Sunday, June 28, 2020

2020 Midyear Recap

Normally around this time of year, I produce a Midyear Recap where I go through every single film that I’ve seen in the first half of the year. It’s a Rhode Island Movie Corner tradition that I’ve thoroughly maintained ever since this blog’s inception in 2012. But as you might have guessed, there has been a major complication when it comes to this year’s installment of the Midyear Recap. Yes, thanks to that pesky coronavirus, theaters were forced to shut down until further notice, which means that many of the biggest films that were set to come out these past few months had to be either pushed back to later in the year (or next year, in some cases) or moved directly to On-Demand and Streaming services. Personally, I only managed to get four films in at the theater before this all went down, which isn’t even enough to do the ‘Top 5 of the Year (So Far)’ segment that always ends these posts. However, in the wake of all the nationwide closures back in March, I have since seen two more films thanks to the On-Demand/Streaming circuit, effectively allowing me to have a proper Top 5 of 2020 by the halfway point. And since I’m usually not one to buck away from the traditions that I’ve established for this site, I will still go ahead and deliver the 2020 edition of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s annual Midyear Recap. For those who are new to this site, the annual Midyear Recap is exactly what you think it is. In today’s post, I will be going through all the new films that I’ve seen in 2020, whether it was in a theater or at home, in the order of ‘least favorite’ to my current #1 of the year. And to be clear, I’m only counting the films that I’ve seen that came out this year. In other words, this isn’t going to be one of those cases where I go over everything that I’ve been watching while being in lockdown for the past few months since a lot of it consists of films and shows that had come out in years past. And so, without further ado, join me as I proudly present what will easily be the shortest installment to date of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s annual Midyear Recap.


Josh Gad, Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, and Ferdia Shaw in Artemis Fowl (2020)

Well, to start things off on a controversial note… yes, I did like this film. That said, though, I fully understand why a lot of people didn’t like it. Artemis Fowl will surely go down in history as one of the most infamous adaptations of a popular book series in recent memory as it makes a bunch of radical changes to the title character and combines story elements from the first two books in the series despite the fact that it does properly maintain the first installment’s premise. But like I said in my review of the film from a few weeks ago, I went into it without having read the book beforehand. I did attempt to read it back when I was younger, but for reasons that I can never explain, I wasn’t able to connect with it like I did with the likes of Harry Potter. However, I fully recognize that if I had read it, I probably would’ve taken greater issue with all these changes. In fact, this is the exact same situation that I was in when I first saw the film adaptation of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief in 2010. At the time, it was a film that I was really looking forward to since I was a massive fan of the book series ever since I read the first one in my 8th Grade English class. But while I didn’t necessarily ‘dislike’ the film when I finally saw it, all I could think about was how it was far from being the most faithful adaptation of its source material. Because of this, I’ll admit that I didn’t see its sequel, Sea of Monsters, when it came out in 2013; and yet, from what I can gather… I didn’t miss much. That one ended up being the last outing for the film franchise, effectively making it a failed attempt at an adaptation. Luckily for fans of the series, though, it has recently been announced that a TV series is being primed for Disney+ that has the potential to be a more faithful adaptation. In other words, it’s a lot like what happened with A Series of Unfortunate Events. Its 2004 feature film adaptation looked to be the start of a franchise that could rival the likes of Harry Potter, but those plans stalled out after just one film. But then, in 2017, it got a TV series adaptation on Netflix that was widely lauded for being a far more faithful take on the franchise, and because it ran for three seasons, it was able to do what the film couldn’t and see its story told to completion.

Nonso Anozie and Ferdia Shaw in Artemis Fowl (2020)

But anyway, back to Artemis Fowl. As noted earlier, the biggest deviations that the film makes from the books primarily revolve around the title character. In the books, Artemis Fowl II is a 12-year old ‘criminal mastermind’ who starts out as a more villainous character before he gradually transitions into being more of an ‘antihero’ in subsequent installments. The film, however, basically abolishes his ‘villainous’ traits to make him more of a traditional protagonist who, instead of looking to recoup his family’s fortune, is trying to rescue his father from a villain who didn’t appear in the first book. Naturally, this didn’t go over well with fans of the franchise, who promptly made it clear that the idea of having an antagonist as the main character of the series was never an issue for them and that all these changes robbed Artemis of the traits that made him interesting in the first place. Despite this, however, the film ends up faring a lot better when it comes to other aspects of its production. To be clear, I’m not saying it’s perfect (far from it, in fact…), but with a brisk 95-minute runtime and some fun production design to bring its fantasy world to life, it’s harmless, for the most part… you know, if you don’t take the story and character changes into account. Really, the only other thing that holds it back aside from its radical changes to the narrative is how it’s surprisingly lowkey when it comes to being a ‘franchise starter’. Sure, it maintains the idea of what author Eoin Colfer described as ‘Die Hard with fairies’, but it doesn’t spend as much time within the fantastical underground world of Haven City as it could’ve. And because of the negative reviews that it’s gotten and its fate as a Disney+ release, I think it’s safe to say that this won’t be eliciting a sequel that could make up for all this. But like I said before, perhaps this will end up being a case like Percy Jackson and A Series of Unfortunate Events where, sometime down the road, Artemis Fowl will end up getting a new adaptation that would give fans a far more faithful take on their beloved franchise.

And now, without further ado…

MY TOP 5 OF 2020 (SO FAR)


Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys for Life (2020)

So far, Bad Boys for Life has been one of the biggest hits of 2020’s film slate when it comes to how it has fared with critics and audiences. Even as the third installment of a franchise that has been around since 1995 and hasn’t had a mainline installment since 2003, it’s currently the highest-grossing film of the year with a worldwide total of $419.1 million. And in an unexpected turn of events, it’s also the best-reviewed installment of the franchise to date with a solid 77% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While the first two Bad Boys films that were directed by Michael Bay were solid hits with audiences to the point where 2003’s Bad Boys II is genuinely considered by some to be one of the best action films of its time, they weren’t as successful with critics. But with Bad Boys for Life, critics felt that the directorial duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah were able to take the brazenly chaotic escapades of Bay’s Bad Boys films and do something worthwhile with it, and sure enough, that’s exactly what they did. Overall, Bad Boys for Life strikes a solid balance when it comes to how Adil and Bilall maintain the general atmosphere of the series. While they certainly do their part to maintain that classic Michael Bay style through the film’s lavish cinematography and flashy action sequences, it isn’t as insanely over-the-top in its depiction of ‘Bayhem’ like Bad Boys II was. Instead, it’s more in line with the original Bad Boys from 1995, which was Bay’s directorial debut, and while it certainly showed signs of the figuratively and literally explosive style of directing that he would become known for, nowadays one could argue that, by Michael Bay standards, it’s one of his tamest films.

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys for Life (2020)

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Bad Boys for Life is how it managed to be its franchise’s best-written installment. Granted, this is still just as much of a generally mindless action flick as its predecessors, but the film deftly addresses the 17-year gap between it and the release of Bad Boys II. It does a wonderful job of emphasizing how Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett aren’t the young hotshots that they once were, especially when it comes to the former since the film quickly shatters the image of Mike’s seemingly invincible persona that thoroughly dominated the previous two films. And then, of course, there’s the big reveal that Armando, the young assassin that’s been hunting him and Marcus, is the son that he fathered with the film’s main antagonist, cartel leader Isabel. This and the subplot of Marcus turning to religion after Mike nearly dies from one of Armando’s assassination attempts helps give the film some truly unexpected bits of strong emotional poignancy. And through it all, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence properly maintain the strong camaraderie between them that made the previous films the enduring hits that they are. Because of all this, it’s quite easy to see why Bad Boys for Life ended up becoming one of this year’s biggest hits. Not only did it deliver on everything that fans of the franchise have wanted to see for years (especially since this film spent a considerably long time in development hell for various reasons), but it also managed to do the unexpected and show some genuine signs of maturity. And really, considering some of the shenanigans that Mike and Marcus got into in Bad Boys II, that’s saying a lot. As I’ve said before, the Bad Boys films are far from being my favorite action films of all-time, but I assure you that I had just as much fun with one of the best recent examples of an all-around crowd pleaser as everyone else.


