Tag: Comic books

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

Comic book movies get a jump start in the very first attempt to take the genre really seriously on screen

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jack Napier/The Joker), Michael Keaton (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Robert Wuhl (Alexander Knox), Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon), Billy Dee Williams (Harvey Dent), Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth), Jack Palance (Carl Grissom), Jerry Hall (Alicia Hunt), Tracey Walter (Bob), Lee Wallace (The Mayor), William Hootkins (Lt Max Eckhardt)

Strange to think, but there was a time when comic book movies were not Hollywood’s be-all and end-all. Instead, they were slightly embarrassing, campy messes, big-name actors were a little ashamed to appear in and studio executives were convinced no-one outside a comic-book shop would be remotely interested. So, you could say Batman is one of the most influential films of the last 30 years, a massive box-office smash that treated its source material fairly seriously. For the first time ever, it was suggested these films could be dark and adult, as well as fun. Sure, there is a lot more goofy humour in it than you might remember, but it changed how this genre was perceived.

It’s an origin story of sorts. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has just started his campaign as Batman, the masked vigilante terrifying criminals at night in crime-ridden Gotham city. A late-night scuffle at a factory stuffed with toxic waste (but of course) sees psychopathic gangster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) tumble into a vat of chemicals. Napier emerges, disfigured and insane, as The Joker and starts a campaign of terror across Gotham. A campaign only Batman can end.

Fans feared during its production that the film would follow in the footsteps of the campy 60s TV show. So many letters of complaint (at least 50,000 – imagine how many tweets that would translate into today) at the casting of ‘comic actor’ Keaton hit the officers of Warner Bros, the company’s share price even took a dip. Fans were only reassured when the film opened – and you know you’re in for something heavyweight, as soon as Elfman’s strikingly gothic yet bombastic score echoes out.

Gothic is the word here: Gotham is imagined as world where Art Deco meets Steampunk by way of German Expressionism – it’s like a Fritz Lang explosion in a graphic novel panel. The film was a brilliant twist on noir, with every street hosting a looming nightmare. This was a dark, sinister world where it was always night (fitting for the Dark Knight) and horrors lurked around every corner.

The nightmare at the heart of the film is of course the Joker. Nicholson was so uncertain about doing the film that he struck a deal giving him unprecedented control over the hours he worked, the length of the shoot, the billing and above all a huge back-end salary on box-office and merchandise (the deal was so good, he also made millions from Batman Returns, the sequel he didn’t even appear in). But it was worth it as the film benefits hugely from Nicholson’s cultural and artistic cache, but also his flamboyantly, unashamedly demonic performance, a grinning imp clearly having a whale of a time. Shrewdly, Burton recognised the Joker was such an outrageous character he could provide all the campy, OTT humour some viewers expected – and because it was in tune with the anarchy of the character, the fans wouldn’t mind. Which of course they didn’t, because it’s Jack.

Nicholson soaks up nearly all the energy of the film, leaving very little left for Keaton. Almost certainly very aware of the overwhelmingly negative reaction to his casting, Keaton plays the role absolutely dead-straight. So dead-straight in fact, that he all but forgets to bring any life to the character what-so-ever. Batman is a humourlessly sober hero (the rubber headset also meant Keaton couldn’t hear anything on set) while Wayne has a timid shyness that masks personal trauma. Keaton hits the notes very carefully and seemingly has decided to hide all the manic energy he had shown elsewhere. He effectively concedes the film to Nicholson – and it says a lot that he even looks overawed by Kim Basinger’s greater vibrancy as love-interest Viki Vale.

Watching Batman today, with our attitude to this sort of material changed completely (not least by Christopher Nolan), it’s striking how much more goofy this film seems. It actually says a lot that this was hailed as the darkest, most serious comic-book movie ever. It’s crammed with Burtonish pratfalls and visual humour, from tea trays blocking bullets to Basinger fainting when surprised by a jack-in-the-box. Classic Hollywood imagery is spoofed – at one point the batwing flies over the clouds, holds position dead-centre of the moon and then dives down while everyone in the film is dressed in a mix of pastiche 1930s style and 1980s clothing. In no way could you mistake anything here as happening in something approaching the real world (compare and contrast the few-degrees-to-the-left reality of Batman Begins).

Burton was in fact an odd-choice for director, with only two live-action films under his belt. He’s not been fond of Batman – he called it “mainly boring to me…more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie” – and the film is an odd fusion of styles. Burtonish dark humour and surreal dashes, mixed with blockbuster action and Prince songs. The film itself has a drifting and unfocused plot (part of constant studio rewriting – shooting the climax Nicholson asked Burton “Why am I climbing up these stairs?” to which Burton responded “We’ll work it out when you get to the top”) which plays around with ideas of trauma motivating these characters but goes nowhere with it. The Joker has no scheme and the film gives him no real personality depth or manages to explore his anarchism in the way The Dark Knight did. Events sort of happen with a shady logic and an unconnected inconsistency, until the film decides to end with a parade climax and rooftop fight.

What’s also striking is how little the comic books are treated like Holy Text by the film-makers (a complete no-no today, where even the slightest deviation from the writ leads to an avalanche of on-line criticism). Batman offs criminals without a second thought, his backstory is radically altered, the continuity merrily distorted. He seems less like a highly-trained fighter and detective, and more a gamely-trying brawler dependent on gadgets. Every character outside Batman, Vale and, I guess, the Joker is a clueless old buffer. While the film is inspired by the look of some of the comic books, it basically has no interest at all in their mythology or deeper themes.

Batman is entertaining but manages to feel long – largely because its plot is vague and drifts, without a tightly controlling theme or plot arc. It’s at times rather inconsistently edited – watch the sequence in the art gallery that is rife with continuity errors – and the film is slightly in awe of Jack Nicholson’s exuberant performance that dominates the film and crushes the life out of any narrative. But it showed that comic books could take place in a world that was dark and imposing rather than primary coloured and that superheroes didn’t need to wear their underpants over their trousers to get the crowds in. For all its flaws, it’s the first stone in the road to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and yes I know it’s a DC comic).

Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen header
Morally complex heroes in Zach Snyder’s visually impressive Watchmen

Director: Zach Snyder

Cast: Malin Åkerman (Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Jon Osterman/Dr Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias), Jackie Earle Haley (Walter Kovacs/Rorschach), Patrick Wilson (Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Edward Blake/Comedian), Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre), Matt Frewer (Edgar Jacobi/Moloch), Stephen McHattie (Hollis Mason/Nite Owl)

If you asked people to name the greatest Graphic Novel Ever, chances are they would come up with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This scintillating deconstruction of superheroes and the morality of caped avenging satirises what the impact of superheroes in a real world might be. It had taken decades – and several cancelled attempts – to get a version to the screen. So, if nothing else, Zach Snyder deserves plaudits for merely persuading Hollywood executives to get this expensive, R-rated, morally complex film to the screen. Sure, the final result isn’t perfect, but it’s got a fair bit going for it.

Watchmen is set in an alternative 1985 where Richard Nixon is serving his fourth term and the Armageddon of Nuclear war is just around the corner. Masked vigilantes had been a common sight on the streets – although banned since 1977. The Vietnam war was won (in a few days) by the God-like Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a scientist granted superhuman powers in 1959 after an accident with a field generator. Most other vigilantes are retired, other than right-wing bully the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). When the Comedian is murdered by a masked intruder, his fellow members of superhero group the Watchmen, worry someone eliminating them for reasons unknown.

Snyder’s Watchmen is a visual feast. Snyder – a huge fan of the graphic novel – used it as a visual bible, quoting it in several frames. The film is a beautiful mix of dark, filmic visuals and striking comic book primary colours, while frequently embracing the inky black murkiness of the violent world its depicting. Shot with the same high energy and dynamism as 300, Snyder’s ability to turn pulpy Warhol inspired visuals into fast-paced, filmic action is second-to-none.

What however is more of a shame is the feeling that the main things in Watchmen that interest Snyder might be the visuals. Where the film sometimes fails to come to life is where it deals with the complex morality of its heroes. The original deconstructed the morality of heroes. How a man with the powers of a God could come to look on humanity with an (albeit affectionate) distance. How a masked PI would be so convinced that right and wrong were certain that he would be willing to carry out acts of bone-crunching violence. That a hero could calculate sacrificing millions of lives for the greater good isn’t just acceptable, its recommended. That for others the exhilaration of spending their nights beating up criminals is an escape from the mundane realities of life.

The problem is that Watchmen never quite gets to the heart of these moral questions, of really tackling the rights, wrongs and shades of grey of those ethical quandaries. Rather than delving into them, ideas are too often stated. While its daring for a film to include heroes who are as deeply flawed, violent and, at times, even as unpleasant as this – it still doesn’t quite flesh out the complexities of this.

Too often the film takes a naughty pleasure in its violence and brutality, seeing that as a short-hand for presenting a morally unclear world. And at times wants us to go “how cool is that!” rather than asking “should I be enjoying watching indiscriminate slaughter from a vigilante”. Its telling that the recent HBO series of Watchmen – a sequel to the Graphic Novel set in the modern world – feels more like a true adaptation of the source material than this. That dealt with fascinating ideas about race in America, morality and acceptable sacrifices for the greater good (and still managed to work in plenty of action). By comparison, this film of the source material itself feels less deep. Now of course run time is part of that, but it should have been possible to make a film this long that more successfully combined ideas and visuals.

Snyder’s passion for the material is clear – but the film is often a little too obvious. From cuts to musical cues, it’s a film that pushes the envelope only in terms of its look and feel. It tries its best, but its vision of transmitting the depths of the original sometimes seem to stop at a faithful visual rendition of its style.

But it’s made with a lot of love and passion, not least in the acting. The decision to go largely with unknown actors pays off very well. Earle Haley brilliantly channels his character from the graphic book, a prickly obsessive with an unshakeable moral certainty. Crudup perfectly conveys the vast moral distance a real Superman would probably feel towards normal people. Goode’s chilling coldness and arrogance is perfect. Wilson gives the film heart as the closest thing to a genuinely decent guy. Åkerman does her best with a part that feels slightly underwritten and at times a plot requirement, largely defined by the emotions she provokes in the male character.

There are plenty of excellent moments in Watchmen but I’m not sure it ever really, truly becomes its own thing (in the way the HBO series did manage to do). In trying to so completely ape the visuals, and fit in all the plot, it becomes a companion piece rather than a stand-alone production. If Snyder had perhaps had a bit more courage to tack away from the strict structures of the original source material it could perhaps have helped make a stronger film. However, saying that I can imagine the fans hitting the roof if he had… And Snyder’s ability to persuade the studio to make a film with such a nihilist feel and ending is to be commended. Watchmen is a mixed bag, but when it works it does work well.

Batman Begins (2005)

Christian Bale redeems the Batman in Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Lt James Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Cillian Murphy (Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (William Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s al Ghul), Mark Boone Jnr (Detective Arnold Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Loeb)

In the mid-2000s, Batman on film was a joke. A series that started with the Gothic darkness of Tim Burton had collapsed into the pantomime campness of Joel Schumacher. The franchise was functionally dead, so why hot burn it all down and start again from scratch. It was a radical idea – one of the first big “reboots” of a comic book saga. It was a triumphant success, changing the rule book for a host of film series and one of the most influential movies from the last 15 years. 

After the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) life drifts as he is unable to get over his own guilt at believing he was partly responsible for getting his parents into a situation where they were killed. In a Gotham run by organised crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), Bruce exiles himself for years to try and learn the skills he will need to return and try and find some peace and deal with his fears by tackling crime head on. Recruited by his mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) into the League of Shadows – a dark group of ninja inspired vigilantes – Wayne eventually rejects the group’s ruthlessness and returns to Gotham. There, working with his old guardian and family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), he starts to build a new identity: by day shallow playboy Bruce Wayne, by night The Bat Man ruthless vigilante, fighting crime. 

Why did it work so well? Because Christopher Nolan understood that the key to making a film that will kickstart a series and win the love of both the casual viewer and the fan is ‘simple’ – just make the film good. Make it a film powered by ideas, characters, a deliberate story and intriguing beats and audiences will love it. Make it a lowest common denominator film offering only bangs and crashes and ‘fan service’ and audiences will reject it. Because at the end of the day we know when we are being manipulated, and the assumption too many people behind making films like that is that people don’t really want intelligent films. They do.

