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‘Batman v Superman’ and The Six Things I Never Want to See Again in a Comic Book Movie

After months of anticipation by fans eager to see their ultimate comic-book fantasies come to life, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” debuted to a record-breaking domestic haul of $166 million.

Last weekend, the movie set another very different kind of record. In a phenomenon referred to as a “second week slump,” its box office dropped by 68%. That’s the eighth biggest drop-off in history when it comes to similar sorts of films.

As a recent Los Angeles Times story points out, this is no real sweat off the backs of the makers of “Batman v Superman,” considering how much money the movie has already raked into their coffers.

But this development did spark an interesting debate about whether the so-called slump was due to poor word of mouth or because everyone who was planning to see the superhero showdown simply turned out to see it that first weekend.

Widely panned by critics and received less than enthusiastically by many moviegoers, according to exit polls, “Batman v Superman” isn’t the tedious failure reviewers have proclaimed it to be. Still, there’s no question the film could be better, especially with a few more polishings of its capriciously nonsensical screenplay.

The face-off between the Man of Steel and Gotham’s Dark Knight — with a little Wonder Woman as the filling in this superhero sandwich — is a labor of love by director Zack Snyder.

Snyder has a gift for faithfully duplicating sacred comic book moments hardcore fans are dying to see, while leaving the rest of us in the dark.

On a visual level, he trades in striking, if cliched, imagery that is undeniably entertaining. When it comes to narrative and dialogue, things get bumpier. Snyder movies are a lot of flash, little substance.

Strangely enough, it isn’t these trademark qualities that most annoyed me about “Batman v Superman.”

Rather, it’s the fact that the movie leans so heavily on lazy, exhausted and, frankly, exhausting comic-book tropes seen too frequently in franchises of this genre, whether the films are produced by Marvel, DC, or someone else entirely.

If Hollywood expects us to continue to accept a new world order in which every other film it produces features spandex, capes and godlike beings who stoop to save puny earthlings, then filmmakers must stop serving up more of the same and offer more of what we haven’t seen before.

In that spirit, here are six things I never want to see again in a comic book movie.

(Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen “Batman v Superman.”)

1. Wanton Destruction of Major Cities 

In 2013’s “Man of Steel,” a good third of the film is devoted to the cataclysmic clobbering of comic book capital Metropolis as Henry Cavill’s Superman attempts to thwart would-be Kryptonian overlord General Zod from conquering the planet.

This goes on for so long and with so much casual carnage, it becomes disturbing and, ultimately, tedious.

In “Batman v Superman,” we discover there is a method to the madness of this urban annihilation — it sparks the conflict the sequel centers on — but unfortunately this only gives Snyder the opportunity to rehash the Metropolis massacre.

I totally get that the impending end of the world, as embodied by havoc wrecked on recognizable urban landmarks, is a staple of comic book climaxes, but we’ve seen this so many times  now, it doesn’t even register anymore.

Whether the Avengers are defending Manhattan from Loki and his computer-generated Chitauri army or the Guardians of the Galaxy are stepping in to save the day after the entire Nova Corp fleet is blown to oblivion, there’s no urgency left in this most overused of urgent plot devices.

And while we’re on the subject, is anyone else bothered by the way these movies — Snyder’s especially — trot out 9-11 imagery for cheap emotional impact?

I know it’s been awhile since that dark day in American history, but I still can’t stand seeing skyscrapers on the point of collapse while workers utter desperate prayers and copy paper and dust clog the streets, accompanied by ear-ringing sound effects. It’s heartbreaking, not to mention tasteless.

IRON MAN

2. Origin Stories (Unless We Haven’t Seen Them Before)

When it comes to comic book origin stories, none have received more cinematic play than the young Bruce Wayne’s dramatic, traumatic loss of his beloved parents.

The horrific scene, complete with a dark alley, theater marquee, wild-eyed gunman, slow motion, and shattered pearl necklace, has been dramatized several times on film, including 1989’s “Batman” and 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

Though “Batman v Superman” doesn’t delve too deeply into the backstory of Ben Affleck’s aging, world-weary Bruce Wayne, Snyder feels the need to revisit this formative, horrific moment yet again. He has his reasons, of course, which we realize toward the film’s end, but they’re not very good ones.

