Friday, 31 July 2015

Marvel Cinematic Universe - Phase 2 Report Card

So with Ant-Man being released, Phase Two of Marvel's Cinematic Universe is complete. Launching from the success of the Avengers, there were two schools of thought as to how this would go. Either it had peaked with The Avengers, and the standalone films would just hold us over until Age of Ultron came along, or we'd get sick of comic book films and stop going. Neither happened.

To give some kind of context to the job in hand, you have to remember that Phase One was not that impressive. Sure, we enjoyed them but looking at the standalone films, the first Iron Man was the only 3 stars or higher score in there. Phase One had two genuine hits in the six films. That was fine. Like a rising music artist, it's wise not to put your best stuff out on the first album. Phase Two, however, needed to offer more. Raise the stakes. Be more compelling. Avoid clich├ęs and predictability. So how did Marvel do?

The most successful standalone film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it felt more like a Tony Stark film than it did an Iron Man film. That's not a criticism. It was a fresh take and gave us a story that was driven by the character, rather than cataclysmic events. This is worth noting as the Iron Man franchise has successfully steered clear of the "end of the world" stakes. It did set the tone for the MCU in providing us with a big twist mid-story that very few saw coming. Some it irked. Others, myself included, thought it was a brilliant play by Marvel. Riding the crest of the Avengers, it was a good start out of the blocks by Marvel.

An improvement on the previous instalment, it still didn't feel like the definitive Thor film. If anything, it felt like a definitive Loki film. This film ticked all the right boxes and was enjoyable but it proved that the MCU doesn't have a villain more compelling than Tom Hiddleston's god of mischief. So much so that Malekith started to fall in that odd category Marvel has of a "Use once and dispose" baddie. Not one you'd mind watching but not the first you're going to pick off the shelf.

Game on! For me, this is still the best film in the MCU. A taut thriller that takes a believable political subterfuge plot and blends the superhero element effortlessly. Filled with slick action sequences, a clever streak of comedy and plenty of twists, it revitalised a character that needed to be elevated to iconic status. It also shook the entire MCU. Suddenly, every film was unmissable because it could contribute massively to the next film and the next phase. Off the back of this, Captain America: Civil War is now hugely anticipated and rightly so.

Marvel's big movie risk came off spectacularly well. Led by Chris Pratt, who might as well change his name to Mr Franchise at the moment, it was like a Diet Star Wars for this generation. What it did was give us characters to care about and once they were off, we wanted to tag along for the ride. It had just enough snark in it to keep us amused, plenty of action and deep roots in where the MCU is headed. The only criticism is one that could be levelled at the entire of Phase Two, that being the villain, Ronan the Accuser, was horrendously under developed. No matter. We loved it and for many people, it's the best film Marvel has ever made.

Four Marvel films at its back, three of them stand out hits, this was Marvel's chance to cement its dominance as the lurking DC started to gather strength. Instead, it turned out to be a missed opportunity. Age of Ultron is not a bad film. It's just not on a par with its Phase Two counterparts. Where did it go wrong? A familiar sin for the MCU, namely a poor fleshing out of the main antagonist, was a key factor. The reality is that Loki drove the story in Avengers. We understood his motivations and all things happened because of him. In Ultron, he would often become a side show to the Avengers squabbling, instead of being the genuine cause. It was such a waste, made worse when you consider that Spader was probably the best thing in the film. The tension was lacking, the pace was choppy and the story was clumsy. It was still a thrill to watch but it wasn't the step up we had all hoped for.

Under the cloud of Edgar Wright leaving, this long developed film finally made it out. It is an enjoyable romp but not one to rock your world. It will be one of those Marvel films that will forever sit in the mid-table position when Marvel films get ranked. Well acted with clever ideas and a fresh concept for a superhero film, namely a heist movie, it falls back into the category of holding us over until the Marvel film we want to see shows up.

Six films. Three hits. It is an improvement on Phase One and filled with entries Marvel should be proud of until its dying day. Moving into Phase Three, which will feature nine films (ten if you include Sony's collaborative Spider-Man film), the challenge is now to make a majority of them hits, not just "fun to watch" films that could have been just as viable on Netflix. DC, and to a lesser degree Fox, sit in wait, ready to fight for the throne of comic book films. In 2019, we'll know if Marvel is king or if it missed its chance with a Phase Two that started well, got better but tailed off at the end.

Grading: Better but more expected. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

#ImInWorkJeremy - Hashtag Before The Story

Jeremy Hunt has done something very foolish, as a politician. He has had the temerity to suggest that something needs to change in the NHS. The National Health Service has become so sacrosanct that to criticise it is to commit heresy, even treason. This crime knows no limits. For example, the blame of the Mid Staffs scandal was laid at the feet of the Labour Government. While the Government is ultimately responsible, the fact that the NHS did not put their hands up was a sign that the organisation seems to think it is beyond questioning. 