Batman Begins works so well because it places character front-and-centre in a way no other Batman film – and very few superhero films – had before. Unlike all the other Batman films, here Bruce Wayne (and it is definitely Bruce Wayne) was the lead character, not a staid stick-in-the-mud around whom more colourful villains danced. Combine that with Nolan’s inspired idea to return Batman to something resembling a real-world, a more grounded, recognisable version of Gotham which has problems with organised crime that we could recognise from the real world. This are intelligent, inspired decisions that instantly allowed the film to take on a thematic and narrative depth the other Batman films had lacked. 

It’s Bruce Wayne’s psyche at the centre of the film – in an excellent performance of emotional honesty and physical commitment by Christian Bale – and his attempts to find solace in a sense of duty from his fears and his loss of a father figure. It’s Fear that is possibly one of the central themes of Batman Begins and the power it has over us. Fear is what Bruce must master – on a visceral level his fear of bats, on a deeper level his fear that he has failed his parents by failing the city they loved – and fear is the weapon all the villains use. Fear is the petrol for Falcone and his gangsters. Fear is the weapon Batman utilises. Fear is the study of choice of disturbed psychologist Joanthan Crane (a smarmily unsettling Cillian Murphy). A weaponised Fear gas is the WMD that the film’s villains intend to introduce into Gotham.

Understanding fear, working with it, finding its strengths and using these for good is at the core of the film. It’s there from the first beat – a traumatised young Bruce attacked by bats after falling into an abandoned well they nest in – and it’s there at the very end. Bruce’s training with mentor Ducard is as much about understanding and living with these terrors as it is physical prowess. His impact as Batman on the city is central towards channelling his own fears – bats, the dark, violence on an empty street – into universal fears he can use to terrorise criminals. 

It’s all part of the film’s quest to work out who Bruce Wayne is. With Bale superb at the centre, the film throws a host of potential father characters at Bruce, all offering different influences. He has no less than three father figures, in his father (a fine performance of decency by Linus Roache), the austere and understanding Ducard (Neeson channelling and inverting brilliantly his natural gravitas and calm) and the firm but fair and caring Alfred (Michael Caine quite brilliantly opening up a whole new career chapter). 

The influences are all there for Bruce to work out. Should he follow a path of compassionate justice as his father would do? How much muscular firmness and earnest duty, such as Alfred represents, should this be spiced with? How does Ducard’s increasingly extreme views of justice, combat and social order play into this? Which influence will win out over Bruce – or rather how will he combine all this into his own rules? It’s telling that the film’s villain turns out to be a dark false-father figure – the entire film is Bruce’s quest to come to turn with his own legacy and allow himself to accept his father and forgive himself.

It’s also telling that both hero and villain are driven by similar (but strikingly different) agendas. Both are looking to impose justice on the world. But where Bruce sees this as compassion with a punch – a necessary evil, protecting the good in the world while bringing down the evil – the League of Shadows see their mission as one of imposing Justice through chaos, of letting a world destroy itself so that a better one can rise from the ashes. 

Its ideas like this that pepper Christopher Nolan’s film. Throw in his superb film-making abilities and you have an absolute treat. Nolan’s direction is spot-on, superbly assembled with a mastery over character and story-telling. Beautifully designed, shot and edited it’s a perfect mixture of comic book rules and logic – the very idea of the League of Shadows – with the real world perils of crime, vigilanteeism and violence. With a superb cast led by Bale – and Gary Oldman also deserves mention, Nolan finally unleashing the decency, honesty and kindness in the actor that revitalised his career – Batman Begins relaunched Batman as a serious and intelligent series, that matched spectacle and excitement (and there is tonnes of it) with weighty themes, fine acting and superb film making. There is a reason why it’s been a touchstone for every reboot of a series made since.

Joker (2019)

Joaquin Phoenix goes all out as Joker

Director: Todd Phillips

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck), Robert DeNiro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond), Frances Conroy (Penny Fleck), Brett Cullen (Thomas Wayne), Glenn Fleshler (Randall), Leigh Gill (Gary), Bill Camp (Detective Garrity), Shea Whigham (Detective Burke), Douglas Hodge (Alfred Pennyworth), Marc Maron (Gene Uffland)

The mystic of Batman’s nemesis the Joker is his unpredictability, his other-worldly insanity laced with malicious viciousness and an anarchic sense of fun. There is a reason such an electric character has been the go-to for so many Batman related films – and why people are drawn time and time again to re-exploring him. With the DC Universe struggling, it makes sense that a stand-alone film around the most-popular, most-famous comic book villain of all time would be attractive. It’s been a massive success, but is it truly a good movie? I’m not so sure.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a struggling professional clown in 1981 Gotham City, living with his invalid mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). A run-down, dirty and no-good town with astronomical divides between the haves and the have nots, Fleck is a guy who can’t make the world work for him. Dreaming of a being a professional stand up and appearing on the popular nightly talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), Fleck is actually a maladjusted, bitter outsider and fantasist who struggles to adjust to the real world. Will the idea of taking brutal vengeance on those around him, be eventually to tempting to resist? Hey: why so serious world?

Joker is a grim, trying and rather uninvolving film that even contained within a fairly tight two hours still feels like it drags on way too long. It perhaps feels like this because it signposts all its major narrative developments far too far in advance, meaning very little if anything surprises you. Fleck is essentially a time bomb waiting to go off, and everyone knows by the film’s final act he will do. The long wait to get there doesn’t really give us anything fresh or interesting to think about, other than presenting a comic book world mixed with the grimy atmosphere of classic Scorsese films. It’s a film made by people who love classic urban Hollywood films – but who seem unable to bring anything really fresh to a series of ideas better film makers have already had.

Instead it’s a film that relies heavily – in fact is completely dependent on – its inspirations, torn from comic books, other films and news bulletins. Your understanding of Fleck’s character arc is dependent on having some sort of visual image in your head for the Joker. Your appreciation of the film’s style and tone relies on you having seen Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. Your reaction to the sudden growth of flash-mob violence in Gotham depends on you knowing about these attitudes in the real world. The film largely fails to develop any of these ideas organically within itself or its own narrative, but instead throws them to the screen knowing that we will do the work of making them stick on our own with our past associations.

