View Post

Marvel’s Spider-Man

Game, Home, Review, This Week 1 Comment

There was a time not all that long ago when superhero video games were as ubiquitous as superhero films are now. It wouldn’t be unusual to have a dozen cape-happy titles released each year, including X-Men, Spider-Man, The Punisher and Hulk tie-ins. Some of these titles were fantastic, many of them were crap, but they flowed out into the sweaty paws of gamers in a near-constant stream. Somewhere along the way this stopped, possibly around the time Marvel Studios got their shit together and began (Avengers) assembling their cinematic universe, and the situation reversed. Now we have a jaw-dropping number of superhero movies, many of them excellent, but video games have been on the decline.

Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games is here to try and buck that trend, bringing everyone’s favourite web-slinger into the homes of PS4 owners.

Spider-Man gives us a more seasoned Spidey than the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming movie. The game’s Peter Parker is older, a little wiser, and has decked a few supervillains in his time. This is a good decision from a gaming perspective because it means there are more baddies to draw upon when the time is right, plus the introduction of Mister Negative – the major villain of this title.

Practically you’ll be swinging around a semi-open world New York city, completing main missions, side quests and fun little weird activities like catching pigeons and stopping street crime. Starting with a negative it needs to be said that there is little innovation in the open world space here. Collecting stuff, chasing icons, punching groups of thugs – it’s very much business as usual in a Batman: Arkham City meets Infamous kinda way. That being said, Spider-Man absolutely nails the movement mechanic and is easily the best web-slinging simulator since Spider-Man 2 back in 2004.

Honestly, it’s hard to overstate how good web-slinging feels. The sheer rush of gravity as you plummet past buildings, the giddy joy as you swing upwards, scraping the tops of cabs and pedestrians, yorping in primal glee. It never gets old. The combat, also, is fast and snappy, featuring upgradable skills and movesets that are fantastic at keeping the fights fresh and fun. The addition of numerous outfits with modular skills and supers frequently leads to clever approaches to the old kicky punchy, and it just feels right. And the story, while not exactly spectacular, is certainly engaging, although it suffers from odd pacing and a couple of not-terribly-interesting perspective shifts.

Ultimately your enjoyment of Spider-Man will come from your ability to look past the game’s mild shortcomings of imagination. If you don’t feel burnt out on Arkham-style gameplay, if you can still thrill to chasing icons around an open world, then you’re likely to have a grand old time, albeit one that falls slightly short of being amazing. And hey, if you’re a PS4 owner who is even casually interested in being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, well, you know what to do.

 
View Post

Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 2

Review, Television, This Week 2 Comments

Boy, did Marvel listen.

The first season of Marvel’s Iron Fist landed with a resounding thud not unlike a noob kung fu disciple hitting the mat. Critics were unkind, fans were unimpressed, and the general consensus was that it was the worst of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far.

However, it seems that the powers that be had considerable faith in Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir-to-billions-turned-mystic-martial-arts-master, and after co-starring in The Defenders and guesting on Luke Cage, the wielder of the titular metal mitt is back in the saddle of his own series. And while Iron Fist is still not in a position comparable to the best of the MarFlix series (if you’re wondering, Jessica Jones S1 is the reigning champ), this season it has definitely found its feet, becoming a solid action procedural.

That’s chiefly down to some serious tonal retooling. Season 2, under the stewardship of new showrunner Raven Metzner, handily picking up the baton fumbled by departing incumbent Scott Buck. Metzner doesn’t retcon anything that has gone before (although to be honest, memories of Season 1 are rather indistinct…) but rather deftly pushes the whole operation in a new direction. The show now feels like it knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and that confidence is refreshing.

The changes are myriad but generally subtle. One thing that jumps out is that our hero is less of an asshole. Original Recipe Danny Rand was nigh-unbearable in his #worldtraveller smug wokeness, but this season he’s a much more humble and driven character, having taken up Daredevil’s vigilante duties in the wake of the events of The Defenders. Eschewing luxury, he’s moving furniture by day, mopping up criminals in Chinatown by night, and making a cute couple with fellow martial artist/former member of The Hand (there is so much backstory and jargon now – just go with it if you’re a bit lost) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).

It’s a nice little superhero life, suddenly complicated by two things: the arrival of Danny’s old friend and rival Davos (Sacha Dawan), a fellow student in the mystical city of K’un L’un (so much backstory and jargon…); and the appearance of the mysterious Mary (Alice Eve), who is either a naive artist trying to make it in the Big Apple, a deadly assassin who can go toe to toe with Iron Fist, or both.

