Wednesday, November 30, 2022

'Glass Onion': Another entertaining mystery


Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Dir: Rian Johnson

Scr: Rian Johnson

Phot: Steve Yedlin

Ed: Bob Ducsay

Premiere: Nov. 23, 2022

139 min.

Who can explain the sudden popularity of the murder mystery? Perhaps it was the pandemic, which led some to binge on the pleasures of Christie, Sayers, and James. Perhaps everyone is in the mood to solve puzzles, preferably in each other’s company, thanks to the long period of isolation. At any rate, what was thought to be the province of advanced-years cottagers turns out to be something fun and stimulating, something everyone would like to take a crack at.

Netflix released Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery to theaters for only a week, in preparation for its release online on Dec. 23. This unique strategy means that all of us who love a good murder mystery were forced to go out in the cold, risking our health and sanity by actually travelling to a movie theater to catch it before it left the theaters. What was a casual event has become a fraught expedition.

The devilish trick to reviewing a murder mystery is to not give anything away. Its success relies on the revelation of information, the unwinding of motives, and the identification and punishment of the murderer. Since analyzing how this film covers these important genre specifications would be to reveal the ending, it’s necessary to step back and refer to some of its other, non-spoiler elements.

Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson created a franchise when he released Knives Out (2019), the first adventure of the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc, played with southern-fried acerbity by Daniel Craig. Now the sleuth finds himself summoned to a Greek island, where an Elon Musk-like billionaire, Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has summoned his oldest friends, who are also slavishly dependent on his favors.

Of course, all these guests are also potential suspects. They include the singer Birdie Jay (a hilariously dim Kate Hudson), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), politician Claire DeBella (Kathryn Hahn), blogger Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), and Bron’s former business partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monae). Their characters are sketched out with satiric wit, and inhabited with hammy glee by the participants. Glass Onion is not subtle.

Bron proposes a murder mystery game to be staged at his palatial mansion. What happens next is up to the viewer to discover, but let it be said that Johnson plays the game fairly, sprinkling clues here and there, surprising us with twists, and leading us patiently to the denouement.

Blanc is a memorable character, and Craig plays him with obvious pleasure. (Blanc is evidently living in a domestic situation with a character played by Hugh Grant, and other celebrities pop in unexpectedly as well.) The filming is spare, straightforward, and functional, bereft of directorial flourishes that might confuse the story.

Is it as good as the first movie? Not quite. You must take this film’s premises with a grain of salt, and there is some wiggle room when it comes to clues that might lead you in the wrong direction. Still, Glass Onion’s conclusion is logical. That it serves up its mystery with a soup-con of humor makes it all the more welcome, especially during the holiday season. We can discuss spoilers after December 23., 

Come for the mystery; stay for the satire of late-stage capitalism. And, you will love Derol.



Tuesday, May 10, 2022

'The Northman': Viking funeral


The Northman

Dir: Robert Eggers

Scr: Sjon, Robert Eggers

Phot: Jarin Blashchke

Ed: Louise Ford

Not a lot of gags.

None, in fact. ‘The Northman’ is very serious. So very serious that, if you don’t buy into its premises, you will spend your time with this movie tittering at the grandiose and gory events that unfold onscreen.

"The Northman" is a Viking saga, set in the late 9th-early 10th centuries, filled with larger-than-life characters. Our hero is Amleth (Amleth=Hamlet, get it?), who as a child, witnesses his king-father’s assassination at the hands of his brother, Fjolnir the Brotherless (so called after he offs his brother and takes his wife, natch). “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you Fjolnir,” the boy weeps, as he flees. Pay attention. This will become his mantra.

Fast-forward 20 years or so, and Amleth is now a big, beefy young man who likes nothing better than climbing palisades and cutting parts off of people in a wild berserker frenzy. He meets a seeress (Bjork, in case you couldn’t tell) who tells him that the time for his revenge has come.

Disguising himself as a slave, Amleth gets himself shipped off to Iceland, where Fjolnir, his mom, and a couple of step-brothers hang out. Amleth’s plan of vengeance is slow and deliberate, and involves such things as obtaining a magic sword, playing Marine lacrosse, and killing people with his forehead.

He is abetted in this by his soulmate, the provocatively titled Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is a witchy woman . . . well, at least she knows a little about psychedelic mushrooms. Nothing will stop the freight train of revenge, even the occasional vision or hallucination on Amleth’s part. Fate is leading him on, and it is a winding and windy path.

