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By day I'm a (mostly) mild mannered Finance Officer for a cluster of popular tourist attractions in my home town of Weymouth in the UK. By night, I pound my keyboard until we both bleed to bring you my thoughts and geeky opinions on the latest movies and popular TV shows in the wonderful worlds of fantasy and science fiction. I occasionally break out to rock out with my band TATE or attend some good gigs and music festivals but all geek, all week is how I roll.
Some people say you can’t make a good film based on a video game. Those people are right.... and those people are wrong. This generation has seen many failed to “meh” adaptations of big game franchises onto the big screen like the recent efforts of Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed. Most fail through a combination of taking themselves too seriously despite their natural absurdity or trying to condense 20+ hours of video game story into a 2-hour movie. Then consider films like War Games, Tron or Wreck-It Ralph that succeeded. Why? They were films about made-up video games allowing for greater creative freedom, removing detrimental game medium comparisons and making the film about more than just its featured game. You can make a good video game movie if you also make the game. That’s one of several reasons why this two decades belated sequel of the wild board game, Jumanji, succeeds. It’s a parody of its own creation and because of that, it’s an effective comedy. Cue those drums....
When four high schooler students are thrown together in detention, they find an old adventure video game called Jumanji. Playing transports them inside the game’s jungle world as their avatars Bravestone (Dwane Johnson), Shelly (Jack Black), Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Ruby (Karen Gillian). Their only way home is to complete the game. Or will it be game over?
The Breakfast Club in the jungle. That’s exactly what the film is going for with its mix of main characters and shows that said John Hughes special is still a winning formula. The main quartet members are typical high school movie archetypes and their game characters are vast contrasts which create the film’s main source of comedy. The timid geek becomes the big tough adventurer (Johnson), the big football jock is a diminutive weakling (Hart), the shy outcast girl is a badass (Gillian) and the self-obsessed popular girl becomes Jack Black. It’s effective comedic source material from start to finish such but more importantly, it gives each of 4 actors ways to shine. Jack Black steals many scenes playing it as a high school girl. He even makes the dick jokes brilliantly. Or you have moments like Johnson as the big tough guy getting scared by sudden noises. Then there’s standout a scene of Gillian trying to flirt and distract some guards but as the clueless shy girl in the body or Lara Croft. It's a lot of really good plays on the typical typecasting and stereotypes of the actors themselves and in places, it genuinely feels like the actors were having a blast with this. Although Kevin Hart is basically still Kevin Hart the whole frustrated motormouth routine actually works well here because we can relate back to his high school jock alter ego.
The above out-of-character humor in itself would be enough for a decent comedy film but Jumanji stands taller because that’s only its left bulging bicep. Its right flexing gun is drawing humor from its video game subject matter, playing on common game staples and clichés. Even devout non-gamers will still get where the laughs are coming from. They poke fun at cutscenes, impractical outfits, over-exaggerated fight moves, pre-emptive dramatic music (“I hate those drums!”) or unhelpful NPCs repeating the same set answers among other things. By continually switching between gags about and gaming and character switches, neither wears out across the film. That keeps Jumanji feeling like a fun and surprisingly immersive adventure. The self-aware nature of many game-based gags also makes the film seem smarter than most will expect. It’s got a lot of enjoyable video game-esque action sequences that utilize its established over the top, almost cartoon-like physics. Plus, the simple idea of players having limited lives creates some meaningful peril and stakes while allowing for some fun death sequences.
This game still makes a few miss moves though. In places, it’s quite slow-paced and feels like its spinning its wheels rather than moving through the story. Granted, this is often at the reward of good character banter but at times, it feels like Jumanji has a, “don’t laugh and drive policy”. The story has to pull over comedic scenes before continuing. The film does link itself to the 1995 original, nicely including some name-dropping to Robin William’s (RIP) Alan Parish from being trapped in Jumanji’s jungle. Yet there are inconsistencies concerning the game’s jungle world. This time around, it’s shown as more of a Mad Max meets Far Cry setting which doesn’t fit into Alan Parrish emerging from it wearing mostly leaves. The villain character of Bobby Cannavale’s Van Pelt felt rather pointless and forgettable. Like some game villains he existed purely to put a face on minions and enemies of the game but ultimately Jumanji would have been fine without him. Finally, the later introduced with 5th player, Nick Jonas’s, is more of a 5th wheel. The starting 4 produce great chemistry and his addition only serves to obstruct that while offering nothing noteworthy himself.
Despite the adversity of being a reboot, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a very enjoyable adventure comedy with quite a broad appeal. If you and your in-laws are going stir crazy together this Christmas, then Jumanji would be the ideal film for everybody to escape to. The quality of the cast chemistry and established world building leaves things very open to the possibility of sequels too. Are you ready player one.... two, three and four?