Davos functions as the now overly familiar “dark mirror” villain of the piece, a self-flagellating ascetic bad-ass who thinks he deserves to wield the power of the Iron Fist more than Danny, and is willing to do some pretty awful stuff to wrest our guy’s glowing hand from him. As for Alice, her agenda is murkier, but fans of the comics and denizens of the internet will already know that she’s the live action incarnation of noted Marvel villain Typhoid Mary, normally an opponent of Daredevil, and we’ll just leave this hyperlink here for those who don’t mind spoilers.

Whenever these plots intersect, violence erupts – and it’s good violence, too. For all its leaden pacing and poorly sketched characters, the first season’s biggest problem was that its fight sequences were embarrassingly lackluster – that’s a serious handicap when your show is literally and specifically about a guy whose main power is Super Punching. Wisely, the production team called in veteran fight choreographer Clayton Barber to bring this season’s action beats up to par, and the improvement is immediately and viscerally noticeable. Barber understands how to reveal story and character through action. While the show is still somewhat hampered by the practical limitations of time and money, each fight scene is its own beast with its own flavour. Of the first six episodes previewed, the two stand outs are a pretty nifty scrap in a restaurant kitchen that could fit nicely in a prime-era Hong Kong action flick, and a flashback sequence that sees Danny and Davos battling in a K’un L’un temple, all flowing scarves, graceful leaping kicks, and misty lighting.

While there are connecting threads to both The Defenders and Season 1, six episodes in, Season 2 seems content to be just a street level action drama, and that’s to its credit. The plot more or less just exists to get us to the next fight, and the fights exist because, well, properly choreographed and framed fights are cool – here, as in the best action cinema, action is its own reward. While shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage – and even, to a degree, Daredevil – have loftier thematic goals, Iron Fist is a straight-up chop-socky beat ’em up, and that’s fine.

 
View Post

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Featured, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

While the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its hands full dealing with the existential threat that is Thanos over in Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp deals with crises of an appropriately smaller scale: Evangeline Lily’s Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp (she is rarely if ever called by her nom de super) and her genius father, Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) need a gizmo to finish the “quantum tunnel” they’re building in hopes of rescuing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother to the former and wife to the latter, from the microscopic “Quantum Realm” where she was lost many years gone by. Black market technology broker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) has the widget, but he wants Pym’s own technology to sell to the highest bidder. The villainous – or is she? – Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase through solid objects, also wants the gadget for her own reasons. All reformed thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, wants to do is run out the clock on the two years of house arrest he was sentenced to after the events of Captain America: Civil War. No such luck…

After seeing half the universe wiped out in the last Marvel big screen outing, the modest stakes of Ant-Man and the Wasp seem almost quaint. It’s not about saving the world, but about rescuing one person. We’re not up against the ultimate evil, but a shifty arms dealer and a rogue spy. The big prize is a few mended fences – Scott has been on the outs with Hope and Hank in the two years since we last checked in, and one of this film’s chief narrative arcs is him getting back in their good graces.

It’s actually refreshing, and for all that the Ant-Man films are goofy comedy capers, they’re among the more emotionally astute offerings from the Marvel stable. We might enjoy spectacle, but let’s face it – the idea of the end of the universe is pretty abstract. However, almost everyone can relate to wanting to amend for past mistakes, or be a good role model for your kid (Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Abby Ryder-Fortson are back as Lang’s family).

Which doesn’t mean we don’t get a healthy dose of effects and action, but it takes a while for Ant-Man and the Wasp to get there, only really kicking into gear with a rather great chase through a restaurant kitchen pretty late in the game. The Ant-Man schtick is a simple one – people and objects shrink or grow – but director Peyton Reed and his team certainly find it malleable enough to keep discovering new wrinkles – although perhaps the best is the office building/roller luggage bit seen in the trailers.

Still, the film’s real strength is its cast – it’s simply a lot of fun to hang out with Lang and his extended circle. Michael Pena’s Luis remains the comedic MVP, but only just; almost everyone gets a chance to crack wise, and the film is only a couple of degrees off being a straight-up comedy. Only John-Kamen’s angsty Ghost really gets to grips with the usual woe-is-me superhero self pity, and she’s got her reasons. John-Kamen’s turn here is pretty great, but as a character Ghost feels a little out of place in this sunnier suburb of the MCU. Similarly, Goggins’ villain hardly seems like a credible threat even when he’s having a sinister henchman dope people with truth serum. Ant-Man’s real nemesis is actually Randall Park’s ineffectual FBI agent, who’s assigned to keep tabs on him while he’s under house arrest – a guy so nice he moonlights as a youth pastor.

