One Thing I Like About Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

I liked that the movie had the confidence to slow down and be quiet

I’ll come out as a grouch right of the bat: I didn’t like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse nearly as much as the first movie.1To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.

That’s to be expected, though: Into the Spider-Verse was a once-in-a-generation masterpiece. It seemed to come out of nowhere and not just do every single thing right, but to be so relentlessly imaginative that it tricked you into believing that anything was possible.

And the moments when Across the Spider-Verse works best are truly astonishing. It is near-flawless technically and artistically, seemingly designed and art directed with the overriding rule being that absolutely nothing would be dismissed because it was too difficult, or because it didn’t fit.

It builds on that feeling of confidence that made the first movie so exciting: mixing and matching art and animation styles not just between universes, but between characters and even between shots in the same scene. You can see the sketch marks and guide lines on some characters, the crisp lines on others, and more than one is made from paper or newsprint2And for two completely different story reasons!. When it’s working, the movie captures that feeling of “anything goes” experimentation from comic books, but applied to animation.3The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.

But still I was a bit disappointed simply because I could see the seams in this one. Into the Spider-Verse was relentlessly inventive but also felt “tight,” as if every detail and every stray idea was in the movie for a reason. Plus it never insulted the audience’s (or at least my) intelligence: you pretty much figured out things at the same time as the characters did, and there were no overly drawn-out revelations, or twists meant to blow your mind that you’d seen coming a mile away. Across the Spider-Verse was frustrating at points, because I was either wanting it to hurry up and get to the point already, or because I was wanting it to just calm down and be quiet for a second.

So much of it was manic. I felt like the first movie was able to throw everything together and make it all work, while the second often felt over-stuffed to me. It often seemed like the team knew they had made a masterpiece, and were now desperately trying not just to recapture lightning in a bottle, but to stretch it out into a franchise, Peter Jackson-style, even if it didn’t fit the story.

But this post is supposed to emphasize what I liked about the movie, and what I especially liked were the moments when it stopped the chase scenes and the constant one-liners and asides, and used all its artistic mastery not to overwhelm, but to just tell a story.

The beginning is excellent, deliberately deviating from the format of the first movie’s manic introductions (with a self-referential first line setting up exactly that) to re-introduce characters and introduce one of the main themes of the movie: that these stories are about characters defined by tragedy. It worked wonderfully and was one of the highlights of the entire movie, combining art and music and melodrama and humor in a way that only this series has been able to pull off.

There’s a lengthy scene with Miles and his mother that had me in tears, just because it was such a fearlessly earnest (but not quite maudlin) description of how much a mother can love her son, and the inevitable sadness that comes from realizing that letting a child reach their full potential means losing a huge part of them.

But my favorite scene in the movie is one fairly late in the movie, when (mild spoiler) Gwen returns to her home and has an extended conversation with her father. The scene itself is well performed by the actors, although I don’t think it’s quite as powerful as the one between Rio and Miles. But what makes it so remarkable is that every single aspect of the scene goes towards expressing all the emotion contained in the scene. The backgrounds gain and lose detail. The characters shift between more and less sketchy, full clarity to black shadow, as their moods change. The entire color palette of the scene changes with the characters’ emotional state.

It feels as experimental as the pinnacle of the most inventive Warner Bros shorts, but all in the context of a feature film, and all for a purpose.

I guess that it’s good that I didn’t like Across the Spider-Verse quite as much — and to be clear, it’s like the difference between a B+ and an A++ — because Into the Spider-Verse was almost too perfect in execution. Since these movies are so technically proficient and seemingly capable of absolutely anything, it’s nice to be reminded that there are real, talented, artists behind it all, trying to express something real and personal.

  • 1
    To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.
  • 2
    And for two completely different story reasons!
  • 3
    The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.

1d10 Things I Love About Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I wasn’t expecting Honor Among Thieves to become one of my all-time favorite action movies.

I rolled an 8.

1. It has tons of fun with the source material, but never makes fun of it.

I never got the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make Dungeons and Dragons accessible to a wider audience, or to translate it in a way that non-nerds could understand, or use just the trappings of D&D in a tangentially related fantasy movie. Honor Among Thieves seems to say “they saw D&D in the title, they knew what they were getting into,” and just commits to it entirely. Even Marvel didn’t get this right for several years, feeling instead like they had to “ground” comic books in something movie audiences could better appreciate.

There’s not even a hint of embarrassment about the game, or an attempt to bring the game to The Normals, that have plagued so much genre entertainment for as long as I’ve been alive.

2. Maybe the best possible role for Michelle Rodriguez.

Rodriguez always gets to play tough characters, because she’s really good at it, but she never seems to get the chance to be funny. This character is just great, and her performance is perfect — still delivering all of her lines with a combination of anger and annoyance, but also with a perfect understanding of why the context makes it hilarious.

3. It seemed to never take the easier or cheaper way out.

First, it’s fantastic that they used as many practical effects as they did. The CG creatures were almost universally great (especially the dragon), but there was one scene with a cat woman1A Tabaxi, according to the wiki and her kitten that made me say “AWWWWWW” loudly and unashamedly.

