Straight from Monday Night Football, it’s the newest trailer for Captain Marvel!
Set in the 1990s, Marvel Studios’ “Captain Marvel” is an all-new adventure from a previously unseen period in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that follows the journey of Carol Danvers as she becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes. While a galactic war between two alien races reaches Earth, Danvers finds herself and a small cadre of allies at the center of the maelstrom.
Something hit me like a bolt from the blue during the third act of Free Fire: I am all the way over nihilistic action movies. I don’t want to watch movies full of people who don’t care about anything commit violence against each other anymore. In my teens and twenties this felt ok; that it was worth it to explore the space of cinematic violence. Either we’ve completely explored that space or I’ve aged out of it or maybe Free Fire is just a particularly bad example of the form, but I can’t stand for it anymore. I need my action movies to have people who care about things in them and those things can’t be violence for the sake of violence or money. I need more than that.
Free Fire is about an arms deal that goes bad and that’s the entire plot. We spend the first 20 minutes getting to know the 10 principal characters, and then spend 70 minutes watching them shoot at each other in a warehouse. There are only two moments I would consider plot or character development after the shooting starts, and so we just get sequence after sequence of people mostly futilely shooting at each other. There are no grand twists or revelations just an escalation of carnage. Anyone that’s been to more than ten movies in their life could probably guess who “wins” from the trailer. I kept waiting for some kind of escalation or turn and it never comes— we just get people crouching in the dirt until they run out of time.
I expected to come home and do my preliminary research for this review and discover the movie was based off of a novella or something. It would be a fine novella, all of the characters could have internal lives and explored backstories. It’s not often I come home from a movie wishing for more exposition or more navel-gazing, but here we are.
I don’t know what else there is to say about a movie that I reject so completely as a story. The acting is fine. Brie Larson is always fun to watch but she’s asked to do very little here. Cillian Murphy is pretty good but I wish he reached in to his bag of expressions and came back with something that wasn’t “handsome pensive” a couple times. Sharlto Copely gives a completely off-the-wall performance that I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or just completely random, but it’s probably at least 70/30 in favor of the former. I’m not entirely sure why the movie needed to be set in the 70s other than some whimsical wardrobe choices, but it’s kind of fun seeing people dressed like that and I chuckled the first time I saw someone put in an 8-track tape. It’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel when you’re giving a movie credit for using antiquated audio technology.
I’m honestly not sure if Free Fire is as bad as I’m making it sound. Perhaps ten years ago I would have seen this and spent the next week gushing about it to anyone who would listen. It’s neither offensive nor spectacular in its failures such that I could imagine no reasonable person liking it. It’s just a bland film that never seems to aspire to be an interesting film. Free Fire is a movie that might have seemed like a revelation in a world where Reservoir Dogs didn’t exist and we hadn’t been seeing movies inspired by it for the last quarter of a century. But Reservoir Dogs does exist, and so I can’t see what use Free Fire has at all.
It’s probably a good thing that I’m not in charge of which movies get made and which ones don’t. While we would certainly get fewer third-rate horror movies and lazy animated movies (and like three more Crank movies, what happened to that franchise?) there’s just so many movies that must sound terrible at the log line phrase that end up being good movies. For example, if I had been in charge when someone came and said, “Hey, we want to make a new King Kong movie but it’s going to be what if King Kong met Apocalypse Now!” I probably would have passed. But someone at Legendary Pictures said yes, and we got Kong: Skull Island—a delightful, odd, horrific monster movie. It’s a better movie than I expected, a better movie than it probably should be, and a worthy opening salvo in the 2017 action movie wars.
The second act of Kong: Skull Island was the whole movie for me. The first act is an endless parade of set-up that I did not need, made only barely tolerable by the frequent use of John Goodman. I don’t particularly care how or why anyone ends up on Skull Island, just that it happens— and while I appreciate that different sets of characters need to be briefed on the nature and the history of the island, I don’t need to hear everything three times. I just need them to get to the part of the movie where there’s a giant monkey. Similarly, the end doesn’t feel like it’s the end result of the build of the movie, more like the movie needs to wrap up— and so a bigger, badder, version of the kind of fight we’ve already seen is whipped together and done in full view of all the remaining characters. It didn’t work for me. The middle of the movie is where I got my money’s worth. The characters are all split up, and each scene is them uncovering some new horror or another as the color temperature shifts on a dime. It’s stressful, terrifying, and relentless just like Mad Max: Fury Road. It puts you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next giant spider or terrible bird or whatever and Kong himself is a rare, seemingly random, participant in the action. When he appear on screen he’s riveting (he’s King Kong— he’s been doing this since 1933) but he doesn’t drive the action per se. It’s a wonderful segment, some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen in years… they just couldn’t keep it up.
I understand that everything needs to be a franchise these days and that shared universes are the new hotness, but we might be expending too much effort to lead up to a crossover movie with Kong and Godzilla. We don’t need six years and four films to connect the rebooted Godzilla with the rebooted Kong. Either audiences are smart enough to not need their hands held the whole way to get them interested in the monster showdown, or they’re so dumb you risk losing their attention entirely. I refuse to believe that people fall in to the narrow band of needing all this exposition to understand that they what to watch two giant creatures level a city.
You can never quite tell what’s going to work in a movie. The B plot of Kong: Skull Island is essentially Moby Dick retold with Samuel L. Jackson playing Captain Ahab (and with Kong playing the whale, of course) and it’s ludicrous and a bit predictable and it steals shots from a dozen other movies and it’s delightful. One of the reasons the third act didn’t work for me is that this plot has run its course and we’re given a less satisfying antagonist for the finale. I might have just been in an uncommonly good mood, or maybe I was blinded by the spectacle of an IMAX screen but I found all the ridiculousness in Kong totally charming. I also liked the 2005 Kong Kong more than my peer group at the time, so maybe I have a soft spot for giant apes. Kong: Skull Island is, at its best, an oppressive, horrifying film and it’s a triumph.