Movie Review ~ The Marvels

The Facts:

Synopsis: Carol Danvers gets her powers entangled with those of Kamala Khan and Monica Rambeau, forcing them to work together to save the universe.
Stars: Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Gary Lewis, Seo-Jun Park, Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Nia DaCosta
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: This is it. We all knew it was coming, and it’s unfortunate that it had to be The Marvels, but the time has come when Marvel Studios has tipped the scales too far out of whack. The level of content being thrown at audiences has maxed out. With multiple movies and television series released too close together, requiring viewers to cross-watch to make sense of the next installment, it’s almost becoming a part-time job keeping up with the various threads the studio has dangling. The worst thing? Even putting all that work into it isn’t yielding positive results from a studio that also seems exceptionally fatigued.

I recently expressed my thoughts that it’s time for Marvel to stop, take a breather, and let its actors do other work that gives them artistic freedom and fills their cups, giving us a chance to miss these characters and worlds and, most importantly, allow us all time to catch up on what is already out there. There is life outside of Marvel, and we don’t drop everything to watch the newest season of Loki the moment it comes out. I’m so far behind the television shows that I hadn’t even seen Ms. Marvel when the screening for the newest feature film arrived. While it didn’t exclusively preclude me from following the action, I wasn’t able to walk into The Marvels and pick up where the filmmakers wanted me to. (There are characters from other Disney+ series that show up that viewers won’t recognize if they haven’t watched.)

Though Brie Larson was introduced in 2019’s successful Captain Marvel, her character Carol Danvers has primarily been relegated to a utility player in Avengers offshoots in the years following. Part of that has to do with Larson resisting her iconography in the role, and part of it has been the studio attempting to figure out how to continue the story and chock as much IP of their other heroes in as well. Once Iman Vellani was introduced as Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel in the Disney+ series of the same name and Teyonah Parris proved to be an imposing breakthrough star in WandaVision as Monica Rambeau (the daughter of Carole Danvers best friend), it made gathering the trio for this joint effort a bit easier. Director Nia DaCosta (Candyman) was onboard for a largely female-centered film, the first of its kind in Marvel’s history on the big screen. 

A troubled production history has followed The Marvels since the beginning, with the release date being shifted and news of an early test screening not giving producers much confidence in how well the film would perform. Massive reshoots have been all but confirmed, and with a run time of 105 minutes, by far the shortest Marvel film in ages, one has to assume DaCosta’s film looks a lot different than it did a year ago when it was mostly complete. What’s being released is so far afield of what fans have seen before that it’s almost admirable the studio chose to stick with a theatrical platform and not send this to Disney+, where it likely belongs.

The Marvels wastes no time introducing us to a new villain, Kree leader Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, Greta), who finds a Quantum Band on a dead planet. With the ability to harness exceptional power, the Quantum band gives Dar-Benn free rein to jump through space, finding worlds rich in the natural resources her dying ecosystem desperately needs. Dar-Benn’s activation of the Quantum Band sets several other pieces into motion, warping the powers of the Earth-based Kamala Khan (Vellani), astronaut Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq), and Carol Danvers (Larson, Fast X), who has been on a personal mission to right a wrong that will have its full circle comeuppance shortly.

As the three women understand how their powers have been united, allowing them to switch places anytime their might is unleashed, they will eventually see how this triumvirate is the only one that stands a chance to defeat Dar-Benn.  Kamala possesses the other Quantum Band needed to give Dar-Benn full strength to create massive damage, a wrinkle that the screenplay only hastily tries to smooth out. Aided (somewhat) by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained), who operates out of a space station eventually overrun by kittens with special powers, the trio travel across space tracking their enemy, hoping to stop her before she manages to destroy more than just her intended target.

This film should have come out years ago before the original Avengers team had run its course and completed their initial record-breaking run. If it had, more time would have been spent on shoring up an unruly script filled with so many plot holes and gaffes that you could drive a space shuttle through it. In The Marvels, a character wields a weapon of great power that is often knocked out of their hands, yet with three people fighting that character, does anyone think to pick it up while the other two are holding the owner back? No one fights with any drive or determination; it’s all a slap-happy goof-fest that creates no real stakes. While the special effects aren’t as shoddy as Thor: Love and Thunder, the make-up work is mega-iffy. Several of the prosthetics on actors actually bounce around while they walk and look like the rubber masks they are.

