Tuesday, December 18, 2018


This holiday season has two of the better superhero movies in recent memory to cap off a year that saw just about a superhero movie a month. First is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated attempt by screenwriter Phil Lord (LEGO Movie), co-writer/director Rodney Rothman (Letterman’s Late Show), and directors Bob Perschetti and Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians) to make the great web-slinger cinematically fresh again. Part of its sense of novelty is found in its visual style, done in a wild mix of 2D and 3D animation, flat lines rendered in space around digital puppets and a color palate dappled and even slightly smudged and smeared like vivid comics newsprint. (It also judiciously pops on screen occasional narration boxes, thought bubbles, onomatopoeias, and Spidey-sense emanata.) It takes some getting used to, and even after settling in, the style can throw a curve ball into your vision from time to time. The plot, too, zips away from the usual Spidey origins. Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is dead, to begin with, killed trying to stop villainous Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his scientist collaborator (Kathryn Hahn) from using a massive MacGuffin to open a portal to alternate universes. He almost succeeded. During the brief period it was open, a handful of surprising other Spider-people pulled from the back pages of old comics ended up in the wrong place and now have to get back to their own dimensions. But that’s all story grist to the main origin story for one Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a half-black, half-Puerto Rican teenager bitten by a radioactive spider and stumbling into his hero’s footsteps. It’s a silly, vibrant, heart-felt, exciting story that plunges an instantly endearing new Spider-Man into continuity loop-de-loops. He’s drawn with complicated family ties — his dad (Brian Tyree Henry) a cop; his uncle (Mahershala Ali) living on the edge of legality — and a caught-between-two-worlds bounce from his Brooklyn neighborhood to a private prep school. He’s already living a code-switching double life, and embracing his new wall-sticking, web-slinging persona adds a third. As he’s drawn into a comics commotion in progress — eventually meeting Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), listening to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz), and interacting with parallel Spideys including a middle-aged loser Parker from another timeline (Jake Johnson) — he also comes into his own. It all builds quickly and quippingly to a climax freed from the usual tiresome construction, turning kaleidoscopically hallucinatory as the time-space continuum threatens to collapse. Sure, it’s still ultimately just a super-team smacking around a bad guy and his henchmen while a giant glowing doohickey counts down to apocalypse. The bones of it all may not be as unique as its surface pleasures initially suggest, but it’s done in a genuinely visually dazzling style and finds a great new Spider-Man while its at it.

I had an even better time, to my surprise, with Aquaman. It’s a movie that, given the character’s potential for waterlogged nonsense and the DC Cinematic Universe’s ongoing creative underachievement (Wonder Woman aside), seemed an unlikely bet. Turns out it’s a blast. Director James Wan, the Conjuring horror-meister having honed his blockbuster skills with Furious 7, approaches the material with gleaming sincerity. He taps directly into his hero’s mythic proportions, believing in the legend wholeheartedly. Marvel is all about the Everyman (even Thor is played as a normie), but DC is all about Gods and works best when filmmakers remember that. Aquaman may begin the movie as Arthur, semi-heroic superpowered beach townie, but in the amped up muscle body of Jason Momoa and the guitar lick fanfare that accompanies his entrances, it’s clear he’s destined to take up Poseidon’s trident. The story is of pseudo-Shakespearean underwater politics as an exiled heir returns to reclaim his throne. The telling takes that at face value, as an excuse to stage enormous bioluminescent settings and find glittering, bright action adventure there and elsewhere. Arthur is the son of a Maori lighthouse-keeper (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantis royalty (Nicole Kidman). Because the sea kingdom had laws against marrying a landlubber, they reclaimed his mother, banishing her to the deadliest depths. So of course Arthur is salty about his heritage, to the point where he won’t claim his birthright. The throne has fallen to a sniveling half-brother (Patrick Wilson) who is plotting to reunite the aquatic kingdoms (including Dolph Lungren, who commands a regiment of calvary riding enormous seahorses) and launch an all-out war on the land. Concerned Atlantians (like Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe) plot a coup and need Arthur to pull it off. Thus a globetrotting adventure begins for our reluctant hero, for a movie that’s sunny and high-spirited as its moves through red-blooded adventure pulsing with fun and bombast. Each new location is used for bouncy charms and buoyant exposition, zipping along so quickly and easily from plot point to plot point that its two-plus hours sail by. I didn’t even mind the prerequisite extended CG battle that swarms the finale, since Wan has rooted it in character stakes and has generated sufficient visual interest in the world building and creature design. It's fun just to be there. Plus there’s an angry ancient leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews. Can’t go wrong with that. It’s a fantasy of bounteous charms—from a scrambling rooftop chase over a charming Italian city, an octopus playing the drums,  and a glow-in-the-dark fight against nasty crustacean people, to an establishing shot of the Sahara set to the sweet sounds of an original Pitbull rap over an interpolation of Toto’s “Africa.” Here’s an earnest movie that’s equal parts grandeur and goofiness. That’s the sweet spot.

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