Spider-man: Homecoming – Film Review

After six movies and two reboots in the last 15 years – not to mention a further 16 outings for Marvel’s other heavy hitters since 2008 – fans could be forgiven for growing weary at the thought of yet another Spider-man movie. Thankfully, Spider-man: Homecoming repays audience persistence in spades.

Having already wowed fans with his zingy and zestful cameo in Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland’s first full outing as the web slinging crime fighter deftly walks a tricky tightrope between paying heed to the larger Marvel machine and offering a fresh and revitalising spin on the typical comic book movie template.

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By far the film’s best move is skipping Spidey’s tired-and-tested origin story, with which we’re already far too familiar. Unburdened by the shackles of dead parents, murdered uncles, cute neighbours and radioactive spider bites, we’re free to jump straight into the action.

Picking up right after that almighty skirmish over the Skovia Accords, 15-year-old Peter Parker is dropped back in Queens by his new mentor Tony Stark and told to wait by the phone for another call to join up with the Avengers. Cut to two months later: Peter’s heard nothing from Stark and his reluctant minder Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) isn’t returning any of his texts, leaving Peter to act like ‘a friendly neighbourhood Spider-man’, catching petty thieves and helping old ladies with directions in return for deep-fried Mexican treats.

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Scaling back the influence of the larger Marvel universe proves to be a masterstroke. Though Downey Jr’s Stark featured heavily in the promos, his appearances here are minimal and fit seamlessly into the story. And with the wider MCU taking a backseat, there’s plenty of room for us to get to know our new hero in greater depth than ever before. The result is something more akin to a high school comedy than a superhero movie as Peter tries to contend with jealous school bullies, getting invited to the cool girl’s party and finding a date for homecoming dance; all the while squeezing a spot of crime fighting between the end of school and his 10pm curfew.

With so much of the focus on the young hero, it’s handy that he happens to be the best on-screen Spider-man thus far. Introduced geeking out in a homemade video after meeting the Avengers, there’s something instantly endearing about Holland’s version of the web slinger. Though he’s gifted with spider-like abilities, he feels entirely relatable. Like any teenager, Peter is reckless, impulsive, dangerously ambitious and refreshingly earnest in his attempts to figure out what kind of person he wants to be.

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He also happens to be appealingly lame as a superhero, struggling to control his powers (understandable, considering he now has more than 500 web settings in his new Stark-modified suit) and frequently falling flat on his face during his hapless attempts to help others. That he remains likeable even when his mistakes have potentially fatal consequences is in no small part due to Holland’s cheeky and heartfelt performance.

Drawing sparky performances out of talented youngsters is quickly becoming a calling card of director Jon Watts. Having caught the eye with revenge thriller Cop Car, which deftly balanced gripping thrills with dark humour, Watts brings a similar lightness of touch to proceedings here. The freshman humour is uproariously on point – there’s a great Ferris Buller gag – and even the action sequences are peppered with quick-witted one liners.

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Yet Watts appears to struggle when dealing with the larger scale demands of helming a Marvel movie. Many of the big set-pieces, while effective and well-executed, feel far too mundane to make much of an impact. And except for a vertiginous rescue atop the Washington Monument, there’s not a single action sequence that sticks in the memory, which falls far below the level of inventiveness we’ve come to expect of a summer blockbuster.

This lack of whizz-bang visuals is more than compensated for by the presence of a surprisingly compelling villain. Like Peter Parker, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is an ordinary guy trying to cope with extraordinary circumstances. A former salvager who turns to illegal arms trafficking to support his family, Toomes’ motivation is entirely believable, if not forgivable. Even more so when you consider the political context of his actions – Toomes makes angry speech about rising up against the greedy 1% who keep all the money for themselves – which feels incredibly relevant in the wake of President Trump and Brexit.

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It’s not quite perfect. The final showdown between Toomes and Spider-man inevitably descends into the usual blurry CGI slugfest and many of the female characters are completely without their own purpose or agency. Yet these issues feel like minor quibbles in a movie as fresh and invigorating as this. Ditching the overwhelming superhero angst and sludgy pacing which dogged previous incarnations of the character, and replacing it with a fun and breezy coming-of-age comedy, the youthful Spider-man: Homecoming is the most original comic book movie to swing into cinemas in a very long time.

