The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman’s teen hero comes to the small screen.
Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) is the son of realtor Debbie Grayson (Sandra Oh) and writer Nolan Grayson (J.K. Simmons). Oh, and Nolan is actually Omni-Man, the world’s greatest superhero. Before his 18th birthday, Mark finally gets his superpowers and adopts the superhero moniker of Invincible. Now armed with flight, superstrength, superspeed, and the ability to make bad jokes mid-fight, Mark tries to live up to his father’s example. He works with the Teen Team, a group comprised of the Robot (Zachary Quinto), Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), and Dupli-Kate (Malese Jow). Shortly after this, the Guardians of the Globe, the most powerful superteam on the planet, are killed, leading the world to need the Teen Team and Invincible to start picking up the slack, as new threats seem to be constantly on the rise.
I loved the Invincible comic, as it was a story in which the main character dealt with real problems, hero problems, and the intersection between what a superhero is supposed to do and what would actually help people. Mark grows a lot over the series in believable ways that sometimes reflect his loss of idealism and often demonstrate that this loss allows him to evolve his sense of right and wrong without being broken by the weight of trying to take on the world’s problems. Also, the writing was pretty funny. Naturally, when I heard it was getting an animated adaptation, I was very excited, but also concerned. Invincible, while it was well-done and liked by many comic fans, didn’t have a lot of mainstream success. Typically, this means two things can happen in an adaptation: Either they’ll change everything (hoping the new version gets more attention) or they’ll just adapt it as closely as possible (since not enough people know what’s going to happen for it to matter).
Fortunately, this show seems to be eschewing both of those and giving a mostly-faithful adaptation with enough differences that comic fans will not be sure where it’s going. The story is mostly the same as the comics, so far, dealing with Mark trying to come to terms with being a superhero and also being a teenager. His insecurities about living up to his father’s example are a bit more exaggerated in the show, but that will likely change a bit during this season. There’s a mystery angle going on in the series that didn’t really happen in the comics and I’m excited to see if they play it out the same.
The voice cast in this show is as good as it gets, possibly rivaled only by DuckTales (woo-oo). Steven Yeun gives a ton of extra personality to Mark and J.K. Simmons as Superman with a mustache is nothing short of awesome. The supporting cast of the Teen Team has a ton of talent, and their expanded roster includes veteran voice actors Grey Griffin and Khary Payton. Walton Goggins plays the uptight and slightly shady head of the Global Defense Agency, Zazie Beetz plays Mark’s love interest Amber, and there are too many other great cameos and recurring performances to count, including Mahershala Ali, Clancy Brown, and Mark Hamill (Applause).
Overall, give this show a shot if you like solid superhero stories. I can’t wait for it to keep going.
Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix bring us a new and unusual version of the classic Batman villain.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire and aspiring stand-up comic with Pseudobulbar Affect, which causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. He takes care of his invalid mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), has a crush on his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and fantasizes about appearing on the late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). However, a series of events, starting with him being brutally assaulted by a group of kids for no reason, lead to Arthur becoming the symbol of anarchy: The Joker.
Okay, here’s the spoiler-free analysis of the movie:
This movie’s going to be divisive as hell. I’m not even talking about the issue of whether or not The Joker, a character famous for not really having a definitive backstory despite being around for 75 years, needed an origin movie. This is like any other figure with this many alternate characterizations: If you don’t like it, no big deal, it’s not canon. Heath Ledger caught crap because his Joker only wore makeup, and he was still amazing. What I mean by divisive is that I walked out of this movie being unable to say definitively if what I just watched was brilliant or not. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was probably a bunch of brilliant parts that were not quite assembled in a brilliant way. If I thought that was a commentary on comic book histories being composed of equal parts of brilliant storytelling (like The Killing Joke or Spider-Man’s “Kraven’s Last Hunt”) and not-so-brilliant storytelling (like All-Star Batman and Robin or Spider-Man’s “One More Day”), then that would itself be brilliant, but… nope, that’s not what they were going for.
One thing is that Joaquin Phoenix really went above and beyond in his performance. He may not be playing the “Joker” as we know the character, or even a character that really rings true to being the Joker, but the role that he is playing is absolutely perfectly realized in his portrayal. A big thing was his commitment to getting a kind of impossibly lanky figure which more resembles the traditional joker physique. He lost over 50 pounds for the role, but he also manages to move and shift in ways that emphasize the unnaturalness of it. However, when he wants to, he can look almost normal, because how he holds himself is so key to the audience’s perception. He also manages to do a perfectly horrifying version of Pseudobulbar Affect (which is a real thing), showing how sad and embarrassed he feels while still laughing externally. He shows us the grand gestures and performances that the character wishes to pull off, but also the awkward reality of him trying to do them and not being able to. I don’t know that the movie used him well, but I know that his performance really carries the weaker portions.
