Spider-Man’s Welcome Homecoming

Spider-Man has been called the most put-upon superhero in all of comics, and that applies to his life off the big screen and the comic-book page as well as on it. Since 2002, there have been six solo Spider-Man movies (not counting his appearance in Captain America: Civil War), he’s been played by three different actors and rebooted twice. His latest adventure, Spider-Man: Homecoming, is a co-production between two major studios (Marvel and Sony) and has exactly SIX credited screenwriters.

Given all that turmoil, it’s remarkable that the new movie is as good as it is. And make no mistake: the new movie is very good. It captures the essence of Spider-Man and reminds us of what makes the character so appealing, all while telling an original story that stands on its own and connects to the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in a logical and meaningful way.

Image: Sony

If you think that yet another Spider-Man origin story doesn’t sound very appealing, then you’re in luck: Homecoming is not an origin story. Here are things we do not see happen in Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter getting bitten by a radioactive spider, and Uncle Ben dying. The makers of Homecoming know that we have seen these things multiple times before, so they don’t bother rehashing them. Also, Peter Parker doesn’t take any pictures, there is no mention of the Daily Bugle or J. Jonah Jameson, we don’t hear anything about great power and great responsibility, and Peter doesn’t even call Aunt May “Aunt May.” He just calls her May.

Which makes sense, because May is played by Marisa Tomei and is much younger than her previous onscreen incarnations. She’s great, fiery and self-sufficient. She’s more of a help to Peter, instead of the hindrance she usually is in comics and movies. She helps him out instead of just being another problem to make his life more difficult. She even tells Peter to cut the bullshit at one point, and it’s hard to imagine hearing that from the Aunt May of previous films.

This is but one example of how the filmmakers have made the familiar world of Spider-Man feel fresh and new. In this version, Spider-Man’s suit is made by none other than Tony Stark, and comes with a wide variety of hidden secrets. It even has its own AI, silkily voiced by Jennifer Connelly, whom Peter dubs “Karen.” Peter and Karen have many funny interactions, especially since she knows more about the suit than he does.

I’ve somehow forgotten to mention that Spider-Man is played by Tom Holland, a 21-year-old Brit who is 100% convincing as a fifteen-year-old American high school student. Holland perfectly captures Peter’s youthful exuberance, while still conveying his soulfulness and intelligence. Homecoming isn’t an origin story, but it does take place early on in Spider-Man’s superheroic career. As such, he isn’t always as graceful as we’ve seen in previous films. In one very funny scene, he tears through people’s backyard fences and knocks over treehouses in his dogged but somewhat hapless pursuit of the bad guys, and in a couple places he straight-up faceplants instead of landing on his feet. He’s very vulnerable, which is one of Spider-man’s defining characteristics, and a big part of what makes him relatable.

The movie lets us see him be scared a few times. It lets us see him mess up. Homecoming is less angst-ridden and more playful than the earlier movies, but it still emphasizes Peter’s humanity. It’s also very funny, easily one of the funniest MCU movies. The filmmakers have said that the films of John Hughes were a big influence on Homecoming (and there’s even a brief clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in one scene). It’s a breezy and very fun movie, while still being emotional when it needs to be.

Image: Sony

It also does not repeat one of the biggest mistakes made by the earlier movies (namely Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) in that it does not have too many villains. There is ONE main villain, which is all there needs to be. It helps that said villain is played by Michael Keaton, who seems to like playing characters associated with flying creatures. First Batman, then Birdman, and here, Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture. This is a character who has not been seen on the big screen before, and the filmmakers have given him a motive that makes sense and connects nicely to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Keaton is very menacing in the role, with a sardonic sense of humor. He’s easily one of the best MCU villains, and there’s a great plot twist that for once the movie’s trailers and advertising managed to not completely spoil, so I won’t spoil it either.

Spidey himself also looks great. The costume he wears is close enough to his original look in the comics to satisfy fans of the character, while adding a few tweaks. The filmmakers have also thought of a clever way to make Spidey more expressive, by making his eyes change size. In earlier movies, the eyes stayed the same size, but here they get bigger and smaller, which gives Spider-Man a wider range of expressions.
Peter Parker’s relationship with Tony Stark is another great aspect of the movie. They’re both huge nerds, Tony just so happens to be insanely rich and Peter is dirt-poor. Robert Downey Jr. brings the same sarcastic wit he’s brought to Tony ever since 2008, and he helps Peter learn a very important lesson: that he is more than just a fancy suit. This is a lesson Tony himself had to learn the hard way, and it’s important for Peter to learn as well.

