Three Good Newish Superhero and Adventure Movies You Can Watch Instead of THE FLASH and INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY
I’m not into rewarding bad behavior, let alone celebrating it, thus when the movie studio that axed Johnny Depp from its Harry Potter prequel series foists The Flash upon us without recasting, I cry foul at the favoritism and its implications. (Notably, Depp won his case, and recently chose to donate his significant settlement to five charities — easily confirmed — while the same studio has failed to recast his accuser in its Aquaman sequel. Tsk.) Other examples of this dubious selectivity abound, and while I’m neither a judge nor a jury, there is such a thing as bad press, and it certainly doesn’t prompt me to support a movie. For The Flash, I can wait for the fan-edits, with the unfortunate lead, Jar Jar-like, removed.
Meanwhile, over at the Mouse House, 15 years after the adequate Crystal Skull and a whopping 34 years after the thrilling original trilogy (three superior movies pounded out in a relatively brief eight years), we’re being force-fed the first and possibly last Indiana Jones movie assembled largely without the involvement of its originators. Having endured Disney’s smug butchery of the Star Wars franchise (also included in their woeful 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm), I’m simply not interested in watching them similarly mishandling Indy (though I’ll jeer a bit). I’ve no obligation to revere Grandpa, but I’d check out Old Indiana Jones if the movie looked good; however, from the pans at Cannes to the synopsis on Wikipedia, I’m confident that Dire of Disney — oops — Dial of Destiny is not my jam.
Good wishes to the thousands of artists, craftspeople, and marketers employed by those two monstrous tentpoles and their deranged executives, as I sit them out. I’ve said why.
Happily, a new superhero movie is released every five seconds, and — lucky you! — I’ve watched a couple of recent ones, plus sort of a third, and I fully intend to spend this important article telling you about them. Actually, they’re all kind of the same movie — about a makeshift family joining forces to battle a baddie (or two) — but I’ve got no problem with redundancy as long as the ride is fun, and all three of these rides are fun.
Top draw for me is Shazam! Fury of the Gods, which concerns an actual foster family battling a baddie (or two). The first Shazam! was the breakout surprise of 2019, offbeat and hilarious with a genuine emotional core — basically a superhero antidote to years of bloated, bombastic Goyer-Nolan drudgery — and that goodwill extends to its sequel, also directed by David F. Sandberg, who’s so good at his job that he even made an unnecessary Annabelle prequel beautiful and scary. I’ve dug back and enjoyed several superhero features from before grimness became cool, including Batman (‘66), Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, The Return of Captain Invincible, and Superman III, and if that indicates that I like a wry wink more than a boorish scowl, so be it. (Speaking of comic-book movies, I shall never tire of reminding my readers that I’ve been on board for Tank Girl since its release in 1995, and I’m waiting for everyone to realize how stupid and tedious tough-guy shit is, so they can catch up.) Also note that my enjoyment of the Shazam movies really has nothing to do with the lead being “representational” as a male of European descent; in the character of Captain Marvel/Shazam, I don’t feel “seen.” I like Black Panther, Shang-Chi, and Wonder Woman, too. It just so happens that Zachary Levi is a scream, as a mush-mouthed kid allowed to play superhero adult. (It’s like The Greatest American Hero, but swap out the Boomer for a Gen-Xer; whew, finally.) When grownups or apparent grownups in silly costumes swoop around smashing into each other, funny helps. A lot. The fact that our hero here is not considered the sharpest apple in the lake makes it even funnier (sharing a nearly identical line with the lead of the third feature below — again, these three ostensibly unrelated movies overlap quite a bit — he amusingly deems criticism of his limited brainpower “hurtful”).
