Occasionally, I’ll revive one of my old “special” columns from my early days. Formerly titled In Praise of Teasers, I’ve rebranded my look at coming attractions The Art of the Tease(rs) and brought it back for a short run over the next few weeks.
Starting in 2013, I used these peeks at past previews to highlight the fun (and short!) creatively mounted campaigns that generated buzz from audiences who caught them in front of movies back in the day. Some of these I remember seeing myself, and some I never had the pleasure of watching. More than anything, it makes me long for studios and advertising agencies to go back to showing less in modern trailers because the amount of spoiler-heavy material shared now is ghastly. Today, where all aspects of a movie are pretty well known before an inch of footage is seen, the subtlety of a well-crafted “teaser” trailer is gone.
Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there but pay attention to how each of these teasers works uniquely to grab the attention of movie-goers.
Tim Burton’s big screen treatment of Batman had many eyes on it as it went into production leading up to its debut. Star Michael Keaton was thought to be physically wrong for the role, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was rumored to not be as comically desirably as the producer’s original choice, Robin Williams, and an injury sidelined starlet Sean Young from appearing as love interest Vicki Vale leading Kim Basinger to be called in at the last minute. Sometimes, everything happens for a reason, and it all comes together like it should because we all know that Burton’s blockbuster was a high-water mark achievement for the Caped Crusader and for striking a new visual tone in superhero films of that era. Visually stunning and featuring a mixture of practical and digital effects that hold up nicely, Batman sits on an earned high throne.
This early teaser is fantastic, too. While not incredibly inventive from a production standpoint, it’s just a creatively edited jumble of clips from the nearly finished film, and it’s giving the audience enough of the promised thrills to ensure they’ll line up opening weekend. Plot details are nicely kept under wraps, and while the Joker is perhaps featured a bit too much and spoils some surprise, the marketing department for toys and tie-ins had likely already sealed the deal to not keep many secrets in the way of what anyone looked like. My favorite thing about this? It’s so confident that audiences know exactly what they are watching that they don’t even bother listing the title.
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.
Synopsis: When the Justice League is captured, Superman’s Labrador forms a team of shelter pets who were given superpowers to save his owner and Superman’s friends. Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Kate McKinnon, John Krasinski, Vanessa Bayer, Natasha Lyonne, Diego Luna, Thomas Middleditch, Ben Schwartz, Keanu Reeves Director: Jared Stern Rated: PG Running Length: 100 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: When Warner Bros. Pictures released the first trailer for the DC League of Super-Pets in the later months of 2021, I was left scratching my head at who precisely the film was targeted. Younger kids would likely spark to the animation and comic shenanigans of the piece, but what value would they have in the overall tie-in to the more extensive DC comics line? For the older crowd who may remember the original comic book Legion of Super-Pets, first introduced in 1962, would they respond to their beloved superheroes being reduced to sidekicks for a new crew of the four-legged (or otherwise) variety? Unless they had a tyke in tow, could they justify the trip to theaters in that pivotal 45-day theatrical window before its streaming premiere on HBOMax?
I had seen so many previews for this new endeavor from the Warner Animation Group before other summer films that it was almost a relief as the lights went down when I was in my seat for the screening. I’d throw it a bone, though, and give it a fair shot. Turns out I didn’t need to warm up my pitching arm because for as much blowback as the live-action branch of the DC Extended Universe has received from critics and audiences alike, this lively computer-animated entry has real zip. Hailing from the same team that developed The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie, both in 2017, this is a project with an appeal to multiple generations.
Nothing if not accessible, the film opens with a scene that’s hugely familiar by now. The planet Krypton is facing destruction; parents Jor-El and Lara make the difficult decision to send their infant son Kal-El on a spaceship to Earth, where he will grow up to become Superman. Turns out, in all the tale-tellings over time, we never knew that a Labrador Retriever that hopped into the ship at the last minute, licking away Kal El’s tears as they sped away from the imploding planet. Years later, Krypto (Dwayne Johnson, Jungle Cruise) and Superman (John Krasinski, A Quiet Place) have formed quite the famous partnership in Metropolis, but a growing relationship with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect) is starting to infringe upon the downtime Krypto craves.
Hoping to help Krypto branch out with friends of his own, Superman (as Clark Kent) investigates adopting a rescue animal from a local shelter. There, we meet a misfit crew of hopeful adoptees and one scheming hairless guinea pig who escaped from a lab owned by Lex Luthor. Instead of resenting her time at Luthor’s facility, Lulu (Kate McKinnon, Bombshell) is plotting to get back in front of the supervillain by causing trouble of her own. Spotting Superman and his canine companion, she devises making trouble for them is the perfect way into Lex’s good graces. In short order, Lulu has imprisoned the entirety of the Justice League (including Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, and a female Green Lantern) and taken Krypto’s power away with a bit of orange Kryptonite…but help is on the way.