Happily, Ant-Man and the Wasp is so breezy and charming that what would be defects in a more self-serious film are assets here. Marvel movies sometimes have tonal issues resulting from trying to straddle the line between the comedic and the dramatic – the much-loved Thor: Ragnarok is notably guilty of this – but this latest effort solves that equation by all but jettisoning the dramatic. What we’re left with is a nimble, light and enjoyable jaunt that probably won’t make anyone’s Best Of lists, but is nonetheless hugely enjoyable in the moment.

 
View Post

Luke Cage Season 2

Home, Review, Television, This Week Leave a Comment

Following on from the events of last season and crossover series The Defenders, season two of Luke Cage (or Marvel’s Luke Cage if you prefer) sees the titular Hero for Hire (Mike Colter) settling into the groove of being Harlem’s champion-about-town. Old enemies are still around to make life difficult for him, chiefly politician-turned-crime-boss Mariah Dillard/Stokes (Alfre Woodard) and major-domo Shades (Theo Rossi), and a new threat arises in the form of Jamaican gangster Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who wants to take Harlem for himself and has no qualms about employing horrifying violence to do so.

Which sounds like there should be plenty for our man to deal with this year, but unfortunately Luke Cage Season 2 is a fairly sluggish affair. It’s a show that absolutely shines in the details but fumbles the big picture, filling the screen with fascinating and vibrant elements of African American culture (the soundtrack, again highlighted by live performances at the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, is all killer), but hampered by leaden pacing and an almost terminal lack of narrative direction. It’s always fun to hang out in Luke Cage’s Harlem, but this season it seems to have a real problem with figuring out what kind of story it’s trying to tell.

That’s weirdly appropriate in a way, as Luke’s main arc is figuring out what kind of hero he’s going to be. He spends a lot of time this season ruminating on his position in the community, and figuring how to get paid (Hero for Hire, remember?) without compromising his ethics – and he’s not always successful. In parallel, we get Mariah trying to negotiate her transition from political player to, ultimately, gangster, which is a rough journey and not as well written as you might hope. The series seems to have a real problem with understanding who Mariah is or who they want her to be, and as a result her characterisation is wildly erratic and inconsistent, lurching from calculating mastermind to drunken mess to aggrieved matriarch and back. Luckily Alfre Woodard is an absolute gun and remains eminently watchable even when the script doesn’t give her the support she deserves.

Season 2 also continues the grand Marvel thematic tradition of Oh No My Dad Was Problematic, bringing in the late, great Reg E. Cathey (this was his final role and the series is dedicated to him) as Cage Senior, a preacher who has been alienated from his son since the latter was jailed, and who blames the stress of that ordeal for putting his wife into an early grave. Mariah is also struggling with her legacy, trying to reconnect with her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) a doctor-turned-naturopath who has turned her back on the family legacy. Between this and season 2 of Jessica Jones that’s two instances of Oh No My Mum Was Problematic we’ve had from Marvel this year, which is some kind of blow for representation, we guess.

Still, themes of family, legacy and community run deep in Luke Cage, with pretty much every character directed by, or struggling to get out from under, generational issues – old debts, bad blood, family shame, cycles of violence and revenge. Even Bushmaster, a charismatic and ruthless villain with a nice line in capoeira kick-fighting, is driven by the desire for vengeance for crimes against his family. This is the good stuff – by grounding the action of the series in this palpable sense of place and history, the whole thing has a greater dramatic weight.

That weight does slow things down though – although perhaps that’s just Netflix’s insistence on sticking to their unwieldy 13 episode season plan, which we have griped about before. Once again, there’s not enough story to stretch over the 13 hour framework comfortably, and we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels or dealing with needless complications that don’t forward either the plot or the themes of the series. This is a problem endemic to the Marvel Netflix stable, and perhaps it’s no more prevalent than in most episodic entertainment, but given we’re encouraged to binge this stuff, it becomes all the more apparent and damaging in this context.

It does allow time for little detours and fun moments, though, and as we pointed out, it’s in these little details that Luke Cage sings. We get a few fun cameos from the broader Marvel Netflixiverse, and we get to spend a lot of time with tough cop and – since the events of The Defenders – amputee Misty Knight (Simone Messick), who refuses to let the loss of a limb slow her down (even if it is eventually dealt with in the most Marvel way possible). One of the most fun interludes involves Knight hanging out with Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and kicking an impressive amount of ass in a barroom brawl – this might be the closest we get to a Daughters of the Dragon show, but we’ll take what we can get.

Which is a good attitude to go into this one with. Luke Cage isn’t a bad show, but it definitely falls short of its obvious inherent potential. It’s entertaining enough and sports excellent performance scenes, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together as well as it should. If we’re getting a third season – and S2 leaves us in a place where that seems like a certainty – hopefully it’s a tighter and more focused affair. We’ve hung out enough – it’s time to get moving.