Will Forte, Frank Welker, Amanda Seyfried, Zac Efron, and Gina Rodriguez in Scoob! (2020)

Scoob was originally set to make its theatrical debut on May 15th, but of course, that plan changed when the pandemic forced all the theaters to close. So instead, Warner Bros opted to do what Universal and DreamWorks did when they decided to have Trolls World Tour released on On-Demand the same day as its intended theatrical release date on April 10th, which was also fully compromised by COVID-19. Thus, both films debuted with the ‘Theater at Home’ price tag of $19.99, and while I understand why some might find this to be a bit much for just a rental, I do feel that it’s a reasonable asking price given the circumstances. Plus, if there’s at least two people watching the film together, I’d argue that this is enough to justify what’s basically the equivalent of two theater tickets. The same method of pricing also ended up applying to films that were in theaters right when COVID-19 hit (e.g. The Invisible Man, Emma, and even an upcoming film on this list), which resulted in many of them opting to fast-track their debuts on On-Demand services. However, this practice has attracted some controversy from theater owners, especially after Universal announced that, because of how successful Trolls World Tour was on the streaming market, they were considering doing simultaneous theater and On-Demand releases for some of their other films down the road. In response, both AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas announced that they wouldn’t distribute any of the studio’s films that are released in that manner. And while that’s all I’ll say about this debate for now, I’ll also admit that Scoob, the newest take on the classic franchise that is Scooby-Doo, has been the only film forced to On-Demand services by COVID-19 that I’ve rented at the ‘Theater at Home’ price range.

Will Forte and Frank Welker in Scoob! (2020)

One of the biggest selling points of this reboot of the Scooby-Doo franchise is how it looks to be the start of a potential cinematic universe that revolves around the classic characters of Hanna-Barbera Productions. And while I know that some people might groan at the prospect of another attempt at an MCU-style franchise, especially since most attempts at following the MCU formula haven’t even remotely come close to replicating Marvel Studios’ success, the idea of a Hanna-Barbera cinematic universe is a genuinely exciting one. This is especially if you’re like me and your experience with the company’s properties is admittedly limited to the likes of The Flintstones and, of course, Scooby-Doo. As such, one of the best aspects of Scoob is how it spotlights some of Hanna-Barbera’s lesser-known characters like the Blue Falcon (or in this case, the Blue Falcon’s generally aimless son Brian who took up his father’s mantle in the wake of his retirement), Dynomutt the Dog Wonder, and Captain Caveman. Sure, this does sort of come at the expense of the film being a traditional Scooby-Doo adventure, especially since the Mystery Inc gang is split up for a good chunk of the runtime, but it makes up for this with some solid emotional depth through its handling of Shaggy and Scooby’s relationship. After all, as the film clearly points out, they’ve always been the heart of this franchise. And while I fully recognize why the decision to recast the voices of the Mystery Inc. gang (save for Frank Welker as Scooby) has led to quite a lot of backlash, the new voice cast does manage to do a solid job in their respective roles. Like I’ve said before, though, this doesn’t mean that I think that they should replace the series’ current voice cast. But overall, I had quite a lot of fun with Scoob. While it does have its fair share of modern references, it does a wonderful job of maintaining that classic Hanna-Barbera style from its wide array of Easter eggs to animation that perfectly reflects the franchise’s traditionally animated roots. All in all, it’s a delightful little family flick that will hopefully get the chance to spawn its proposed cinematic universe despite the COVID-19 based circumstances that led to it forgoing its theatrical release in favor of an On-Demand debut.


James Marsden and Ben Schwartz in Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

By this point last year, the first live-action film adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog was shaping up to be one of the biggest cinematic disasters in recent memory. When the film’s first trailer was released, literally the only thing that anyone talked about was how utterly mediocre the initial design for the title character was. This more humanoid version of Sonic quickly became a prime source of internet mockery in a manner quite similar to what happened when the first trailer for Cats hit or when the live-action Aladdin remake showcased its first look at Will Smith’s Genie in the character’s traditional blue form. And yet, in a genuinely unexpected turn of events, director Jeff Fowler announced that he and his team would take the criticisms of the design to heart and completely rework it. They even decided to delay the film to February of this year rather than its original November 2019 release date so that the VFX artists wouldn’t have to be forced to endure the dreaded crunch time that would’ve stemmed from such a severe deadline. Granted, it’s been reported that this happened regardless and the studio that worked on the visual effects ended up shutting down by the end of 2019, which resulted in the VFX artists who worked on the redesign getting laid off, but that’s another story for another time. When Sonic’s big redesign was officially shown off in the second trailer, the film’s online reputation did a complete 180 as fans reacted far more positively towards this version of the character. It certainly helped the film upon its release, where it managed to net over $306 million worldwide and stand toe-to-toe with last year’s Pok√©mon: Detective Pikachu as one of the rare positively received live-action adaptations of a popular video game. Sure, just like Detective Pikachu, the reviews weren’t ‘amazing’, per se, but both films certainly fared a lot better with critics than most of the other films that have come from what is quite arguably the film industry’s unluckiest subgenre. And in this instance, it’s easy to see why Sonic the Hedgehog managed to avoid the same fate as other films based on video games as it’s a solidly entertaining popcorn flick.

Jim Carrey in Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Now with that said, the film is admittedly rather basic in terms of its plot. In other words, it’s your standard fish-out-of-water/road-trip comedy that’s very straight-forward with its narrative/character arcs. Plus, fans of the franchise may be a bit disappointed with the fact that the film sees Sonic spend more time on Earth than he does on his home world of Green Hills, even though, to be fair, the concept of Sonic interacting with humans in the real world isn’t anything new for this series. Despite this, however, the film manages to work around this thanks to its easy-going atmosphere and it boasts some fun action sequences that do a nice job of utilizing Sonic’s super-speed abilities (and yes, this includes some slow-motion sequences a la the Quicksilver scenes from the recent X-Men films). And despite what I said before about the film’s inherently predictable nature, it does have a lot of heart to its proceedings thanks in large part to the strong bond that forms between Sonic and a local cop named Tom Wachowski that’s spurred by the former’s desire for friendship after years of isolation. As such, the film is very much bolstered by the phenomenal duo of Ben Schwartz, who proves to be a pitch-perfect voice for Sonic, and James Marsden, who makes the most out of his ‘best friend archetype who spends most of his time interacting with a CGI character’ role as Tom. And, of course, the one and only Jim Carrey is an undeniable standout in the role of Sonic’s arch-nemesis, Dr. Robotnik. All in all, it’s legitimately nice to see this film manage to overcome all the negative publicity that surrounded the original cinematic look for Sonic, especially since there was a good chance that this widely-maligned design could’ve easily derailed the film entirely had it not been redone. And because of how successful it managed to be at the box-office, a sequel was recently announced to be in the works, which makes perfect sense seeing how the film ends with a mid-credits scene where Sonic’s best friend Miles ‘Tails’ Prower arrives on Earth to look for him.


Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Margot Robbie, and Ella Jay Basco in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

The fact that Birds of Prey is one of the hardcore DCEU fandom’s most utterly despised films (despite being one of the franchise’s better-reviewed entries) is something that will always make me laugh. After all, like I’ve said plenty of times before, one of the reasons why the DCEU diehards have been one of the most toxic factions of modern film fandom is how they’re blindly loyal to the works of Zack Snyder to the point where they refuse to listen to anyone who dares to have a problem with his DCEU films even though they’re certainly far from perfect. Thus, when this film came out, the Snyder faithful grimaced at the idea of a film like this being made instead of something like Man of Steel 2 or the long-demanded release of the fabled ‘Snyder Cut’ of Justice League (which, of course, will finally happen next year). However, I do hope that this isn’t one of the reasons why Birds of Prey admittedly underperformed at the box-office. While it did manage to double its budget (which was around $82-100 million) with a worldwide total of $201.9 million, it didn’t reach the breakeven point of around $250-300 million. And to be clear, this isn’t necessarily one of those cases of a film whose theatrical release window was hindered by COVID-19 since it came out at least a full month before all this went down… although it did end up fast-tracking its On-Demand debut once the pandemic went into full effect. It could be argued that this may have had something to do with Birds of Prey being the DCEU’s first R-rated theatrical release (not counting the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman), but it’s still sad that this happened to a female-directed film that was primarily headlined by a female cast. In fact, to be perfectly blunt… it also speaks volumes about how the DCEU diehards can often have the same sexist tendencies as the haters of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Remember all those alt-right clickbait videos on YouTube that I’ve talked about recently? Yeah, Birds of Prey has gotten that terrible treatment too. Let’s just say that there’s a good reason why the completely unrelated (though thematically similar in a lot of ways) Harley Quinn animated series on DC Universe directly spoofed this kind of toxic behavior in the Season 2 episode ‘Batman’s Back Man’.