While taking super-gifts away from the powerful, Lulu inadvertently distributes them to the other shelter pets. Ace (Kevin Hart, The Upside) is a loner mutt and counter-point to Krypto with a backstory illustrating why it’s hard to put trust in lasting relationships. A myopic turtle named Merton (Natasha Lyonne, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) may not be as slow anymore but isn’t above pausing to enjoy a good snack, while plump porcine PB (Vanessa Bayer, Office Christmas Party) gets multiple size upgrades based on her mood. An electrified squirrel (Diego Luna, If Beale Street Could Talk), a weaponized kitten, and an amusing variety pack of genetically changed schoolroom guinea pigs fill out the roster of pets battling. At the same time, the human counterparts sit imprisoned in a giant hamster cage.
While the film gets points for the heart and humanity that shines through, it’s first and foremost an action-adventure, clearly where its main interest lies. Parents should be aware that the film is a little scary and overly heavy on the artillery used in battle. Even though it is all comically pitched, it’s not far removed from the live-action version of the DC Comic films. I also think it has a lot of characters to juggle, several that feel extraneous (Lex has a purple-haired second in command we barely meet that becomes important later) when it could have tightened its focus without losing anything of lasting value.
Branching out its franchise favorites to this medium was a smart move, and DC League of Super-Pets makes a strong case for future installments with the gang. I appreciated much of the IP was included in this, from scores of previous films to having the inspired casting of Keanu Reeves (Toy Story 4) as a moody Batman, poking fun at how super-serious the character has been played previously. There’s a lot of fun to go around, and I think audiences who have tired of traditional superhero summer films might find DC League of Super-Pets to be a fresh and often high-flying approach.
Synopsis: Supervillains Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Peacemaker and a collection of nutty cons at Belle Reve prison join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X as they are dropped off at the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese.
Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Joaquín Cosío, Juan Diego Botto, Storm Reid, Nathan Fillion, Taika Waititi, Steve Agee, Flula Borg
Director: James Gunn
Running Length: 132 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Oh, sweet swampland did I hate 2016’s Suicide Squad. A real trash heap of a film from a talented director with a stellar line-up of A+ leads, a B+ supporting cast, and a B- set of comic-book characters to work with. No, the Suicide Squad wasn’t an area of DC Comics that I was familiar with before I saw the film, but you can see the attraction fans had for these oddballs – it’s the same reason why the similarly jokey (but far better) Deadpool went over so well with audiences. People like to root for the underdog, even if, and maybe even sometimes especially if, they are the villain.
While that PG-13 rated film failed to capitalize on the red-carpet Wonder Woman had rolled out just months earlier, Warner Brothers wasn’t quite ready to throw the towel in and they made a bold move by following-up the first film with a sequel that also serves as a semi-reboot in the process. Nabbing director James Gunn after he was briefly axed by Disney from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, the studio gained a legion of fans from the Marvel franchise who rejoiced that someone had plucked one of their favorite directors up after he had been (apparently) done wrong.
The resulting effort is The Suicide Squad and after five years it looks like Warner Brothers and DC Comics are nearly back in business, but not quite yet. With the success of an R-rated cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the studio is more comfortable letting their films carry that restricted rating because it has proven to be what fans want. (It also doesn’t deter children from seeing the film. At my press screening, I can’t tell you how “overjoyed” I was to see so many parents bring their little children to this hard-R film. Congrats, all!) With an abundance of grisly gore and language that would make the Squad from sanitized feeling 2016 blush, this crew is way more amped up and ready to play than the previous iteration and that admittedly makes for a more entertaining ride.
Audiences are in for a surprise at the beginning of the film because nothing is quite what it seems…or how the movie has been marketed up until now. I’ll leave it at that, and you can read between the lines in my review if you want to know more about what that means in terms of who is in the film and for how long. Returning from the original film is Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), leading a group of skilled supervillains including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher) to an island nation on the orders of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). The leader of the country with friendly relations to the United States has been murdered, along with his family and now a top-secret weapon is at risk of falling into the hands of revolutionaries who don’t know what kind of power they could wield.
New to the team are Peacemaker (John Cena, in his second franchise film of the summer after F9: The Fast Saga) and Bloodsport (Idris Elba, Concrete Cowboy), two alpha males forced to work together who each try to outdo one another when it comes to killing the most bad guys. Add in King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Creed), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, Prisoners) and your rag-tag team of the strange and unusual but highly deadly is mostly complete. They’ll find they need to rely on each other and their individual strengths (some they were born with, some thrust upon them) when faced with an enemy that’s truly out of this world.
It’s easy to draw a line from the misfit crew in Guardians of the Galaxy all the way over to the denizens of the maximum-security prisons where The Suicide Squad does its recruiting, so Gunn makes a natural fit for these proceedings. What doesn’t quite work all the time is the film’s overcompensation for having an elevated rating this time around. Brandishing it’s more adult rating instead of doling it out with some style, it’s often sloppy and slappy instead of sharp like it should be. The first fifteen minutes of the movie are legitimately terrible, and I was honestly dreading what was to come next, but then Gunn makes a move I didn’t see coming and suddenly I was interested again. From that point on I felt like more engaging characters were brought in with increasingly raised stakes.