But even more than that, I was surprised over and over again when a character would start describing something in flashback, and we’d actually flash back to see it all played out. I thought for sure they’d choose to save the money and just have a character tell the story in the present, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t film every single scene. Even big battle scenes, or special-effect-heavy crowd scenes, or even quick 10-second gags.

4. It always knew what to take seriously and what to have fun with, and it was rarely what I expected.

Honor Among Thieves is relentlessly, genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes with a line of dialogue but just as often with a perfectly executed visual gag. But I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it an action-comedy, since its actual story is just as earnest as you’d expect from a more traditional fantasy story, or a more straightforward and predictable action movie. Instead, it stays true to its story, its world, and its characters, and then finds every way it possibly can to make that fun.

As a result, an encounter with a dragon — which is supposed to be one of the most intimidating master-level adversaries in the game — ends up being completely charming, and a genuine threat that takes several moments of inspiration2Both in screenwriting and in D&D terms to get past.

5. It didn’t resort to corny fourth-wall-breaking references to the game, but it did often capture the feel of having to respond to random chance and unexpectedly bad luck.

The entire plot centers on heroes who have to respond to misfortune and find a clever way around it. It’s such a big part of the story that it’s the main character’s super-power. And as a result, you can see the characters have an unexpected bit of luck, followed by what must’ve been a critical failure. All of it presented organically as if it were a natural part of the story, instead of being called out as “this is the part of the movie where we show you what happens when you roll a 1.”

6. Even when I knew what was inevitably going to happen, it still worked perfectly in the moment.

Partly because it nailed that balance between earnest and flippant, but mostly because it was so frequently clever, I felt like the movie earned every single one of its “action movie moments.” Those moments when a magic item is foreshadowed early on, and you just know it’s going to become important during the climax. One of those was so cleverly executed that I never saw it coming. The other, I knew exactly what was going to happen from moment one, but seeing it play out was still completely satisfying. It was all executed so well that it didn’t seem predictable so much as inevitable.

7. Better than many “serious” fantasy movies I’ve seen at depicting what day-to-day life would be like in a world filled with magic.

I almost never like depictions of magic in movies or television, because it always comes across as too rigid in its rules and systems to still be magical, or so completely arbitrary in its rules that it becomes meaningless.

Dungeons and Dragons is one of the main reasons that we even think of magic as having rigid rules and systems in the first place, so I wasn’t expecting anything new here. I admit I did find myself frequently thinking, they’ve already used all their daily spell slots! but it passed quickly as I noticed the interesting ways the story depicted magic as utilitarian but still fantastic.

There’s a clever scene pretty early on that shows us the scale of what people in the Forgotten Realms would find fantastic or surprising, and what wouldn’t impress them at all. (“A five-year-old could do that!”) But even more importantly, the movie establishes that it doesn’t care about the wonder or spectacle of magic as much as the usefulness of it. The most spectacular thing isn’t casting a spell, but finding a clever use for it.

8. It had already won me over early on, so I could just enjoy it in the same way that I used to enjoy movies.

I’d heard plenty of good things about Honor Among Thieves, so I had a good feeling I was going to at least enjoy it. But by the end of the opening sequence, once we’d finally been introduced to Jarnathan, the movie had already won me over. All the hyper-critical parts of my brain happily shut up for a couple of hours and let me watch the movie the way I used to as a teenager.

In fact, every time the movie jumped into a new setting, or set up a new extended action sequence, I kept being reminded of how I felt being at the theater during the “golden age” of action movies when I was a teenager. Seeing things like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Big Trouble in Little China and marveling at how they seemed to keep topping themselves. I thoroughly and completely enjoyed Honor Among Thieves in a way I haven’t enjoyed movies in a very long time.

  • 1
    A Tabaxi, according to the wiki
  • 2
    Both in screenwriting and in D&D terms

One Thing I Like About Quantumania

Spoiler: It’s MODOFK.

Reading reviews about Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania gives me the impression that a lot of critics have negative reviews pre-written, much like celebrity obituaries. Ironically, they complain about the corporate-driven sameness and lack of imagination in every installment, in a way that’s so repetitious and over-familiar that I’m getting deja vu that I’ve made this exact same complaint in previous blog posts about MCU projects.

Somehow, they never seem to mention that it’s corporate-driven content that keeps them submitting reviews for movies that they’re predisposed to dislike. Imagine going back to a pre-Siskel & Ebert/Pauline Kael world, where critics only had to write about things if they had an interesting observation to make!

To be fair: Quantumania does have plenty of signs of Creeping Marvel Fatigue. It never reaches the level of “why exactly does this movie exist, again?” that Eternals did, but it does lapse into the feeling that it’s going through the motions. They’re grand, sweeping, extremely expensive motions, granted, but still.

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Deadstream is a ridiculously fun horror movie that delivers jokes and scares across every possible channel

I loved Deadstream.