Margot Robbie and Ella Jay Basco in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

As for the film itself, I should probably start things off by addressing the elephant in the room. While the film is named after the superheroine group of the same name from the comics and does feature some of its most prominent members like Black Canary and Huntress, Birds of Prey is primarily a Harley Quinn story. It’s told almost entirely from her perspective and revolves around her efforts to rebuild her life after breaking off her relationship with the Joker while the titular squad doesn’t officially come together until the final act. I’m also aware that there’s been some controversy over the film’s portrayal of Cassandra Cain who, instead of being the martial-arts trained mute that she is in the comics (where she becomes Batgirl), is a street-smart pickpocket that Harley takes under her wing. Despite this, though, the film does an excellent job of maintaining the character-driven approach that the DCEU has thankfully been going with for their most recent outings. Even if it does come at the expense of proper set-up for the Birds of Prey, this film’s portrayal of Harley Quinn is superb, both in terms of how she’s written and how Margot Robbie finally gets the chance to assert herself as the definitive live-action incarnation of the character. And while they don’t get as much focus as they probably should’ve, the other female leads are great as well, especially Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, who gets a lot of the film’s best comedic moments thanks to all the playful jabs at her attempts at being a serious vigilante (who still gets to partake in many of the film’s best action beats). Plus, while we’re on the subject of action, did I forget to mention that, during the film’s reshoots, any action sequences that were filmed by the second unit were supervised by none other than John Wick’s Chad Stahelski? Basically, what I’m getting at is that this film’s got some great action sequences.

Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

And so, in conclusion… yes, I’m part of the crowd that really liked this film. As such, I’m also disappointed that it didn’t do as well as it could’ve at the box-office, partially due to the growing problem of overly entitled toxic ‘fans’ (and yes, as always, the term ‘fans’ is used loosely here). To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s perfect, namely due to it being a bit unfocused at times because of the whole ‘it being more of a Harley Quinn film than a Birds of Prey film’ thing, but thanks to the solid direction from Cathy Yan, it manages to overcome this to be another solid outing for the post-Snyder era of the DCEU. If I were to rank this film amongst the other installments of the DCEU, I’d put it at Number 4, right behind the Grade-A trio of Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Shazam but still ahead of all the Zack Snyder DCEU films (plus Suicide Squad). Yes, as I pointed out a few weeks back when I discussed the announcement of the Snyder Cut’s long-awaited release, I’m not exactly as positive towards the Snyder-directed DCEU films as I was back then. And while the DCEU diehards will try to argue otherwise, Birds of Prey is simply yet another example of how the franchise has fared a lot better since it moved away from the overly dour atmosphere of Snyder’s films. The only real downside to all this is that the DCEU won’t be acknowledging the shared universe format as much going forward… though, really, that’s more on DC and Warner Bros for not realizing that perhaps rushing Justice League just so that they could match The Avengers wasn’t such a great idea. Whatever the case, though, while it may not be the most ideal interpretation of the team that it’s named after, Birds of Prey does, at least, show that there’s quite a lot of potential for them going forward.     


Onward (2020)

While it goes without saying that I’ll probably have a new #1 by the end of the year, my favorite release of the year so far has been Onward, the first of Pixar’s 2020 releases (barring any new COVID-19 related complications that could force the further delay of Pete Docter’s Soul, which is currently tapped for a November release). Onward serves as the sophomore directorial effort of Dan Scanlon, who had previously helmed the studio’s heavily underrated Monsters Inc prequel, 2013’s Monsters University. This time, however, Scanlon had the chance to do an original story that was inspired by the death of his father when he was younger and the strong relationship that he formed with his brother in the wake of their loss. This is effectively translated into a fantasy adventure set in modern suburbia where two elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, embark on a Dungeons and Dragons inspired quest to retrieve a powerful gem that they can use to bring their deceased father back to life for one day. While I’m personally not too familiar with D&D, those who are will surely be delighted by all the references that this film makes to it, including a scene where Ian and Barley are confronted by the most terrifying foe of all… the gelatinous cube! But of course, Onward also dutifully maintains the most definitive aspect of any great Pixar film by fully delivering on its emotional poignancy, especially when it comes to its ending. It’s probably one of the best examples of a bittersweet but ultimately happy ending as Ian willingly gives up the chance to properly meet his dad to protect him and Barley from a giant dragon just so that Barley can have one last moment with their dad after he had revealed that he was too scared to say goodbye to him when he was sick. And as for Ian, while he may not have gotten the chance to meet the father that he never knew, the journey that they went on ultimately helped him realize that Barley was the one who filled that void for him.

Chris Pratt and Tom Holland in Onward (2020)

The strong brotherly bond between Ian and Barley is easily the best part of this film, and it’s all thanks to the phenomenal voice work from Tom Holland and Chris Pratt in their respective roles. And while the film’s focus on Ian and Barley’s quest means that the other characters in the film don’t exactly get as much to work with as they do, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer are just as great as Ian and Barley’s utterly dedicated mom Laurel and Corey the adventure-loving Manticore, respectively. All this and the fun fantasy world that it takes place in results in Onward being another top-notch outing from Pixar… even if some felt that it wasn’t exactly one of their ‘best’. Yeah, despite amassing an incredibly admirable 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a common point that’s been brought up in a lot of reviews for the film is that it isn’t quite up to par with some of Pixar’s most beloved outings. And yet, this only continues to prove the point that my pal Kyle Ostrum and I have been saying for years now about how Pixar films that aren’t considered an outright masterpiece tend to get overlooked because of the intense expectations that come with every new film that the studio releases. There’s also the matter of this film arguably being the biggest release hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which went into full effect just about a week into the film’s release, and because of this, it was forced to join the increasing number of films that had to fast-track their releases onto the On-Demand market. As such, I do hope that this film manages to gain some greater attention on the home video market because I genuinely think that it’s just as worthwhile as all the other Pixar classics. The fact that it only did about $103 million worldwide on a budget of around $175-200 million is simply due to it being forced to experience the unlucky break of being released at the worst possible time.

And that concludes the [severely truncated] 2020 edition of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s annual Midyear Recap. As always, thanks for following along even with everything that made this the shortest Midyear Recap that I’ve done to date. With that said, I should note that, despite what some may suggest, I’m genuinely optimistic that we’ll be able to return to the concept of going to see films at the theater sometime in the future. While it’s currently unclear as to when it’ll be safe to partake in this timeless pastime again, hopefully there’ll be enough time this year to see some of the biggest upcoming releases, and believe me, there’s a lot to look forward to when it comes to films that I strongly believe should be seen with a crowd in the theater. There’s the highly anticipated follow-up to one of the best installments of the DCEU, the MCU’s first installment of the post-Infinity Saga era, the epic live-action reimagining of one of the Disney Renaissance’s most underrated gems, and the long-awaited return of one of the most iconic duos to ever grace the big-screen… and yes, that’s just to name a select few. And personally, I’d hate to see the theater-going experience die out just because this pandemic forced us to stay at home for a few months. Thus, in conclusion, I’m only going to say one thing, folks… WEAR A DAMN MASK so that we can keep this pandemic from getting any worse.     

Friday, June 19, 2020

Artemis Fowl (2020) review (Disney+)

Judi Dench, Colin Farrell, Josh Gad, Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Tamara Smart, and Ferdia Shaw in Artemis Fowl (2020)

Thanks in large part to the massive critical and financial success that Warner Bros has achieved through the Harry Potter franchise, we’ve seen plenty of attempts at film franchises based on other popular young adult novels. And yet, the results have generally varied when it comes to their attempts to become the next Potter. In other words, while franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight managed to see their stories told to completion, others like His Dark Materials and The Mortal Instruments basically crashed and burned right at the start, thus failing to spawn their potential franchises. But now we’ve come to the latest attempt at a film franchise based on a YA novel with Artemis Fowl. It all began with the 2001 fantasy novel of the same name written by Irish author Eoin Colfer, which introduced readers to the titular Artemis Fowl II, a 12-year-old prodigy who runs his family’s long-standing criminal empire. Upon publication, it did quite well with both critics and audiences and would be followed by seven sequels that were released up until 2012 as well as a few spin-offs. But as for a potential film adaptation of the franchise… it took a little longer to make that a reality. Plans for this adaptation go back as far as 2001, the same year that the first novel was released, but it ended up in development hell for at least more than a decade until 2015, when the one and only Kenneth Branagh was announced as its director. It was originally set for an August 2019 release but was then pushed back to May 2020, presumably due to Disney’s efforts to manage the newest additions to their release schedule that came courtesy of their recent purchasing of 20th Century Fox. But, as you might have guessed… then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Disney to cancel its theatrical release and instead have it debut on Disney+. And while I’m well-aware of the incredibly notorious reputation that this film has garnered amongst fans of the franchise from an adaptational perspective, I’d say that it still manages to be a decently entertaining fantasy flick.   

Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw) is a 12-year old genius who lives with his father, Artemis I (Colin Farrell), at their prestigious manor off the coast of Ireland but is emotionally burdened by his father’s frequent trips that he never talks about. But then, on one fateful day, Artemis Sr. suddenly disappears, and thanks to the extensive media coverage of this incident, Artemis is distressed to discover that his dad has been linked to the thefts of some of the most famous artifacts in the world. And if that wasn’t enough, Artemis gets a message from a mysterious figure named Opal Koboi (voiced by an uncredited Hong Chau and physically portrayed by Emily Brockmann, Jessica Rhodes, and Charlie Cameron) who reveals that she has kidnapped his father, who had stolen a powerful artifact from her known as the Aculos. Artemis’ loyal bodyguard Domovoi ‘Dom’ Butler (Nonso Anozie) then proceeds to inform him that his father, like his ancestors before him, has spent several years documenting the existence of magical creatures. And as it turns out, a whole universe of these creatures exists underground in a place known as Haven City. Thus, with only three days to find the Aculos and save his father from Opal, Artemis and Butler enact a plan that sees them capture Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), an elven fairy and member of Haven City’s Lower Elements Police reconnaissance squad (AKA LEPrecon). Holly also happens to be the daughter of Beechwood Short, who is revealed to have been the one who had originally stolen the Aculos for Artemis’ dad despite this resulting in him being deemed a traitor by LEPrecon. Naturally, Holly’s capture attracts the attention of LEPrecon as her superior, Commander Root (Judi Dench), launches a full-scale assault on the Fowl estate to rescue her, completely unaware that this is all part of Artemis’ ingenious scheme to stop the evil being that threatens to destroy both the human world and the magical world.

Right off the bat, the first thing to note about this film is that, in several places, it differs quite a bit from its source material. While the main plot of Artemis kidnapping Holly Short and incurring the wrath of LEPrecon is the same as it was in the book, the set-up behind it isn’t. Instead of being part of his quest to find a powerful magical artifact and rescue his father from Opal Koboi (who, in the books, didn’t appear until the second installment, Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident), the book saw him do this simply to collect a massive reward to recoup his family’s fortune. There was also a key emotional subplot regarding Artemis’ mother, which is absent in the film as it’s established that she died sometime prior. So, in other words, it seems like the biggest difference between the film and the book is that the former makes a considerable effort to tone down Artemis’ ‘criminal mastermind’ persona so that he doesn’t come off as an unlikable villain. And yet, based on what I’ve seen from fans of the franchise, it’s safe to say that Artemis’ traditional characterization was never an issue for them, and as you might have guessed, they aren’t too happy with all these narrative and character-based changes. However, what fascinates me the most about this film is how surprisingly modest it is when it comes to one of the biggest aspects of any potential franchise starter, world-building. While it does set up the world of Haven City and the creatures that inhabit it, it doesn’t spend a lot of time there, instead focusing more on Artemis’ clash with LEPrecon at his family’s mansion. Granted, this does result in a rather unique ‘bottle episode’ of a story that’s often been described by Eoin Colfer as a ‘fantasy version of Die Hard’, but it still would’ve benefitted from a greater focus on the magical world of Haven City. To be fair, though, this is probably another consequence of the film’s major changes, especially since films usually don’t get the same amount of time that books get when it comes to setting up their unique settings and their eclectic casts of characters.

Despite this, however, the film fares a lot better in other aspects of its production, which I primarily attribute to Kenneth Branagh’s traditionally solid direction. While action sequences are still far from being Branagh’s strongest suit as a director, the film does boast some nice production design, especially for the fantastical world of Haven City. And thanks to its breezy 95-minute runtime, its pacing is generally decent throughout even if it does sometimes come at the cost of story and character development. It also sports a solid cast that, even with some big names like Judi Dench and Josh Gad to headline the ensemble, primarily lets newcomers Ferdia Shaw and Lara McDonnell have their time to shine in the lead roles of Artemis and Holly, respectively. And overall, these two do manage to hold their own against their famous co-stars even when taking the changes to their characters into account. Obviously, Artemis is the most radically different compared to his book counterpart, but Ferdia Shaw still manages to do a nice job in maintaining Artemis’ persona of a kid who’s very much wise beyond his years. Again, it may be a far cry from how the character is portrayed in the book, but it works fine enough for this specific take on the story. The same goes for Lara McDonnell as Holly Short, who arguably fares a bit better than Artemis does when it comes to withstanding the changes to her character since they’re more story-based than character-based. As for their co-stars, Judi Dench is her usual dignified self as a gender-swapped Commander Root (and yes, that’s the second time in a row that she’s played a character like that) while Nonso Anozie, who’s quickly becoming a Branagh regular, continues to showcase his talents as a top-notch supporting player as Butler. But as for the biggest standout of the film, that honor goes to Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums, an ‘oversized dwarf’ and kleptomaniac that LEPrecon brings in to aid in their attack on Fowl Manor. As you might have guessed, he ends up being the film’s best source of comic relief.  

In conclusion, I should probably note that when it comes to the YA-oriented novels that I read when I was growing up, Artemis Fowl wasn’t really a part of that group. Instead, it was headlined by the likes of Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, and of course, Harry Potter. My family did own copies of the first two installments of Artemis Fowl… but I’ll freely admit that I only got a few chapters into the first book before putting it down. For reasons that I simply can’t explain, it just didn’t click with me the same way that something like Harry Potter did even though fantasy is very much one of my favorite genres. As such, I went into this film as a complete newcomer which, given what I’ve learned about all its controversial changes, was probably for the best. While Artemis Fowl does maintain the general plot synopsis of its source material, it isn’t as faithful when it comes to how that plot comes together. But while fans won’t be the least bit happy with how radically different it is when compared to the book, Artemis Fowl manages to be a decent little fantasy flick even if it is rather hindered by being a bit too simple-plotted for a supposed franchise starter. While most have focused on how much it deviates from the source material, I’m more fascinated by how it ends up being surprisingly light on world-building since it doesn’t spend as much time as it could’ve in the underground world of Haven City. Simply put, the first installments of other franchises based on YA novels have done a far better job when it comes to that sort of thing since that’s usually what’s expected from them. Ultimately, though, while it’s far from being a masterpiece, it manages to get by thanks in large part to its solid cast. However, I think it’s safe to say that its fate as a Disney+ release means that we probably won’t be seeing any sequels. To be fair, though, I have the feeling that if this film was released in theaters as originally intended… its poor reception would’ve easily led to it becoming one of the year’s big box-office bombs.

Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Snyder Cut is Coming

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

For the past two and a half years, one of the most talked-about films in recent memory has been the DC Extended Universe’s 2017 outing, Justice League… and not exactly for the best reasons. Simply put, the film that was released to theaters was far from being the version of it that director Zack Snyder had envisioned after he was forced to step away from the production due to deeply tragic circumstances. And because of this, the film was yet another critical flop for the DCEU at a time where they were struggling immensely to match the utterly dominant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also ended up being a rather notorious financial flop as it was unable to break-even on its hefty $300 million budget. But while the DCEU has since managed to move on from this with more critically and financially successful outings, fans of both the franchise and Zack Snyder immediately began pushing for the release of his version of Justice League, with the hashtag #ReleasetheSnyderCut quickly becoming a staple of modern fandom’s vernacular. Their efforts to get this version of the film released ranged from letter-writing campaigns to earning the full support of several key figures in the industry, including those who worked on the film and, of course, Zack Snyder himself. And after all this time, this fabled cut of the film will finally see the light of day as Snyder recently announced that it will make its official debut on WarnerMedia’s new streaming service, HBO Max, in 2021. However, as genuinely great as it is that Snyder has finally been given the chance to showcase his version of Justice League, today we’re going to delve a bit further into everything that led to this exact moment. In doing so, not only will we reiterate exactly why the DCEU has often struggled to match the quality of the MCU, but we’ll also be addressing how a lot of this movement has been fueled by incredibly toxic fans who have very much paved the way for this current age of toxic fandom.

 Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, Amy Adams, Henry Cavill, Richard Schiff, Michael Shannon, Ayelet Zurer, Dylan Sprayberry, Samantha Win, and Rebecca Buller in Man of Steel (2013)

First off, let’s start by going over Zack Snyder’s affiliation with the DCEU, which officially began in 2013 with the Superman reboot Man of Steel. For both DC and Warner Bros, this was their second major attempt at a reboot of the Superman franchise after their previous attempt, 2006’s Superman Returns, was both a critical and financial underperformer. Luckily for them, this was right around the time that Christopher Nolan had just completed working on his trilogy of Batman films, AKA the Dark Knight trilogy, which were easily some of the most critically-acclaimed and financially successful superhero films at the time. Because of this, Nolan was brought on to spearhead Man of Steel’s production, which meant that while he wasn’t going to direct it, he would still be heavily involved with it with the expectation that it would match the overall atmosphere of the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan reteamed with his Dark Knight trilogy co-writer David S. Goyer to write the film, and after considering filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky, Matt Reeves, and Ben Affleck (who, of course, would factor into the franchise at a later date), Zack Snyder was chosen to direct the film. At this point, Snyder was easily one of the studio’s most prominent filmmakers with hits such as the 2007 adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 and his incredibly ambitious adaptation of the seminal graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Sure, he had just come off a rather notorious critical and financial flop with 2011’s Sucker Punch, based on his own original concept, but that didn’t stop Snyder in the slightest from taking the helm on the next major incarnation of the Last Son of Krypton.

