Thor: Love and Thunder (Spoilers)

“You’re over 1000 years old and you don’t seem to know who the hell you are”

This is the analysis of Thor made by Starlord in the opening scenes of Love and Thunder. It’s an astonishingly non-self-aware statement because, after 11 years, the MCU doesn’t seem to know who he is either. He is, at the very least, a character re-experiencing the same narrative for multiple films in a row. Thor is unsure what kind of man he is and must embark on a journey of self-discovery either by choice or by force. Being unsure of yourself can be a lifelong experience but Thor seems to revert to stage 1 after every adventure so that he can be easily molded into whatever kind of hero that specific narrative requires. This time, he’s a buffoon whose trauma and emotions are often the butt of the joke.

By contrast, Thor in the previous solo installment Ragnarok was often the one setting jokes up. Actor Chris Hemsworth has excellent comedic timing and it was on full display there but here, he’s more akin to the man we saw in Avengers: Endgame. You remember, he was funny because he was fat(!). Had this film taken him seriously it could have had more to say about toxic masculinity and how stereotypically “feminine” emotions aren’t societally accepted in men. Instead, the audience is invited to laugh at his pain, or at the very least to find the image of a grown man crying amusing. This tone isn’t just directed at Thor, it’s present throughout the entire movie, and this makes it near impossible to care about any of the characters.

One such character is Doctor Jane Foster who returns after being absent from the MCU for 9 years barring a minor Avengers: Endgame cameo. Actress Natalie Portman had previously declined to return to the role due to “creative differences” during the making of Thor: The Dark World (which is one of my favourite Hollywood reasons by the way. Like, was there a screaming match? Were you refusing to pay her as much as Chris? I need specifics). As a result, the announcement of her return was a major deal for fans, with the added excitement of seeing her take up the Mighty Thor mantle. In the comics, she uses the mystical powers of Mijolnir to combat her cancer before it becomes evident that the iconic hammer is hindering her healing as opposed to helping it. Given how serious this subject matter is, fans were unsure if it would make it into Love and Thunder but it did. If done right, this could have provided solid emotional grounding for the plot and characters as well as providing a new Thor for a new age but this isn’t what happened. Her cancer is treated with the same levity as everything else, although it’s never used as a punchline. To cap it off, she dies. Despite a long run in the comics and the popular fan perception that she would be taking over as Thor…she dies. This makes Thor very upset, which seems to be the only role that MCU Jane is destined to play. She makes it to Valhalla so if she happens to get resurrected later (a la the comics) then her death will be even less impactful in retrospect.

On the subject of being non-impactful, Love and Thunder‘s gay representation is abysmal. Director Taika Watiti and actress Tessa Thompson both claimed it would be “queer AF” whilst many reviews heralded it as being for “the she’s, they’s and gay’s” but this isn’t the case. The one canon gay character is the rock-being Korg who holds hands with a male of his species, which is their equivalent of intercourse, however it falls flat because Taika is (as far as we know) straight. This somehow isn’t the first time that a straight director has portrayed a gay character in the MCU either. Why wasn’t this effort being put into Valkyrie, who passes for straight so well that she might as well be locked in the closet? Making seductive eyes at a woman and using the term “girlfriend” isn’t queer representation, it’s every party girl after a couple of drinks. All of this accounts for less than a minute of screentime too, so those foreign markets that Disney loves so much can cut it without losing anything. The “she’s, they’s and gay’s” deserve better and have better (Jennifer’s Body, Heathers and Booksmart to name few).

As mentioned in the Spoiler-Free review, there’s still things to like. The designs of the costumes and sets (like Omnipotence City) are gorgeous, whilst the soundtrack is comprised of some of the greatest Rock and Roll anthems of all time. However, Love and Thunder‘s biggest asset is the drastically underused Gorr. Actor Christian Bale turns in a riveting performance, as he so often does, with this semi-tragic God butcher. He feels betrayed by these all powerful dieties, feeling that they serve only themselves and care not for their subjects, including Gorr’s recently deceased young daughter. He’s still willing to kidnap and threaten the lives of all the children in New Asgard though, which seems a bit odd for a recently bereaved parent. Of course, this is a Marvel film so these children are never actually going to die but Gorr feels like he would murder these children without hesitation if the age rating allowed it. He’s also delightfully manic, giving off what can best be described as Joker Vibes. The Dark Realm, where he resides, is amazing too with its monochrome pallette which is only filled with colour from the light of Mijolnir and Stormbreaker. Tragically, he’s only present for 20 minutes and dies at the end so this is likely the only time we will ever see him.

“Tragic” is an apt description for Love and Thunder as a whole. It has plenty of potential in its foundation with the option for major character progression and grand Galaxy-wide scale but it never goes down these routes. Instead, it spends two hours filling the screen with cringe-worthy humour and a large amount of flat shots which are broken up by action scenes and establishing shots. Had it chosen to commit to all the great aspects hidden within, it might have been a great send-off for Chris Hemsworth…although Hemsworth isn’t leaving. After 11 years playing Thor, which makes him the longest-standing Avenger, he’s sticking around for whatever comes next. Maybe it’s for the best because he deserves a better send-off than this.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Thor: Love and Thunder

Comedy and film journalism are vaguely similar concepts. Responses to both are based on objectivity and are there to entertain, so when it comes to reviews of comedy films it’s probably best to form your own opinion. You can certainly gauge what your reaction might be if you have a reviewer whose opinion you often share but their objectivity is not yours. The following piece is a reflection on how I felt about Love and Thunder (the good and the bad) which some may agree with and others may not. Regardless of that, here’s hoping it still entertains.