To make things worse, Jeremy Hunt did not call doctors lazy. This is what the #ImInWorkJeremy hashtag accuses him of. He didn't. Allow me to share what he did say:
"One litmus test of our commitment to this is our approach to 7-day care. This is not about increasing the total number of hours worked every week by any individual doctor. Doctors already work extremely hard, and their hours should always be within safe limits. But we will reform the consultant contract to remove the opt-out from weekend working for newly qualified hospital doctors. No doctors currently in service will be forced to move onto the new contracts, although we will end extortionate off-contract payments for those who continue to exercise their weekend opt-out. Every weekend swathes of doctors go in to the hospital to see their patients, driven by professionalism and goodwill, but in many cases with no thanks or recognition. The aim is to acknowledge that professionalism by putting their contributions on a formalised footing through a more patient and professionally orientated contract. As a result of these changes by the end of the Parliament, I expect the majority of hospital doctors to be on 7-day contracts."
To paraphrase what Hunt actually said, there are a number of consultants who use an opt-out for weekends. This is set to be removed. That's it. Did he say doctors were lazy? "Doctors already work extremely hard" was the phrase used. Does he want doctors to work more hours? "Their hours should always be within safe limits" was the line used. If more consultants have to work weekends, surely the burden will be more evenly spread out? Am I the only who can see that?
You see, this has become the way we inform ourselves. We trust a hashtag more than the story. Hunt wants to change the NHS but the easiest way to sabotage any political will to do that is with a hyperbolic hashtag. Yet we have become a society that won't look deeper. We won't inform ourselves. We take that sensationalistic Facebook post and share it without hesitation. If it's wrong, we'll wait for someone else to check Snopes or to Google it. Yet, we are the generation that does not have that excuse.
There is a common joke that a man from 100 years ago would find out that we each possessed a smart phone, a device that can give us a vast wealth of knowledge and information. He then asks us what do we look at first. Our answer would be "Funny videos of cats." That's how pathetic and lazy we have become. The fact that we entertain this hashtag shows we are interested in the headline first and the story never.
As for the NHS staff who indulged in such a practice, taking selfies with this hashtag, I will put that down to you being too busy to check the text of the speech. After all, like the Health Secretary said, you work extremely hard. He said you were professionals who didn't get sufficient recognition. You lot decide to burn him in public. Why? Because he wanted to take a clause out of a contract that was unfair and costly. Boo-fricking-hoo. The NHS is so resistant to outside change that if it was a patient, it would be an anti-vax type, afraid of the side effects of a treatment that could save it from something deadly. However, it's not just the NHS that should take a long, hard look at itself. We all should. In an era of vast information and instant access to it, we should be more informed. We should take that responsibility upon ourselves. If our understanding of the world and the way it has become is reduced to 140 characters, or worse, a hashtag, then we can be put into one very simple trend. That would be #ImWithStupid.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The England "Sexism" Tweet & Disrespect For Mothers

The above tweet caused outrage. The FA was labelled sexist for posting it. James Callow, the man who wrote this tweet, insisted that no offence was intended and that any notion it was sexist was wrong. After all, he had done a similar thing for the Men's England Cricket Team. I don't think it is sexist. Last time I checked, the Women's England football team was filled with mothers, daughters and partners, so factually it was correct. However, the tweet was not a problem for me. It was the reaction.

You see, the outrage was sparked off the back that this seemed Victorian in its tone. That it carried the rhetoric of "Get back in the kitchen, love!" about it. That somehow, they've had their little adventure but now it's time they got back to breeding and feeding. It is an antagonism that carries an attitude to something sacred that shows how we have lost sight of what is most sacred. That as heroic as footballers may be, as courageous as those who represent their country are, there is nothing in society, absolutely nothing, more special in this world than mothers.

That's the problem with the tweet. It makes mothers sound like an every day thing. Sure, there are billions. Every good one is incredibly special. The tweet missed sight of that but that's a slip. The outrage was a consensus that we no longer value mothers to the level we should.

Let me tell you how incredible mothers are by putting my own in the spotlight. She first grew me and allowed me to effectively be a parasite, so that I could grow into a baby, ready to grow in this world. She nurtured me, fed me, clothed me, wiped my backside, bathed me and got up to be with me every time I cried. She went without decent sleep night after night to make sure I was okay. She would lose sleep because she was worried that I was okay. She would clean the home after I made it messy so I had a pleasant place to live. She would correct me when I was wrong and stand up for me when the world was against me. She would listen to me spout my dreams and nightmares. She'd bring me treats, whether I deserved them or not. She cry tears with me, she'd hug my problems away and when everything had fallen apart, she would be the first to pick up the piece of my soul and start putting them back together.

So, to the indignant crowd who rounded on the man who composed this tweet, let me say this. Don't you dare take a rhetoric that undermines the sacred and special role of mothers. You utterly disgust me. Mothers do the hardest job in the world and they do it for free. Just remember as you get on your high horse of supposed sexist sanctimony, a woman brought you into the world. You owe it to her to show mothers the highest respect, rather than assuming it is an old fashioned, antiquated position. To make things worse, even though you disrespect her, she is probably still proud of you. That is just how awesome mothers are.