Ralph Shills for the Internet

Hot on the heels of Ready Player One, Ralph Breaks the Internet is the latest entry in an emerging genre of nostalgic mash-up films. Remember Star Wars? Remember Iron Man? Remember The Muppets? Well, even if you don’t, they’ve been smooshed together and thrown onscreen to elicit those warm, fuzzy feelings we associate with the characters that entertained us as children. It feels egregiously cynical to jam together a bunch of things that people like, loosely thread a plot between them and serve it up as something new, but if that’s what people keep paying to see then that’s what’ll keep getting made.

My curmudgeonly attitude towards Ralph Breaks the Internet’s reliance on a hodgepodge of familiar characters aside, there’s something far more insidious at play in this trailer. Freed from the constraints of their respective arcade games and let loose on the Internet, Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) gaze out over the sparkling vista of the open web. As they spot giant logos for Amazon, Facebook, Google, Snapchat and more, Vanellope sighs, “This is the most beautiful miracle I’ve ever seen”.

To treat a company like Google with this kind of reverence in a children’s film strikes me as nothing less than corporate indoctrination. It’s barely been two months since Facebook was revealed to have woefully mishandled our personal information but its logo is presented here as something to ooh and ahh at, a shining symbol of safety and familiarity. Its portrayal here is a whitewashing of its brand and all its associated issues and concerns, and it positions Facebook and its ilk as old friends, as loveable characters in your life no different than Kermit the Frog or Buzz Lightyear. That’s a powerful, dangerous message to beam into the developing mind of a child, and it honestly scares me.

Consciously or not, media like Ralph Breaks the Internet normalises the overbearing presence of enormous brands and corporations in our lives, conditioning children not to question their unethical practices and the influence they wield over our culture. Having not seen the film, it’s entirely possible that Ralph Breaks the Internet takes these companies to task and criticises their place in our world, but I doubt it. There’s a reason why Google and Snapchat and Facebook and the like have all given their permission to have their real brands featured in the film as opposed to being replaced with fictional equivalents: they’re getting something out of this, and we should be extremely suspicious as to what that is.

Solo: A Star Wars Story review

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a farmhand, a space wizard and two robots walk into a bar. There they meet a cocky smuggler and his hairy dog-man of a first mate, seeking passage aboard his spacecraft. They only have one question: is it a fast ship? ‘Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?’ smirks the smuggler. ‘It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs’. Being that a parsec is a unit of distance, Han Solo’s boast about his ship’s speed has provoked decades of fan debate. Has Han invented a spectacular-sounding achievement to impress Luke and Obi-Wan enough to enlist his services? Is he slyly testing their knowledge with an obviously phony brag? Did he fly the Falcon through wormholes, thus travelling a shorter distance to the same destination? Should grown adults expend so much mental energy thinking about this kind of stuff?

This is the beauty of the original Star Wars, a film that in every line of dialogue suggests a larger world filled with infinite possibilities. Except now, with the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, those infinite possibilities have been dramatically reduced. Director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lawrence and Jon Kasdan have produced a movie that isn’t so much a story as it is a filmed Wikipedia entry, a montage of formative moments in the life of a character that was already fully-formed. We leave the film knowing a lot more banal information about Han Solo but we’re not presented with anything that makes us feel differently about him, and in codifying and canonising his origins, the film removes from us the benefit of imagination.

The warning signs come early in the film, when a young Han enlists in the Imperial Navy in a desperate bid to escape his home planet of Corellia. ‘Han what?’ asks the stuffy officer at the desk when taking his new recruit’s name. ‘Who are your people?’ Han replies that he has no people, and thus no last name. Being that he is travelling alone, the officer bestows upon him the surname ‘Solo’ and sends him on his way. The scene is an answer to a question that nobody has ever asked and makes Han Solo’s previously perfect aptonym thuddingly literal. The sense of revelation that a scene like this is intended to inspire — ‘Ah, so that’s how that happened’ — comes at the cost of reotractively making the character lamer. Would the Han Solo we’ve come to know — roguish, rebellious and distrusting of authority — really accept and continue to use a name given to him by a space Nazi? Apparently, he would.