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel was easily one of the most anticipated films of 2013, and upon its release… it ended up being arguably the most polarizing film of that year. Critics and audiences were truly split down the middle when it came to their thoughts on the film, namely due to how Snyder (and, by extension, Nolan and Goyer) delivered a radically different take on the title character. For some folks, they were totally fine with this as they felt that it was something that Superman needed for what was meant to be a more modernized take on the character. For others, however, it was a bit too much, especially due to things like the film’s utilization of destruction imagery that felt too similar to 9/11 and the controversial moment where Superman kills the main antagonist, General Zod, by snapping his neck despite his traditional ‘no-killing’ mandate from the comics. Nevertheless, the film was a solid hit at the box-office and grossed over $668 million worldwide, thus paving the way for Warner Bros to immediately begin laying the groundwork for its own cinematic universe to rival the MCU. While it was initially implied that the plan was to do at least one more Superman-centric feature before getting into the whole ‘cinematic universe’ angle, that idea seemed to change when the first details of the film were revealed at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con. After having Harry Lennix (who played General Swanwick in Man of Steel) set the mood by reciting a passage from the iconic miniseries that was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it was instantly made clear that the next installment of the DC Extended Universe would be a crossover between Batman and Superman. And since Christian Bale had already completed his turn as Batman in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, this new film would serve as the official debut of the DCEU’s interpretation of the Dark Knight that would be heavily inspired by the grizzled and jaded version of the character from Dark Knight Returns.

Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

After a highly publicized casting search that included names like Josh Brolin and Jon Hamm, Ben Affleck was officially cast as Bruce Wayne AKA Batman. Admittedly, though, Affleck’s casting initially drew an intensely negative response from fans, namely due to his disastrous previous role in a superhero film when he played Marvel’s Daredevil in the 2003 film of the same name. At the same time, though, Affleck was experiencing a major career resurrection thanks to his work as a director on Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and 2012’s Best Picture winner, Argo. Thus, the most exciting aspect of Affleck’s casting was that it immediately led to him being given the opportunity to direct the first solo outing for his version of the character. After that, further announcements then revealed that Batman wasn’t going to be the only new superhero appearing in the film. First, it was announced that the third and final member of DC’s ‘Trinity’, Wonder Woman, would make her debut in the film as well, which would also be the character’s first official appearance in a live-action film. Gal Gadot was cast in the role and, like Affleck, experienced some harshly negative blowback from fans when the initial news broke of her involvement. Soon afterward, it was then revealed that The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) would all make cameos as well to build up hype for their larger roles in the upcoming Justice League film which, of course, Zack Snyder was also slated to direct. Thus, while a lot of the build-up for the film was clearly impacted by the polarizing nature of Man of Steel and how fans reacted to Snyder’s casting choices, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was still widely considered to be one of the most highly anticipated films of 2016. At this point, it was now very much clear that it was meant to be the official kick-starter for Warner Bros and DC’s own, unique spin on a superhero-centric cinematic universe.

Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

The film finally hit theaters on March 25th, 2016, and if you thought that the reception towards Man of Steel was rough… well, it was about to get a whole lot worse for DC and Warner Bros. Upon its release, Batman v Superman was utterly savaged by critics who felt that the story was incredibly convoluted and that the film itself was far too dour. Simply put, this wasn’t even close to being the same kind of situation that Man of Steel ended up in where there was a genuine 50/50 split between its fans and its critics. When it came to Batman v Superman… most people hated it. This also translated to its run at the box-office where, despite a $166 million opening weekend and a worldwide gross of over $873 million worldwide, it was considered a financial disappointment since it didn’t reach the studio’s projected total of $1 billion. By comparison, the MCU’s big ensemble picture of that year, Captain America: Civil War, instantly outmatched BvS in every conceivable way with a $179 million opening weekend, a worldwide gross of over $1.1 billion, and perhaps most importantly, vastly superior reviews from critics and audiences. However, when it comes to Dawn of Justice’s initial release, it soon became known that some of its biggest shortcomings weren’t exactly Zack Snyder’s fault when it was revealed that he was forced to cut around half an hour of what was originally meant to be a three-hour film. It was reported that the biggest reason for this decision was that the studio was uncertain about the original cut’s box-office potential, especially since it would’ve garnered an R rating instead of the more genre-friendly PG-13 rating. Luckily for Snyder, he was able to make his version available to the public when the ‘Ultimate Edition’ of the film was released on Blu-Ray and digital. And upon its release, many agreed that while it may not have been enough to sway the film’s most vocal critics, it was, at the very least, a far superior cut since many of the sequences that were taken out resulted in the theatrical cut suffering from some significant plot-holes.

Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Despite this, however, the damage was already done. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was meant to be DC and Warner Bros’ answer to what Marvel Studios had managed to accomplish with the Marvel Cinematic Universe… and it ended up being one of the most despised blockbusters of recent memory. As you might have guessed, this immediately began to impact future installments of the franchise. The other big DCEU release of 2016, Suicide Squad, ended up having a troubled production largely due to the studio’s efforts to try and address many of the issues that critics had with Batman v Superman. And yet, as a result, Suicide Squad yielded the exact same results as BvS; it was commercially successful but critically panned. Luckily for both DC and Warner Bros, they did end up having their first big hit the following year with Wonder Woman. Not only did it manage to avoid any of the issues that BvS and Suicide Squad endured during its production, but it was easily the most well-received installment of the franchise to date as it was widely touted for forgoing the overly grim atmosphere of the franchise’s previous installments. And from the looks of it, it seemed like this would also be the case with the DCEU’s other big 2017 release, especially since this was going to be the biggest one of them all, Justice League. Following all the intense criticism that stemmed from Batman v Superman’s overly dour tone, it was widely reported that Justice League was not going to end up the same way and would be far lighter in tone by comparison. And while later reports noted that the film would have to undergo some major reshoots after early test screenings didn’t go too well, everything seemed to be going all right for the production. But then, of course, as we all know, it all came crumbling down, and unfortunately, it all began with a devastating family tragedy.

On March 12th, 2017, Snyder’s 20-year-old daughter Autumn committed suicide. While Snyder did continue to work on Justice League for the next two months, he and his wife Deborah (his long-time producer) then proceeded to announce that they would be stepping away from the production in the wake of the loss of their daughter. And so, Joss Whedon, who had already been brought on to help work on script re-writes, was put in charge of both the reshoots and post-production. Whedon, of course, was already quite familiar with the superhero genre thanks to his work as the director of the first two Avengers films, and before the film’s release, it was reported that Whedon would be doing his best to maintain the vision that Snyder had for the film. But when the film finally came out… it ended up telling a completely different story. Immediately upon its release, both critics and audiences noted how the film was an absolute mess in terms of its tone. And while it was initially reported that Whedon’s additions to the film would be generally minor at best, it was very much clear that he had re-shot much of the film and that only a few moments in it were leftover from Snyder’s version, resulting in a complete hodge-podge of clashing directorial visions. Thus, Justice League became yet another critical flop for the DCEU, and even worse, this time it was also a financial flop since it wasn’t able to break-even on its $300 million budget, which made it one of the most expensive films of all-time. And because of its failure, the entire franchise was put through a complete reshuffle. Key figures like Geoff Johns and Jon Berg left the studio while plans for a Justice League sequel were canceled in favor of solo films that didn’t rely on the shared universe narrative. And in 2019, after he had already stepped down from directing the next Batman film, Ben Affleck announced that he was officially stepping down from the title role. Thus, Robert Pattinson will now take on the role of Batman for director Matt Reeves in The Batman, which is set to hit theaters on October 1st, 2021.

Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, and Ray Fisher in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

Now for the record, today’s post is not going to delve into the specific details of the changes that Whedon made to Justice League and the noteworthy scenes from Snyder’s version that were left out. Simply put, that’s another post for another time. But to sum up everything that we’ve gone through so far, I think it’s safe to say that of the three DC Extended Universe films that Zack Snyder has directed, his first one, Man of Steel, was the only entry where he wasn’t considerably hindered by studio interference. But because Man of Steel was so polarizing due to its radically different take on Superman, I can imagine that Warner Bros began to show some concern over the direction that the franchise was heading in, especially since it wasn’t as financially successful as Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy despite his direct involvement in it. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Batman was brought in for the next film to try and improve its box-office potential even if it came at the cost of not doing a proper follow-up to Man of Steel. But, of course, the biggest story that came out of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s production was how Snyder was forced to cut out a full half-hour of the film. It’s been rumored that another big reason why he had to do this was that, supposedly, he didn’t have the same kind of directorial clout that someone like James Cameron has to make a massive three-hour blockbuster. However, this also meant that the sequences that were being cut were ones that were utterly pivotal to the story, resulting in some incredibly egregious plot-holes. Thankfully, this ended up being one of those cases where this occurred near the end of production, effectively allowing Snyder to release his version of the film on home video without the need for any extensive reworking of the theatrical cut. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Justice League. His version of it was far from finished when he stepped away from production and would’ve required a lot of extra money to finish a film that was already sporting one of the largest budgets in film history. With that in mind, it goes without saying that many of the issues with Justice League are ones that can’t be attributed to Snyder since he had nothing to do with the theatrical cut due to immensely tragic circumstances that were far beyond his control.

Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot in Justice League (2017)

However, if you’ll allow me to debunk one of the biggest myths that has been perpetrated by the DCEU fandom, it’s the idea that all the film’s problems were entirely Joss Whedon’s fault. Ever since the theatrical cut’s release, Whedon has been the primary target of the #ReleasetheSnyderCut faithful for ‘destroying’ Snyder’s vision with the new material that he shot. However, what these folks tend to overlook is the fact that, in a scenario that was obviously much different than what happened with Snyder, Whedon was also heavily screwed over by the production. In his case, it primarily stemmed from the fact that the two months of reshoots that he presided over began in July of 2017… just 4 months before the film’s November release date. And so, given all the information that has revealed that Snyder’s contributions to the theatrical cut only amounted to a few select scenes, this means that Whedon had to rework almost all of what was set to be one of Warner Bros’ biggest tent-pole releases in less than half a year. In other words, all those criticisms surrounding the film’s mediocre visual effects suddenly make a lot more sense when you realize that the VFX artists who worked on it had barely any time to finish them. Now to be clear, everything that I just brought up here doesn’t mean that I’m ‘defending’ the changes that Joss Whedon made to the film. While I am a fan of much of Whedon’s work from Firefly and its film adaptation Serenity to, of course, his Avengers films, even I can agree that this is some of his worst material when it comes to the snappy dialogue that he’s well-known for. But at the end of the day, you can’t really blame the theatrical cut of Justice League solely on him since it’s very much clear that time wasn’t on his side.

Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, and Ray Fisher in Justice League (2017)

Ultimately, the failure of Justice League was mainly the result of Warner Bros not recognizing the fact that they were clearly rushing it so that they could compete with the Avengers films that Marvel Studios was making. They were so locked in on that November 2017 release date that it didn’t even matter that the reshoots for it couldn’t happen until July of that year. This, of course, spawned one of the biggest stories that surrounded these reshoots; the fact that it occurred during the production of a different film, Mission Impossible – Fallout, which Superman himself, Henry Cavill, was also starring in. He also notably sported a mustache for that film, and Paramount (the studio behind the Mission Impossible franchise) wasn’t keen on having Cavill shave it off for the Justice League reshoots. Thus, Cavill had to keep his facial hair for the reshoots, resulting in the most widely mocked visual effects in the entire film… the CGI that had to be used to erase it off his face. Clearly, Warner Bros should’ve just pushed the film back to 2018 so that Zack and Deborah Snyder would have enough time to mourn the loss of their daughter and properly return to the production. After all, that’s exactly what happened with both of Snyder’s previous DCEU films so that he and his crew could have more time to work on them. Man of Steel was originally set to come out at the end of 2012 before it was pushed back to June 2013. And as for Batman v Superman, it was originally meant to come out in July 2015 before being pushed back nearly a full year and ultimately settling for its final March 2016 release date. Now admittedly, at the time of Justice League’s release, 2018 was shaping up to be an incredibly packed year for the superhero genre. The MCU had the next Avengers film, Infinity War, along with Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp, the X-Men franchise was set to release its next main installment, Dark Phoenix, along with the sequel to Deadpool and a spin-off, The New Mutants, Sony had the Spider-Man spin-off Venom and even the DCEU had its next big release, Aquaman. And yet, not long into 2018, both Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants were pushed back (Dark Phoenix to 2019, New Mutants… well, we’ll get to that one another time). So yeah… there really wasn’t any kind of excuse at this point as to why Warner Bros didn’t just delay Justice League back a year.

Justice League (2017)

But at the end of the day, these disastrous results were exactly what Warner Bros and DC needed so that they could finally realize that they were foolishly rushing the development of the DC Extended Universe. Instead of efficiently building up the franchise with solo installments that both properly introduced us to its main protagonists and gradually expanded the universe like the MCU did, they decided to just skip ahead to Justice League after only a few films. Thus, when Justice League came out, Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman were the only members of the titular group to have had major roles in previous installments while the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg were basically making their official franchise debuts with almost little to no buildup. Sure, they had all previously appeared in Batman v Superman and Flash had also made an appearance in Suicide Squad, but only as minor (and nearly inconsequential) cameos. In other words, to reiterate a point that I made a few months back in my Top 12 Films of 2019 list when I ranked Shazam at the #7 spot, it was like if Marvel had decided to do the first Avengers film right after Iron Man 2, completely ignoring Thor and Captain America’s first solo features. If that was the case, then the only instances that would’ve hinted at their future appearances would’ve been the prototype of Cap’s shield seen in Tony Stark’s basement and the post-credits scene of Iron Man 2 where Agent Coulson arrives at the crash site of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. Thankfully, though, Marvel Studios was smart enough to not do that. Unfortunately, you can’t really say the same for the DCEU since, apparently, they didn’t want to be bogged down by what they perceived to be the increasingly routine nature of traditional superhero origin stories.

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

But to reiterate a different point that I made in that Top 12 Films of 2019 list, I’d argue that another problem for the DCEU early on was that it tried a bit too hard to ‘not be Marvel’. And for the record, when I say “not be Marvel”, that’s primarily in reference to the long-standing stigma against the MCU films that claims that they’re nothing more than kid-friendly comedies, especially in the wake of Marvel being purchased by Disney in 2009. Now sure, it’s true that MCU films are usually light-hearted affairs that are often dominated by the comedic banter between characters, but if there’s one point that I’ve hopefully gotten across the most these past few years, it’s that they’re much more than just silly comedies. In fact, in the years since this mindset started becoming more common within the DCEU fandom, I believe that films like the culturally relevant Black Panther and the emotionally charged duology of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame have been more than enough proof against the claim that the MCU is ‘just for kids’. Nevertheless, it’s truly astounding how much the hardcore side of the DCEU fandom utterly despises the light-hearted style of the MCU films, almost as if they believe that dark and gritty narratives are the only worthy routes that a superhero film should take instead of being the fun and entertaining blockbusters that they normally are. As you might have guessed, this is one of the biggest reasons why the hardcore DCEU faithful usually prefer Zack Snyder’s DCEU films instead of some of the franchise’s more critically successful outings. In fact, even Snyder has distanced himself from the more light-hearted installments of the superhero genre by stating that it simply isn’t the kind of material that he prefers. And so, with all this in mind, I think it’s safe to say that the time has finally come for me to say something that I know damn well will outright infuriate the #ReleasetheSnyderCut faithful… and yet is very much something that needs to be said at this point. To be clear, what I’m about to say is not meant to be a personal dig against Snyder, especially given the circumstances behind his departure from Justice League. But at the end of the day… Zack Snyder probably wasn’t the best choice to be the director who was meant to spearhead the genesis and future of DC’s brand-new cinematic universe.

Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Now to be clear, I’m not saying that I think Snyder is a terrible director. He’s certainly proven himself to be one of the best visually-driven filmmakers in the business and that is very much apparent in every film that he’s made. And yet, as great as he is as a visual director, he’s been less successful when it comes to story and characters. Some would say that his adaptation of Watchmen is the exception to this, but despite Snyder’s considerable efforts to stay faithful to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel, many have argued that this was more from a visual perspective rather than a narrative one. But to go back to what I just mentioned earlier about Snyder’s preferences when it comes to superhero narratives, if he wants to do superhero films that are more like Watchmen, then that’s totally fine. He’s completely within his rights as a filmmaker to do those kinds of films. However, I also feel that this kind of nihilistic philosophy applies better to the likes of niche properties like 300 and Watchmen rather than mainstream characters like Batman and Superman that have appealed to audiences of all ages. This is especially the case with children because, despite what some members of the DCEU fandom may claim, comic-book superheroes are usually marketed towards the younger demographic. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, by way of Snyder’s intended 3-hour cut, is not even close to being geared towards kids. Instead, it’s a dark, dour, and incredibly violent R-rated flick that sees the title characters act in generally unheroic ways. And it all culminates with one of the most idealistic heroes of the entire genre, Superman, dying in an incredibly gruesome manner just so they could pay homage to the infamous storyline from the comics in which he dies after an intense battle with Doomsday. Simply put, that probably wasn’t the best idea for a major studio tentpole release that was being marketed to the widest audience possible.