The movie doesn’t skimp on the action, either. Highlights include a battle on a ferry which starts to split in half, a dramatic rescue atop the Washington Monument, and a climactic midair battle. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these, and it is always a joy to see Spidey effortlessly sailing through the concrete jungles of New York City, even if he does occasionally fall flat on his face. The movie also addresses what happens when there aren’t any buildings or trees around that are tall enough for Peter to use his webs on: he just has to leg it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fantastic movie: full of colorful action, great characters and acting, it’s well-written and often very funny, and it tells a story that makes sense on its own while still fitting into the sprawling Marcel Cinematic Universe. It’s everything you want a Spider-Man movie to be, and it doesn’t get bogged down in franchise-building or sequel-baiting. It may not be quite as good Sam Raimi’s near-flawless Spider-Man 2, but in my opinion it more than qualifies as the second-best Spider-Man movie, which is no small feat. And as always with these Marvel movies, make sure you stay until the very end after the credits for a cheeky extra scene. I won’t spoil it, but remember, kids, patience is a virtue.

Next on my summer watchlist is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but that won’t be out until July 21, so in the meantime I’m going to back a few months and talk about The Fate of the Furious. I saw it when it came out but for whatever reason never wrote about it, so I’m going to rectify that next week. And since it came out a few months ago and made about a bazillion dollars, I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has now expired, so I’m really going to dig into it. Tune in next week for a spoiler-filled discussion!

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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/

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Seriously guys, why can’t we be friends? Why are you fighting? Stop it! STOP IT!!

Ok, sorry, I just get so emotional sometimes. Captain America: Civil War is upon us, and it is a rollercoaster in more ways than one.

Superheroes fighting each other is nothing new, just a few months ago Batman and Superman threw down, but instead of two heroes clashing, in this movie there are an even dozen duking it out.

On one side: Captain America, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Scarlet Witch.

On the other: Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Vision, Black Panther, and the Amazing Spider-Man himself.

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Wow, that’s quite the roster. Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie in all but name. The only Avengers who do not appear are Hulk and Thor, and they are missed, but not too much, since the movie already has a plethora of costumed characters.

But what is the cause of these heroes’ disagreement? Basically, it has to do with accountability. The Avengers may be good at saving the world, but said world-saving is frequently accompanied by large amounts of collateral damage. The governments of the world have had enough, and seek to impose a new set of regulations to keep the Avengers in check. Tony Stark aka Iron Man is in favor of this, Steve Rogers aka Captain America is not, and the rest of the Avengers choose sides accordingly. There’s also a nefarious character with the catchy name of Zemo who is influencing events from behind the scenes, but to say too much about him would be to give the game away too soon.

I love this movie’s central conflict. It’s a fantastic setup because there are compelling arguments for both sides, which makes the character motivations clear for all involved. A movie with this many characters could easily become unbalanced. Batman V Superman for example was ungainly as hell with less than half as many superpowered individuals. But this movie has a clearer sense of purpose, and feels more coherent as a result.

Civil War throws a few new characters into the mix, with great success. Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, is an excellent addition. Wearing a badass black costume made of vibranium, which is the same material Captain America’s shield is made of, and complete with Catwoman-esque retractable claws, the character makes a strong first impression and I am looking forward to his solo movie, which is due out in 2018.

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And let’s talk about Spider-Man. There’s a lot of cynicism relating to this character, due mostly to the fact that since 2002 there have already been five Spider-Man movies, presenting two different origin stories for the character who has been played by two different actors. The idea of yet another Spidey reboot was not something many people were overly excited about, but if next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming is half as charming as Spidey’s appearance in this film it could be something really special.

This latest version of the webslinger is played by a young actor named Tom Holland, with whom I was largely unfamiliar, but he really nailed it here. The movie presents Peter Parker as a penniless nerd who’s brilliant but so poor that he has to scavenge computer parts from the garbage. Tony Stark recruits him to join his cause and Holland has great chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. The scene where Tony first meets up with Peter is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It makes perfect sense that Tony and Peter would get along, since they’re both such huge science nerds. Peter Parker basically is a young Tony Stark, only dirt poor instead of filthy rich.

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And how can you not love this exchange:

Tony: You got a passport?

Peter: Um, no.

Tony: Ever been to Germany?

Peter: No.

Tony: Oh, you’re gonna love it there.

Peter: I…I can’t go to Germany.

Tony: Why not?

Peter: Because I…I have homework.

Tony: Okay, I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just say that.

Isn’t that great? I love it. Of all the major superheroes, Spider-Man is the only one I can think of whose origin is firmly rooted in being a kid, and this movie manages to capture that with only a limited amount of screentime.