I don’t know why directors feel the need to keep returning to our favorite superheroes’ roots. Heaven knows, we’ve sat through Spider-Man’s origin story about 50 bajillion times now, not to mention Wolverine’s, which has been examined from just about every possible angle.

So how about we institute a new rule? No more origin stories, unless it’s one we haven’t seen before or, at least, most of us aren’t familiar with.

I’d argue that’s half the reason the Iron Man trilogy was so successful — many of us were unfamiliar with the character — and a big part of why the recent Deadpool was a hit as well.

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3. Damsels in Distress

Considering that comic book movies sprouted from an industry that historically has not valued strong female characters, it’s no surprise Hollywood lags behind in this area as well.

Still, the studios have been making some encouraging progress lately, introducing more strong women with superhuman abilities in substantial roles, even if there are still only a handful of them.

Among these promising female role models are Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven, and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. And Hollywood has more female-centric comic book flicks in the pipeline, including a “Wonder Woman” movie and “Captain Marvel,” featuring a woman in the lead.

Snyder at least introduces Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) in “Batman v Superman,” even if she only gets to really strut her lasso-wielding stuff in one scene. But troublingly, the rest of the film is populated by damsels in distress whose only function is to serve as bait for the gallant Superman.

In an egregious waste of the talents of Amy Adams, intrepid reporter Lois Lane spends the entire movie being rescued by Superman or doing inexplicably dumb things to motivate him, like tossing a Kryptonite spear into the water, only to clumsily attempt to retrieve it two scenes later.

Meanwhile, Supes’ beloved Ma Kent (again, a waste of Diane Lane) is held hostage in harsh fashion simply as a vehicle for the resolution of the male heroes’ conflict.

Fanboys may argue that the damsel in distress is a tried-and-true staple of comic book lore, but this is the 21st century and there is no excuse for any film’s female characters to languish without a reason to exist apart from their male co-stars.

And if all producers have in mind is lowest common denominator box office, it can’t hurt to present positive depictions of women that appeal to both genders.

wonder-woman

4. Easter Eggs for Movies I’d Rather Be Watching

This doesn’t happen all that often, but it did while I was watching “Batman vs Superman.”

There’s a scene in the movie in which Affleck’s Batman retrieves an old photograph of Wonder Woman. In the picture, she’s all set for adventure, wearing her classic character get-up and posing with three fascinating looking guys.

At that moment, I had an epiphany: This photo is the movie I wish I was watching right now!

I’ve experienced similar feelings at various points in the Avengers franchise or while watching the most recent Spider-Man reboots and I think this is going to happen more and more as we’re subjected to a continued onslaught of vaguely familiar sequels, reboots and spin-offs.

Part of the fun of comic book movie franchises is that directors lace the latest chapters with in-jokes just for the fans and references to favorite plot points or story threads. They also tease us with sneak peeks at future heroes, villains or developments, a la Marvel’s now famous end credit scenes.

The danger in this comes when a film’s purpose is merely to set up yet another film. If that’s the case, who can blame the audience for wanting to skip ahead and get to the good part?

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5. Boring Villains From Outerspace

Ok, so we all know extraterrestrial baddies are a big thing in comic books.

On the big screen though, this trend hasn’t proven to be very compelling, thanks to an abundance of brightly colored body makeup, cheesy CG effects, hammy acting, and a lack of motivation we humans can relate to.

In “Batman vs Superman,” for instance, Snyder introduces not one, but two extremely popular extraterrestrial megaliths the Man of Steel famously faces off against on the comic page.

To be fair, one of these big baddies is only hinted at, not shown, but even the prospect of this creature’s impending arrival fails to stir anything more than obligatory excitement. (And if you’re not a comic-book reader, you probably don’t even know what’s going on here.)

It can’t be just me who doesn’t give a fig what lumpy, purple computer-generated overlord Thanos is up to, floating around on that space rock, or why blue-hued Ronan (despite poor Lee Pace’s best efforts) is so hot and bothered about … er … I can’t even remember.

In the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the fabulous Oscar Isaac dons the weird makeup of the epic villain the film’s title refers to, but the prospect only fills me with dread because these evil dudes from outer space and regions beyond are rarely worth remembering.

