In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James discuss the latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America Civil War. Will this movie divide our heroes? Maybe, but James has called in a ringer, The Toni Sanchez! How will Charles manage to fight off TWO Iron Man fans? Listen in and find out!
This post contains spoilers for all 13 episode’s of Netflix’s Daredevil
Daredevil is the only superhero with his own poet laureate.
In his half-century, Daredevil has had more iconic, era-defining arcs than really seems plausible. This is doubly true considering that, relative to contemporaries like Spidey or Doctor Strange, the Man Without Fear was a late bloomer. He didn’t really become the character that inspired such transcendent greatness from the likes of Bendis, Mack, Maleev, Waid, Brubaker, Nocenti, and many more until more than a decade into his existence. That is when pretty much everything about the character (besides the whole “blind justice” angle) that makes a serial television series such an exciting prospect – Bullseye, Elektra, Stick, the Hand, the Kingpin as Daredevil antagonist – coalesced in just a few short years, finally becoming the melange of pulpy, noirish wonder we know today under the watchful eye of a certain yakuza-obsessed young gun named Frank Miller in the early 80s.
To truly contextualize this vigilantism in an articulate manner – to ruminate on what it means that Daredevil is a lawyer who feels he must go outside the law to get real work done – Daredevil stories needed a wizened ally, a powerful last-honest-man figure who could serve as Matt Murdock’s faithful Jim Gordon. The main difference between Gordon and Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich? Urich can write like a boss, and pretty much every time Daredevil transcends “consistently good” and becomes “the leading edge of the superhero craft,” you can bet that Urich is involved, playing a major role, acting as the vigilante’s personal Homer.
That Urich is constantly stymied in this quest by the world’s worst boss (you can hear Peter Parker shouting “Amen!”), J. Jonah Jameson, makes Urich’s quest to tell the truth, serving as the voice of an informed New York (while hiding the one truth that matters, DD’s identity) almost as Olympian as Matt’s.
Phil Sheldon, the everyman photographer from Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, gets a lot of praise for showing us, in his four issues (and a short follow-up series), what it must be like to be a mere man among gods. Urich (who actually appears in Marvels as Sheldon’s fellow reporter) fills that same role, but he’s done it – enviably – for hundreds of issues. He even essentially got his own in-continuity Marvels, a series that followed newspaper reporters embedded in rival factions during Marvel’s Civil War crossover. This would probably be the biggest thing to happen for the Ben Urich character except for the fact that maybe the most important Marvel story of all-time, Miller/Mazzucchelli’s “Born Again” arc, is, for two or three issues, essentially the story of Ben Urich summoning up the bravery to do what needs to be done in spite of intimidation from Wilson Fisk’s thugs.
This is a long-winded and rather impassioned way of saying that it’s difficult to tell, without knowing where Marvel plans to go with its street-level Defenders lineup (Matt plus Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand a.k.a the Iron Fist), whether killing Ben Urich in the penultimate episode of Season 1 of Netflix’s Daredevil was brave – because it firmly sets a new course for the MCU – or boneheaded – because it dispensed with Marvel’s greatest journalist while only ever teasing us with the idea that he might get around to some journalism sometime soon.
Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: his death is final. Unlike Leland Owlsley, another longtime Daredevil stalwart you kind of hope isn’t gone and (considering we only glimpse a shattered but not necessarily deceased body) maybe just maybe isn’t… Ben is for sure 100% coffin dead. There will be no Coulson resurrection for Ben, no “we just stopped Nick Fury’s heart to fool Hydra” moment where we walk into a room and see Vondie Curtis-Hall again and laugh relievedly because we fell for it, ha ha. The MCU only has so many of those “comic book deaths” to spend before their audience turns on them, and Ben Urich does not have the stature to merit one, which is sad because that lack of stature misunderstands the ways in which a supporting cast adds texture to a hero’s journey, but oh so true.
Ben is a glue guy. He’s the type of character who takes a place like Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen, a playground for kooky mobsters and ruffians, and allows it to become multi-dimensional. Literally, in the comics, he affords us the chance to see the problems Daredevil is seeing from a different perspective, adding another dimension or layer to the goings-on. It’s not really fair to tell you how important he is in the comics as a way of belittling the show – I am a crusader for allowing interpretations to stand on their own, apart from the need to be faithful to source material – but what is the Ben Urich of Netflix’s Daredevil if he doesn’t become this confidante/hype man. He barely interacted with Matt, so is he Karen Page’s Stick-like mentor? Does he symbolize the futility of a past generation? Does his death even carry much weight for those who just know Netflix Ben? Instead of becoming the guy who soliloquizes about Daredevil’s deeds, instead of becoming a practical outlet who uses Matt as a source to get real work done through the power of the press, Ben’s death is just one final way for Netflix’s Daredevil to show us how costly a vendetta can become. Or a way to let Karen move on and grow up a little, giving Ben one last beyond-the-grave chance to be novice snoop Karen’s enabler with an assist from his grieving wife. Or one final statement on one of the show’s pet themes: print media as an objective American institution capable of showing people the way is a far-off memory.
I’ll give it this: for a series as bold as Daredevil has been, it’s a very audacious move, and for a moment it pays off – with Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” ringing in your ears and resonating mournfully in your soul while Wilson Fisk makes his mad dash to freedom and to his Vanessa, Daredevil seems to be calling forth the soul of the pragmatic realist, Ben Urich. It’s the perfect capstone to the kind of story Urich would write. It’s harsh but oh so soulful.
But what’s the point of making audacious moves if, in the end, you’re just going to turn it all on a dime into exactly the kind of conventional Marvel-prescribed one-man-can-save-a-city superhero fantasy the other 12 and ¾ episodes argued so persuasively was utter bullshit?
The last fifteen minutes of Daredevil’s first season are unremittingly awful.
It’s not even that that new costume looks bad. It does, but that’s beside the point. The camera knows it looks awful, and the editing is dancing around the idea of this costume without ever truly committing to it as a physical reality.
You can tell when the editing gets skittish, because this is a show that knows from good editing. It gave us the single-take hallway fight scene in episode 2, obviously, but also countless other fight scenes that seemed completely comfortable showing off Matt’s practical black duds. Everyone went into this show ready to hate that DIY ninja look, but it is, in execution, perhaps the most iconic onscreen superhero look since we first saw Tony Stark’s painted armor. What’s most incredible is this: like we Netflix viewers befuddled by promotional images, no one onscreen knows how to discuss this look or label it. This isn’t what superheroes wear. This is just a bruiser in a black mask. And so Matt can only be identified by his adversaries and his public as “the black mask” or “the masked man,” as fitting a tribute to pulp forebears like the Shadow and Zorro as I think there could possibly be.
And then Matt meets a man he should consider his true nemesis, poor Melvin Potter. For his final showdown with Wilson, Matt debuts that Kevlar body armor that’s all the rage these days, and the show becomes a bit of a joke.
Not just in its production design, which is lacking, or its editing and direction, which are scared to death of the way that motorcycle-helmet-esque headpiece and that high-collared jacket scrunch the handsome, angular features of star Charlie Cox into oblivion. This goes right down to the script level. Because now, the series’ overriding obsession with Matt needing to find a solution that both keeps Fisk off the streets and squares with his Catholic upbringing, a serious quandary that would seemingly have no real solution, is easily tied up when this new suit allows Matt to apparently level up in the ninja department. Now Matt can just neutralize Fisk with his fists while knowing exactly where to draw the line! Well if we were always going to go that route, we could have probably skipped just about every nuanced conversation Matt had with Father Lantom, and Claire Bishop, and Foggy, and just about everyone about his tenuous moral position… How convenient.