From there, Solo makes the classic mistake of taking all the iconic elements of the character that we know and love — his cynical outlook, his dress sense, his blaster, the Millennium Falcon, his friendship with Chewie, his fraught past with Lando Calrissian — and revealing that he obtained them all in the space of about a week, at which point he seemingly ceased any and all personal development for the rest of his life. By focusing on how Han Solo got his possessions and not the man himself, the film actually makes him more two-dimensional, flattening the character more than it enriches him. Solo connects a lot of dots that fans had either connected for themselves or already decided were best left unconnected, and in some cases — such as a scene that justifies why Han refers to Chewbacca as ‘Chewie’ — actively insults the intelligence of viewers.

As a performer Alden Ehrenreich does a fine job, wisely declining to attempt a full-on Harrison Ford impersonation and instead portraying a version of the character that could one day plausibly evolve into the Han Solo etched into our brains. Donald Glover is similarly winning as a young Lando Calrissian, clearly having a blast as he leans into the more hedonistic aspects of the character. Also on great form is Fleabag creator and star Phoebe Waller Bridge as L3-37, contributing a fun motion-captured performance to the Star Wars franchise’s rich heritage of sassy protocol droids. Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke are more nondescript, bringing their own particular brands of charisma to thinly-written characters that simply don’t end up going anywhere. Paul Bettany rounds out the cast as deliciously evil crime lord Dryden Vos, but is unfortunately present for so little of the film that he fails to make a real impact. The cast play off each other well enough, but they’re unable to do much with a script that gives them no real emotional journey and instead treats them as pieces being moved around a heist film-themed chess board.

Taking it on its own merits, it’s hard to call Solo a bad film. It’s overlong to be sure, but it packs in enough fun, kinetic action sequences and a strong enough sense of adventure that you can reliably walk away from the experience having had a good time. As an entry into Star Wars lore, however, Solo very much falls flat. It’s easy to blame the movie’s tortured production and directorial change-ups for its aimlessness, but the concept of offering an origin story for a character that never really needed one was flawed from the start. Solo shines a light on Han Solo’s circumstances without revealing anything new about the character himself, and in delving so shallowly into his past it proves true a lesson that Star Wars fans learned a long time ago: don’t make a prequel unless you’ve got a good reason to.

PUBG Corp sues Epic Games over Fornite

Battle royale games have become the hot new genre over the last year or so, with the success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds inspiring a wave of imitators. With Fornite stealing more and more of the limelight, however, it looks like PUBG Corp is starting to get more serious about squashing its competition. From TechCrunch:

Now the company behind PUBG is taking Fortnite’s creators to court. PUBG (the company), a subsidiary of Bluehole (the company behind PUBG, the game — slightly confusing, I know), has filed a suit against Epic Games over copyright infringement concerns. The South Korean suit, noted by The Korea Times, takes particular issue with Fortnite’s battle royale mode.

Bluehole has been vocal about the similarities since the new mode was released in September. The developer released a statement at the time, addressing “growing concerns” with its former partner.

It’s hard to imagine PUBG Corp being too upset about Fortnite were it not enjoying such incredible financial success; the game made almost $300 million in April alone. Fornite is also steadily garnering more mainstream press attention, with Twitch streamer Ninja breaking the record for concurrent viewers when he played with Drake in March. All of this has eaten away at mindshare PUBG once occupied almost exclusively, so it’s easy to see why its creators are anxious for the game not to become an also-ran in a genre it popularised. That said, there’s something about taking actual legal action that comes off as a little… desperate.

While it’s true that Epic Games almost certainly wouldn’t have added a Battle Royale mode to Fornite were it not for PUBG’s success, I’m not sure that they’ve infringed upon any copyrights with their game. I’m not a lawyer (as my bank balance will happily attest), but PUBG’s concept is lifted wholesale from the novel and film Battle Royale and bears distinct similarities to games that creator Brendan Greene has worked on in the past such as H1Z1. There are other, smaller similarities between the way two games play, but given that PUBG Corp has previously tried to sue creators of mobile PUBG clones for including frying pans as weapons, it’s hard to know how much they can legitimately lay claim to and how much is just them being rather petty.