However, the movie’s themes are, at best, a little disconcerting and vaguely defended and undercut. The film wants you to empathize with Arthur and, to ensure that you have a shot at it, gives him an incredibly terrible life that only gets worse throughout the film. Moreover, it makes sure to convey that almost everything that happens to him isn’t really his fault. Most of the film is just randomness, something that actually DOES align with The Killing Joke’s origin for the Joker of just having one really bad day. But, when we finally do see him actually make a decision, it’s one that he actually tries to excuse, while he’s doing it, by saying that it’s not his fault. The problem is that this is the Joker. He’s not a character we should empathize with. He’s a psychopath. Even when people have portrayed his backstory as tragic, it’s always shown that he chose to use his backstory to become evil as opposed to Batman using tragedy to become a force for good. This movie doesn’t have Batman, so we don’t really have a solid figure to remind us that we are NOT supposed to like what Arthur does. So, basically, we’re cheering for a figure who is famous for being a psychotic killer. That’s bad.
From a technical standpoint, the music and camera work in the film are great. They really feed into the madness of the character. The supporting characters are also well-done, particularly Frances Conroy as his mother who is arguably crazier than he is. The settings are perfect for the environment. Gotham is dirty, it’s dying, it’s filled with homeless people, and it’s increasingly segregated by class. It’s basically New York in the 1980s, which… is what Gotham was a stand-in for anyway.
Overall, I keep going back and forth over whether I think this is a good movie. The truth is, it’s a well-done film, but the way it handles its message is haphazard and, given the kind of message it’s sending out, that’s dangerous. This movie could, with just a few tweaks, have been a solid statement about the fact that society suffers at the mercy of the few or that everyone benefits from taking care of the mentally ill. Instead, it basically says that if you kill random people, there’s a large group of people that will worship you. I feel like that’s a really bad message. Well, maybe see it yourself to decide.
ENDING EXPLAINED *SPOILERS*
So, a big part of the film is that Arthur has fantasies about what’s happening around him. This is a throwback to the film The King of Comedy, a movie starring Robert De Niro that revolves around a mentally-ill comedian holding a talk-show hostage. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably know how this fits in with Joker, since that’s kind of what happens briefly at the end. Joker shows us very early on in the film that Arthur fantasizes about being famous, telling off his therapist, killing his boss, or getting the father figure he always wanted, but he clearly knows they’re fantasies. Later, after Arthur’s social services are cut and he can’t get his meds, he ends up confusing the fantasies for reality, including hallucinating being a charming boyfriend to his neighbor Sophie. We’re later shown that, in fact, she doesn’t really know who he is.
Because of this, many parts of the movie could be, and in fact probably are, only in Arthur’s mind. However, unlike The King of Comedy, where the ending is actually in De Niro’s character’s mind, this movie actually shows us that Arthur’s shooting of Murray Franklin and the ensuing riot are definitely real, because we’re given an objective third-person viewpoint showing it. In other words, the part where he is the Joker is him acting in real life the way that he always wanted to act in his fantasies.
He’s able to do this because, as the Joker, he is not Arthur Fleck. In fact, he’s never been Arthur Fleck. He was just an abandoned child that his mother adopted (though she claims that this was a lie put forth by Thomas Wayne) and allowed to be abused by her boyfriends repeatedly throughout his childhood. It’s even possible that his laughter is the result of a Traumatic Brain Injury from this abuse, meaning that the most embarrassing and constantly tormenting thing about his life was her fault. He then kills her and applies a pure-white level of greasepaint to his face, erasing his own identity even further. He says then that his life is not a tragedy, it’s a comedy. That’s because a tragedy, from a traditional Aristotelian standpoint, requires the downfall of a good but flawed person, while a comedy is the rise of a sympathetic, but not necessarily good, person. In other words, while Arthur fell, that lets the Joker rise. So, the Joker doesn’t actually have a backstory, in Arthur’s mind. He’s a blank slate that has been shaped by the society he lives in, which happens to be a mass murderer. That’s why he just keeps killing at the end.
This movie could, and probably should, have been a solid commentary about what kind of society treats its most vulnerable people the way Arthur has been treated. He was abandoned. His mother was allowed to adopt him, despite her being mentally unwell. He was given back to her even though she literally chained him to a radiator and beat him. Then, at last, they cut the funding for his mental healthcare, resulting in him having a complete psychotic break. That’s Arthur’s backstory and it’s a solid way to do a tragedy. The problem is: HE’S THE F*CKING JOKER. You cannot empathize with the clown prince of chaos. He’s a literal force of anarchy and he knows it. When asked why he killed three people, he doesn’t point out it was in self defense, he just says it was funny. It wasn’t because they were rich, or because they were assholes, it’s just because it was funny, because that’s what the Joker would say and that’s who he is now. That’s not something we should empathize with, but it is something that can be emulated, and no one should want that.