Even worse, now, with a ribbon nicely wrapped around everything just so, the characters have a shorthand with which to discuss this masked vigilante (“Oh look at that, the papers are calling him Daredevil now!”). It’s strange to bitch that a show that waited 13 hours to intone that name in the opening credits rushes the establishment of the Daredevil persona, but with this new shorthand for a once hard-to-define entity comes the kind of winking bonhomie among the leads that one would expect from “get it?” Stan Lee cameos or subpar non-Marvel Studios adaptations of Marvel characters.
None of this would be that aggravating if Daredevil did not wave about its raw, seething potential so flagrantly. As if struck by its own radioactive isotope, this show is coursing with the good stuff, the awe-inspiring power and finesse, that promises something special. And, bless it, with Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio inhabiting their lead roles so convincingly, it frequently delivers.
Also, there’s just so much of it! To put it in perspective: in one evening’s upload, there was suddenly just as much, if not much more, of Charlie Cox’s low-key, laconic, bruised Matt Murdock as there is, after years of franchise-building, of Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill. A Netflix series is, by its very nature, not intrinsically one whole; it is many parts that eventually coalesce into something bigger. Some people (with superheroic constitutions) may combine all those parts into a whole in one 13 hour sitting, but for many, assembling the puzzle will be a slower, episode-by-episode process. And so writing off all of Daredevil based on the last quarter of one of its thirteen episodes would be like writing off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe because Iron Man 3 squanders all of its quirky promise once it turns into an orange-glow action spectacle.
Instead, the barometer for reading and understanding something as episodic and sporadic as Netflix’s Daredevil is far from the air-conditioned largesse of an IMAX screen, where you take in one continuous two-hour shot of spectacle and then go through two years of withdrawl waiting for a sequel; instead let’s look to where Daredevil has thrived for decades – the comic shop.
Walk into a comic shop and you will be overwhelmed by volume – stacks and stacks of back issues, current issues, preview issues. Comics, with this glut of product, have a luxury that Kevin Feige, who gets two opportunities to wow us a year, does not. They are allowed to vary in quality. Wildly. Comics people sort of accept this as a reality; in decades of continuity, you can’t win ‘em all. You treasure what’s great. The most seasoned, most contented comics fans will tell you that there is little point in following a single character’s every exploit – only aggravation lies down that completist’s road. Here there be Clone Sagas…
Instead, the recommendation you’ll get is to find the writers and artists you think do good work, and follow them where they go. Track down their arcs and you’ll delight in the ways that they’ve fused their idiosyncrasies and sensibilities onto characters that have been soaring through skylines since long before they picked up a pen. And so, you’ll rarely get an argument against Daredevil being one of the most splendid examples of the mainstream comic book form, largely thanks to those creators who have defined his adventures; you’ll also be unable to find a person who loves every Daredevil comic. There have been too many of them, and not every one of them is a “Born Again” or “The Murdock Papers.” Daredevil has been a jovial yellow-clad jokester who fights Stilt-Man while spouting off Peter Parker-like witticisms. He’s been possessed by bad juju and driven away all his friends. He’s done that again. And again. Like every superhero created before 1990, he went through the 90s… Protect a Manhattan neighborhood for five decades, there are bound to be one or two “lost decades” in there.
13 episodes is nothing compared to appearing in 562 issues of your own solo comic, but yeah, in these 13 hours, there are some high points and, lamentably, there are some “lost hours.” None is more lost than Episode 7, which suffers from Marvel’s persistent mythology-building problem (see: Thanos in Avengers, Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy, Thanos until he actually does any darn thing). At exactly the moment when the show has picked up a full-head of steam after a slow build, right when Matt has the next name (Leland Owlsley) that will get him closer to the impossibly grand Wilson Fisk, and is ready to jump into his next arc, a man from Daredevil’s past comes along and says “Hey audience, look over here at this other thing!”
The thing about a slow build – and this series handles its build masterfully, slowly introducing us to Wilson Fisk and his criminal associates and only letting Matt and Wilson confront each other at the end of episode 6 – is that a slow build is only worth it if you actually open the building once its finished being built. Instead, episode 7 wants to inform us that there are bigger things – magic things… – afoot outside the world about which Matt (reminder, the guy who is our protagonist) knows or cares. And, sad fact is, he cares as much about these things after he is schooled on them in a vague and unsatisfying manner as he did before he was even aware they existed. To which I can only respond: Marvel, come back to me when you actually have something substantial and can artfully work up to it in a way that doesn’t involve sporadic, painful, shoehorned-in mentions across untenable periods of time (see: the Infinity Stones, also Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Centipede, which was that shows blockaded [and dumb] way of hinting at Hydra before that was allowed).
This undernourished mythology (almost certainly the mysticism of Doctor Strange or Iron Fist) is on loan here to the Hand, the faceless, shadowy army of ninjas that’s always dogging Matt in the comics. And so, even once the show has moved past its detour into something mystical-ish, the Hand and their figurehead Nobu (now in red-clad ninja mode) continue to carry the stain until they are summarily dismissed from the proceedings in episode 9, sure to return to prominence oh some two or three years down the line. So that makes episodes 7-9 an arc. It is the show’s low-point. But Daredevil recovers. And even if it hadn’t recovered, it would still be great based on its first half.
Daredevil’s first episode begins with a young boy in dire straits pleading for his father’s help. It ends with an echo of that same scenario; once again, the father can do nothing to help his son, but a far-off stranger with especially sensitive hearing can. And will.
On its own, this first episode, with that thematic backbone, is promising – it tracks Matt and Foggy’s attempts to defend an innocent person, the frightened Karen Page, surprisingly the only time the lawyers do any actual defending of the innocent – but it’s when the next episode picks up on that same night, with Matt left for dead in a dumpster, that the show really shows what it can do. This is not a show, like first season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, that leaves the concerns of its previous episode’s behind, twiddling its thumbs until something big and explosive happens.
Netflix’s Daredevil is a tightly wound crime thriller, and it’s a satisfying payoff when that child abduction is not just some mostly-off-screen affirmation of Matt’s willingness to step into action, but actually forms the backbone of the entire next episode. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but that second episode is probably my favorite, and it’s not even because of the now-famed hallway fight. The episode artfully cuts between Matt’s past – his relationship with his father – and present – an evening of healing and bonding with a good Samaritan who tends to his gnarly wounds – showing a deft, Lost-like touch with flashing back at the most opportune thematic moments. It also gives Matt someone interesting – Rosario Dawson! – with whom he can discuss his mission, and it makes sure to complicate her black-and-white view of things by presenting her with the extreme ickiness Matt must face on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen. When she informs Matt from behind her own ad hoc mask how to most effectively torture a man, it is both a fist-pumping victory and a melancholy corruption of the innocent. Daredevil is at its best when it picks at this triumphant weariness. That is the hallway fight’s true masterstroke: the camera trickery is fine, but it’s the choreography, emphasizing just how weak and sapped of energy Matt is, that makes the scene so memorable. It’s especially evocative because – in the episode in which we see our final flashback to Battlin’ Jack – it shows just how much Matt has become the spittin’ image of his dad.