Even if there is a legitimate legal case to be made here, the decision to sue makes PUBG Corp look scared of the existential threat that Fortnite poses. What’s the net benefit of such a public display of low confidence? Whatever happens next in their case against Fortnite, PUBG Corp have got bigger problems coming their way. Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII is set to include a battle royale mode of its own, and I’d put money on other juggernaut franchises like Halo doing the same sooner rather than later. Once the scrappy upstart, PUBG now finds itself in a strange middle ground, neither David nor Goliath in an industry that thrives on iterating upon existing ideas. Fornite isn’t the first game to borrow ideas from PUBG and won’t be the last, and PUBG Corp is going to have to figure out how to deal gracefully with the flood of imitators that always follows a successful product.

Black Panther review

Contains spoilers for Black Panther.


It’s been ten years since Robert Downey Jr. first smarmed his way onto cinema screens as Tony Stark, the success of that first Iron Man film kickstarting a steady stream of interconnected sequels and spin-offs in the decade since. We’ve seen flying gods, magic-wielding neurosurgeons and wisecracking space buddies all achieve unlikely levels of popularity and financial success, and later this spring Marvel will test the limits of just how big these movies can get with Avengers: Infinity War. In bringing together roughly three zillion different characters in the culmination of a decade-long story arc, Infinity War and its untitled sequel will likely represent something of an inflection point for the MCU, a marker of the end of one era and the start of another. These films can’t just keep indefinitely growing in scale, and with the contracts of many core performers nearing completion, Marvel will have to find new ways to keep their output fresh and exciting. Director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther offers a glimpse at what that future might look like, delivering a film that is as thoughtful as it is entertaining and and that is clearly the product of a focused creative vision.

‘This never gets old’, T’Challa mutters as he passes through a holographic forcefield and arrives in the glittering utopia of Wakanda, and it quickly becomes clear why the novelty hasn’t worn off. A fictional African nation that appears on the surface to be a destitute Third World country but in reality is rich in miracle-metal vibranium, Wakanda has leveraged the material and used it to become the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. Such an abundance of valuable resources could easily attract unwanted attention, though, and so Wakanda decided long ago to hide its true wealth from the rest of the world in order to keep its prosperity intact and its culture pure. Following King T’Chaka’s untimely death, his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has returned home to assume the throne and officially take on the mantle of the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda and its people. And protect them he must, for it is not long before U.S. special-ops soldier Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) sets into motion a plan to find Wakanda and use its advanced weaponry to wreak havoc worldwide.

Returning from his small but pivotal role in Captain America: Civil War, Boseman remains a perfect fit for the part of T’Challa. His quiet nobility and silky charisma apparent both inside the Black Panther suit and out, Boseman plays T’Challa as a good man fully aware of the weight of his crown and determined to make the right choices for his people. He is tested, though, and comes to appreciate that the price for Wakanda’s good fortune has been the suffering of others. The legacy of his country is far more complicated than he once thought, wth past rulers including his father making difficult choices that are difficult to reconcile, and Boseman plays that inner struggle deftly. Between the Wakanda-heavy Infinity War and inevitable Black Panther sequels, Marvel seem to be betting big on T’Challa, and it’s not hard to see why.

An excellent supporting cast represent both sides of T’Challa’s conundrum: while his former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) urges him to use Wakanda’s extensive resources to provide aid to other nations, his unflappable bodyguard and confidante Okoye (Danai Gurira) remains a staunch traditionalist, her loyalty ultimately being to the throne and not the person sitting on it. T’Challa’s precocious and ingenious sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a delight to watch, taking on the role of a playful Q to his 007 in the first of several Bond-inspired scenes, while his friend W’Kubi (Daniel Kaluuya) serves as an affecting example of the unfortunate human cost of leaders failing to keep their promises. Forrest Whittaker is a disappointing non-presence as spiritual figure Zuri, failing to make much of an impression before meeting the same fate that all Marvel movie mentors do, and it’s a shame to see him so woefully under-utilised. Even if he’d been given a meatier role, though, even an actor as formidable as Whittaker would be in danger of being overshadowed by Michael B. Jordan’s captivating turn as the film’s villain.