So what is the problem here? Director/co-screenwriter Eggers points out the strict attention to accurate period detail in the film. Onto this environment of medieval realism is imposed a two-dimensional story with two-dimensional characters. None of the characters change or grow. They spend a great deal of time staring directly and dourly into the camera, as though they were daring us to laugh. I laughed.

It gets to the point that your eyes wander over to all the background performers, watching to see if they break character or not. I kept expecting Monty Python to show up.

Oh dear, what else? Everyone speaks with varying generic “European” accents, and I think a little Irish and Scottish creep in there as well. Our hero is saved by ravens, like a Disney character, only one almost beaten half to death. Why does the Valkyrie wear braces? And what ever happened to Thorir’s heart? Most importantly, what are Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman doing in this movie?

These questions and others rattle around in the skull as the players roar and swear and make preposterous bombast about their intentions at each other. The real point of this is the violence, which is more than sufficiently brutal. The final showdown is a homoerotic symphony – two naked guys sword-fighting in front of a volcano. Get a room, you two.

Anyone seeking a corrective to the campiness of 1958’s “The Vikings” is in for a disappointment. “The Northman” is high camp in its own gritty fashion.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

'Everything Everywhere All at Once': a surreal triumph


Everything Everywhere All At Once

Dir: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Scr: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Phot: Larkin Seiple

Ed: Paul Rogers

Premiere: March 25, 2022

139 min.

The multiverse is hot right now: a large number of films, TV shows, and written works are exploring the possibilities of this sci-fi subgenre. Like the easily resurrected superhero, the multiverse is a neat way to get around plot problems, but rarely is it used in a truly imaginative way.

But bonkers, happily, gloriously bonkers is “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” an exuberant sci-fi comedy about alternative dimensions that manages to also be a moving family drama. It’s an inspired excursion across countless realities, all executed in the name of getting your taxes done properly.

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) runs a laundromat, and lives in cramped confines above it with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Kwan, who you will remember as Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”) and their adolescent daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Joy is struggling with coming out, and Evelyn is hostile to the idea. Waymond is so desperate for her attnntion that he files for divorce. They are being audited by the IRS, and Evelyn must gather family and receipts and go down to the tax office to face the unfriendly Deidre (a hilariously uglied-up Jamie Lee Curtis), who cites them for multiple failings.

In the midst of this mundanity, a cosmic storm is brewing. Evelyn is visited by Alpha Waymond, from an alternate universe. It turns out that every choice you make in life spawns a new universe, a new timeline for your life. Our Evelyn is the least successful of all possible Evelyns, explains Alpha Waymond, which gives her the greatest power to change. Somehow, Evelyn must fight her way across the multiverses to stop an evil avatar of Joy from destroying the multiverse with an Everything bagel, and reconcile herself with her life choices and with her daughter. (Trust me; it all makes sense in context.)

All these development crowd the frame with rapid-fire imagery and complications, and the film tears through its premises at breakneck speed, trusting in the viewer’s intelligence, daring us to keep up. Directors/screenwriters Dan Kwan and Daniels Scheinert take the enormous risk of making what could easily be an incoherent mess, rendering instead a dizzying but satisfying trip through all of Evelyn’s alternative futures.

Of special note are Larkin Seiple’s exquisite cinematography, Shirley Kurata’s out-of-this-world costume designs, and the dryly humorous performance of the prolific James Hong as Evelyn’s wheelchair-bound father, Gong Gong.

This film is nutty, unlike anything you’ve seen before. And even though its premise is well-used, it is used well.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

'The Tragedy of Macbeth': a noble effort


The Tragedy of Macbeth

Dir: Joel Coen

Scr: Joel Coen

Phot: Bruno Delbonnel

Ed: Joel Coen, Lucian Johnston

Premiere: Jan. 14, 2022

105 min.

 I am a Shakespeare nut. Just turned out that way. He sends me.

But it’s not easy. To get the most out of him, it’s best to study him a little, something few seem to have the time for these days. A pity, for he is infinitely rewarding to patient fans.

I have seen more Macbeths than you can shake a stick at, if that’s your idea of a good time. Joel Coen’s new version of Shakespeare’s tragedy is intriguing, but so impeccably crafted and restrained that it drains away the vital energy that drives this, one of Shakespeare’s most violent (and quotable) plays.