This is tight, effective, craftsman-like scripting. It’s important to note at this point that these two episode’s were the only two written by original showrunner Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) before he decamped for seemingly greener pastures (Son’y Spiderman… oops…). You can see this in the end product. Both episode’s tie together beautifully, taking place chronologically in an extremely compact window, and both lean heavily on something future writers seem to care not one lick about – Matt’s relationship with his father. Episode 3, just about the only episode I would consider a standalone issue rather than a piece of an arc, looks lost in the woods in comparison, brilliant introduction of Fisk aside. It abandons what seemed to be Goddard’s unifying flashback conceit and leans heavily on Matt’s maneuverings in the courtroom, which, as we see through the rest of the season, are a completely expendable facet of this show’s idea of Matt Murdock. We never really enter see Matt giving an impassioned speech to a jury or dealing with objections again; based on how confusing his motives are in this episode (in which he defends a man who he knows is guilty), this might actually be a blessing.
About that Fisk reveal though: saving that for episode 3, and keeping him seperate form Matt until episode 6… those were some big risks. The show ramps up to the idea of this unknowable figure who runs a vast criminal syndicate while never allowing anyone to speak his name. This could be a chore, having three whole episodes of waiting for someone to speak a name we all know will be spoken (a la “come on Benedict Cumberbatch, we all know you’re Khan…”).
But the show has an ace up its sleeve, a stand-in who ably carries the ship until Fisk appears – the persnickety lieutenant Wesley. In what turns out to be a stellar cast across the board (Cox, with that sleepy croak in his voice, is a true discovery as Murdock and D’Onofrio brings unexpected pathos in every single one of his barked whispers), Toby Leonard Moore may very well be the first season’s MVP. In a role that could have been a sniveling appetizer to D’Onofrio’s beefy main course, Leonard Moore owns a room full of baddies and lends a certain mystique to his boss, even once Fisk does finally appear and ask sweetly for wine recommendations.
The only other time I’ve seen Moore, it was in a bit part in John Wick, a film that serves as a fine template for what Daredevil pulls off in its transcendent second arc. In John Wick, a group of Russian gangsters unintentionally draw the ire of an unstoppable foe who takes apart their burgeoning empire. The fascinating trick Daredevil pulls off is turning these Russians, who start as stereotypes (and never truly transcend stereotype) into sympathetic, even tragic figures – evoking Icarus in the way they fly to close to the sun – without ever letting us lose sight of how awful they are. This is where Joe Posanski, co-executive producer of the series and writer of episode’s 4 and 6, completely changes the direction of Daredevil. This is the show’s longform masterpiece.
Episode 4 returns unexpectedly to flashback storytelling, just for one little prologue; but this time, our POV characters are the Ranskahov brothers, who escape a Siberian gulag and vow to make a new start in New York. As we know by now, they’ve done a bang up job, getting a place at the table in Fisk’s Legion of Doom Ethnically Delineated Mob Stereotypes. Keep in mind, as your heart sinks when one of them is decapitated even as he went out of his way to swallow his pride and reaffirm his dedication to Fisk (chalk it up to bad timing), that we’ve seen these directly or indirectly traffic young woman, kidnap a child, and brutalize Claire Temple. These are two despicable brothers, but Posanski finds the soulfulness in their attempt to keep their own identity in tact while kowtowing to the subordinate of a man whose name they can not speak. Everything about this series is clicking at this point (with one notable exception), and its fascinating to see how plotlines feed into each other – how Fisk’s courtship of Vanessa escalates Fisk’s existing plans to consolidate power and eliminate the Ranskahovs, how Matt’s activities lead to him being an easy target for a frame job, how the firm’s involvement with Elena and the tenement building puts him in the right place to find out about the extent of police corruption in the NYPD. Here is where we see most of the show’s “Oh wow” moments: Fisk unleashing his id for the first time, Detective Blake and Hoffman’s heel turn, the unexpected bombing of Hell’s Kitchen, every single delicious moment of Episode 6…
Episode 6 is perfect. It is a master class in how to follow up a big twist (the bombings) with fallout that feels emotionally relevant for our characters. We spend most of the episode locked in a dreary building with Matt and a dying goon we should abhor. Yet, with everything boiled down to its essence, the show finds its soul, unlocking the kinds of depths that the 13th episode’s climax so clearly lacks. It is in this arc, and specifically in this episode, that Vladamir Ranskahov, separated from his brother, in his death throes, becomes a legitimately great character. As he tells Matt the name of his next target (and we prepare ourselves for an arc in which Matt takes down Lelend) and goes out in a blaze of glory, the potential for this series seems pretty much limitless halfway through!
But as we’ve already mentioned, Stick comes along and puts the kibbosh on all of that so we can think about magic children for a hot minute.
It’s not like Stick is the only problem with Daredevil. His storyline (not his flashbacks, which are fine, but the predicament he introduces) is indicative of a universe that always feels the need to hint at something bigger rather than reveling in the now. But the loop that Ben, Karen, and Foggy get caught in for much of the front half of the season introduces a new problem to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it brings Netflix into the fold – bloated Netflix runtimes mean that sometimes the show can live a little too much in the now.
Pretty much every episode asks “What we can we do with the 10 minutes we need to dedicate to those characters this episode?”
Pretty much every episode fails to answer that question satisfactorily.
Let me be clear. I love each of these performances. I disagree with the consensus that Eldon Henson’s long-haired jester is a drastic departure from comics’ Foggy; I actually think its a truly great interpretation. I also had no qualms shipping Foggy and Karen when the show asked me to (especially during that one hospital scene), and still see little reason to ship Karen and Matt outside of their history in the comics.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? These characters all work in the same office (Ben excepted), but Matt and Karen may as well live in different cities from, like, Episode 1 until Episode 10 or so. The Continuing Adventures of Ben and Karen, Crack Investigators. The Continuing Adventurers of Foggy and Karen, Moony-Eyed Do-Gooders… these are both shows that operate in the Daredevil universe, and would be fine shows on their own I suppose, but where they are placed in context of Matt and Fisk’s ongoing battle always means they’re echoing back information that we already know. Union Allied is bad. Fisk wants the tenements. Fisk killed his father.
Their quest puts them in perpetual peril (and leads to the show’s most notable deaths) but it never contributes any momentum to a show that thrives on it. So while it’s nice to see Karen and Foggy get drunk together, again, it begs the question: are these characters we needed to keep up with every episode? In an ideal world, they would be; but Daredevil intentionally inverts the traditional hero-focus dynamic. It gives all the innovative inspiration to the various characters in the criminal syndicate, and explores their humanity as they turn on each other; it leaves Karen and Foggy out to dry.
The last few episodes of the season attempt to address this by introducing conflict between the Nelson & Murdock team. Foggy discovers that Matt is a vigilante, and his anger causes him to lash out at Karen, ending their flirtation. Ben and Matt come this close to forming something like their comic book relationship until Ben, under immense financial strain, tells Karen he’s backing down. The Scooby Gang is splitting up! This, of course, leads Karen to do the very silly thing she does that ends up getting Ben killed and leading Wesley to her. It would all feel tightly plotted if revealing Fisk’s past misdeeds actually led to his demise, but this proves to be another dead end. The show’s bloat actually presents a unique problem: we are presented with about fifteen ways to bring Fisk down (Union Allied, the murder of his father, dissension in the ranks), but the one that does it (Detective Hoffman, whose survival feels like a footnote when it comes back up) feels a bit like Al Capone being brought down for taxes. There is undoubtedly a measure of satisfaction in watching D’Onofrio counter every move, but he does it so many times that he eliminates some of the show’s more interesting avenues.