I expected I’d at least enjoy it, since its premise is entirely my kind of thing: a “found footage” movie in which a disgraced internet personality known for tasteless, extreme stunts tries to restore his name (and monetization) by locking himself into the most haunted house in the world and live-streaming everything that happens inside. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be hilarious and genuinely scary and relentlessly imaginative and clever.

Based on the core gimmick, I expected it to be similar to other “found footage” horror movies like Paranormal Activity, which always struck me as low-effort, to be honest. (Plus I didn’t think it was scary in the slightest, which is damning because I’m about the easiest person in the world to scare). Or, it’d be like Host, which I haven’t seen, but gave me the impression that it relied heavily on its premise for its scares.

Instead, Deadstream feels more like the filmmakers — Vanessa and Joseph Winter — chose to make a horror comedy in the style of Evil Dead 2, while also making it immensely harder for themselves by committing 500% to their gimmick. The entire hour and a half is presented as if it were one continuous take being broadcast in real time, with every edit, every camera angle, every cut-away for exposition, and every piece of music being given an in-world explanation.

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Top 6 Movies of 2022

Yeah, I can do end-of-year lists over a week into the new year

I don’t watch that many movies any more, and hardly ever see anything first-run unless it’s Marvel or Star Wars. I’m hoping to address that in 2023, both by virtue of living in Los Angeles, and paying for AMC’s “A-List” subscription. So far, though, being on the A-List has just meant seeing a lot of C-List movies I wouldn’t have otherwise. (At least I’ve nearly memorized Nicole Kidman’s monologue at this point).

In any case, I saw my friend Rain post a list of her top five movies of the year, and it occurred to me that I actually saw enough movies in 2022 to be able to make my own list! I couldn’t even limit it to just five! Here they are, in reverse order:

6. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Not quite the slam-dunk I’d been hoping for, but still pretty spectacular and full of some great character interactions. What impressed me the most was how it maintained all of its franchise obligations but still had plenty of imaginative, creepy flashes that marked it clearly as a Sam Raimi movie.

5. Nope

I still don’t think the movie holds together all that well, but it has moments of brilliance, plus the pure joy of seeing Keke Palmer bringing the full force of her charisma to the screen. Highlights were the unforgettable, disorienting, and disturbing sequence showing what happens to Jean Jacket’s victims; and Gordy’s attack, a near-perfect sequence of surreal suspense.

4. Barbarian

This wasn’t the goofy fun that I expected it to be, but it was a much better movie as a result. It thoughtfully tears apart decades of horror movie conventions and reminds jaded audiences that the main reason horror movies are horrifying is because most people aren’t self-obsessed sociopaths.

3. Encanto

(Released in 2021, it turns out, but I didn’t see it until 2022 on Disney+)

I’d expected this to be a mid-tier Disney animated feature, but the “Dos Oruguitas” sequence alone [spoilers for the entire movie!] might be the most potent five minutes of any movie, animated or otherwise. If you’re not ugly-crying by the end of it, you might very well be a robot. And I understand how people could be suffering from Lin-Manuel Miranda fatigue, but after Moana and now Encanto, I think he’s preternaturally suited to animated musicals, and kind of a super-hero. “The Family Madrigal” is the catchiest song of the movie, and it introduces the entire premise and cast of characters in just a few minutes.

2. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Maybe the highest praise I could give it is that it exceeded my impossibly high expectations after Knives Out. I love that the two movies are unmistakably related, but the sequel isn’t just an attempt to copy the formula of the first. And Janelle Monáe is brilliant, embodying the impossibly beautiful “rich bitch” while also being endearing and funny and fun. I hope the Benoit Blanc mysteries never, ever end.

1. Everything Everywhere All At Once

Not just my favorite movie of 2022, but instantly one of my favorite movies ever. It pays no regard to genre, and is action-packed and introspective, vulgar and sentimental, hilarious and heart-breaking, ridiculous and sublime. It has all the feel of a loose, scrappy indie movie that can do whatever it wants, but also has some gorgeous sequences that feel timeless. My favorite contradiction is that it explores the idea of infinite universes with infinite potential, all to stress the beauty of living in the moment and appreciating the one life you have. It’s a masterpiece.

Honorable mentions: Confess, Fletch, Orphan: First Kill, Prey, and the Ugly Sonic scenes from Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers.

1 Thing I Like About M3GAN

M3GAN is a PG-13 horror movie filmed entirely on location in the Uncanny Valley

There’s a scene mid-way through M3GAN where our protagonist has driven her troubled niece Cady to the first day of an alternative school. It seems necessary, since Cady has gotten overly attached to her robotic friend M3GAN, and she needs to socialize with other human children. The school’s teacher comes up to the car and cheerfully and kindly introduces herself to Cady, then asks if she’s come with her sister, at which point M3GAN turns to look at her, causing the teacher to involuntarily shout “JESUS CHRIST!”

That’s one of my favorite moments in this surprisingly good movie, because it perfectly captures the confidently silly and relentlessly sinister tone that makes the movie so much stronger than its premise would suggest.