Give me a recognizably human baddie any day, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, with his chillingly uncertain motives and passion for chaos, or David Tenant’s Kilgrave — if I may reference the Marvel television series “Jessica Jones” — who channels his power to sickeningly selfish ends rather than aiming to conquer the world.

The human propensity to evil is always more terrifying than any otherworldly threat.

6. Joylessness Masked as Grit

One of the reasons critics have been quick to pile on “Batman v Superman” is because the film isn’t always fun to watch.

An over-the-top clash between two of comicdom’s biggest heroes should be full of giddy energy, to say the least, but too often the movie bogs down in a gloom thicker than the dust that lingers over a devastated Metropolis.

There’s a lot of glowering, and grumping, and daddy issues, and gravely cynical pronouncements about the nature of power, and muddy, muddled action sequences that don’t send our hearts racing or keep us teetering on the edge of our seats.

That’s not to say comic book movies shouldn’t be dark, or edgy, or disturbing, or that they should all be kid-friendly laugh-fests, like the Marvel movies tend to be.

“The Dark Knight” trilogy is lauded for its grit, but it’s many other things as well — elegant, stylish, thought-provoking and complex with kick-ass action and nonstop thrills.

“Deadpool” is shockingly jaded, but it’s also a hoot. Or consider Snyder’s own “Watchmen,” a film that, like its source material, is seriously twisted, but also very playful.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was a massive hit because director James Gunn infused it with pure, infectious joy. Contrast that with the recent failure of the unbearably glum “Fantastic Four” reboot and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

Even the grittiest of comic book movies should speak to our sense of wonder.

Photos: http://www.youtube.com, marvel.wikia.com, marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com, blogs.indiewire.com, Marvel.

 

 

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Fantastic Four Isn’t Great, But It’s Not the Disaster Everyone Says It Is

Fantastic Four
Two stars (out of four)
PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, language)
100 minutes

I find myself in the odd position of defending “Fantastic Four,” a film that received a dismal 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and delivered one of the worst box office performances ever for a movie associated with the lucrative Marvel brand.

Critics spent the last week and a half kicking this ill fated reboot while it’s down, and while I can’t say I blame them, the degree of gleeful vitriol directed at the film seems excessive to me.

“Fantastic Four” fails on many levels. Even in its best moments, it mostly doesn’t work. But what critics are overlooking is that director Josh Trank has taken a radically different approach to a comic book movie formula so worn, it’s becoming positively threadbare.

“Fantastic Four” is Trank’s weird but fascinating mad science experiment gone wrong. The director’s approach to one of comic book history’s most flamboyant franchises is so understated, it’s almost somnambulistic, but there’s something about the rubbed-rawness of it that is the perfect antidote to the hot-buttered-popcorn pageantry of movies like “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “The Avengers.”

Yes, there are all kinds of problems with the film, from an unpolished script that often reads like a first draft to its half-hearted, muddy-looking visual effects, but one gets the sense “Fantastic Four” could have been great. If Twentieth Century Fox is stubborn enough to forge ahead with a sequel, they may be onto something.

Trank’s career is most likely over. Whether Fox’s meddling or his inexperience are to blame for this is the subject of debate. Earlier this year, the director did the unthinkable and walked away from a Star Wars “anthology” film, a move that probably wasn’t his idea.

This is sad because Trank’s 2012 debut, “Chronicle,” showcases a talent for putting an original, realistic spin on the cliche comic book origin story. A drama about high school buddies who suddenly acquire superpowers, it clearly inspired the first act of “Fantastic Four,” which kicks off with the blossoming of an unlikely grade-school friendship between science nerd Reed Richards and street-smart Ben Grimm. (They’re played as adults by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell.)

Grimm’s family conveniently owns a scrapyard full of the parts Reed needs to complete his pet science project, a teleportation device, and Ben is just curious enough about his strange, little friend’s wacky ideas to go along with him.

The pair debut Reed’s creation at a high school science fair, attracting the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a philanthropist researcher who has been working in vain on the same technology.