Thor: Love and Thunder follows the titular God as he embarks on a mission to stop Gorr the God Butcher from carrying out his murderous plan. He is assisted by old friends Valkyrie and Korg, as well as returning romantic interest Dr. Jane Foster who has gained the powers of Thor. Director Taika Watiti returns, having helmed the previous installment Thor: Ragnarok, but it feels like his best comedy was used there. When the running gag is a couple of screaming goats, it’s not a great sign. Regardless of the fact that it’s a dead meme from over a decade ago, it only works when it has shock value to it, which is lessened over its 5 or so uses.

The dialogue isn’t great either. When it isn’t spouting exposition, which it so often is, it’s one-liners with a snarky undertone. Very few lines in Love and Thunder feel genuine or grounded in these characters that have been around for so long. When it isn’t that, it’s the several voiceovers from Taika as Korg, which feel unnecessary. They seem to be there to set the tone as opposed to carrying the plot forward, but the tone is so in-your-face that a voiceover isn’t required.

There are things here that are likable. The film is visually gorgeous, from the cast to the locations. Every scene is bursting with colour, much like Ragnarok was,, which gives the film a more comic-book feel compared to the Earthier hues of other MCU installments. When the cinematography is allowed to fully display these locations crafted by the talented (and over-worked/underpaid) folks in VFX, it’s utterly gorgeous. Omnipotence City (home of the Gods) is caked in classical, golden architecture akin to Asgard. The shadow Realm (residence of Gorr) is totally devoid of colour but is still interesting with its barren landscape across a miniature planet.

Gorr the God Butcher is Love and Thunder‘s greatest strength. Christian Bale’s performance is occasionally comical but never loses that sinister edge and is best demonstrated when talking with the Asgardian children he’s kidnapped. None of these children are going to die because this is an MCU flick but there’s never any doubt that Gorr would take them all out. Unfortunately, he isn’t present for the majority of the film’s runtime, which brings us to the largest of the issues. Thor: Love and Thunder wastes its characters.

A big deal was made about the return of Natalie Portman as Dr. Jane Foster but her presence here seems to primarily be furthering Thors arc. His arc, as per usual, is about discovering what kind of person he is but the plot refuses to take his arc or character seriously. His fragility is often the butt of the joke and his trauma is dismissed with similar hilarity. Meanwhile, Valkyrie (who still isn’t gay enough) is here to primarily chaperone Jane, whilst Korg (who is somehow gayer) is here to spout one-liners and exposition. Then there are the Guardians of the Galaxy who feel like a hold-over from Avengers: Endgame that need to be gotten rid of before the real plot can progress. Nebula is still great though. Her lines are some of the film’s best.

Ultimately, Thor: Love and Thunder is damaged most by its lack of seriousness. If the film doesn’t care about the lore, characters, or stakes, then why should the audience? It’s one of the weakest entries in the MCU and no amount of classic rock songs on the soundtrack can hide that.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Stranger Things 4: Part 2 (Spoilers)

Nowadays, it’s become the public consensus that no TV show has a good finale. People will often point to the likes of Lost, Smallville, and Supernatural but when finales are seen like this it detracts attention away from the ones who get it right. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Breaking Bad and Friends are just a few examples of endings that are as good as it gets. Stranger Things 4: Part 2 comes very close to being in the latter camp, especially considering it’s just under 4 hours long. Any other finale may meander during this time, taking time away from the primary plot and inserting it elsewhere into background characters, but that’s not the case here. There are secondary characters and tertiary characters but they’ve never been in the background. New favourites like Eddie, Yuri, and Argyle get a large amount of focus, as does the returning season 3 favourite Murray, but they’re as important to the story as the main cast. There isn’t a wasted character here and they are all incredibly likable. Even the villains are characters that are fun to hate.

There’s a lot of tension too, which is a difficult task to accomplish over a long period of time. Technically, episode 8 would be the penultimate one with episode 9 serving as the actual finale but it doesn’t feel constructed that way. Both episodes are considerably longer than the ordinary length, with episode 8 coming in at 1 hour 25 minutes and episode 2 clocking in and a full 2 and a half hours. They were also released on the same day, with the first 7 episodes having been released 5 weeks earlier so it feels like the intention is to treat “part 2” as a separate, conclusive, entity. A lot of it is in the characters. The acting in season 1 was good but the majority of the cast were children and they’ve matured into adult actors now. Millie Bobby Brown will likely receive the majority of praise but she deserves it with her emotional, often scary role as Eleven. The rest of the cast are stellar too, selling the stakes and their love for each other perfectly.

It’s a brilliant finale to look at and listen to. Time is split fairly equally between the real world and the Upside Down, which is as dark and dusty as it’s ever been. It’s never too dark that the action is unwatchable and it’s gorgeous when the red lightning is covering everything. There’s a reason that this specific dimension has become so visually iconic, after all. The soundtrack deserves an equal amount of praise. The original score, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, really embodies the often foreboding and occasionally emotional tone. Meanwhile, the songs chosen for the “soundtrack” portion of the finale fit wonderfully. There’s the obvious example of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, which has re-entered the charts after 37 years and become THE song of the series. It would have been nice to perhaps see one of her lesser appreciated hits like Babushka but there are plenty of other songs to obsess over. Musical Youth’s Pass The Dutchie is a delight and there’s a spectacular needle drop for Metallica’s Master of Puppets.

The only issue with the finale is that it isn’t the conclusion of the entire show. It feels like it should have been, considering the amount of hype surrounding its release and finality of the majority of the story. However (and HERE are the spoilers) it feels like the writers didn’t put in the climactic battle between the team and Vecna. With half an hour to go, Max’s life on the line, and a rift opening in the centre of town, Vecna is successfully injured before the plot cuts to 2 days later. I presume that Max has been kept alive (and very broken) to be used as a vessel by Vecna in series 5 but if this isn’t eventually the case, it undermines her attempted sacrifice. Instead, they opt to kill off Eddie Munson which feels unnecessary. Sometimes people don’t need to die to complete their arc and introducing a brand new character to kill off in the space of a series is played out. Marvel has already done it this week so surely the quota has been met.

