll ever see but much like Warner Bros/DC’s Suicide Squad, Venom manages to hold itself together and navigate its flaws to simply entertain, viewed with the right mind-set.

Seen as the launch pad for Sony’s Spider-Man spin-off cinematic universe (the rights to the iconic web-slinger currently being shared with Marvel Studios), Venom sees star journalist Eddy Brock (Tom Hardy), having lost his job and his fiancée, becoming bonded with an alien ‘symbiote’ allowing him to transform into ‘Venom’ – the popular Marvel Comics anti-hero (originally established as one of Spider-Man’s most lethal foes) created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie.  Previously brought to the bring screen in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, Venom’s Spidey-less origin is likely to be the most controversial element of this new adaptation.

The ever reliable Tom Hardy (who was a powerful and imposing presence in The Dark Knight Rises) is Venom’s biggest asset with a committed and kooky performance that walks (and sometimes hops over) a delicate line between dramatic and darkly comedic.  Like the tone of the film itself, it comes across as a little odd and unsure at first but Hardy somehow makes it work and once Venom comes into play (whether as a voice in Brock’s head or in fully formed symbiosis with his host) the lead star clearly begins to have fun with it all.  In fact, it’s the ‘relationship’ between Brock and Venom that’s the most enjoyable aspect of the film.

Rogue One’s (and another of Britain’s own) Riz Ahmed brings a decent amount of menace to the central villain, Carlton Drake – entrepreneurial head of the Life Foundation, whose latest space mission brings Venom and other fellow symbiotes to Earth and Michelle Williams does well enough in an otherwise thankless role as Brock’s former girlfriend, Anne Weying.  The rest of the supporting cast and ancillary characters (including Jenny Slate as a Life Foundation scientist) are less noteworthy but serve their parts non-the-less.

The CGI is fine for a film of this level of budget (around $100 million) but the script can be a bit drab (and a little problematic as it tries to deliver tonal cohesion) with some generic characterisation and occasionally silly dialogue yet it provides and despite a slow-burn opening act, Venom soon begins to move along at an entertaining pace.  Ruben Fleischer’s direction does the job although the action scenes can be a bit muddled, falling into the trap of nauseously fast camera movements and quick edits.  It makes for a somewhat jumbled climax as Venom faces off against the rival symbiote known as ‘Riot’.

In the end, Venom feels like an old school comic book film that pays homage to those early McFarlane/Michelinie stories and coupled with Tom Hardy’s portrayal there’s enough to have a good time with.  It’s not a perfect start but there may actually be potential for these Sony produced Marvel outings after all.

The bottom line:  Not without its drawbacks, Venom turns out to be a fun and undemanding slice of comic book action that’s worth checking out.

Venom is in cinemas now.

 

What did you think of ‘Venom’? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Flashback: ‘Iron Man’

Ten years ago, a certain cinematic universe was born…

 

Iron Man 2008

In the beginning: Robert Downey Jr and Jeff Bridges head-up the cast of Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man’.

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway / 2008

What’s it about?

After escaping captivity and near-death in Afghanistan, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark builds a hi-tech armoured suit and embarks on a mission to thwart evil…

Retrospective

A surprise hit back in 2008, Iron Man was not only the first theatrical release for Marvel Studios but the Big Bang of the multi-billion dollar grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A decade later, it’s hard to imagine that a feature film adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser known (the rights to the likes of Spider-Man and X-Men held by Sony and 20th Century Fox, respectively) characters was considered a huge gamble and had the fate of a potential film franchise weighing heavily on its shoulders.

Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures (Disney’s purchase of Marvel would take place in 2009), Iron Man would take the Howard Hughes inspired character created by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber together with artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby (first appearing in Tales of Suspense #39, published in 1963), place him in the 21st Century and meld the core elements of billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark with the performance of lead star Robert Downey Jr.

An inspired casting choice, the once troubled Downey Jr was able to channel his demons into the role of Tony Stark – a character who had plenty of personal struggles in the comics – and turn in a performance that balances wisecracking quips with some hearty introspection.  Downey Jr is certainly a strong point and although this interpretation of Tony Stark differs somewhat to the more broody version comic book readers would be used to up to that point (writers such as Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis leaning him more towards the lighter, playful big screen version in subsequent runs), it’s a take that fits with what Marvel were seemingly going for with Iron Man – a colourful, fun action film with nuances of maturity, tucking in themes of redemption as the film’s protagonist seeks a more heroic and morally justifiable path.  When we first meet Stark, CEO of weapons manufacturer Stark Industries, he’s not the most likeable of people – a carefree and careless egotist who likes to drink, gamble and womanise in equal measure.  Yet, over the course of the film we grow to care for Stark as he reflects on errors of the past and embarks on his journey to becoming ‘Iron Man’.

 

Iron Man 2008 (2)

Robert Downey Jr: inspired casting for ‘Iron Man’.

