No Way Home Hits All The Right Nostalgic Notes

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ambitious crossovers have become the forte of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to the point where grand encounters between its heroes are nowadays a given. The latest MCU venture is one that fulfils those expectations, and immediately surpasses them, drawing inspiration from some rather unlikely sources to produce a truly amazing, spectacular blockbuster that enriches the legacy of its namesake.

Following his defeat of an Avengers-level threat in Europe, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been publicly identified as the alter-ego of Spider-Man, and is now being persecuted for his vigilantism. He’s not the only person facing judgement, since friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and M.J. (Zendaya) and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are being hounded by the authorities and the populace for merely being associated with the web-slinger.

Hoping to rectify the situations of those he holds most dear, Peter ventures across New York City and approaches fellow superhero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is versed in the mystic arts. Doctor Strange offers his help by conjuring a spell that will ensure the entire world forgets Spider-Man’s secret identity; but after being botched by Peter’s constant interruptions, Strange’s magic instead unleashes a peril far greater than either hero could ever imagine.

The full ramifications of this wayward conjuration deserve not to be spoiled, suffice to say that it brings to the fore a concept that has long been gestating within Kevin Feige’s MCU: the Multiverse. The notion that every reality is connected to a series of parallel dimensions was initially floated by Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016), teased in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) and eventually confirmed as canon in the Disney+ series Loki (2021), before being effectively applied to the animated series What If…? (2021).

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Spider-Man: No Way Home

There are, of course, other Marvel-branded projects that have utilised a multiverse-spanning narrative, most notably the feature-length animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). With said film being a critical and commercial success, there would be every temptation for this live-action production to emulate its greatest strengths, and in some instances it does – there’s certainly an influence in the self-referential humour. But the latest Spider-Man flick is certainly no facsimile of its animated counterpart, since it owes more to its live-action forebears.

In truth, the films that best inform Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) are those of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007), and not just for… the obvious. Raimi’s movies – yes, even the maligned third chapter – triumphed by instilling heart into the conflict, humanising the antagonists with their personal struggles and adding tender, delicate moments that kept the narrative grounded. Similar, if not identical, attributes are present in No Way Home, which keeps an eye on the finer details and constantly looks for the good in others, no matter what their failings are.

This heartfelt tone is not the only quality present in the screenplay, for there are plenty more smarts contained within. Most impressive is how coherent and easy to follow the narrative is, succinctly establishing the conflict and deftly balancing a multitude of characters who each have their own arcs, all of which is done without No Way Home spiralling into an incongruent, slapdash mess. Additionally, the script has a fair amount of emotional heft, with one or two scenes being among the most poignant this franchise has ever produced.

Part of the reason why these moments hit so hard is because of the performances, with just about every actor providing a phenomenal turn. Undoubtedly, the thespians who leave the greatest impression are those who play the villains from alternate universes, their portrayals being an adroit balance between cheesy and sinister, while not forgetting to convey the tenderness in their characters. What’s more, everybody in the cast has fantastic chemistry with one-another, despite most having not shared the screen previously.

The Iron Spider suit, as seen in Spider-Man: No Way Home

All of these traits pleasingly help to distinguish No Way Home from the many other Marvel blockbusters; but even so, this is still a picture tied firmly to the MCU, sharing various components with the two prior Spider-Man films to ensure that the look, tone and sound of this chapter is in keeping with what audiences are accustomed to, whilst also paying homage to its earlier precursors – for instance, the orchestral score of returnee Michael Giacchino incorporates elements of Danny Elfman’s work in the Raimi trilogy, as well as James Horner’s compositions for The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Although No Way Home is unquestionably a very pleasing affair, it’s not a faultless one. The most pressing of these faults is the film’s pacing – during the first two acts, the story flows briskly yet smoothly, before slowing right down as it heads into the third act and loosing steam altogether by the epilogue. Of further annoyance is the lengthy conversations had between characters in this final act which not only contribute to the slowness, but also ensure that it feels needlessly bloated.

There are other quibbles to be had with No Way Home, including the humour, which is funnier than Far From Home yet never reaches the comedic heights of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Into the Spider-Verse. And while the plot can be followed without having to revisit every previous Spider-Man film, its numerous revelations and throwbacks aren’t going to be as satisfying nor as rewarding for uninitiated viewers. But these are only minor problems when compared to the issues of pace, and even they aren’t enough to spoil enjoyment of the picture.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a euphoric celebration of Marvel’s web-slinging superhero, one that cheekily yet adoringly pays homage to the films that came before it. With a humanist screenplay that deftly balances multiple characters, and an all-star cast at the peak of their talents, this blockbuster represents another fantastic entry in the MCU, and an utter treat for Spider-Man fans of any generation.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

East Meets West in Marvel’s Dazzling Shang-Chi

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before the advent of the motion-picture, the martial arts were Asia’s greatest cultural export, imitated and appropriated by Western societies for decades. The latest film to continue this tradition comes from, of all places, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, albeit with a lot more care and consideration than is normal for a Hollywood production.