A long time ago on a VHS player far away, I first watched The Empire Strikes Back... and if I’m honest, I wasn’t blown away by it. I may have spent many hours running around my dad’s legs playing AT-ATs and speeders or talking like Yoda, but much of the film went over his little head. It didn’t have the simple, easy-to-follow story of the Star Wars or its rewarding happy ending. Neither did it have the cute fluffy animals of Return of the Jedi. It was only as when I became a Padawan watching back that worn home-recorded VHS cassette that I came to see what made the film so special among his favorite trilogy. It took time. It took the patience and understanding that his younger self could never master. It was this journey that the older, now “Master” (he wishes), was reminded of when walking out of The Last Jedi. While on the surface, there were mixed feelings of disappointment vs. expectations. Underneath, there were seeds of greater purpose and meaning to the film’s content. This is a Star Wars film that may take some time and understanding to be truly appreciated.... but still not without its flaws.
With The Republic’s destruction, The Resistance are on the run from the conquering First Order. Finn (John Boyega – Detroit) and Poe (Oscar Issac – Ex Machina) hatch a dangerous plan to save them. While Rey (Daisy Ridley – Murder on the Orient Express) hopes finding the legendary Luke Skywalker will spark a new hope.
In many ways, The Last Jedi feels like the Star Wars franchise looking at its own reflection for a deeper purpose. It opens with the typically closing, “we must destroy the big thing” set piece. While much of what follows revolves around showing that making a change and overcoming an all-powerful evil is about more than shooting torpedoes into a thermal exhaust port. There’s a greater emphasis on the cost of such heroism and the difference between being a hero and being a leader; largely through the eyes of Poe Dameron as the impulsive hot-headed learning to see the bigger picture. That The Resistance and not the rebellion.... they are the spark that will ignite a rebellion within everyone. It shows the story as more than just good guys vs. bad. It’s about the inspiration and belief that both can create. It’s the kind of hidden depth that helped make Rogue One feel so special. This is echoed well within Luke and Rey’s scenes as Luke attributes his failures to overconfidence in being labeled a hero and legend. Or a few touching little moments like new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) overwhelmed to meet Finn from reputation or some ordinary kids playing with homemade Star Wars toys. A worthy mention also to Laura Dern’s (Jurassic Park) Vice Admiral Holdo for embodying the teachings of composed leadership.
Where the film falters is not of intent but sadly from execution in filmmaking. The story quickly breaks off into multiple arcs in different locations that the script can’t seem to juggle smoothly. Particularly through the first half, the pacing is clunky and uneven. This isn’t helped by polarizing tones. Many parts of the film have a darker tone revolving around desperation and hopelessness. Yet against this, the film still tries to be the kind of fun and enjoyable adventure most would expect from a Star Wars film. Now in places, it absolutely nails this contrast, like the side mission of Finn and Rose to a lavish casino. It’s full of joyous mad-cap antics and great laughs but with the edgier undertone of all the wealth being derived from war profiteering over the Resistance/First Order conflict. For the rest of the film, there’s a reliance on unexpected humor injections that at many points feel terribly goofy. Case and point, Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux is reduced to slapstick comic relief, best likened to Starscream in the Transformers sequels. Director Rian Johnson clearly wants his movie to contain all the core strengths of the franchise but didn’t listen enough to his lessons about The Force. He doesn’t respect the balance. Then there are The Porgs. They’re adorable and funny yet never overstay their welcome on-screen which keeps their comedy effective. Compared to an early unfunny communication problems gag that goes on so long and so awkwardly you’ll wish George Lucas’s head would appear in space shouting, “Get on with it”. It creates a frustrating sense that the film is not aware of when it is succeeding or failing; that both appear to happen by chance.
Despite having less of an emphasis on bigger set pieces this is still a Star Wars film that delivers on its action and visuals. The aforementioned opening space battle not only has spectacle but fantastic variety as the fan-favorite A-Wings on hulking B-Wing style bombers join the mix. The human element to the bombers also likens the sequence to a WW2 piece like Memphis Belle. The film offers one of the most creative and stunning lightsaber battles since Maul sparked up his double on Naboo. There are some moments of genuine beauty. A final act set piece sees forces battle on salt planes of a white top layer and red beneath. Every explosion, every skim against the surface hurls up plumes and clouds of red against the vast white (like the color themes of the posters) for a truly breathtaking visual effect. Then there is quite literally the best 10 seconds ever. A ship collision sequence is shown like a samurai movie sword slice. You could have force-choked me while that was happening and I wouldn’t have noticed.
Finally, let’s pilot things back towards The Empire Strikes Back comparisons. The said 1980s offering is not just considered an incredible film, but many consider it one of the greatest sequels of all time. That is where The Last Jedi crucially differs. Some of its continuation from The Force Awakens is excellent. Everything about Mark Hamill’s performance and his relationship with Rey is a lovely continuation of that infamous silent ending. Similarly, the bond of opposites between Kylo and Rey develops well through their Sense8-like communicating and becomes very entertaining. On the flip side, much was hyped of Supreme Leader Snoke’s actual presence within this sequel and reveals about his identity. Instead, he’s not a character, he’s a lack of. He’s nothing more than a CG Voldermort devoid of personality; a Death Star-sized disappointment. Ultimately Kylo also falls short. He stood out last time for his fascinating complexity of aspiring towards being the next Darth Vader but fearful of never achieving it. This time, much of that feels abandoned for an overall sense of uncertainty over just what they are trying to do with his character other than being a villain presence of necessity.