The MCU has struggled to offer compelling, memorable baddies but Killmonger immediately proves himself to be a cut above previous antagonists. Jordan is electrifying in the role, seething with a righteous fury as he seeks not only to settle a personal score but to right a historic wrong, and his tight physicality betrays an impatience to finally complete the mission he’s spent decades preparing for. Killmonger has witnessed first-hand the systemic racism that keeps black communities impoverished and neglected, and sees Wakanda as being complicit through its isolationism. While other Africans endured centuries of famine, colonisation, slavery and genocide, Wakandans led charmed lives and did nothing to help despite having the means and ability. After years in the military, learning firsthand how to destabilise governments and spark violent revolutions, Killmonger has now set his sights on Wakanda’s devastating arsenal, seeing it as a way to free black lives from oppression and restore them to a place of equality, if not outright superiority.

This is a fascinating motivation for an antagonist, one that seems at odds with a studio firmly in the business of producing crowd-pleasing mega hits. The MCU has dealt with weighty themes before — the Captain America films have played with questions of surveillance and personal liberty, and Tony Stark is a reformed war profiteer — but it has never produced a film so politically charged, that engages with difficult subject matter so pertinent to conversations we’re having right now. Coogler never goes so far as to condone Killmonger’s methods, but he goes to great lengths to humanise the character and grant validity to his viewpoint, even if his actions are abhorrent. Killmonger’s story is further deepened by the presence of CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and deranged smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who both prove themselves to be far more than mere token (or Tolkien) white guys. Klaue represents everything that his employer Killmonger hates, a white pillager who has grown rich by selling artifacts and resources stolen from black countries, and the tension with which their uneasy alliance plays out is delicious. Serkis is clearly having the time of his life in the role, tip-toeing right up to the line of overacting, and it’s great to see him taking more roles that don’t see him obscured by digital burns or fur. Ross, meanwhile, instantly recognises Killmonger’s tactics as being pulled straight from the CIA playbook, and we see him come to recognise and seek to make amends for the pain that his country’s past interventionism has caused.

Sadly, while Black Panther is rich in engaging political ideas, it fails to function anywhere near as effectively as an action film. Hand-to-hand combat sequences are shot jerkily and edited haphazardly, making some fight scenes frustratingly difficult to follow. Larger set-pieces, meanwhile, are undermined by subpar visual effects, with poorly-rendered CGI stuntmen bouncing weightlessly across the screen. That the film’s action leaves something to be desired is a shame, as Black Panther otherwise represents a big step forward visually for the franchise. Entries in the MCU often tend to employ a kind of house style, the look of any two movies often feeling uncannily similar, but cinematographer Rachel Morrison and production designer Hannah Beachler have developed a vibrant Afrofuturist aesthetic that sets it apart from its sister films. Composer Ludwig Goransson’s score is another MCU standout, augmenting traditional orchestral bombast with African chants and 808 beats. Original songs featuring and produced by Kendrick Lamar round out the film’s sonic landscape, adding a dose of modern hip hop culture to a story that is preoccupied with all variations of the black experience, from the very beginnings of life in Africa to the modern day projects of gangland Oakland.

All of these elements contribute to a film that feels unique and singular, a work recognisably crafted by an artist rather than being designed by committee. That’s not something the MCU has quite been able to achieve before, and Ryan Cooger should be proud that he’s managed to make a $200 million movie that contains as many interesting ideas as it does explosions. Black Panther isn’t always successful but it offers a shining example of what Marvel films are capable of doing when treated with care and passion. It is that rarest of things: a blockbuster that is actually about something, and if this is the calibre of filmmaking that we can expect from Marvel moving forward, then the MCU’s future looks very bright indeed.

Colossal review: A roaring success

I finally caught up with Colossal on Amazon Prime Video last night, and I was so taken with it that I decided to write a bit about it. It’s a bit spoilery, so please read with caution if you’ve not seen the film!

What would happen if your inner demons manifested themselves as real-life monsters? That’s the central question posed by the thoughtful and thrilling Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, an unemployed blogger whom we meet just as her fractured life finally shatters. Unable able to cope with her alcoholism and self-destructive lifestyle, Gloria’s boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) kicks her out of their New York apartment, forcing her to move back to her tiny New England hometown. It is here that Gloria runs into Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend with whom she lost touch, quickly accepting his offer of a job at his bar and taking full advantage of the easy access to alcohol it provides. Upon emerging wearily from yet another blackout drinking session, Gloria discovers that her latest binge has had consequences far worse than her hangover. It just so happens that when she steps on the right spot in a local children’s playground at 8:05 US time, an enormous reptilian monster materialises in Seoul, Korea and mimics her every action, turning her drunken stumble home through the park into a rampage that destroyed entire neighbourhoods and killed hundreds. We’ve all been there, right?