It also bears mentioning that Aunt May is now a hottie. She is played by Marisa Tomei, who even Tony Stark refers to as Aunt Hottie, which makes Peter hilariously uncomfortable. Tony Stark is something of an authority on the subject, since as we all know he once went 12-for-12 with Maxim cover models. I’m not sure how I feel about Aunt May being hot, but…okay, that’s a lie. I’m totally fine with it.

Moving on, what makes Tony and Peter’s interactions work so well is emblematic of what makes the rest of the movie’s characters work. The dialogue and characterization are sharp, and most of these actors have been playing their roles for years, so they understand their characters very well and have natural chemistry with one another. Every character has a good amount of screentime and gets to show off his or her abilities in fun and creative ways. Each superhero feels important to the story and none of them are extraneous.

And the action sequences are fan-freakin’-tastic. The fight coordinators, stunt crews, and special effects technicians did amazing work bringing the many action scenes to life. There are a lot of epic fights in this movie, but the highlight has to be the centerpiece airport battle between Team Cap and Team Iron Man. It’s one of the best smackdowns in superhero-movie history, and must be seen to be believed. Just wait till you see the trick Ant-Man has up his sleeve, it’s a showstopper.

Captain America: Civil War was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, and they prove themselves to be every bit as adept at balancing the character beats with the ass-kicking action as they demonstrated in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they also directed. The Russo brothers are also set to direct the next two Avengers movies, Infinity War Part One and Part Two, and we can rest assured that Earth’s mightiest heroes are in good hands.

I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, but the Captain America movies in particular are noteworthy for how each film builds upon the previous ones. The Iron Man sequels were uneven and Avengers: Age of Ultron, while still fun, didn’t quite live up to the high standard set by its predecessor, but every Captain America movie has felt like an expansion of the themes and stories developed in the previous entries, and it’s been really great to see the series evolve.

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Captain America: Civil War is one of those rare blockbusters that works on just about every level. It’s smart, funny, action-packed and balances a large number of characters and stories with aplomb. It’s my favorite movie of the year so far, and sets a new standard for future superhero films.

2014: The Year in Villainy

Another year, another roundup of cinematic evil. Join me, won’t you, on this delightful whirlwind of dastardly deeds, evil acts, and cinematic scumbaggery.

Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire

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One of my two favorite villains of the year, Artemisia was smart, tough, and determined. Hell hath no fury, as they say, like a woman scorned, and Artemisia is ample proof of that. Eva Green played her with ferocity and more than a little charm, which made her somewhat likable in spite of being evil. She’s the kind of villain you love to hate, and she’s my pick for best villainess of the year. It was a good year for Eva Green playing sultry comic-book villainesses, she was also deliciously evil in the new Sin City movie, so give her an honorable mention for that one too.

The Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2014 villains winter soldier

Few movie characters in 2014, good or evil, were as straight-up BAD ASS as this sonuvagun. Holy CRAP he was cool. A kind of Darth Vader to Captain America’s Luke Skywalker, he’s a cybernetically-enhanced super assassin who’s skilled, fast, and lethal. The fights between him and Chris Evans’ Cap were some of the best cinematic fights of 2014. Actor Sebastian Stan is under contract for (I think) nine films with Marvel, so you can be almost sure that he’ll show up at some point in the future. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing him again.

Jeanine Matthews in Divergent

2014 villains jeanine

You don’t usually see Kate Winslet being evil, but I thought she was pretty good at being bad in Divergent. You knew she would turn out to be evil (especially if you read the books), but she didn’t overdo it, which I thought worked to the film’s advantage. Expect to see her again soon, since the film did well enough at the box office that the sequel was fast-tracked to March of 2015.

Electro, Rhino and the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2

2014 villains spiderman

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffered from a bit of Spider-Man 3 syndrome, in that it had maybe one too many bad guys. Although only two of them had character arcs, since Paul Giamatti’s Rhino was basically a glorified henchman, but still, the film as a whole was definitely a bit overcrowded. And I guess that some of their motivations for being evil were maybe a bit thin, but…oh, well. At least Electro’s flashy blue-white bolts of electricity were cool to look at. Sony is planning on making a whole movie devoted to Spider-Man baddies, so who knows what we’ll see from Spidey’s colorful rogues gallery in the future.

The MUTOs in Godzilla

2014 villains muto

I didn’t think of Godzilla as the bad guy in the latest movie that bears his name, he’s more of an antihero. The real villains were the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, otherwise known as MUTOs. Godzilla stops them from mating and making horrible horrible MUTO babies, which is something I think we can all be thankful for this holiday season. Thanks, Godzilla!

The Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014 villains sentinel

I debated with myself a bit over who the real villain was in the latest X-Men flick. Was it Magneto? Mystique? Bolivar Trask? You could make a case for any of them, but for my money the only indisputably evil characters in the film were the Sentinels, which were so badass and so good at their job of mutant-killing that they pretty much ended the world, and it doesn’t get much more evil than that.

The Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow

2014 villains mimic

How do you defeat an enemy who can simply reset the day to prevent itself from being defeated in the first place? That’s the question posed by Tom Cruise’s latest sci-fi epic. The Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow were frightening and very, very original in appearance and design. Kind of like giant, robotic-looking, time-manipulating squid-creatures. I thought they were very cool, and they had a lot to do with making Edge of Tomorrow one of my favorite movies of 2014.

Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy

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Ronan the Accuser is an evil blue space warlord. Even if I had left out the word “evil” in that description and juts said that he was a blue space warlord, I’m sure you would have been able to fill in the “evil” part on your own. One of the things I liked most about Ronan was his Alan Rickman-esque way of saying things…very…slowly. I guess he’s not really all that much different from other cosmic warlords you may have seen in other sci-fi movies, but if you’re evil enough that it takes five protagonists to bring you down, then you’re doing something right. I mean, you know, from an evil perspective.

Conrad Stonebanks in The Expendables 3

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Say what you will about Mel Gibson as a person, I still think he’s a damn fine actor, and he looked like he was having a great time being evil in the third Expendables movie. I thought the movie as a whole was a bit dull to be honest, but Gibson was easily the best part of the movie for me. With a name like Conrad Stonebanks, your career options are pretty much limited to either professional wrestler or professional supervillain. Conrad Stonebanks made the right choice in Expendables 3, and we connoisseurs of cinematic villainy can be grateful for that.

President Snow in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One

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Donald Sutherland’s President Snow deserves a shout-out for being reliably evil for three movies now. He seems to delight in inflicting psychological torture not just on the heroine of the movies, but on the nation he lords over as a whole. I always think he looks like a white-haired Satan, I mean just look at those arched eyebrows!! Downright devilish.

Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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The Michael Bay-produced 2014 version of TMNT was certainly no masterpiece, but to be honest I still thought it was pretty damn entertaining, and I really liked the knife-shooting shredder. There was some evil plot to disperse some kind of chemical weapon over New York which was pretty inconsequential, I watched the movie yesterday and I’ve already forgotten the details, but hey, I can appreciate a cool character design when I see one, and I thought that Shredder was really fricking cool.

So there you have it, the cream of the crop of cinematic skullduggery in 2014. There are a lot of big-franchise movies due out next year, so we aficionados of evil have a lot to look forward to.

See you then!

The Second-Best Spider-Man 2

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is one of the best superhero films ever made. It’s also one of the best summer blockbusters I’ve ever seen. It’s smart, funny, sweet, and has some really great action sequences. The special effects hold up really well despite being ten years old (man that makes me feel old) and Dr. Octopus is one of my favorite cinematic villains.

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Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is pretty enjoyable, but definitely not as good as Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

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Admittedly, it would be pretty difficult for anyone to ever make a better Spider-Man movie than Raimi’s penultimate Spidey flick. Raimi himself proved this with his own Spider-Man 3, and we all know how that turned out.

Much has been made of how really unnecessary it was to make more Spider-Man movies so soon after Raimi’s. It was only five years between the release of Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (by contrast, it was 19 years between the release of Superman 4 in 1987 and Superman Returns in 2006).

But Spider-Man is the only superhero Sony has the rights to, and with other superhero flicks making big bucks at the box office, there was pretty much no way they were going to just sit on an extremely valuable license that already made them tons of money in the past (Spider-Man 3 did set box-office records, after all).

I thought The Amazing Spider-Man was a surprisingly good movie. It gets a lot of hate from certain corners of the internet, but I honestly think that much of that is due to the fact that it didn’t really need to be made in the first place. Maybe there wouldn’t be as many haters if Raimi’s films had never been made, since they’re (mostly) so good that any other Spidey movies would inevitably be compared to them and be found lacking in some respect.

Oh, well. This new Spidey series isn’t going anywhere, since it already made about $100 million in its opening weekend, so we might as well get used to it.

ANYWAY, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not as good as Sam Raimi’s first Spidey sequel, but it’s still pretty enjoyable. It does suffer from a bit of Spider-Man 3 syndrome, since there is an overabundance of villains and subplots, some of which inevitably don’t really go anywhere and end up feeling extraneous.