There were moments in The Last Jedi that embraced me in full-blown Star Wars euphoria but more that pulled me out of the immersive escapism for their failings. I firmly believe that I will come to appreciate and enjoy The Last Jedi more in time but for now, I can’t look at with the level of positivity the youngling and Padawan inside me would like. It does give Carrie Fisher some good moments if this is to be her send-off. It is generally very well-acted from its talented cast. By no means is this a Phantom Menace or deserving of any such negative comparisons to the prequel trilogy. In the end, The Last Jedi is a good film where there should have been a great one.
How It’s Gotta Be – With Eugene’s help, the Saviours have escaped The Sanctuary and that does not well for Hilltop, Alexandria or The Kingdom. Aaron and Enid try to bring Oceanside into the fight.
As a great Captain once said, “Yep.... that went well”. This certainly wasn’t the episode many would have expected following the events of the season to date but I’m really glad it turned out this way. Unsurprisingly, given its war setting, this season has been more action based than anything else. This episode sees the show return to being an intense suspenseful horror/thriller while still producing plenty of finale worthy spectacle. While it does feel something of a cheat to not be told how The Saviours escaped (other than Mr. Smarty Pants being responsible), it does make the first half of the episode in particular much stronger through uncertainty. We know The Saviours are out thanks to the opening shot of Negan behind the wheel but not their strength or remaining numbers. That places the noose around The Alliance and it gets slowly teased and tightened as the episode progresses. The calm stillness of The Saviours is awesome in the way it allows their past episode atrocities speak for themselves. As an audience, just like Maggie and the rest, we know exactly how bad things will get so there’s no need for them to waste their breath reminding us. There are several good thematic callbacks to the Season 6 finale: Last day on Earth like the building sense of hopelessness throughout the episode and the night time setting echoing Negan’s debut scene.
The episode had a number of great performances. Although brief, I like the idea of Eugene still being haunted by his actions and choices. Being confirmed as the difference maker for The Saviours shows just how big a decision he was going through the last episode. He could either let everyone in The Sanctuary die (including his beautiful self) or condemn Rick and all his former friends to death through the vengeance of The Saviours. I have to admit, I completely marked out at Ezekiel’s Rambo routine. Clearly, some of Carol has rubbed off on him and it felt like a meaningful evolution in his character following his grief. Carl squaring up to Negan.... damn kid! The whole idea of Carl stepping up to be the leader in his father’s absence was great to watch as the boy character becomes a man. Negan was his usual magnificent self and Maggie chips into the episode’s badass quota.
Some characters could have been used a lot better. Now Rick’s absence did let other characters take the spotlight well (like Carl) but we still needed more from him than a token last 5 minutes appearance. It’s like he only showed up just so they could squeeze in a Rick/Negan face off. In the end, it was painfully average as their meetings go. I also didn’t like the hanging Oceanside thread. It seemed deliberately written in just to break away from the main story and we didn’t need to place Aaron and Enid in peril.... there’s no shortage of that from the rest of the cast. Then there’s Daryl, the man whose reckless actions brought all this ruin upon them yet not a single person calls him out on it. More importantly, neither is there any signs of guilt or regret from Daryl himself. Granted, they’re probably saving much of this topic for a future episode but a big theme here was best-laid plans coming undone. We should have gotten at least acknowledgment of this from Daryl, Tara or anyone else that was involved in ramming The Sanctuary.
I may get my head on a spike for this but I really didn’t like the big final scene reveal. While it did carry some shock value in the moment, it was like being told the secret to a big magic trick. After the moment of reveal passes, the trick itself feels less special. This revelation diminished and devalued some really great scenes that came earlier in the episode. Yes, they made a bit more sense in hindsight but were so much better when the emotional stakes seemed real. What’s more, the way this happens at the mid-season point completely writes the show into a corner over how it picks up in 2018. It’s not unlike the infamous, “Summer of Trolling” season cliff-hanger, 2 years back. The outcome already seems certain and any attempts to deviate or stretch things will reflect badly on the show. It also prevents any time jump bigger than a day or two, forcing the narrative to pick up immediately rather than letting things settle after recent events.
Despite a few missteps, this was a surprising and eventful finale that I enjoyed a lot. The fiery destruction the black night looked incredible. The turning tide of war hurls many aspects of the story into some fantastic new directions. Now, it really feels like all-out war.
Time For After – As the situation inside The Sanctuary becomes increasingly desperate, Eugene is being pressured for a solution and faces some difficult choices. Daryl goes off the book in a risky attempt to end things early while Rick concludes negotiations with The Scavengers.