 The play is famously cursed (one is supposed never to mention its name in a theater – referring to it as “the Scottish play” will do), and many productions, on stage and on screen, have gone south on its creators. Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” (1948) was clunky, talky, and soundstage-rooted (as is Coen’s version). Roman Polanski’s infamous version (1971) was hallucinatory and gory. To date, the best balances of fantasy and violence in “Macbeth” have been in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation, “Throne of Blood” (1957) and filmed records of stage performances such as those by Ian McKellen (1979), Nicol Williamson (1983), and Patrick Stewart (2010). (OK, I haven’t seen the 2015 version with Michael Fassbender.)

So what’s the story? What makes this play such a difficult endeavor? It is steeped in forces of dark magic, for one thing. Three witches tell the Scottish chieftain Macbeth that he is soon to become king, and that his friend Banquo will sire a line of kings. As Duncan is already on the throne, this presents a problem. Macbeth tells of the witches to his equally ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, and the two plot to murder Duncan, throw suspicion on Duncan’s sons, and lay claim to the crown themselves.

Coen seals the action in the studio, and all characters appear from and disappear into a gray mist. The monochrome approach, and Bruno Delbonnel’s artful cinematography, gives us a movie that looks like an album of 19th century engravings. Coen’s adaptation streamlines the story, but carefully ensures that the viewer is never lost in the story.

Kathryn Hunter plays all of the three witches; her sinister croak and splayed limbs give a rough foretaste of doom. The rest of the cast is solid, and includes Brendan Gleeson as an affable Duncan. But the film lives or dies on the performances of its two leads. Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife are a conundrum.

The dynamics the would-be royal couple move through are extreme. Lady Macbeth disintegrates into madness, and Macbeth moves away from weakness and uncertainty, clinging to his doom ever more stubbornly as the acts progress. But these are assured, sedate interpretations, a middle-aged pair of Macbeths. They do not seem to be descending into evil or madness; they seem instead to be making an increasingly bad series of business decisions. It is easy to go over the top acting-wise in “Macbeth,” with its multiplicity of horrors to enact. However, the maturity and restraint the two leads display tamp down the manic edge that animates the story. These Macbeths are too mundane to matter.

Filming Shakespeare is tough. It’s very easy to slip into dutiful versions that dull the mind instead of inspiring. Coen’s effort here is an honorable slog. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

'The Eyes of Tammy Faye': that woman's a saint


The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Dir: Michael Showalter

Scr: Abe Sylvia

Pho: Mike Gioulakis


Is it possible to be a pure person? Guileless, full of good will, seeking only to unite the worlds of God and man? This is not a question asked in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a biopic that portrays its central character as a kind of secular saint. The spectacular central performance of Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker makes it worth the watch, but her tales of success and suffering is really an indulgence in alternative history.

Chastain is so vibrant in her rendition of the televangelist that everyone around her pales away, seems dowdy even. She loves Jesus, she wants to spread the Gospel, she wants to help people, even reaching out to AIDS patients at a time when most of society shuns them (she remains a gay icon). If only she could trust those around her! No one has cried as much, in as many ways, as Chastain does here as Tammy Faye.

But how true is any of this? The film must walk a fine line between mocking its subjects and taking them seriously, erring on the side of seriousness when in doubt. Andrew Garfield, playing husband Jim Bakker, is the architect of her doom but does not seem to have enough going on upstairs to be a criminal. The corrupt and philandering TV preacher is played as an affable doofus.

We see the on-screen confessions, the pleas for money, we see the telephones ring with incoming pledges. Conveniently, we don't examine too closely this shearing of the faithful flock – it’s means to an end, so that our principal players can agonize in vulgarly deluxe surroundings. In the end the Bakkers seem less like sinners and more like victims of bad luck.

By film’s end, Tammy Faye’s face has assumed the grotesque appearance of a Kabuki warrior. Her makeup is a shield against the harshness of the world. We feel sympathy for her, but we are sealed off from really knowing her, unless Tammy Faye was as shallow and literal-minded as she appears to be here. The Eyes of Tammy Faye gives us not a character so much as a heroine.

'The Power of the Dog': Repression on the prairie


The Power of the Dog

Dir: Jane Campion

Prod: 11 listed

Scr: Jane Campion

Pho: Ari Wegner


The Power of the Dog is a tough nut to crack. It’s a horror movie disguised as a Western.