Hathaway is quietly great as Gloria, a woman who knows the damage her lifestyle is causing herself and those around her but can’t quite bring herself to stop. There’s a twitchy quality to Gloria, the kind of nervous energy caused by that constant, unknowing fear of whatever it is she might have done while wasted the previous night. Hathaway’s performance isn’t showy or flashy, but her easy charisma softens a character that could have easily been frustrating in hands of a different performer. Gloria remains winning and charming even throughout her most destructive behaviour, and her character is treated with great empathy by Vigalondo’s screenplay. She’s a screw-up, yes, but we clearly see the person she could be and root for her to find redemption. More importantly, we recognise the lack of self-worth that is the root of so many of her issues, and we see how that insecurity leaves her vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by men like Oscar.

Oscar seems to have everything together on the surface, but in reality he’s struggling with the same fundamental lack of control over his life that Gloria is. Sudeikis turns in a surprisingly nuanced performance, lacing Oscar’s initial affability and generosity towards Gloria with hints of darker ulterior motives. Trapped in his tiny home town and stuck running the business he inherited from his father, Oscar is a man certain he deserves greater things, his dissatisfaction and anger having festered for years. When Gloria reappears in Mainhead, Oscar sees in her an opportunity to finally have power over someone, over anyone, and he wastes no time at all finding ways to exert control over her. Matters worsen when Oscar realises that he has a similar ability to Gloria, with a gigantic robot appearing in Seoul whenever he sets foot on the playground. It is then that a man tormented by his own smallness suddenly finds himself able to make an enormous impact on the world and, unsurprisingly, he doesn’t react to this discovery with grace.

That giant robot is merely a hyper-literal projection of the monster already hiding within Oscar, who represents the dark truth of the pernicious ‘nice guy’ stock character. For decades, Hollywood has championed male protagonists who silently pine for intimate relationships with their female friends, hiding their true intentions until the objects of their affection realise the error of their ways and begin to reciprocate their feelings. Colossal shines a light on this trope and exposes the ugliness and entitlement that drives men like Oscar, who claims to care about Gloria’s wellbeing but quickly reveals himself to be interested solely in his own needs. He delights in the opportunity to have her rely on him for furniture and employment, relishing the growing power imbalance between the two of them and steadily chipping away at her agency. Oscar wants Gloria to feel like she owes him something so that when he begins to lash out verbally and physically, she sees no other option but to stay with him. This is classic abusive behaviour, and it’s deeply moving to see Gloria discover within herself the strength to overcome it, even if it’s expressed through the medium of CGI monster fights.

That uneasy duality, though, is what makes Colossal work so beautifully, with scenes of small-town Americana contrasting surreally with images of giant creatures dancing and fighting in Seoul. Though he’s dealing with heavy themes, Vigalondo deftly weaves just enough humour throughout the film so that there’s a laugh for every emotional gut punch, the inherent silliness of the concept never distracting from the message it’s being used to convey. The film only loses steam somewhat when it delves into Gloria and Oscar’s origin story, flashing back to reveal that they gained their abilities as children during a freak lightning storm. This sequence feels like it comes from a place of second-guessing it’s audience, of assuming that viewers won’t accept the ‘giant monster’ premise at face value and will at some point need a rational explanation for for it, whatever that would look like. But Colossal is at it’s best when it operates as a literal depiction of a clear metaphor, with no more regard for real-world metaphysics than a classic fairy tale, and to attempt to ground its story in reality feels unnecessary. Vigalondo also shows himself to have something of a tin ear for expositional dialogue, with characters sometimes going into full Greek chorus mode as they verbalise each other’s histories and motivations.

These weaknesses do little to detract from the success of the film, however. Mashing together as it does so many genres and ideas, Colossal could so easily have been a disaster, but Vigalondo never loses sight of his fascinating characters among the more heightened elements of the film. Aided by achingly human performances from Hathaway and Sudeikis, Vigalondo delivers a visceral, exhilarating experience that also has something incredibly important to say about modern gender dynamics. From start to finish, Colossal is a roaring success.