If the decision to not have the climactic battle was down to production time, it’s still a little infuriating but it’s understandable. You can only do so much with the time that’s allotted to you. But if it was a conscious decision to prolong the run span of the show, it stings a little bit, especially when there’s still no information as to what form the final series will take. It seems like the story could be wrapped up in another 4 hours and perhaps that is what will happen but it’s likely a couple of years away. Of course, the entire point of having a cliffhanger like this is to bring the audience back the following series but runtime is becoming a real concern. There was a noticeably split reaction to Series 4s runtime, to the extent that some people were unsure if they would tune in and this isn’t just a Stranger Things issue (the MCU is facing a similar problem).

This didn’t stop it from amassing 7.2 billion minutes of viewing time for the week of May 30 – June 5 though, which is the most of any streaming series since the advent of weekly streaming rankings.

Ultimately, it’s a mostly solid end to a solid series. Hopefully, series 5 is as good…when it finally arrives.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Spoilers)

Wanda Maximoff is dead. Perhaps not literally but metaphorically. After 7 years of wasted potential, like most women in the MCU, this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it does. The TV Series Wandavision focused primarily on Wanda’s grief after killing her one true love, Vision, and allowed Elizabeth Olsen to demonstrate the full range of her acting capabilities. As a mother, she can be caring and full of warmth. As a wife, she can be loving and kind. As an adversary, she can be powerful and vengeful. With the series finale, Wanda finally fully embraced the title and powers of The Scarlett Witch, a big deal for the MCU who have thus far been legally unable to use that moniker. With the Darkhold in her possession and a fierce determination to steal alternate dimension variations of the children she manifested and lost out of magic, she seemed primed to cause havoc on a multiversal scale.

Multiverse of Madness sees this character development and raises you…possession. The Darkhold corrupts everything and everyone around it, leading to Wanda and The Scarlett Witch being treated as two separate entities. This could have been a fascinating dynamic, with Wanda’s non-child-murdering morals combatting. The Scarlet Witches hold over her body but this is not the route taken. The only time that the “real” Wanda makes an appearance is during a scene that takes place in her mind where she is buried under a mound of rubble and can only utter a single “help me” before being pulled back inside. This confirms that the entity known as The Scarlet Witch (a manifestation of the Darkhold) has full control which absolves Wanda of literally everything that occurs during the plot. Wanda isn’t evil or morally questionable like she was in Wandavision, she’s just an innocent victim. To further demonstrate this, The Scarlett Witch speaks with Elizabeth Olsen’s natural American accent instead of the Sokovian accent that she puts on for Wanda. It does mean that Olsen isn’t being held back by an accent that she has struggled to maintain in the past but it also acts as a constant reminder that there is no Wanda anymore.

To cap it all off, she sacrifices herself to destroy the temple where the original Darkhold spells are inscribed. Now, of course, this is the MCU so nobody is ever really dead. As the building collapses on top of her, we see a small poof of red smoke, seemingly to signify that she has teleported out of there. But if this is the case, then it’s not really a sacrifice so any emotion from that moment is lost. The worst-case scenario is that, somehow, the smoke wasn’t a teleport and she’s dead. But what are the chances of the MCU killing off a popular female character…?

The other major spoiler is handled much better. Having been a large part of the marketing (maybe too large a part), the presence of Marvel’s Illuminati comes as no surprise. What is surprising is the characters they chose and the actors who portray them. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo makes a welcome return as a variant of mainline Mordo. His warm charisma and underlying resentment for Strange serve as proof that mainline Mordo should finally make his return to the MCU. Haley Atwell’s Captain Carter is sure to excite fans, even if the trailer spoiled her presence, especially considering Peggy hasn’t been seen in live-action since 2016. Anson Mount reprising his role of Black Bolt from the unacclaimed Inhumans show is a welcome surprise for those who recognise him. Lashana Lynch returns as Maria Rambeau, taking up the mantle of Captain Marvel. The most divisive casting choice is John Krasinski as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic. It’s a casting that fans have been clamoring for, but his presence here seems to imply that he won’t be taking on the same role in the mainline MCU, which may be for the best. He’s fine in the role but his presence is fairly distracting and his uniform is the worst in the entire group. The final member of the Illuminati is proof that nobody is ever really finished playing their most popular character…it’s Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier. Here he’s portraying a live-action version of the character from the 1997 animated series. His entrance is even accompanied by a snippet of the animated show’s iconic theme, which may be pandering but is sure to provide a smile at the very least.

What may not provide a smile is what happens next. The Scarlett Witch arrives and annihilates the Illuminati. It’s a horrific scene to watch, purely because of the terrifying way in which she dismantles each member. The first sign that you’re about to witness a massacre like no other is when she removes Black Bolt’s mouth, meaning that when he screams (a scream with the power to destroy anything in its path), his head literally caves in. It doesn’t ease up from here with spaghettification and decapitation providing a manic display of her power. This is where the classic Raimi horror element really comes into its own. Using these characters like this may feel like a waste to some but it’s a heck of a perfect demonstration of what The Scarlett Witch is capable of.

The credits scenes are neat too. The first introduces actress Charlize Theron as Clea – daughter of Dormammu and possible love interest for Strange. Obviously, there are many big-name actors in the MCU, many of whom got there in part due to the MCU, but Theron is already a huge name. It feels like proof that the MCU is only getting bigger and that it isn’t slowing down anytime soon, which is a thought that may exhaust some. The second scene brings back one of the most entertaining cameos in the entire film – Bruce Campbell as Pizza Poppa. He provides a zany, early comic book movie energy that only Campbell could provide, and which should leave the audience smiling as they depart the cinema.