Take, for example, the mystery of what happened to Peter Parker’s parents. We find out what happened to them in the first scene of this movie, and Peter himself later discovers the truth behind his parents’ mysterious disappearance. That’s fine and all, I’m okay with Peter having some closure, but to me the whole subplot felt like the writers’ way of tying up a loose plot thread from the previous film. The whole thing doesn’t really have much bearing on the rest of the plot, and to me just felt kind of pointless. I also couldn’t really buy that (spoiler alert I guess, although this was in the trailer) Peter’s dad had this Secret Subway Car of Science that nobody had found for like 15 years or however long.

Now that I think about it, the real backbone of the movie is the relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy. I am okay with this, because it’s a strong central relationship for the movie to focus on. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are charismatic actors who have really great chemistry together, and I found it easy to root for them, just as I did in the first film.

The fact that I’m in love with Emma Stone may or may not have had something to do with that, I’ll admit.

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As with the first film, I found the Peter/Gwen relationship to be more compelling than the various villains and their stories.

One of the main antagonists is Jamie Foxx’s Electro, who certainly looks cool but his character arc is pretty lame and the way he gets electric powers is extremely contrived (he’s an electrician who falls into a vat of electric eels at Oscorp, because for some inexplicable reason Oscorp has vats of electric eels generating power, because I guess that makes sense? They seem to have a knack at Oscorp for making stuff that gives people superpowers).

Foxx is a really great actor and it’s a shame his character arc is so dull. The special effects that turn him into Electro are pretty great, (if very reminiscent of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) and the crackling bolts of electricity he shoots at Spider-Man look mean and powerful.

They also updated his look, which is a good thing because in the 60’s comics he looked like this…

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And in the movie he looks more like this…

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Which I think counts as an improvement. In some ways, at least.

Also in the movie is Harry Osborn, played by an actor named Dane DeHaan, best known for a low-budget superhero flick called Chronicle, which I never saw but heard good things about. He plays a pretty good Harry Osborn, although he’s maybe just a bit too slimy. He and Peter were childhood friends who haven’t seen each other in years, though their story doesn’t resonate as much here as it did in Raimi’s films. This isn’t too surprising, since the Peter/Harry relationship was one of the central elements of all 3 of Raimi’s Spidey flicks, and in the new movie it’s reduced to just a couple of scenes.

It’s also not too much of a spoiler to say that Harry eventually becomes the Green Goblin, though he only appears in full-on Goblin mode for one scene late in the movie, and is dispatched fairly quickly so that more important plot events can occur.

There’s also Paul Giamatti as the Rhino, who in the movie is basically a thug with a Russian accent and a suit of pointy armor that shoots missiles. He’s barely in the movie at all, so he hardly even counts as a character. On the one hand this is a shame, since Paul Giamatti is a great actor, but on the other hand it’s a blessing in disguise because the last thing the movie needs is another subplot.

rhino-sp

So yeah, the movie has plenty of issues. Nothing resonates on an emotional level as much as it did in previous Spidey flicks (except for one major emotional gut-punch late in the movie, which I was suppose was inevitable if you’re familiar with the comics as I am [I’ve read a LOT of Spider-Man comics] but still hit me pretty hard).

It’s overstuffed, although overall I think it works better than Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 did. The movie has four credited screenwriters, and I wish they could have made the plot a bit more coherent.

But the special effects and action sequences are top-notch, and few things are better for sheer popcorn-fueled summer thrills than watching your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man soar effortlessly through crowded city streets. It’s a perfectly enjoyable movie, despite its flaws. It’s well-acted and full of eye candy. It’s just a shame that the plot feels so patched-together.

For future installments (and there WILL be future installments, regardless of whether or not there really needs to be) I hope the filmmakers will remember that you don’t need an overabundance of villains and subplots to make a good superhero movie. The plot of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 was pretty simple when you get right down to it, and didn’t need any more than one really strong villain in order to be compelling.

Ah, well. The new movie is still enjoyable enough, kind of like cotton candy – nice while it lasts, but ultimately doesn’t really leave much of a lasting impression.

COMING SOON: The Return of the King.

2012: The Year in Villainy, Part Two

Yay, more villains! There were a lot of memorable cinematic villains in 2012, so let’s get to it.