Blumhouse and Universal have gone all-in on marketing the movie as a campy, creepy, successor to the “evil doll” subgenre of horror movie like Child’s Play and Annabelle. That’s a good call, since the promise of something silly and fun is what got me into the theater in the first place.1There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch. But what makes M3GAN so unexpectedly clever is that it doesn’t settle for being a self-aware rehash of its too-familiar influences; nor a winking deconstruction; or even an undeservedly high-minded re-examination of them. Instead, it takes all of its familiar elements and uses them at face value, but combines and re-contextualizes them to make them just as uncanny and eerily not-quite-real as its villain.

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  • 1
    There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch.

Turns Out the Walrus Was Paul (Making Sense of Glass Onion)

Answering (most of) my own questions about Glass Onion

After I saw and loved Glass Onion, I had a lot of questions. Now that it’s more widely available on Netflix, and I’ve gotten the chance to watch it a second time — with subtitles, and without audience laughter obscuring much of the dialogue — I think I’ve got a better idea of the answers to most of them.

To manage expectations: I haven’t hit on any particularly deep insights or re-interpretations; I’m just better able to make sense of the basic plot.

I was glad to see that it still holds up on a second watch, although (and I hate to say it) it was indeed more entertaining watching it in a theater crowded full of an enthusiastic audience. I’m hoping that for future installments, Netflix will consider extending the theatrical run for another couple of weeks, if not indefinitely.

And this is all still major spoilers, so please watch it on Netflix and then come back!

Spoilers for Glass Onion

Glass Onion and the Post-Whodunnit Detective Story

Glass Onion is fantastic, a thoroughly contemporary satirical comedy that also feels like a comfortable, old-fashioned murder mystery

I loved Knives Out, so I was excited about its sequel Glass Onion even before the casting announcements seemed to be attracting so many great people that it became a running joke on Twitter. I was worried that it wouldn’t be able to live up to my own hype, or that the things that made Knives Out such a revelation wouldn’t be repeatable. So much of the appeal of the first was that it seemed to come out of nowhere as a near-perfect, nostalgic homage to detective stories.

It turns out that I didn’t need to worry, since Glass Onion is absolutely fantastic. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a theater, partly because of the crowd of other nerds desperate to see it in the limited run before Netflix relegated it to home streaming, but also because it’s relentlessly entertaining. Just the structure of it alone, with all of the split screens, set-ups, call backs, and twists on top of twists, makes it feel like every scene is a new discovery.

I can’t be too angry with Netflix, I suppose, since it’s their enthusiasm that’s made this sequel possible — you don’t get this many top-of-their-game actors, in a setting like this, for a comfortably old-fashioned movie, without Netflix money — and guarantees at least a third movie in the series. I left Knives Out immediately wanting to see more Benoit Blanc mysteries, so this is better than what I could’ve hoped for. Considering that they seem to be knocking through Agatha Christie settings, and they’ve already done a creepy old house and an idyllic Mediterranean island, I’m hoping that the next one is on a train.

In addition to Daniel Craig returning as Benoit Blanc — and doing an even more spectacular job of making him an instantly classic, unforgettable character — Glass Onion feels perfectly in the same format as Knives Out, and suggests what is going to be the recurring format of the series: old-fashioned stories in completely (in this case, even presciently) contemporary settings, a cast full of actors doing some of their best work and completely embracing their parts, and a story structure that’s constantly folding in on itself and recontextualizing itself.

Plus, possibly, a recurring theme, which is that “rich people suck.” There’s an even more satirical edge to this one than the last. In fact, while Knives Out felt endlessly clever, Glass Onion is more outright funny. I thought it was interesting that the last three movies I’ve seen by Rian Johnson — who is at this point undeniably wealthy — have been pointedly savage against greed and ostentatious displays of money.

Everyone in the cast is great, but the standouts for me were Dave Bautista (who is so consistently good at this that it’s easy to forget how good he is), Kate Hudson (who seemed to be having an absolute blast), and especially Janelle Monáe. I already thought she1Based on that interview, I’m assuming Monáe still accepts she/her pronouns was a superhero, but she is astoundingly good in Glass Onion. She gives one of those performances that understands not only the character, but the whole tone of the entire movie, down to a fundamental level.

I’ve mentioned before that I started picking one thing I like about a piece of art or entertainment to avoid my natural inclination to go into everything like I was preparing for a book report. Recently, that’s started to backfire, though, since now I go into everything looking for the one detail I’m going to pick out to write about it. In Glass Onion, I’d picked one early on, a clever bit of characterization through dialogue that was perfectly executed. It turned out later on that that turned out to be the clue that helped break the case, so there goes that idea for a blog post, I guess. Back to the book reports.

I still haven’t gotten to the point of this blog post, and I really can’t without giving too much away. There’s not much more that I can say about Glass Onion without potentially spoiling a wonderful experience for someone, so I’ll just say: watch it as soon as it comes out on Netflix, and please stop reading this immediately if you haven’t seen it already.