The real Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam) returns in this unjustly maligned sequel, appropriately set four years later, as teen angst and a dearth of municipal brotherly love complicate the lives of bumbling petty-criminal kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Levi), his bestie bro Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer/Adam Brody), and their “Shazamily” (Faithe Herman/Meagan Good, Ian Chen/Ross Butler, Jovan Armand/D.J. Cotrona, and Grace Caroline Currey as both “regular young woman” and superhero-adult form). Part of the fun comes from their foster parents (Marta Milans, Cooper Andews) somehow being oblivious to raising a houseful of superheroes, especially as the kids work overtime to confront the malevolent daughters of Atlas (Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu), who have stolen back the “Gandalf staff” which Shazam snapped in the first movie, intent on relieving the kids of their powers — humans and Earth be damned (in a big CG way reminiscent of Justice League, but that’s good with me — it’s like Avatar without the boredom). The movie capably carries on both the themes and romps of the first one, adding visual elements straight out of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Greek mythology, and even Inception/Doctor Strange. Excellent, go for it. Meanwhile, frenetic Freddy literally falls for the new girl in school (Rachel Zegler), and teams up with the truly delightful Djimon Hounsou as the beleaguered wizard, who confusingly and amusingly calls him “Jeff.” Liu gets the thankless role, essentially written and directed as a bitchy landlady (albeit w/dragon), but around her, repartee abounds in Shazam! Fury of the Gods — I had to Google Freddy’s bizarre Destiny’s Child reference later, but in the moment I laughed anyway because his tortured delivery was so great, as I laughed many times, because this movie is a blast. That “Rock” guy shouldn’t have shunned the origins of his attempt at a big-screen superhero (Black Adam: 1945; Shazam, as Captain Marvel: 1939), because while Black Adam (2022) was watchable, the Shazam movies really do rock. Regardless of the state of the newly forming DCU, hurry up and make a third one! Then twenty more!
Kicking off Phase 162 of the MCU as the 2,104th Marvel movie up to the minute of this publication — oops, make that the 2,109th — Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania also presents a rag-tag family led by a bumbling petty criminal, in this case an actual adult played by Paul Rudd (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) in his third leading outing as the character. Note: Despite the unfortunate presence of Michael Douglas, I liked the previous two Ant-Man movies, because they’re whimsical, low on bombast, and delivered on a human scale, plus I like Rudd much more than Marvel’s other leading dumbasses (Rudd’s shtick is snappy, sans smarmy). After a quick villain-teaser and a jolly prologue about Ant-Man resting on his laurels while his daughter plays SJW (set to John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back,” but no Gabe Kaplan cameo?!), the movie wastes no time shrinking everyone, including Wasp/squeeze Evangeline Lilly, Wasp Prime/future mother-in-law Michelle Pfeiffer, and abruptly-adult Ant-Daughter Kathryn Newton (the third actress to play the role) way, way down, into that hipster “quantum realm,” essentially delivering unto us the third Tron movie. Remember Tron, from back when Disney generated new ideas instead of merely grinding beloved IPs into the dirt? Quantumania isn’t videogame-themed, but same deal about delving into an all-digital world, and what’s not to dig? (Upon discovering that Jared Leto’s in the forthcoming Tron threequel, I’ll take this Ant-Man movie instead, thanks.) Unlike a New York critic who expressed disapproval — perhaps this movie didn’t remind her of her cat — I like this sort of thing, even including its heavy reliance on so much green screen it makes the Star Wars Prequels look like Herzog films. Also, unlike Disney “Star Wars,” the Mouse doesn’t seem quite so hell-bent on destroying the Marvel franchise and nauseating its fanbase, so the result here doesn’t emit the sad stench of failure those movies do.
Word doesn’t have it that gritty, street-smart director Martin Scorsese begged and pleaded to direct Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania [Legal says: “Movie dickheads are humorless. Plainly state that you’re kidding.” Okay. I’m kidding. Also about Legal.], but he lost out to Peyton Reed, a bald man from North Carolina who is nonetheless remarkably functional. Mr. Reed replaced some wannabe in directing the first Ant-Man movie, carried on successfully through two more, and thus far, defying expectations, has delivered a pleasing trilogy thereof. While it’s unclear exactly how the director communicated with half the population of this planet credited for the sensational visuals of Quantumania — it’s like Avatar without the boredom — the result is a delight to behold, a CG “Creature Cantina” writ huge and all-encompassing. Fold in plausible family drama, chuckles and thrills, plus Bill Murray shockingly playing a sleazy jerk, and you get a terrific movie about which I wouldn’t trust anyone who complains. Special commendation to the Yellowjacket guy from the first Ant-Man, who returns here as belligerent big-head-baby-legs “M.O.D.O.K.,” amply revealing the facepalm hilarity behind real-life idiotic arrogance. Also props to previously unknown though possibly bald (but maybe not) screenwriter Jeff Loveness, who herein makes his smart and sassy feature debut. As for the elephant in the Multiverse, the controversy around Jonathan Majors, again through and only through the press, is currently as inscrutable as the villain, “Kang the Conqueror,” he plays in Quantumania. Presently no clue whether the actor will get an equitable shake. Onscreen, while he explodes into a couple of brief “FIRE EVERYTHING!!!”-type Eric Bana rage bursts (mocking reference to the first stupid “Star Trek” reboot movie, from 2009), mostly he emanates a calm, cold, condescending demeanor on par with Terence Stamp’s “General Zod,” and baby, that’s praise.