As the film doesn’t really try and build its own ideas, or really try to take ideas from anywhere else to really original places (apart from a few Joker developments which I’ll talk about later), for people who are familiar with its themes and inspirations, it just manages to make for a rather dull watch. The Joker character has been done better elsewhere, King of Comedy and Taxi Driver are films so full of depth and interest around maladjusted losers, stalkers and fantasists yearning for recognition, that this film’s showy coverage of the same ground come across as deep as puddle. Its political positions are so simple, basic and unchallenging that they might as well have come from a school essay. 

Both the film’s greatest strength, and its greatest weakness, is Phoenix’s lead performance. There is no question that this is a powerhouse performance, fully committed physically and emotionally. Phoenix has explored every inch of the psychological make-up of a misfit who believes the world owes him something and whose vulnerability eventually becomes twisted into a psychotic rage. As a portrait of the making of a school shooter (say) it’s a fascinatingly successful performance. But it’s also overwhelming. It’s so quirky, so twitchy, so detailed, so mannered it finally becomes too much. 

Finally, and this is perhaps intentional, it doesn’t feel like the Joker. When I think of that character, I think of one defined by joy. A twisted sense of joy, a psychotic killer’s joy, but joy nevertheless. Joy is something that never enters Phoenix’s interpretation for a second. This makes sense for the first three quarters of the film, but when the final push of the narrative takes us towards Joker territory, Phoenix’s character is still by-and-large the same tearful, desperate, tragic figure he was before. That doubling down on villainy, that “just let the world burn” anarchism is something completely missing from the performance. It makes the part something that is all impact but no real depth, no real development. It’s a showy performance of tricks and manners, impressive in its commitment but in the end empty and unaffecting.

It also means the film focuses almost completely on Fleck, meaning it has not time to develop its themes of urban clashes and rich vs poor narrative. Instead it just throws these ideas straight in to the film with no real introduction or context and trusts that we will do the work ourselves. It does the same with Fleck’s fantasies and obsessions. It’s no great surprise that all these dreams fail to pan out, and it’s no great surprise that killing ensues. All the victims of Fleck’s rage are completely predictable from the first few minutes, but Phillips film feels like it takes a very long time to get there. 

Joker does at least try to do something different, but Phillips film is more a scrap book of ideas and themes explored better elsewhere. Phoenix tries too hard and the film itself ends up telling a not very compelling story. In the end the character of the Joker is fascinating because the character is unknowable, unpredictable, a rootless force of nature. Giving him a back story weakens the character and makes him (and the film) less and less successful. And the general get-out-of-jail card the film holds (and plays) that all or some of this might just be happening in Fleck’s fractured mind isn’t clever, it’s just irritating.

Captain Marvel (2019)

Brie Larsen is Captain Marvel – yah boo sucks Trolls!

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Cast: Brie Larson (Carol Danvers/Veers), Samuel L Jackson (Nick Fury), Jude Law (Yon-Rogg), Ben Mendelsohn (Talos/Keller), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), Lee Pace (Ronan the Accuser), Lashana Lynch (Maria Rambeau), Gemma Chan (Minn-Evra), Annette Bening (Supreme Intelligence/Mar-Vell/Dr Wendy Lawson), Clark Gregg (Phil Coulsen)

After almost 11 years, the big criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been that it had never made a film with a woman as the lead. Sure, we’d had various strong female characters, but never had one been trusted with headlining a movie. Well the studio has put that right with Captain Marvel, a hugely enjoyable, if not exactly groundbreaking, superhero origins story that can stand up with some of the best origin movies the studio has produced.

In the Kree civilisation, Veers (Brie Larson) is in training to take her proper place in the Star Force, under the tutelage of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). But she’s struggling to control her immense powers, with her dreams plagued by strange visions and half memories of a planet that looks to us viewers a lot like Earth. After a Star Force mission goes wrong, Veers is captured by the shape-shifting Skrulls and their leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), her memory being searched for a time on Earth that she doesn’t remember. Escaping, she finds herself on Earth in 1995, and quickly allies with SHIELD operative Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, impressively digitally de-aged) to find out what the Skrulls want. But is everything as it appears? And what will happen as Veers starts to remember her true identity, as long-missing air-force test pilot Carol Danvers?

Captain Marvel I guess you could say is not an ambitious film. It largely sits pretty close to the well-established Marvel formula for introducing a new character, and it presents a series of visuals, fights and general tone mixing light-jokes with action beats extremely well. It’s a very professionally assembled product. However, what makes it work is the strain of emotional truth, and an interest in character as the driving force for events, that runs right through the centre of the film. It’s a testament to the imaginative and original direction from Boden and Fleck that at the centre of each clash we see, not the action and the pyrotechnics, but the emotion and character that give these things meaning.

They are also helped by an interesting plot, with some very decent twists, that throws the viewers into the deep end and carefully drip-feeds us information at the same pace as Carol picks it up. This also helps hugely for investing in Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers, a character who doesn’t know who she is and where she came from. Brie Larson does a terrific job, crafting a character “strong and determined”, but also witty, impulsive, brave, caring, decent and rather sweet with a strong moral compass that clearly, from the start, governs all her actions. It’s a fine performance and Larson is equally convincing in the film’s lighter, funnier moments as she is when banging heads together.

That helps keep the tone of the film pretty consistent as it heads through various twists and turns and rugpulls. Now I am sure some of these twists would be seen coming by anyone immersed in Marvel comicbook lore, but for us Muggles I appreciated the reveals about several characters defying expectations. The film also avoids false tension – a character is so obviously a shape-shifted replacement, it’s a relief that the film confirms this in minutes and the characters work it out shortly after. It’s a smart way for the film to fool you into thinking where it is going, while building towards more interesting reveals later on – particularly as it throws our expectations for several characters into the air.

And the action when it takes place is great fun, primary-coloured and accompanied by a great selection of 90s tracks. Because Boden and Fleck have spent so much time carefully developing the characters at its heart, these become action moments you can genuinely invest in, where people you care about are in peril, rather than the bangs and crashes without consequence that plague other films.