I’ve enjoyed Eugene/Captain Mullet’s turncoat Saviour journey a lot more than I initially suspected. After his original, “I can cure them” ruse subsided. As a character, he slowly regressed into mere comic relief. Good comic relief all the same but still little more than laughs of the moment. Yet being taken under Negan’s wing has allowed him to rediscover himself as the self-aware coward. He accepts that he’ll say and do whatever it takes to survive. This episode reveals in stretching that motive out like a medieval torture rack to see just how far he’ll go. Many different parties (Negan, Dwight, Gabriel and more) want him to do their version of the right thing as finds himself the unlikely kingmaker. This develops into a fascinating dilemma of fear Vs guilt and opportunity that plays well into the episodes slower pacing. Once things get going, scenes that feel more static instead start generating tension as they prolong Eugene’s decision or add another choice. As ever, Josh McDermitt nails the character’s almost childlike composure of uncertainty mixed with the odd deadpan laugh. As things move into the final act and decisions become forced, he even gives an entirely new side to Mr. Smartypants for an anger-induced breaking point. There’s even a wonderful Game of Thrones-like moment as Tanya (one of Negan’s wives) claims he sealed his fate long ago by refusing their plan to poison Negan. It’s clear that, on some level at least, Eugene believes this and is why he’s struggling to cope. That for all his survival instincts and selfish choices, he may still have made a fatal mistake.
The weakest part of the episode was Daryl circumventing the master plan with a risky parking maneuver. Now, this still had good points to it. Most surprisingly was the turning point growth and progression for Rosita. This time last year she was willing to risk everything on killing Negan to avenge Abraham (by trying to shoot him in Alexandria). Yet here she’s the level-headed voice able to see that Daryl is taking too big a risk with their plan. It signals her finally moving on and letting Abraham go. Tara is still on that same journey over her feelings for Denise. It links nicely into the main Eugene story too with a focus on making difficult decisions. The problem is that this doesn’t feel like the big moment it should be and nobody seems to care about Daryl going against Rick. This could have been a much better, heated affair of conflicted loyalties but instead, it feels quite sedate. Neither does the plan feel as risky as they try to make out.... mostly because Daryl is in the driver’s seat. We know he’s a safer bet than an Alaskan white Christmas for survival so you can’t buy into the peril. However, everything inside the compound as The Saviours face an increasingly desperate situation. That was pretty great and had an excellent dark edge to it as the casualties pile up. It all leads nicely into a concluding question; did Daryl do the right thing?
While the opening photo and sketch session were about as ripe as the nearby garbage, the conclusion of Rick and The Scavengers was a lot of fun. The action saw some cool improvised weaponry from Rick and there were some great laughs in resolving the negotiations. I’ve also come out of these two episodes with a lot more appreciation for The Scavengers leader, Jadis. You have to respect someone that still finds time for their creative hobbies in a zombie apocalypse. I’d genuinely love to know if she used to be an artist or I just woke up one day going, “... I sculpt now”.
This episode isn’t quite the big dramatic build you would expect going into a mid-season finale but does conclude on some meaningful stakes. It’s exclusion of Hilltop and The Kingdom would imply that last week’s episode covered their setup and that next week’s 2017 round-off will be spread over multiple locations. Will the war end? Or is it only just beginning?
The King, the Widow and Rick – As the next phase of their plan begins, The Kingdom mourns its losses, Maggie deliberates over prisoner treatment while Rick seeks new allies. Meanwhile, Carl finds a friend while Michone & Rosita need to see things for themselves.
Remember those other characters? That is essentially a large part of this episode. The early war telegrams narration frames is a new act in the season as Rick’s alliance moves into the next stage of their plan. It draws a finish line in the sand for a final sanctuary showdown in 2 days but in order to make that work, a considerable portion of the episode is re-introducing absent characters. Sadly, it’s where the episode falls down. There’s nothing wrong with spending more time with Carl, Michone, Rosita and others but most of their scenes feel nothing more than requirements. Moments of minimal significance purely portrayed to show them doing something other than waiting in the wings. That makes it difficult to get invested. The season has been all about big actions and big consequences so why should we care about 2 ladies taking a drive just because they need to?
Thankfully, these scenes do eventually become more rewarding than their initial purpose. Siddiq’s Good Samaritan agenda is the first time since Season 2’s barn (... I know the barn sucked but stay with me) that the show has considered the connection between walkers and their prior humanity. There’s some nice imagery in the idea of a human’s soul being trapped within its former body as a zombie until released. Yes, notions of Carl bringing Saddiq back to Alexandria are practically subtitled by Admiral Ackbar to be a twist in waiting but on the surface, there’s still much to enjoy from their blooming friendship. As for Michone and Rosita venturing out despite still being badly injured, this was a good payoff from a bad setup. This shows the pair venturing out despite still being badly injured and for rather selfish reasons didn’t do them any favors. Yet when they find themselves in a spot of bother, it creates an excellent sense of vulnerability. Michone, the one woman whirling blade of death, rarely finds this as a fan-favorite character. It was enjoyable to see her as less of a badass for a change. The depot action delivered some fun and surprising moments, including Rosita getting, what can best be described as a Quake kill.