Still, there is a measure of poetry to what ends up doing Fisk in: a temper tantrum, just like the one that led to the downfall of the Ranskahovs. D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk is consistently fascinating. It has little precedence in the comics, where Fisk is always the picture of dapper confidence and unerring menace. D’Onofrio instead seems to be playing on Fisk’s uncanny resemblance to a grown-up newborn. He plays Daredevil’s nemesis as immature to the point of an almost sweet naivete. He loves Vanessa completely – tenderly even – and believes completely that bombing Hell’s Kitchen is an act of similarly tender love for his city. It’s incredible the amount of symbolism and poetry they pull out of Fisk’s attempts to use routine and culture to counteract his innate brutishness, his childlike temperament. His obsession with white canvas, the way the show uses his preferred classical music as signpost for his misdeeds, and especially the contrast in his routine pre- and post-Vanessa are all artful explorations of the soul of this man. There’s a part of you that hates him for evading capture and making his grand dash for Vanessa and freedom, but also a part of you that hopes he’ll get away.
Had the show ended right there, with Fisk on his way to Vanessa (or even with Matt standing in the truck’s path) this may very well have been the triumph of the MCU, the most evocative encapsulation of the Marvel ethos. As it stands in that moment climactic moment, everything feels so complex, so gray. It feels far from some tidy punch-kick solution.
And it is preordained that the solution that has been presented, with Matt jump-punching Fisk so hard it knocked him straight into a prison cell, will be complicated by Season 2. Just about the only moment that shows promise in the season’s final scenes is the one in which Fisk, now fully cognizant of the beast he is, stares at the prison wall, a blank white canvas just as daunting as the one he bought for millions from Vanessa.
Daredevil has more arcs in store for us, and Fisk will be a big part of them. Some will soar. Some will suck. Still, I have to admit that a little part of me will never be able to cope with the fact that none of them will include Ben Urich breaking down the dichotomy of Daredevil the way only he can.
“Why… so… serious?”
In the role that, in case you’ve forgotten, won Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar just as the two defining film genres of our age – the superhero film and the gritty action reboot – were peaking in popularity, Ledger menacingly snarled out the question that may as well be an inquisition into our entire cinematic disposition circa 2015. We are just now waking up from the collective psychosis that led to a Spider-Man reboot so dark and gritty that the Spidey suit, in hopes of being more realistic, looked like a regulation basketball. The Oscars expanded the nominee pool partly in hopes of including a well-made blockbuster like The Dark Knight; did we really think the only reason Nolan’s film got that honor was because of its straight-facedness? Something about the complete and total embrace of The Dark Knight’s ambiguous and nihilistic virtues mixed with our morbid fascination surrounding the details of the death of its breakout star led us down this road of brooding – even each Iron Man film has gotten progressively darker, drowning out the winking charm of Robert Downey Jr.
Also: Superman snapped a dude’s neck! Then fell to his knees sobbing… It’s been a strange few years.
Along the way, one director was off to the side, giggling at the grandstanding. In 2010, he adapted Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, in which a little girl – essentially Batman’s daughter – is a cussin’-and-killin’ machine. It could have been a meditation on society, but it was really just supposed to be a rollicking good time at the expense of superhero overseriousness. In 2011, he revitalized the flagging X-Men franchise after Brett Ratner had killed off half its characters and a spinoff film had introduced a mute Deadpool (of all things). How did he do it? By reintroducing bright colors, kicky montages, and campy villains. He had Kevin Bacon monologue in German to open his movie! He pulled unexpected pathos out of a globetrotting vigilante Magneto, but he also appreciated that he had locked up-and-comer Michael Fassbender into a role where his character could pull a man’s gold tooth out with his mind! In doing this, he might have saved more than the X-Men; he might have saved us.
That Magneto-as-Bond section was a pretty neat warmup for director Matthew Vaughn’s next trick – a movie that blends the best parts of his emerging superhero aesthetic with the iconography of the spy film. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a serious film about the difference between the rigid class system and the actuality of “having class.” It is also, while not undermining that nuanced rumination, occasionally klassy with a K – it is unabashedly laddish, ending with a scene in which an older man catches the beginning of a younger man’s adventures in anal sex, thanks to spy glasses. (Okay that particular shot of a Swedish princess’s derriere as it prepares for entry might actually undermine some of the film’s classiness.)
What it is most of all, though, is kinetic with a K. It is a perpetual motion machine of nifty ideas stuffed into a colorful package. It is unafraid to be garish, camp, or silly. It wants to make you laugh and think and gasp and shudder, and, just about every step of the way, you follow its orders. Why not give into it? It feels like one of the first live action movies in a long time that just wants you, its viewer, to have fun.
It helps that Vaughn is a visual stylist par excellence, with a particular eye for the beauty of violence. He had to tamp that side of his filmmaking down for the all-ages X-Men: First Class, but he gets to unleash that id all over again in Kingsman, particularly in one church brawl that filmmakers will be swiping ideas from for years to come. His bursts of action aren’t choppily edited brawls. They don’t suddenly revert to slow motion (Snyder…) to let you consider the consequence of every punch for seconds on end. They are ballets – both literally in the case of an exploding head symphony, and figuratively, as in the film’s bravura centerpiece, where Colin Firth and his stunt-doubles move gracefully from bigot to bigot as a mass murder in a Westboro Baptist Church analog unfolds to the rousing breakdown of “Free Bird.” Their timing is everything. It’s musical.
The next scene is an even better encapsulation of Vaughn’s aesthetic. It is cheeky, referential to the very Bond films it apes, even satirical; but in doing this it never abandons the consequences one would expect from a real plot featuring real characters. Kingsman may be a pastiche, but it’s no Scary Movie. This is a satire with heart and gravitas. Sometimes it evokes less the granular ribbing of a parody film that aims its sight at recent film trends; Kingsman is smacking massive human foibles with a sledgehammer, Dr. Strangelove-style.
So critical to the film’s success is the wicked topicality of its villain’s evil scheme. If trailers led you to believe that Samuel L. Jackson’s heel turn was all lisping and no substance, the scenes in which he and Firth verbally spar will be a quick corrective. Jackson is actually in fine form, and he knows precisely what he’s doing palling around with a sword-legged henchwoman named Gazelle (how long has it been since we got fun henchmen?). He plays his tech billionaire gone bad as affable and completely convinced of his own righteousness. His plan is to lock away the one percent in a safe location while he forces the rabble outside to bludgeon each other to death until the 99% becomes a figure that is drastically lower. It’s insane, but also a bit beguiling; he sees, not incorrectly, stasis and he has the means to move the needle. He sees it in the government and he sees it in the people fighting back. He has found a way to do something about it, and to the people he promises to spare, he can be very persuasive. As he prepares to kick his plan into high gear, he tells the people at his one percenter sioree to buck up and start having some fun, they’re not the villains here. When Noah spared a chosen few from the onslaught, he wasn’t the villain after all, right?
The only group willing to stop him are the extraordinary secret spy agency, the Kingsmen, who happen to be going through a recruiting process. As the class issues are writ large in Jackson’s genocidal scheme, they are intimately explored through Taron Egerton’s aspiring Kingsman Eggsy, who is attempting to overcome preconceived notions his fellow recruits have about him based on his station. Egerton’s is a star-making turn, with warmth and charm and just enough of an upturned eyebrow to guide us through the delightful world of the Kingsmen. The world he is attempting to enter is wonderfully realized, and this is where it would be prudent to mention that Kingsman, like Kick-Ass, is adapted from a Matthew Vaughn comic, The Secret Service. Much has been changed from the comic, and the film imagines most of what makes the world of the Kingsmen feel so delightfully lived-in and imaginative. The Kingsman were the world’s finest tailors who banded together their immense wealth to start saving the world, forming an independent spy agency modeled after King Arthur’s Round Table. Their Lancelot has just passed away, and a group of young faces are brought in to try out for the role. Only one can be fitted for the bulletproof bespoke suit and thick glasses with computer chips inside that serve as the Kingsman’s armor.