It’s also mixed extremely well with comedy. Samuel L Jackson in particular gets some great comic mileage out of a young Nick Fury, a man on his way to becoming the hard-as-nails guy we’ve seen in countless movies, but here still young, playful and (hilariously) besotted with a cat rather wittily called “Goose”. Ben Mendelsohn also gets some good moments from his mysterious shape shifter and Jude Law has a sort of put-upon charm as Carol’s mentor. There are also some lovely moments as Carol rediscovers her memories and rebuilds a relationship with her former best friend and fellow test pilot Maria Rambeau, well played by Lashana Lynch.

Captain Marvel is such good fun, such good old fashioned entertainment, that it seems to have defeated the efforts of the internet trolls to consign it to oblivion. It’s sad to say that, following in the footsteps of Black Panther, The Last Jedi, Star Trek: Discovery and Doctor Who, another “fan boy” franchise entry has seen its opening overshadowed by a bunch of sad wankers with key boards hammering into the internet (and whining into YouTube) about Disney and “the suits” forcing fans to watch stories about people who aren’t white males. Larsen and Captain Marvel got it in the neck for being sexist (it’s not about a man and Larsen dared to say she thought film critics were overwhelmingly white and male – guilty in this case), pushing a feminist agenda (because, like, it had a woman in it that wasn’t a damsel-in-distress or hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold) and not representing what the fans wanted to see in comic films (muscular men saving ladies and hitting things basically). Never mind that social commentary in the old days used to be what these fans bragged about their passions being so full of. Now any character who doesn’t fit a narrow set of racial and sexual criteria is an attempt by the PC brigade to push these pricks out of the fandom. Well to be honest we are better off without this turgid slime polluting fandom with their putrid stench. Put frankly, if films like Captain Marvel make some idiots decide they are going to boycott Marvel for ever more, well good – please fuck off and let the door slam you on your arse on the way out.

Anyway, rant over. Captain Marvel is great fun, Brie Larsen is great, the action is well done, the jokes are funny, the story is engaging and it’s all done and dusted in two hours. Go and see it.

X-Men Apocalypse (2016)

Oscar Isaac destroys something else (again) in misfire X-Men Apocalypse

Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: James McAvoy (Charles Xavier/Professor X), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique), Oscar Isaac (Apocalypse), Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy/Beast), Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert), Evan Peters (Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver), Tye Sheridan (Scott Summers/Cyclops), Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Olivia Munn (Psylocke), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler), Alexander Shipp (Ororo Monroe/Storm), Lucas Till (Alex Summers/Havoc), Josh Helman (Colonel William Stryker), Ben Hardy (Angel)

Where do you go with a franchise when you are on at least your second timeline (maybe more, who knows?) and earth-shattering destruction has been done so many times before? At one point in this movie, our young heroes head to the cinema to watch Return of the Jedi – with a genre savvy conversation following on whether the third film in a franchise is always the worst. You’d like to think if you were going to pop such a hostage to fortune in the third film of your franchise, then you’d be busting guts to make this film as stand-out as possible. Doesn’t happen.

It’s 1983. Charles (James McAvoy) is still running his school with Hank (Nicholas Hoult). Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence – looking for every single second as if she is only there by contractual obligation) is saving mutants left, right and centre on the underground. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living incognito in Germany with a wife and daughter. All that is about to be thrown into chaos when Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, trying his very best to make an impression under piles of make-up), the very first mutant, rises from imprisonment after thousands of years. The most powerful mutant in history, he decides the world is ripe and ready for the taking.

In X-Men: Apocalypse, not only is more not more, but the film churns out emotional character and relationship beats, covered to exhaustion in other movies. One glance at Magneto’s family and anyone who has ever seen a movie is going to know they are not long for this world. Raven and Charles no sooner appear in the same frame than you know the two of them are going to struggle to reconcile their past with their different viewpoints. We’ve seen it all before – and you feel, in the slightly disengaged performances, that the cast have had enough as well. Even Apocalypse, for all his world-altering power, basically has the same agenda as every mutant villain this franchise has ever had before: Mutant Superiority. 

Around these familiar plot beats, we get action that also feels culled from before. The film culminates in such earth-shattering destruction you really feel it should be more exciting, but instead it feels tediously familiar. How many times have we seen cities devastated like this? It’s such a cliché that the millions of people who must have died in the planet-wide obliteration that consumes the final third of the film don’t even merit a mention. It’s like the world treats this global destruction with the same meh that you feel a number of the film’s viewers do. 

But then the whole film has a weary sense of inevitability about it, of going through the motions. The plot makes little or no sense. Apocalypse is awoken by a cult we never hear from again, the whole film takes place in a few days, barely enough time to build up any sense of peril – but also somehow too short a time for the vast number of comings-together of different characters to feel natural. Characters from past films are thrown in willy-nilly, often for no real reason. So from the first scene we have Moira MacTaggert and Havoc back from the first film, then Quicksilver is back to repeat his bullet-time action from Days of Future Past (saying that, this sequence, as Quicksilver rushes to save people from an exploding mansion to the tune of Sweet Dreams, is the most vibrantly enjoyable moment in the film). We even get Stryker back, a character who becomes more and more of a cartoony villainous idiot each time he appears.

In between these points, the film frequently misses its beats. Apocalypse’s assembled group of mutant followers are assembled with such casual indifference (Apocalypse basically seems to pick up the first four mutants he meets) that their characters and motivations barely register. Obviously we know Storm is destined to be a goodie, so we get a few seconds of establishment that she is basically a goodie. Magneto gets his painfully predictable backstory (Michael Fassbender is by the way totally wasted in this movie, forced to repeat the same notes over and over again from the last two films). The other two barely make an impression – other than perhaps Olivia Munn’s unbelievably fanservice costume.

But it also makes more serious errors. A hideously distasteful moment sees Magneto destroy the whole of Auschwitz in a rage. There is, quite frankly, something more than a little stomach turning about the site of a real atrocity – where millions died – being blown away on screen like any other major landmark. Even more disgusting to have it serve as a shallow, over-exploited “he feels pain because he was in the Holocaust” moment. Other times in this series this link has worked – here it manifestly doesn’t.

About the only thing that really works here is the darker interpretation of Charles – McAvoy making it clear that events have made Xavier far more willing to go to dangerous ends to protect his family – and there is a neat replay of the first conversation between Xavier and Magneto from the very first film in the franchise, with the stresses all changed to show that their positions have developed in a far different way in this new timeline. But that’s the only real moment that feels new.

