2017: The Year in Villainy

It’s time once again for the annual roundup of cinematic scumbaggery. Strap yourself in for a whirlwind tour of the best the year had to offer in sheer evil. Beware of spoilers.

The Skullcrawlers in Kong: Skull Island

The Skullcrawlers are basically giant snakes with arms sticking out the front of their bodies. They’re hideous, and provide a fearsome enemy for Kong to battle. You could also argue that Kong himself is the villain, since he does kill quite a few people, or that Samuel L. Jackson’s increasingly-deranged Colonel Preston Packard shows that MAN is the real villain. But in my opinion, the Skullcrawlers are the most straightforward antagonist of the film, so we’re going to go with them.

Image: Warner Bros.

Gaston in Beauty and the Beast

Gaston was always one of my favorite classic Disney villains, and Luke Evans did a wonderful job of bringing him to life. Everything you remember from the animated version of Gaston is present and accounted for in the live-action version. The massive ego, the determination to marry Belle, and the bloodlust that reveals itself when he sets out to kill the beast. Bravo to Disney and Luke Evans for such a faithful recreation of an iconic villain.

Image: Disney

The Joker etc. in The Lego Batman Movie

The Joker was the main villain in the extremely fun Lego Batman Movie, but I have to give a shoutout to the many other villains packed in to the movie, not all of them Batman villains. From Egghead, King Tut and Condiment King to Sauron, King Kong, and Voldemort, the gang’s all here. Zach Galifianakis did great work voicing the Joker and giving him a mix of scary and funny that was just right for the film’s tone. I didn’t get around to writing about Lego Batman last year, but it was a ton of fun and the filmmakers did an amazing job of packing it full of Easter eggs and references that are fun to look for on repeat viewings. It’s the kind of kids movie that both kids and adults can enjoy.

Image:Warner Bros.

Donald Pierce in Logan

Logan was my favorite film of the year and an emotional rollercoaster that I still don’t think I’ve quite recovered from. It also featured some of the most despicable villains, led by jackass-in-chief Donald Pierce and his robotic hand. Pierce and his cronies are not only responsible for ending the mutant gene, but they also created their own pet mutants using DNA from various X-Men, and raised the mutant kids in captivity and trained them to be weapons. Dastardly. Pierce’s comeuppance at the hands of the mutant children he helped create was one of the most satisfying and appropriate villain deaths of 2017.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The Assassins in John Wick: Chapter 2

The most accurate way to describe the villains of the sequel to John Wick is “everyone other than John Wick.” It seems like everyone and their mother is out to kill this guy, from the woman playing the violin in the subway to the bodyguards of one of the targets he assassinates. By the end of the film, John is more alone than ever, with the implication that basically the entire world is out to get him, so he’ll have his hands full (and then some) in John Wick 3, which I hope comes soon. The picture I included with this entry does not depict any particular one of these assassins, but is still very representative of the crap John has to put up with throughout the film. His exasperated face says it all.

Image: Lionsgate

Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been criticized for having somewhat weak villains (aside from standouts like Loki and the Red Skull). But 2017 was a strong year for MCU villains, getting off to a good start with Kurt Russell’s Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Ego is a central character to the film’s plot and an important part of the main character’s identity, so he doesn’t feel like a villain who’s there simply because the film needs a villain. His plan for galactic domination is thoroughly evil and even though he’s a bit too talky during the middle portion of the film, it’s still quite satisfying to see Peter Quill overcome his evil father’s influence and realize that his true family was right in front of him all along.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Vortigern in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie’s utterly insane King Arthur romp is not what I would call a good movie, but it’s a movie I kind of like simply because of how deranged it is. Given the insanity of the rest of the film, Jude Law’s commitment to his role as the evil king Vortigern is admirable. Vortigern is power-crazed and willing to sacrifice anything to maintain his power, including the lives of his own family. Despite the film’s weirdness, there’s a surprising sense of poignancy when Arthur defeats his evil uncle Vortigern and the look on Law’s face as Vortigern dies conveys the sense that he realizes all his actions, including sacrificing his own wife and daughter, have been for nothing.

Image: Warner Bros.

David and the Xenomorphs in Alien: Covenant

Xenomorphs have been scary ever since they first appeared on cinema screens in 1979, and after nearly four decades they are still every bit as scary. Some fans had issues with Covenant’s Xenomorph origin story, since apparently the slithery monstrosities were created by David, the wayward android from 2013’s Prometheus. Story issues aside, Michael Fassbender is terrific in a dual role and it’s a testament to the strength of the original Xenomorph design by H.R. Giger that the slimy creatures are as scary now as they were at the beginning, despite their appearance and behavior having changed very little over the years.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Cypher in The Fate of the Furious

I had a lot of issues with the plot of the massively-successful eighth film in the Fast and Furious franchise, so much so that I dedicated an entire post to it a couple of months ago. But I still give a lot of credit to Charlize Theron, who clearly has a lot of fun playing the blond-dreadlocked superhacker Cypher. Despite her generic name, Cypher is a cunning adversary who creates all kinds of trouble for Dom Toretto and his crew. She survives the movie and, given the series’ tendency to turn former adversaries into allies, it wouldn’t surprise me if she joined Dom’s team in future installments. But seeing how much fun Theron has in the role, it wouldn’t bother me too much if that turned out to be the case.

Image: Universal

Capitan Salazar and the Ghost Pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

I liked the most recent Pirates adventure a lot more than apparently everyone else who saw it. A big part of my enjoyment of the film was due to its excellent villains, the leader of which is played by the always-scary Javier Bardem. The special effects that created Bardem’s Capitan Salazar and his ghostly crew of undead marauders were fantastic. I loved the designs of the ghost pirates, some of them were missing body parts and their hair and clothing were always floating, as if they were constantly suspended underwater. The movie had plenty of flaws, but the badass villains were not one of them. Also, zombie sharks.

Image: Disney

Ahmanet in The Mummy

The Mummy was not a good film, but by far the best thing about it was the performance of Sofia Boutella as the titular antagonist, Ahmanet. I like the idea of a female antagonist in a Mummy movie, and Boutella did great work bringing Ahmanet to undead life. It’s too bad that the rest of the film couldn’t live up to the standard of Boutella’s performance, and flopped so hard it may have torpedoed Universal’s hopes to build an interconnected universe of monster movies. The film may have been a failure, but its lack of success can’t be placed at the feet of the actress who was easily the movie’s biggest strong suit.