The monster in question is Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who runs a family ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) around the turn of last century. Phil is a twisted and bitter soul, endlessly rude and demeaning to all around him. When George finds love with and marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), she moves into their echoing and dusty mansion with her effeminate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Phil’s contempt blossoms into constant harassment of the two newcomers. Rose responds by taking to drink, while Peter chooses another path to dealing with Phil’s aggression. His quiet quest for vengeance leads the film in an entirely unexpected direction.

So where are we? The hills director/screenwriter Jane Campion films in stand for Montana, though they look nothing like (Campion is from and shoots in New Zealand). The trappings of the Western are there, but Campion uses the form to examine conceptions of masculinity. Phil’s secret and suppressed yearning for men feeds his simmering rage, but he turns gruffly tender towards Peter as time passes. The film is full of, and makes great play with, the contradictions.

Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner create a palette of grays and browns, emphasizing the dreary same ness of the landscape. Cumberbatch delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the conflicted Phil, and the rest of the ensemble is equally strong. The film places its focus on the repercussions of the macho ethos, its only resolution death and destruction.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

'CODA': No ordinary story



Dir: Sian Heder

Prod: 13 listed

Scr: Sian Heder

Pho: Paula Huidobro


CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults. It also means the final passage of a piece of music. The double meaning perfectly expresses the scope of this coming-of-age film, which has earned some Oscar nods along the way. Of all the Best Picture nominees this year, this comes the closest to good, old-fashioned movies of the past – straightforward and heartfelt.

Now, is it a crime to be heartfelt? Nowadays something that isn’t inherently cynical doesn’t stand much of a chance in movie theaters. CODA breaks through with a solid story and a gallery of great performances.

It’s the story of 17-year-old Ruby, the only hearing person in a deaf family of four. They fish for a living in Glouchester, Massachusetts, and Ruby is weighing her choices for after high school. She latches onto her love for singing as a way to make to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. She wrestles with her feelings of loyalty to her family, for whom she serves as an important mediary with the hearing world.

The film is itself an adaptation of the 2014 French film The Belier Family, but it is so strongly grounded in behavior and atmosphere as to be and original creation. The acting ensemble selected for this film is excellent in every respect, including Emilia Jones as the feisty Ruby, and the equally compelling Troy Kotsur as her father and Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as her mother. Daniel Durant, as her brother, and Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s snappy music teacher, are also top-notch.

Will Ruby get into Berklee? Can her family make it without her around to interpret? With humor and deep feeling, CODA is infused with humor and deep feeling, turning what could have been a run-of-the-mill story into something memorable. Kudos to writer and director Sian Heder for pulling it off.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

'Licorice Pizza' review: a shaggy dog story


Licorice Pizza

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

Prod: 8 listed

Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson

Pho: Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bauman


Nostalgia is cheap, but it’s tough to pull off convincingly. It’s easy to stir up rosy rememberings of times gone by, and the past soon becomes a playground for the fond imagination – unless you get the details wrong. Such is not the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a ‘70s coming-of-age dramedy that features the breakout performance of its new-to-film leads, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. It’s a clever, lightweight movie that is happy to tell some shaggy dog stories to while away your time.

Like many of Anderson’s films, it’s a fanciful look at a particular era, in which the San Fernando Valley serves as a kind of gas-crisis era Brigadoon, an enchanted place where things happen, but serious things don’t, where the grown-ups are all seemingly morons or maniacs. Of this milieu is 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Hoffman), an erstwhile child actor who is aging out of his profession. At his high-school Picture Day he meets 25-year-old Alana (Haim), the photographer’s assistant. For Gary, it’s love at first sight; for Alana, it’s annoying.

What follows are the somewhat random adventures of the two on their way to a forseeable future together. Anderson spices up the story with star character turns – Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Sean Penn – that keep the audience alert. It’s all in good fun. Gary tries to become a waterbed entrepreneur; Gary opens a pinball arcade. Alana drifts from job to job and tries out various men for size; they don’t suit her.

The biggest reason to see the film is to watch the lanky, awkward, and beautiful Alana Haim. She’s obviously a new actress, but she’s refreshingly readable, open and disingenuous to a degree not seen since Richard Linklater’s cast of unknowns in his ‘70s high-school saga Dazed and Confused. Haim is a heart-stealer, and her presence keeps the interest alive even when the movie ambles down some dead-end paths.