Make a bookmark or something so you can come back later, because I’ve got thoughts and questions.

Spoilers for Glass Onion
  • 1
    Based on that interview, I’m assuming Monáe still accepts she/her pronouns

Black Adam, or, Welcome To The Rock

Black Adam seems like what you would get if you made a movie out of The Rock

On The Weekly Planet’s episode about Black Adam (spoiler: Mason thought it was fun, James thought it was thoroughly mediocre), they raised a question that I’ve wondered about a few times over the years: where is Dwayne Johnson’s Terminator, or Die Hard, or Rocky/Creed, or even The Chronicles of Riddick?

He’s a hugely profitable action movie star with seemingly limitless charisma, and even when he’s in an unambitious or outright bad movie, he’s usually the best thing in it. But unlike other action movie stars, he hasn’t been in a breakout hit that rises above the standard action movie template. Is he just too big a star now to be cast in movies that aren’t 100% driven by movie studio stakeholders? Or are the movies he’s in exactly the kinds of movies he wants to be making?

After seeing — and being pleasantly surprised by — Black Adam, I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter. As with most movies starring The Rock, even without the disappointing track record of the DCEU involved, I went in with the lowest of expectations. But it turned out to be pretty solid and a lot of fun, always precisely aware of what it is and what it wants to do, but shifting or recasting the formula just enough to stay engaging.

To me, it seemed like what you’d get if you made a movie out of The Rock. Not just a movie starring The Rock, but if you somehow got the essence of his entire public persona, and transmuted it into a blockbuster superhero feature film.

It’s pretty well known that this has been a pet project of Johnson’s for over a decade. He was a fan of the character, he was cast way way back in the early days of the DC movies, and the project has been waiting for the timing to be right (by which I’m assuming: for the Shazam movie to come out, and for Zack Snyder’s dominance over the DCEU to fade) to finally get made. Even if you weren’t aware of that, though, the entire project feels like something that either he was closely involved in, or was specifically crafted around him.

It checks off all the items that I would imagine are required for a movie starring The Rock:

  • He gets to play the antihero with a heart of gold: a big guy with a gruff exterior and a tortured past who could destroy you without a second thought, but will somehow always come through and do the right thing.
  • He’s got a no-nonsense, tough guy rival (Aldis Hodge as Hawkman) who’s almost — but not quite — enough to take him on one-on-one, and their initial fights will eventually grow into a mutual respect.
  • It’s adjacent to the Shazam family, meaning it stays friendly to the audience of teenage boys who loved watching the WWE. Much of the story centers around a teenager who rides a skateboard and loves his mom and does sick kick flips.
  • The Rock gets to be a champion of the underdogs and the oppressed, even if he’s an unwilling one.
  • The Rock is ultimately more powerful than any foe; his greatest enemy is his own self-doubt.
  • There is an ever-present sense of humor — not just hipster deconstructionism or tiresome lampshading, but more like the tone of people who understand kayfabe down to the atomic level.

That last one is the bit that stood out to me. Having characters making wisecracks in dire situations is just table stakes for superhero movies these days, so that’s not enough to make something stand out. But the overall tone here is subtly different. In The Avengers, for instance, everyone is trying to out-wry each other, so the end result feels like an attempt to elevate the inherent corniness of comic books while still keeping it grounded. In Taika Waititi’s Thor movies, there’s an acknowledgement that all of it is completely absurd, so why not lean completely into the absurdity. And Ant-Man and Doctor Strange feel like action comedies: the comedy and the action coexist without really feeding off of each other.

But The Rock — and Black Adam by extension — has this unique ability to so thoroughly embrace and inhabit the corniness that he uses every single drop of it and comes out the other side unscathed. There’s not even the barest hint of self-mockery, because there’s no sense that he needs anyone to know that he’s above the material or aware of how silly it is. He’s The Rock; he doesn’t need to care what anyone thinks.

Case in point: my fiancé and I were swayed by Universal Studios’s seemingly constant advertisements for the Fast and Furious addition to the Studios’ movie tram tour in Hollywood. The “main event” turned out to be a rather forgettable sequence at the end of the tour, in which the characters — I mean, family — drag the tram on a dangerous, high-speed tour through Los Angeles. But the tour up to that point had an overlay to foreshadow that final sequence, which had characters from the movies appearing in scenes throughout on the different sets1All pre-recorded and shown on the tram’s overhead monitors. Johnson’s character was at Universal Studios trying to track down the iconic car of Vin Diesel’s character, trying to bring him to justice once and for all2At least, I think that was the premise? I confess I don’t like the Fast and Furious movies at all, and I’ve never been able to get into them..

Several of the franchise’s actors were on hand to play their characters, but none of them really felt like they were putting in more effort than the barest minimum required for a theme park overlay. Ludacris came the closest, but there was still an odd sense that he wasn’t 100% aware of what the attraction was going to be or how the footage was going to be used. The Rock, on the other hand, nailed it. He swaggered into every scene, called people “stinkpickle” with a famously raised eyebrow, pointed directly at the camera, and generally seemed to be having a blast. And more importantly: understanding completely the tone not just of the Fast and Furious franchise, but of the Universal Studios backlot tour, which has its own peculiar flavor of thoroughly-embraced corniness.

