X-Men: Apocalypse – a pre-Preview…of Why This Film Will Suck

You will have to forgive informality in this latest Retrobacktive post. We live in a fast world and there is barely enough time to climb atop the soapbox, let alone proselytize.

Summer is upon us, and hence the season of the blockbuster. But we are a far cry from Jaws and Star Wars. Today, May 27, marks the release of the ninth installment in the X-Men film series. And what 20th Century Fox seems to be bating audiences with is star power and little more.

X-Men: Apocalypse features on ensemble cast of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Olivia Munn. For the most part these are all reprisals for actors who have appeared in one, if not multiple, X-Men films already. So there isn’t much here to tempt your average movie-goer.

Oscar Issac joins the franchise as the titular villain Apocalypse. This acts as the movie’s lure. Apocalypse has been a prominent nemesis in the X-Men comics for 30 years. And we finally get to see him on the big screen!

That ought to be exciting for about 20 seconds. Then we get to go back to watching McAvoy and Fassbender ham-handily deliver their best Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen impressions, and see Jennifer Lawrence emerge as the new de facto leader of a young X-Men team. Why is Lawrence the new de facto leader of the team? Because of her star power. There is no other reason to explain it. Her character Mystique was never anything more than a secondary villain in the comics, but why relegate an Academy Award-winning actor to a bit part? That would requiring lending the audience respect.

Despite the fact that Bryan Singer has returned to the director’s chair, it seems the film studio and the writers, perhaps in tandem, have forgotten what made the first film in the series, 2000’s X-Men, a hit. With the exception of Stewart and McKellen – who still weren’t considered bankable actors at the time – the film was a collection of lesser-known players. James Marsden was up-and-coming; Famke Janssen was still known mostly for her Bond-girl status, and Hugh Jackman was virtually unheard of stateside. Halle Berry was the film’s only bona fide movie star, yet she graciously down-played her performance to give ample room to her teammates. Fortunately the acting trumped any grandeur and character development was allowed to flourish.

Now admittedly, this judgment is based on this movie’s cover, but it appears all 2oth Century Fox is giving us is a flashy new villain. It represents a bigger problem endemic in today’s cinematic culture: the bottle-feeding of American audiences. Major movie studios seem to have no faith in audiences’ ability to perceive thematic interpretation, that we may be able to comprehend allegory, mythology, metaphor, and god forbid, complex characterization.

No, instead it is simply more lasers, more explosions, more costumes, and more Wolverine.

It ought to be clear, however, that audiences want more than re-purposed junk. Two of the most successful action films of the last year have been Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool. Both rated “R,” both considerate of the audience’s intelligence. These were not perfect films, but breathed hope of life in the movie industry’s atrophied lungs.

Just as this summer’s new Ghostbusters film…(shutter)…panders to the lowest common denominator of attendance, so shall the latest installment in the X-Men franchise. Unless of course the sight of a bald Professor X is enough to push film-goers over their collective edge of excitement. Who needs a story – or brain activity for that matter – when you have the guy playing the guy from the comics looking like the guy in the comics?

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Daredevil: Season 2 Review

Believe it or not I don’t actually live in a self-manufactured time capsule surrounded by gratuitous 1980s paraphernalia. I am aware and immersed in the social fabric of our current age. It just never seemed appropriate material for a blog dedicated to history.

Yet there is little in our present media to suggest innovation in entertainment. Sure, we have new ways of absorbing media, but over the last ten years the content has become almost solely rehashed material from earlier generations. It’s gotten to the point where we are now simply rehashing the rehashes.

No one can spend all their time, however, watching reruns of Predator on TBS. A few weeks ago I took up Netflix’s original series, Marvel’s Daredevil. The show is based on the Marvel Comics hero created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1964, and stars Charlie Cox in the titular role.

One of the interesting elements in the emergence of live-action comic-book adaptations of late is that many of the plots are pulled from 80s and 90s era story lines, with “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Knightfall” (i.e. The Dark Knight Rises) being two high-profile examples. When you consider that most of the writers for such movies and television shows fit in the age demographic that would have grown up reading these comics the occurrences seem less coincidental.

In its publication history the Daredevil comic could best be described as steady. Popularity has ebbed and flowed through the years as a myriad of writers have come and gone. During the 1980s the comic saw a particularly sharp rise in readership thanks to the contributions of Frank Miller. Daredevil’s literary appeal was steeped in heaps of human interest, something many other superhero characters lacked. And then a movie adaptation was released by 20th Century Fox in 2003.

It sucked.