Storm offers Reed a scholarship to his scientific institute, where he’s recruited a team of young geniuses, including his children, brilliant Sue (Kate Mara) and irresponsible Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), along with Storm’s former protege, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebell), a brooding computer prodigy.

The first act of “Fantastic Four” focuses on the meeting of these eager, young minds and it isn’t half bad. This is largely due to the efforts of the film’s eager, young stars, who in previous roles have proven themselves to be incredibly gifted.

(Kudos, especially, to Mara, who may be the first woman in Hollywood to embody her superheroine with more regard for intellect than sex appeal.)

Unfortunately, the script does these promising performers a disservice. Penned by Trank, Jeremy Slater and “X-Men” scribe Simon Kinberg, the screenplay is in dire need of a few more drafts. Characters are left undeveloped, the pacing is out of joint, key scenes seem to have gone missing, the dialogue turns awkward, conflicts are hinted at but never fully materialize.

The scenario that imbues our quintet of heroes with powers that dramatically alter their body chemistries is as ridiculous as it is horrifying.

Yes, the way things go down in a fourth dimension dubbed “Planet Zero” is wildly insulting to the audience, but it also provides a brief glimpse into what a gloriously twisted thriller “Fantastic Four” could have been, dipping into Cronenbergian nightmares as our quartet of newly initiated heroes confront the terror of their freakishly transformed physiques, including super-stretchy limbs, invisibility, and involuntary combustion.

In sharp contrast to the cartoony 2005 film starring Chris Evans and Jessica Alba, Trank actually downplays the more over-the-top qualities of the Fantastic Foursome’s abilities. This counter-intuitive choice ultimately hurts the film — poor Jaime Bell suffers most as rock monster The Thing languishes in the background — but I have to admire how gutsily polar opposite Trank’s “Fantastic Four” movie is from the “Fantastic Four” movie we expect.

Also daring, and kinda dumb for filmmakers catering to comic book lovers who generally want to see their superheroes put the smack down: There is only one major action setpiece in the film, and it comes at the end, and it is a complete mess

Once again, some may see the absence of the genre’s trademark POW!, BANG!, BAM! moments as a flaw, and if box office is what you’re concerned about, that’s a pretty big flaw.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I can’t help but wonder: Could there be a place for a comic book movie that doesn’t offer “Avengers”-style mayhem and destruction roughly every 10 minutes?

Charlie Jane Anders of io9.com declares that “Fantastic Four” is “the most self- loathing superhero movie I’ve ever seen.”

“The new ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot goes beyond darkness, into actual self-loathing,” she writes. “It’s kind of bizarre. … This movie’s central storyline is less a plot, and more a shame spiral.

I think Anders inadvertently pinpoints what is good about “Fantastic Four.”

Why shouldn’t a comic book movie be about shame instead of shallow spectacle? Self-loathing instead of shiny spandex?

Why shouldn’t it push “beyond darkness” into emotional territory that isn’t bizarre so much as it is realistic and even deeply uncomfortable?

Perhaps reviewers are circling “Fantastic Four” like a pack of sharks after a sardine because they don’t know what to make of it.

Photo: sciencefiction.com

 

 

 

 

‘Ant-Man’ Should Just Embrace Its Essential Silliness

Ant-Man
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (sci-fi action violence)
117 minutes

Of the countless costumed superheroes Marvel has brought to the big screen, Ant-Man is one of the silliest.

A guy who wears an outfit that’s like a cross between an old-fashioned scuba suit and something out of the closet of G.I. Joe’s Cobra Commander is no match for Iron Man in the fashion department.

This is a dude who shrinks to the size of an insect and somehow that’s supposed to make him a deadly weapon. His sidekicks are six-legged creepy-crawlies he controls with his mind. He rides on the back of an ant, for Pete’s sake.

It’s kinda hard to picture him hanging with Thor and Black Widow.

Ant-Man’s early adventures include surviving a bathtub full of water and navigating a dance floor made lethal by an abundance of platform heels. Even The Cap, in all his homespun cheesiness, is far too majestic to hobnob with this would-be mini Avenger.

I say this not as a slam against Marvel’s newest and tiniest recruit, but to point out that “Ant-Man” the movie would work better if the studio just embraced the silliness and left it at that.