As discussed in the spoiler-free review, there is plenty to enjoy in Multiverse of Madness. The Raimi vibes really work but many of the decisions made by the creative team will be divisive, if not infuriating. It’s still worth watching for the little moments of gold…not that MCU fans have much of a choice. Missing one story may mean missing an important piece of context for future tales, so keep your eyes fixated.

If you’re lucky, you might get rewarded with a Bruce Campbell.

(My thanks to Nate at Natflix for checking this one out with me. Check his review HERE)

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Spoiler Free)

Director Sam Raimi created one of the greatest superhero films of all time. It’s a sequel, so it doesn’t have to spend much time establishing character backstories. The villain’s origin is full of tragedy while the character themself is immensely likable. The hero is a quip machine with the charisma of a young Tom Cruise. Above all, despite often being a campy comic book movie, it has solid horror elements embedded into it. It is unmistakably a Sam Raimi production and doesn’t feel like it was poked or prodded by studio executives. That masterpiece’s name is… Spider-Man 2.

This is why, when it was announced that Raimi would be taking over directing duties from Scott Derickson on the sequel to Doctor Strange, excitement was high. When the trailers finally started appearing, it seemed as if Multiverse of Madness would be a much darker tale than any in the MCU, and it was… so why doesn’t it feel like a top-tier Marvel production?

The plot sees Dr. Stephen Strange attempting to save multiverse-hopping-teen America Chavez from the clutches of The Scarlett Witch (aka Wanda Maximoff). Despite a promising premise, there is very little of the multiverse actually being explored. The first time that Strange and Chavez jump to a different universe they crash through 20 separate universes, but they will spend the majority of the runtime in the final one they land in. These universes look absolutely stunning, and they are brimming with potential as well as looking like they could house an interesting story. Instead, the plot is split between the universe they land in, dubbed 838, and the one they came from, dubbed 616 (a cute comic nod as the actual designation is 19999). It allows more time to be spent with the 838 characters, which is fine as they’re all interesting enough, but it’s difficult not to feel a little disappointed when you’re promised a multiverse. Using more universes could have further demonstrated how ruthless, powerful, and merciless The Scarlett Witch is. It could have shown off more variations of Stephen and Wong (who is sorely lacking in the rest of the plot) as proof that 19999 Stephen is the only nice one. It could have been an opportunity to shove in more cameos, should the studio be inclined.

This doesn’t mean that there are no shoe-horned cameos. It’s a move that’s sure to divide audiences on several different levels. There will be people who feel like the plot doesn’t warrant these cameos, those who disagree with the characters chosen, those who disagree with the actors chosen for these roles, and those who disagree with how these characters are utilised. Personally, I only disagree with having the characters present, but to say any more would be to venture into spoiler territory, which is also the case with The Scarlett Witch. Throughout this piece, she has not been referred to as Wanda Maximoff because Wanda hasn’t been present. The film robs her of any real agency which, in turn, prevents her from being a sympathetic villain, which is a shame because this may be the defining performance of actress Elizabeth Olsen’s career. Wanda, as with most MCU women, has taken a backseat to her male counterparts but Olsen has always been terrific in the role. She was really allowed to display the full range of her capabilities in the show Wandavision which earned her deserved acclaim. It’s present here too, with The Scarlett Witch being one of the gravest threats any hero has ever faced and providing some truly chilling moments.

Divisiveness is rife in Multiverse of Madness. The aspects that don’t work (Wanda, presence of cameos, pacing, some of the humour) are noticeable but the moments that do work provide some MCU highlights. When Sam Raimi’s signature voice is allowed to shine through, it provides a comic-book vibe similar to his work on Spider-Man and an MCU experience like no other. Many have suggested that the film is too scary for a 12 rating but scaring young people (if the film does so) is a good thing, as if children aren’t allowed to experience fear then they don’t learn how to cope with that fear. Besides, many children enjoy the rush that comes with being scared. Saying that, although the film may not have earned a 15 rating, it may have been better had it been allowed one. Raimi can work well within restrictions, but if he’s being allowed to craft a horror film then he should be allowed to craft a full-Raimi horror film. When his voice comes through, it provides some wonderfully dark stuff and Zombie Strange is straight-up one of the best characters in the MCU. Partnered with Danny Elfman’s beautifully chilling and occasionally triumphant score, it provides some stellar storytelling. Where it falls apart is in the “MCU” of it all.

Perhaps the future should be a little less multiversal and a little more mad.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Morbius

Avi Arad may not be a name you’re familiar with. If you recognise it all it’s likely because you’re a massive nerd or you saw him mentioned at the end of Spider-Man: No Way Home as “The One True Believer”. So who is he? Well, depending on who you ask he’s the man who killed Spider-Man…twice. It was reportedly his decision to nix development on a fourth Sam Raimi-led Spider-Man and it was he who had creative control of the Amazing Spider-Man duology. The sequel to the latter performed poorly enough that Sony pulled the plug on a threequel, although the Sony E-mail hack likely didn’t help. Avi’s name is now also attached to the bland, indecisive blood-fest that is Morbius.

The story of Doctor Michael Morbius, whose blood genome deficiency is killing him, and his bat-blood-based cure sounds cool on paper. He gains bat-like abilities such as sonar and flight so when his equally ill but morally bankrupt friend Milo takes the same cure it should lead to an intense rivalry but this isn’t the case. The film’s tone is inconsistent, switching back and forth between horror and comedy without ever properly settling on either. It’s a shame because Morbius is apt at both and, had it gone fully down the horror right, it could have felt akin to 1998s Blade. Instead, it feels the need to inject MCU-esque humour, perhaps in an effort to full the audience into thinking that it takes place in the same expansive universe.