Runtime: 133 mins

Director: Jon Watts

Screenwriters: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley

Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Jacob Batalon

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Iron Fist – TV Review

Be honest: you’d forgotten all about Iron Fist, right? The final recruit to Netflix’s ambitious Defenders team-up had already been bumped to the back of the line after Luke Cage was the breakout star of Jessica Jones and there was truly very little excitement surrounding this belated small screen outing for the little known comic book hero. That feeling is reflected in the series itself which is entirely forgettable from the bland opening credits – think Daredevil but with less blood-soaked Hell’s Kitchen and more inky oriental hand waving. Iron Fist shares all of the flaws of its predecessors but crucially lacks the authentic vision and compelling characters that made Netflix’s previous superhero efforts so watchable.

For the many who are unfamiliar with the comic books, here’s the rub: Danny Rand is the heir to a billionaire family whose parents die when their private jet crashes into the Himalayas. Danny is the only survivor of the crash, pulled from the wreckage by warrior monks who transport him to K’un-Lun, a mythical city which exists in an alternate dimension, where he is trained to become a fierce fighter. Fifteen years later, Danny returns to New York to reclaim his family’s company and fulfil his destiny as the Iron Fist, a legendary figure who can punch really hard… sometimes.

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If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this smug-rich-guy-returns-from-Asia-with-superpowers storyline play out countless times before, most recently in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. But Iron Fist can’t boast the same mind-bending visuals that made that Benedict Cumberbatch-starring vehicle such an entertaining ride.

In fact, the show has nothing to offer that we haven’t seen before. The action is slow, clumsy and lacks the brutal tension of Daredevil’s bloody punch-ups. Not one of the dull, by-the-numbers characters manage to make a lasting impression. The plot lacks depth, originality and momentum, staggering along without incident as we wait for something… anything to happen. It can’t even muster a convincing villain for Rand to come up against, instead lumbering us with a tedious power struggle between the newly-returned billionaire and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey), the Patrick Bateman-lookalike who has taken control of Rand’s company in his absence.

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Perhaps such boardroom battles could be compelling if Rand was anything more likeable than a spoiled frat boy. Quite why Finn Jones chose to play Rand as an arrogant, self-aggrandising, tastelessly immature know-it-all is a mystery only he can answer. Perhaps he was just trying to draw attention away from claims his casting was another example of the media whitewashing Asian culture, which, one incident where Rand whitesplains kung-fu to Jessica Henwick’s Japanese-American dojo master aside, prove to be unfounded. At one point Rand, after being shown kindness by a homeless man who brings him food and offers him clothing, laughs to himself and smirks: “I guess people think we’re quite alike.” He really is a “living weapon”.

It’s disappointing because there are shades to Rand that are intriguing. He’s clearly suffered a very traumatising childhood, not just from the plane crash but also from the ritual bullying at the hands of a young Meachum, and the culture shock of returning to New York after 15 years must surely be overwhelming. Yet showrunner Scott Buck never explores these feelings, preferring to pad his scripts with countless flashbacks to the plane crash and forcing Finn to repeatedly yell “I’m Danny Rand” in the hope someone will actually believe him this time.

In short, it’s a wasted opportunity. Free from the pressures of audience anticipation, Iron Fist could’ve cast an Asian lead, or at the very least tapped into the pulpy 70s Kung Fu movies that the original comics tried to rip-off, to create something more uplifting and magical compared to the gritty, urban tone of its predecessors. But Buck never stamps an original personality on this plodding piece, succeeding only in creating a superhero show that will test the patience of even the most committed Marvel fan. So much for saving the best until last.

Legion – TV Review

At a time when it feels like we’ve reached peak-superhero on screens big and small, it takes something truly special to rise above the critical mass of costumes and crossovers and truly make an impact. Legion, erupting from the mind of Fargo’s Noah Hawley, does exactly that. Taking a lesser known character from the X-Men back catalogue, Hawley has somehow crafted a mind-bending trip that eschews the typical superhero formula in favour of something a little more weird.

Though he’s a minor mutant in Marvel’s vast mythology, Dan Stevens’ David Haller, the potentially super-powered hero at the heart of this story, immediately grabs attention. After a happy childhood dissolves into a fractured morass of mental illness, David is diagnosed with apparent paranoid schizophrenia and locked up in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. It’s a frightening facility, populated by pale, twitchy patients who have gone dead behind the eyes thanks to a destabilising cocktail of drugs and lack of sunlight. Fortunately for David, his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-routine is broken by the arrival of Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), a new patient with a phobia of touching.

