Quick Take: The Big Sick

If we have to keep watching Judd Apatow movies, I pray he continues embracing a diversity of voices. Trainwreck wasn’t much more than that, but at least it wasn’t a schlubby, white, male comedian telling the same story Apatow has been telling since The 40-Year-Old Virgin- essentially a romantic comedy from the perspective of a child stuck in the body of a man. Some of those have been worthwhile (Virgin, Knocked Up) and others have been not (Funny People).

The Big Sick, from Pakistani-American comedian and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, has more ground to cover than a man who can’t get his life together in time to hold on to the right girl (in this case, played by Zoe Kazan, who kind of runs away with the movie). Kumail is afraid his family will disown him if he commits to a white girl rather than one of the Pakistani girls his mother keeps trying to set him up with. Oh, and that white girl goes into a coma after a rare condition exacerbates an infection.

The movie is always more than its conceit. Meaning, it’s never just “that rom-com where the girl goes into a coma.” This is probably because the story is based on Nanjiani’s real-life relationship with his real-life wife and co-screenwriter, Emily V. Gordon. There are a lot of laughs, especially once Emily’s parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both pitch perfect) show up. But it’s the drama, not the comedy, that sticks with you. Like most romantic comedies, you’re never unsure of how it will end, especially since Kumail and Emily are still married. But unlike most romantic comedies, The Big Sick fills out its edges with who these characters really are. And, equally as rare, the movie uncovers some truths about the messy relationship between time, healing, and love.

TL;DR: Worthy of the upcoming sequel, The Big Sick 2: Bigger and Sicker (unconfirmed).

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Blade Runner 2049, the Art-House Movie Trying to Be a Blockbuster

Blade Runner 2049, the Art-House Movie Trying to Be a Blockbuster

The headlines surrounding the Blade Runner sequel right now are about how it bombed at the box office. Blade Runner 2049 made about $9 million less than it was expected to, which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that a $31 million opening doesn’t bode well for its chances to recoup its $150 million budget. I don’t think anyone outside of the studio that released it was surprised. It baffled me that they were treating a sequel to an uber-genre box office bomb from 1982 as if it were going to be a blockbuster. Sure, the original Blade Runner became a cult hit after a long history of LaserDisc success, director’s cuts, and retrospective critical acclaim. But they’re called cult hits for a reason, and it’s not because everyone wants to be in the cult.

Though Blade Runner 2049 may be mimicking its predecessor in box office non-success, its critical success upon release is far outpacing the original’s. When the original came out, critics hated the voiceover that the studio forced director Ridley Scott to add after they decided audiences needed to identify more with Harrison Ford’s Deckard. In contrast, 2049 has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metascore of 81. Critics have especially high praise for Roger Deakins’s cinematography and the way director Denis Villenueve expands on the original’s themes of identity and reality.

Make no mistake, Blade Runner 2049 is often breathtaking to look at, and its themes are thoughtfully presented in the screenplay and the movie’s visuals. The original focused on Ford’s detective and his hunt for escaped replicants (what this world calls its androids), while leaving it up in the air through the end of the movie whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant. 2049, on the other hand, erases any ambiguity from the beginning by establishing in the first scene that Ryan Gosling’s detective, K, is a replicant. The audience knowing K’s status allows Villenueve to expand on the original’s themes rather than simply replicate them.

If you don’t like science fiction or if you don’t like slow movies, Blade Runner 2049 probably isn’t going to do it for you. It’s beautifully shot, and there are some compelling moments of action, but this is an art movie disguised by blockbuster marketing. I love genre movies and films that take their time, so it would seem that Blade Runner 2049 was tailor-made for me. And I liked it. But as much as the first movie is sewn into the seams of 2049, the new ultimately suffers from comparison to the old.

The original movie, by keeping Deckard’s identity a mystery, mirrored real-life questions about human origin. Rutger Hauer’s replicant villain, Roy Batty, provides the movie’s climax with his death and his breathless description of the miraculous sights he had seen in space. This is one of the great scenes in all of cinematic science fiction, Batty clearly articulating why being designed doesn’t mean he deserves to live any less than a human, all while Scott lights Hauer almost as if he were an angel. And this, after he saves Deckard’s life, knowing he will die regardless. But the movie continues after that and ends without Deckard discovering what he is, a human or an android. He runs off anyway with the replicant he loves (Sean Young). There are no easy answers regarding our existence, but that’s no reason to forego living life.