Eggsy (who is a superhero level parkour master apparently because he was an Olympic level gymnast in his youth) is Hart’s choice, and the bond they form once Eggsy realizes that this posh, older man can see beyond his circumstances, his clothes, his accent, all the markers of class, is a touching one. While Hart works to soften a class-conscious Arthur (Michael Caine, who totally would have played Eggsy fifty years ago), Eggsy is bullied bellicosely by the tight-knit group of Oxford and Cambridge men for not belonging. Eggsy finds acceptance from the recruits’ taskmaster Merlin (one strong scene sees Merlin prove Eggsy’s assumptions about his prejudices wrong) and a Hermione Granger-like striver named Roxy. Hearteningly, Roxy is presented as equal to Eggsy in every way, and as far superior to all the boys that look the part of suave British spy, like the entitled Charlie. In the end, Roxy even wins the role of Lancelot, though she is at that point shoved off to the B-Plot while Merlin and Eggsy do the heavy-lifting. I’d hoped that Eggsy and Roxy would fall in love so that Roxy could stick around and show some close-combat bona fides, and I was extremely disheartened when a captive Swedish princess promised Eggsy they could “do it in the asshole” if he saves the world. It seemed like he was spurning a woman presented as his equal for a quick roll in the hay with a woman who is there to serve solely as his sexual object. The friend with whom I watched Kingsman offered a counterargument: that the film didn’t go the obvious route and make Eggsy’s romantic feelings Roxy’s ultimate validation, instead letting her competence stand on its own. I’ll buy that half-heartedly, but still wonder if indulging the worst parts of the Bond mythos (okay, the race stuff is the worst part, but the womanizing runs a close second) as the closing notes to Vaughn’s symphony struck some sudden discord that might just set Kingsman back.
Still, I struggle to fault Vaughn for indulging one last time in what makes most of Kingsman such a delight: its audacity and verve. It is bright, kooky, and a little kinky, a campy superhero film in everything but costume, It elects to clothe its Avengers in the finer wear rather than tights. In its quest for populism, it makes an Iggy Azalea reference that will do it no favors fifty years from now, but I hope it will be fondly remembered by then as an all-around fun movie that tackled some legitimately serious things like class and global warming, a turning point when “Why so serious?” turned from a desperate inquisition to the filmmaker about why they elected for that all-grey color palate again into a good-old fashioned jibe at the expense of over-brooding.
In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, James and Charles return once again to their favorite subject, Marvel superheros. Fox attempts a hail mary pass in the form of X-Men: Days of Future Past which is meant to connect and clean up their twisting seven movie franchise and set it up for the future. Do Bryan Singer and Hugh Jackman save this franchise? Or will the Culture Conquistadors be begging for Fox to return the rights to this franchise to Disney and Marvel, listen in to find out.
So odd to see those strange bedfellows sitting incongruously next to each other, engaged in a playground shoving match for supremacy.
In the comic book storyline from which this seventh X-Men film is liberally adapted (between this and “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” we’ve seen two of comics’ most beloved storylines come to the big screen this year, to middling fanfare), there’s an implied comma between the Future and the Past: “Days of Future, Past.” The apocalyptic future, the title insinuates, is potentially averted, placed in the rearview mirror.
But in the movie, the contradiction is embraced; no comma needed. Let the intriguing future – in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender – and the stalwart past – in the form of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and… Ellen Page? – fight it out. Hugh Jackman’s bulging bicep muscles, the true logo of any X-Men film, will moderate. And go!
X-Men: Days of Future Past can be very bad. The first ten minutes, thrilling action sequence aside, are a mush pile of shoddy exposition and baffling continuity tinkering, a startling smack in the face to anyone who might have cared about Xavier being torn molecule from molecule in X-Men: The Last Stand.
X-Men Days of Future Past can be extraordinarily good. The last ten minutes are so affecting, so moving, that one unexpected shot (yeah, I’m a sucker) actually brought me to tears. A hearty slap on the back for “true believers,” these ten minutes honored fourteen years of pent-up goodwill for these characters. “We may have let the timeline get a little screwy, friend,” they seemed to say, “but we still know how to make you feel the weight of time.”
The year 2000. How many did I love in that far off time (when I was trading Pokémon cards and voraciously reading Animorphs) that I still love today (know where those Pokémon cards and Animorphs books are? Boxes…)? I can count four.
- My family: Duh.
- Harry Potter: The year 2000 is when I first discovered the books, and fourteen years later I want to see an animatronic Gringotts goblin so bad it hurts.
- Survivor: This reality television pioneer just wrapped its 28th season. One of its best yet. I hear your “is that show still on?” jibes. I refuse to acknowledge them as anything other than the faddish thinking they are.
- X-Men films: The original two Singer films – once considered pretty untouchable (especially the much better X2) – have come in for a shellacking over the past few years. Why? Maybe because so many other superhero films, from The Incredibles to Iron Man to the Dark Knight, have rendered them sort of passé by comparison. But never underestimate the power these films held as gateway drugs for impressionable youths (such as myself), existing not just as films but as an inviting open door that led to a world filled with Brotherhoods of Evil Mutants and freaky powers and thinly veiled Civil Rights/closet allegories.
The X-Men films always got three characters right – Charles, Erik, and Logan. By association, Logan made other character’s work too; if the love triangle between Logan, Jean and Scott always felt stifled by James Marsden’s and Famke Jannsen’s stiff performances, we couldn’t help but love Jean because Hugh Jackman made clear how much otherwise grouchy Wolvie loved her. This meant her death, even in a subpar film, carried legitimate weight, especially for someone who cared as much about the X-Films as I did/still do. That weight carried the X-Franchise through its “wandering through the desert years,” and now (after a kicky but potentially irrelevant stop at a Mad Men inspired oasis overrun with ascots) we have made it to the other side, safely through the parched plains and back in the lush and verdant forest of high adventure and romance.
As of right now – at least until Guardians of the Galaxy changes the game come August (as I believe it will) – the saga of Logan and Erik (the progression of the X-Men films, and especially the focus of this latest film, back up that focused reading, rendering pretty much everyone else as a side character, with Raven ascendant if only because she’s played by the literal Girl on Fire, Jennifer Lawrence) has completely bookended the cinematic Superhero Age, forming both its definitive starting point (discounting the marginal success of the first Blade) and its current ending point.
The variable quality of the X-Films aside, there is something – something very complimentary! – to be said for this film’s remarkable, nigh mutant, ability to – long after it seemed possible to loop Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen back in for another go in the chair and helmet, respectively – keep the entire saga afloat, honoring the love that exists out there for the original films, while also getting ready to tackle another decade with a set of vibrant, glitzy young actors. It would have been easy and probably sane, considering all that new talent on-board, to ignore the old films (damaged by the reputation of Last Stand and decimated by the reputation of X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and start completely from scratch, as the decision-makers at Sony opted to do with their wallcrawler.