It doesn’t, but the marketing sure wanted to believe it did. Trailers had references to Venom, all 3 iterations of the silver screen Spider-Man, and a conversation between Dr. Morbius and Adrian Toomes of the MCU. All of these had been cut by the time the film was released, with the interaction between Morbius and Toomes being completely re-shot to act as a mid-credits scene. As mid-credits scenes go, it’s abysmal. Toomes spends the entire thing in his Vulture wingsuit, with his helmet covering his face. This is likely due to the ability to dub over any poorly scripted lines and the inability to get Michael Keaton back on set. One can only imagine what kind of state this film was in before re-shoots and 2 years of delays.

As it is, it looks interesting enough. The visual representation of Morbius’ powers is excellent, particularly when it comes to his sonar. The choice to shroud him in smoke as he flies is visually intriguing, even if it goes unexplained and doesn’t fit the style of the film. The city is dark and grimy, closer to Gotham City than any location in the MCU. It feels like there’s a good film buried in here buried under interference higher-ups, which so often seems to be the case, especially with Sony’s Spider-verse. Yes, Avi’s name is attached to some of the most notable so-called failures like Spider-Man 3, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Morbius but it’s also attached to some bigger successes. He’s credited as producer on Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and even Iron Man, although his misses far outweigh his hits.

The fact is that there’s no knowing exactly how films like Morbius come to be. A lot can be gleaned from behind-the-scenes footage and maybe somebody will someday unveil all the hot gossip, but those of us in the present are left in the dark. All we can do is hope that, when these films fail, they do so in a way like Venom instead of Morbius.


Of course, it would be appreciated if they could make something like Spider-Man 2 again. 

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer
Featured

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga

First impressions are important. When Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga was first announced at E3 2019, it had a lot to live up to. The first two Lego Star Wars games (later edited and repackaged as The Complete Saga) held a special place in the hearts of fans with its charm and visual storytelling. The following installment, based on the Clone Wars TV Series functioned differently with less of a focus on individual levels and more of a focus on open-world gameplay. The same is true of the Lego adaptation of The Force Awakens but after that game, there was silence. There were no video games based on The Last Jedi but with The Rise of Skywalker on the horizon, fans hoped that something would manifest. Anticipation was high and when that first trailer dropped at E3 it seemed to deliver. It boasted all 9 core films in Lego form in glorious high definition, which was further demonstrated by the second trailer unveiled in the lead up to December of 2019.

It quickly became one of the most anticipated releases of 2020, before it was announced that the game would be delayed until sometime in the first quarter of 2021. This wouldn’t be the first delay, with it finally being released on April 5th, 2022, although there were frequent trailers during this time that gave a further glimpse at the expanded galaxy each time. Those who pre-ordered the Deluxe Edition of the game would receive an exclusive Luke Skywalker Minifigure with his own carton of blue milk as well as each of the 7 DLC Character Packs as they released. The first two of these packs, featuring characters from Solo: A Star Wars Story and series one of The Mandalorian, would be available from the day of the game’s release.

This is where the issues began.

The code given with the deluxe edition, which was to provide access to the DLC, only granted access to the Classic Character pack. It would seem that the codes meant for the deluxe edition ended up in the cases for the standard edition which was an issue for sure, but fixable. Within 2 days of release and after countless e-mails from fans, the developers were able to patch the game providing the correct DLC for those who paid for it. Thankfully, it wasn’t an issue that affected the core gameplay…that came later. Many players have reported several bugs over the past month, which they hope to be resolved in a patch of some kind. It’s worth noting that the developers aren’t to blame for this as they (like all video game developers) crafted this game under ridiculous time constraints, unfair hours, and a paycheck that doesn’t reflect the hours they actually worked. Crunch time is a serious issue and video game companies should be held accountable.

A major bug prevents the level markers for Maz Kanatas mission from loading in, meaning that players cannot play this level or any that follow it. Since each episode of the saga needs to be completed to unlock the next, it leaves players unable to access episodes 8 and 9 as well as the planets and missions unlocked by playing through them. It seems like opening a new save file may solve these issues for some players although it would mean replaying through any portions of the game that have already been completed.

Next are the loading issues, which aren’t game-breaking by any means, but may be bothersome to some. The biggest of these occur during the Smugglers Run missions, where the player will occasionally drop out of hyperspace to take on battalions of villains. If the player has already fought some of the Capital Ships (like the Galactic Trade Federation Ship) then it will load in during these battles but only as textures. They take up a large portion of the screen but they have no mass, meaning that they can be flown through. The only workaround seems to be completing these Smuggler Runs missions before taking on the Capital Ships, however, since they spawn at random this isn’t possible.

EDIT: In a patch, it appears that the developers have managed to smooth over the majority of these bugs. It is currently still unclear how many but the Capital Ships issue is entirely fixed.

Lastly for this article, although I’m sure there are more hidden in the game itself, is the loading screen. It’s a gorgeous piece of artwork in its own right with many of the main characters from across the entire saga just hanging out. There are some neat little character moments in here like Rose Tico tasering Jar Jar Binks or Poe Dameron and Finn being unable to keep their hands off each other (methinks there was a Stormpilot fan on staff) but these are not the flaws. The flaws are that, on occasion, they will load in incorrectly. So far, they have loaded in the lightsabers minus the characters and, more horrifyingly, loaded in the characters minus their faces.

