Lightyear is the real film based on the fake toy from a real movie who thinks he’s a real person from a fake film which they have now really made. That convoluted (yet technically accurate) description demonstrates how unnecessary a film this is, but as Pixar exhausts the Toy Story franchise it is now looking to spin-offs for brand recognition. Based on the animation style, Lightyear would presumably have been a live-action film within the fiction of the first Toy Story, and perhaps fittingly it feels like an utterly generic sci-fi family film from the 1990s as Buzz takes on robot antagonists with the help of a handful of rookie Space Rangers. There is much to appreciate visually, from soft lighting diffusing through varied skintones to the weathering detail on aged space suits. Technical merits aside, this may be one of the least ambitious stories Pixar has ever told. Although it briefly sets up an interesting time dilation concept as Buzz tests hyperspace fuels, years passing each time he returns to the planet, Lightyear exhausts its creativity within the first act. In two hours it does little to advance Buzz’s character beyond a touchingly poignant gloss to his most famous catchphrase. Though unlikely to be profitable directly, Lightyear will presumably succeed through merchandising with a varied set of space-suited characters and a very cute robot cat, and perhaps Disney’s budgeting requires the studio to make a film like this to fund others like Soul. I am not sure there is quite enough here to keep kids fully entertained for two hours; adults, even accounting for nostalgia, will certainly feel like they have seen this all before.
“Kids, get your popcorn out. Let me tell you the story of the Space Viking, Thor Odinson.”
Thor: Ragnarok was a vibrant breath of fresh air in the stiffly solemn world of Thor movies. With Taika Waititi returning to direct, Love and Thunder maintains this approach to colourful, fast-paced storytelling (with entire planets apparently ending up on the cutting-room floor). Its themes hew closely to its title, Thor grappling with the idea of Jane taking up the mantle of Mighty Thor serving as a metaphor for navigating friendship with exes (and axes). Natalie Portman was vocal about the misuse of Jane Foster in the early Thor films, but this script provides the character with agency, as well as emotional and comedic range. By contrast the Guardians of the Galaxy play a surprisingly perfunctory role at the start of the film, primarily for Quill to nudge Thor toward finding a family of his own. Like Multiverse of Madness, the film suffers from another single-minded villain, despite the God Butcher’s moving introduction showing the root of his Kratos-like rage. At its strongest, Love and Thunder‘s visual effects take us to some fantastic locations, from the gilded opulence of Omnipotence City to the desaturated Shadow Realm with Sin City splashes of colour, whilst the action is set to a couple of suitably electrifying Guns n’ Roses songs. The result is lightweight family entertainment that underscores the MCU Phase 4’s lack of direction with a half dozen standalone movies and countless hours of Disney+ TV shows not building toward any visible greater purpose.
“Fear is a tool. When that light hits the sky, it’s not just a call. It’s a warning.”
Matt Reeves’ The Batman is the stylish reboot that (non-comedy) superhero films have needed, with their ever-increasing scale and shared-universe homogeneity. The “Year 2” storyline thankfully avoids yet another origin story, though parallels are drawn early on with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Instead, we see an established Batman dealing with street-level crime (emerging from the shadows like Vader to Michael Giacchino’s imposing brass score), already mistrusted by the police though he is called in to investigate crime scenes and track down leads. Grounded in realism with noir and gothic cinematic sensibilities, The Batman‘s greatest inspiration seems to come from another dark, winged creature, Alex Proyas’ The Crow, with its relentless pursuit of thugs through stylised streets soaked in shadows and rain. It seems most overt when Batman removes his mask to reveal a smear of black around his eyes and matted hair, reminscent of Eric Draven’s iconic appearance. The open jawline of the redesigned cowl allows Robert Pattinson to emote far more than recent incarnations, perhaps essential when he spends so little time as a reclusive Bruce Wayne. Despite spending most of the time as Batman, the action is rather limited though it oozes style: a brief corridor fight lit only by bursts of muzzle flash, or a car chase in the rain with near-zero visibility. It is a rare superhero where the climactic set piece is actually the film’s most satisfying. Greig Fraser’s cinematography deploys sharp camera angles, high contrast and often limited colour in a creative interpretation of some of the most striking Batman comicbook art. The ensemble cast excels, with few simple caricatures. Paul Dano’s Riddler is deliberately ordinary, like the Zodiac Killer crossed with Jigsaw, as the film briefly explores Batman’s complicity in inspiring his villains as well as the Internet incubation of rightwing extremism. An unrecognisable Colin Farrell is underused as Penguin, though the stage has clearly been set for him to take a central role in the future. The Batman‘s chief flaw is in editing, running too long with intermittent pacing issues affecting a number of scenes, but that only slightly diminishes the overall accomplishment.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
Where Avengers: Endgame was the result of a decade of carefully curated MCU crossovers, No Way Home uses a freak multiverse fracture to draw ad hoc from the past twenty years of Sony’s Spider-Man movies, delivering perhaps the ultimate in cinematic fan service for those who grew up during that period. Its strength is the resulting character interaction between characters who would never normally have met, drawing on the parallels and differences between the lives of the various Peter Parkers we have seen. The script uses this for emotional payoff and even to provide some unexpected closure years later. In-jokes abound based on the earlier films and even Internet memes that grew out of them. In all of this, the film can be joyfully playful in a similar way to Into The Spider-verse. No Way Home does place certain expectations on its audience’s knowledge, which leaves it unburdened by the need to explain its position in the MCU or to provide fresh introductions for its rogues’ gallery of villains, whose backstories instead become throwaway gags. The weak link is the action which continues the franchise’s trend for CG-heavy fights and wanton property destruction; even J. Jonah Jameson seems incredulous as he criticises the damage to yet another landmark. The most interesting choreography is a sequence combining Spider-Man’s acrobatics with Doctor Strange’s portals, which shows more creativity in a few minutes than the entire climactic battle.