The rest of the episode was a combination of progressing ongoing storylines and exploring emotional themes across the map. I found Carol & Ezekiel at The Kingdom the most effective for its simplicity: Ezekiel having lost his faith after failing his people and Carol trying to make him believe in himself the way his people have believed in him. It has good symbolism, echoing Ezekiel’s debut scene on the theatre throne by showing slumped on the floor in front of it. I think Jerry is officially The Walking Dead’s Boba Fett. He just needs to stand there, say minimal dialogue and he’s awesome. Like in his last episode, he needs mere seconds to convey the realities and significance of The King to The Kingdom by staying at his post despite being sent away, “This is what I do”. Rick’s call in on Jadis on The Scavengers had a few laughs to it (naked apron arts and crafts?) and a curious ending that feels like it may still be part of the master plan.
Finally, there was the Hilltop prison camp dilemma. This did get a little static in places but I really liked the way that writers Angela Kang & Cory Reed allowed Maggie to become a defacto antagonist against Jesus from her stance as a realist. This made great use of Gregory to become a Wormtail like figure trying to work Maggie towards more drastic forms of action while still providing good comic relief. This is also feeling like one of the more unpredictable story arcs of the season. Initially, it worked like little more than a backdoor to Saviour rehabilitation but now Maggie has staked the credibility of leadership on making the prison camp work. This is something that easily is used by Greggory to trigger a hostile re-takeover. They’ve clearly established leaders of 2 Saviour divisions within the prisoners with many different ways things could play out in the event of a prison riot. The only thing I didn’t like here was Aaron. While he’s already had his big moment of losing Eric but attempts to show him still processing that grief fell rather flat.
Last week was no easy act to follow. This episode feels tame by comparison and being lumbered with some character re-establishing doesn’t help that but it still delivers plenty of good moments and overall feels progressive. It may be the start of a new chapter but the pages are still turning towards presumably the climax of All Out War in 2 weeks.
The Big Scary U – While Negan and Gabriel are getting better acquainted, things are starting to fall apart in the leaderless and under siege Sanctuary. Daryl wants to take more extreme measures in light of The Kingdom’s losses much to Rick’s dismay.
Ask and you shall receive. After 4 weeks, we are treated to a much-needed catch-up with Negan, Gabriel and everyone else under house arrest in The Sanctuary. It quickly becomes a fascinating insight into The Saviours and especially their slugger of a leader. It portrays him as far more calculated than and less impulsive than we’ve seen in the past. Even as far as Negan placing value on human life.... quite literally, “people are resource”. As much as he could stamp his authority by killing at will, he takes an efficient businesslike approach to make isolated but vicious and impactful kills to achieve specific objectives. The man himself says it best, “it’s about killing the right people at the right time”. This casts a new light on Glen and Abraham’s death. Killing all of Rick’s group that fateful night in the woods was not Negan’s objective. He wasn’t looking to defeat an enemy in Rick/Alexandria. To him, that was nothing but an acquisition of new resources. Later in the episode, he even compares his society of Saviours and workers to an economy rather than an army. There are even a few hints that his persona came from his experiences helping troubled children before the world fell. That he sees The Saviours as those same children and gives them whatever tough love it takes to make them strong enough to survive and succeed in this new world. You could go far as calling him Lawful Evil.
Then, there are The Saviours themselves and their leadership group realizing they’re stuck in a Bug’s Life with no Hopper. The siege presents a dangerous political situation of the few keeping order and authority over the larger worker collective without as a symbolic peacekeeper. For a film double bill, Bug’s Life is followed by Reservoir Dogs as the inner circle quickly (and correctly) figures the perfectly timed attack would have required treachery. I really liked the way episode used Eugene here as both the awkward voice of reason and the pawn poised to sneak across the chessboard. He embodies Negan’s own sentiments to Gabriel about using your weakness to drive your strength. People see him as weak and the prime traitor suspect. He plays completely into those perceptions to go unnoticed as he starts putting the puzzle together. Best of all, he still delivers a few of his random laughs along the way.
I wasn’t as keen on the use of Father Gabriel in this episode. There was some merit in his desire to hear Negan’s confession. It played into the larger themes showing a different side to Negan’s villainy and it was quite fun to see this worked physically into their predicament. It just would have been nice to get more from Gabriel other than a fear of meaningless death (like taking a bullet for Nickleback). While this is very much a Negan episode, we have seen in recent seasons how much of an interesting character Gabriel can be when used correctly. It would have been nice to see him less composed, more animated and really going through a crisis of faith over Negan’s revelations, having him realize that there is no place in this new world for a righteous man. That instead this world needs monsters like Negan to be more fearsome than the darkness.... That would have been awesome. The Rick & Daryl conflict didn’t fare much better. It gave them both good opposing views but felt like it was shoved into this week purely to set-up a future episode. I would have preferred this to be a bigger focus on a separate episode. However, a redeeming factor was good comparisons to the central Negan story. We see Rick’s more benevolent leadership ignored by an unruly subordinate. The kind of situation Negan talks about making an example of to affirm his control... but Rick, unable to that finds his authority weakened.
The few niggles aside, I really enjoyed this episode. It took a great character and made them better while catching up the story within The Sanctuary. It’s an episode light on action, heavy with strong character content and solid change in pace from the more war focused episodes. Next week looks to be another long overdue return. Let’s hope it’s not all garbage.