When Netflix released their own serial version of Daredevil 12 years later, I was skeptical. Part of Daredevil’s charm is the aforementioned relatability; he has “super” powers, but they are probably the most subtle in the Marvel Universe – the character Matt Murdock is blind, by has superhuman hearing, smell, taste, and sense of touch. He also possesses an enhanced form of echolocation that works like sonar. These attributes combined virtually neutralize his blindness, but he has no super strength, or speed, or flashy weapons. He is, however, a master martial artists and combat specialist.

In other words, he’s a blind Batman. And admittedly that is how I always saw him in the comics. But while Christopher Nolan was able to develop Batman into the most successful comic-book movie franchise in history (okay, at least in this critic’s mind*), it always felt as though Daredevil was a bit too bold in appearance (it’s bright spandex, people) and a bit too dry in attitude for the silver screen.

Well, kudos to Netflix for changing my mind. Although we are skipping right to season 2 – because we missed the boat on Season 1; newsflash: it was a hit – there are a number of components spread out over both seasons that make the show mostly enjoyable…on top of all the crap that leaves me fuming in frustration. Let’s start with the good.

  • The Punisher! I’m biased as this was my favorite comic growing up, and most on-screen adaptations have been lacking (Dolph Lundgren’s 1989 vehicle was previously the best). Jon Bernthal is a great cast as Frank Castle, and plays the jaded vigilante with nuance not normally seen in the comics yet emanates seamlessly in the show. His final act in the season was criminally underplayed, but leaves open room for his return in Season 3.
  • Scott Glenn as Stick. He was awesome in Season 1, and delivered even more helpings of cynical one-liners to help offset Daredevil’s often preachy righteousness in Season 2.
  • Peter McRobbie as Father Lantom. While Matt Murdock’s confessions frequently espouse a self-inflated sense of grandeur, McRobbie’s Lantom consistently delivers sage advice without ever delving into rote judgement. It’s a deeply restrained performance, but he steals every scene he’s in.
  • The fighting. Arguably the best thing about Marvel’s Daredevil is the fight cinematography. It was brilliant in the first season, but the showrunners took it up to 11 in Season 2. The hallway fight in Episode 3 is can’t miss for action fans.
  • Daredevil’s armor. First off, the relationship Daredevil has with his armorer, Melvin, is one of the more enigmatic in the show. It’s a true bro-mance, where neither party wants to admit vulnerability, but they both seem to have each others interests at heart. And the suit itself looks awesome. Bright red spandex would never have worked in today’s realistic superhero market; Netflix figured out a way to make the character signature without being ridiculous.

The bad:

  • Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page. Yeah, she’s still in the show. In the comic book, she dies. I wish they would do that here. Woll’s Page is annoying, whiny, self-possessed, constantly meddling, and has even managed to get another popular character killed through her own selfish and reckless behavior. Woll’s acting is atrocious and she has no chemistry with any of the actors on the show. Fingers crossed Bullseye is brought in during Season 3 to kill this useless character like in the comics.
  • The writing is Dumb – oh yeah, big capital “D.” The writers are clearly aware of the source material, but have not actually read it. At some points it’s nonsense (how did Nobu survive being burned to ashes exactly?) to just plain lazy (Daredevil has super hearing, but that doesn’t mean he can stand on a building and selectively discern police transponder information from miles away – how much easier would it have been to just a write in a bit about Melvin putting a police transponder in Daredevil’s helmet?). And why do they keep referring to New York as Hell’s Kitchen? Yes, it’s where Daredevil lives, but is it the only place he operates as a vigilante? Hell’s Kitchen takes ups about 18 square blocks. It’s about the size of a baseball stadium. Does anyone in this show ever leave there? Is this the only neighborhood in all of NYC plagued by crime? I lived in New York for 10 years; I can’t recall ever meeting anyone in that time who referred to their work and social life exclusively by their neighborhood. In Marvel’s Daredevil someone mentions it about every 12 seconds.
  • Elektra. Elodie Yung is much more convincing than Jennifer Garner, but her talents are clearly underutilized here. The series has made a hallmark of delaying character development (i.e. not revealing trademark outfits till the final moments of the seasons’ last episodes), but it’s particularly cumbersome when a good actor is given limited range in order to play up a big reveal that ultimately fizzles.
  • Not enough Rosario Dawson. This is simple: get rid of Karen; focus on Claire. Like Yung, Dawson is also hampered by bad writing, but she is still 1000x more likable than Woll. Elektra is Daredevil’s perennial femme fatale, but Claire ought to emerge as Matt’s main love interest.

Overall, Marvel’s Daredevil is much akin to Law & Order: SVU. It’s dumb, the writing is dreadful, and their is a seemingly endless string of annoying side characters no one cares about. Yet for some reason it is maddeningly addictive. I left Charlie Cox’s performance off the breakdown because it really falls somewhere in between. He plays the character well, but you get the sense about a half-dozen other actors could have been dropped in the role and done just as good a job. Not sure if he’s performing his own stunts, but if so, two thumbs up, sir.

Vincent D’Onofrio is, likewise, a solid addition to the cast, but doesn’t stand out. Most fans have especially praised his performance as the Kingpin. Between strong and weak, D’Onofrio leans towards the former, but again could be inspired by some tighter writing.

In sum, Season 2 of Marvel’s Daredevil will sate action junkies and multiple generations of comic book fans, but will also leave the more sophisticated viewer (i.e. fans of The Watchmen) a little cold in it’s sophomoric delivery. But hey, sometimes a little cheese goes a long way.

*Is this the most successful comic book film franchise? Because there’s like 8 million X-Men movies…which I’ll delve into in our next post…which will be dedicated to why X-Men: Apocalypse is going to suck.

 

 

 

 

It’s Rock or…Busted Eardrums

What do you get when a rising rock band meets an untimely tragedy only to respond by unleashing one of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling albums in the history of the world?

Brian Johnson.

Never has a vocalist so deftly swooped into a dire dilemma and dramatically turned the tide. On July 27, 1979 Australian hard rockers AC/DC released their breakthrough album, Highway to Hell, which climbed to number 17 on the Billboard album charts. Helmed by famed producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the album propelled AC/DC to fame beyond Australian and UK borders. After the successful Highway to Hell Tour plans were underway to record an explosive follow-up. But less than one month after the tour ended lead singer Bon Scott was found dead in a car in London. He had choked to death on his own vomit after a night of heavy drinking.

Successful bands are generally the result of synergistic personalities coming together. Regardless of audience approval, most reconstructed bands fail to replicate the spirit of the original. It’s a nearly impossible task when the absent member is the singer. The surviving members of AC/DC were aware of this. Scott was a particularly charismatic vocalist and acted as the de facto leader of the group. Founding members Malcolm and Angus Young considered dissolving AC/DC. It was only after encouragement from Scott’s parents thay they chose to press on.

Dealing with the problem of finding a suitable replacement, Angus Young recalled a story Scott once told of an English singer from Newcastle who had impressed him at a local show one night. That singer was ex-Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson.

History unfolded fortuitously; AC/DC hired Johnson who promptly contributed lyrics and vocals to Back in Black. The album, released on July 25, 1980, was a smash success launching AC/DC into global super-stardom. With worldwide sales estimates at 50 million units, Back in Black became the second best-selling album of all time.

Thus it has come as a shock to many fans that after 36 years of tenure with AC/DC¬† Johnson is now on indefinite hiatus, and that Guns n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose will be completing the final shows of the band’s Rock or Bust Tour.

While some controversy exists over the true nature of Johnson’s departure, officially he has left the band voluntarily after being diagnosed with severe hearing damage that could result in permanent deafness should he resume touring. Johnson cited his resignation as the “darkest day of my professional life,” a sentiment shared undoubtedly by countless fans around the world. In honor of the raspy-voiced wailer Retrobacktive presents the Top 10 Brian Johnson Moments of Kick-ass-ery!

1) It’s all because of that jacket and those boots. Pre-AC/DC, Johnson shows off his pipes from hell.

2) One of his earliest interviews demonstrates an awesome-because-it’s-barely-understandable speaking voice.

3) Angus may be the rare guitar playing frontman, but Johnson’s look is equally as iconic. You’ve likely heard this one before, but it’s one of the greatest recordings ever captured and always worth another listen.

4) The title track from AC/DC’s first #1 album.

5) After two lackluster albums AC/DC bounced back in 1986 with Who Made Who, the soundtrack to the Stephen King film Maximum Overdrive. Is it just me, or does Brian’s hat keep getting bigger?

6) When your band’s history spans over 40 years you can believe there were numerous peaks and valleys. This may be AC/DC’s apex, the Monsters of Rock Festival at Donington where they just fucking owned it.

7) AC/DC/s first number 1 song on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock list. While the band has never performed the song live, this video at least gives us Arnie on stage with Johnson and crew.

8) One of Johnson’s most endearing aspects is his willingness to interact with fans. Here he relays a story involving one of his idols, Chuck Berry, that aptly represents the Englishman’s natural aplomb.

9) It isn’t all just rock and roll for Johnson, an avid race car enthusiast. His popular guest spot on Top Gear shows he can grind out impressive turns while crooning Louis Jordan.

10) Although they are one of the best selling bands of all time, 2015 marked the first year AC/DC performed on the Grammy Award Show. Nothing quiet as satisfying as seeing the look on all the snooty artists’ faces that collectively says, “oh yeah, this is what rock and roll is supposed to sound like.”