Image: Universal

Ares, General Ludendorff and Dr. Maru in Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman’s trifecta of villains was probably the weakest aspect of an otherwise excellent film. They weren’t terrible, just kind of generic. But it speaks to the awesomeness of the film’s heroine that an evil German scientist, an evil German general, and the God of War himself never stood a chance against Diana of Themyscira (I keep wanting to call the scientist and the general Nazis but they weren’t Nazis because the film takes place during World War I). They’re fun villains in a 1940’s movie serial way, even if they lack the heroine’s three-dimensional personality.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Michael Keaton was excellent as Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, in Spider-Man’s first solo entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The reveal of Toomes as the father of Peter Parker’s high school crush and homecoming date Liz was extremely well done, and the subsequent scene of Peter, Liz, and Toomes in the car on the way to the homecoming dance dripped with tension. The Vulture is one of the MCU’s best villains, and the filmmakers did a great job of making him somewhat sympathetic, as well as connecting his origin to the larger cinematic universe of which he is a part. Bravo, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Bats, Buddy and Doc in Baby Driver

The titular character of Edgar Wright’s hugely entertaining Baby Driver lives a life surrounded by dangerous and unpredictable people. Doc is the mastermind of the heist crew, and Jon Hamm’s Buddy and Jamie Foxx’s Bats are the muscle. Buddy appears to be the more mentally stable of the two, while Bats is a lunatic who can barely control his lust for mayhem. Wright does a brilliant turnaround by killing off Bats during the climactic failed heist and making Buddy the last antagonist Ansel Elgort’s Baby must overcome before being able to be with Lily James’ Debora, the waitress he’s fallen in love with. Buddy proves to be quite tenacious, and Jon Hamm is menacing as hell. I loved Baby Driver, and can’t wait to see what Edgar Wright does next.

Image: Sony Pictures

Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

Cate Blanchett’s Hela was my favorite villain, or in this case villainess, of the year. She was absolutely kick-ass. Ragnarok was a blast from start to finish, and Hela was mesmerizing to watch. Blanchett clearly had a ton of fun playing her (how could she not?) and whenever she wasn’t on screen I wished she was. She’s a much more three-dimensional villain than the rather dull Dark Elves from Thor’s previous solo outing, and I can’t be the only person out there who thought she was, I dunno, kinda hot in a weird way (please tell me I’m not the only one). She appears to get killed at the end of the movie, which makes me sad that we probably won’t be seeing her again. One can only hope.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Steppenwolf in Justice League

A lot of people hated Justice League, but I wasn’t one of them. Sure, it had its share of issues, but I don’t think it deserved as much hate as it got. I will admit that its villain was weak, though. Steppenwolf was an intergalactic harbinger of doom that was just not very interesting. He looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album (wasn’t there a band called Steppenwolf at some point?) and spouts a lot of crap about conquering the world and whatnot. Yawn. Still, give him some credit for being able to take on six superheroes and give them all a run for their money, and Ciaran Hinds does a good job voicing him.

Image: Warner Bros.

Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Oh, boy. Where to even start with The Last Jedi? The issues I had with this film could fill their own post (and they will soon), but I did like Adam Driver’s performance as the tormented Kylo Ren, formerly known as Ben Solo, and motion-capture wizard Andy Serkis was pretty great as Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order. I have issues with these characters (more on that in an upcoming post), and Snoke is kind of a dumb name, but the performances were solid and I loved Snoke’s crimson-bedecked throne room.

Image: Lucasfilm

Pennywise in IT

One of horror maestro Stephen King’s most terrifying creations, Pennywise the Dancing Clown has been traumatizing readers since the book’s publication in 1986. Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise scared the pants off an entire generation in the 1990 TV movie of IT, and Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying portrayal of Pennywise in the smash-hit new movie was absolutely chilling. Skarsgard nailed the character, who basically is the ultimate embodiment of pure, unfiltered, malicious evil. Hela may have been my favorite villain of the year, but Pennywise was by far the scariest.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Man in Black in The Dark Tower

The film adaptation of another Stephen King story, The Dark Tower did not enjoy the same warm reception that IT did. I thought The Dark Tower was a fun adventure, albeit one that didn’t take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the source material. But the lead characters are played by two of my favorite actors, and it is fun to watch Idris Elba as the heroic gunslinger Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the diabolical Man in Black butt heads. McConaughey does great work bringing one of King’s most prolific villains to life (the character has appeared in multiple iterations across several of King’s books) and I’m glad that we got see these characters onscreen, even if only the one time, since the film’s underwhelming box-office performance makes a sequel unlikely.

Image: Columbia Pictures

Poppy Adams in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Matthew Vaughn’s overstuffed Kingsman sequel may have been a mess, but at least it was a fun mess. While Pennywise was the year’s scariest villain, Julianne Moore’s Poppy was without a doubt the most cheerful. She has a radiant smile for most of the film, even when commanding one of her henchmen to toss another one of her followers into a meat grinder and making a burger out of him. She also had one of the most unique hideouts, dwelling in a 50’s-inspired utopia in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. Or at least I think it was Cambodia. Poppy also kept Elton John captive and had robotic guard dogs named Bennie and Jet, so give her points for originality.

Image: 20th Century Fox

And there you have it! See you again in a year or so for another roundup of cinematic evil.

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Justice League: The World Ain’t Saving Itself

Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ attempts to emulate Marvel and Disney’s success with an interconnected cinematic universe of superheroes has met with mixed results, to say the least. They started off reasonably well with Man of Steel in 2013, before stumbling with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016. They scored their first major hit with Wonder Woman earlier this year, and were hoping for another big hit with Justice League, the superhero team-up movie that is DC Comics’ version of the Avengers.

Image: Warner Bros.

Well, they’re back to the mixed results, since Justice League earned middling reviews and underwhelming box-office returns. It’s still a fun action-packed romp, but behind-the-scenes drama may have prevented it from being an Avengers-sized hit.

The movie is a flat two hours long, apparently a result of a Warner Bros. mandate that the film not exceed two hours in length, after Batman V Superman was criticized for being overlong at two and a half hours. The shorter running time of Justice League means that the pacing is better and the movie has a good sense of momentum, but the downside is that the characters aren’t as fully fleshed-out as they might have been given more time to develop them.

The movie was also subject to extensive reshoots, which were directed by Avengers maestro Joss Whedon after original director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film for a time for personal reasons. This means that Justice League was essentially directed by two different directors, although only Snyder is credited. Fortunately, the new scenes are integrated well enough that it didn’t seem to me that parts of the film were directed by different people, although I’m sure fans will have fun trying to figure out which scenes were shot by Whedon. I think Whedon was brought in to film mostly new dialogue scenes to help flesh out the characters and their relationships a bit, since “relationships” are not exactly one of Zack Snyder’s strong suits.

Snyder gets a lot of hate, much of which I think is undeserved. People just love to hate the guy for whatever reason. I think that he has a talent for eye-catching visuals and is a good director of kinetic action sequences, but the characters in his films don’t resonate as strongly as the visuals and action scenes. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of Snyder’s work is that his films are full of great moments and memorable images, but good individual moments don’t necessarily add up to a great movie. This is a good description of Justice League as well, regardless of which director directed which scenes.