These issues are particularly frustrating because the game itself is excellent. It’s not simply a remaster of the previous games (like GTA: The Definitive Edition was) but a completely new game, built from scratch and designed for a totally different experience. The Complete Saga was primarily focused on the missions, 6 for each episode, which were accessed through doors at the main hub – a cantina. Meanwhile, The Skywalker Saga spends less time on levels and more time on open-world exploration and collectable hunting. There are numerous side quests, puzzles, and trials to complete across the 24 planets and the space in between them along with almost 400 characters to unlock. The galaxy is vast in a way that’s never been fully exemplified before, with the closest approximation being the Battlefront games which showed areas previously unseen but which only scratch the surface in comparison to this. It’s clear that the developers hope that the player will explore every nook and cranny, given how much walking there is between levels. It can feel as though the 9 episodes are merely to acquaint the player with game mechanics and to unlock the various planets, with the “real” game being the galactic exploration. This won’t be for everyone but it’s an absolute delight for anyone who wants to marvel at all the galaxy has to offer.

It’s a gorgeous game, making the most of every pixel on screen. Whether it’s the reflective surfaces, sunset skies, or the sheer quality of the high-definition graphics, there’s plenty to be in awe of. This carries across to the characters and the way they interact with their surroundings. They leave little square footprints on the ground, dirt sticks to their clothes, and the frost builds up along the plastic seams. It’s no wonder this game took so long to make. It’s not just a treat for Lego fans but for Star Wars fans too, with little easter eggs and nuggets of lore littered all over the place. A high number of these may be accidentally missed by the player if they’re not keeping a watchful eye, making this world feel lived in and loved. There’s a recreation of a photo featuring Warwick Davis with some of the original cast on Endor, cover art for previous Lego Star Wars games, and even a literal easter egg. It is abundantly clear that this game wasn’t just made for Star Wars fans, it was made by Star Wars fans.

One of the game’s strongest aspects is the voice cast, comprised mainly of returning voice actors from the Clone Wars TV series. Fans of the show will get a kick out of hearing such iconic voices reading even more iconic lines, like James Arnold Taylor uttering Obi Wans famous “hello there”. It also provides a little more weight to his final duel against Matt Lanter’s Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, which they deserved the chance to voice. The standout performance comes from Sam Whitwer who, as well as returning to voice Darth Maul, voices Emperor Sheev Palpatine. He pours as much energy into this performance as he ever did for Maul, absolutely cackling with devilish glee as he delivers lines like “do it” and “I am the Senate”. This is on top of the return of some original cast members too, like Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Brian Blessed, and Daniel Logan.

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga may not be the definitive edition of this story but it’s the most expansive. Having been created all it once, it has benefits that the original 9 films never did, like referencing any piece of the lore that they choose in any era. (Keep an eye out for the Jawas!). The John Williams composed soundtrack is as beautiful and meticulously crafted as it has always been, which perfectly matches the beautifully crafted locations. It’s got plenty of that Lego-brand humour that will delight both children and adults, without ever overshadowing the original story. The amount of travel won’t be for everyone, nor will the numerous bugs, but if you can survive these then you’re in for a whole galaxy’s worth of fun.

May the Force be With You…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings

The MCU has tried its hand at many genres. There have been action, drama, comedy, fantasy, and adventure, but never before had it attempted martial arts. Despite being new to the MCU, it is not new to Marvel Studios, who had already attempted martial arts with the Netflix show Iron Fist, the first series of which received generally poor reviews. Critical and audience opinion was more favourable with the second series, where both the action and the pacing had improved. This did not prevent Netflix from cancelling the show and all other Marvel projects on the streaming service in 2018, however there is a continual interest from MCU Head Kevin Feige in reviving these projects as part of the MCU. The most interesting link between Shang-Chi and Iron Fist is not that it shares a genre, but that it almost shared an actress. Jessica Henwick, who portrayed Colleen Wing, was offered the role of Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing but turned it down in the hopes that one day she could return as Wing.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (often shortened to just Shang-Chi) follows the titular hero and his best friend Katy as they reunite with his sister Xialing and attempt to stop his father from opening a sacred gate in a mystical land that will unleash a horde of demons. The film handles its lore extraordinarily well, expositing it in a way that feels natural. Like The Lord of the Rings, it opens with narration but unlike The Lord of the Rings it is being given in-universe as a story to our hero at a much younger age. All of the lore is provided in-universe and it never feels clunky, forced, or complicated. It also never feels like it doesn’t fit within the parameters of the MCU, although that universe has been beyond absurd for quite some time now. It may have started out as a slightly more fantastical version of our own universe but it entered a realm all of its own years ago. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange pushed the MCU into a world of oddities and magic, with Avengers: Endgame changing it forever. As the film itself remarks, this is now a universe where half of the world’s population could vanish at any moment.

Both Katy and Shang-Chi are at a similar stage in their lives, although the ways in which they arrived at that point couldn’t be much more different. Katy bounces from job to job, never settling because she is trying to find the one thing that she is passionate about getting good at. When she arrives in the mystical village of La Pao, she discovers that she is a skilled archer. She is an entertaining character, even if she is too skilled for a novice and the role of archer in the MCU is already filled by a more likable character. She aptly provides comedy to Shang-Chi’s more serious life. He starts as Katy does, bouncing from job to job, but he does so because he is trying to hide from his dark past. His father, leader of the criminal organisation The Ten Rings, trained him to be a killer from childhood, which is a life he refuses to live. He’s a man in hiding, although he’s not doing a particularly good job of it, so it isn’t long before his father finds him and forces him to fight for his life.