But I’ve still got a certain affection for these X-Men movies, and this isn’t the worst one they’ve ever made (that’s always going to be X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but it’s up there. It somehow doesn’t feel special, more like a film that had to be made for legal and financial reasons, rather than because there seemed like a decent story to be told, or something unique to be said. The rushed plot and lack of engaging characters make more sense when you think about it like that. It’s nothing special at all, and seems to pass in front of your eyes and then just as quickly out of your memory.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Ron Perlman faces larger problems than ever in Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien/Angel of Death/Chamberlain), Seth MacFarlane (Johann Krauss), Luke Goss (Prince Nuada), Anna Walton (Princess Nuala), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), John Hurt (Professor Trevor Bruttenholm), Roy Dotrice (King Balor)

There is something quite sweet about the Guillermo del Toro taking all the chips won for directing Pan’s Labyrinth and cashed them in for this comic book sequel. There you have the distillation of the man’s career right there: one for the artist and then one for the teenage boy he used to be. But Hellboy II is a marvellous creation, a gorgeous to look at, magical, rather funny comic book film crammed with amazing images, ingenious creatures and sparkling moments of action and adventure.

Thousands of years ago, the magical creatures of the world, led by the elves, fought a war against mankind. To win a desperate victory, goblins created the dreaded Golden Army, an indestructible mechanical army. Horrified at the slaughter, Elven King Balor (Roy Dotrice) offered a truce. His son Prince Nuala (Luke Goss) disagreed. In the present day, Nuala goes about to collect the three pieces of the crown needed to control the Golden Army – and only Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his friends from the BPRD can stop him. 

Hellboy II is immensely imaginative and wonderful to look at. Perhaps inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth, the film plays like a cross between the most brain-twisting magic depths of that film and a traditional comic book. So we get dozens of creatures, each pulled from the pages of some sort of acid tripped Tolkien novel: with extended hands, distorted heads and steam-punkish extremities, the creatures on show are masterpieces of design and character. The juxtaposition between this ethereal, magical world of elves and goblins and mankind’s expansion brings home the danger this world is in: the Elven King’s palace in the modern day is in a sort of converted sewer, while Nuala’s base is an abandoned underground line. With some performers (often del Toro’s muse Doug Jones) under layers of make-up and prosthetics, it’s extraordinary the amount of personality each of these creatures gets. When the film takes a turn down a Diagon Alley-style market, you regret Del Toro never got to make a Harry Potter film.

Hellboy looks both part of this world and also like a muscular bull in a china shop. Ron Perlman continues to be perfect in the part, and captures the wry, cynical, slightly teenagerish humour of the part. Del Toro does a wonderful job of showing the sense of family between Hellboy, his lover pyrokinetic Liz (a decent performance by Selma Blair, although she is too often relegated to the “woman” role), and his surrogate brother, amphibious empath Abe (Doug Jones getting to provide the voice as well this time, and getting a fine display of growing emotional expression). The quiet character moments between the action really ring true – a very funny sequence sees Hellboy and Abe bemoan their romantic entanglements by getting drunk while singing Can’t Smile Without You.

It’s scenes like that which add the heart alongside the throbbing action and colourful character weirdness of del Toro’s vision. It’s also part of the distinctiveness of the whole vision of the film. Everything is seen with as fresh an eye as possible, and makes for some really striking images and scenes. The steam-punk aesthetic of the Golden Army seems to fit together perfectly with the more organic world of the Elves. There’s a sense at all times that the design and pacing of the film have been carefully thought through so everything fits logically together. Starting the film with a wonderfully animated Golden Army backstory (voiced by a briefly returning John Hurt for maximum impact) is just another reflection of the artistry at work here.

There is a nice vein of humour running through the film – there are some funny sight gags as characters walk nonchalantly through bizarre goings-on in BDRP HQ – and the more gory moments of the action are shot with a certain black comedy. The film also gets a decent few points in about how humanity rejects things that are different, which are not surprising but still hit home.

Hellboy II does start to become a bit more generic as it heads towards its final denouement. Most of the events of the final few scenes are pretty predictable from the outset, and offer little in the way of surprises. For all the chemistry she has with Perlman, Blair is more or less relegated to the sidelines for large chunks of the film (usually the action). But for most of the run time, it’s inventive, imaginative fun with a director bringing a distinctive vision to the genre while also kicking back his heels and having fun. And fun is what it wants the viewer to have as well – don’t try too hard, sit back, relax and enjoy yourself.

Black Panther (2018)

Chadwick Boseman is the legendary Black Panther in Marvel’s solid comic book outing

Director: Ryan Coogler

Cast: Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa/Black Panther), Michael B. Jordan (N’Jadaka/Erik Kilmonger Stevens), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Forest Whitaker (Zuri), Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue), John Kani (T’Chaka)

Marvel’s comic book world is now so stuffed with characters, worlds and dimensions that it is remarkable how many of its heroes are white and male. Black Panther does something completely different, giving us a set of African heroes and placing the common framework of a Marvel film within a very proud, and distinct, African heritage. So you can pretty much guarantee you ain’t seen a comic book film quite like this one.

After the death of his father (in Captain America: Civil War), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king of the secretive nation of Wakanda. Camouflaging itself as a poor and unadvanced nation in order to avoid interaction with the rest of the world, Wakanda has in fact for centuries been mining a remarkable metal, vibranium, that has helped the nation become hugely technologically advanced. Its king also bears the responsibility of being the “Black Panther”, ingesting a vibranium-infused herb to gain superhuman speed and strength. However, others have their eye on the throne, not least Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan), who wants to turn Wakanda into a force that could protect the black people of the world from their historical oppressors and avenge centuries of slavery.

Black Panther never fails to be entertaining. The film is shot with a genuinely vibrant excitement, and I love the way it proudly embraces a comic book twist on African tribal heritage. In fact the film’s depiction of an African nation which is secretly the most powerful and advanced nation in the world is really quite an impressive political statement.

Ryan Coogler directs the film with flashy brilliance and comes up with a few ways of presenting what are (essentially) action sequences we’ve seen many times before in unique new ways. The stand-out is an early action scene in a Korean bar, filmed to appear as an immersive single take around a large set, the camera dipping and zooming from character to character. Coogler also brings a fair amount of visual wit to the fights while not losing the emotional and character depth the story is aiming for.