Image: Warner Bros.

But who are the characters in Justice League? There are six, and the identity of one of them could be considered a spoiler, since Warner Bros. kept him out of the film’s marketing materials. So, spoiler alert, I guess, although this character’s appearance will not come as much of a surprise for anyone familiar with comic books. When we last Superman, he was dead, killed by the monster called Doomsday at the end of Batman V Superman. He gets resurrected in Justice League, and I’ll keep the details of his resurrection a secret, although I will say that I thought it was handled pretty well, and that it was well-integrated with the rest of the film’s plot.

The other five characters, and the ones that the marketing focused on, are Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. We already know Batman and Wonder Woman, but the other three are making their big-screen debuts (not counting their brief introductory cameos in earlier films). The movie has a lot of weight on its shoulders, since it has to establish these characters and set up a villain that will take their combined efforts to defeat, especially with the truncated two-hour running time.

When the first Avengers movie came out back in 2012, it had a distinct advantage over the Justice League movie. In that film, we were already familiar with the characters, since we had seen them in previous movies. Even the film’s villain, Loki, was someone we already knew well. In Justice League, three of the main characters are essentially new to the film’s universe (again, not counting those earlier cameos), as is the film’s villain.

That villain is named Steppenwolf, and he’s…underwhelming. He’s basically a harbinger of interdimensional doom who wants to unleash hell on earth and looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album. He has an army of flying bug-eyed creatures called parademons and, look, the whole thing is pretty silly. The plot feels very compressed and viewers who aren’t familiar with the comic-book lore may very well wonder what the hell is going on. And while the big picture is clear (good guys must defeat bad guy before he unleashes hell on earth) the details are hazy.

Fortunately, I did like the good-guy characters. The movie has a better grasp of Batman (played again by Ben Affleck) than Batman V Superman did (Batman doesn’t kill anyone this time around), and Wonder Woman (the excellent Gal Gadot) is great. Aquaman (played by Conan the Barbarian Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (played by Ray Fisher) are fun characters, and the movie pokes fun at Aquaman’s much-mocked ability to communicate with fish. But the character who steals the movie is Barry Allen, aka The Flash, played by Ezra Miller.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Flash is easily the funniest character, and Miller steals every scene he’s in. Barry is a guy who really wants to do good in the world and is super excited to hang out with Batman and Wonder Woman and the gang, but he’s the first person to admit he may be in a bit over his head. “It’s great that you guys are ready to go in and do battle, but I’ve never done battle before,” he tells Batman. “I’ve just pushed people and run away.” The movie’s best lines all belong to him, and I’m looking forward to his solo film, although it’s still a few years away.

The special effects and action sequences are top-notch, which isn’t too surprising since Zack Snyder always delivers films that look and sound great, even if he struggles in other areas. There are a lot of fun superhero battles, and the movie has a much brighter color palette than previous DC Comics movies, which is nice to see. The characters look great and the costumes, weapons, vehicles and the like are badass, especially Batman’s awesome vehicles and Bat-tech. I also loved Barry’s wide-eyed reaction to seeing the Batcave for the first time: “It’s like a cave…a…bat-cave!”

The movie is much lighter in tone than Snyder’s previous DC films, which were heavily criticized for being too dark. There are a lot of jokes and funny moments (most of which belong to Barry) as well as a very funny scene involving Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. I also got a kick out of Barry’s first meeting with Wonder Woman. “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana,” she says to him. Clearly smitten, he says to her, “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana. Wait, that’s not right.” It’s good to see Snyder having more fun with these characters.

Image: Warner Bros.

Justice League may not be up to the high standard set by the rest of this year’s comic-book superhero films, but I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much the behind-the-scenes shakeups impacted the movie (there are several scenes in the trailers that aren’t in the film), but I still had fun with it. Maybe the Blu-ray release will include the director’s cut or something and we’ll be able to see some of the stuff that was left out. I still enjoyed Justice League overall, and while Wonder Woman remains the best movie in DC’s interconnected superhero universe, Justice League is quite a bit of fun, and 2017 was a much better year for DC movies than 2016 was, which is a relief.

Coming up next is something a bit different. For the past couple weeks I’ve been playing a lot of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It’s a game full of Nazi-killing and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans, but underneath all that is a game that cares deeply about its story and characters, and has a surprising amount of real-world relevance, despite the ludicrous robot-laser-space Nazis. Join me next week for a discussion of one of the most provocative video games to come around in quite some time. See you then.

Rogue One, Suicide Squad, and The Myth of The Extended Cut

Rogue One was an action-packed blast that I enjoyed immensely, but according to the movie’s editors and at least one of the main actors, it could have been a lot different. Will there ever be an extended cut of Rogue One? Colin Goudie, one of the film’s editors, suggests that there won’t be. Goudie says that the first cut of the film ran maybe ten minutes longer and that “There’s no mythical four-hour cut, it doesn’t exist.” Actor Ben Mendelsohn, meanwhile, has stated that there were multiple different versions of many scenes, saying, “We did have multiple, multiple ways of going at any given scenario, we had multiple readings of it.” Even Gareth Edwards, the film’s director, has said that the film’s ending is different from what it had been originally.

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All of this got me thinking. It seems like every other movie these days comes out on Blu-Ray slapped with a gaudy label proclaiming it to be the “Unrated Extended Cut” or the “Ultimate Edition” or some other superlative. And after watching quite a few of these extended versions of movies, I have come to the conclusion that the theatrical version is almost always better.

Take, for example, the puzzling cases of Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both of Warner Brothers’ 2016 DC Comics tentpole movies arrived in theaters last year with a great deal of fanfare, and both were met with mixed receptions, to put it mildly. When the films were later released on Blu-Ray, they were both touted as being the Ultimate Extended Unrated Cut. But I watched both of these so-called unrated extended versions of both movies, and in neither case did the extra footage add anything of substance.

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The theatrical cut of Batman v Superman already carried a hefty two-and-a-half-hour running time, and the longer version adds 30 more minutes of footage, bringing the running time to a whopping three hours and two minutes. But almost none of that footage makes the movie better. It adds a few extraneous subplots, makes the violence slightly more bloody, and includes one f-word. Big freaking deal. It slows down the pace of a movie that already had serious pacing issues, and it doesn’t improve the movie.

It’s even more egregious with Suicide Squad. The extended cut of Suicide Squad is a mere 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version, and the changes were so inconsequential I didn’t even notice what the changes were when I watched it. I had to go to a website that does analysis of different versions of films to even be able to figure out what had been added.