By now, it’s official that Elba is a bona-fide star and this only hammers that point home. How they missed the window of opportunity to have him take over as James Bond is simply beyond me (or is it not too late?). He can do action, drama, comedy, you name it and he gets the chance to flex all those muscles here and then some. In her third outing as the demented former flame of the Joker, Robbie continues to fine tune the role and even if 2020’s Birds of Prey was a better showcase, she’s no second banana here either. I was left a little cold by Cena earlier this summer in F9: The Fast Saga but he’s a lot of fun here as an all-business killer for hire that does it all in the name of peace. Gunn’s casting of Stallone as the Great White Shark looking for “num-num” is inspired and he easily steals the show with the least number of (full and coherent) sentences spoken out of anyone. Kudos also to Davis for truly going for it this time out. Davis rarely gets the chance to play these kinds of women and as morally challenged as Amanda Waller was in the 2016 film, she’s far more in the muck of it all in this one.
I guess my biggest stumbling block with both this film and its predecessor is that I just haven’t yet warmed to this branch of the DC Universe. While I found this team to be much easier to get along with than the last one, I still don’t like the vibe that has permeated both movies. A little of that same vibe was even present in the Guardians films so maybe it’s just a case of preferring my superheroes/villains more on the traditional side of things and less on the outskirts of society. The Suicide Squad can hold its head high because it rights many of the wrongs that were done back in 2016, but it also needs to reconcile the fact that this team can’t even hold a candle to the likes of Batman and Superman in my book.
Synopsis: Set in 1984 during the twilight years of the Cold War, the film follows Diana and her past love Steve Trevor as they face off against television huckster Maxwell Lord and archaeologist turned half-wildcat Barbara Minerva aka Cheetah.
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Gabriella Wilde, Kristoffer Polaha, Amr Waked
Review: Earlier in 2020 when theaters started to close and movie release dates began to be bumped, the first films discussed were the most immediately affected: the latest James Bond film No Time to Die, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, and Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated Tenet. Each film has followed their own path to getting in front of audiences, from sticking to a theatrical release at all costs to its own detriment or embracing the streaming/on demand option that is available to millions in more immediate platform providers. Arguably, out of all the movies in 2020 that audiences, studio heads, and investors in the future have been looking to for a sign of what’s next is Wonder Woman 1984 and like its bold titular superheroine, it wound up being a leader for its peers.
Rather than just debut the movie in theaters and have a streaming date follow weeks later, or have the film premiere for a fee on demand first, Warner Brothers stopped giving the film a seemingly endless set of new release dates and decided to gift everyone the movie on Christmas Day via HBOMax as well as select theaters in areas where it was safe to open. The new streaming service has launched this year to a good buzz with nice content and an even better supply of films so far that have bypassed a theatrical run due to the pandemic like the remake of The Witches, Let Them All Talk, and Superintelligence. To further entice those wanting a more cinematic experience, Wonder Woman 1984 would be the first film on HBOMax to be released in 4K, and would also support Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and HDR10. So if your home theater is tricked out, you were going to get a great show.
Still…there was the question of the quality of the film, a much (and I do mean much) anticipated follow-up to 2017’s origin story of how the Amazonian princess (Gal Gadot, Furious 7) made her way from her home island of Themyscira to the battlefields of the first World War, fighting alongside Col. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, People Like Us). Eventually joining the Justice League for more modern adventures (and being featured in two other DC films, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League) she stands as a symbol of truth and is always “fighting for our rights…and the old red, white, and blue.” Original director Patty Jenkins was wisely brought back, this time co-writing the script with Aquaman screenwriter Geoff Johns. The result is a solid sequel that builds on the excellent groundwork set in the first film but struggles with focus and juggling two villains with only one proving to be effective.
I’m going to assume from this point on you’ve all seen the first film so we’ll discuss some key events that happened in that movie. You’ve been warned on spoilers from that movie!
Jenkins begins her film with a true thrill, an extended pre-title sequence set on Themyscira showing the young Diana (Lilly Aspell, Holmes & Watson) going up against older Amazons on a grueling obstacle course race that takes them in, up, over, and under the beautiful isle. Under the watchful eye of her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright, Blade Runner 2049) and mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, Sea Fever), Diana learners an early lesson about truth above all else. Jumping time periods from 1918 to 1984, Diana is now operating out of Washington D.C. working at the Smithsonian as an anthropologist when she isn’t taking long lunch breaks to solve crime and save lives as Wonder Woman. The apprehension of a set of mall thieves (one of several well-orchestrated action set-pieces) winds up overlapping with her day job as items from the heist are actually antiques, one of which holds a special power that changes all who come in contact with it.