I’m also reminded of the Jungle Cruise movie, which I thought remained in the realm of “thoroughly adequate.” So much of the movie relied on Dwayne Johnson’s charisma (and Emily Blunt’s, obviously), but it never felt quite like it understood how his charisma works. It checked off the boxes of “gruff antihero with a heart of gold and a mysterious past with a twist leading into act 3,” just like Black Adam, but it kept putting him in scenes that felt as if they were written by someone else with a vague idea of “action movie star” in mind.

I don’t think it’s any insult at all to Johnson’s acting ability to point out that he’s not at his best when he’s trying to inhabit a character.3At least, in a leading role. I’ve never seen Be Cool, but the clips I’ve seen suggest that when he’s given a side character and the chance to be goofy, he nails it. I feel more like his entire public persona is a character. The projects that best use his talents are the ones that let him meld an existing character completely with his own, like in the teleportation device from The Fly. The Rock is a character that he’s been working on and perfecting for decades; why would you throw all that work away and instead ask him to play a diminished version?

So I got the feeling that Black Adam was exactly the movie that Dwayne Johnson wanted to make. It’s unpretentious, sentimental, corny, often nonsensical or repetitive, occasionally predictable, and above all fun and appealing more often than not. Somehow, it comes across as both shrewdly and carefully constructed, but also heartfelt. It frequently winks at the camera, but it never feels like it’s ashamed of its corniness, or that it has to make excuses for it. In other words, it feels like The Rock.

  • 1
    All pre-recorded and shown on the tram’s overhead monitors
  • 2
    At least, I think that was the premise? I confess I don’t like the Fast and Furious movies at all, and I’ve never been able to get into them.
  • 3
    At least, in a leading role. I’ve never seen Be Cool, but the clips I’ve seen suggest that when he’s given a side character and the chance to be goofy, he nails it.

One Thing I Like About Werewolf By Night

Werewolf By Night wasn’t quite as bold as I’d been hoping for, but it pushed the limits of what you can do within the MCU

When I saw the trailer for Werewolf by Night, I thought that Marvel had finally abandoned the notion of making multi-billion dollar global entertainment product, and had become a boutique art house making stuff personally tailored just for me. It felt as personalized as a custom-recorded birthday card.

Since I consider myself one of the internet’s leading evangelists for The Beast Must Die!, I was getting hit with every single one of the right vibes. My only trepidation was that the trailer seemed to be pushing it directly into Universal Monsters territory, instead of making it a 1970s period piece.1Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids. I was holding out hope, though, since the CBS Special Presentation-inspired opening, along with the narration, freeze frames, quick cuts, and fake film effects, all suggested that the movie might be kind of a mashup between 1930s-40s Universal and 1970s Castle Horror.

As it turned out, I was thinking too small. Werewolf by Night was stylistically better than either of those options, since it went for a mash-up of a bunch of different styles, instead of just a pastiche of a single one. There are stun batons, gramophones, and magic amulets, gothic architecture coexisting with art deco and brutalism. It ends up feeling timeless, as if it’s able to draw from a century of genre fiction instead of trying to emulate just one specific period.

It’s become popular to criticize the MCU for its feeling of same-ness — a criticism it often deserves, as genuinely novel concepts so frequently devolve into people flying around punching or shooting lasers at each other. So the current phase of the movies and series have impressed me by how much they’re willing to draw from Marvel’s scattershot library. Is it just super-heroes, or is it a horror story, or sci-fi, or fantasy, or legal sit-coms? The answer is yes.

Werewolf by Night often feels like it’s pushing at the boundaries of the MCU, trying to see how much it can get away with while still fitting into the universe. Unlike a lot of the other MCU entries, it’s most interesting not when it’s showing us a new interpretation of the familiar, but when it’s adding a flourish that’s completely new.2Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards. The main character Jack transformed completely from a WASP-y, long-sideburned teen into a Mexican man with face paint to honor his heritage. A wind-up, talking corpse. A somber man playing a flaming tuba, for some reason.

So I was a bit disappointed to see it just turn into a bunch of fight scenes, and to see that after all the build-up to the appearance of the title character as being the most fearsome monster of them all, he ended up being only like the fourth most brutal and scary character in this movie alone. But that build-up had so much pure style that I’ll gladly give it a pass.

One thing I like in particular about Werewolf by Night is how brazen it was about simulating old-school filmmaking techniques with all of the tools that a MCU-budgeted film in 2022 has available. It does lay on the affectations so thick that it sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard — film grain, rough cuts, reel change markers, overall the kind of stuff you might expect to see in an After Effects tutorial. But I think it all balances out to a feeling of near-campy enthusiasm. Harriet Sansom Harris, who’s never been less than awesome in anything I’ve ever seen, goes gleefully over the top throughout, so it sometimes seems like the direction is just trying to keep up to her energy.