The signs of “Ant-Man’s” troubled production history are evident in the film’s uneven tone, which swings like a pendulum between pure, unapologetic fun and some “serious” — and seriously cliche — relationship drama.

“Ant-Man” appears to be aiming for the cool, irreverent, goofy vibe of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but what’s missing is “Guardians” director James Gunn’s precise vision.

It’s tempting to attribute “Ant-Man’s” identity issues to the dueling visions of original writer-director Edgar Wright, who shockingly left the project after almost a decade of script development, and Wright’s replacement, Peyton Reed, who primarily works in the romantic comedy genre.

No less than four screenwriters are credited with penning the flick, including Wright, “Attack the Block” director Joe Cornish, “Anchorman” director Adam McKay, and star Paul Rudd.

Marvel is fortunate to have Rudd. With his easygoing nice-guy charisma, the actor goes a long way toward making this confused comic book romp feel a little more cohesive.

That’s another issue with Marvel’s movie Ant-Man: He’s not a very interesting character.

Scott Lang is an electrical engineer fresh off a stint in San Quentin for a daring, well-intentioned cyber crime. All he wants to do is spend time with his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), but he’s lost custody after failing to pay child support.

(Poor Judy Greer pops up as exactly the kind of no-nonsense, anxious mom she portrayed earlier this summer in “Jurassic World.”)

After losing a thankless job at a popular dessert chain — in what has to be one of the weirdest product placement stunts ever — Scott attempts one last score, breaking into the house of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), scientist, tech company founder and discoverer of the mysterious “Pym Particle.”

Scott cracks the safe, absconds with a seemingly worthless helmet and leather suit, and soon learns he’s been recruited by Pym to retrieve a piece of dangerous, stolen technology from Pym’s former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

At this point, “Ant-Man” bogs down in exposition detailing the history and properties of Pym’s strange, black and red suit. Scott’s initiation into its uses, and his subsequent tutorial on how to ally himself with various species of his namesake insect, play like something out of another Disney property, the 1989 Rick Moranis comedy, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

The special effects are great, but there’s little at stake in the film’s early action sequences.

While Rudd does his best to endear us to Scott and his ant-colony cronies, Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are stranded in suffocatingly obvious scenes of father-daughter discord. Lilly plays Pym’s emotionally distant daughter, Hope, and is saddled with the same dominatrix-style bob worn by Bryce Dallas Howard in “Jurassic World.”

This leaves plenty of opportunity for Michael Pena to virtually pick up the movie and run away with it. As Scott’s ex-cellmate, Luis, the actor presides over a zany, if stereotypical, Greek chorus of criminal types who specialize in reviving the film whenever it shows signs of expiring.

I suppose the simplicity of “Ant-Man” could be considered refreshing after the complicated pomp and circumstance of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Aside from a few references to “Ultron,” a cameo by one of the lesser Avengers, and a prologue featuring some famous S.H.I.E.L.D. alumni, “Ant-Man” remains relatively unentangled by Marvel’s sticky web of intrigue.

Oddly, it’s in the last 20 minutes or so that the movie hits its stride in a hilariously hair-brained finale involving a private jet, The Cures’s “Disintegration,” a bug zapper, Thomas the Tank Engine and several other inspired elements that capitalize on the shrinkage and expansion possibilities of Pym’s amazing particle.

If only the entire film was this peculiar.

Photo: es.gizmodo.com

 

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Full of Fun Surprises

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Three stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction; suggestive comments)
141 minutes

Thor, Captain America and Iron Man may be the flashiest, most popular Avengers but they’re also, arguably, the least compelling members of Marvel’s superhero collective.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has fabulous hair, a big hammer and wrestles with Shakespearean family drama.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is decent and square and also kinda sad that everyone he ever knew and loved is now dead.

Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, is Steve Jobs with better hair, nicer clothes, more charm and an obsession with technology that is both an asset and an Achilles heel.

These guys are great and all, but they’ve each starred in at least two solo movies apiece. By now, we know pretty much everything there is to know about them.

So it’s an unexpected pleasure that “Avengers 2: Age of Ultron” devotes its attention to characters who spent a lot of time lingering in the background in 2002’s “Avengers.”