Loki in The Avengers

Loki is another example of the villain needing to match the strength of the hero. That was a sizable task in The Avengers, which had no less than six superheroes. Joss Whedon’s megahit superhero flick managed to make Loki enough of a threat that it required the combined efforts of six superheroes to stop him, and it made sense to the viewer that one hero alone would not be enough to defeat him. Loki was far more interesting here than he was in Thor, and Whedon pulled off the not-inconsiderable task of giving all of the main characters a reason to hate him. There were so many ways The Avengers could have failed, but it didn’t, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year by a sizable margin and one of the year’s best popcorn movies. Bring on the next round of Marvel movies, starting in May with Iron Man 3! I’m so ready.

Bane in The Dark Knight Rises

It’s become cool since TDKR came out on DVD to gripe and complain about it, and for a bunch of jackasses to stick their noses in the air, look down on people, and say condescendingly, “It wasn’t that good.” I am here to tell you that those people are stupid. Do not listen to them. TDKR was a fantastic film, probably my favorite of the year. There are people out there (see above) who would simply say that my Batman fandom blinds me to any problems the film may have and that my opinion is therefore not valid. On the contrary, I am fully aware that TDKR is not a perfect film, in many ways it is quite flawed. But it is still fantastic, and Bane was one of the most original and memorable cinematic creations of the year. I don’t care that his origin story was slightly different from how it was in the comics, it still worked in the movie. Following in the footsteps of the late, great Heath Ledger was no easy task, but Tom Hardy gave a fantastic performance, and was completely convincing as a match for Batman both physically and mentally. Love him or hate him, you certainly won’t forget him.

As a side note, I’m not including Catwoman on this list because in my opinion she wasn’t a villain. More of an antihero, or antiheroine as the case may be. Certainly still a memorable character though.

The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man

To be honest, the Lizard was one of the weaker elements in The Amazing Spider-Man, a movie which otherwise gets my vote for Most Surprisingly Good Film of the Year. He looked a bit cheesy and Rhys Ifans seemed a bit bored as his alter ego, Dr. Curt Connors. But I still liked the film, and the Lizard was still enjoyable to watch. Another evil lizard: does anyone hate that stupid Geico gecko as much as I do? Seriously, it seems like you can’t watch TV for five minutes without that little green bastard popping up somewhere. Does anyone even think he’s still cute or whatever anymore? GAH. I hate you gecko. You give geckos a bad name. Okay, rant over.

Vilain in The Expendables 2

Ah yes, Vilain the Villain. The rather pointlessly evil bad guy played by the Muscles From Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. He had no personality and no motivation whatsoever, but every action movie needs a villain so why not Van Damme? The Expendables 2 was thoroughly silly but I still enjoyed it immensely. Just listen to the way Van Damme pronounces “Don’t challenge me” and you’ll see what I mean. Amusingly, if you watch the blooper reel on the DVD, it seems like Van Damme had a hard time remembering his lines. Maybe he took too many spin kicks to the face back in the day.

Ares and Kronos in Wrath of the Titans

Most people have already forgotten Wrath of the Titans, the not-needed sequel to 2010’s mostly unloved Clash of the Titans. But it still had a couple of good villains. One was Ares, the God of War, played by Edgar Ramirez, an actor I like who does a good job of being evil but still a little sympathetic. Call me crazy, but I felt kind of bad for him. Kronos is a giant lava monster, so that’s pretty cool. There’s no kraken in Wrath of the Titans, but I thought that Kronos was one of the cooler-looking CGI creations of the year. The special-effects guys did a great job with him. He’s really just another giant monster bent on destruction, but at least he provided some snazzy visuals.

Silva in Skyfall

Shudder. Just thinking about Silva, played so brilliantly by Javier Bardem in the latest excellent James Bond film, is enough to send chills down my spine. He was so creepy. I liked Quantum of Solace, the previous Bond film, though I agreed with the common criticism that the villain was boring. I like the idea of an evil environmentalist, but Dominic Greene was pretty dull. Oh boy did they fix that in Skyfall. Silva is not only one of the best villains of the year, he’s one of the best Bond villains ever and one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, period. Casting the Oscar-winner Javier Bardem as a Bond villain was an inspired choice, one that paid off in spades. Silva is completely unhinged and utterly terrifying, but just like the Joker in The Dark Knight, you can’t take your eyes off him and you kind of miss him when he’s not around. Utterly repellent and utterly fascinating, Silva embodies all the qualities of a great villain.

Mad Dog and Tama in The Raid: Redemption

One of the best straight-up action films of the year, the Indonesian martial-arts flick The Raid: Redemption also boasts a couple of thoroughly nasty villains in the form of ruthless gangster Tama and his main henchman, the aptly-named Mad Dog. These two do all kinds of horrible things to people and it is extremely satisfying when both get their inevitable comeuppance. Seriously, if you like action movies and you haven’t seen this one yet, stop reading this and go to Netflix or something RIGHT NOW.