Ben Affleck is looking for a Batmobile ejector seat and Gal Gadot is threatening to walk away unless a certain heavily accused producer doesn’t. Things are not well within the DCEU towers. What they really need right now is a win. A positive to show whatever is going on behind-the-scenes will be worth it in the end. Will the much anticipated Justice League be that film? Not entirely but it's a marked improvement on their last superhero crossover.
With Superman dead, Steppenwolf, The End of Worlds will return to Earth with an army of Parademons to transform it into a nightmare world. Only the united heroes of Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) stand in his way.
This film has no shortage of problems but it is a better film than Batman Vs Superman and confirmation that the DCEU can make a multi-character team-up work. In fact, it’s best viewed as a sequel to BvS rather than a stand-alone because the League’s first accomplishment is the way it successfully builds upon those BvS events. As you may have seen from the trailers, this is set in a world after Superman, dealing with his death and a general sense of losing hope. Wonder Woman’s introductory action sequence looks like a bank robbery but is, in fact, an embodiment of this hopelessness. Instead of criminals, it’s a group of activists trying to destroy financial institutions believing nothing else can save this failing world (led by Stannis Baratheon, no less). This propagates Batfleck’s character arc in seeing the value of Superman and how the world needs the Man of Steel as a symbol much more than a night prowling bat. Finally, it justifies the entire alien invasion story film. With its champion defeated, they attack the Earth now because it is vulnerable.
Next, this film really worked for me as superhero team-up because of the great variety of characters and character experience. If we take 2012's Avengers, all 6 of Marvel’s team went in as experienced heroes at the height of their game. Justice League takes a far more staggered approach. At one end of the spectrum, Batfleck is the aging Frank Miller-esque Dark Knight questioning how long he can keep doing this. Then, we have Barry Allen’s Flash presented as a clueless young rookie, a Cyborg still coming to terms with his evolving abilities and a reluctant hero Aquaman. It gives the overall team greater purpose as they learn and develop from fighting together, whether that’s Batfleck and Wonder Woman stepping up as leaders or The Flash getting mentored in heroics. A lot of the fight and action scenes focus on the team working together and combining their powers rather than making them shine as individuals.
The film has a lot of great action sequences but the most enjoyable are those that work in the wider supporting characters and extended DC affiliates. A first act set piece of Steppenwolf attacking the Amazons of Themyscira sees a few welcome returns from this summer’s Wonder Woman movie and turns into a great affair of desperation in keeping him from a crucial object. Then there’s The Lord of the Rings style 5000-year flashback of all Earth’s forces and races uniting against Steppenwolf’s first invasion in a colossal pitched battle. It’s got nice scale to it, cameos the Old Gods and even our first on-screen look a Green Lantern in the tease of 2020's Green Lantern Corps movie. You’ll probably recognize many action moments from trailers but there are still plenty more you won’t.
We’ll never know exactly how much Joss Whedon changed when tagging for Zack Synder in the re-shoots but it feels like he’s the reason the film has a lot of good comedy, consistently across its duration. It’s the key tool in getting several of the new characters over. I went into Justice League with, “Grant Gustin is my Flash” practically tattooed on my forehead but I left with a complete love for Ezra Miller’s take on Barry Allen and can’t wait to see more of him. They nailed his tone of being very excitable yet socially awkward. Miller’s comedic timing was on-point with running gags (...sorry, couldn’t resist) like having a poor sense of direction going down a storm. They even developed a fun Flash/Cyborg relationship buddy relationship as, “the accidents”. Similarly, Jason Momoa’s powerhouse suffer dude Aquaman was played well for laughs and prevented anyone taking him too seriously. He has charisma dripping off him like arctic seawater across abs and puts a fork any Big Bang, “Aquaman sucks” jokes.
And the bad? This film’s evil and failures have a face. It’s villain Steppenwolf. Imagine every Marvel villain labeled disposable: Yellow Jacket, Maleketh, Ronan... the works. Steppenwolf makes all of them look like Heath Ledger’s Joker by comparison. He is an utter and absolute waste of screentime with no discernible personality or likable qualities other than obscure mother issues. He’s nothing but an ill-defined, shambling mass of mo-cap CG that sometimes doesn’t even look good. Even his ending is a terrible cop-out with a poor resemblance to 1998s Lost in Space film. The Parademons fair little better. Yes, they’re nothing more than flying monkeys/cannon fodder and they fill that role but they feel completely out of place against the more grounded areas of the film.
The story also has its fair share of problems. Rumour has it, studio executives forced the film to be less than 2 hours long. As a result, several sections feel skipped over and go without sufficient explanation or exposition. Yet bafflingly, several scenes of a random Russian family still made the cut. This meant to make them more relevant when placed in during the final battle... but it doesn’t because their scenes have nothing memorable about them. There is too much Amy Adams/Louise Lane for such little content.