At last, we discover everything we’ve ever wanted to know about Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the stoic archer who skulked through the “Avengers” in a Loki-induced trance.

We also find out just what is going on between him and lethal assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who piqued our curiosity with the tiny gold arrow she wore around her neck in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

The relationship isn’t quite what we expected and that’s half the fun of “Age of Ultron.” The movie brims with enjoyable little surprises, from cameo appearances by minor characters to clever winks to previous Marvel outings.

The Hulk finds romance. Black Widow gets to be vulnerable as well as spectacularly lethal. Maria Hill actually cracks a few jokes (only natural considering she’s played by funny-girl Cobie Smulders).

Jarvis the computer, who has always been one of Iron Man’s most sharply sketched personalities, thanks to Paul Bettany’s tart voice work, undergoes a delightful evolution.

If the Marvel movie franchise has become an almost impossibly tangled web, director Joss Whedon is a nimble spider, spinning off dozens of new plot threads, wrapping up neat, little moments for a vast ensemble of characters, deftly interweaving CGI spectacle and satisfying emotion. This is movie-making on an unprecedented, gargantuan scale. It’s no wonder the guy needs a break.

When it comes to theme, “Age of Ultron” doesn’t break much new ground. United, the Avengers stand. Divided … well, not so much.

The glories of the team’s combined might are illustrated in a prologue that sees the superheroes working in perfect harmony as they ambush a Hydra base in the snowy woods of the fictional Eastern European nation of Sokovia.

Our band of heroes emerge victorious with a new toy for Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to play with, containing one of the infamous infinity stones that Marvel villains are always after. They also acquire a pair of new enemies, eerily gifted Sokovian twins played by Emily Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

When Tony starts poking into the infinity stone’s properties, back at the shiny S.H.I.E.L.D lab — or at least the corrupted organization formerly known as S.H.I.E.L.D — he discovers alien technology perfectly suited to realizing his pet project: an artificial intelligence program powerful enough to enforce world peace.

Without bothering to consult the other Avengers, Stark talks the skeptical Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) into helping him create the super program known as Ultron. Apparently, these guys have never seen “The Terminator,” because the being they spawn is a malevolent, red-eyed robot who misinterprets his mission to disastrous effect.

Once again, the Avengers begin to doubt each other, especially as Olsen’s Scarlet Witch — a welcome new female presence in the testosterone-filled Marvel landscape — unleashes her witchy powers of mind control upon them, causing them to relive painful pasts and envision future fears.

Leading the clash of consciences are Stark and The Cap, whose dueling philosophies on power and peace put them deeply at odds. (Could this be the beginning of a certain Civil War?)

At this point, the Marvel universe has become so complicated — spanning multiple galaxies, planets, dimensions and eras — that plot almost ceases to be relevant.

While I enjoyed nearly every minute of “Age of Ultron,” I felt at times as if my grasp on the whole thing was slipping. Who could say exactly what was happening at any given moment?

I don’t think it’s just me and my sometimes foggy, sleep-deprived brain, either. My theory is that, at this point, only the Marvel script supervisors know precisely what is going on.

Still, there’s a familiarity that anchors us.

Elements of “Beauty and the Beast” can be found in the movie’s unlikely central romance, even if the coupling comes out of left field.

There are shades of the “Frankenstein” myth in Ultron, who proves to be one of Marvel’s more fascinating baddies, thanks to James Spader’s acerbic vocalization.

As lofty, and perhaps unachievable, as its ambitions are, it isn’t the money-shot action sequences that ground “Age of Ultron.”

The film is at its headiest and most thrilling when it puts the mayhem on pause for the sake of intimate interactions between its god-like heroes — trading war stories at a party, licking their wounds after retreating to a remote farmhouse.

The Avengers are most endearing when they are most human.

 

 

 

Don’t Stick Your Neck Out for ‘Dracula Untold’

Dracula Untold
Two stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, some sensuality)
92 minutes

Blame it on “Twilight” backlash.

Just in time for Halloween, Legendary Pictures brings us the manliest of vampire movies, an armor-clad, battle-worn, muscle-flexing hybrid of Bram Stoker, “300” and “Gladiator.”