Since fleeing his homeland of China as a teenager, Shaun (Simu Liu) has led a modest life in San Francisco, keen to shun the criminal lifestyle practised by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). The only connection he keeps to his past is a jade pendant – gifted to him by his deceased mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen) – which is worn around his neck for safekeeping; but the value of the pendant is more than sentimental, since armed mercenaries are willing to fight Shaun for it on public transport.

Though said mercenaries don’t reveal their motivations, nor their affiliations, Shaun is convinced that they are tied to Wenwu’s shady dealings, and will remain a threat to himself and others – principally his American friend, Katy (Awkwafina) with whom he shares a close bond; and his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) who is thought to be living in Macau. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: Shaun will need to confront his murky past if he wants to ensure his future.

On most fronts, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) is rather innovative for a Marvel Studios feature, heavily drawing inspiration from the wuxia films that have long dominated Asian cinema. Kung fu is frequently incorporated into the action sequences, making for a refreshing chance from the usual superhero fisticuffs; there’s an Eastern influence in the soundtrack of Joel P. West too, with woodwind instruments and thumping drum beats heard throughout; and, more noticeably, the majority of the film’s narrative takes place in China.

The influence of Eastern movies even extends to the majority Asian cast, with Shang-Chi boasting two iconic stars of Hong Kong cinema – the aforementioned Leung, and Michelle Yeoh. While both actors provide delightful turns, it’s the lead performers who leave the greater impact, with Simu Liu looking confident and relaxed as the titular hero in his first-ever headline role; and Awkwafina constantly elevating key moments with her charisma alone. And there’s further delight still to be garnered from the supporting actors, such as comedian Ronny Chieng, and regular MCU bit-player Benedict Wong.

Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Although Shang-Chi does a great deal to singularise itself from its Marvel brethren, the film is somewhat lacking in originality, particularly in the screenplay department. The story here shares a few too many similarities with that of another MCU instalment released less than four months ago, Black Widow (2021) – both pictures follow a protagonist reuniting with an estranged sibling and returning to their country of birth to defeat a paternal figure. Whether intentional or not, these parallels will serve only to validate the notion that Marvel Studios’ output is becoming rather formulaic.

Other weaknesses are present in Shang-Chi, minor yet nonetheless irritating. One is the fight sequences, which have great choreography but could be more thrilling, for they lack the kind of death-defying stunts that Jackie Chan is renowned for executing. Also in need of refinement is the comedy, being decent and well-timed without ever reaching the level of hilarity found in other Marvel films. If Kevin Feige’s superhero factory is to continue beyond a fourth phase, both elements sorely need to be improved in any future releases.

There are some areas where this picture does improve over its predecessors, one being the depiction of its villain – blessedly, Shang-Chi has one of the better antagonists of the MCU in Wenwu, who is sinister, restrained and cool all at once, while possessing far more complexity and humanity than the average Marvel foe. The music too is above Marvel’s usual standards, with West being the closest a composer has come to matching the opulence of Alan Silvestri’s work in the Avengers movies – he deserves to be called upon for more of Feige’s projects in the years ahead.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does for the world’s Asian communities what Black Panther (2018) did for the African diaspora, utilising the familiar Marvel tropes to craft a visual and aural celebration of Eastern culture. It’s not perfect, owing to the muted humour and unoriginal script, but more than ably satisfies with its beguiling action scenes, glorious soundtrack and exceptional cast.

Shang-Chi is currently screening in theatres, and will be available to stream on Disney+ from November 12th.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is an Irreverent, Unhinged Joy

DC’s cinematic output has been rather disparate of late, to say the least, with their releases range in quality from good to woeful, and most being mediocre at best. Now comes another blockbuster branded with the DC moniker, this one outshining everything that has come before it – especially its 2016 namesake.

Task Force X is a secretive branch of the United States government that oversees military operations deemed too dangerous, or too sensitive, for America’s heroes to be involved in. Their agents are inmates of the Belle Reve Correctional Centre – home to the evilest of supervillains – who are recruited in exchange for reduced sentences, provided they comply with their commands; should they not, the agents will be killed by their superiors.

The organisation’s newest recruit is Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (Idris Elba) who has been sought by the director of Task Force X, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to lead an operation on the despotic island-state of Corto Maltese. DuBois has no desire to be involved whatsoever, until Waller threatens the safety of his teenage daughter, thereby forcing his hand into joining and reluctantly leading the mission.