While that Spider-Reboot has been disparaged and is starting to look like a costly disaster in spite of universal adoration for the actors involved, 20th Century Fox has found a way to render all but the most continuity-hungry satiated by putting the series’ original scion – Bryan Singer – in charge of an insane-sounding, mind-bending adaptation of the X-Men’s most famous storyline, which everyone and their mother knew would also serve as an in-continuity reboot in the style of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. But X-Men Days of Future Past, if not quite the film that Star Trek reboot was, one-ups the now-famous reboot maneuver (let’s call it the Kobiyashi Ma-reboot) by actually putting every single relevant actor from the franchise on the screen and giving them something (not a whole lot in most cases, but something) to do.
I’ll allow Darren Franich to speak to most of the flaws (and highlights!) of the X-Films here, in his brilliant manifesto that looks back at all six, but I’ll highlight one as it applies directly to this seventh film: The X-Films had a remarkable capacity for squandering the talents of talented people. Overstuffed as they were with characters brought in mostly for their powersets, they wasted name actors like nobody’s business, and while DoFP still wastes those same actors, back for cameos, it wisely casts largely unknown talents in the roles of its new mutants – Sunspot, Blink, Bishop, Warpath, and a wonderfully conceived Quiksilver who gets the best showcase scene since Nightcrawler BAMF!d the Oval Office – showing off some neat-o mutant abilities while not sweating it too much if they don’t give a full character arc to a walking Portal sim.
Don’t outline Blink’s backstory for me, well I’ll survive; but past X-Films floundered when they gave the same treatment to more prominent team members. Halle Berry, after enough time onscreen to create her own feature-length Storm film in which she would appear in every scene, never found her footing as the African weather goddess. That’s an understatement. (Who’s to say African royalty is even what her cinematic take on the character was supposed to be? The X-Films remarkable capacity for de-ethnicizing fascinating foreign characters – from Storm to Russian Colossus to Irish Banshee – is maybe their most unforgivable misstep.)
After a remarkable opening stretch of X-Men in which she formed an unbreakable bond with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Oscar winner (and Soookie) Anna Paquin largely faded into the background and broke all bonds, getting less and less to do in each film, to the absurd point where she is billed above half the cast, including Ellen Page, for DoFP and appears for approximately one second. Speaking of Ellen Page, it’s probably not the fault of America’s favorite coming-of-ager that the X-Men’s greatest teen identification character, and perhaps the most well-rounded female comic book character ever, was given only one definable characteristic across two films – she has quite the foul mouth.
That the Kitty Pryde game isn’t upped in a story that has been, for its three decades basting in the public imagination, Kitty Pryde’s to own will offend many, and, to be sure, it isn’t promising that a franchise adapting the superhero team most associated with female characters who have something to do (almost all defined by Chris Claremont) just got called on the mat in the above paragraph for three of its most prominent female characters. It may make logical sense (or as much logical sense as these films ever care to make, considering Kitty has, off camera and without explanation, manifested the non-canon power to… phase people’s consciousness through the walls of time?!?) to send Logan back to his 1973 body since that body is identical, minus some gray streaks on the temples; the film truly finds its footing when Logan, a character we know all too well, wakes up on a day he can’t remember and begins to piece together his rag-tag team of proto-X-Men in the days of lava lamps and waterbeds and Roberta Flack. And it definitely makes monetary sense since Hugh Jackman is this franchise’s golden goose. Alas, it is disheartening all the same to watch Ellen Page do nothing more than sob at Wolverine’s temples, trying to convey strength and determination while her boyfriend, Iceman, frets at her side.
Faring better is Jennifer Lawrence, who, since turning into a media supernova from the marketing of First Class to the marketing of Days of Future Past, has been awarded a prime piece of real estate as the shape-shifting Mystique… Which, in a superhero movie, for a female character, is unfortunately the spot directly between two men with more to do. In this case, these men are her feuding mentors-cum-love interests, the drug-addled Charles Xavier, walking but otherwise powerless, and the imprisoned Magneto, locked away for a certain “bent bullet.”
Yet the film goes through great pains to grant Mystique her own agency, forcing her to become neither messiah’s faithful disciple. (Spoilers from here on out.) Through the whole film she has one mission, a mission that, if she succeeds, will cause the dark future we glimpse in the opening, and she gives up on that mission not because she is ordered to do so by the men in her life but because Charles finally realizes he needs to stop treating Raven like his misguided lackey and start treating her like the fragile but strong-willed badass protector of mutantkind she has become in the decade since they last crossed paths.
(He still does this by mansplaining, but it’s powerful all the same. McAvoy is fantastic by the way, finally giving Charles something the dignified Patrick Stewart never could: vulnerability. Evoking the pain a telepath must feel hearing the anguish of others, he’s not as trendy as his 1973 co-stars, but [unpopular opinion alert] he outpaces them, maybe because Lawrence and Fassbender get caught in weird and nonsensical game of “I’m going to kill you first!”)
This film also carries over a dangling thread from the first movie: An ongoing battle over body-image (you like allegory, here’s more allegory) waged between Mystique – who only keeps her true blue form under a Jennifer Lawrence façade when she’s trying to stay under the radar but isn’t afraid to flaunt it when it’s time for an ass-kicking and a droll one-liner – and Beast – who now uses drugs to normalize his appearance, though intense emotion causes this Jekyll to Hyde out. First Class ended with Mystique telling her former paramour – deeply unhappy, as he was, with his furry visage – to be “mutant and proud.” Beast rolled his eyes in response.
In this film, shortly after reuniting, both Mystique and Beast are thrown out into a Paris street in their true forms, and spectator footage captured on an 8-mm camera beautifully shows what it would be like to actually witness two unknown creatures fight a magnetic man in front of a regal fountain. The distance and the historical veracity lends the moment a resonance typical blockbuster filmmaking may not have in that moment. Nicolas Hoult is heartbreaking in that scene, caught in the iron bars of the fountain, captured on all the world’s newscasts in a form he hates. He doesn’t get too much to do outside of that intense instant of body shame – the film really keeps the cast tight for the scenes set in 1973, though it could have been tighter since Hoult’s Hank McCoy is pretty expendable – but he’s worth it for that feeling of melancholy and the way it ties into the film’s climactic image: Mystique, mutant and proud, saving President Nixon and abandoning her quest to assassinate the inventor of the Sentinels. She shows the rapt audience at home what good mutants, no matter how they look, can do – the audience need not know that she may not be quite the hero the American viewer assumes her to be.
The mutants of the future are given a temporary stay of execution because humanity, now aware of the mutant menace decades in advance, might be willing to work something out. (Or work something out with everyone but the debonair sociopath in the helmet who dropped a baseball stadium on the White House lawn and aimed a gun at the President.)
And so a dire future is averted, and with it the continuity nightmares brought on by five X-Films that nobody at the studio expected would be analyzed under a microscope in the Marvel Studios Age of Intensely Planned Tie-In Films. In the back of our mind we’ll still wonder about characters fluid birth dates and ethnicities going forward, but these will be minor concerns as the X-Men franchise forges its own path into completely unexplored waters. Only two potentially interesting characters have had their flames extinguished before their time (Banshee and Emma are supposedly dead, which I guess means no ‘90s-set take on Generation X…) How did Cyclops and Jean meet I wonder? My wish may very well be their command. This time, they might actually remember to make that pairing one to root for, and not one to root against.