“You’re growing up too fast. Ten-year-olds shouldn’t be celebrating war and talking politics. You should be climbing trees and then falling out of those trees.”
It’s disappointing to have to call a satire of Nazism timely two decades into the twenty-first century, but such is the present state of the world. Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is frequently funny in skewering inane propaganda-driven views of Jews and the Allied armies, though its satire is content to show up these ideas as ridiculous rather than delving much deeper. It is heartbreaking to see a child manipulated into such baseless hatred and the film’s dramatic side is far darker. These tonal shifts are often jarring, leaving the film a somewhat disjointed experience rather than feeling like a cohesive whole. The script often feels like one of Wes Anderson’s weaker projects but Waititi’s direction and his caricature of Hitler (as the the titular Jojo’s imaginary best friend) keep things energetic throughout. Ultimately, however, despite at least one dramatic punch, a weak resolution takes the sting out of the satire, leaving little to take away from the experience. Except that Nazism is ignorant and stupid. So that’s good.
“I think Nick Fury just hijacked our summer vacation.”
With Avengers: Endgame the obvious culmination of Marvel’s epic decade-spanning story arc, it seemed a little odd that Phase 3 would actually conclude with a Spider-Man film, but it actually makes a lot of sense to address the aftermath of those momentous events in a smaller interstitial that shows life in the MCU goes on. The breezy globe-trotting harkens back to the lighter entertainment of the early MCU, at its strongest in the more personal stories of Peter’s pursuit of MJ and his struggle with the loss of his mentor. This is not to detract from Jake Gyllenhaal’s wonderfully charismatic Mysterio, who makes it believable that Peter would latch onto him as a surrogate for Stark. The early fights benefit from a smaller scale, particularly in Venice where we stick with Spider-man as he works damage control while a battle rages between Mysterio and an elemental in the background; by the time we reach London, the drone-filled conclusion is CGI bombast over careful choreography. All of which goes to show that there is plenty of space for purely entertaining outings with characters old and new in the MCU. From where its future depth will come remains to be seen.
“Done properly, parenting is a heroic act… done properly.”
In general, Pixar’s return to previous properties with increasing frequency has indicated a level of creative stagnation. Incredibles 2 marks a rare departure, a sequel that seamlessly continues from its predecessor with the same imagination, warmth and wit. This is no doubt due in large part to Brad Bird’s return for writing and directorial duties after a brief foray into live action (the excellent Ghost Protocol and the less successful Tomorrowland). It provides an experience like spending time with familiar friends, and ensures that the film’s heart remains its family-centric story — Elastigirl balances working motherhood with an inability to let go of home life, Mr Incredible struggles with a sense of emasculation in his new childcare role, the children feel restricted by the needs of their demanding younger sibling — rather than mutating into an overblown action film at the expense of character moments.
“The President has invoked Ghost Protocol. We’re shut down. No satellite, safe house, support, or extraction.”
Although I was always aware of them, the Mission: Impossible films largely passed me by. Ghost Protocol marked a shift towards the globe-trotting Bond model, although even when wearing black tie Tom Cruise steers Hunt away from slickly suave. Helming the production, Brad Bird brings breathtakingly audacious action sequences that feel at times like a live-action take on his work in The Incredibles, further enhanced by Cruise’s commitment to performing his own stunts (despite approaching 50), allowing for astonishing close-up action that few big budget films can rival. It seems petty to fault the serviceable but straightforward plot when really it exists only to justify those big set pieces. The film’s chief flaw is its front-loaded structure: after blowing up the Kremlin and scaling the Burj Khalifa, there is no room for escalation, leaving the final act in Mumbai underwhelming. Nevertheless, by that point there is enough residual energy to carry the audience comfortably through to the credits.
“Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life — in the stories they tell about us.”
It is no secret that I have been unimpressed by Pixar’s commodified output over the past decade, with only 2015’s Inside Out providing a welcome glimmer of the studio’s former heights. Coco proves that this was not a fluke. Although the trailers pushed the musical angle, Coco is really a film about family, the importance of keeping the story of our past alive and not burying uncomfortable history. The plot is a fairly standard Disney adventure — despite some flourishes about storytelling, this was handled more deftly by Kubo and the Two Strings and Coco suffers a little by comparison. The creativity emerges through the unusual setting of the Mexican land of the dead. Although much of this imagery is adopted and interpreted, Pixar is fully embracing Mexican culture rather than merely appropriating the aesthetic — the traditions and values of Día de Muertos permeate the film and the story. Ultimately Coco resonated in particular because it shares my view of death: that those we love are not truly gone so long as we remember them and carry them with us.
“No matter what you say, eventually you’d replace us. That’s the law of nature.”
Concluding Caesar’s trilogy, we find the embittered chimp no longer confident in his intelligence and questioning his decisions as he succumbs to a desire for revenge. The titular “war” is something of a misnomer, though the antagonists are soldiers. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is driven by a specific sense of purpose which sadly, because it is delivered through monologue, never receives real examination. This series has always questioned the extent to which humanity is defined by its intelligence and what it would take for mankind to recognise and respect that intelligence in another species. The final film goes one step further and poses the question at what point one loses that humanity, although there are few answers offered. It is easy to forget that half the characters are animated, such is the quality of the emotion conveyed through motion capture, led by Andy Serkis with a clearly demanding physical performance. Despite the extent to which it is employed, this is CGI used right, in service of the story.