HomePod: If you like it, put a ring on it

Apple’s new HomePod, a smart speaker in the vein of the Amazon Echo and Google Home product lines, was released last week to mixed reviews. By all accounts, it’s a great-sounding speaker that is frustratingly limited in comparison to its more full-featured competitors, but most of that pales in comparison to the revelation that the device is damaging wooden furniture when placed upon it. From Wirecutter:

 An unhappy discovery after we placed a HomePod on an oiled butcher-block countertop and later on a wooden side table was that it left a defined white ring in the surface. Other reviewers and owners (such as Pocket-lint, and folks on Twitter) have reported the same issue as well. Apple attributes the problem to the oils diffused between the speaker’s vibration-dampening silicone base and the wood, and suggests wiping the marks with a damp or dry soft cloth, or else moving the HomePod to a different surface.

This is nothing short of an embarrassment for Apple, a company that once represented the pinnacle of product design. It seems insane that this didn’t come up at all during the development of the device, particularly when you consider that Apple employees have been testing it in their homes for almost a year. Not only that, but the Apple retail stores that HomePods are stocked and demonstrated in are full of attractive wooden tables.  How on earth did this slip by? The company has been accused of falling standards in hardware and software for a while now, and it’s not hard to see why. From an increasing abundance of iOS bugs to devices that literally damage your home, quality control at Apple clearly isn’t what it used to be.

Owning and using Apple products has always required a certain amount of sacrifice, even beyond the inflated price tags. Their phones and tablets and computers all play well together and form a well-integrated ecosystem that rewards you for fully embracing it, but entrance to that ecosystem comes with a price. You can’t ask Siri to play songs through Spotify or set default apps on your phone; Apple would much rather you stay within their walled garden for a (theoretically) better experience. Most Apple users are more-or-less okay with this, but requiring them to carefully choose where to place their HomePods lest it damage their furniture is outrageous. Judging by the reviews, the HomePod simply isn’t worth this cost; it might sound great, but Siri’s capabilities are extremely narrow when compared to those of Alexa or the Google Assistant. Apple customers are used to making concessions for the sake of simplicity, but this is one concession too far.

Venom: a lame character gets a lamer trailer

This week started so well, with a kickass trailer for Mission: Impossible – Fallout that got my blood pumping and instantly sold me on the sixth chapter in what should be a moribund franchise by this point. And then yesterday, Sony dropped… whatever this is:

This is a great example of how not to show your movie to the world for the first time. This is a trailer so generic, so lacking in any indication of what makes its story unique or interesting, that you could slap any sci-fi/horror title on the end, like ‘Mindwipe’ or ‘Brainfreak’ or whatever, and it would still make just as much sense. Hell, if you told me that this was a fan-made endeavour cobbled together using clips from other Tom Hardy movies, I’d probably believe you.

The decision not to show Venom at all in this trailer is baffling. He’s a paper-thin character whose popularity stems almost entirely from looking cool, so I don’t really understand why they’re not capitalising on that appeal. Without even a glimpse at the titular character, there’s just not a lot to go on or to contextualise Tom Hardy’s raspy monologue. I’ve read a few arguments that this is a teaser and as such, it’s good that it doesn’t give too much away, but I disagree; there’s nothing actually being teased here. A tease would be a glimpse of Venom’s face, his snarling maw appearing for just a couple of frames before cutting to black and leaving us wanting more. But I know nothing now that I didn’t already before watching the trailer, and that’s kind of a problem. Rather than being enticed I’m just a bit perplexed, and not in a way that makes me curious.

I don’t really understand why this film is being made. Well, I do-money, duh-but I still don’t really understand why. With Peter Parker out on loan to Marvel Studios, Sony is clearly keen to take advantage of the huge stable of Spider-Man characters under their ownership, but Venom is an odd place to start. His only interesting aspects as a character are found in his relationship with Spider-Man, and it’s clear that Spidey won’t be showing up here in any significant way. Much like the much-maligned Catwoman, this feels like a shameless cash-grab, a cynical bet that audiences will flock to see any film that features a big star and a tangential connection to a more popular property. But Catwoman bombed catastrophically and derailed Halle Berry’s career so badly that she’s never quite recovered. Will the same happen here? We’ll see.