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This is especially galling when you consider that Suicide Squad is also a film that went through extensive reshoots. Many of the scenes depicting the abusive relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn were considered too extreme by Warner Brothers and left on the cutting room floor. You’d think that some of this would be present on the Blu-ray release, but tough luck. The 11 minutes added to the film are just filler, and none of the potentially interesting stuff is anywhere to be found.

More often than not, extended unrated versions of movies are just a marketing ploy. Exhibit A: Death Race 2 and Death Race 3, two direct-to-video sequels (technically prequels but whatever) to the 2008 Jason Statham flick. Death Race 2 and 3 were both promoted as being “Unrated”, which is bullshit for a variety of reasons.

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First, neither movie was released theatrically, so there is absolutely no demand for an unrated version of a movie that almost nobody would have seen in the first place. Second, the differences between the R-rated and Unrated versions of both movies are minimal, to say the least. I know this because I watched them. Are they bad? Yes. Do I like them? Yes. The main difference between the two versions is that the unrated versions include shower scenes for the attractive female leads, while the R-rated versions do not. Both movies do this. Does this mean that the unrated versions are better? Obviously yes, but that’s not the point. The point is that there is no reason for these scenes to have been deleted in the firt place, and adding them back in simply means that the makers of these films can slap UNRATED on the DVD covers.

But who cares about direct-to-video action movies that not many people see, you might ask? All right, try this on for size. Recently I watched the extended cut of Sam Raimi’s 2004 superhero classic Spider-Man 2 with my family, and the reaction was unanimous: the theatrical version was way, way better. The extended version still captures the soul of the movie, but it changes certain scenes and adds more to other scenes that makes them go on for far too long.

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The extraordinary thing in all of this is that films are edited in such a way that watching the original version, you’d never guess that anything had been cut in the first place. Footage that gets cut from movies gets cut for a reason, and the movie is almost always better off without it. Even with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s fun to see the added footage in the extended versions, but since the footage that was cut doesn’t contribute to the story in a meaningful way, it’s understandable why it was left out.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes certain scenes are cut because the studio thought the movie ran too long otherwise. The extended versions of James Cameron’s classics Aliens and Terminator 2 are quite good, because the added scenes expand on the story and add more depth to the characters. But in most unrated/extended editions, this is simply not the case.

I’m not a luddite who thinks that extended cuts of movies should not exist. It can be fun to see the stuff the filmmakers didn’t include. What I’m saying is that if you take the time to watch both versions, most of the time you will realize one of two things. First, you’ll realize that the differences between the two versions are sometimes so minimal that you’ll wonder why they even bothered. The recent Fast and Furious movies are also good examples of this. The differences in runtime between the rated and unrated versions of those movies is maybe two minutes per movie. And those movies make so much money that there’s no need to splash UNRATED on the DVD cover in order to sell more copies, people will buy them regardless.

And second, you’ll realize that the theatrical version of the movie, the version put in theaters for millions of people to see, is almost always better.

Just in case anyone was wondering, here are some of the sources I used, just to show that I didn’t make stuff up.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/rogue-one-reshoots-star-wars-spin-off-editor-suicide-squad-john-gilroy-cgi-tarkin-trailer-a-new-hope-a7519996.html

http://www.slashfilm.com/suicide-squad-deleted-scenes/

http://wegotthiscovered.com/movies/rogue-one-editors-say-theres-no-extended-cut-reveal-scenes-reshoots/

http://www.thewrap.com/ben-mendelsohn-rogue-one-different/

2016: The Year in Villainy

So much quality villainy this year! Let’s get to it.

Ajax and Angel Dust in Deadpool

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Revenge is always a strong motivator, and few movie characters were as single-minded in their pursuit of it this year as Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool. Ajax (whose real name is Francis, what a dweeb) and Angel Dust both possess superhuman strength and Ajax feels no pain, which makes both villains quite the handful. They’re a potent villain/villainess duo who prove that being evil isn’t just for men anymore. Angel Dust deserves the Henchwoman of the Year award and I’m not just saying that because Gina Carano is a total badass and could easily kick my butt. Not saying that I wouldn’t be okay with that, mind you. Seriously Gina, call me.

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Akan in Hardcore Henry

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You know how I said a second ago that few movie characters were as single-minded in their pursuit of revenge as Deadpool? Well, Henry the cyborg is right up there with him. Vengeance is literally the only thing that this mute tornado of death and destruction desires, and he will stop at nothing in his ultraviolent quest to reach the despicable Akan. Akan is a telepathic douchebag in charge of an army of henchmen, and in addition to his air of jackassery he has also captured Henry’s wife, and is awfully smug about it. Jeez, this guy is such a tool. Or should I say was such a tool, since he’s on the receiving end of one of the most hilariously brutal and over-the-top villain deaths of the year. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, though. Jerk.

Lex Luthor and Doomsday in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zemo in Captain America: Civil War

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The villain is usually the character the heroes spend the most time fighting, but in the case of the year’s two biggest superhero team-ups, that’s not quite the case. In both films, the heroes spend the majority of their time fighting each other because there’s a villainous figure secretly manipulating them. I wasn’t a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg’s bizarre portrayal of Lex Luthor, but I did like Zemo, who was a more understandable character. Any time a villain can get the heroes to do the work for him, that counts as a win in the Big Book O’ Villainy, and for that, Zemo and Lex deserve some evil kudos.

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I was not overly fond of Doomsday, an ugly CGI beast who menaces Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. But I can give him credit for being strong enough to require three heroes to defeat him, and his resilience earns him (it?) a mention on this list. And when you’re tough enough to (spoiler alert) KILL THE MAN OF STEEL, then you kind of have to be a badass.

Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse

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Apocalypse is an ancient mutant, thousands of years old, who awakens in Cairo, Egypt in the 1980s and is not pleased with the way the world has developed during his several-thousand-years-long slumber. He promptly recruits some followers (because Apocalypse has to have his Horsemen, naturally), gaining their loyalty by enhancing their mutant powers and giving them a sense of belonging, while the rest of the world has cast them out. He then initiates a diabolical plot to destroy modern society and reshape the world the way he wants it to be. The previous X-film, Days of Future Past, was less black and white with its villains, but suffice to say the X-folks have their work cut out for them with Apocalypse.

The Alien Queen in Independence Day: Resurgence

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Resurgence was a mediocre film, but the Alien Queen was cool. Basically a roided-up version of the Independence Day aliens we’ve seen before, but massive and equipped with her own personal shield generator, which throws the film’s heroes for a loop. It takes a lot to bring her down, and she and her legions of alien henchmen (henchaliens?) cause untold mass destruction and millions of human casualties before she is defeated. The movie’s blatant sequel-bait ending strongly implies there are more of her kind in the universe, so we might be seeing more like her before too long, assuming the less-than-stellar reception Resurgence received didn’t put the kibosh on future installments.