The Convicts in Lockout

One of the many great ideas about setting an action movie on an orbiting space prison is that, by definition, pretty much everyone up there is a murderous psychopath. You’ve got an entire setting chock-full of bad guys! Think Arkham Asylum in space and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the kind of folks you will find populating the space prison in Lockout. My favorite was the main guy, I don’t know if he had a name but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know who I mean. He’s the guy the President’s daughter interviews, who promptly kills all the guards and wakes up all the other inmates from cryosleep. This guy is so loony and has such a thick accent that it’s hard to even understand what he says. He’s skinny and emaciated and covered in tattoos, and just generally repulsive. Seriously, if they had to pick just one prisoner for the President’s daughter to interview, why did they have to pick the one guy who’s clearly crazier than a bag full of… I don’t know, something really crazy? It’s almost enough to make one wonder about the decision-making processes of the folks who run the space prison…

Tobin Frost in Safe House

Safe House was an early-year hit, and in my opinion it’s not hard to see why. Denzel Washington is the kind of actor who makes any movie he’s in worth watching, and he had great chemistry with Ryan Reynolds in this film. Think of Safe House as 3:10 To Yuma meets The Bourne Identity. I thought it was a great action flick, and I’m surprised to say that I find myself liking Ryan Reynolds more and more these days. Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA agent who has since become a traitor. Despite his turncoat ways, I’m a bit conflicted calling him a villain since there are other characters in the film who might fit that description more aptly. But Washington’s is still the most memorable character in the film, and I liked how he and Reynolds had to depend on each other to survive. Safe House is a smart, punchy action flick, and while it may not be the most original story it is still worth checking out.

Clas Greve in Headhunters

Headhunters is a Norwegian crime thriller that only had a limited release in the States, so if you’ve never heard of it I forgive you. I’m cheating with this one a little since I think it was released in its native country in 2011, but I discovered it in 2012 so what the heck. The plot concerns a fellow named Roger, who has some serious inferiority issues. He uses his job as a corporate headhunter to find out which potential employees are in possession of valuable artwork, which he then steals. He bites off more than he can chew when he steals a valuable painting from an ex-soldier named Clas Greve, played chillingly by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known to American audiences as Jamie Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Seriously, the dude is extremely badass. I would like to cast my vote for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to be the next Bond villain. Headhunters is a great movie, if you’re into tense, smart, Hitchcockian thrillers you should absolutely check it out.

Azog the Defiler in The Hobbit

The Hobbit really didn’t need to be made into three movies, but I find myself looking forward to part two next year. Part of that has to do with the wonderfully-named Azog the Defiler. A completely invented character whom you will not find in Tolkien’s books, Azog the Defiler is a hideous albino orc monstrosity that the filmmakers invented to be a nemesis for badass dwarf hero Thorin Oakenshield. Azog is not really necessary to the plot in any meaningful way, but damn did I get a kick out of him.

So there you have it, my picks for the most memorable cinematic villains of 2012. Some 2013 villains I’m looking forward to seeing: General Zod in Man of Steel, The Mandarin (played by none other than Gandhi himself, Sir Ben Kingsley) in Iron Man 3, and whoever Benedict Cumberbatch is playing in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Are there any villains I may have missed? Who were some of your favorites?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Also, HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!

The Surprisingly Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man is my second-favorite comic book superhero, second only to Batman. (Only a week and a half till Dark Knight Rises!!) I really loved the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spidey movies, the second one in particular is one of my top-ten favorite movies of all time. Admittedly, the third one went a bit off the rails, but I still enjoyed it.

I was among the many people who were skeptical when I heard that they were redoing Spidey. It seemed especially odd considering that Spider-Man 3 was only five years ago, and it’s only been ten years since the original. I was also skeptical about the director, Marc Webb, who up until now has been known mostly for directing music videos and the low-budget “(500) Days of Summer,” which I haven’t seen.

I was also skeptical about the star, Andrew Garfield. The logic behind casting a 28-year old English actor as an American teenager was somewhat lost on me (though admittedly, Tobey Maguire was in his mid-to-late twenties when he made the first one). I was encouraged when the casting of Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy was announced, because she’s a really good actress and I have a huge crush on her. (Fun fact: she’s known as a redhead but she’s a natural blonde, so she’s pretty much perfect for Gwen. Not that I’ve looked this up or anything…)

Now please allow me to explain something. One gripe comic nerds had with the Sam Raimi films was that Spidey’s web-shooting was an extension of his spider-powers, as opposed to the comics, where he made mechanical web-shooters of his own design. This changed riled a lot of comic nerds, but frankly, it never bothered me. It seemed a lot more logical to me that the web-shooting was another one of his spider-powers, since it never made sense to me that he would get all of these spider-abilities EXCEPT for that one. I could also never buy that a high-school kid could effortlessly whip up this amazing device that all of the world’s greatest scientists would be scratching their heads over. I guess the placement of the web-shooters on his wrists is a bit random. If he got real spider-powers, wouldn’t the webs shoot out of his butt? I guess the idea of Spidey swinging around New York shooting webs out of his ass would have been a bit much.