One of those people is Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), a co-worker of Diana’s that largely goes unnoticed day in and day out. Mousey and easy to push around, she begins to change once she makes a casual wish to be more like Diana and that’s when her world, appeal, and physicality start to change overnight…and soon not for the better. Another individual that seeks the artifact is smarmy Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk), a pyramid scheme sham-artist about to go down in flames whose fortunes change after making a deadly pact with a force of unknown power. Still mourning the loss of Steve, who sacrificed himself at the end of the first movie, Diana, too, becomes part of this when her innocent wish for him to return brings him back…kinda. Everyone has been wondering how Jenkins was going to bring back Pine for this film after his character, well, died all those decades earlier but she and Johns have worked out a clever way for this to happen within the context of the story being told.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about Wonder Woman 1984 because it’s the gist of the set-up introduced in the first quarter of the movie, the rest is all how these characters react to the new powers they’re given or, in Diana’s case, the person she’s given back. For Barbara and Max, the power becomes an intoxicating drug they need more of. Max begins to be unable to hold back and it starts to manifest itself outwardly but for Barbara while the change is somewhat external, the majority of the alteration is to her internal confidence and prowess. Unwilling to be manhandled, exploited, intimidated, or second-guessed, an animal emerges…and this is long before her eventual transformation into Wonder Woman’s famous rival, Cheetah.
For Diana and Steve, it’s a far more emotional journey and Jenkins allows Gadot and Pine to have these moments, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of the many fanboys and fangirls that just want to see wall-to-wall action. Yes, I would have loved to see Gadot show up one or two more times in the Wonder Woman get-up in that first hour (there’s a frighteningly long passage in the first 75 minutes where she’s tiara-less) but would I have sacrificed the nice moments generated by the two actors? Not at all. If Gadot and Pine weren’t so engaging, I might have said yes but both elevate their characters to something bigger than big-screen versions of comic book creations. It also paves the way for one of the film’s most stunning moments for Gadot, a “never look back” sort of scene that demonstrates not only why she’s underestimated as an actress but why she’s made a fantastic Wonder Woman so far. Still…a nice mixing of the two is a 4th of July ride for the two on an invisible jet plane through a mass of fireworks. It’s a romantic interlude in an otherwise more action-oriented scene.
Wiig is another huge revelation, I’m glad to say. Everyone is a fan of the actress for her comedic turns but I’ve struggled with her in more dramatic roles, finding them a bit on the sly and overly produced side. Not so here. I loved watching how her Barbara turns from being a wallflower (that maybe only thinks she’s a wallflower) to a full-fledged creature out for dominance. She begins by wanting to be like Diana in terms of being noticed, but when she realizes that her wish came true and then some…she becomes addicted to the “then some” more than anything. Emma Stone was rumored to be the first choice for the role but Wiig is such a better selection, it’s hard to consider anyone else playing it so well.
Then we come to the biggest problem with the film, Pascal as Max Lord. In a role that should have been played by (and I would wager a guess was written for) Matthew McConaughey, Pascal is by far the weakest element of the movie and that becomes a huge detriment the more Lord shifts into a leading villain role throughout the overlong 151-minute run time. Popular right now more than ever due to his role as The Mandalorian on Disney+, Pascal may have his fans from that series but he’s almost unwatchable here as he overacts and oversells Lord while others around him are operating at a different level. Someone should have taken him aside and helped him make an adjustment because it just looks like he’s in a completely different kind of movie. In the hands of a McConaughey or even a Jeremy Renner (if he wasn’t already tied to Marvel), Lord could have been a true foe for Diana but under Pascal’s watch he’s a complete annoyance more than anything.
True, some of the CGI near the end gets a little iffy, especially when Wonder Woman and Cheetah finally meet face to face but as is typical of a DC film, it’s a strikingly rendered bit of entertainment for the most part. Plenty can be said about the plot holes around the logic surrounding the central artifact, not to mention inconsistences in its usage but isn’t that true of all superhero movies at some point? I mean, let’s not even go there with Marvel and it’s various magic objects that do the impossible. Yes, it may not hold up to a careful inspection and isn’t as unique as its predecessor but its still eons better than most of the other films released so far in the DC Extended Universe. It has a distinct moral compass that it’s not afraid to be open about; messages about telling the truth to yourself and, if you are in a position of power, telling the truth to those you have the ability to communicate with seems pretty pointed and timely for today’s audiences. I like that it has a point to it and also how it keeps its emotions close to the surface, allowing them to rise up when necessary. Gadot gets several key moments to emote and they don’t feel forced, her sincerity is what continues to make her engaging.
You can bet that all eyes will be on HBOMax this Christmas to see Wonder Woman 1984 make its premiere on the service (and I’ll be watching it again sometime soon, I’m sure) and I’m not worried about the future opportunities to see the Amazonian princess on the screen. Make sure to stick around for the first few minutes of the credits and clear out any annoying windows that pop up so you can see the full screen – there’s a brief mid-credit sequence that is not to be missed for anything. As a long-time fan of Wonder Woman dating all the way back to that original Cathy Lee Crosby movie (yes, even that one!) I kind of lost my mind for a moment. It’s just the capper on Jenkins understanding what makes the character so appealing and proving that she knows how to give fans what they want. Another absolute winner.
Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.
Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Pérez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong
Director: Cathy Yan
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: In the summer of 2016, hopes were high that Suicide Squad could help bring back the DC Universe from extinction after the disappointing reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released earlier that year. Seems that critics and audiences that had come to like the flashy spark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe weren’t grooving to the darker tones and turns DC was taking and while I personally thought BvS was far better than it got credit for, even I had to admit that the world needed to snap out of its mellow dankness. Trouble was, the people behind Suicide Squad (and, likely, studio execs) course-corrected too much (largely after the fact) and delivered an awful tire-fire of a comic book movie…and made it PG-13 on top of it all.
If there was one thing that emerged victorious from the rubble of that failed effort (which is getting an overhaul reboot in 2021) it was Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, the Joker’s main-squeeze. Robbie brought just the right amount of self-effacing fun and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness to the film, giving off the impression she was the only one who really understood what kind of movie she was in. It definitely set the stage for her full-blown arrival to the big leagues the next year with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya followed by her regal showing for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots. After dominating 2019 with lauded parts in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and nabbing another Oscar nom for Bombshell, she’s back to make good on a deal that was sealed shortly after Suicide Squad opened to big business and stellar notices for her…a spin-off featuring Harley and a new group of female superheroes.
I admit, I first heard about this sequel while Suicide Squad was fairly fresh in my memory and I just wasn’t on board. While I liked Robbie in the movie I didn’t find myself eager to revisit this take on Gotham City if it was going to be the same tone and annoying approach. My dial wasn’t turned any more to the positive side when the full title was revealed: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). I mean…must we? Thankfully, we aren’t required to use the full title when discussing the film so Birds of Prey this one will be forever more. Even hearing some decent buzz from those that got an early look didn’t totally convince me.
Well…when I’m wrong I’ll say I’m wrong and I’m wrong…a little bit. The first ten minutes of Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of obnoxious experience I feared it would be. Crazy edits, arch characters, voice over narration that felt like it was written by a fourth grader. Then, just as I was settling in for a rough ride the film, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, suddenly came alive and decided to find its own voice and that’s when things started to get interesting. Sure, it maintains most of the elements that make it easily identifiable as a comic book movie but it strips away anything (and anyone) extraneous and focuses simply on the characters. Don’t worry, this isn’t a Taxi Driver-esque character-study like Joker but it hits many of the same beats…just with more flair.
Harley Quinn (Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) has officially broken up with “Mr. J” and does so explosively (literally). Without his protection she becomes a prime target for members of the Gotham City underworld that have been waiting to get back at her…but catching her is only half the battle. Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) finds this out when he nabs Harley and is about to have his henchman Zsasz (Chris Messina, Live by Night) send her to that great circus in the sky until she sweet talks her way into a deal to get him a priceless diamond from a young street-wise pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in police custody. Finding that girl is a cinch for Harley (a police station breakout is a highlight of the film, one many impressive action sequences) but she isn’t the only one with an interest in the teen. There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) a Gotham City detective working with Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get the jewel and save the urchin and the hooded Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) whose own vested interest crisscrosses with all involved.
Much like she did with her script for Bumblebee, Hodson injects the film with female empowerment without laying it on thick like you’ve seen it before. Working in tandem with Yan’s smart visual eye, once Birds of Prey sheds its slimy opening layer and finds its own fun it never stops until the fireball of a finale set at a rundown boardwalk amusement park. Kudos to the production design here…a truly imaginative funhouse was created for the battle royale that closes the picture. I also appreciated that while the film wasn’t restricted to a PG-13 rating, Yan doesn’t take her R and run with it either…this is a movie that has violence but uses it in wise and, dare I say, fun ways.
Having more time to dig into Harley, Robbie sharpens her rough edges a bit more and that’s sometimes fun, other times a bit grating. Like I said, it gets better as the movie goes along but the character is inherently meant to be on the insufferable side…but what makes her such a great character is that you still like her even though she’s bad. And Robbie gets both those sides of the character right. If there’s one thing Robbie is good at, it’s knowing when to share the spotlight. It’s the sign of a confident star (and make no doubt about it, Robbie is a bona fine A-list movie star) who can yield the stage to others so they can shine and shine they do. Perez is in rare form as a dedicated detective who has played by the rules and watched others with less scruples pass her by. Skilled at comedy, Perez isn’t often asked to be on the more dramatic side and she ably holds up her end of things. Surprisingly, Winstead’s role is smaller than you’d think, with the Huntress not having much screen time until the final ¼ when her presence is all but required. I enjoyed Basco’s modern taken on a wide-eyed Artful Dodger and you’re either going to love what McGregor is doing or be completely perplexed. For me, I loved it in all its slithery nastiness. I sort of get where Messina was going in his laid back approach to the knuckles and muscle sidekick but think his performance is more Suicide Squad territory. The one to really look out for is Smollett-Bell who sings up a storm and kicks butt like a pro. Appearing in film/TV since she was a child, this feels like Smollett-Bell’s true arrival to adult roles and she’s undeniably one of the best things about the film.