Given that this is a martial arts film, the fights themselves are an important aspect to discuss. They are, by no means, close to the greatest fights ever choreographed, but they are still more entertaining than the majority of action setpieces elsewhere in the MCU. The issue is that they are still shot like action sequences. Classic martial arts films knew that the fighting was the main draw of the piece, so the camera often lingered on shots, allowing the mastery to be witnessed. There were very few, if any, alternate camera angles, which is something that Shang-Chi fails to take into account. The first fight sequence is the best by far because it takes place on a bus, which restricts the amount of space that can be used. More than this, it allows for the bus itself to become a part of the fight, with the standout moment being a camera pan along its length, in an homage to the Korean film Oldboy. Unfortunately, very little of this martial arts prowess is present in the final battle which, once again, comes down to fighting a big CGI creature. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when it makes up the majority of conclusions in the MCU and the conflict between Shang-Chi and his father has already closed the emotional arc, it is a tad unnessecary.

The MCU connection is everpresent. This is an origin story but the universe in which it takes place has changed drastically since the origin stories of old. It can no longer focus primarily on itself, although considering how important the titular organisation has been, it was never going to. They first appeared in 2008’s Iron Man before seemingly playing a pivotal role in Iron Man 3 and, because the MCU hates having loose threads, the latter’s plot is fully explored. This is done through a small monologue from Shang-Chi’s father, as well as bringing back Sir Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, in a move that I’m sure everybody loved. Having been imprisoned at the end of Iron Man 3, Trevor was broken out and brought before the real leader of The Ten Rings, who allowed him to survive as a sort of court jester. This escape was shown in the Marvel One-Shot All Hail the King, but that short is not necessary to understanding his presence here. Trevor acts as the comedic sidekick, despite that role already being filled by Katy, although he is probably just here to bring his story to a proper close. As mentioned, it is something the MCU often likes to do, although it is becoming more frequent by the year because so many loose threads were left in the franchise’s early days. You will often hear that there is a “Grand Plan” for the MCU but this plan is a lot vaguer than the company will ever admit. If a project does poorly then the plot is rarely ever addressed again, and if a film does particularly well then it is guaranteed a sequel or spin-off. Disney/Marvel are still a company, beholden to the opinions of the audience and the money they provide, even if they pretend not to be.

The MCU has a “Grand Plan” but the precisions of that plan are likely still to be mapped. I don’t think anybody was expecting to see The Abomination make his return in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Beetlejuice

The works of Tim Burton are ripe for Halloween viewings. Their gothic design and dark comedic writing lend themselves to late autumnal nights or even, in the case of Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, late winter nights. One of the most entertaining is 1988’s technologically astounding Beetlejuice.

The story sees recently deceased Barbara and Adam Maitland unwillingly sharing their house with the eccentric Dietz family. As they contemplate asking for help from self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse, so too does the youngest member of the Dietz family Lydia who is desperate to leave home. Every single one of these characters is well fleshed out and likable. Barbara and Adam Maitland are clearly in love, despite never having to really say it. Their journey is comedically unfortunate but their upbeat attitudes keep them sympathetic. They are the straight people in this bizarre landscape but they are very rarely serious, instead attempting to find small moments of joy wherever they can. Meanwhile, Charles and Delia Dietz are quirky from the moment they enter the frame. Delia is an artist, in the most bizarre sense of the word, who is prone to anxiety and shrieking. Charles is dull in comparison as a former real estate agent who has lost his edge and simply wants to enjoy some peace and quiet. The comedy lies in how determined he is to enjoy that peace and how exasperated he is by his wife’s antics.

The story is equally centered on all of the main characters, but the true protagonists seems to be Lydia Dietz and Betelgeuse. Lydia is iconic, as one of the earliest pop culture goth icons. Mourning the loss of her mother and frustrated by Delia’s antics, she is fascinated by the world around her. She is able to see the strange and unusual because she herself is strange and unusual, and thus becomes torn between the world of the dead and the world of the living. She is sympathetic yet strong, which makes her a great intellectual match for Betelguese. The man himself is both morally and physically disgusting. Many words that describe him best are not suitable for children, given his infatuation with women- Lydia in particular. Betelgeuse has been dead for centuries but can return to the land of the living if he marries a mortal, so he chooses the desperate-to-escape Lydia. Having become trapped by this deal, he becomes the main villain of the 3rd act, having only been mischievous for the previous 2.

The brilliant characters are matched by stunning visual effects. A mixture of green screens, physical effects and stop motion animation create some of cinema’s most memorable visuals. The model work is wonderful. Adam Maitland’s model of the town where he lives is particularly wonderful as a prop and a plot point. Its use in the opening flyover is a beautiful send-up to other horror openings like The Shining and perfectly sets the tone of the film. The giant black and white Sandworm is particularly notable as a stop motion creature on a green screen. This not-so-subtle nod to Dune makes a couple of appearances throughout before helping to save the day in the finale (Chekov’s Worm, if you will) which isn’t just good writing but an excellent use of comedy’s Rule of 3. The practical effects used for the dead are outstanding. Each design is unique and conveys to the audience how this character died without ever having to say it. The Maitlands case manager has a slit in her neck that emits the smoke of her cigarette, whilst a member of the filing team is flattened with tire marks across his body. The latter of these characters is unable to work so is suspended from the ceiling and moves through a pulley system which is a great comedic gag and an amazing feat of engineering. Of course, it’s not just the characters that are well designed but the world that they live in. Tim Burton’s work is always unmistakably his and Beetlejuice is no exception. It’s full of angles and small pops of colour with a large palette of blacks, whites, and greys.

The film’s success inspired the animated television Beetlejuice: The Series, which aired on ABC from September 9, 1989, to October 26, 1991, with the final series airing on Fox from September 9, 1991, to December 6, 1991. Composer Danny Elfman returned to write the theme song while director Tim Burton returned as Executive Producer. The series doesn’t seem directly connected to the film, with The Maitlands being completely absent. It follows Lydia and Beetlejuice as they partake in supernatural adventures, with Beetlejuice often trying to scam inhabitants of both the mortal and non-mortal worlds. Their relationship is vastly different from the film, with them being friends instead of enemies. The whole series is very child-friendly and contains many vibrant colours but it is not commercially available outside of the United States.