And it results in a couple of really neat flourishes. The red of the bloodstone every time it’s shown, with the added bonuses of colored lens flares in a black and white movie. But my favorite is in a sequence where the werewolf is ravaging some generic bad guys in a hallway. The action is all in silhouette against a blinding white doorway that’s slowly closing, with the only other light being the occasional flashes of stun batons. It doesn’t show any of the monster or the violence close-up — seemingly a stylistic choice to preserve the mystery instead of a technical limitation, since they don’t hesitate to show Ted in extreme detail. As the carnage goes on, blood is splashed against the camera lens, obscuring more and more of the view. By the time it’s over, you can only imagine what happened.

Was it a visual effect, or a practical one? I don’t actually know, and that’s what I like about it. I’m so used to CGI being omnipresent in these projects that I tend to assume everything is done in post-production, and I’ve gotten harder and harder to impress. However it was done, it was done with so much style and thought to its purpose instead of simply its spectacle, that I stopped caring about how it was done. Instead of zoning out during the fight scenes, like I typically do, I appreciated the point of the scene: to suggest a new monster that was so fearsome, they weren’t even allowed to show it to us.

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    Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids.
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    Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards.

I, Too, Am An Adult With Very Strong Opinions About Mario Mario

Lazy dunking on casting Chris Pratt has revealed something I never fully appreciated about the franchise

For a minute, I was confused by how people were having such a strong aversion to the Super Mario Bros trailer, considering that Chris Pratt only has a total of two lines and some assorted grunts. Then I remembered the thing that I always forget about Twitter, which is that it’s all about being first, not about being insightful. People have been gearing up to scoff and/or be outraged ever since the first (admittedly weird) casting announcement, and it’s way too late at this point for anyone to say, “we will remain cautiously optimistic until we see more footage from this family-oriented animated feature film” I often forget how the internet works, and for that I apologize.

But as I was getting more baffled and annoyed at people getting so worked up over nothing, I started to realize something that I never fully appreciated about the Mario series: Miyamoto and Nintendo DGAF. Or rather, they care deeply about the right things, but don’t particularly care about the things people on the internet expect them to care about.

Because pretty much all of the Mario games show such a great amount of care and attention to the smallest details — all of the main-line ones, definitely, and most of the side games, even including many of the licensed ones — it’s easy for me to take for granted that they’re obsessive over the same stuff that I’d be obsessive over, if I were in charge of a hugely profitable, long-running, global franchise: world-building, character development, continuity, and so on.

What’s weird is that I’ve kept thinking of them in those terms, even though there’s absolutely zero evidence in any of the games or licensed material. Each of the games1Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2 takes place in a different universe. Many of the characters and settings are recurring, but new ones are constantly being introduced and old ones re-imagined. Everything is based on the central mechanic of the game — he’s got a magic hat! he’s got a spray gun! he can turn into a cat! he’s in 3D! — and, like 1984, is treated as if it’s always been that way, of course: “King Koopa has always been at war with the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario has always been able to jump through star gates between tiny planets.” Mario has been doing multiverses since before it was cool.

Granted, it’s not the most insightful epiphany I’ve ever had, but it gives me even more appreciation of the brilliance of the franchise than I had before. If Miyamoto and Nintendo were as precious with Mario and the associated characters as some people expect them to be, obsessed with lore and continuity, it would’ve quickly become a soulless, repetitive, and predictable run of decreasingly inspired sequels. Instead, they’ve generally shrugged about the sanctity of the characters2As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’. and only insisted that the games themselves be imaginative and polished.

Instead of being overly fixated on a style bible, they’ve allowed the characters to be re-interpreted in dozens of different (and highly marketable!) ways. Why shouldn’t they play tennis together, or golf, or race go-karts? Why can’t they have plumbing side-jobs as doctors or ghost-hunters or typing instructors? Instead of being overly possessive of their “classic” assets, they made two whole games just giving you all the pieces and inviting you to remix your own games. Instead of being risk-averse with casting, they agreed for their flagship character to be played by a professional wrestler, and a British guy.

I initially thought it was weird to cast Chris Pratt as Mario, but in retrospect that was a dumb reaction. Why not cast a personable movie and TV star with experience doing comedy in both live action and animation as the lead in your animated family action comedy? Mario actor Charles Martinet (who is also prominently credited in the trailer) is extremely good at suggesting a ton of character with just the occasional “it’s-a me!” and “okey dokey!” but that specific voice would be hell of grating over an entire feature film. And having Mario stare blankly and silently while the surrounding characters are all energetic and interesting would just rob Mario of any personality; he’d end up Gordon Freeman-ed.

So to sum up: I think the new movie looks pretty neat and fun, and I’m more interested in it than I was before. I think Nintendo’s handling of the Mario characters is even more clever than I did before. And a lot of people on Twitter seriously need to chill out, go outside, and touch some mushrooms.

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    Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2
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    As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’.