And so it is that James Marsden’s very presence is a punchline, stifling Wolverine’s ardor in the moment that brought me to tears – the end of a pan through a golden, flawlessly-executed Lost-like afterlife in the X-Mansion that is actually a time-shifted reality. The payoff is similar to the one that concluded six seasons of Lost – it honors the dedication of long-time viewers by tying up emotional loose ends and investing in characters while ignoring lingering questions about the technical stuff like mutant cures and their permanence. And just as certain character reunions in the Sideways world meant more than a treatise on the importance of Libby or Walt ever could, a single shot of that fiery hair is all it took to utterly destroy me. That shot, and Jackman’s subsequent reaction to seeing his Jean alive and well, could have made an execrable film worthwhile. In this case, it makes a perfectly adequate film (which, devoid of all its franchise tie-in pieces, it is: a nifty summer blockbuster with some period comedy elements and an affecting addiction drama subplot) into a once-in-a-lifetime experience: you only get to see the treasured artifacts of your adolescence tied up in a graceful package so many times in your life. That X-Men: Days of Future has done this while seamlessly (okay, maybe not without any seams) transitioning into its new age bodes well for the oldest and less-venerated cinematic superhero continuity.
There’s a reason most of the movie reviews for Amazing Spider-Man 2 have been unceasingly similar: “Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have great chemistry! Didn’t we just do this Spider-Man thing?!?” I think it’s interesting to admit that, but also question why: what are the reviewers to do when potentially the only thing worth loving or hating in this film, the only thing worth feeling strongly about at all, is a major spoiler? It’s because they can’t spoil anything for their readers that they end up spouting the platitudes (Emma + Andrew 4EVER!), and therefore can’t even discuss or hint at the one thing that truly distinguishes this rebooty sequel monster from any other Spider-Man or, really, superhero film that’s come before it. Actually, the American media has done a shockingly good job of keeping details about the film tightly sealed up – they all did that thing where they locked up their mouth with an imaginary key and then threw it away. Very impressive. But it’s made for some boring, incomplete-feeling movie reviews. Yeah.
Let’s make an implicit agreement right now, reader. If you have not seen the movie, than you should read the following bulleted points, in which I give my non-spoiler thoughts on Amazing Spider-Man 2, and then you should close this browser window until after you’ve seen it. (Let’s not front, you will.)
- Like the first film in Marc Webb’s rebooted Spider-series, Amazing Spider-Man 2 struggles to be a superhero film while soaring in leaps and bounds in the department of teen melodrama. Webb’s one previous directing credit was the divisive (IMHO, brilliant) romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer, which cemented Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschenel as the world’s two most adorkable people, a throne which Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield infringe upon with each passing day (the fact that Jennifer Lawrence appears inexplicably in a mid-credits X-Men promo means that all the adorkable people you desperately want to have brunch with are here… except Shailene Woodley; she got cast as Mary Jane but cut from the film, which hurts me deeply).
- Garfield continues to delight me in the role even as I continue to understand that what he’s doing here – a sort of cool guy, hipster pose – is not true to the character as he was originally envisioned. But, as an actor, Garfield brings so many little touches that so endear him to me as Spider-Man – snarky, misunderstood kid from the borough who feels like he can truly explore his wit once he’s all wrapped up in that full-body costume – that I’m perpetually thankful that it’s him I’m watching and not doe-eyed Tobey Maguire.
- The interplay between Stone’s wicked smahhht Gwen Stacy and Garfield’s doofily charming Peter Parker is disappointingly downplayed in this second outing because early on, Peter Parker does that stupid Peter Parker thing where he mansplains to his woman that he can’t be with her because he has to protect her. It’s a weird scene because the last movie left Peter and Gwen broken up because of Captain Stacy’s last word’s re: his daughter, and it begins with them back together mostly so they can then tearfully break up over the same thing… again – it’s by far the worst scene Garfield and Stone will do together in this series because it is so clearly scripted to death, and these two do best with seemingly improvised banter.
- Still this is all much better than the superhero shenanigans surrounding our scruffy lovebirds. Paul Giamatti shows up at the outset as a Russian thug, which may have given you some palpitations of excitement since Giamatti is one of the finest actors of his generation; I’m going to do you a favor and steady your heart right now – it’s not even that Giamatti is barely in the film, it’s that for the three minutes that he is, he is horrible, a shouting, gun-toting caricature.
- Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon – wearing the nerd costume Andrew Garfield never got to wear, since in these films Peter is more of a misunderstood loner than an asthmatic dweeb – fares not much better, unless you count getting more screentime as a villain in one of these movies as better. (I wouldn’t.) As Dillon, Foxx goes full pocket protector, talking to himself because no one else notices him, latching on to anyone who says they need him in the most absurd, excessive ways. On the page, it’s supposed to be a psychologically nuanced take on what would make someone become a supervillain (and read through the lens of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as Walter Chaw does here, it becomes sort of racially profound if you squint), and it takes on extra layers of media significance when cameras play into Dillon’s fantasy of being seen and loved; but, in execution, it is one of the most psychologically one-note, flat performances a villain has given since the Joel Schumacher Batman films, and we haven’t even gotten to the part where Foxx starts doing flat line-readings once he transforms into Dr. Manhattan. Oh wait, I’m sorry, I’ve received word he couldn’t call himself that for trademark reasons and instead chose the name Electro, but he stole everything else from Dr. Manhattan outside that name.
- And yet! Like Spider-Man 3, Amazing Spider-Man 2 (wow typing those titles next to each other does make you realize how far we’ve come in ten years…) gives us three headlining villains for the price of one, and inevitably, if you throw a whole lot at the screen, something is bound to stick. In Spider-Man 3, it was the tragic and physically intimidating Sandman, and here, its threat #3, Harry Osborn. If there’s one reason to see this film, it is Dane Dehaan. Dehaan is essentially asked to do what Topher Grace was asked to do in Spider-Man 3 – play an entitled, simpering twentysomething prick with loose ties to Peter and Spider-Man who grows to resent them both, and, in the last act, gets the power to do something about it. Everything that Grace did wrong as Eddie Brock, Dehaan does right here, creating an utterly sympathetic young CEO whose life and whose friendship with Peter deteriorate for understandable reasons. His turn as Osborn is heartbreaking, playing right into the film’s strengths in the teen melodrama department, and it’s difficult to understand why this film wasn’t given over completely to Osborn’s downfall (a la the similar unraveling of Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2), especially considering Electro’s insignificance: once Harry asks nicely, Electro becomes the rich kid’s blue lapdog. Ask yourself: do you want to see a film in which the advertised primary antagonist simperingly acquiesces to a rich douche in a leather jacket, even being called a “fairy godmother”?
No really, ask yourself. Time for you to decide whether you want to go see this thing, and that should be a major determining factor. As for me, it’s spoiler time. You’ve been warned.
Want to know what sets this series apart from the Raimi films? Of course you do, the question comes up virtually every five minutes. What do Sony, Avi Arad, Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield, what do they all have to say about Spider-Man that Sam Raimi didn’t say already? Like five years ago.
Folks, this is the Oscorp saga. Ostensibly the films take place through all of New York, but every significant beat revolves around Norman Osborn’s corporation, making it all the more surprising what a non-entity the actual Norman Osborn is in these films. Taking its cues from the Ultimate Spider-Man series, which rebooted the comics franchise with a new-millennium sheen, putting Norman Osborn’s grubby, green fingerprints all over everything, Amazing Spider-Man is just as much the story of a nefarious genetics company willing to do anything – ANYTHING – to gets its way as it is the story of the Webhead. Every character has some tie to the corporation, from the villains, to Gwen and not-yet-Black Cat, who both work there, to Peter, whose parents left him when they went on the run from Norman as they tried to keep their genetically altered spider venom from being turned into a biological weapon. (If every government agency is not already investigating Oscorp heavily after four superfreaks have emerged from those glass-paneled walls, than the government agencies in this film’s universe are incompetent.) In this film, we see that all this corporate malaise is stored in a secret department known as Special Projects, otherwise known as the place where they keep all the props for the next five Spider-Man films. (Hey, look, Doc Ock’s arms!) At this point, we could begin to draw an organizational tree of the management structure at Oscorp, so many of its employees having been introduced to us through just two films – only three major characters haven’t had major ties to the corporation, and two of them (Ben Parker and George Stacy) are super dead; only Aunt May lives on, triaging sick patients in the hospital and not caring a lick about where her adopted son is during a city-wide blackout. (Not a complaint, Aunt May always worries too much, it’s not good for her heart.)