Then there is Superman. Now, his return has been so widely reported for a good year that I’m not going to call it a spoiler (he’s on all the merchandise!). I really liked what they did in terms of bringing him back because it provided the necessary mid-film inter-team conflict over whether or not their crazy resurrection attempt should be done. Rather than finding an excuse for the team to fall apart over little, purely so they can reunite again for the final fight, this conflict felt very natural with clear opposing viewpoints. The problem is not Superman returning, it’s how the film uses him when he does. That is, as little more than deux ex machina in the final battle. His impact is so big and decisive that it actually feels detrimental to the rest of the team. It makes the five other heroes combined look weaker than Superman and therefore, the whole Justice League team-up redundant if Superman had been there in the first place. While of course, they want to show Superman as being a powerful figure, the balance is painfully off and stands as the biggest lesson to learn for any Justice League sequel.
I left BvS with negatives of the film but positive feelings towards future DCEU films like a Wonder Woman solo venture. Justice League was the same but with more positives about the film itself. I left thinking Justice League was passable to good entertainment but really excited about the planned Flashpoint film and next year’s Aquaman solo venture. So the DCEU still isn’t what many would want it to be and may not be doing its league justice but there are signs of improvement. Justice League may frustrate many devout comic readers but casual fans are likely to enjoy it as a fun and funny spectacle.
Into The Forest I Go – With Kol and The Ship of the Dead on its way Pahvo, The Discovery makes a daring play to detect their cloaking technology that will push the ship and crew to its limits. While Tyler comes face-to-face with his past trauma.
So it’s Trek mid-season finale time as enemies come face-to-face and many things boldly go in new directions. Though, for a finale, it was rather light on story. Most of the episode boiled down to a showdown between Discovery and their Klingon rivals. Of course, this was eventful and much more focused on science than space combat as the crew tries to crack the cloaking code. It was all delivered fine but the episode was a bit too occupied with leaving its developments for last minute teases going into the Christmas break (it returns January 7th). I would have liked little more involvement of the wider cast instead of concentrating on Burnham, Tyler, and Staments. As for those big end teases that was a clean bill of health. The subtle early tease about the growing capabilities of The Spore Drive and the prior built of Stament’s health built nicely towards a new Discovery. As for hints surrounding a certain character, this is something many people have clocked on their sensors (I was chatting to some shipmates about it last week) but this was handled well. The episode gave just enough to affirm for those who figured it out but withheld enough to hold the mystery for those that haven’t. It will be really interesting to see how this all plays out.
The showdown between The Discovery and her Klingon nemesis was a lot of fun as they started spore-driving more than a teleporting beat-em-up final boss. As usual, the visuals looked excellent and the craziness of Discovery hopping all around her prey conjured images of The Flash Vs Hulk as speed trumped strength. The subplot around Staments pushing himself and his interface abilities beyond his limits added some nice small scale depth to the bigger events. This made of the ideal use of Dr. Culber and his relationship with Staments, to provide the opposing view on both a professional and personal basis; matched well by Lorca’s drive and determination to win. Similarly working in some meaningful progression for Tyler’s PTSD kept a strong emphasis on the personal impact of Discovery’s conflict as Tyler comes face-to -ace with his former torturer, L’Rell. While you could write everything I know about PTSD on the side of a chicken nugget, some of this did feel rather forced. Seeing Tyler go from naught to incapacitated in seconds felt more like a deliberate means of writing him out, rather than believable actions for his character. Still, seeing him finally shake it off and get back in the fight did feel like an appropriately big moment.
Discovery reaches its first mid-season on a high with the wind in its nacelles, throwing much of its future into uncertainty. It’s used this first season well to slowly build up its core characters with the feeling that it can really come back guns blazing for its remaining 6 episodes. See you next at the next stardate.
Some Guy – After his people are massacred by the heavy guns, King Ezekiel is left with nothing but self-doubt while Carol desperately tries to stop the guns leaving the outpost and breaking the siege on The Sanctuary.
While last week’s heavy caliber cliff-hanger was good, this episode’s opening has it thoroughly beaten. Whenever The Walking Dead gives an extended pre-titles sequence, it tends to be special but this somber flashback through the eyes of King Ezekiel is something else. Everything about it builds upon and raises the impact of The Kingdom’s casualties and the mindset of Ezekiel having led them to ruin: The silent shots soldiers bidding farewell to loved ones, the dramatic uplifting speech by Ezekiel, promising them victory and echoing the, “yet I smile” sentiments from prior episodes. Even a glimpse behind the curtain as we see him suiting up for the day, finished by fixing that fake smile in the mirror. It all sets up perfectly for the cleverly placed cut back to the present as the actor faces reality. It also conjures some of the best horror scenes this season. The sheer guilt and driven terror on Ezekiel’s face, as his people start returning from the dead to discuss recent events over dinner, is utterly captivating and worth 2 prior weeks of build.