It’s already known Robbie will be back for the Suicide Squad reboot next year but we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the rest of the Birds of Prey. I think this first outing is absolutely worth the flight time and would welcome another adventure if the same team was brought together again. It can’t be a coincidence that the most successful DC Comic movies have been female centered and directed by women, right? With Wonder Woman being the spark that kept the lights on at the studio and this one impressing with its wild style, here’s hoping Wonder Woman 1984 shows everyone that we need to keep letting the women run this world.
Synopsis: Fast forward to the 1980s as Wonder Woman’s next big screen adventure finds her facing an all-new foe: The Cheetah.
Release Date: June 5, 2020
Thoughts: THIS IS HOW YOU MAKE A TRAILER AND GET PEOPLE EXCITED!
Let’s face it, when Wonder Woman rolled into theaters in 2017 the odds weren’t exactly stacked in her favor thanks to the recent efforts from DC Studios. Yet the film was an unimpeachable knockout, with smart direction from Patty Jenkins and led by Gal Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) to critical, audience, and box office success. True, subsequent DC films failed to build upon the good example Wonder Woman set so in summer of 2020 expectations are even higher for Wonder Woman 1984 to get things back on track.
From the looks of this trailer, we’re in for a rad delight with Jenkins and Gadot leaping ahead several decades to a story set in 1984 that finds Wonder Woman reunited with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) and dealing with super villains Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah) (Kristin Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) and Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk). The full plot is unknown but is it too much to hope they’ll take a page from Cheetah on the Prowl, the read-along book I had as a kid (see below)? 🙂 Everything about this preview is on point and gave me the kind of goosebump chills of excitement I used to feel when I was a teen waiting for the next ‘90s summer blockbuster. Love the editing, love the music choice, already looking forward to Wonder Woman’s visit to an ’80s mall. This just jumped to the top of my most anticipated list of 2020.
Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.
Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou
Director: David F. Sandberg
Running Length: 132 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Those poor souls over at Warner Brothers/DC Comics were likely looking at 2019 and feeling crestfallen at their prospects. With three highly anticipated Marvel films set for release and their Wonder Woman sequel pushed back to 2020, it must have felt like any hopes of getting another foothold in their franchise ladder weren’t going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith they had in Shazam! at the outset but they should have pumped this one up a bit more than they did. Sure, I saw the preview more times than I needed to before other films but going into the movie I wasn’t expecting anything vastly different than the soulless offerings they’ve been churning out in the past decade.
Thankfully, it seems like they may have stumbled onto something good.
Foster kid Billy Baston (Asher Angel) has found himself on the wrong side of the law for the last time when he is apprehended after obtaining information from a police database. He’d been attempting to find his mother after they were separated when he was a toddler and hasn’t given up hope that she’s out there and is looking for him as well. Taken in by another foster family that already boasts a diverse line-up of kids in similar family situations, Billy bides his time until he can run away again to continue his search.
When he’s mysteriously brought to the temple of an aging Wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Serenity) tasked with guarding the seven deadly sins, he absorbs the fading Wizard’s magic and turns into a buff superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World) anytime he says the Wizard’s name: Shazam. Unware of the extent of his newfound powers, Billy has the mind of a teenager in the body of a mature adult and at first doesn’t exactly use his upgrades for good. Though he runs through some trials of his abilities with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer, IT), he starts to be the kind of hero that’s only looking out for himself instead of assisting others.
He’s put to the ultimate test when Sivana (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) enters the picture. Obsessed with finding the temple of the Seven Wizards that he too visited as a young child, the grown man eventually makes his way back to the hidden dwelling and frees the sins from their prison. Now being used as their vessel for evil, Sivana sets his sights on taking the Wizard’s power from Shazam (who has become something of a local Philadelphia celebrity) and eliminating everyone he loves.
If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from the DC slate of superhero movies it’s a sense of humor and finally the stiff suits at the studio backed up and let wiser talents guide this process – and it’s largely successful. Though the previous credits for screenwriters Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) might not have suggested they’d be the right choices to bring Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s superhero to the big screen, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace from the darker-hued adventure films the studio has been greenlighting. Adding director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) was another inspired choice as he’s nicely able to balance the lighter/more comedic elements of the plot with the darker edges supplied by Sivana.
Sandberg has cast the film well starting with Levi as our hero that becomes more than the sum of his bulging muscles and caped suit. Seeing that he’s actually a teen given awesome powers, Levi might overplay the sarcasm and wise-cracks a bit early on but it provides him a place to jump off from as he grows into a more responsible hero and a more understanding teenager. He has a nice rapport with Grazer and his other foster siblings, adding some layers to a character that could easily have been pretty one-dimensional. The villain role doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Strong at this point and while he’s perfectly fine in the part it would have been nice to see it played by someone a little less expected. It’s just too easy for Strong to slide into these wicked characters by now.