Was “Dracula Untold” conceived as a reaction to sparkly, sensitive vampires with cheekbones to die for? Pining Edward wouldn’t last long in this unforgiving gothic landscape of blood and steel, not to mention blood-drenched abs of steel.

Irish commercial director Gary Shore and scribes Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (what a name for a writer of vampire lore) thoughtfully throw a credit Stoker’s way, but their reboot, or re-imagining, or whatever you’d call it, doesn’t much resemble that classic literary work.

The film actually borrows the formula of a comic-book origin story with an emphasis on Dracula’s rocky childhood (like many superheroes, he’s got daddy issues), his acquisition of awesome superpowers and the tragic consequences of those unholy abilities, which threaten those he holds most dear.

Welsh actor Luke Evans — best known as the villain in “Fast & Furious 6” and Bard the Bowman in “The Hobbit” trilogy — stars as Vlad, a Transylvanian prince spirited away as a boy by ruthless Turks, who train him to serve in their marauding army of merciless young killers.

Sazama and Sharpless are vague about the details, but the grown Vlad has a change of heart, repents of his impaling ways and returns to Transylvania, where he settles down, starts a family and rules his people in peace.

His domestic reverie is interrupted by an old friend, the Turkish sultan Mehmed (a charcoal-eyed Dominic Coooper), who demands a tribute of a thousand boy soldiers, as well as the prince’s own son (Art Parkinson).

Vlad refuses Mehmed’s command with a heavy heart because he’s wildly outnumbered by the Turks. Desperate to save his family and his people, he journeys to the lair of a legendary monster (played by Charles Dance — if you thought Tywin Lannister couldn’t get any more evil, think again), seeking the power the creature might grant him.

Once Vlad is “turned,” he becomes the superest of superheroes, all the Avengers rolled into one with some Justice League thrown in for good measure. He’s got Spidey sense, the speed of The Flash, control of the weather a la Storm, the strength of Superman (and a Kryptonite-like Achilles heel) and an affinity for bats, like a certain Caped Crusader.

Vlad’s bat-whispering is clearly Shore’s favorite of these impressive superpowers. He really pulls out the visual-effects stops when it comes to showing the vampire vanish in a cloud of night-flying critters or directing a swarm of the little black beasts to do his bidding in battle.

“Dracula Untold” is rated PG-13, so it’s strangely light on blood for a movie about someone who drinks the stuff — or rather tries to resist drinking the stuff, which is difficult when Vlad’s wife (Sarah Gadon) swans about with her neck and bosom exposed, like a walking buffet.

Shore compensates for the bloodlessness with a tableaux of stylized landscapes and some fancy cinematography during the film’s copious war scenes — at one point, we glimpse Vlad crushing his enemies in the reflection of a sword — but the result is more disorienting than visually arresting.

Evans is certainly virile, but he’s more convincing as a devoted father and husband than a reluctant fanged fiend wrestling with demon impulses. Sazama and Sharpless can’t seem to decide what sort of animal their Dracula truly is — cuddly family man or bloodthirsty monster.

Adopting the pomp and seriousness of a historical epic, “Dracula Untold” trots out the usual imagery — stakes, crosses, silver, torch-lit castles, jittery monks — and proves disappointingly toothless when it comes to toying with Hollywood’s bloodsucking tropes.

The movie is reportedly the first in a planned franchise and it does make a weirdly playful leap in its final scene that hints of more interesting, even goofy, things to come. If it’s going to succeed, however, the series needs to evolve into something darker, sexier and more twisted.

It’s difficult to recommend “Dracula Untold” when other directors are conducting much more original and intriguing genre experiments in the form of films like “Byzantium” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

Those are movies that make you want to stick your neck out.

Image: http://www.comicbookmovie.com

 

‘Lucy’ and the Evolution of Scarlett Johansson

Lucy
Two and a half stars (out of four)
R (strong violence, disturbing images, sexuality)
90 minutes

“Lucy” is the exciting next step in the unlikely but intriguing evolution of Scarlett Johansson. I can’t emphasize enough how refreshing it is to witness an actress who was once celebrated for her luscious body transform into an action heroine whose mind is even more enticing than her sleek moves.