Now that I’ve left you with that image, let’s move on to the new movie, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Seemed like a somewhat self-serving title, as if the filmmakers are trying to make the viewer think that it’s a good movie. And yes, I know that was the name of Spidey’s original comic series, so you don’t need to remind me.

But let’s move on from all the naysaying and talk about the film.

It was great.

I loved it.

I am happy to say that every single one of my skepticisms was proven to be unfounded. Sure, there’s a certain sense of déjà vu at first, since the first half or so of the movie covers ground that we’ve mostly already seen. But it still manages to feel fresh, and you can tell that the filmmakers put a lot of effort into making sure that the familiar territory is still interesting. There’s a new subplot about Peter Parker’s parents, and the research his father was working on before he died (or did he…).

The question of where Peter’s parents were was never addressed in the Raimi films, because it wasn’t important to that story. It is important to this film’s story, and it’s more than just padding. It gives Peter added motivation, and it also provides him with a formidable villain, the Lizard, aka Dr. Curt Connors, played by Rhys Ifans. As Dr. Connors, he’s a bit dull, but as the thoroughly nasty Lizard he’s much more interesting, and more than a match for our hero.

Speaking of our hero, Garfield makes a very appealing and likable Peter Parker. And if there’s any one thing you need from an actor playing Peter Parker, it’s likability. He’s probably the most likable comic-book superhero alter-ego there is. He’s the only one who still has to do his homework after he beats the bad guys. Garfield makes him into a troubled but very likable character, and I’ve gotta say, a very convincing teenager. His body language and his mannerisms are perfect. He won’t quite make you forget Tobey Maguire in the role, but he puts his own spin on it that feels appropriate for the character and has you rooting for him all the way. Aunt May tells him late in the film that “If there’s one thing you are, Peter Parker, it’s good,” and Garfield’s performance has you agreeing with her.

And speaking of likability, there’s really no more likable actress out there than Emma Stone, in my humble opinion. I suppose I may be biased, but she too is impossible not to like. She projects strength and vulnerability in equal measure, and she seems like a real person, as opposed to just a pretty face who requires rescuing all the time. And of course she is very pretty, as Peter’s aunt and uncle remind him more than once.

And about those web-shooters. The way this film was structured reminded me of “Batman Begins,” in that it takes the time to explain where the gadgets and the costumes actually come from. In this film, the web-shooters are an invention of Oscorp, Peter just tinkers with them to turn them into his web-shooters. This is far more plausible than it would be if he had just come up with them on his own. The other thing I liked about this is that the technology helps make it believable. Maybe part of the reason Stan Lee had Peter coming up with the web-shooters on his own was that he couldn’t think of any other way for them to come about. Well, the miracles of modern technology have helped solve that problem for him. (And speaking of Stan Lee, he makes another highly-entertaining cameo appearance.)

This film was one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in the movie theater in quite some time. It’s well-acted, the plot comes together really well, and the special effects and action sequences are great. Following Spidey as he swoops through New York remains as thrilling as ever. The movie is funny, smart, action-packed, entertaining, and it has that emotional connection that Raimi’s Spider-Man films did so well. “The Amazing Spider-Man,” to me at least, managed to more than justify its existence. I think it’s safe to say that it is my second-favorite Spidey movie, second only to the great “Spider-Man 2,” which is pretty high praise (this is coming from a guy who saw Spidey 2 in theaters no less than four times). I find myself looking forward to the already-announced sequel (speaking of which, be sure to stay tuned through the first part of the end credits).

There’s a great scene in the film where (SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT) Spidey saves a kid in a car that is dangling precariously from a bridge. The car inevitably catches fire and the kid starts to panic. Spidey, unable to reach him, and because the kid is frightened by his mask, takes off the mask to reassure the kid that he’s just a normal guy. He tosses the mask to the kid and tells him to put it on, because “It’ll make you strong.” Watching this film will make you strong too.

I’m sorry I doubted you Spidey. Won’t happen again.

Welcome back.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.