The designs are an off-kilter blend of Wes Anderson’s weirdly retro style and Stanley Kubrick’s perception-altering visuals. Aspect ratios shift, timelines crash and bleed into one another and kitchen utensils erupt out of cupboards with volatile telekinetic force. Even the musical cues are intended to knock your senses off-balance, mixing on point records with Jeff Russo’s brittle and edgy score.

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And that’s entirely in keeping with a show which aims to disorientate and challenging expectations. Legion doesn’t adhere to the villain-of-the-week structure of Arrow or Supergirl, nor does it hit the all-too familiar story beats of Marvel’s Agents of Shield. Instead, Hawley makes his plot deliberately elliptical and misleading, skipping ahead in time at crucial moments before requiring us to piece together what happened as David’s fractured memories leak into the present.

It’s this doubt which forms the basis of the entire series: is David’s ability to manipulate reality with his mind real or just an extension of his paranoid delusions, as the shady, possibly governmental Division is so keen to convince him. Far from being too confusing or exhausting to follow, the first, feature-length episode is a bracing ride from start to finish. After watching so many predictable sci-fi schlock shows of late, it’s exciting to finally see a series that’s determined to challenge what we think we know and keep us guessing to the very end (and possibly beyond).

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It might have been a different story were it not for Dan Stevens’ excellent lead performance. It’s a difficult role for the former Downton Abbey star, whose character’s mood shifts along with his grip on reality. Not only does Stevens pull of this tricky mix of anger, confusion and vulnerability, he also injects an added dose of sardonic charm that makes David a likeable hero even when he is at his most dangerous.

Time will tell if Hawley can sustain such mind-bending storytelling and visual trickery for an entire series and the real test will come when he needs to provide a pay-off to the many mysteries he has posed. But this is as strong a start as it’s possible to make. A surreal, stylish and distinctive origin story that’s teeming with confidence and imagination, Legion is unlike any superhero story we’ve seen. At least that’s one thing we know for sure.

Doctor Strange – Film Review

If ever a genre were in need of an innovative shot in the arm, it’s the superhero movie. After a bruising blockbuster season – in which Batman V Superman, X-Men Apocalypse and Suicide Squad all flopped hard – fans are crying out for something other than a “hyper-choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckfest,” as James Mangold so eloquently put it in his upcoming Logan script.

Doctor Strange is intended to do just that for Marvel. Like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, this tremendously trippy tale of an arrogant surgeon who becomes a sorcerer after a career-ending car accident invites us to explore previously unseen corners of the MCU. But while opening the door to parallel dimensions allows director Scott Derrickson to create some eye-popping visuals, such spectacular delights are of little use when pinned to a story that’s hemmed in by the same old flaws.

Benedict Cumberbatch (a dab hand at playing irascible geniuses) is the titular high-flying neurosurgeon whose luxurious lifestyle is destroyed when his nimble fingers are mangled after a high-speed car crash caused entirely by his own uncontrollable hubris. Strange’s desperate search for a remedy strips him of all his worldly possessions – including an envious watch collection – and eventually leads to a secret order hidden in a remote part of Nepal where Tilda Swinton’s enigmatic Ancient One is persuaded to school him in the mystical arts.

As a sceptical Strange reluctantly opens his mind to the unknown potential of his new powers, so to do the boundless possibilities of this new multiverse become astoundingly clear. In a surreal sequence which recalls Bowman’s trip through the vortex in 2001 Space Odyssey, Strange is thrown on a whistle-stop tour of his new dimensions as he’s tossed into outer space, sucked into an event horizon and spat out into a psychedelic realm where his gnarled hands sprout hundreds of tiny hands. It’s a spectacle unlike any other superhero movie we’ve seen before.

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Derrickson also uses the cutting-edge special effects to do so much more with the action than just blow things up. The fight scenes are as slick and punishing as ever, but here they are set against Inception-style rotating corridors, folding cityscapes and, in one bravura sequence, a Hong Kong street that’s imploding in reverse. At times it feels like a Bourne film that’s been dropped into an Escher painting.