These themes continue well through the episode as Ezekiel is mocked and ridiculed by The Saviours for being nothing more than a con man and fraud. Khary Payton offers some great little tentative expressions to portray such consideration. With all seemingly lost the man now finds himself asking, was the king a symbol to inspire hope or merely a guise to ensure his protection? It conjures mullet free memories of Eugene lying to Abraham for his survival in fear of personal weakness. This culminates nicely in ultimately showing that The Kingdom’s falsehood was a 2-way street. That many, “loyal subjects” know exactly who Ezekiel is... and isn’t. Yet believing in something beyond themselves, like him, helps these people deal with their more horrific reality. Could you almost call him The Kingdom’s Father Christmas? Although, as with most things in life, Jerry says it best, “You don’t have to call me that.... yes I do, dude”. It’s like a more positive (all be it in tragedy) take on Firefly’s Janestown. The only difference is Ezekiel built his own statue. In many ways, this is an episode that’s been on the cards ever since the man and his tiger first roared on to our screens last season. You could almost call this an easy win that the show has had up its sleeve but this so easily could have been terrible. Instead the directorial debut of veteran Walking Dead editor, Dan Liu takes us on a fantastic emotion journey that leaves its feature character in a fascinating new position.
Partially due to comparisons of recent weeks, this episode feels very slow-paced in places. Despite being a single-location story, it frequently lacks the flow of the last 2 weeks and their flicking between multiple stories. The middle section also feels a little uneventful compared to the opening flurry. The on-screen emotional content is still good but with the two featured characters of Ezekiel and Carol quickly getting stopped in their tracks the story feels like it’s spinning its wheels for a while. Speaking of Carol, we see her dip back into her always enjoyable Rambo mode against The Saviours; even working in a little of her innocent Stepford Wives routine too. I liked the parallels that writer David Leslie Johnson drew between Carol and Ezekiel. The way Ezekiel chose to become a leader out of his circumstances is just like how Carol chose to become a killing machine when people needed her in the same way. The climatic action was a very pleasant fist pumping surprise with several awesome moments.
While at times I found myself wanting more from this episode I have no qualms about the deeper exploration of Ezekiel it delivered. When compared to cheese-making with Morgan or many other single-character deep-dives, it stands regally superior. The season continues to progress well.... but is anyone else missing Jeffrey Dean Morgan? Let’s catch up with his bro down with Gabriel pretty soon, please.
...And Finally Black Bolt – With Maximus refusing to cancel the security failsafe, Attillan begins to crumble and leaves the Royal Family desperately trying to evacuate their people to safety. Gorgon struggles to find himself after his 2nd Terragenesis.
As finales go, this does has some strong story points. It is most definitely a clear and defining ending with huge implications to the future which gives grounds and relevance to its preceding events. There’s also a clear notion of influence and change on certain characters such as Medusa stepping out from her King’s shadow and Karnak’s acceptance of Gorgon. Yet as a finale, I found it having a major issue. Although I was being told the stakes and drama involved by various characters, I rarely felt them. The fate of Attillan felt obvious from the early goings, which meant a lot of the episode felt like going through the motions. Even some intentional surprise twists fall completely flat for being based on the minor detail of an early episodes flashback that most viewers will have to remind themselves actually happened. Despite taking place in almost real time, there’s rarely any sense of urgency to the episode either. There’s no classic sense of simultaneous events as different characters fulfill their part in the big plan. Instead, it’s a much more plodding chain of sequential events.
A number of setups from the last episode felt wasted too. The hint of Gorgon undergoing a more monstrous transformation was one of the season’s best. Gorgon was a poor character so let him go out in a blaze of glory as a mortified Karnak is forced into a desperate fight with his cousin while grappling with the notion that he created this monster.... that would have been epic. Instead, the show foolishly tries to recover Gorgon’s character for future seasons resulting in little more than an uninspiring, “you’re still in there” monologue from Karnak. Then there’s getting Louise to the moon which would have been comedy gold as she geeks out on everything in Attillan. While we do get a nice moment of her father’s remains making the trip, Louise stays benched for the entire episode, being little more than a brief middle man/woman. What was the point in building her involvement throughout the season for such a small role in the climax?
Okay, let’s not be completely negative here because there were positives to this episode. Triton delivered another good fight sequence. Some of the final confrontations between Black Bolt and Maximus were also decent as Iwan Rehon comes clean on all the sibling rivalry and jealousy with some nice teases over whether or not Black Bolt will kill his brother. The visual effects or the city in peril looked good fine by TV standards and final shot of The Royal Family addressing their people looked rather cool.
So to the final question; while The Inhumans have been saved on screen have they been saved off-screen? Should they get future seasons? There’s clear embedding towards a looming greater evil and the ending does make an interesting new direction for the show but the point I keep returning to is this: For all the positives more Inhumans could offer, when you consider all the great spin-offs and linked shows they could make from Agents of Shield, then Inhumans should not be chosen ahead of them. Whether that’s more Agent Carter (Peggy, you’re still our gal), the Hunter & Bobbi spin-off they’ve tried to launch or a Ghost Rider show, there’s a lot of things people already want to see rather than having to prove the value of something else. In the end, although I have enjoyed parts of the show, Inhumans feels like it has been made out of little more than the obligation to its prior place on the MCU film schedule announcement. Trying to crowbar in such big concepts as a secret alien city on the moon without disturbing any existing MCU continuity has turned what could have been a fun concept for a show into endless workarounds and excuses. Unless they’ve got one hell of a Terragenesis planned for Season 2, this show should be given the royal goodbye.