With Candyman, DaCosta demonstrated her confidence as a fearless female filmmaker, and you know that Larson and Parris are no slouches in this department either. I’m all for grrrl power and whatnot, but I was perplexed why the three women were often dressed in clothes more appropriate for a sleepover than universe-saving. I swear, at one point, Larson is wearing a baggy crop top, basketball shorts, and tube socks, while Vellani is lounging with wet hair in an oversized T-shirt and sweatpants, munching on popcorn. Let’s not talk too long about some of the costumes when they are in superhero mode. Parris is dealt an unflattering blow with hers, but the worst offense is during the post-credit sequence when a new character is revealed wearing a costume so ugly/bulky you might think it’s a cardboard cutout they are standing behind.

It’s not a shock to hear rumblings that Larson wants out of playing Captain Marvel in the future; her heart doesn’t seem to be in it, and she often appears like she’s dreaming about being in another movie. Not having seen Ms. Marvel, I tried not to listen to the critics that dinged Vellani’s over earnestness, but she’s an increasingly grating presence in the film, especially when she begins to take center stage over Larson and the infinitely more interesting Parris. You start to wish this was a standalone movie for Parris anytime she gets a moment to shine – here’s hoping someone at Marvel gets wise. Ashton is a regrettably toothless villain, ironically saddled with silver-ringed teeth and a choppy backstory that suggests she’s playing a character far older than she looks. Only Zenobia Shroff (Soul), as Kamala Khan’s overprotective mother, is given any time to shine amongst the poorly written (and broadly performed) supporting characters.

I almost can’t imagine being in a theater with a packed audience when The Marvels delves into its two most bizarre sequences. One of these concerns the women visiting a planet that communicates only in song. Yes, in song. If you ever wanted to know what Larson sounds like singing her lines of exposition, I hope you have a ticket for the Friday night showing lined up. The second passage, sure to leave viewers scratching their heads, is a bizarre montage set to Barbra Streisand’s version of Memory and involves cats (naturally), tentacles, and regurgitation.

I wish that this reckoning for Marvel had come with an equal opportunity chance to disappoint, like on a Guardians of the Galaxy fart of fancy (we all know Vol. 3 was terrible, right?). Still, The Marvels is destined to shoulder the burden of failure. However, this is the movie the studio chose to send into the world, so judge it we must. Despite a humdinger of a post-credit sequence (it’s a jaw-dropper, to be sure), The Marvels is too campy to be cool, too goofy to be taken seriously, and too hastily glued together to be considered alongside the type of blockbuster output fans are expecting. Come to think of it; the output has been going south so much lately that The Marvels may not be that much of a letdown at all.

31 Days to Scare ~ Swamp Thing (1982)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A research scientist is turned into a swamp plant monster after a violent incident with a special chemical.
Stars: Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, David Hess, Nicholas Worth, Don Knight, Al Ruban, Dick Durock, Ben Bates, Nannette Brown, Reggie Batts
Director: Wes Craven
Rated: PG
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: To different generations of movie fans, the name Wes Craven will likely bring up two distinct horror images. The first is the face of dream killer Freddy Krueger, an iconic villain he created in 1984 with the landmark first entry of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven’s small but mighty shocker kept many teens up at night and birthed a character that became part of the pop culture bedrock in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Right about the time Freddy’s fire burned out, Craven struck again with 1996’s Scream, introducing a new crop of graduates to Ghostface and a lasting franchise that would see him through the end of his career in 2011.

What came before Freddy, though? That’s an interesting question and worth looking at. I can’t bring myself to revisit The Last House on the Left, Craven’s first film in 1972 dealing with sadistic rape and murder that is so vile my stomach somersaults just thinking about it. I’ve had 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes on my watchlist for a while; maybe this Halloween, I will finally see why director Alexandre Aja wanted to remake it so badly in 2006. I’ve already looked at the spooky TV movie Summer of Fear from 1978 and 1981’s Deadly Blessing for 31 Days to Scare…and that brings us to 1982. Swamp Thing.