While it’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, spending unearned time with Sivana and following Levi through perhaps a few too many blunders, Sandberg and the screenwriters manage to introduce a late breaking twist that I found pretty delightful and nicely inclusive. Buoyed by strong performances by the child actors (a rarity these days) and a nice dose of humor and creativity, Shazam! is a fun right turn from the careening curve DC studios couldn’t pull out of.
Synopsis: Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.
Stars: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Ludi Lin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Randall Park
Director: James Wan
Running Length: 143 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: In some ways, you have to have a little sympathy for the folks running the show over at DC Studios/Warner Brothers. Despite a strong run with their original Batman franchise and then Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, they’ve struggled mightily with finding their footing in future films. Man of Steel was a complex origin story that was ultimately too cool to the touch, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was savaged by critics even though it wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone remembers it to be, and Suicide Squad was just outright garbage. Then a minor miracle happened in the excellent Wonder Woman and it seemed like the beleaguered studio had learned their lesson and turned a corner…only to have those hopes dashed a few months later with the release of the box office turd Justice League.
Well, it’s been a year and another DC stand-alone superhero movie has come swimming along in the hopes it can make some waves in what has up until now been a fairly shallow pond. While Aquaman has its regrettable missteps and its fair share of groan-worthy dialogue, it’s not enough to sink it to the bottom of the DC ocean thanks to a director that brings a unique style and an eclectic cast willing to go the distance for some overly fishy material.
Though we’ve met Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) briefly in BvS and Justice League, this is his first time taking center stage which means part of the film mandates that this is his origin story. When his father (Temuera Morrison) rescues a mysterious woman (Nicole Kidman, Stoker) from the sea, he doesn’t know she’s a sea princess from Atlantis on the run from an arranged marriage to a rival king. The two fall in love and have a son before Atlanna is forced to abandon her family and return to the sea in order to protect them. Flash forward twenty-some years and Atlanna’s son has grown into a man of rippling muscles and tribal tattoos that can communicate with sea creatures and swim faster than a speeding torpedo. He’s also invincible to most mortal weapons, as evidenced in an opening battle between pirates aboard a hijacked submarine. The events that take place here will create the genesis of Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, The Greatest Showman), an enemy for Aquaman who will haunt him throughout the film.
Meanwhile, fathoms below the sea a plot is being hatched by Aquaman’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, The Nun) who seeks to become the all-powerful Ocean Master by joining forces with King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, The Expendables 2) and dominating the underwater kingdoms by any means necessary. When Mera (Amber Heard, The Danish Girl), Nereus’s daughter gets wind of the plan she reaches out to Aquaman for his help in returning to Atlantis, defeating his brother, and claiming the throne that is rightfully his. After a lifetime of turning his back on the undersea nation he feels took his mother away from him, helping out his people isn’t high on Aquaman’s list of priorities.
At 143 minutes and with multiple storylines to follow, Aquaman is certainly ambitious in his first time going it alone. Even if the script from David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall doesn’t contain the same type of rousing origin story executed so well in Wonder Woman, there’s a nice flow to the first and third acts of the film. It’s the second act where Aquaman and Mera start to globe-trot in search of a lost trident and are pursued by Manta where things start to get a little choppy. I get why the Manta storyline was included (stay through the credits to find out why) but it just felt extraneous to everything else going on in the film. Chucking all that and focusing on the contained story about Aquman’s conflict with his brother would have been enough to fuel the movie just fine.
Like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, the movie succeeds largely on the screen magnetism of Momoa as Aquaman. While he relies too often on his hair and an over the shoulder glance to do most of the work for him, by the time he’s donned the famous orange and green Aquaman suit he had more than convinced me that he’s a born action star. Sadly, Heard is a bit of a dud as his leading lady as is Wilson who literally treads water for most of his scenes. There’s some unfortunate de-aging scenes with Morrison and especially Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) as an emissary of Atlantis playing both sides which actually make both men look like they’re motion captured holograms instead of flesh and blood actors. Kidman is really the one that makes the biggest impression in her short amount of screen time. The Oscar winning actress is at the point in her career where she can take whatever role she wants and this one seems like it was a choice made out of pure moviemaking fun. She strikes the right tone and never falls prey (like many of her costars) to take things to a heightened sense of camp even during moments like when she has a goldfish tail sticking out of her mouth.
Bringing in director James Wan (The Conjuring) was a smart move on the part of Warner Brothers. The director has a recognizable filmmaking calling card and it’s clear from the beginning of the movie that this picture is being overseen by a director interested in doing something different. Odd camera angles, carefully designed long-shots, and sequences that seem to jump over impossible obstacles in one smooth tracking shot are all Wan staples and they’re used to great effect here. Add to that some awesome visual effect work (see the film in 3D if possible…and I don’t say that lightly) and a retro-feeling synth-heavy score from Rupert Gregson-Williams (Blended) and you get a DC picture that actively tries to separate itself from the pack. Even if it doesn’t always work, it at least fails while trying hard and not by comparison to the films that came before it.