Those looking for a linear story will be quite frustrated, but for those with patience, Licorice Pizza is rewarding.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

'Nightmare Alley' review: a delicious darkness


Nightmare Alley

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

Prod: Bradley Cooper, J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro, T.K. Knowles, John O’Grady

Scr: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan

Pho: Dan Laustsen


Guillermo del Toro’s new film Nightmare Alley is for mature audiences only, as it deals in human darkness. It’s downbeat, definitely not in the escapist mood so many of us seem to want in our movies these days. However, it’s a gem.

Del Toro is a director whose new work I race to go see. His mythic imagination and his consummate skill behind the camera leads to dependable, memorable results. Such is the case of his newest effort, a perfectly pitched film noir packed with acting talent, a dark parable about overreaching ambition, power, cruelty, and delusion.

The film is descended from the 1946 noir novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. It also stands in the shadow of a riveting 1947 film adaptation by Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power, which lost its punch at the end as it strove to avoid a downbeat ending. Del Toro doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the original story; he restores its bitter conclusion.

The story is set in America on the eve of World War II. In a refreshing touch, everyone smokes. All the time. In this universe, it’s either raining or snowing. Vagabond criminal Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), on the run from a mysterious and sadistic past, joins a seedy traveling carnival. There he finds other outcasts from society, including Willem Dafoe as “outside talker” Clem and Ron Perlman as Bruno, the strongman and carny boss. The casting is impeccable, and del Toro puts A-list actors into even the seemingly smallest parts (Mary Steenburgen as a grieving mother, Richard Jenkins as a ferociously twisted tycoon), giving the film a weight it might otherwise have lacked.

Carlisle is manipulative and ambitious. He finds out about a fake mentalist act crafted by Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her washed-up, drunken partner Pete (David Strathairn), and schemes to run it himself with his paramour, the young and innocent “Electrical Girl Molly (Rooney Mara). Soon, the two are entertaining high society and headlining fancy clubs

It’s a modern version of the Rake’s Progress, the upward arc and downward collapse of a wayward man. Stanton gets greedy, planning on a “spook show” (fake spiritualism) to make even more money off his rich clientele. He soon runs afoul of a cold, calculating femme fatale, the shady psychotherapist Lilith Ritter (the marvelous icy Cate Blanchett)

It’s also the classic noir plot – conniving woman leads man to his doom – and save for the color photography, it could be a film from the 1940s (save for a savage moment with a live chicken). In fact, de Toro and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen prepared a special black-and-white cut of the film for re-release, a tribute to the pre-color aesthetic.

The film noir is processed through del Toro’s imagination and expands into something closer to a morality play, much as it processed Hammer Studios-type horror into the hallucinatory trippiness of Crimson Peak, and turned the Creature from the Black Lagoon into a romantic hero in The Shape of Water.

“Is he man or beast?” is the question posed at the start of the show, and in Nightmare Alley, del Toro comes down firmly in favor of the latter. It’s not for everyone, but will richly reward those unafraid of the dark.

Friday, March 11, 2022

'Dune' review: a meticulous epic



Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Scr: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth

Pho: Greig Fraser


World-building is exhausting. It takes a dogged individual to achieve a tremendous, big-budget vision on film. This Denis Villeneuve has done in this most recent iteration of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune, a project that has daunted such imaginative directors as Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch. In the process, conjures up an epic that is at its best majestic and at its intermittent worst is ponderous and glum.

That there are 24 producers listed on Villeneuve’s new adaptation of, is testament to the scope of the new project. In that way also it attests to how this new Dune has an industrial feel to it, something consciously engineered rather than inspired. It is an efficient entertainment.

The director and his team craft a unified, believable world, or worlds, rather. For this saga involves a spacescape populated by a vast assortment of characters. It is at heart a romantic fantasy, populated with rival houses, as in Game of Thrones. The House Atreides (Oscar Isaac is the paterfamilias, Duke Leto; Timothee Chalamet plays his son Paul, the linchpin of the story) is dispatched by the galactic Emperor to the desert planet of Arrakis aka Dune. There it is to produce and control the mining and distribution of a hallucinogenic “spice,” a magical substance vital to the functioning of interstellar travel, found only there.