I’ve heard much about this adaptation of the DC Comics creature over the years and caught glimpses of it on TV growing up. With a PG rating, I’m amazed it didn’t get shown at some birthday party/sleepover in our neighborhood. Perhaps if I’d grown up with the film, I would have appreciated its charms a little more because now, even taking into consideration the well-known budget limitations put on Craven at the last minute by the cash-strapped studio, Swamp Thing is a stinking bog of a B-movie sci-fi horror film. Actually, scratch that. It’s not intelligent enough to be sci-fi, not campy enough to be classified as a B-movie, and barely has any scares, so it doesn’t rightly belong in the horror category. 

Why am I including it in 31 Days to Scare, you may ask? I’m getting to it, trust me. 

Sent to a secluded lab in the middle of a quaking swamp to investigate the mysterious Dr. Alec Holland, government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau, Tales of Halloween) arrives just in time for Holland (Ray Wise, King Knight) and his sister to make a breakthrough in their research. Through their studies of plants they’ve pulled from the swamp, they’ve developed a formula that turns anything it touches into vegetation. Armed with science that could end world hunger, Alec and Alice also find time to make googly eyes at one another long enough so there’s a connection formed when a rogue group of militants led by Ferrett (David Hess) sent by Anton Arcane break in and murder everyone in the lab. All except for Alice, who makes a narrow escape. In the commotion, Alec dumps the formula on himself like a moron and seems to perish in the explosion that rocks the bayou.

When Arcane (Louis Jordan, Octopussy) realizes that Alice has made off with the final piece of the equation that helps to replicate Alec’s formula, he sends the full force of his army against her and a young boy (Reggie Batts) who begins to help her along the way. They are soon under much stronger protection when Swamp Thing (Dick Durock, Stand by Me) rises from the waters. Initially afraid of the green beast, Alice soon recognizes an unmistakable familiarity in the creature’s demeanor. As Arcane’s power grows, so does the urgency to stop him before he creates his version of the formula and uses it to change others (and eventually himself) into similar monsters that may not be so friendly.

By all accounts, the initial script turned in by Craven captured the spirit of the original comic characters created in 1971. Had he been given the budget and resources promised and allowed to keep his screenplay as written, Swamp Thing might have turned out differently. Alas, everything was shredded to bits by the time filming began, and what’s left are the tattered remains of a project with promise. Though Craven tried to make the best of it, you can see that his heart wasn’t in the work, and he wasn’t an experienced enough director to know how to smooth out the rough edges and navigate the adversity he faced. (Is it a coincidence that 1990’s Darkman from director Sam Raimi feels an awful lot like this?) The effects are cheap-o, and Swamp Thing himself I guess, looks OK, especially in comparison with a creature revealed during the finale that looks like the costume designer’s mom made it.

Tonally, Swamp Thing is all over the place. One moment, it’s high drama. The next it’s slapstick comedy. Then it’s horror. Now it’s action, and then circling back to romance. If you’re watching the unrated cut, you’ll also get some gratuitous nudity that stops the movie dead cold and comes across as if Hamlet stopped in the middle of his soliloquy, took off his tunic, spun around three times, redressed, and then continued with the scene. It serves no purpose but to goose the particular audience members who need to have their blood circulate.

The scariest thing about Swamp Thing by far is Barbeau’s hair. The actress has admitted to being horrified at how it looks on film, and she’s right to cringe. It’s a Perm from the Black Lagoon that will haunt you for days, long after the memory of the movie has faded from your brain. Brace yourself when it gets wet because only the bottom of it goes straight; the rest remains poofy and curly. Oooo…did you just get the shivers? I did. Barbeau is a terrific actress who can overcome the lousy dialogue and limp direction from Craven, who is helpless to do much in shaping the film but can’t conquer that tight bouffant. No sir. 

My high hopes for Swamp Thing sunk faster than quicksand, and I imagined myself liking this at the outset. Once I began to hear composer Harry Manfredini plagiarize his entire score from Friday the 13th and its sequel, I knew there would be trouble. When the most extensive action sequences continually involve people being thrown overboard tiny boats, you realize the importance of hiring a stunt coordinator with a vivid imagination. Craven said that during the production of Swamp Thing, he had his infamous dream, which inspired him to write A Nightmare on Elm Street. When a dream of one movie is the best thing to come out of the making of another, you have a problem.