This movie should have been a solid cautionary tale about what happens in a society that has a giant class imbalance and treats the poor like crap, but instead it’s a movie about how shooting people will make you famous and happy. After all, everyone knows who the Joker is.
Guess who’s back. Back again? Deadpool’s back. Tell a friend.
There, I wrote the marketing for Deadpool 3. Or 5. The movie’s going to be the highest-grossing comedy sequel by the end of the year, so I think it’s fair to say that, despite Ryan Reynolds’s statements to the contrary, this series is going to keep going until the sun burns out or the money dries up. And, honestly, maybe it won’t be bad if it does, because this series does, potentially, have the kind of set-up to subvert all the usual signs of sequel decline. This movie didn’t quite do that, but the best scenes in it were born out of trying to, and that’s promising.
So, this movie isn’t quite as good as the original, but, let’s be honest, that’s a really high bar to overcome. Deadpool was an amazing film and had some elements that really weren’t in films before in that exact method of expression. Films and Television have been breaking the fourth wall for years, but the way Deadpool does it is pretty unique. He’s not just interacting with the audience, he’s interacting with the film-making process, with Hollywood productions, and with viewer expectations. It’s basically a meta-smorgasbord, surrounded by some hilarious jokes and jam-packed with references and awesome action scenes. Also nudity.
This movie continues all of that, but, like all sequels, needed to really push it further or subvert it in this movie to feel new again. Unlike most sequels, though, this movie’s aware of that and either mocks it or calls Hollywood out for it. When it does this correctly, this movie is as funny as any film. When it doesn’t do it right, it just comes off as a typical sequel, but since it’s a sequel to Deadpool, that’s still pretty great.
The premise of the movie is that Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) ends up caring for a mutant kid named Russell (Julian Dennison) who is being hunted by the time-traveling mutant Cable (Josh “Marvel gives me a busload of money” Brolin). Since Cable is pretty much a one-man wrecking crew, Deadpool forms a crack team of Marvel properties (and one regular guy named Peter, because why the hell not?) which he names “X-Force,” because X-Men is sexist and Marvel already had the trademark. There are about 6 of them, but the only one that matters is Domino (Zazie “My name is almost as awesome as I am” Beetz), a mercenary whose power is “Being Really Really Really Lucky.” Her scenes are amazing, both because she keeps up with Deadpool’s comedy through her own disaffected delivery of sarcastic retorts and because she kicks an amount of ass which is measured in “metric f*ckton.”
What’s really ballsy about the movie is that, though he’s the one Deadpool is opposing, Cable really isn’t the “villain.” We find out his (pretty intentionally generic) motivation, and from that point, he isn’t even really an antihero. Honestly, in some movies, he’d be the hero. The movie does have characters who are irredeemably bad, but they’re relatively minor. Most of the characters that are “antagonists” are just people who have justifiable reasons for what they’re doing, even the bad things. For a superhero film, which typically has to frame the bad guy as being an overblown force of nastiness or someone who is just naturally prone to evil, this is a pretty heavy subversion.
Another surprising thing is how often the movie actually stops mocking something for a few minutes and actually does a sincere scene of real emotional value. It gives those moments even more of an impact because they’re contrasted with the other times in the movie where they ridicule those same scenes. If you’d told me I might actually have a moment of emotional connection in the sequel to Deadpool, I’d have never believed it, since the closest the first movie really had was the montage of his relationship up until he leaves. Granted, the whole cancer scene did hit me where I live, but that’s personal.
Now, there are some downsides to the movie. First, there is definitely a pacing problem in the movie. There are entire scenes where I just had to ask “why wasn’t this cut” because they were not extremely funny, emotional, or plot-related. Now, the movie had several other scenes that felt like they were supposed to be plot-building or character introduction, only for the film to hilariously destroy the relevance of the scene later. Those scenes worked fine, because they’re part of the movie’s subversive humor, but that really makes the ones that aren’t seem even slower and more pointless. Still, there aren’t that many, and the jokes within the scenes are still funny. Second, when you’re shooting jokes and references at the audience at the speed that this movie does, not all of them land. At one point, Deadpool himself calls part of the film “lazy writing,” and it’s funny, but also the obvious joke, because other shows and movies have made the same statement about time-travel movies. It doesn’t matter much, though, because for any joke that doesn’t land, another one comes in 15 seconds. At other points, you might miss one because you’re still laughing at the last 3, too.
And the ending. Oh, my god, the ending. I’m not sure exactly what the Deadpool canon is, but the way they end this film is so brilliant, they could start the next movie in an entirely different universe and it would make sense, while still being among the funniest scenes in the entire film.
Overall, if you liked the first one, see this film.