Whether anyone wants it or not, Venom opens on 5th October.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (of a helicopter)

“How many times has Hunt’s government betrayed him? Disavowed him? Cast him aside?”

Five, actually, and it looks like it’s about to happen again. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has gone rogue and been pursued by his former colleagues with such regularity over the years that you wonder when the IMF is going to start cutting him some slack. On each of the five occasions Ethan Hunt has been accused of betrayal or treason, he’s not only proved his innocence but also saved the world from yet another bomb or viral outbreak or whatever. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt this time? Or, alternatively, why not just stop inviting him back? Where there’s smoke there’s probably fire, and besides, it must be a hassle to keep reactivating his parking pass.

Either way, this is a dynamite trailer that promises another tight blast of thrilling spy action. Cruise looks to be on fine form and it’s great to see returning players like Rebecca Ferguson and Sean Harris, both of whom were excellent in Rogue Nation, as well as newcomers like Angela Bassett and Henry Cavill. As far as the action goes, the filmmakers seem to have upped the ante once again, with brutal fistfights and breakneck chases aplenty. I was a little disappointed when I found out that the big showpiece stunt in this film would revolve around a helicopter; Rogue Nation opened with an incredible plane stunt and as we all know, planes are bigger than helicopters. But having now seen the footage of Tom Cruise dangling from a rope thousands of feet above the ground, I’m fully confident that he’s placed himself in sufficient mortal peril for me to forget all about that frankly pathetic plane nonsense and simply be entertained.

It’s really interesting to watch this series become increasingly serialised; once intended to be an episodic set of adventures that wiped the slate clean with each new entry, the franchise has been revisiting more and more characters and plot elements. Fallout even sees the return of Christopher McQuarrie, writer-director of Rogue Nation and the first filmmaker to helm a second Mission: Impossible. I’m a little concerned that returning villain Solomon Lane’s warning of ‘fallout’ from Hunt’s past actions bears shades of Blofeld professing himself to be the author of James Bond’s pain in Spectre, but it seems unlikely that the M:I team have looked at that snoozer of a film and decided to replicate it. Regardless, Ethan Hunt is something of a blank slate of a character, a vessel for whatever Tom Cruise shit Tom Cruise wants to do in each film, so I’m more than up for digging a little deeper under the surface and examining the psychology of a man with a near-pathological affinity for jumping off increasingly tall buildings.

More importantly, it’s pretty incredible that Mission: Impossible is a rare example of a franchise that consistently improves in quality with each new film. Egregious outlier Mission: Impossible 2 notwithstanding, each subsequent entry has come closer and closer to representing a kind of platonic ideal of a well-crafted action thriller that doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience. An on-set incident in which Cruise broke his ankle and continued to run on it (!) means that Fallout is yet to wrap shooting, but it’s nonetheless set for release on 27th July. Here’s hoping it represents yet another new high-water mark for the series.

Black Panther pounces

Black Panther hasn’t even been released yet and it’s already setting records. From Deadline:

After tickets went on sale Monday night, Black Panther is already outstripping Captain America: Civil War as Fandango’s best-selling MCU title in the first 24 hours of presales. Captain America: Civil War kicked off the opening of summer 2016 during the first weekend of May with $179M.

I have two major takeaways from this news. Firstly, it looks like the oft-predicted saturation point of superhero movies is still a ways off. As Marvel keeps tweaking the formula, introducing new characters to the mix and tinkering with older ones, audiences keep eating the films up. 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the box office totals are still on an upward trajectory, while entire other franchises have come and gone in that time. Will fatigue eventually set in? My assumption is yes, but it seems that this bubble is going to keep expanding for a long while before it bursts.

Secondly, and more importantly, this is proof that there’s an enormous appetite for a more diverse crop of superheroes in the cinematic landscape. True, there were three Blade films starring Wesley Snipes, and the MCU has prominently featured black characters like Rhodey and the Falcon before, but this is the first film of this scale to centre around a black superhero. The record-breaking presales indicate a huge amount of interest in Black Panther, but why is there so much excitement? There have been some great trailers featuring music by Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples and Run The Jewels but it’s not as if the movie itself looks to be a radical departure from the Marvel films that have preceded it. It’s clear, then, that a large amount of excitement is down to a black superhero finally getting his own mega-budget feature. Like Wonder Woman last year, Black Panther is breaking new ground by depicting a badass hero from a chronically underrepresented demographic, and is set to reap similar financial rewards for doing so.