A Few More Things I Like About Barbarian

Still thinking about a horror movie that probably wasn’t intended to be quite as thoughtful as I made it sound. Minor spoilers.

Very cool alternate official movie poster for Barbarian from Bloody Disgusting

When I wrote about the movie Barbarian, I may have been so eager to avoid spoilers and to compare it to my expectations that I misrepresented what the movie’s actually like. I’m still going to avoid spoiling anything specific in the movie, but I will be talking more about its tone and what to expect, so if you’re planning to see it, I really recommend avoiding this and going in cold.

I made it sound like the movie’s not very scary (it is, and there are at least two scenes of extremely graphic violence), and that it’s not particularly funny (it is, and there’s a pretty long1No pun intended sequence that’s straight-up hilarious).

The comedy’s easier to explain, since it was just a case of my hearing the buzz around the movie and expecting it to work like Malignant or Orphan: First Kill: where it goes over-the-top with its horror elements to the point of highlighting how absurd it all is. Instead of that, Barbarian‘s funniest moments are all character-based. They present a character with all the familiar components of a horror movie setup, and then show them behaving exactly like those characters would.

It’s really clever, for a couple of reasons: first is that it doesn’t just rely on absurdity that evaporates as soon as the novelty wears off. There’s a satirical edge to all of it. The theme of selfishness vs self-interest, and the things that we owe to each other as people, comes through loud and clear even though the movie isn’t banging us over the head with its message. (I don’t know that I’d call it subtle, but it does expertly avoid having any of the characters explicitly summing up the idea in dialogue).

The other reason it’s so clever is because the comedy is built almost entirely on the last hour or so of the movie being scary and suspenseful as hell. Taking advantage of expectations, showing someone opening one increasingly scary door after the next all while the audience is screaming at them not to — that’s such a well-known element of horror movies that even the parodies and meta-commentary deconstruction of it is decades old at this point. Barbarian is so good at playing on this suspense that it doesn’t just have it both ways, it has it three ways: it’s genuinely scary, it builds to an extended comedic payoff, and then it uses it to make a point.

“Don’t go into the scary basement!” seems universal enough: it’s pretty good advice for anybody to follow, even if you’re not aware you’re in a horror movie. But Barbarian quietly emphasizes the idea that it’s not actually that universal. Some people have to be constantly on the lookout for potential horrors everywhere, while others can be fearless because they’ve lived their whole lives without facing any consequences for their actions.

The comedic payoff only works as well as it does because the movie is so good at building suspense, which goes back to my reaction that it “wasn’t very scary.” That sounds like a knock on the movie, but it’s actually an acknowledgement of how adept it is at pumping the suspense for all it’s worth, while sparing the horror to be doled out at just the right time and in just the right amount. The more I think back on Barbarian, the more I appreciate how good it is at showing only what it needs to show, leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination.

The movie’s trailer was so good at implying a third act which would be over-the-top horror and ultra-violence. Which, of course, was the entire point: the dread of what you might see is so much more powerful than the movie showing it to you in lurid, extended detail.2So much of that horror is so effectively suggested by a bloody handprint on a wall, and a set of VHS tapes with short, suggestive labels. I think I’ve been steeling myself for haunted-house season, which is the opposite, relying on cheap thrills and leaving absolutely none of the horror implicit. Barbarian, on the other hand, is remarkable for its restraint.

Thinking about the ways Barbarian builds suspense and delivers horror, I was reminded again of my whole argument about the way The Walking Dead series of games worked. I keep insisting that the branching narrative is the least interesting aspect of those games, even though that’s where all the focus was. The game’s own marketing promised “the game tailors itself to the choices you make,” and several players complained that the choices were often “meaningless,” since the same thing happened no matter what choice you made. But that puts all the focus on the outcome instead of the choice itself. I think that the thing the series did so remarkably well was set up situations in which the horror was in having to make the choice, when there are no good outcomes.

I was reminded of all that while reading a review of Barbarian, which suggested that there were several moments that didn’t make real-world sense, but were dictated by the plot and premise of a horror movie to happen. I disagree. I think that it’s full of moments that make it stronger than the over-the-top wacky horror movie than I’d expected. We get to see one character doing the “right” things that a person in a horror movie should be doing, and it’s clear that they’re awful and motivated purely by self-interest. And we see another character repeatedly choosing to do the “wrong” thing for a person in a horror movie, but she does it because it’s the right thing to do.

One other unrelated thing I really like about Barbarian: the music. There’s a fantastic bit at the very beginning that suggests the horrors of being outside in the neighborhood, versus the safety of the car. And throughout the rest, there are several sequences that vividly reminded me of the fantastic soundtrack to Suspiria — familiar enough to evoke a memory of it, without being a direct reference.

So ultimately, I think I did Barbarian a disservice by emphasizing the satire and suspense, making it sound like some bland, high-minded thought experiment. It is pretty scary and often very funny. I was just surprised by its having something to say on top of the horror.

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    No pun intended
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    So much of that horror is so effectively suggested by a bloody handprint on a wall, and a set of VHS tapes with short, suggestive labels.