Blatantly modeled after Ant-Man is Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which is the fourth movie to carry the D&D brand, and it automatically gets a point for correctly using Among (more than two) instead of “Between” (two, and only two). As something of a fan of the first two D&D movies (third one’s hard to find), I’d been aware of production reports on D&D: HAT — Iceland this, Northern Ireland that — but expected as much a trainwreck as an inescapable cable classic; yet, happily enough, it may finally knock out The Beastmaster as the latter. Exactly like Ant-Man, it’s about a bumbling petty-criminal daddy striving to do right by his kinda-sorta estranged daughter, and of course it’s another story of a makeshift family battling a baddie (er, two baddies, mainly). I’m aware that D&D: HAT should be filed under Fantasy-Adventure, but really it’s a Superhero Movie in Ren Faire rags, same beats, same effects, thus its inclusion here. Plus it’s got treasure hunters and fisticuffs and maps and stuff, just mercifully no fedora.
As with many actors mysteriously cast in leading roles, Chris “Fake Kirk” Pine is a liability (here he refers to himself as “the champion of failures,” apparently having seen his own purported “Star Trek” movies), but I’ve learned to peer around such bizarrely exalted leads and enjoy a movie anyway, which D&D: HAT makes easy, with its clear, concise, quip-tastic quests (“That’s one pudgy dragon!” — and indeed, it is; one article, two dragons, folks). Ties to previous entries are tenuous, and since Tom Hanks never seems to say no it’s a missed opportunity not to include a freak-out Mazes and Monsters cameo with him, but occasionally a reboot works, credit to the co-directing team of Goldstein & Daley (also rebooters of Vacation, and who, tying up this essay with a neat little bow, left The Flash in 2018). Following the murder of his wife by those gosh-darned Red Wizards, Pine’s guy teams up with Michelle Rodriguez shockingly playing a badass, practically defining the entertainment industry with, “Neither of us had money or an honest way to earn it, so we decided to table honest, and we tried something new.” They’re joined by a so-so sorcerer (Justice Smith), a hammy-as-hell con man (Hugh Grant), and eventually a shape-shifting druid (It girl Sophia Lillis), en route to an amusing final showdown with a particularly fetching Red Wizard (Daisy Head). D&D: HAT doesn’t look like film, per se, but however it was lensed and composed it all looks terrific: both the natural scenery and digital tableaux are sweeping and gorgeous — it’s like Avatar without the boredom. Plenty of fun is generated by D&D tropes, or what I’m guessing are D&D tropes, as I only played it once as a kid, my sense of humor proving preclusive to serious gaming. Admittedly, after this movie’s epic prologue I was good to go — what? there’s more? — and in the end daddy and daughter disappointingly make a blithe and bewildering choice not to resurrect a vital character (props to foster families, but I don’t dig the “family are whoever’s convenient to my whims” message), but on the whole this production, precisely like a superhero movie, takes what used to be fringe fare and makes it extremely mainstream-friendly, if that’s a good thing. I know I’ll watch it again.
So there you go: the second Shazam movie, the third Ant-Man movie, and the fourth Dungeons & Dragons movie — and here I am stating that I liked all of them. Because I did. Sure, I can play hip and tuck into an occasional miserable film about people feeling terrible, but I’d rather have a good time at the movies. Hey, studios: don’t give up on making big, entertaining movies. I know you’ve still got it in you. Give Ava back her New Gods project. Release Batgirl. Return Spider-Man to Sam. And in general, don’t jerk around your fanbase until they despise you, because that just isn’t a good business model.
P.S. Raise my number of followers on this site to 1,000 or more — legitimate followers (I’m not that guy) — and I’ll share my extremely succinct, handwritten 1982 review of The Beastmaster. Act quickly. This offer will expire soon.