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017)

By comparison, other installments of the DCEU have done a far better job when it comes to developing these characters rather than just being a case of style over substance. Snyder may have been the one who brought Wonder Woman to the screen in Batman v Superman, but it was Patty Jenkins who made her a genuine icon and quite arguably the MVP of the franchise by way of her solo film. And while Snyder may have also set the stage for Aquaman’s franchise debut, it was James Wan who took Jason Momoa’s potentially controversial take on the character and turned him into the full-blown charismatic star of what ended up becoming the DCEU’s highest-grossing installment to date. In fact, I’d argue that the best DCEU film to date is one that Snyder had absolutely nothing to do with, Shazam. Some may refer to Shazam as the closest that the DCEU has ever gotten to replicating the MCU aesthetic, because aside from some incredibly dark moments that feel like they came straight out of a horror film, it’s easily the DCEU’s most light-hearted entry to date. But as I’ve said plenty of times by now, there’s a lot more to this than just colorful visuals and a plethora of jokes, as Shazam also fully succeeds at giving its title character a proper and emotionally cathartic character arc that’s perfectly synced with all the fun superhero escapades that he partakes in. Suffice it to say, this is something that you never really got out of the DCEU films that Snyder directed, and the one character who was hurt by this the most was Superman, thus resulting in his sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman feeling incredibly hollow. And it’s a shame, really, because Henry Cavill has very much proven himself to be an incredibly charismatic actor thanks to films like The Man from UNCLE and Mission Impossible – Fallout. Thus, given the recent news that revealed that Cavill is set to return to the franchise after quite a few years where it was rumored that he was done playing Superman, I hope that he’ll have better material to work with going forward. Because, really, it’s saying something when his best performance in the role… was in Justice League. Yes, despite all the wonky CGI to remove his mustache and the fact that it contrasted heavily with how the character was portrayed in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, it is still the closest that Henry Cavill has ever gotten to matching Christopher Reeve’s iconic interpretation of the character.

Jason Momoa in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

And so, given everything that I’ve gone through in today’s post, I must admit that the announcement that Zack Snyder’s Justice League will finally see the light of day is one that has left me with mixed feelings overall, and as you might have guessed, this largely has to do with the whole #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement. Now before I continue, let me just point out that I’m well aware that what I’m about to discuss doesn’t represent the entirety of those who were involved in the campaign for the release of Snyder’s version of the film. I know that a lot of people who participated in it simply did so because they wanted to see this version of the film released publicly, especially given all the tragic circumstances that led to Snyder’s departure from the production. On that note, quite arguably the best result to come from this campaign was that over $150,000 was raised for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Unfortunately, as has usually been the case these past few years with incidents that are attributed to internet fandom, the more vocal and incredibly toxic members of the community have ultimately been the ones who have ended up dominating the discussion. Before the announcement that the film was finally going to get released, they attacked anyone who dared to suggest that the idea of releasing Snyder’s version of the film seemed impossible at the time given the status that it was in when he left the production. Many of them have also harassed Warner Bros. employees to the point where the former President of DC Entertainment, Diane Nelson, had to delete her Twitter account. But perhaps the biggest thing to note about this entire movement was how utterly persistent it was at times to the point where that hashtag was being pushed even when talking about things that had nothing to do with Justice League. Thus, as much as some will say that folks like this only represent a small part of the community, I do think that we’re at a point now where crap like this needs to be better addressed. Because at the end of the day, even the actions of a select number of ‘fans’ (a term that, as you might have guessed, I use very loosely here) has the potential to make us all look bad simply by association.

And as I’ve said plenty of times over the past few years, the hardcore faction of the DCEU fandom has become one of the most toxic internet groups in recent memory. If you were to ask me why, I’d say that it’s largely because of how they are fully devoted to what Zack Snyder had envisioned for the franchise. Thus, when anyone dares to come along and suggest that his DCEU films were far from perfect, his fans will come out of the woodwork, get incredibly infuriated about it, and try to pass off the utterly bogus conspiracy that critics of Snyder’s films were paid off by Disney and Marvel to make the MCU look better by comparison. Heck, even when the DC Extended Universe had a genuine hit on its hands, these folks still somehow managed to find something to be upset about. When Wonder Woman became the DCEU’s first critically acclaimed hit, a lot of Snyder fans tried to pin it all on him since he had a story credit instead of, you know, director Patty Jenkins. When Aquaman came out, the hardcore DCEU fandom attacked anyone who had predicted that the film wasn’t going to be a box-office hit and, as you might have guessed, lashed out at anyone who gave it a negative review. And don’t even get me started on how furious they were when Birds of Prey came out earlier this year rather than the films that they wanted like a sequel to Man of Steel or the Snyder Cut. But, of course, the biggest stunt that they’ve pulled (apart from their negative influence on the whole #ReleasetheSnyderCut situation, of course…) was when they tried to shut down Rotten Tomatoes in 2016 after Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were both savaged by critics. Simply put, these folks haven’t responded well to the idea that the DC Extended Universe has worked a lot better when it isn’t going with the grim aesthetic that Snyder had established during the franchise’s early days.

But now this brings us to what has easily been the most concerning aspect of the announcement for Zack Snyder’s Justice League… the fact that it could potentially pave the way for more instances in the future where overly entitled fans aggressively demand changes to films when they don’t turn out exactly the way they wanted. In fact, I’d argue that, when it comes to films that have left some sort of impact on the film industry, Justice League has been one of the most prevalent examples in recent memory of a film that has left a negative impact because of how it has emboldened certain online crowds to endlessly vent about what could have been. Nowadays, whenever a deleted scene for a film is released, some folks will act like they were ‘robbed’ of a sequence that, 9 times out of 10, was cut for a legitimate reason (e.g. the deleted scene in Avengers: Endgame where the Avengers all take a knee to mourn Tony Stark right after he dies). And it’s all thanks to the film that, until Snyder’s version comes out next year, boasted one of the vastest and eclectic collections of sequences that were ultimately left on the cutting room floor. Sure enough, there have already been quite a few noteworthy examples recently of fans demanding alternate cuts. Staying in the DCEU for a moment, some have been pushing for the version of Suicide Squad that director David Ayer had originally developed before it was heavily compromised by studio interference. A few weeks after Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker came out, rumors started floating around that director J.J. Abrams was forced to make some critical changes to the film in the wake of the polarizing reactions to The Last Jedi, resulting in the #ReleasetheJJCut hashtag becoming a thing. And finally, literally just a few days after I started writing this post, the next big fan campaign emerged when Star Wars fans started to push for director George Lucas’ original 4-hour cut of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

The toxic attitudes of modern film fan culture were directly parodied in 'Batman's Back Man', the fifth episode of the second season of the hit DC Universe animated series 'Harley Quinn'
Simply put, I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t the last time that we’ll be seeing fans getting this worked up over a film’s mythical alternate cut. And so, in conclusion, I will reiterate what I’ve said before in that when it comes to the announcement that Zack Snyder’s Justice League will finally get released, I am happy for Zack Snyder… and Zack Snyder only (and, by extension, everyone who had worked on the film before the reshoots). Despite my current feelings towards his DCEU films, I’m glad that he was able to find closure on a project that he never got the chance to finish. And yet, I simply can’t say the same for the DCEU fandom because as much as I know that many people who participated in this movement did so out of genuine appreciation for Snyder’s work, said movement was tainted by some utterly toxic jackasses who haven’t been able to fathom the possibility that his takes on these classic characters were inherently flawed. Plus, to be perfectly blunt, folks… I just got so damn tired of hearing about this film all the frigging time for the past two and a half years, especially whenever it threatened to overshadow the instances where the DCEU managed to achieve some genuine success. Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that I was ever against the notion of its release. Once it debuts on HBO Max next year, I assure you that I’ll watch it and will then give you a proper review/discussion post on it. However, this doesn’t excuse the fact that everything that surrounded its release is ultimately yet another example of the increasing sense of entitlement that is thoroughly plaguing modern fandom. We now live in an era where, for some inexplicable reason, some believe that the best way to express their disappointment over a film or TV show is to vehemently lash out at the filmmakers and studios who worked on them as if the fact that they didn’t live up to their oddly specific set of expectations is the equivalent of some kind of criminal offense. And yet, this is exactly the kind of deplorable behavior that I’m thoroughly against as a film critic because I believe that it’s a blatant sign of disrespect coming from people who think that they know better than those who work in the industry even though incidents like this very much prove otherwise.

That concludes this extensive discussion on the history behind Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League. Since this single post ultimately proved to be nearly as long as either of the lengthy write-ups that I did for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Avengers: Endgame in my Top 12 Films of 2019 list from a few months back, I’d like to thank all of you for sticking it out with me when it comes to this incredibly daunting beast of an editorial.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Scoob! (2020) review

Scoob! (2020)

There aren’t many franchises that have maintained a consistent spot in the annals of pop culture like Scooby-Doo has. It has now been more than half a century since Scooby-Doo, Where Are You first made its debut on CBS’ Saturday Morning cartoon block on September 13th, 1969. The show immediately proved to be a hit for its studio, the legendary Hanna-Barbera Productions, and proceeded to evolve over the next several decades with new incarnations of the show. And while these newer shows did occasionally make a few story changes here and there (whether it’s by having a series with the gang as kids or by having the monsters they encounter be real instead of fake), they almost always stayed true to the franchise’s classic formula. As of this year, there have been 14 TV series starring the Mystery Inc gang and more than 40 feature-length films. Most of these films, however, have been direct-to-video releases, although the franchise did make its way to the big screen in 2002 with the live-action Scooby-Doo film, which was then followed by Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed in 2004. While neither film was a hit with critics, they both did solidly at the box-office, although the second film wasn’t as successful as its predecessor, resulting in a potential third film being canned. Thus, it wouldn’t have been until this year when the series would finally make its return to the big screen with a new animated feature titled Scoob!... that is, until the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing theaters across the country to be shut down until further notice. And in Scoob’s case, this immediately proved to be a problem since it was originally set to come out on May 15th, which was now impossible. Thus, Warner Bros. ultimately decided to follow in the footsteps of DreamWorks’ Trolls: World Tour by forgoing its theatrical release in favor of it debuting via on-demand on the day it was slated to hit theaters. Not only that, but this new film is set to be the first in a new ‘Cinematic Universe’ that would be based around the classic characters of Hanna-Barbera, a prospect that I find quite exciting and solidly initiated through this entertaining new take on the Mystery Inc gang.

On an average summer day, a young, lonely boy named Norville ‘Shaggy’ Rogers (voiced by Iain Armitage as a kid and Will Forte as an adult) comes across a stray talking dog (voiced by Frank Welker). The two instantly begin to bond, resulting in Shaggy adopting him and giving him the name Scooby-Doo. Soon afterward, the two end up finding even more friends when they meet Fred Jones (voiced by Pierce Gagnon as a kid and Zac Efron as an adult), Daphne Blake (voiced by Mckenna Grace as a kid and Amanda Seyfried as an adult), and Velma Dinkley (voiced by Ariana Greenblatt as a kid and Gina Rodriguez as an adult). Together, they decide to tackle mysteries as the Mystery Inc gang, which they proceed to do for the next several years. And yet, despite their success, Shaggy and Scooby soon start to feel that they are the least valuable members of the group given their generally lax and cowardly nature. However, the two then find themselves summoned by their favorite superhero, the Blue Falcon… or rather, the Blue Falcon’s son Brian (voiced by Mark Wahlberg) who has taken up his father’s mantle in the wake of his retirement. After also meeting the Blue Falcon’s companions, tech-savvy Dee Dee Sykes (voiced by Kiersey Clemons) and the robotic dog Dynomutt (voiced by Ken Jeong), Shaggy and Scooby learn that Scooby is being pursued by the notorious Dick Dastardly (voiced by Jason Isaacs). Specifically, Dastardly plans to use Scooby to open the gates to the Underworld (since Scooby is revealed to be a descendant of Alexander the Great’s canine companion Peritas), potentially unleashing the three-headed dog monster Cerberus upon the world. Thus, both the Mystery Inc gang and the crew of the Blue Falcon’s ship, the Falcon Fury, find themselves in a race against time to prevent Dastardly from unleashing the Apocalypse as Shaggy and Scooby look to prove themselves worthy of being properly seen as heroes.  

Scoob is very much your traditional Scooby-Doo adventure albeit with a larger focus on other characters from the world of Hanna-Barbera. As such, I should probably start by noting that while this is very much a Scooby-Doo film, it isn’t as centered on the Mystery Inc gang when compared to the other films and shows that make up its massive franchise. In fact, given the nature of the plot, Shaggy and Scooby end up separated from Fred, Daphne, and Velma for a good chunk of the runtime. At the very least, the film does still allow for each member of the gang to have their own standout moment in the story, and if there is a major upside to all this, it’s that I believe that this film serves as a great gateway for new audiences to be introduced to some of the lesser-known characters from the Hanna-Barbera universe. I mean, if Marvel could do it for the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy, then Warner Bros and Hanna-Barbera can do it for the likes of the Blue Falcon, Dynomutt, and Captain Caveman (voiced by Tracy Morgan). And although the plot itself is rather basic (to the point where it somewhat rehashes the subplot of Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed where Shaggy and Scooby look to prove themselves as valuable members of the gang), it still delivers solid emotional depth through its excellent handling of Shaggy and Scooby’s relationship. Plus, the film also does a great job of maintaining the overall spirit of the franchise even as a modernized adaptation of it. So yes, there are quite a lot of modern references here and there to things like Netflix and Harry Potter, but the film is also full of Hanna-Barbera trademarks from the delightfully cheesy sound effects to an impressive recreation of Where Are You’s title sequence (not to mention all the fun Easter eggs). And it all comes together thanks to some solid animation that reminds me a lot of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie in how it excellently manages to maintain the Scooby-Doo franchise’s traditionally 2-D animated roots even though it is a computer-animated feature.

There has been a bit of controversy, however, surrounding this film’s voice cast. Instead of utilizing the current ensemble that has been voicing the Mystery Inc gang on TV and film, this film goes for an all-star cast, with the legendary Frank Welker being the only one of the core crew reprising any of his roles (in this instance, Scooby-Doo, who he’s voiced since 2002). As you may have guessed, this didn’t go over well with some of the franchise’s current voice cast, namely Matthew Lillard, who took over the role of Shaggy from Casey Kasem after playing the character in the live-action films, and Grey Delisle, the current voice actress for Daphne. And while I completely understand where they’re coming from, especially since they’ve stated that they weren’t informed of this change, the cast for this film does end up doing a solid job. To be clear, I’m not saying that this new cast should completely replace the current voice cast (not in the slightest) but at the very least, Will Forte, Zac Efron, Gina Rodriguez, and Amanda Seyfried manage to be natural fits in their respective roles. But like I just said, not everyone has been onboard with this decision and have often argued that the ‘celebrity’ voices should’ve been reserved for the supporting characters like Mark Wahlberg as the Blue Falcon. On that note, Wahlberg is certainly a fun standout of the cast and a lot of this is thanks to how the film handles Brian’s role in the story since it primarily revolves around his struggles to live up to the legacy of his father. Because of this, he often avoids partaking in any superhero action (but still takes all the credit at the end of the day) while the far more competent duo of Dee Dee and Dynomutt do all the work, resulting in plenty of the film’s best comedic moments. Finally, Jason Isaacs is clearly having a lot of fun as the utterly diabolical Dick Dastardly, but perhaps the most fascinating part of this whole film is how even someone as villainous as Dick gets to partake in some of its emotional beats when the reason behind his plan to open up the Underworld is revealed. I won’t reveal it here for obvious reasons, but if you’re familiar with the character, then I don’t even need to say anything more because I’m sure you know exactly what I’m referring to.

All in all, Scoob is a delightful new spin on one of the most classic animated franchises of all-time. It may not be the best thing that has ever come out of the Scooby-Doo franchise, but it still delivers on a lot of what longtime fans have come to expect from it. Yes, it’s very much a modernized take on the property, but at the same time, it still does just enough to pay homage to the classic style of Hanna-Barbera. And while I fully understand why this film has been a notable source of controversy due to its revamped voice cast, I also feel that this will only become a genuine problem if this cast ends up replacing the current cast from the shows, which I strongly doubt it will. In short, I’m well-aware that quite a few people most likely groaned at the prospect of this being another film that’s meant to kick-start a new cinematic universe a la Marvel since, to be perfectly blunt, most of the attempts to follow the MCU’s winning formula have been underwhelming, to say the least. However, this is one of those cases where a potential cinematic universe would be highly appropriate since crossovers between Hanna-Barbera properties were quite common back in the studio’s heyday. Just look at the time that the Jetsons met the Flintstones or when the Mystery Inc gang cameoed in an episode of Johnny Bravo. And as someone whose experience with Hanna-Barbera is admittedly limited to The Flintstones, The Jetsons, the various Cartoon Network shows from the ’90s like Johnny Bravo and Dexter’s Laboratory, and of course, Scooby-Doo, I’m all for a Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe. As such, I do hope that this film’s fate as a direct-to-streaming release won’t end up affecting its potential franchise’s chances in the long run. Believe me, if it wasn’t for this crazy pandemic that we’re currently in right now, this was very much a film that I was planning to see in theaters.

Rating: 4/5