Now that this first Aquaman film is out of the way and with no other Justice League movies in the pipeline, I’m hoping that DC/Warner Brothers gets to work on a sequel and quickly. Feel free to take your time like Wonder Woman 1984 (due in 2020) is doing but now that Wan and company have established the world of Arthur Curry/Aquaman, they have a whole ocean of possibilities on where to take the next chapter.
Review: With the rousing success of Wonder Woman this summer, you had high(er) hopes for Justice League too, didn’t you? After the gloominess of Man of Steel, the critical drubbing lobbed at Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the just plain awful debut of the Suicide Squad, the first solo outing of the Amazon princess made a huge splash with a snazzy film that signaled the floundering DC Universe might be getting back on track. Alas, it was not meant to be because five short months later Justice League arrives with a huge thud, halting any momentum Wonder Woman had kicked off.
The problems are evident from the beginning. It should be noted that original director Zack Snyder had to be replaced shortly after filming ended while the movie was in post-production due to a family crisis. Joss Whedon (The Avengers) was brought it to touch up the script, and handle reshoots. Huge mistake. Whedon did good work with his involvement in the Marvel Universe but his humor doesn’t translate to the DC world that’s far darker and leaves itself less open for flights of fancy. His attempts to inject jokey humor crash and burn, especially seeing that they are awkwardly inserted into sequences already filmed by Snyder.
Another elephant in the room to discuss is Henry Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), or, more to the point, Cavill’s mustache. After wrapping his scenes for Justice League, Cavill had grown a mustache to film a role in the next Mission: Impossible film and when he was called back for reshoots Paramount wouldn’t allow him to shave it. So he filmed his new scenes with facial hair that was then digitally removed…badly. Cavill comes off looking like a creepy puppet, with the bottom half of his face strangely not in communion with the upper. He’s in the first shot of the movie and it’s a jarring image that sets the tone for the rest of this schizo outing.
The first half of the film is occupied by a bewildering series of episodic vignettes where we meet characters that the movie treats us as if we already know but in reality have never seen before. We’re plopped right into the stories of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) without much in the way of introduction or origin, almost like these were clips from a previous entry that was never released. We’re supposed to know and care about these characters instantly, but their arrivals are treated with such little fanfare it’s hard to warm up to any of them. Miller winds up being the most intriguing; his loner character is secretly desperate for friends and is brought into the fold by Batman (Ben Affleck, Gone Girl, checking out so much I can see why he’s trying to get excused from The Batman, a planned solo shot for the Caped Crusader) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Keeping Up with the Joneses).
What I always enjoyed about the previous incarnations of Batman and Superman was how they were up against villains that seemed somewhat plausible…at least for a comic-book foe. From the Penguin to Lex Luthor, the heroes were battling adversaries that sought awesome power, not ones that already had other-worldly talents. The villain in Justice League is Steppenwolf, a poorly rendered CGI baddie voiced by Ciarán Hinds (Frozen) that’s as generic as they come. This is a bad guy that might have worked better as a Marvel rival but definitely not one the Justice League should be working to thwart. Steppenwolf is on the hunt for three Mother Boxes that form a trinity that can, snooze, give him power over all earth. Yawn, boring, wake me when it’s over.
Poor Wonder Woman. That’s what I kept thinking throughout Justice League. Gadot looks miserable having to carry this film, it’s clear the plot was tweaked at some point to give her character more to do and capitalize on the success of Wonder Woman. Her ascension to co-lead comes at the sacrifice of a bunch of familiar faces that get sidelined. Diane Lane (Inside Out) and Connie Nielsen pop up in brief cameos as the mothers of Superman and Wonder Woman, J.K. Simmons (The Snowman) doesn’t even have to glue down his toupee, and Amy Adams (Her) wears multiple bad wigs but does get the most unintentionally funny line of dialogue in the film: “I’m no longer Lois Lane, dedicated reporter”.
The effects of the hand-off between Snyder and Whedon really sink the film in its last ¼, when the Justice League works together to stave off Steppenwolf before he can unite the Mother Boxes. There are a few decent action sequences but they’re so darkly lit it all becomes a blur, especially when you add in Steppenwolf’s drone warriors that fly around in a head-spinning frenzy like wasps. It’s a blessing the movie is as short as it is, but it still feels pretty long when the content is as forgettable as this. You keep wanting to find something, anything to root for but no one seems interested in being memorable in any way shape or form. It’s like everyone was forced into making this and are waiting for their final scene to be shot.
There’s a post-credit scene that does nothing to get you excited for the future, it feels like it was shot last week with the actors involved under duress. Based on his performance here, I shudder to think about Momoa’s Aquaman film coming in 2018, wish that Wonder Woman 2 wasn’t two years away, and am intrigued at a chance to get more info on The Flash in 2020’s Flashpoint. At this point, whatever the creative team behind these DC films are doing, it’s not working. Not only do audiences deserve better, but so do the actors locked into contracts for future films.