Johansson began her career as the girl from “The Horse Whisperer” and “Ghost World.” Thanks to that low, silky voice and those curves, she quickly became a sex symbol. While she has always projected pensive intelligence, she was relegated, in films such as “Lost in Translation” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” to the role of luminous innocent, a childlike beauty never in control of her fate.

It wasn’t until 2012’s “Avengers” that Johansson embraced her potential in the part of the quiet but deadly Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, Nick Fury’s favorite S.H.I.E.L.D agent. Yes, the role requires the actress to squeeze herself into a tight, black catsuit, but the character’s appeal isn’t found in her physicality alone. It’s in her precision, smarts and cool authority.

I think Johansson is the best hope we have right now of someday seeing a satisfying comic book adaptation featuring a well-written, well-acted female superhero. After seeing “Lucy,” I’m even more convinced of this. The film is part of a flawed but fascinating trilogy — along with the recent “Her” and “Under the Skin” — in which Johansson defies humanity, technology and even physics, time and space to become something mysterious and “other.” It’s clear our Scarlett is no longer content to bother with girlish trifles. What she wants now is to transcend.

Transcend is exactly what she does in “Lucy,” rising above the goofiest movie in French director Luc Besson’s prolific and often strange career. Because of her enlightened performance, the film is a lot of fun, until Besson’s silly-pretentious script runs out of steam. I’ll admit I enjoyed it a lot more than I probably should have.

Besson is at his bloody, stylish, Euro-thriller best in the film’s first act, in which we are introduced to the title character, a naïve college student who inexplicably happens to live in Taiwan. Duped into delivering a suitcase to Tapei’s most powerful drug lord (Min-sik Choi) — who is apparently Korean. Huh? — Lucy becomes an unwitting mule, awakening to find that a pouch containing an experimental substance has been stitched into her stomach.

In the film’s most electrifying scene, the pouch bursts, spilling its contents into Lucy’s bloodstream and making its way to her brain, where it unlocks hitherto unrealized cerebral potential. It’s a rush to watch Johansson suddenly snap from quivering victim to calculated killing machine, sending a would-be rapist flying across the room, using her belt to snare a nearby weapon.

Besson is riffing here on the well-worn myth that humans only use 10% of their brain capacity. In contrast, the chemically-enhanced Lucy’s ever-expanding noggin operates at up to 20% and counting. To emphasize his theme, the director intercuts Lucy’s violent exploits with a lecture delivered by a celebrated neuroscientist played by the mellifluous Morgan Freeman.

Freeman’s oratory goes on for so long, it begins to feel as if we’re trapped in a boring science class. When it comes to academics, Besson is something of a cheat, cribbing from such mind-bending sources as “The Matrix,” “Limitless” and the recent “Transcendence.”

The 10% of the brain thing is a fun idea but as the premise plays out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As Lucy’s brain opens up — Besson helpfully keeps us appraised of her development by flashing us the latest percentages — she acquires an uncanny new skill set, including telekinesis and the ability to fight off stereotypical Asian baddies, change her hair color at will, manipulate matter and use her mind like a universal remote control for all the radios, light fixtures, computers and cell phones in the world. She also has a killer fashion sense.

Besson contrives to send Lucy to his favorite cinematic location — Paris — to track down what’s left of the drug that is literally blowing her mind, dodging Choi (the star of “Oldboy” deserves much better) and enlisting the help of Norman and a typically Bessonish French cop (Amr Waked). In the City of Light, the director serves up trademark outbursts of violence, including a fairly run-of-the-mill car chase and machine-gun shootout.

A scene in which Johansson literally suspends a gang of astonished gangsters in the air with a flick of her fingers is more promising. If only “Lucy” was content to deliver a high-concept premise and bone-crunching action, along with a few moments of vulnerability. A hospital scene featuring Lucy phoning home to her mother is surprisingly emotional and more evidence of Johansson’s own expanding capacities.

Less successful is the nature footage Besson includes, like shots of cheetahs hunting their prey and a couple of completely nutso glimpses of the original, missing-link Lucy. It’s as if the director suddenly evolved into Terrence Malick.

“Lucy” gets pointedly weirder as it progresses and it isn’t nearly as smart as Besson thinks it is.

Photo: Jessica Forde