The entity of Task Force X previously made its cinematic debut in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), which found commercial success despite being widely panned by critics for its appalling direction, unfunny humour and jarring, inconsistent tone. In developing the sequel, Warner Bros. ditched Ayer and handed directorial duties to James Gunn – who had just been fired from Marvel Studio for a series of tasteless posts on social media – and gave him complete creative freedom.

As a result of said freedom, Gunn’s new film bares next to no correlation with its Ayer-helmed precursor, despite sharing a similar title in The Suicide Squad. The extended cast serves as the only discernible connection between the two movies, with the abovementioned Davis reprising her role, in addition to Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Rick Flag; Australia’s own Margot Robbie as the squeaky-voiced jester, Harley Quinn; and fellow Australian Jai Courtney as the intensely ocker Captain Boomerang.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) makes a return to the screen in The Suicide Squad

Joining them are a bunch of fresh recruits who operate under Bloodsport’s command, including macho gunman Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith (John Cena); a man who can conjure explosive polka-dots, Abner Krill (David Dastmalchian); an anthropomorphic shark named Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); a young woman who can summon and control rats, Cleo Cazo (Daniela Melchior); and finally, Cleo’s pet rat Sebastian (voiced by animal impressionist Dee Bradley Baker).

The Suicide Squad spends the majority of its time focused on the latter group of characters, and rightly so, because they’re nothing but a charm. This appeal is fuelled largely by the performers who play them, with all the newcomers looking poised and relaxed, and each gifting their respective roles with a distinct personality. Through their efforts alone, these actors have turned a group of obscure antagonists into loveable rogues who deserve to lead every sequel and spin-off that follows.

Just as admirable is the film’s screenplay, solely and cleverly written by Gunn. In addition to the main conflict, each character is gifted with their own story-arc that pertains to a troubled backstory, developing and maturing as they seek to address it. Although these struggles are relatively minor, they do aid in further humanising the protagonists; what’s more, their arcs prove just as gripping as the central plot without ever distracting from it, nor overwhelming the audience with narrative.

The screenplay’s strength doesn’t just lie in its ability to fuse multiple storylines into a coherent package, for it is equally adept at toying with the viewer’s expectations. Gunn sets the stakes of his picture high from the outset, showing characters being killed left, right and centre with little regard for how established they are, and even less for the celebrities chosen to portray them. After the first few minutes, there’s no knowing where the film is heading, nor if anybody will survive the climactic showdown.

As much a part of The Suicide Squad’s appeal is the mature content, being more vulgar and graphic than the average superhero blockbuster, courtesy of the profanity-ridden dialogue, sporadic glimpses of nudity and gratuitous levels of violence. Blood and gore are abundant in Gunn’s picture, with all manner of body parts bursting open whenever a character is slaughtered, and the majority of those deaths being played for laughs.

Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (Idris Elba) confronts Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in The Suicide Squad

On the subject of laughs, there’s some pretty decent ones to be had throughout, with frequent, fast-paced quips coming from every character, as well as the occasional slapstick gag; yet the best comedy is mined from the desk-bound bureaucrats of Task Force X – played by Steve Agee, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden and Jennifer Holland, among others – who utter the funniest one-liners of the entire movie, very nearly outmatching the likeability of the main characters.

Amusingly impish though The Suicide Squad is, there are some aspects in which it falls short. One such aspect is the characterisation of Bloodsport who, despite the film’s best efforts, cannot shake the fact that he is practically identical to Deadshot from the other Suicide Squad film – both are played by black actors, both wear silly masks, both are sharpshooters with impeccable aim, and both are absent fathers wanting to do right by their respective daughters. Were it not for Elba’s British accent, there would be nothing to distinguish between them.

Another disappointment is the music that accompanies proceedings. As per his work on the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (2014, 2017), Gunn has personally curated a soundtrack of retro songs to pair with events, but this one doesn’t have the same appeal, for it lacks the catchy, kitschy tunes of his Marvel Studios playlists. The result is a soundtrack that pales not only to Gunn’s previous features, but even to a picture like Cruella (2021), which demonstrated a far better utilisation of classic hits.

Those grievances notwithstanding, The Suicide Squad is unequivocally the wittiest, warmest and most gratifying DC film to date, and an irreverent alternative to the superhero genre’s usual offerings. Idiosyncratic characters, fantastic performances, gory action sequences and some hearty chuckles solidify the picture as a winner, all but atoning for the sins of its predecessor.

The Suicide Squad is currently screening in cinemas where open, and available for digital download through select services.