2049, by making his identity clear from the beginning, there is ultimately no mystery about K’s origins. His purpose is up in the air for much of the movie, but 2049 does not leave this ambiguous the way the original did with Deckard. The ending is purposely similar to the 1982 ending, but the wonder is gone. Instead, everything is cold, pragmatic, full of purpose rather than spirit.

That’s not to say the movie is heartless; I was quite moved. But where Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner raised its eyes to the heavens in the end, Denis Villenueve’s remains grounded. I like Villenueve’s; but I’d honestly rather look up.

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2016

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2016

Top Ten

10. Hell or High Water: I saw someone write last year that Hell or High Water was a movie about “Trump country”, which is one of the more annoying phrases you could include in a thinkpiece. Their point was that the movie is about the sufferings of flyover country, which is fair, but Trump doesn’t come to mind when I watch this. Obviously there are people with big names that have screwed over a lot of people, but watching the taut filmmaking and intimate story of Hell or High Water is a reminder that corruption runs from the top of the totem pole all the way down.

9. Everybody Wants Some!!: Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, is more of a college movie than a baseball movie, but both aspects are crucial to appreciating it. As a college movie, Everybody is rambling and aimless, in a good way; as a baseball movie, Everybody captures the looming uncertainty of a prospect’s future. The combination of the two manages to concoct a rare formula of haphazard poignancy.

8. La La Land: At this point, I’ve mostly forgotten what the backlash was even about. I mostly just remember how wrecked I was after the final scene, one of the most effective endings to a mainstream movie in recent memory. And I mostly just want to watch La La Land again as soon as possible and lets its musical and visual beauty just wash over me.

7. Kubo and the Two Strings: There are franchises and sequels in the honorable mention section of this post, but it’s telling that the Top Ten is made of up of original movies. Kubo and the Two Strings, a fable from the stop-motion masters at Laika, may be the most original of them all. Kubo, a young boy with a musical gift, must team up with a snow monkey and a giant beetle to confront his grandfather (the moon) and his aunts to retrieve his left eye and avenge his- listen, it’s good, I promise.

6. Green Room: Sadly, Green Room ended up being more relevant than I’m sure director Jeremy Saulnier wanted. Featuring an eerie Patrick Stewart performance and the best work of the late Anton Yelchin’s career, Green Room is scary as hell, and not just because it’s a horror movie where white supremacists are the monsters. It also includes some of the most suspenseful scenes of the year with a soundtrack that ratchets up the intensity.

5. Jackie: Jackie is not a traditional biopic. Directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, Jackie gives us a truly intimate portrait of the former First Lady by showing us days following the death of her husband. One could be frustrated with not seeing more of her life, but biopics that attempt to show the subject’s whole life often try to do too much. By showing us only a small glimpse of Jackie Kennedy at her most vulnerable time, Larraín and star Natalie Portman paint a complex picture of a woman who also happened to be an icon. Jackie contains multitudes.

4. Arrival: Science fiction does not have to dabble in the realm of ideas. Cool lasers and aliens are often enough to satisfy me. Yet the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of the themes of discovery and progress, it is hard to find a science fiction movie that does not touch on them. Arrival may surpass them all. With a simple conceit, but a remarkably intricate inner structure, Arrival hits on all levels intellectual and emotional.

3. American Honey: When I first saw director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, I tweeted that it was the best American indie movie I’d seen since 2008’s Chop Shop, which was clearly not true, even at the time, since I had already seen the two movies above American Honey on this list. What American Honey and Chop Shop do have in common is that they both personify the fight to survive in the midst of the American dream. Sasha Lane’s character in Honey, Star, joins up with a traveling magazine sales team partly because she needs to make some money. Jake (Shia LeBeouf), the man who recruits her, is a part of the team because he thinks he will hustle his way to prosperity. Everyone on the team is either forgotten by society or used by others as a foothold to a future they will never see, but Arnold finds triumph in the life they build anyway.