The film also inspired a Broadway musical, which opened on April 25, 2019, and released the soundtrack on June 7, 2019, before taking a break due to The Pandemic. It’s closer in tone to the film but is a mixture of the film and series when it comes to plot. Following the loss of her mother, Lydia Dietz moves into a new house with her father and his new girlfriend where they are haunted by The Maitlands with a little help from Betelgeuse. Having been fired by The Maitlands, Betelgeuse then attempts to use Lydia for his nefarious deeds with her finally giving in and reveling in the darkness. Having realised that she could see her mother in the afterlife, Lydia follows the Maitlands, only for them to begin plotting a plan to keep Betelgeuse dead, which is pulled off during the finale. As in the series, the musical gives Beetlejuice and Lydia a more friendly, almost romantic relationship whilst Delia is portrayed as more of an airhead instead of an erratic artist. Meanwhile, the Maitlands are simply “unready” to have children before they die and their caseworker Juno only makes an appearance during the finale. It’s vastly different from both the film and the series – as it should be. Adaptation is pointless if everything remains the same. Eddie Perfect’s songs are an absolute delight and suit the materiel excellently. The Whole Being Dead Thing and Say My Name are good picks for the best song but, personally, I’m very fond of That Beautiful Sound which is a duet between Lydia and Beetlejuice as they revel in their mischief.

In all its forms, Beetlejuice is an absolute delight. It varies in darkness without ever straying too far to the light and excels at the absurd. Each is a feat of effects, whether practical or animation and the music always embodies the tone of the story. Tim Burton has created an outstanding and creative franchise that is brilliant all year round but is perfect at this time of year.

Happy Halloween!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Doctor Strange

Visual effects are like magic. Through them, anything is possible and the only limit is your imagination. They are also a form of art, and one of the most underappreciated ones at that. It allowed Superman to fly and Tatooine to explode but one of the best examples of imaginative visual effects at work is 2016’s Doctor Strange.

The story sees the life of Doctor Stephen Strange- famed neurosurgeon – thrown into turmoil by a car crash that all but destroys his hands. Though surgery can save them, they may never stop shaking, so Strange goes in search of a spiritual healer who can supposedly heal any physical injury and finds himself in the company of sorcerers. As The Ancient One, Mordo and Wong assist him in his magical education, their reality is threatened by dark sorcerer Kaecilius who draws power from The Dark Dimension on behalf of its ruler Dormammu.

Half the story is told through astounding visuals which allow for creative fight scenes. Reality bends to the sorcerers’ wills with folding buildings, moving roads, and splitting sidewalks. The very first scene is one such fight and perfectly demonstrates how powerful these people are as well as what they’re capable of, without the need for auditory exposition. These masterful feats occur within a space known as The Mirror Dimension, which is a perfect copy of our reality, layered over the top of ours, but never interacts with it. This makes Kaecilius all the more threatening when he is able to conjure these effects outside of The Mirror Dimension, in our reality.

On top of these technical marvels are the designs of the sorcery and The Dark Dimension. The magic itself appears in the air as a line of bright orange light that emits sparks like electricity. The lines form symbols that act as a physical barrier when required, in a very clever and very pretty piece of worldbuilding. Meanwhile, The Dark Dimension is worthy of its name, devoid of light, but not without colour. The darkness is comprised of rich, deep purples, blues, and greens which allow for a sombre but visually interesting space. This is to say nothing of The Astral Plane, where corporeal forms exist, which provides the wildest, most bizarre scene in the entire MCU.

There is a ridiculous amount of worldbuilding at work here, though it never bogs down the story. Magic is a brand new concept for the MCU so it requires establishing but it also lays the groundwork for time travel and alternate dimensions. Of course, alternate dimensions have already had their first mention within the MCU during Ant-Man but this is the first time that the concept of a Multiverse is floated. There are mentions of branched timelines and The Living Tribunal, which will both become extraordinarily relevant as the franchise progresses. Avengers: Endgame is only several films down the line so it makes sense to explore the bare bones of these ideas here. It matches the story well and, bar Ant-Man, there isn’t another instalment where these ideas would sit so comfortably. As a result, Doctor Strange finds itself to be one of the most important films in this franchise, although several angles such as the villainous Baron Mordo are still to pay off.

There’s a lot of discussions to be had surrounding elements of Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent for Strange is befitting that character’s surname and Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Kaecilius is terrific if not a smidge underutilised. However, the largest conversation to be had is around the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. Since conception, The Ancient One has been a Tibetan monk but to avoid falling into racial stereotypes it was decided that the role should be recast in the MCU as an androgynous Celt. It did not go down well, with accusations of whitewashing and China-pandering (since China is famously anti-Tibetan). These accusations are fair given Hollywood’s long line of whitewashed roles and The Ancient Ones’ non-racist portrayal in other media like the 2007 animated film Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme. The reasons given for recasting as still fair too, though it’s a decision that seems laced with cowardice to the extent that Kevin Feige would later state that it could have been handled better. With all that said, Tilda Swinton gives a powerful yet subdued performance which gives the character an air of mystery and a large amount of heart.

For once, the mid-credits scene aligns with a chronological viewing of the MCU. It sees Strange conversing with Thor who has come to New York with his brother Loki in search of their father Odin. This scene is ripped directly from Thor: Ragnarok and allows for a smooth transition between the two films. The post-credits scene is the aforementioned turning of Baron Mordo that, as of the time of this publication, is still to pay off.

Doctor Strange is a marvellous feat of visual effects work with mostly solid performances and a whimsically dark soundtrack. It’s an excellent blend of self-contained origin story and wider-universe worldbuilding that makes for entertaining viewing. It may be Strange, but isn’t that for the best?

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer