The superhero genre is not, in fact, a genre. Adapting comics to film has become a billion-dollar industry in the past decade, and the movies comprising that industry have certainly been typified by a familiar formula. Marvel movies are with few exceptions fun but mostly mindless. DC movies are with few exceptions Marvel movies with all the fun wrung out. Those exceptions usually end up being the best of the bunch, but the point is that the “superhero genre” — while technically an applicable term for things grouped by subject matter — is more a “superhero formula” applied across genres. There’s action-thriller, action-comedy, action-adventure, sci-fi action…heck, when’s someone gonna make a superhero rom-com or a superhero road trip flick? Or a super-workplace melodrama devoid of any action whatsoever?
That ain’t Aquaman, an action movie that feels like someone took three of the other action movies we just described and crammed them into one package. Starring Jason Momoa as himself, Aquaman is DC’s most eye-popping blockbuster in quite some time, more reliant on world-building and flashy set-pieces than Wonder Woman or the feeble Justice League, which is sort of saying something. By and large this world-building is thorough and these set-pieces are inventive. If you’re sensing a big huge HOWEVER looming on the horizon, then this review is evidently as predictable as Aquaman.
Continue reading Aquaman (2018) →
My favorite movie in the Mummy franchise is The Phantom, but hardly anyone else seems to agree with me. “Nay,” says Naysayer, “you’re mistaken — Phantom is a superhero movie.” Though Naysayer’s rationale is increasingly appropriate such that one can visit a cinema and blindly say that’s a superhero movie and usually be correct, the film adaptation of the long-running Phantom comic strip seems much more at home in a category with The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomb Raider, Romancing the Stone and all of the other Indiana Jonesey flicks that muster at least a small degree of fresh fun. When asked to think of a superhero movie, it’s doubtful The Phantom leaps to mind. Is archaeology adventure an acceptable genre label? We know Naysayer’s answer.
But this was 1996, long before the homogenization of the superflick under the all-encompassing tyranny of the Shared Universe Model. Maybe in 1996 there was nothing at all to blink at: Phantom, a comic-strip costumed vigilante, is up on the screen saving people and slamming evil. This is a superhero. Maybe today there’s just a more rote formula for such a thing, and maybe calling Phantom otherwise is an act of desperation.
Continue reading The Phantom (1996) →
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Not long ago Steven Soderbergh removed all of the color and sound from Raiders of the Lost Ark in an attempt to better study the visual staging of Steven Spielberg’s massively influential adventure film. The theory – according to Soderbergh – is that “a movie should work with the sound off”, that the coordination and arrangement of the visual elements of the story should, essentially, tell the same story that the dialogue tells. With Raiders, the theory certainly holds water: from the thick rainforest and cobwebbed tunnels of the opening action sequence to the quiet Archaeology classroom of the very next scene, from the snake-infested underground temple to the desert chase, the staging and pacing of the film is continuously surefooted. “No matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are,” Soderbergh writes – and the attention he calls to the visual aspect of Raiders proves that Spielberg’s dedication to a strong sense of story isn’t compromised by a black-and-white color palette or a bass-laden electronica soundtrack.
To put it another way: Indiana Jones, even with these major elements stripped away, is still Indiana Jones. The color is one thing, but you’d think the absence of the iconic “Raiders March” would really shake things up for the worse. The John Williams score is inextricable from Indy, arguably as much a part of the adventurer as his hat or his bullwhip. You wouldn’t take the Bond theme away from James Bond any more than you’d take away his tux or his martini, for fear that the character before you wouldn’t seem like the same familiar spy anymore. Indy seems the same way, seems like a character so reliant on these iconic elements – but while Soderbergh’s exercise proved its point with regards to scene staging, it also pointed out what sets Indy apart.
Continue reading Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) →