But what use are such dazzling set-pieces when the story they illustrate fails to compel? While screenwriters Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill should be praised for neatly subverting the portal-opens-above-a-city-finale trope – taking the Doctor Who route of talking the enemy into submission – the rest of the time we’re stuck with the same predictable pace and life lessons of the origin story. There’s nothing surprising about Strange’s redemptive arc. Does his exposure to unknown worlds humble his intellect? Of course it does. In turn, does this help him realise the lives of others are just as important as his own? You won’t need the Ancient One’s clairvoyant powers to have a good guess.

Cumberbatch still impresses as Strange. He’s very good at being insufferably brilliant and socially callous, and he knows how to inject just the right amount of twinkling charm to keep Strange likeable. His co-stars fair less well. Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor are wasted as Strange’s love interest and training buddy respectively, while Mads Mikkelsen is starved of screen time and lacks enough motivation to convince as the terrible, universe-ending threat we’re told he’s meant to be.

Making Doctor Strange was a risky move by Marvel – one that doesn’t quite pay off. The introduction of new, mind-warping dimensions has certainly freshened up the visual landscape of superhero movies, but until the filmmakers behind them start to push the same boundaries with their storytelling, the genre will remain trapped in its current cookie-cutter rut.

Runtime: 115 mins; Genre: Superhero; Released: 25 October 2016;

Director: Scott Derrickson; Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Jon Spaihts;

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton

Luke Cage – TV Series

Luke Cage might just be the most divisive Marvel offering yet. Buoyed by the success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the third instalment in Netflix’s Defenders series bravely pushes into territory never before trodden by the genre, exploring challenging social divisions with a boldness so rarely seen on TV (or film, for that matter). While that does mean it lacks the propulsive edge of its predecessors, stick with it and you may just find the rewards are far more plentiful.

Cheo Hodari Coker has undoubtedly created a show that feels unlike any other. Like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage has its own unique identity and tone, shifting the action to a hustling, bustling Harlem that’s shrouded by a dangerous atmosphere of racial tension and of a tight-knit community that’s just one slip away from tearing itself apart at the seams. Yet Coker’s desire to establish Cage in a space of his own leads to a glut of meandering exposition and a plot that leans too heavily on familiar archetypes, which threatens to derail the project before it really gets moving.

Having effortlessly established himself as a firm fan favourite in Jessica Jones, this new series finds Mike Coulter’s indestructible hero in a very different place. Looking to rebuild his life once again, Cage moves back to Harlem and tries to keep a low-profile while working two jobs just to pay his rent. But a TV series about a retired superhero who lives a quiet life shooting the breeze with the fellas at his local barbershop just wouldn’t do. And sure enough, it’s not long before Cage is dragged back into the seedy world of bad men when his friend gets the wrong side of Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes, a shady businessman who plans to buy his way into the big leagues with a high-stakes arms deal.

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In keeping with Marvel’s intentions to modernise its heroes, our Luke Cage is not the bombastic, blaxploitation-era cartoon of the comic books. The yellow disco shirt and metal head band, cheesy catchphrases and Hero for Hire arc have been erased – though all are subtly referenced throughout. In their place is an intelligent, introspective, emotionally bruised Cage, who feels frustrated by his underwhelming circumstances but is held back all the same by a fear of getting hurt again despite his impenetrable exterior.

Coulter is again fantastic in the role – believably powerful and imposing when he needs to be but otherwise a gentle, honourable everyman. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the characterisation doesn’t make the most of his talents. Cage may find himself in a unique setting, but his arc still boils down to that of a broken, self-isolating man conflicted over how to use his powers to help his fellowman. It’s the exact same story we’ve seen played out in countless superhero shows before – Matt Murdock, being the most damaging example.

It’s the same story with primary antagonist, Cottonmouth. Again, Mahershala Ali is superb – all vicious intensity barely concealed by a thin veneer of charm and good humour. But isn’t he just Harlem’s answer to Wilson Fisk? The only difference between the two characters is the scale of their ambitions; while the latter plotted to destroy an entire borough of New York City, the former is merely content with making a quick buck by flogging some gear his stole from Justin Hammer. As far as the superhero elements of this series go, Luke Cage is poorly lacking in original ideas.

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In fact, you’d be forgiven for forgetting this was a superhero show at all. Cage’s powers remain entirely out of sight until the end of the first episode, and then don’t re-emerge again until the latter half of episode two. Cage may not be able to boast the brutal punch-ups of Daredevil or the psychological intensity of Jessica Jones, but by playing down Cage’s abilities and focusing on his human-side, Coker saps much of the energy out of the piece. Without it, we’re left with endless reels of sprawling exposition as Cage explores his life problems. For a show that talks a lot about moving “always forward” it spends a heck of a long time not going anywhere.