Tied up in all of this is Peter, who in these films is not just some schmuck who happened to get bitten by a stray radioactive spider on a class trip. Peter is at the center of a CONSPIRACY, a CHOSEN ONE with a MISSION. It’s a subtle but significant change because it alters the DNA of the character in ways beyond simply adding spider DNA; part of the appeal of Peter has always been how ordinary and random he was, just a normal kid who happened to be in the wrong/right place at the wrong/right time. As Peter sits in his father’s secret subway bunker and learns that his blood is the key to unlocking spider genetics, its emotionally resonant because Peter is watching his dad on that screen, but it’s weird to see that the Osborn-Parker conflict is a decades-long conflict so important that we spend the first five minutes of the movie not with Peter but with his father Richard. It’s weird to see the webslinger caught up in a much bigger web. As Peter slowly unravels the deceit emanating from the sloping Oscorp building (which we pan up to view from ground level, emphasizing its malevolence, not once but twice), he becomes a smaller and smaller player in his own saga – not so much pluckishly fighting to act with great power and great responsibility as he is acting out his part as a pawn on a now dead-man’s chessboard.
Speaking of pawns, the true thematic throughline of Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the refusal of certain parties –Gwen in particular – to be eager pawns in a bigger story. Max wants recognition for the good work he’s done for Oscorp, and as perversely as this need is played by Foxx, it plays into a larger thematic structure. In the only scene that justifies Sally Field’s continued use in these films, she demands to be seen as more than Peter’s doting caretaker. May puts her foot down, asserting her rights as Peter’s true maternal figure.
This ability to intrude in on Peter’s reality, his single-minded pursuit of his own goals, is called agency, and it’s rare for female characters to have it in a superhero film. For instance, Felicity Jones shows up for what is essentially a cameo as a woman with the same name as a character who, in the comics, is the Black Cat (morally ambiguous, just like Catwoman). She is Harry’s assistant, and tells him one important piece of information. She will be important in future films. If you were frustrated by Scarlett Johansson’s protracted performance as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, that was Oscar-worthy compared to this. That is what it means to lack agency.
If anything, we’ll always look back on Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the moment the hero’s girl asserted her independence and refused to stay in a “safe” location (never that safe, truthfully, as Mary Jane perpetually found out). Gwen feels she has something to contribute (she’s probably the smartest person under twenty in Manhattan, smarter than Peter, so she’s right) and will not be condescended to by the man she loves. So, if it lives on absolutely nowhere else, Amazing Spider-Man 2 will deserve at least a footnote in feminist studies courses for Emma Stone’s feisty performance as a girlfriend who tries her darndest to transcend the damsel-in-distress trope.
Does she though? You can look at this one of two ways, neither of which seems to do justice to what’s onscreen – it’s probably an amalgam of the two honestly. Either Gwen makes a conscious decision to put her life in danger so she can help defeat a menace (which she does), and she ends up in a position in which she, or anyone, would find themselves defenseless – hanging on for dear life. Or you can see it as the ghost of George Stacy (who appears repeatedly to throw shade at a guilt-ridden Peter) would have seen it: she is repeatedly told stay out of the way and let the boys handle things, first by her father, and then by Peter acting on his behalf, and she doesn’t listen and is punished.
In a way the filmmakers killing Emma Stone’s Stacy was always going to seem like a punishment, in part because it was something we were never going to truly desire. Only comics fans with the most slavish devotion to source material could truly have relished the opportunity to see the best thing about a flailing movie franchise have her neck snapped. And yet, like Ben Parker, Gwen has become an almost impossible character to work with, because for the savvier portion of your audience, her name will always be synonymous with tragedy. At a certain point in history the words “Gwen Stacy” and “dead” did not mean the same thing, but since the storyline that changed the face of comics came out, the two notions have been inextricably linked. Only Spectacular Spider-Man, a wonderful animated series that likely helped inspire the science genius take on Gwen these films use, really managed to turn her into a full character that wasn’t just a doomed version of Mary Jane.
Building sympathy with her feels manipulative since, almost certainly, it’s all for naught. But Stone always melted through that inherent skepticism – for the first few moments of her performance in Amazing Spider-Man, I felt like a man whose wife wanted a puppy: “But… it’s just going to die when we’re not ready to let it go…” Stone brought so much loose charm to the role that, by the middle of this film, in spite of every effort on the part of the film to foreshadow the hell out of her imminent death, I just saw her as Peter’s true love, not as a walking symbol of the unpredictability of death or the unfairness of life. She was just Gwen, the divinely wonderful, strong, level-headed Gwen. Idolizing a woman like Stone is what director Marc Webb does best, and humanizing a character like Gwen is what Stone does best. Thanks to their work, and Garfield’s clear adoration of his on- and off-screen partner, scenes like the one in Union Square that stops Peter in his tracks or the romantic gesture that sees Gwen get out of her cab and see “I Love You” webbed onto the Brooklyn Bridge soar in ways that anything involving Max Dillon or Curt Conners could never dream of.
Is it ballsy for the movies to abandon the only thing about them that everyone seemed to agree was working? Looked upon kindly, it’s big-slap-in-the-face filmmaking that pays tribute to one of comics most enduringly powerful storylines and could, as it did in the comics, pay dividends years down the line. It could also be seen as the opposite of brave – ignoring everything about your movies that make them good movies and making a potentially devastating decision as a treat for the portion of your audience that needs to see comics adapted faithfully. The future of this franchise is unsure. The only thing sure about it is that Sony will continue milking it until long after Emma Stone has moved on to better things.
One thing that is sure is that the scene which closes out the first chapter of this new Spider-Man saga and opens a new one is devastating in its own right. A bit too cluttered, maybe, a bit too slo-mo, but as Peter cradles Gwen, unable to believe she’s gone, and as the seasons change around him as he sits graveside, the results are undeniable. An essential piece of superhero mythology delivered with Webb’s signature flair for relationship dynamics and the prowess of Andrew Garfield, rendered meaningful by great work from Stone across two films.
Once again, a few moments of profound competence save a Marc Webb Spider-Man film from being inessential, in spite of this reboot being a clear business decision meant to keep the Spider-Man license in house and not much more. Webb’s style and loose performances create truly relateable young heroes that pop off the screen in ways Raimi, wrangling McGuire and Kirsten Dunst, could have never dreamed of. Superhero plots continue to overwhelm the director, turning the ongoing saga of Peter Parker in a world of genetic freaks into a tonally incompetent mush. Peter may be seeing his world expand as the conspiracy (and franchise) around him grows, but his audience may shrink in the years to come as it longs for the simple days when the only fireworks needed were those given off when Emma Stone looked into Andrew Garfield’s eyes and chuckled that deep, raspy chuckle.
In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James review Marvel Studio’s latest superhero movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It doesn’t take much for our hosts to get lost in the wilderness that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so where does this movie stack up and where do we go from here?