Intrigue derives from the sinister attentions of House Harkonnen, led by an unrecognizable Baron (Stellan Skarsgard). It seeks the downfall of Leto by means of surprise attack. Paul and his mother, the concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are thrown into the hostile environment of Dune. And this, 2 hours and 35 minutes later, is as far as we get in the story, for indeed this is only Part One.

The story’s leisurely pace allows us to feast our eyes on the lush cinematography of Greig Fraser and on Patrice Vermette’s elaborate and well-conceived production design. But the pace is deadening, even as characters issue exposition and set up conflicts with a kind of dull obedience. This Dune is a somber affair. It lacks even the hallucinatory intensity of Lynch’s failed 1984 version of the story, which has remained despised critically, but maintains a shaggy vitality not present here.

This Dune is impeccably crafted, but its immensities mute the human story within it.


Friday, February 25, 2022

Defending the Invincible


What’s wrong with the superhero film?

 As of this writing, Spiderman: No Way Home is the third highest grossing domestic box office film in history. Of the two positions in front of it in that category, one is occupied by Avengers: Endgame. Superhero movies are staggeringly popular, crossing demographic boundaries in a single bound. Yet they receive little love from some critics and filmmakers, and do not achieve the awards recognition that “serious” films do (except in technical areas – all those nifty special effects!).

 So what is the problem? Listen to what these respected director have to say:

 Denis Villeneuve: “Perhaps the problem is that we are in front of too many Marvel movies that are nothing more than a ‘cut and paste’ of others. Perhaps these types of movies have turned us into zombies a bit . . . “

 Martin Scorcese: “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes. . . .  The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema.”

 Ken Loach”: They’re made as commodities . . . like hamburgers . . . It’s about making a commodity which will make profit for a big corporation – they’re a cynical exercise. They’re a market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”

 Ridley Scott: “****ing boring as ****.”

 Francis Ford Coppola: “A Marvel picture is one prototype movie that is made over and over and over and over and over again to look different.”

 David Cronenberg: “A superhero movie, by definition, you know, it’s comic book. It’s for kids. It’s adolescent at its core.”

 Alejandro G. Inarritu: “They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.”

 Despite their popularity, superhero movies are consigned to the cultural ghetto – a well-heeled one, to be sure. Public and critical opinion appear poles apart on this subject. Can we take them seriously? It’s difficult to get a grip on something you don’t take seriously. Where do these animosities come from? How valid are these arguments?

 First, take into account the long-standing cultural bias in America against the source material -- comic books. The stereotypical perception has been that comics’ primary appeal is to children and semi-literates. The rise of the ‘graphic novel” movement has budged that critical estimation a bit, but not by much. To art lovers, it must be kid stuff. This is nothing new --

 “Of all the lively arts, the Comic Strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies, the most popular.” Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts, 1924

 Then there is an understandable envy about the amount of financing and resources that are dedicated to superhero projects, movies that are part of a larger franchise and take hundreds of millions of dollars and the participation of thousands to create. Given the struggles serious directors go through to get what they need to make their films, the ease with which Hollywood industrial cinema constructs its superhero films must be enraging.

 The thing to remember is that, as titanic as the production values are, we are still just talking about genre film. The superhero film is the dominant genre of the day, just as film noir, the screwball comedy, and the Western were in their respective heydays. Superhero films are of a piece: populated by unambiguous, costumed heroes and villains, and featuring conflict resolution through violent action. They are, in other words, melodramas (with explosions and wild, garish visual effects). Melodramas do not reward introspection. Its characters are flat and do not change.

 There is nothing wrong with genre – the bulk of genre films can be quite dull, mired in convention, indistinguishable from the rest. (Scorsese has made his share of genre films, and later ones such as The Departed and The Irishman show signs of creative fatigue. Also he’s made his comic book film – his 2011 Hugo was based on the illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.) A few exceptional genre films transcend the category and achieve higher status at a later date. We are too early in the superhero genre boom to make that evaluation. In fact, the wide popularity of the superhero film could peter out at any time. The sheer volume of them will begin to wear out the average moviegoer’s interest, and another as-yet unknown dominating genre will take its place.

 These are commercial films, meant only to entertain. They are franchise films, which maintain iconic characters that are treated as brands, with the attendant issues of creative control. But to dismiss the phenomenon is to miss out on a chance to extract meaning from it, juvenile though its content may be.