Give it enough time, though, and the seeds of Coker’s slow-burn storytelling begin to bear fruit. From all those long, talky scenes emerges a sense of a thriving, multi-layered community that – along with a funky soundtrack steeped in the borough’s rich cultural history – helps to establish a gritty, atmospheric Harlem that feels tangible and real. Seemingly taking its lead from The Wire, Luke Cage offers an uncompromising portrayal of its place, exploring not only the inner-workings of its criminal gangs, but also the under-fire cops, corrupt politicians and the young people who see guns and drugs as their only hope of escape.

And like David Simon’s hard-hitting drama, Luke Cage willingly tackles many diverse, complicated issues surrounding race head on. Black Lives Matter, Keep Harlem Black and Trayvon Martin are all referenced in the first few episodes, while the trigger that spurs Cage back into action is the gunning down of a young black man. But like all the best superhero stories of our time, Luke Cage rises above our grim reality to offers a message of hope. The battle between Cottonmouth and Cage presents a stark choice for how to react to inequality: you can either let it drag you into the gutter with it, or you can step up and fight to make a difference.

In that way, Luke Cage’s real superpower may just be the ability to inspire an entire generation to be better. And that’s a feat far more impressive than simply pummelling the bad guys.

Henry Cavill to return as Superman in Man of Steel 2 

For those who have yet to see Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice be warned: major spoilers follow.

Though he’s currently presumed dead following the cataclysmic events of Batman V Superman, it’s fairly obvious the DC Universe has not seen the last of Henry Cavill’s Superman. The Man of Steel will be seen in the upcoming Justice League movies and Cavill’s new manager has just confirmed he’s also getting a second solo movie.

Dany Garcia, whose company Garcia Industries recently acquired the Superman actor as one of its talents, talked up Cavill’s future projects and seemingly confirmed a follow-up to 2013’s Man of Steel in an interview with Newsweek.

She said: “Henry has a big appetite. We’ve been in a five-month period of time where he’s re-strategising, acquiring property [ or his production company Promethean], he’s filming [Justice League] now, he’s in development for the Superman standalone… he’s beginning to expand that world. It’s beautifully teed up.

“In a year from now, or two years from now he’s going to be a force globally.”

It’s not yet clear where the potential sequel will fit in DC’s already packed schedule – which includes two Justice League movies, a solo Batman movie (featuring Deathstroke as the villain), and standalone movies for Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg before the end of 2020.

Released in 2013, Man of Steel was something of a disappointment for Warner Bros. considering it was intended to relaunch a DC Universe capable of competing with Marvel’s sprawling cinematic and TV products.

The movie was critically mauled for its moody interpretation of the superhero and its seemingly carefree attitude towards wide-scale death and destruction. Still, it did manage to scrape more than $650 million at the box office, which makes a second stab at the character a no brainer.

Cavill has just finished work on Iraq-set war drama Sand Castle and will appear as Superman in Justice League, which arrives on 17 November 2017 – assuming he manages to escape that buried coffin in time.

Spider-Man: Homecoming reportedly casts Zendaya as Mary Jane

Spider-Man: Homecoming will focus on Tom Holland’s Peter Parker tackling the perils of high school. It now appears that won’t just involve cramming for exams and hiding his lunch money from bullies, but also dealing with young love as Zendaya has reportedly been cast as Mary Jane.

Since her casting back in March as ‘key role’ Michelle in the high-profile reboot, fans have speculated whether the Disney star – who shot to fame after appearing in Shale It Up – will play a romantic lead alongside Holland’s young Spidey.

Those rumours appear to be true as two insiders have confirmed her casting as Peter Parker’s long-time love interest, according to The Wrap.

It wouldn’t be the first time creative pseudonyms have been used to conceal a key role in a superhero movie, with Marion Cotillard masquerading as wealthy businesswoman Miranda Tate in The Dark Knight Rises only to be revealed as Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter and heir Talia.

The cast also includes Michael Keaton as arch-villain Vulture, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Tyne Daly, Bokeem Woodbine, Marisa Tomei and some up-and-coming actor called Robert Downy Jr. We’ll probably never hear his name again.

Spider-Man: Homecoming will be released on 7 July next year.