The plot of Iron Man is fairly straightforward and functions well as an origin story and although it lacks the sophistication and artistry of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins it’s entertaining and gets the job done.  Updating the Vietnam-era setting of Iron Man’s comic book debut to that of post 9/11 Afghanistan, Tony Stark is gravely injured by one of his own weapons and captured by militants where his life is saved by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who fits an electromagnet to Stark’s chest, preventing deadly shards of shrapnel from piercing his heart.  Put to work on constructing a missile, Stark instead builds an armoured suit, powered by a refined version of the electromagnet and escapes.  Having witnessed the horrors of war and how his weapons could be used for untold evil, Stark returns home with a change of heart, announcing the end of munitions manufacturing at Stark Industries, to the reticence of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).  Frozen out by the rest of the board, Stark develops a new iteration of the armoured suit and sets out to destroy the cache of stolen weapons being utilised by the very terrorist group who held him captive.  Meanwhile, Stane has other plans for the future of Stark Industries and will stop at nothing to realise them.

Downey Jr is ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Pepper’ Potts, Tony Stark’s trusted, often frustrated, assistant who non-the-less is always at her boss’s side.  Paltrow is solid in the part, gifted with some plucky lines and it’s only bolstered by the easy chemistry between herself and Robert Downey Jr.  Adding further to the star-power is Academy Award nominee Terence Howard, who makes his only appearance as Tony’s friend and military liaison to Stark Industries, Lt. Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes.  Grumbles over pay negotiations for the sequel would lead to Howard being replaced by Don Cheadle, who continues in the role to today.

As the big bad, Jeff Bridges brings gravitas to the role of Obadiah Stane elevating it above something that could’ve easily come off as too pantomime in less capable hands, resulting in one of the more memorable Marvel film villains.  Stane’s increasing mania as he builds an exo-suit of his own is fun to watch, leading to an explosive finale as Stark dons the Iron Man armour to face off against Stane and his formidable ‘Iron Monger’ suit.

Iron Man 2008 (3)

Tony Stark takes flight in the Mark III Iron Man armour…

Director Jon Favreau (who also appears as Tony Stark’s driver, ‘Happy’ Hogan) keeps things energetic and exciting, delivering slick spectacle without sacrificing the smaller and more intimate character moments.  The film’s design is commendable, the highlight of which is the Iron Man armour itself.  Based on the designs of comic book artist Adi Granov and created using a mixture of CGI and practical elements – implemented by the legendary Stan Winston Studios – it’s a faithful translation of the red and gold future Avenger from the four colour pages to the silver screen.

Iron Man remains a highly enjoyable watch, whilst Tony Stark’s Avengers outings are generally stronger and the character, along with Robert Downey Jr’s continued success in the part, has grown and matured.  The film’s positive reception cemented the plans of Marvel Studios for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the wider superhero world teased by the inclusion of Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson and a post-credits appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as the organisation’s director, Nick Fury) and instilled Marvel with the confidence to adapt other lower-tier comic book properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange all of which would be well received by audiences and critics alike.

Geek fact!  An Iron Man feature film had lingered in development since the 1990s, with superstar Tom Cruise at one point mooted as a possible candidate for the lead role.

All images contained herein belong: Marvel Studios and used for illustrative purposes only.

 

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Marvel Studios unleash an entire universe on audiences in the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War…

Spoiler-free review

 

Infinity War

The Avengers unite with the Guardians of the Galaxy to take on Thanos in Marvel Studios release ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (image belongs: Disney/Marvel Studios, used for illustrative purposes only).

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin

Directed by:  Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / Written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 149 minutes

What’s it about?

Earth’s mightiest heroes – with the aid of some new cosmic friends – unite to prevent the galactic titan, Thanos from harnessing the devastating abilities of the all-powerful Infinity Stones…

In review

Perhaps the most anticipated cinematic event since the return of Star Wars, Avengers: Infinity War begins the culmination of ten years of the highly successful, box office conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The biggest, most ambitious Marvel film to date (until next year’s as yet untitled Avengers 4 that is), Avengers: Infinity War is a rousing rollercoaster ride packed with emotion, action and laughs in a dazzling, heartfelt and often spectacular comic book blockbuster.

Having already helmed two of the strongest MCU entries, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo once again prove, with ease, that they are adept at balancing epic scale and a large cast of characters ensuring that high stakes are maintained without sacrificing focus on the people.  The narrative is relatively simple and splitting it into three ‘sections’ (with separate strands of the story taking place around the world and in space) prevents the expansive set of players from becoming muddled into one gigantic crowd which would only disservice the individual heroes audiences the world over have grown to love.  It’s a bit of a genius stroke that helps to break the film down neatly and isolate smaller groups of characters – the only downside being the inevitable disappointment that certain Marvel heroes don’t get to team up this time.  There is also a sense that, whilst everyone is given their moment to shine, some are perhaps not given as much prominence as might be expected.  To say this film is big (both in terms of its visuals and its cast) is an understatement and it’s commendable that, in the grand scheme of things the Russo brothers have managed to hold together all the disparate elements of Infinity War as well as they have.

Tonally, Infinity War follows a slightly darker path which is to be expected given the stakes that naturally come with the end of all things but like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War there’s still a good dose of levity where it’s needed and a lot of fun to be had, whether it be the verbal sparring between Iron Man and Doctor Strange, Spider-Man’s over-eagerness or Thor’s interactions with the Guardians of the Galaxy, together with numerous instances of fist pumping heroics – whilst it may seem all hope is lot at times, there’s often an undercurrent of hope running beneath the surface.

Whilst this is an Avengers film and we get to see all our old – and new – favourites with key moments for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Black Panther (and many more, including the Guardians of the Galaxy – Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and a stroppy teenage Groot), Infinity War is very much the story of its central villain, Thanos.  First teased in the post-credits sting for Avengers Assemble, Thanos, thanks to the efforts of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and the motion capture performance of Josh Brolin (realised with some good CGI) is a powerful antagonist for sure and one with a lot of depth – there’s strong emphasis on character and a real sense of what his motivations are.  They say the best villains never see themselves as being truly evil and although Thanos is responsible for atrocious acts, Infinity War takes the opportunity to explore what makes the mad titan tick.

Infinity War isn’t total perfection though, at this point in the MCU there’s a certain – perhaps unavoidable – element of predictability that springs from a tried and tested formula and the pacing of its earlier acts can feel a little erratic and inconsistent.  Also, whilst much of the humour is well placed (and actually funny) there’s still the odd moment of forced slapstick that doesn’t quite hit the mark but it’s much more effective than some of Marvel’s other releases and never lapses into the outright absurdity of Thor: Ragnarok.  Some of the action can also be a little too frantic in its execution, although the Russo’s seem to have dialled back a little on some of the more overzealous ‘shaky-cam’ usage seen in their Captain America outings.

So, is Infinty War the best comic book film ever?  No, it’s certainly not The Dark Knight but nor does it try to be anything other than what it is.  Is it the best Marvel film?  Time will tell, but for now there’s no hesitation in declaring it as one of the greatest.

The bottom line:  Avengers: Infinity War was always a seemingly impossible task but directors Anthony and Joe Russo have pulled together an epic, exciting and at times moving comic book adventure that’s sure to be yet another hit for Marvel Studios.

Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas now.

Comic Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ #797

Dan Slott brings back the Green Goblin, will Peter Parker go down fighting?

ASM #797

Another striking cover from Alex Ross for Marvel’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ #797 (image belongs: Marvel Comics, used for illustrative purposes only).

Written by:  Dan Slott / pencils by:  Stuart Immonen / inks by:  Wade von Grawbadger / colours by:  Marte Garcia

What’s it about?

“Go Down Swinging” Part One : an increasingly unhinged Norman Osborn is ready to return as the Green Goblin and make Peter Parker’s life a living hell…

In review

Sounding almost like a mission statement, the latest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man sees long-serving writer Dan Slott kick off his final storyline with the opening chapter of “Go Down Swinging” and it’s a delightfully dark and ominous beginning that holds promise for what will surely be a grand finale.

Picking up on the events of the previous “Threat Level: Red” arc (and the recent, disappointing Venom Inc crossover which saw Flash Thompson return as the Anti-Venom), Dan Slott and Stuart Immonen present us with a deranged, psychotic and down-right scary Norman Orsbon, now bonded with the Carnage symbiote, as he prepares to make a return as the Green Goblin and eliminate Spidey once and for all.  This is perhaps the most chilling interpretation of the iconic villain that’s ever graced the pages of a Spider-Man book and it makes The Amazing Spider-Man #797 all the more an unnerving read – there are some pretty shocking moments within.

Slott makes this issue of The Amazing Spider-Man even more of a page-turner with a continuous tease as Osborn unloads his madness and obsession with taking down the Webbed Wonder on an unknown victim, bound, gagged and shrouded in the shadows of a dilapidated, cobweb littered apartment.  Whilst much of the issue’s page count is devoted to Osborn’s mania, there’s still some space reserved for Peter Parker as Slott takes time to weave key elements of Spider-Man history into the narrative, the highlight of which is the romantic interlude between Peter and Mary Jane whose union was controversially erased by J. Michael Straczynski’s “One More Day” storyline back in 2007 (which also restored Peter’s secret identity).  It’s a wonderfully heartfelt moment that’s bittersweet and a touch nostalgic for older Spider-Man fans, rendered beautifully by Stuart Immonen.

Speaking of Stuart Immonen his return this issue is a welcome one, producing layouts that are stronger and more detailed than ever, the definition of the moody and exciting visuals enhanced by the skilled embellishments of inker Wade von Grawbadger and colourist Marte Garcia.  Immonen’s departure from the title to make way for Marvel’s latest impending relaunch is going to be a significant loss for the title.

Gently cranking the tension up throughout, Dan Slott closes out The Amazing Spider-Man #797 with some tantalising final revelations, setting up rather high stakes as Spider-Man’s most formidable foe is ready to strike.

The bottom line:  Dan Slott and Stuart Immonen deliver a tense and shocking opening for their latest Spider-Man arc as “Go Down Swinging” gets underway.

The Amazing Spider-Man #797 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.