The film also has some fine performances, with Boseman dripping dignity, nobility and decency as T’Challa. Regular Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan gives a great contrast as bitter LA slums kid turned misguided would-be dictator Kilmonger. Danai Gurira stands out as proud general Okoye, torn between duty and personal loyalties. Hell even Forest Whitaker – clearly loving every moment of this OTT Marvel world – gets some weight and dignity out of his typical grandstanding style.

It’s another mark for the film that the world of Wakanda is so effectively gender neutral. Kings of Wakanda have a Praetorian Guard of female warriors, most of the leading voices on its council are women, and its technical genius is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright in a charming, star-making performance). Sure it doesn’t feel like the role of Black Panther himself is up for grabs for anyone lacking a penis, but this is a world where women are equal, if not leading, partners in the action.

The film also addresses issues of post-colonial struggle, not least attitudes towards slavery and oppression handed out to Africa over centuries. Kilmonger’s fiendish plot is, in many ways, actually quite sympathetic – he wants to use Wakanda’s resources to protect those of African descent across the world. Jordan gets some good moments from his speeches laced with anger at the historical treatment of Afro-Caribbeans and, to be honest, it’s hard not to see his point. So hard in fact that the film has to drop hints that Kilmonger is a potential tyrant to stop him from seeing too reasonable. 

This is where the film’s plot starts to get slightly hazy. The character arc of T’Challa himself is pretty unclear. Traditionally in these films, the character must embrace his destiny. Problem is, a lot of this arc was covered in Captain America: Civil War. The writers are unable to give him a truly compelling replacement arc here. T’Challa drops a few references early on to not feeling ready – but basically swiftly embraces it. He never outlines a real alternative agenda to Kilmonger – there are characters in the film who argue “Wakanda doesn’t get involved in the world”, but he isn’t one of them, so there is no journey towards engagement with the outside world (on far more humanitarian terms than Kilmonger advocates). 

Frankly, Okoye is given a better character arc than T’Challa, beginning by advocating “we must serve the throne and respect our traditions even if we doubt them”, and learning later to follow her own conscience. T’Challa, in contrast, is no discernibly different at the end of the film to how he was at the beginning. 

T’Challa’s journey is basically getting something, losing it and then getting it back. Strip away Boseman’s performance and the character is basically pretty dull. He partly suffers, as does the rest of the film, from an overstuffed cast spreading the focus of the film far too thinly and leading to character arcs and interconnections feeling rushed. Kilmonger’s connection with T’Challa is forced – they only know each other for at best two days! – and there is a superfluity of villains. There’s not only decoy antagonist Klaue (and his gang) hanging about for a good chunk of the film, but also Daniel Kaluuya’s ill-defined best friend turned opponent, W’Kabi. Combining Kilmonger and W’Kabi would have helped no end, allowing two different, divergent agendas to develop and cause a relationship rift between two friends (Kaluuya is instead totally wasted in a nothing part, whose allegiances change depending on the demands of the plot). 

The good guys fare no better: Lupita Nyong’o is completely wasted as a love interest who feels stuffed into the movie because, y’know, these films gotta have one. She does nothing in the film that could not be easily done by another character, and nearly all of T’Challa’s emotional scenes – and personal motivation – are tied into his sister rather than this are-they-aren’t-they-a-couple. 

It’s all part of the traditionalism that underlies the film. Its structure is familiar and, like many Marvel origin films, the villain is a dark reflection of the hero with similar skills. The final battle is traditional and a little dull (and feels very similar to Avengers: Infinity War). The film avoids showing T’Challa torn between isolation and intervention – he in fact advocates both in the first 15 minutes – and doesn’t really make much of the prospect of a hero changing his mind or developing his views to embrace a wider world.

But it stands out because it is different. And it deserves no end of praise for making such a film so full of love and respect for its heritage. It walks a very difficult line between enjoying the bright exotic colours while not making the film patronising or overly “other-worldly”. How many other Hollywood films have, at best, two white characters (well played in both cases by Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis)? How many others would dare have the villain make a defiant, sizzling and emotionally inspirational speech about racial oppression and the hypocrisy of the West (though the film goes easy on America, with the speech taking place at the hilarious “Museum of Great Britain”. Where is this place – please get my tickets!).

That it slightly dodges and fudges the implication of these themes in its plotting and the conception of its hero – who is basically a dull character played by a charismatic actor – doesn’t reduce its pleasure at doing something different. I’m not sure it will stand up to repeated viewings – look past the setting and it does little new – but it’s a worthy entrance in a crowded universe.

Deadpool (2016)

Ryan Reynold swings into action in slightly-pleased-with-itself comicbook satire Deadpool

Director: Tim Miller

Cast: Ryan Reynolds (Wade Wilson/Deadpool), Morena Baccarin (Vanessa), Ed Skrein (Francis Freeman/Ajax), TJ Miller (Weasel), Gina Carano (Angel Dust), Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenager Warhead), Stefan Kapičić (Colossus), Leslie Uggams (Blind Al)

One day (soon?) we’ll reach critical mass with comic book films. Eventually, when every single character who’s ever appeared in a frame of a DC or Marvel comic has appeared on the screen, we’ll surely wonder if we will ever see anything new again. Some may already feel this, so perhaps that explains why Deadpool, which, for all its faults, is a comic book film doing something different, made such a big impact.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a mercenary who meets and falls in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Discovering he has terminal cancer, he leaves her so she does not have to watch him die, and signs up to a gruesome medical procedure designed to bring out dormant mutant genes that may cure him. It works but leaves him hideously deformed. Wanting revenge, he names himself Deadpool and hunts for a cure to his deformity – scared Vanessa would reject him without it.

What Deadpool does well is wittily flag up the familiar tropes of comic book movies. The film in fact follows each trope to the letter – but at least it has a foul-mouthed cheeky commentary. The big question you have to ask is, can a film really be that smart and different if it basically does something very traditional? If I tell you I’m going to perform a tired magic trick you’ve seen before, but I’ll do it while pointing up every single cliché of delivery, with panache, does it matter the magic trick is still as tired as I said it was at the start?