Movie Review ~ Black Adam

The Facts:

Synopsis: Nearly 5,000 years after he was bestowed with the almighty powers of the Egyptian gods, Black Adam is freed from his earthly tomb, ready to unleash his unique form of justice in the modern world.
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  The DC Extended Universe continues to expand, introducing more characters to audiences that might not be exactly household names. With the Supermans, Batmans, Wonder Womans, etc. all getting their own films (and working together) to varying degrees of success, it’s likely time to turn the attention to this periphery which is where many of the true fan favorites reside. That’s why you have successful outings like 2019’s Shazam and non-starters like both attempts to make the Suicide Squad happen in 2016 and 2021.

A long-time pet project of star Dwayne Johnson, the character of Black Adam was introduced in comics nearly eighty years ago, and rumors of a movie also began around that time. Ok, not really, but in a Hollywood timeline, tracing the first rumblings back to 2007 seems like a long gestation period. It’s taken that long for DC to work out the order of their releases and where the character could potentially fit into their film series, which, with the release of this 11th film, is strangely only in Phase 1. As Johnson became more of an in-demand and bankable movie star, the schedule became tighter, but his commitment to starring as the anti-hero superhero remained. 

Viewing the finished film, you can see what attracted Johnson to the character in the first place. Built on family bonds and the fulfillment of a legacy, it appeals to many of the principles of unity Johnson likes to instill in his projects. It also is an over-the-top special effects maelstrom of action sequences that are barely held together by a plot that, in retrospect, doesn’t move the dial any further in the DC Extended Universe than where we began. Despite a genuinely jaw-dropping post-credit sequence that had our audience screaming, Black Adam is a “what you see is what you get” event, so you need to hold on tight and try to keep up.

Since this is the first time we see the character, this is (sigh) another origin story, and the three screenwriters don’t spare the viewer any shortcuts in telling how a young slave boy in 2600 BC is granted mighty powers due to his demonstrated bravery. Becoming a hero to the people of Kahndaq, his powers eventually grow so great that when he’s pushed past all loss of control, he wipes the city off the map entirely, including himself. Over time, he becomes a legend and a symbol of hope for the people of Kahndaq as they again fall under the regime of oppressive leaders.

Jumping ahead to the present, we join a group of fortune seekers attempting to locate the Crown of Sabbac in the old ruins of Kahndaq.  Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi, I Don’t Know How She Does It) understands the weight of power the crown holds, the power-hungry king who once tried to obtain it had to be stopped by Teth-Adam (he won’t be called Black Adam until the end of the film), which led to the city’s original downfall. Now others are aware of the crown being uncovered and are coming for it. Before being captured, she tries a final option to save herself, reading an inscription on a stone found in the ruins, which brings forth Teth-Adam (Johnson, Skyscraper) from his grave.

Unaware that thousands of years have passed, it takes a while for Teth-Adam to learn restraint in battle. Who wants a restrained superhero, though? He’s a cranky guy that doesn’t like being told what to do, especially by a crew from the Justice Society that is sent in to keep him from creating mayhem. Sent in by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, The Woman King), they are led by Hawkman (a fantastic Aldis Hodge, One Night in Miami…) and also include Doctor Fate (an impressively active Pierce Brosnan, GoldenEye), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell, Voyagers), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo, Charlie’s Angels). That’s four more characters to get to know quickly in a movie that comes in just slightly over two hours. 

Most of the film is Teth-Adam either fighting as one man against the Justice Society or grudgingly working with them to defeat a villain after the Crown of Sabbac intent on bringing hell to earth. With most of the action taking place within the same limited vicinity in Kahndaq, Black Adam feels more minor than the prominent epic director Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise) wants it to be. The visuals are impressive, but after a time, you start to question if you’ve somehow skipped backward and seen the same sequence a second time. 

With the DC Extended Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuing to churn their movies out rapidly, it may be building a larger-than-life web of interconnected stories and characters. Still, it’s at the cost of ultimate satisfaction with their films. A feeling of no stakes permeates each film, regardless of quality. What’s to keep you on the edge of your seat if you know another movie is coming out in six months? Finality creates tension, tension creates excitement, and excitement drives ticket sales, and it’s no wonder the box office receipts for these remain profitable but not as sky-high as they once were. Audiences have caught on and know the game. As well made as Black Adam is, it’s just a first step in the character’s journey toward another film and then another. It’s nice to meet you, Black Adam…see you soon.