2. The Witch: There are three horror movies that have created a ripple in the structure of my Christian faith. I don’t mean to say that they shook my faith, only caused me to think differently about my God and His will. The first was The Exorcist, which is so effective in its terrifying portrayal of the random corruption of innocence that I was forced to consider what the existence of demons truly means. The second was The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is not a particularly good movie, but which so directly faces the idea that God allows awful things to happen to the people who love Him. The third is The Witch, which deals with the seductive power of the devil in the face of a cold, godless world. The Witch was marketed as a horror movie, and it is certainly creepy and suspenseful, but it is not a traditional horror movie in the slightest. It is horrifying, but more for its ideas than for its jump scares. The ending alone would place The Witch among the horror movie greats, but it’s the slowly unraveling journey there that gives the ending its power and ultimately makes The Witch among the best movies of the year.

1. Moonlight: In the Oscars’ entire 89-year history, there had never been a mistake like the one at the 2017 Academy Awards. Moonlight will always be associated with everything surrounding that error: Warren Beatty’s confusion, the grace and pain of the La La Land producers, the wild applause that greeted Moonlight’s announcement, and the revelation later that one of the accountants messed up because he was trying to get a freaking selfie with Emma Stone. It truly was a historic moment, so if Moonlight forever brings up that memory, that’s okay.

But its win was historic for other reasons too: the least expensive Best Picture winner (by far), the first with all African-American actors in its starring roles, the first with an explicitly LGBTQ character as its main character (you could count 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, but because that film basically treats Jon Voight’s character’s sexuality as a pathology, I don’t think you should).

Even if Moonlight was not a historic Best Picture winner, it would have deserved to be remembered. I find myself wanting to tell people they should see it, that they have to see it, even if they don’t care about movies or awards or the red carpet. My Bible Belt, Oklahoma world often rejects people like Moonlight’s main character, Chiron, both for his blackness and his homosexuality. And if we don’t reject him, we pigeonhole him, we have low expectations for him, we forget about him, or maybe we feel sorry for him. What Moonlight does so well, is that it asks its actors not to be black or gay, but to be human. And when a movie presents actual people to us rather than characters, it’s a must-see.

 Another Fifteen

13th
Captain America: Civil War
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Fits
Hail, Caesar!
I Am Not Your Negro
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
Moana
Paterson
Pete’s Dragon
Silence
Sunset Song
Tower
Zootopia

Past Top Tens

2015

Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Out
The Look of Silence
It Follows
Creed
Ex Machina
Phoenix
The Big Short
Sicario
Spotlight

2014

Selma
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Whiplash
Inherent Vice
Two Days, One Night
Boyhood
Guardians of the Galaxy
Ida
Snowpiercer
Blue Ruin

2013

12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Gravity
Captain Phillips
The World’s End
Short Term 12
American Hustle
The Past

2012

Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Amour
Chronicle
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Holy Motors
Life of Pi

2011

Rango
Take Shelter
Kinyarwanda
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Warrior
Battle Royale
Drive
Super 8

Stephen King’s It, Brought to Frightening Life

Stephen King’s It, Brought to Frightening Life

Studio horror movies are in something of a renaissance right now. It wasn’t that long ago that Hollywood’s idea of a scary movie stretched from cheap J-horror knockoffs to uninspired remakes of iconic classics. Good horror movies have always thrived along the edges of the industry, finding cheap ways to make audiences jump while functioning as metaphors for reality’s ills. That is still the case today, but mainstream studios have caught on to a formula that works too.

This year has been especially great, what with Get Out becoming a veritable phenomenon, Annabelle: Creation overperforming critical expectations, and mother! sparking conversational controversy. But It dwarfs them all in terms of success, seeing as it just became the highest-grossing horror movie of all time this last week. It is poised to cross the $300 million mark within the next 2 weeks, which is insane for a movie without a name actor or director. On top of all that, its word-of-mouth has not slowed down, which means It will stay near the top of the box office for a great length of time.

Bad movies make a lot of money all the time. But It avoided falling into easy horror movie pitfalls by following a formula established in the early 2010s by Insidious and Conjuring director James Wan: tell a character-driven story and let the scares grow organically from there. Other mainstream directors who have successfully pulled this off this decade are Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil, and then Doctor Strange) and Andy Muschietti (Mama and, whaddaya know, It). These men have taken an approach that has worked forever in indie horror and applied a slick studio budget. Surprise! Movies are better when they not only look expensive but care about their characters.

It, based on the 1986 book by Stephen King (which is 1116 pages, by the way- 1116 pages!), introduces us to a group of seven kids growing up in the town of Derry, Maine, in 1988. The town is under a curfew, due to the recent disappearances of several children. Our seven protagonists are all social outcasts at their high school; they call themselves the Losers Club. One by one, they have encounters with a terrifying evil force in the town. The force, which they call It and which often manifests as a malevolent clown named Pennywise, preys on their fears, taking the form of whatever will frighten them the most.

It also targets their problems at home to break them down and divide them. The main character, Bill, has a brother, Georgie, who was taken by It; It manifests as Georgie throughout the movie, taunting Bill’s helplessness to save him. Mike’s parents died in a fire, so It takes the form of disembodied arms reaching around doors engulfed in flames. Beverly, the lone girl, has an abusive father, so It plays with her emotions surrounding his perverse feelings for her.

The movie is at its best here, at the intersection of the kids’ insecurities as high schoolers and It’s terrifying presence. Horror movies are usually better and scarier when they are about something, and It, for all of its jump scares and horrifying imagery and the extreme levels of gore, is ultimately about growing up. A lot of movies are about growing up, but It makes growing up seem absolutely petrifying. It’s horrors are supernatural, but the supernatural scares of It expose the natural scares of adolescence in a world where evil is real and doesn’t look like a clown.

I read It when I was in high school and related to its portrayal of outsider kids. I would not have called myself a loser back then, but I definitely wasn’t a part of any cool crowd either. The book put into words that in-between feeling I had as a teenager, scared that people would see me for who I really was, still a child yet not a man. The movie captures this too, in images rather than words. The best horror movies are about something, and It is one of the best.

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2016

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2016

Top Five

5. Sasha Lane, American Honey: Lane has an easy story to root for; director Andrea Arnold found her spring breaking on a beach in Florida and cast her in the lead role in her next movie on the spot. She grew up on the poverty line in Frisco, Texas, a mixed girl in a white world, not too far from my own hometown of Plano. There are a lot of factors that made American Honey one of the year’s best movies: the soundtrack, Shia LeBeouf’s charisma, Arnold capturing the beauty in the struggle to even dream the American dream. But none of it matters without Lane, whose naturalism is more than a reflection of her amateur status. Sasha Lane is a star, able to convey charisma and vulnerability within a heart’s beat of each other.

4. Colin Farrell, The Lobster: Colin Farrell has had a very strange career for someone that has played along the edges of the A list, but The Lobster is the strangest and best thing he has ever done. The role received a lot of attention for how much weight he had to gain for it, but forget that for a second. Also, forget every other role he has played, because David in The Lobster is nothing like them. He is a schlub living in a world devoid of romanticism that requires an absurdist level of social norms. Farrell takes the absurd and makes it normal, ultimately making us believe that true love is worth whatever sacrifice it takes.

3. Amy Adams, Arrival: Amy Adams’s performance, like the movie it appears in, came out of nowhere. We have seen a lot of sides of Amy Adams: the bright innocence of Junebug and Enchanted; the hardened experience of The Fighter and The Master; the downtrodden oppression of American Hustle and Big Eyes. With Arrival, we see unconditional love, peace, joy. For all its obvious science fiction characteristics, the strength of Arrival is in the pure religion of Amy Adams.

2. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight: One of the shames of the Best Picture snafu on Oscar night this year is that now, when we look back at the movie and its performances, the first thing we will bring up is La La Land or Warren Beatty. My sincere hope is that people see the movie without comparing it to La La Land, largely because I want them to experience Mahershala Ali. Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer, in Moonlight, but he does not fit your stereotypes of what you think he should be. One of the most moving scenes of the movie is when the main character, Chiron, tries to understand his own sexuality by asking Juan hard questions. In the process, Juan has to face some hard truths about himself, and it’s one of the best examples of unspoken vulnerability I’ve seen onscreen.

1. Natalie Portman, Jackie: And this may be the best example I’ve seen. Before Portman in Jackie, I may have said the paragon of portrayals of real-life icons was Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, or maybe George C. Scott as General Patton. You could even make a case for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, even if the movie doesn’t quit live up to his transformation. But none of those actors exposes his soul the way Natalie Portman does here. We are familiar with Jackie Kennedy’s story following the assassination of her husband: the moment where she reaches out over the back of the car to retrieve the bits of her husband’s skull; that she remained in her pink suit, stained with her husband’s blood, during President Johnson’s swearing-in. But Portman takes us deep into the grief Kennedy must have been feeling. Not grief for a loving husband, though that too. But grief for her public identity as his wife, grief for a lost way of life, grief for the grand ideas that would die with him, and, yes, grief for her own loss of power and importance. Portman portrays Kennedy as far shrewder than popular history ever has. John F. Kennedy’s death would have been a tragedy had he never had a wife. But after seeing the event unfold through Portman’s eyes, Jackie Kennedy’s perspective feels like the only necessary one.

Another Fifteen (alphabetical)

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Viola Davis, Fences
Agyness Deyn, Sunset Song
Andrew Garfield, Silence
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Andre Holland, Moonlight
Ralph Ineson, The Witch
Shia LaBeouf, American Honey
Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight
Ashton Sanders, Moonlight
Emma Stone, La La Land
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Denzel Washington, Fences
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Anton Yelchin, Green Room

Past Top Fives

2015

Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Tom Hardy, The Revenant

2014

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida

2013

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby

2012

Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2011

Viola Davis, The Help
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Tom Hardy, Warrior
Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life

One Stands Out Among Spider-Man’s Villains

One Stands Out Among Spider-Man’s Villains

The villain often makes the movie. This has especially been true of the Spider-Man movies in all their iterations. As Spider-Man’s cinematic villains have dipped in quality, so have his movies. Even if the movies had other redeeming qualities, if the villain sucked, those qualities went out the window. Luckily for this year’s installment, Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest villain may be the wall-crawler’s best yet.

Michael Keaton, who plays Homecoming’s Vulture, is certainly better than any of the baddies from the last two Spider-Man movies. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) featured a toothless (not literally) Lizard that failed to get at the inner conflict between the monster and its human alter-ego, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) featured not one but two lackluster villains. One, Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin, was a rehash from the older movies. The other…well, the less said about Jamie Foxx’s Electro, the better. The movies themselves were not all bad. Director Marc Webb, previously best known for the inventive (500) Days of Summer), crafted a fun romance between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who had real chemistry. But that quality relationship was lost in the mess.

Even the original Sam Raimi movies were hit and miss with their villains. The most glaring example of a miss was 2007’s Spider-Man 3, a veritable villain binge with Venom (Topher Grace), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and the Green Goblin (James Franco) all competing for screen time. None of them were interesting; all of them were annoying, and all were responsible in some part for Spider-Man 3‘s lasting infamy as a truly terrible superhero movie. However, Spider-Man 3’s flaws often obscure how good Raimi’s first two movies were.

The original Spider-Man in 2002, along with 2000’s X-Men, were basically reinventing the cinematic language of superhero movies. They were reacting against the camp of the 1990s Batman movies and attempting to catch the genre up with the changing tastes of an audience with less patience for cartoonish effects. Bryan Singer was a natural choice to introduce the X-Men into a world that needed a balance between style and realism, after the neo-noir The Usual Suspects had made such an impression a few years before.

Sam Raimi, on the other hand, was a strange choice for the director of the Spider-Man movie. He was best known at the time for directing the Evil Dead horror comedy series, which had just started to reach cult hit status. Other credentials included Darkman, a fantasy movie about revenge; The Quick and the Dead, a Tarantino-penned Western; and For Love of the Game, the Kevin Costner baseball movie that isn’t Bull Durham or Field of Dreams. This is hardly a ground-shaking resume for the potential director of a blockbuster. But Raimi’s love for the Spider-Man comics won him the job over the likes of David Fincher, Ang Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan.

His passion for the comics is evident in how lovingly he treats Peter Parker’s origin story. Re-watching Spider-Man now, it is remarkable how much time Raimi devotes to every detail of the saga. Not only does he cover the radioactive spider-bite and the death of Uncle Ben, but he creates ample space for a hilarious scene of Parker’s short-lived career as a professional wrestler, which is a detail that barely gets a few frames in the original comic. Raimi also spends several scenes with Parker (Tobey Maguire) figuring out just how his powers work, including a clever segment in which Parker tries out a bunch of different hand signals to discover just how his webs shoot from his wrist.

But the true signifier for Raimi’s deep love for the Spider-Man character lies in how he developed the movie’s villain, Norman Osborn, or the original Green Goblin. Osborn is well-cast, with Willem Dafoe finding a happy medium between devilish and fatherly, and Raimi plays out the dynamic between Osborn, Parker, and Harry (Osborn’s son and Peter’s best friend, played by Franco, pre-Goblin), as if he is making a first-class family drama. But Raimi’s commitment to telling every detail of this story is a double-edge sword. The Green Goblin costume, though less silly than the comics’ version, is still pretty dang hokey and not a bit scary. And while the action involving the Goblin on his glider might have played better in 2002, it’s kind of rinky-dink now. If Raimi had not played his chips so heavily on his villain, his first movie may have been a little stronger.

2004’s Spider-Man 2 does not have that problem at all. Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius (a.k.a. Doctor Octopus) was the best Spider-Man movie villain before this year, and it has not been close. To be fair, Molina’s performance is lifted up by the quality of the movie around it. Spider-Man 2 has a case as the best superhero movie of all time. The first movie set up the “with great power comes great responsibility” theme, but Spider-Man 2 forced Peter to decide between having a good, normal life and truly using his powers for the greater good. The action setpieces are amazing, the themes come out effortlessly through the dialogue, and the movie features several indelible cinematic images, including grateful New Yorkers passing Spider-Man’s limp body to one another as a Christ figure and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) fleeing her wedding with her white dress bundled up in her arms.

Molina’s performance also does some heavy lifting though. Octavius’s arc, as he moves from hero to villain to martyr, mirrors Peter’s perfectly. He begins the movie as a mentor to Peter, bonding with him over science’s great achievements and over their shared hope for Octavius’s work in fusion. When he becomes Doctor Octopus in a freak accident (which precedes one of the underappreciated horror scenes), his newfound power fills him with a need for revenge and for power. Then (spoiler alert!), as he watches Peter sacrifice himself over and over to save his fellow New Yorkers, Octavius comes to his senses and gives his life to save the city.

The stakes in Spider-Man: Homecoming are not quite so high, and that is part of its charm. Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is not a genius like Doctor Octavius or a wealthy madman like the Green Goblin. He’s not the victim of a freak accident like so many of Spidey’s villains, and he barely has a bone to pick with Peter Parker, at least at first. Toomes is just a guy looking to make a better life for himself that stumbles across an opportunity in the alien technology left over from the aftermath of the first Avengers movie.

Toomes begins to sell off the technology that he is able to recover, and he uses some of it to create a flying suit to assist his team with both stealing and protecting the goods. Keaton has always had an everyman quality to him, and it works to his advantage as Toomes. Even when Keaton shifts expertly into a more sinister mode in one of the movie’s best scenes, it is frightening, but we understand where he is coming from.

That scene, where Toomes reveals his more sinister side, is the true climax of the movie. Up to that point, Homecoming feels a lot like a John Hughes high school movie, where seeing your crush at the school dance is the scariest part of life. Then Peter Parker ends up alone with Toomes (I will not spoil how), and Keaton’s shift toward threatening pushes Peter to confront that being a hero is more than just trying to be famous as an Avenger; it requires true sacrifice.

Keaton’s Vulture, like Molina’s Doc Ock, did what the other villains could not, even when their directors tried their best to stay true to the comics (like Defoe’s Goblin and Ifans’s Lizard). Toomes and Octavius bridged Peter Parker and Spider-Man in a believable way, so that what we watch in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming is the story of a person, and not just the spectacle of a comic book character. Some comic book movies are good, even if they maintain a cartoonish quality. But the best ones find a real note to play, and Spider-Man: Homecoming found one in Keaton.

Guardians and Logan Tell the Future

Guardians and Logan Tell the Future

One of pop culture’s truisms is that the book is always better than the movie. Anyone saying that has clearly not seen The Godfather. But there are far more examples of its truth than its counterexamples. Anecdotally, I remember the Harry Potter movies always finding the books’ fans (read: me) frustrated by everything the filmmakers had to leave out.

This is true of comic book movies too. Most people go to a comic book movie like Captain America: Civil War or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with simple measures of how they enjoyed them: they laughed, they were thrilled, they were intrigued by a plot twist or two. Fans, on the other hand, expect to recognize something special just for them. And often, they are disappointed. These characters have vast histories in continuities spanning decades; filmmakers can’t possibly pay homage to everyone’s favorite panel.

Marvel has been the best at the balancing act of combining fan service with actual quality, but even they can’t help but falter every now and then. In creating their own cinematic universe with Easter eggs and callbacks, Marvel has subtly undermined the very medium with which they create. Comics are naturally more like television in their episodic nature than movies, and Marvel (and DC, in their lesser efforts) have succeeded in making their movies more like television episodes, to their ultimate harm. Such an approach does not necessarily doom a franchise but can impede its path to greatness.

Guardians of the Galaxy did not have this problem in the slightest. The first movie had the advantage of a clean slate. Precious few were fans of the group in comics form. In fact, it was a miracle this group was getting its own movie in the first place. Upon release, it was a smash hit, mostly because it was a great piece of genre entertainment. Director James Gunn’s voice rang loud and clear through the ingenious action set pieces, the soundtrack choices, and the screenplay pitched perfectly between irony and earnestness.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not have the same advantage as the first. There are now expectations, though I’m happy to say the second installment thoroughly meets them all. It is as entertaining as the first and may be thematically deeper to boot, exploring more interesting territory through Kurt Russell’s Ego than any Marvel villain to date. If it is not as effortless as Vol. 1, Vol. 2 makes up for it with a higher level of emotional satisfaction.

Not being beholden to a beloved continuity is a benefit to the Guardians duo. It also foreshadows the future of comic book movies. Marvel has had an impressive run of fifteen (fifteen!) movies that have the trifecta of box office success, audience love, and relatively consistent critic approval. This achievement is all but unprecedented in Hollywood and is thus unlikely to continue forever. The constant after-credits stingers, the neverending waiting game of figuring out how everything is connected- the breaking point is coming, and there is no guarantee of similar success with whatever Marvel decides to do after they reach it.

And Marvel is the outlier in this business. Fox has had two solid runs with the X-Men movies, but the second chance they got with First Class is rare, and the third installment of this second run had the same problem as third installment of the first: bloat. Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies weren’t bad but they didn’t connect with audiences, and now they have turned to a partnership with Marvel to right the ship. Warner Brothers’s DC movies have been an outright mess ever since the Christopher Nolan era of Batman movies.

All of these movies had big ambitions to appease established fan bases with movies that embodied their characters. These characters have decades of development that cannot be packed into a couple of hours of entertainment. With Logan, Fox decided to do something different. While Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has been around since 2000, they set Logan years after the former movies in a world that looked very different. There are few if any mentions of characters or events from the past movies. Even the whole vibe of the movie is different, slower, than the other X-Men movies, with the possible exception of The Wolverine (also directed by James Mangold)./

By filming Logan as a standalone story, Mangold was freer to fill the edges of his movie with the kinds of details that give movies depth, like the Shane references or Nate Munson introducing Laura to pop music. This is in opposition to something that is now the norm in comic book movies: details that are basically commercials for future movies, like Tony Stark’s conversation with Peter Parker in Parker’s apartment in the otherwise great Captain America: Civil War or the hasty introduction of the future Justice League members in the dreary Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. These are the details of television shows, moving the plot from episode to episode, not of movies, which are self-contained stories in their ideal form.

Self-contained stories are the future of comic book movies. I am not saying that we are seeing the last gasp of franchises. Better writers than me have proclaimed the death of popcorn movies and the like. We will always have franchises- thus saith the Lord. But those franchises will not survive if they orient themselves around fan service and continuity. Avengers and Civil War (and hopefully Justice League) are exceedingly charming in their scope, but franchises need movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Logan, which are the incubators of that charm. The books may be better than the movies, but the movies can still be great as long as they remember that they are movies.