That’s what Deadpool is – the same old ideas, re-packaged in a different way, so juvenile and cheeky that for a beat or two it feels like something new, which it manifestly isn’t. It might not take itself seriously, but it also doesn’t really develop into something unique. The film opens with a neat comic riff on credits, listing not the actors but their generic character traits (“Love Interest”, “Brit Baddie”, “Comic relief” etc. etc.) – sure this is funny and smart, but doesn’t change the fact that the characters themselves are exactly that. 

Deadpool is a faux-clever film. It’s a cheeky piece of college humour: an X-Men film with swearing, sex, fourth wall breaking and gags about other films. There is a sort of witty enjoyment from Deadpool reminding us he knows he is in a movie. But most of the time, he basically behaves exactly like dozens of other lead characters in dozens of other films: he has an emotional arc of fear of rejection and embracing who he is that you’ve seen so many times before.

But the market is so saturated with films like this that the difference of presentation makes you feel for a moment you are seeing something new or clever – rather than essentially a very high budget, end-of-the-pier routine full of cheeky humour. Much of this is pretty funny by the way, but don’t kid yourself that it’s anything clever. And I don’t really think many of the gags here would stand up to repeated viewing – it’s basically just swearing and shocks. The writing is not great, its punchlines and shock beats giving the illusion of intelligent scripting.

Most of its success (in more ways than one) comes down to Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds campaigned for the film to be made for nearly a decade, and he totally nails the character. He thought up many of the best gags, and delivers the entire thing with whipper-snapper quickness and likeability. He gets the balance generally just right, and lands all the film’s big laughs. He’s very good.

But it’s an elevation of material that plays at being clever, while really just being an effective repackaging of the same-old, same-old. Remove the jokes and everything you would expect from a superhero origins story is present and correct. 

So maybe everyone was a little tired of the same old, same old from Marvel et al and wanted something different. That’s the explanation I can think of for why a pretty average film ended up so damn popular. The action when we get it is pretty good, there is some imagination behind the cameras, but it’s basically a teenager’s idea of the best film, like, ever rather than an actually very good film. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it puts a nice shiny new tyre on it.

Hellboy (2004)

Ron Perlman fights the darkness in curio del Toro comic book flick Hellboy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Rupert Evans (John Thaddeus), John Hurt (Dr Trevor Bruttenholm), Karel Roden (Rasputin), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien), Brian Steele (Sammael), Ladislav Beran (Karl Ruprecht Kroenen), Bridget Hodson (Ilsa Haupstein), Corey Johnson (Agent Clay)

As little as 10 years ago, outside a few core characters like Batman, the X-Men or Spiderman, comic book movies were an odd curio hard to place in the mass market. Today of course, you can virtually get any character who has appeared in a cartoon strip up on the screen with a budget of millions. But back in 2004, Guillermo del Toro had to squeeze this project out on a smaller budget in order to get the studio to agree to make the film.

Hellboy has a particularly demented story. In 1945, the Nazis, working in partnership with Rasputin (Karel Roden) – yes thatRasputin, don’t even ask – attempt to open a portal to hell to, well I’m not quite sure what they want to do, but it probably involves the destruction of the world. Anyway, some humble GIs stop them and the only thing that comes through the portal is a little demon with an enormous stone fist. Raised by paranormal expert Dr Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), this creature grows up into cigar-chomping secret-agent-for-the-FBI Hellboy (Ron Perlman), working on paranormal investigations. But when Rasputin returns from the dead it looks like all hell (literally) is about to break out.

Okay it should be pretty clear to you from that that Hellboy is an odd film. It’s very much from del Toro’s B-movie heart, and he invests this nonsense material with a great deal of directorial style and heart – a real “geek-boy-artist” job. Del Toro has a great deal of imagination and is able to strike a happy balance between enjoying the material and not taking it all too seriously. So he lets the film barrel along, throwing plenty of nonsense at the screen without worrying about trying to make it make real-world sense. In fact Del Toro is clearly so fond of the material that he basically shoots the whole thing like a comic book come to life. 

So the film is crammed with bright primary colours mixed with murky blacks, and Del Toro frames many key moments like comic book panels. It’s a film packed with striking images and scenes built around stuff that feels like it should teeter over into ridiculous camp all the time but never quite does. Its steam-punky styling instead manages to feel somehow both strikingly original visually and also strangely packed with integrity – like Del Toro made a very personal big-budget movie for his childhood, the sort of bizarro cult film that’s actually-quite-good and it’s going to win a huge following once people can find it for themselves (which is indeed what happened).

Del Toro’s other great principled stand was to ensure that Ron Perlman played the lead. Hellboy is a bizarre character – over six feet, red, horns, a tail – but what Perlman and Del Toro do so well is to make him some sort of Brooklynish chippy blue-collar worker with a kitchen-sink earthy wit. Perlman is clearly having a whale of a time playing this temperamental demon like some sort of longshoreman Han Solo, a brattish teenager and rebel with a world-weary cynicism. He’s crammed with contradictions (the demon who fights for good!) that Del Toro is keen to explore – and makes consistently interesting.

Because he’s such a different character, he energises a fairly traditional story and his character’s pretty standard personal-struggle-plotline (will he do the right or the wrong thing?). Perlman juggles all this really well, and gives a performance that is both dry and funny but also has moments of real heart and emotion. He even manages to sell his rather possessive love for Selma Blair’s (also pretty good) fellow orphan with pyrotechnical abilities as something heartfelt and caring, despite the fact that at one point he basically stalks her. It’s a rather wonderful performance.

The rest of the cast are a bit more of a mixed bag. Rupert Evans is saddled with the audience surrogate role – asking the questions we can’t ask – while Karel Roden’s lipsmacking performance as Rasputin never quite engages as a villain. Stronger roles come from Jeffrey Tambor as an officious FBI director and especially from John Hurt as Hellboy’s father-figure, the kind of quintessential ageing mentor that you can imagine his wards adoring. 

The rather silly plot doesn’t really matter. The importance here is the gothic chill of Del Toro’s style, mixed with his crazy “larger-than-life” dark comic book tone. And it works really well: the film is fun and witty, and if the storyline never really feels like it earns the “end of the world” threat (and builds towards an uninvolving duking out with a giant CGI monster), there are enough enjoyments along the way to make you want to make the journey.