Enchantress and the Joker in Suicide Squad

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Ironically, the movie that was all about the villains is probably the hardest movie to write about when it comes to said villains. The primary antagonist of the film’s ragtag bunch of miscreants was the Enchantress, basically an evil spirit possessing the body of a young doctor. She caused all kinds of trouble, although she was still pretty forgettable. Slightly more memorable was Jared Leto’s punk-rock Joker, who suffered from a similar lack of characterization but benefits from the weight of 75 years of comic-book history. He was relegated to the sidelines for most of the movie, but every time he showed up you knew some shit was about to go down, which is as it should be with the Joker.

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Kaecilius in Doctor Strange

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Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favorite actors, especially when he’s evil. The Danish actor brings the evil to Marvel’s latest franchise-starter, providing a compelling dark sorcerer to battle the Sorcerer Supreme played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The final showdown between the two is a sight to behold, as the opposing masters of magic square off against the backdrop of time moving backwards, and a destroyed city repairs itself. The only problem with Mikkelsen playing so many villains is that he tends to get killed off a lot, which means he won’t appear in the sequels. Oh, well. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Shere Khan in The Jungle Book

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It was a good year for Idris Elba playing villains. He provided the voice for Shere Khan, the evil tiger in Disney’s smash-hit live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. Although it was more of an animated film since the entire movie was shot in front of green screens with only one live-action actor, but that’s beside the point. Despite being a special effect, Elba’s Shere Khan was sleek and scary, and may even have been a bit too scary for very young members of the audience. But scariness is one of the hallmarks of a great villain, and Shere Khan fits that description nicely.

The Shark in The Shallows

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It was also a good year for evil animals in the movies. A bloodthirsty Great White shark spends 86 minutes relentlessly trying to dine on the nubile flesh of Blake Lively in The Shallows. The film is a remarkably effective thriller, and although I have no idea if the movie’s portrayal of shark behavior is scientifically accurate, I don’t much care when it makes for such a watchable movie. The Shallows is similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 masterpiece Gravity in structure. It’s short, technically masterful, and mostly concerned with the trials and tribulations of a single female character. It’s an intense piece of work, and the toothy shark will be enough to make you afraid to go in the water all over again.

Krall in Star Trek Beyond

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Hey, it’s Idris Elba again! This time he’s playing Krall, a menacing alien creature who manages to completely trash the beloved starship Enterprise. He causes all kinds of trouble for Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew. Elba is mostly unrecognizable buried under layers of makeup and prosthetics, and his voice is sometimes hard to understand. Krall is basically an intergalactic version of Batman’s enemy Bane, and although Krall’s motivations turn out to not be anything unique (his motivations are quite similar to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness), but he remains a fun and intriguing villain.

John Boy in The Nice Guys

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You mean like John Boy from The Waltons? No, not like John Boy from The Waltons. Shane Black’s third directorial feature may have been a comedy, but John Boy was a brutal mob assassin who took no prisoners. He gunned people down with no remorse and even tossed a thirteen-year-old girl through a window, so you knew he meant business. The Nice Guys is a fantastic movie that is chock-full of memorable characters, even though not all of them are as likable as the hapless heroes played by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

The Asset in Jason Bourne

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Every Bourne movie features at least one CIA asset sent to dispatch Jason Bourne, but the Asset in Bourne’s latest adventure, played by French actor Vincent Cassel, is particularly troublesome. It turns out that this asset has a personal grudge against Bourne, and his and Bourne’s histories are inextricably intertwined. This leads to an absolutely brutal showdown in Las Vegas, featuring quite possibly the most brutal hand-to-hand fight scene in a series known for brutal hand-to-hand fight scenes. Jason Bourne was a movie with a lot of flaws, but it delivered on the action sequences.

Bartholomew Bogue in The Magnificent Seven

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With a name like Bartholomew Bogue, you’re pretty much destined to be evil. Peter Sarsgaard plays the thoroughly ruthless and despicable industrialist who holds the town of Rose Creek hostage. This guy is one Grade-A son of a bitch, a character the viewer despises from the moment he sets foot onscreen. It’s an effective performance from Sarsgaard as an absolute bastard, and as is the case with many absolute bastards, he turns out to be a coward once his power is taken away from him. One of the most detestable villains of the year.

Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Rogue One was an action-packed thrill ride that I enjoyed the heck out of, but the main villain, played by Ben Mendelsohn, was a bit boring. There’s nothing really wrong with Mendelsohn’s performance, but his character is basically a bureaucrat and isn’t terribly interesting. Fortunately, another evil presence is waiting in the wings, and its name is…

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DARTH FREAKING VADER!! Holy crap, it was good to see Darth Vader on screen again. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time but he makes the most of his limited appearance in Rogue One, and gets the chance to kick some rebel ass in the process. It just makes me so happy that one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history is once again on movie screens, even if it is just briefly. The fact that he’s voiced by James Earl Jones is icing on the cake.

So there you have it, the best of the best of cinematic villainy. There’s another good slate of movies scheduled for release in 2017, so I’ll see you all again for another roundup before you know it.

A Whole Lot of Pretty and A Whole Lot of Crazy

David Ayer makes ugly films. I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult, the world can be an ugly place. But between movies like End of Watch, Sabotage, Fury, and now Suicide Squad, the man’s movies are so drenched in blood and grime that I really think the man needs a hug.

I had high hopes for Suicide Squad. It boasts a great cast and had a ton of potential. It doesn’t live up to all of that potential, but it manages to be entertaining.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is a mess. But at least it’s an enjoyable mess.

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Suicide Squad is the latest installment of DC and Warner Brothers’ series of films based on DC Comics characters. The previous two installments, Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, were met with mixed reactions, to say the least. So was Suicide Squad. It got dreadful reviews but still scored a whopping $130 million-plus opening weekend.

One of the biggest problems people had with the previous DC movies was that they were too dark and stodgy. They didn’t capture the same sense of fun that Marvel has done so well with in its series of interconnected blockbusters over the last decade or so. To writer/director David Ayer’s credit, his film is funnier than the previous ones, there are quite a few funny moments and one-liners.

But like I said, the movie is a mess. Let’s start with the characters. There are a lot of them in the movie, but there are really only two worth caring about. Those two are Harley Quinn and Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, played by Margot Robbie and Will Smith respectively. Deadshot is the most skilled assassin in the world, expert with every type of firearm, including a musket we’re told, although unfortunately we never get to see him use one.

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Harley Quinn is the Joker’s former psychiatrist turned sort-of-girlfriend, although their relationship is unconventional to say the least. Both characters, along with many others in the movie, are making their big-screen debuts. The other characters are enjoyably quirky, but most of them aside from Harley and Deadshot have little background given to them and little personality beyond their obvious quirks.

Those quirks are largely tied in to their choices of weaponry. Captain Boomerang is a beer-swilling Australian who throws boomerangs, Katana is a samurai chick whose sword holds the souls of people it’s killed (?), Killer Croc is a giant lizard monster, Slipknot is a guy who’s really good with ropes, and Diablo is a Latino gangbanger with flame powers. There’s also Dr. June Moone, who just so happens to be possessed by an ancient spirit known as Enchantress. Sounds like a motley crew, right?

The movie desperately wants to be DC’s version of Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s nowhere near as coherent. The motley crew described above is recruited by a government operative named Amanda Waller, an infamous hardass who implants the members of the squad with explosive devices in their necks to ensure their compliance. She thinks of them as the perfect black-ops crew, skilled in causing mayhem and completely deniable by the government if anything goes wrong.

Things go wrong rather quickly, with (spoiler alert) Enchantress promptly stirring up trouble by resurrecting her ancient evil brother and turning people into weird-looking gooey black creatures. I thought of them as mushroom zombies because they reminded me of some of the enemies from a video game called The Last of Us, which were infected with some kind of fungal virus (or would that be viral fungus?).

If all of this sounds vague, it’s because I don’t know how else to describe it. And all of this happens so fast that the viewer barely has any time to process it. In other words, the movie’s pacing is completely off. The squad is introduced and then things go from 0 to 100 in no time flat, and the squad is helicoptered in to a besieged city to stop the mushroom zombies spawned by the evil Enchantress.

I love (fictional) villains, and part of the reason I was so excited for this movie was because it is all about the bad guys. “Stay evil, doll-face,” Deadshot says to Harley at one point. But of course the problem is that the villains have to become the heroes in order to save the day, and the central antagonist they face is spectacularly uninteresting.

Probably the movie’s best-known character is the Joker, played here by Jared Leto. Words cannot describe Leto’s horrific appearance. Short, neon-green hair, red lips, metal-capped teeth, covered in tattoos (including one on his forehead reading “Damaged”), with pale, corpselike flesh, he resembles nothing so much as a grinning, green-haired zombie.

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Much of the film’s marketing centered around Leto’s Joker, but he has very little screentime. He pops up intermittently but has no prominent role in the story. He’s a bit player more than anything else, and he doesn’t have a standout scene like the interrogation scene in The Dark Knight or the museum vandalism in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Despite his nightmare-inducing visage, he’s not very memorable as an actual character.

We see part of the beginning of his relationship with Harley, including a rather upsetting scene where he makes her jump off a ledge into a vat of chemical sludge to demonstrate her loyalty to him, and there’s a brief confrontation between him and Ben Affleck’s Batman. The Caped Crusader makes a very brief cameo appearance, he’s in the movie for less than five minutes. There’s also a surprise cameo from another Justice League member, but I won’t spoil which one.

There are fun action sequences, and each member of the squad gets to kick some ass, with one notable exception. There’s one character who exists for the sole purpose of getting his head blown off in order to demonstrate that Waller wasn’t bluffing about the explosive devices implanted in their necks.

It is still fun to see these characters onscreen together, especially as a comics fan. I liked how the character of Killer Croc was done entirely practically, instead of a digital creation the actor was subjected to what I’m sure was like six hours in the makeup chair. It’s a hefty commitment to a character who (surprise) has little influence on the outcome of the story, and it’s nice to see the filmmakers’ dedication to bringing these characters to life, even if the end results are somewhat less than satisfying.

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A better Suicide Squad movie is the animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham, which despite its title is a Suicide Squad movie in all but name. It features many of the same characters (such as Harley, Joker, Deadshot and Captain Boomerang) and a much more coherent plot. In it, the Squad must infiltrate Arkham Asylum to confront the Riddler, who is up to something nefarious, and things get complicated when Joker gets involved. Batman is more of a peripheral character, stalking the villainous characters from the shadows.

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It’s a plot I wish the movie had followed more closely. The film’s trailers made it look like Joker was the central antagonist, but he absolutely isn’t. The story is scattershot and the movie ends up being a hodgepodge full of fun but jumbled action and an overabundance of characters and subplots, most of which are either not very interesting or just outright bizarre. For example, the movie tries to work in a redemption subplot for the flame-powered Latino gangbanger, which feels shoehorned in and completely out of place.

Writer/director David Ayer wants so badly to make DC’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but he rushes it. He even tries to ape that movie’s wonderful use of 70’s pop music, but again, he rushes it. In its early going, the movie jumps from song to song so quickly that each one barely has time to register. Part of what made the music in Guardians so effective was that the movie spaced out the songs, lending each one its own impact. But Ayer crams them all together one after the other, rendering them much less effective.

I had such high hopes for this movie. But sadly it’s a mess. I don’t hate it, though. Much like The Lone Ranger or Batman Returns, it’s deeply, profoundly flawed, but I don’t hate it. It manages to be more consistently entertaining than Batman V Superman, and its sheer spastic weirdness makes it completely unlike any other movie now in theaters. It features a handful of good performances, most notably by Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who are the movie’s best assets.

It’s a stylish movie and the special effects, makeup and costumes look great, but it’s a shame that all of it is in support of such a clunky plot. “That’s a whole lot of pretty and a whole lot of crazy,” a prison guard says about Harley early in the film. It ends up being an apt description of the film itself.

The movie is choppy as hell, but I’ll still pick it up on Blu-Ray and watch all the special features. I’m not sure what that says about me, but maybe we should all be more worried about David Ayer. Seriously, someone give the man a hug and maybe a cookie.

Clash of the Titans

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice overcame terrible reviews to crush the box office over the weekend. If you believe the critics, it’s pretty much the worst movie of all time and if you like it in any capacity then you are a stupid pathetic excuse for a human being.

As usual, I feel that the critics have vastly overstated the movie’s badness. Batman V Superman is not a terrible movie, unfortunately, it is also not a particularly good one.

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Batman V Superman joins the ranks of Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 2, and Avengers: Age of Ultron as a vastly overcrowded superhero movie. It is the kind of movie that has so many things it needs to accomplish that it threatens to collapse under the weight of its many parts. It’s a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, it introduces several iconic DC comics characters, it sets up future sequels and spin-offs, and on top of all that it still has to attempt to tell its own story.

As a result, it sometimes feels like the movie is going through the motions, checking off items on the list of things it needs to accomplish. This is really too bad, since this movie had so much potential, but the end result is a little disappointing.

I didn’t leave the theater feeling like my spirits were completely crushed. Instead I was left feeling vaguely unsatisfied, which is not a good thing given the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour running time.

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But at the same time, there were things about the movie that I liked. The opening scene, for example, is terrific. It presents the climactic city-levelling battle from Man of Steel from the perspective of the people on the ground, as Bruce Wayne rushes through the city, dodging falling debris as he attempts to reach one of his Wayne enterprises buildings. It conjures images of 9/11, and gives the movie a sense of real-world relevancy.

Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last for the entire movie, since it goes overboard by the end. This is exemplary of much of the rest of the movie: it has good ideas but doesn’t know what to do them, and ends up feeling like it’s going through that superhero-movie checklist.

For example, a lot of people on the Internet complained that the final battle in Man of Steel caused far too much collateral damage, and that Superman was irresponsible for allowing so much destruction to happen. The new movie runs with this idea, and presents some intriguing questions about what could happen if Superman’s godlike powers went unchecked. This does lead to a very bizarre dream sequence, where Bruce Wayne has this crazy nightmare of the end of the world that could happen if Superman turned evil, which involves black-clad Stormtroopers with Superman S-logos on their shoulders and weird winged creatures of some kind.

Wait, what? Yeah, it’s a weird scene. As soon as it started I knew it had to be a dream sequence of some kind, since there was no way that it could actually be happening. The scene contains some cool imagery but feels cheap, since you know from the start that it can’t be real, and it isn’t.

The movie was directed by Zack Snyder, who is a fantastic visual stylist but struggles with making the stories in his films as compelling as the visuals.

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Take Lex Luthor. Theoretically the main villain of the movie, I honestly could not figure out what his motivation was. Seriously, what was his deal? Why did he do anything that he did? Is he just a power-hungry, absurdly rich megalomaniac? Does he just like screwing with people? I dunno. He’s basically an evil Mark Zuckerberg.

And Jesse Eisenberg’s performance didn’t really help. I like Eisenberg, but I feel he was miscast in this role. Snyder’s direction to him must have been “be as quirky as possible,” because Eisenberg spends the entire movie trying to out-quirk both Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey. Eisenberg’s is a truly odd performance, full of so many strange little tics that you’re never sure what this dude is thinking. Normally I would be okay with that, I don’t mind a little ambiguity but in this case the weirdness of Eisenberg’s performance leaves the movie’s central villain feeling like an enigma.

Not every performance in the movie is quite so frustrating, however. Amy Adams is perfect as Lois Lane, Henry Cavill makes an appealing Superman, Laurence Fishburne is fun as Perry White (Clark and Lois’ boss at the Daily Planet) and Diane Lane as Superman’s earth-mom Martha Kent gives the movie some much needed warmth.

But we’ve seen these actors play these characters before. Let’s talk about the real elephant in the room: how is Ben Affleck as Batman? The internet exploded when his casting was announced, does he totally butcher it like stupid people on the internet said he would?

Well…no. No, he doesn’t. He’s fine. Not fantastic, but fine. He won’t make you forget Christian Bale any time soon, but he does solid work as the Dark Knight. Much of the inspiration for the film’s interpretation of Batman comes from Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which is a personal favorite of mine. The Batsuit Batman wears and the armored Batsuit he uses to fight Superman look pretty much exactly the same as they do in that book, and there are a couple scenes from the book that are directly referenced in the film, which is cool to see as a comics nerd.

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Sadly, the movie muddles the Batman mythology. We see the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and young Bruce falling into the Batcave, and that’s about all we get for Batman’s origin. This is fine, since the movie has so much other stuff to get through and there’s a good chance many viewers will be familiar with Batman’s origin if they’ve seen any of the previous Batman films.

But that’s not where the problems come in. The movie presents Batman as a grizzled crimefighting veteran, multiple references are made to how he’s been fighting crime for 20 years. But this doesn’t jibe for me. I can’t make it work with how everyone seems to view Batman in the movie: he still seems like a complete mystery to the inhabitants of both Gotham and Metropolis. If he’s been around for 20 years, how come nobody seems to know anything about him? Even the cops don’t seem to know what to make of him, and there’s no Commissioner Gordon in the movie to tell them otherwise.

I don’t know, maybe this is something that would become clearer to me on subsequent viewings. But on my first viewing, it seemed jumbled. I certainly didn’t hate the movie’s version of Batman, Affleck was pretty good and I also liked the various bat-vehicles on display. But trying to condense so much of the character’s history (there are also Joker and Robin references) into a fairly limited amount of screentime can’t help but feel rushed. I’m not saying the movie would have been better without Batman (blasphemy!) but it’s a movie that would not have suffered by getting rid of a subplot or two.

One thing the film does deliver on is the action. The centerpiece title fight between Bats and Supes delivers the awesomeness. It’s a satisfyingly brutal battle that delivers on the promise of the trailers, and it is undeniably thrilling to see these two iconic characters on screen together. Zack Snyder may be uneven as a director, but one area he really excels in is the action scenes. He is a very good action director, staging fast-paced and brutal fights that are easy to follow and exciting to watch. I absolutely loved the scene where Batman busts into a heavily-guarded warehouse and lays down some serious whuppins on about 20 henchmen. That scene alone is probably the best Batman fight scene ever put on film. As a hardcore Bat-fan, it was just about the best thing ever.

The movie climaxes with a rather silly battle against an ugly monster called Doomsday. If you are a comics fan you know what Doomsday is most famous for in the comics, but this film handles him poorly. Most of the time I like big monster fights, but in this case I thought the monster was just kind of…stupid. Doomsday is a big, ugly, stupid brute with no personality. The only reason he exists is so that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can have something to fight against that is stronger than they are individually, so they have to team up to defeat it. I understand that, but this movie doesn’t handle that idea nearly as well as the Avengers movies did.

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Part of what made the first Avengers movie so good was that it felt like a payoff. It had five movies of buildup leading up to it, so when it finally happened, it felt like a big deal. It felt like its own movie, and didn’t seem too concerned with setting up more sequels. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a clunky name for a clunky movie. It had all the necessary ingredients to be great, but instead has to settle for being merely okay. I didn’t hate it as many other people seem to, but I didn’t love it either.

And I forgot to even talk about Wonder Woman. She’s played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot from the Fast and Furious movies, who I thought was pretty good in the role. She shows up intermittently throughout the movie in her civilian guise and makes her actual appearance as Wonder Woman during the climactic battle. I liked Gadot but Wonder Woman’s inclusion in the movie felt like more sequel-baiting (she’s getting her own movie next year).

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It also bothers me that Batman kills people in this movie. He blows up several truckloads of henchmen and brands criminals with a bat symbol, and there is never any discussion about whether or not he is taking things too far. Alfred is in the movie, played by Jeremy Irons, but he is relegated more to tech support and his usual role as Batman’s moral compass is largely if not entirely absent.

Was I disappointed by this movie? Overall, yeah, I was. For me it’s not that it was completely terrible, it’s more that there was so much potential that the movie didn’t live up to, it can’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown.

On Love, Loss and Superheroes

Hey look, I’m writing about Batman again! I didn’t expect this to happen so soon, but this time I am talking about an animated Batman movie, 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

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Mask of the Phantasm is done in the style of the animated series that began in the early 90’s, simply called Batman: The Animated Series. It is my humble opinion that the show was one of the best interpretations of Batman that has ever been done in any medium, and Mask of the Phantasm featured all of the elements that made the show so great, while also providing a deeply moving emotional foundation to rest its story upon. Mask of the Phantasm is one of the most tragic and affecting superhero movies ever made, and as a big superhero fan, and with the plethora of caped heroes running amok in movies and on TV these days, that is not a statement I make lightly.

Here’s the story. A masked, caped figure has been killing mobsters in Gotham, and since Batman had been seen at the scenes of some of these murders, the populace assumes he’s started whacking bad guys instead of bringing them in, and the police turn against him.

Long story short, Batman hasn’t become a murderer. There’s a new player in Gotham, and he’s the one knocking off mob bosses.

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While all of this is going on, the movie repeatedly flashes back to a time before Bruce Wayne became Batman, and tells of how he fell in love with a woman named Andrea Beaumont. Bruce’s relationship with Andrea complicates his efforts to figure out how to keep his promise to his dead parents. The film never states specifically what Bruce promised his parents, but it doesn’t need to. Anyone who knows anything about Batman knows that Bruce made a promise to his parents to rid the city of the evil that took their lives.

And he desperately wants to fulfill his promise, but he’s terribly conflicted because his romance with Andrea has led to something he didn’t expect to happen: his own happiness. In the movie’s most wrenching scene, he goes to his parents’ grave and pleads with them.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore,” Bruce tells them. “I don’t want to let you down, honest, but…but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can’t you? Look, I can give money to the city, they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it’s different now!” At this point, lightning flashes across the sky and thunder rumbles.

“Please!” Bruce continues. “I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy. Please…tell me that it’s okay…”

“Maybe they already have,” Andrea says from behind him. “Maybe they sent me.” Bruce turns to her, and they embrace in the rain.

Now I don’t care who you are or what you think about Batman in particular or superheroes in general, that is heartbreaking. It’s not that Bruce doesn’t still care about the promise he made his parents, or that he doesn’t still miss them, but the passage of time has helped dull the pain, and the introduction of Andrea into his life has led to him being happy in his life, and this kills me, because he didn’t expect this to happen. He didn’t count on being happy.

In the wake of his parents’ deaths, Bruce was so distraught that he didn’t think he could be happy again, and it took a person, Andrea, to show him he was wrong. And now that he has that happiness, he desperately wants to hold on to it, but he feels that to do so would be to let down his parents, which leaves him at a crossroads.

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Man…just, man. This one scene in this one animated movie from 23 years ago is one of the best portrayals of grief I’ve ever seen. It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the Batman myth, and shows heartbreakingly the sacrifice that Bruce makes to become Batman.

Bruce decides to change the plan and actually proposes to Andrea. She accepts, but their happiness is ruined when Andrea’s father gets in trouble with the mob, and the two of them go on the run. After she leaves, Bruce finally takes the plunge and becomes Batman, and doesn’t see Andrea again until she suddenly returns to Gotham years later, right around the time a mysterious masked figure starts bumping off mobsters.

Spoiler alert: it turns out that Andrea is the one killing mobsters, in revenge for their killing of her father earlier. In a further twist, it turns out the one who actually did the deed of killing her father was none other than the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker, before he became the twisted villain we all love to hate. After she bumps off the other mobsters, she sets her sights on Joker, but in trademark Joker fashion, he isn’t going to make it easy for her.

I’m simplifying the story a bit here, but to me the real heart of this movie is about the relationship between Bruce and Andrea. Despite the genre elements, the relationship between them is complex and compelling. They both figure out the other’s secret, and Batman comes to her rescue when she bites off more than she can chew with the Joker.

But Andrea doesn’t want to be rescued. In some ways, maybe it’s too late for her to be rescued at all. “They took everything, Bruce.” She entreats him. “My father, my friends, my life, you. I’m not saying it’s right, or even sane but it’s all I have left! So either help me, or get out of the way!”

“You know I can’t do that,” Batman responds.

“Look what they did to us!” Andrea bursts out. “What we could have had! They had to pay!”

“But Andy,” Batman begs her, “what will vengeance solve?”

“If anyone knows the answer to that, Bruce,” Andrea replies, “It’s you.”

Wow. That exchange just floored me. Most blockbuster movies these days don’t have dialogue anywhere near that good, or emotional thrust anywhere near that powerful. Mask of the Phantasm is able to do in 76 minutes what some three-hour movies have difficulty achieving.

It’s also a very well-animated movie. Some animation from the early 90’s can look a bit dated by today’s standards, but the animation in Mask of the Phantasm holds up very well. It’s also surprisingly violent. The fact that it was a theatrically-released film probably allowed the filmmakers to get away with more violence than they would have been able to pull off in the TV series. It’s not gratuitously violent, but it’s still pretty noticeable (for example, late in the movie Batman kicks Joker in the face, which spurts blood and sends one of the Joker’s teeth flying).

The voice acting is also top-notch. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will always be THE definitive voices of Batman and the Joker for me, and both are as excellent as always. Conroy lets you feel Bruce’s pain, and Hamill’s Joker is as unhinged as ever. He also gets to let out what has to be one of the all-time greatest Joker laughs. He just completely loses it.

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Also strong is Dana Delany, who voices Andrea. Delany provided the voice of Lois Lane in Superman: The Animated Series, and she is great as Andrea. She has the kind of smooth, sexy voice that I could happily listen to read from the phone book, and she really nails the emotional ups and downs (mostly downs) of Andrea’s character.

Mask of the Phantasm is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tragic romance. It delivers all of the things that made the animated series great: the story, the emotion, the (surprisingly brutal) action, it’s well-written, well-animated and the voice acting is superb.

I don’t think it’s been entirely forgotten, as I hope this post has demonstrated it still has its loyal fans. But it has been overshadowed somewhat by the bigger, flashier movies of recent years. It’s underappreciated these days, but still well worth checking out.

As a final note, the movie also provides one of the best explanations as to why I love Batman so much. After the final encounter, where Bruce fears he has lost Andrea forever, he sits despondent in the Batcave, and his loyal butler Alfred attempts to console him.

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“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce,” Alfred says. “I’ve always feared that you would become that which you’ve fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

That’s it right there. Batman walks the edge of the abyss, but he doesn’t fall in.

And I, too, thank heaven for that.