Hollywood has a well-documented diversity problem, with white men headlining most major films while women and ethnic minorities are relegated to supporting roles (if they’re lucky). Occasionally a film will boast a largely female or black cast, but they’re positioned as ‘chick flicks’ or ‘black movies’, films that serve some kind of special interest but that are for a certain demographic and nobody else. The (projected) financial success of films like Black Panther is a refutation of the concept that mainstream audiences won’t accept actors of colour in leading roles, a sign of the continued normalisation of minorities getting to save the day every once in a while rather than just helping Chris Evans do it. Black Panther isn’t going to be the film that solves racism but, along with Wonder Woman and other diversely-cast movies like the Star Wars and Fast & Furious franchises, it proves that the potential audience for films with minority leads isn’t just restricted to those minorities.

Will the actual film be any good? I don’t know! Ryan Coogler is an exciting young director, and he’s assembled a murderers’ row of performers for his movie. We’ll see if Black Panther lives up to its hype when it releases next month.

U2, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” – Tom’s Weekly Jam

Confession time: I still like U2. It feels strange to have to ‘confess’ to liking a band responsible for some of the best and most influential rock albums of the 80s and 90s, but U2 occupy a weird space in our culture. Their newer work is scoffed at and written off, and their (admittedly somewhat misguided) efforts to remain relevant have been met with derision that other long-running acts escape. If a brand new Rolling Stones album had shown up for free in every iTunes member’s library, would the backlash have been anywhere near as severe as it was for U2’s stunt release for Songs of Innocence? We’ll obviously never know but I doubt it would.

It’s true that U2’s latter-day work often leaves a lot to be desired. With it’s obnoxiously dumb BA DER DER BA DER DER BA DER guitar riff and Spanish numeric exclamations, “Vertigo” is still perhaps the lamest lamest dad-rock song to be released this century. But does the stupidity of that track rob great songs like “With or Without You” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” of their power? I really don’t think it does. Bands that have been around as long as U2 have are seldom able to recreate the magic of the music they produced at the height of their popularity, but it seems to me that U2 are unfairly singled out for falling short of their old work. It almost feels a little personal, like there’s something about these guys in particular that invites this reaction. Is Bono a tax-dodging megalomaniac who fails to practice what he incessantly preaches? Sure. But he and the other members of U2 have consistently demonstrated a dedication to their craft, slavishly reworking songs for years until they feel they’re ready to go out into the world. U2 truly seem to believe that they’re yet to record their best album, and while they’re probably wrong in that regard, they’re not going to stop trying to create it anyway.

And so it is that we get songs like “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, from their new albums Songs of Experience. It bears all the hallmarks of a modern U2 song: it’s big and anthemic, it’s a little overproduced, its lyrics are simplistic and its title wouldn’t look out of place on a motivational poster, but none of that necessarily makes it a bad song. In fact, I think it’s quite good! I evidently like it enough to make it my Weekly Jam. It’s incredibly sweet and touching, with Bono demonstrating a great vocal range and a great distorted guitar riff from the Edge driving the song forwards. No, it’s probably not going to appear on a Best Of U2 compilation any time soon, but it’s hard to deny the honesty that songs like this are infused with. Is it overly sentimental? Quite possibly, but I think U2 mean every single word and note. It feels almost impossible to get worked up over a band producing work so earnest and heartfelt.

Of course, in recent years, a new U2 release hasn’t been complete without an accompanying episode of U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, a podcast that has been the main cause for my reassessment of U2’s last few albums. The enthusiasm of hosts Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott for the band’s music, whether celebrating or critiquing it, is infectious In my teenage years and early twenties, I was quick to write people off based on nothing more than their taste in music and films. I was that guy. But now that I’m a little older I realise that it doesn’t really matter what you like or dislike, as long as you can explain your reasons for doing so. I now recognise just how unattractive a quality elitism is in a person, and have been doing my best not to exhibit it myself. I’m not always successful but my intentions are good, and in that regard I feel like I can relate to U2 a lot.