And here we go…
What’s impressive to me immediately is how much the in-trailer narrative here feels designed to alleviate concerns that this is more AVENGERS 2.5 than CAPTAIN AMERICA 3. Obviously, the ancillary marketing and pop-cultural “presence” will be leaning harder into “Hey guys! Here’s The Avengers again – many with slightly-redesigned outfits so you have to re-buy some figures!,” but as an introduction-trailer this drives home the idea that this is a natural continuation of the Steve/Bucky storyline with everyone else onhand because, hey, this is their social-circle.
Well… that was pretty unexpected.
A weird thing about how AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D has evolved as a series is that the more both the series and the audience seem to have accepted its position as the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the more cavalier it’s gotten in playing around with the worldbuilding. Throughout most of Season 1, when the audience was still assuming/hoping that the series was going to be a mythology-packed weekly geek-out setting up dominoes for the movies to knock down, it operated strictly on the fringes of its own universe until it was more-or-less forced to use the good silverware because CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER’s storyline made it unavoidable.
But now, with the audience effectively resigned to the idea that AGENTS is mostly going to do it’s own thing as “NCIS: MARVEL UNIVERSE” and not have any real noteworthy impact on the movies (example: Multiple friends/colleagues of The Avengers know Coulson is alive now, but not The Avengers themselves for absolutely no good reason) …the show is somehow now more emboldened about play with what feel like big, essential moving-parts of the Universe that you’d think the movies would get first-dibs on messing with: Last season got to introduce The Inhumans (whose movie doesn’t come out until 2019) and start early on Marvel’s long-term goal of turning them into Mutant/X-Men replacements; and now along with continuing that work Season 3 now gets to re-write a huge part of the MCU’s history (on Earth, anyway) with a single conversation.
Specifically: HYDRA, the villainous group whose shenanigans have driven the plots of (so far) four movies and lurk (retroactively) in the background/mythos of all the rest, now has a brand-new, way way out there origin-story – which could be a signal that the movies are done using them or that the movie and TV sides of the MCU are about to start playing nice(er) with eachother.
“Many Heads, One Tale” is, like last week’s “Chaos Theory,” for the most part a plot-plot-plot affair (we are now racing toward the mid-season finale) with some long-awaited character moments dropped in for seasoning: Fitz/Simmons finally cry it out and kiss, Coulson and Price both show all their cards, we get official confirmation that Gideon Malick is the Security Council member Powers Boothe played in AVENGERS and a HYDRA bigwig to boot, we (apparently) learn what the ATCU is (and isn’t) actually up to and May and Lincoln bury the hatchet…
…oh, and it turns out everything we thought we knew about HYDRA, one of the essential building-blocks of Marvel’s continuity-experiment, is not only wrong – they’re actually up to something that sounds (conceptually) like the biggest-scale villain plan any MCU villain has had outside of whatever Thanos is up to.
So let’s get that out of the way first: As revealed to Ward by Malick, HYDRA is actually over a thousand years old, with The Red Skull’s “Nazi Deep-Science Division” incarnation being merely HYDRA’s “thing to do” in the 1940s. As it turns out, HYDRA’s actual origin is a cult that worships an unnamed all-powerful Inhuman from ancient times who was exiled from Earth using The Monolith – their entire purpose, encompassing everything the organization has ever done, is to find a way to bring this Inhuman “god” back to Earth so he (she? it?) can conquer it.
In light of that, the major revelations otherwise almost seem kind of perfunctory – even though they’re directly tied-in: The ATCU has been run by HYDRA via Malick the whole time, but (apparently) without Rosalind Price’s knowledge – oh, and they aren’t “curing” Inhumans, they’re working to make and conscript as many of them as they can. Astronaut Will’s portal-crossing mission? HYDRA as well, with heavy implication that the shape-shifting, mind-controlling entity that bedeviled Will and Simmons on the alien planet is the unnamed Inhuman “god.” Lash? Now in Malick/Ward/HYDRA’s hands, seemingly on-track to be re-weaponized. So… a lot going on to deal with.
On the non-plot side, the reveal that Price has been played by the outfit she was supposedly running felt so weirdly clunky that I almost want it to be a double fake-out. I mean, seriously? All this time she’s been confidently/assertively running an operation whose supposed sole reason to exist (warehousing and attempting to cure Inhumans) she was just “taking on faith” as existing because the work was being done in a room she wasn’t supposed to go into? That’s dumb.
I get the purpose of the fake-out: Get the audience all riled up to see Coulson pull a stone cold “Gotcha! I played you before you could play me!” move, then yank it away by contriving a scenario where Price was actually duped and acting in good faith – making Coulson (kind of) the asshole this time… but there had to be a better way. On the other hand, the actual reveal of this was a fine acting turn for both of them. It’s always uncomfortable, in a modern context, to see a “good guy” doing the 60s James Bond seduce-to-manipulate thing; and it’s especially strange when the perpetrator is a character like Coulson who’s typically played as a boyish do-gooder. Credit that they pulled off what’s a pretty dark turn (Coulson basically used and manipulated Price in an overall pretty cruel way in order to get at intel she wasn’t hiding and didn’t know herself) in a way that leaves new places for characters to go rather than just ruining the character (Coulson) forever.
Elsewhere, the “let’s go undercover” infiltration scene with Hunter and Bobbi was fun, but it’s also the kind of well the show has gone to too many times when it needs a “fun” was to dump a bunch of exposition and place-setting. Apart from the “Oh, it’s HYDRA again and they’re making their own Inhuman army” discovery, we get the debut of a new recurring Inhuman villain in Mark Dacascos “Giyera;” and while Dacascos is one of those hardworking B-movie martial-arts pros action fans are always glad to see (depending on your age/region he’s immediately recognizable as either Wo Fat from the newer HAWAII FIVE-0, The Chairman from IRON CHEF AMERICA, Mani from BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF or Billy Lee from DOUBLE DRAGON) it’s a little dissapointing that his Inhuman power turns out to be “Magneto, just without the name and outfit.”
- Who/what is the ancient Inhuman that HYDRA has apparently been trying to bring to Earth this whole time? I don’t know. I still have trouble believing that it’s going to be one of the marquee Inhumans at this juncture, and it really could be any Cosmic Marvel fixture not yet claimed by the movies re-worked as “actually an Inhuman.” So for now I guess everyone from Immortus to Death is on the table (“Ma’Veth,” Hebrew for “Death,” is the title of the mid-season finale.)
- That having been said, it could more narrowly be The Unspoken, who was the Inhumans’ king before Black Bolt. OR, if we’re supposed to glean anything from HYDRA’s logo apparently having evolved from a ram skull, Pazuzu technically exists in Marvel as well.
- THAT having been said, some of the dialogue from Fitz/Simmons laying this all out mentioned “inspiring legends of devils.” I wonder… could this be where/how we get an MCU version of Mephisto (who is not technically *the* devil, in the comics)?
- Over in Entertainment Weekly, Clark Gregg (Coulson) coyly refers to talk of the (now pretty obvious) emerging storyline of S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA both having Inhuman armies as “a war of some kind that will not be civil in nature, while at the same time being very civil in nature.” Heh.
- But wait – it won’t exactly be a surprise if AGENTS has to mention/incorporate the events of CIVIL WAR similarly to the way WINTER SOLDIER and AGE OF ULTRON worked, but does this mean S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA are taking “sides” in it? Hm. In the comics, “Civil War” was an organic ideological schism, but I can see the movies going with “HYDRA did stuff to trigger/escalate this fight.”
- See also: Bret Dalton (Ward) has been teasing a “WINTER SOLDIER-level” twist for the mid-season. But short of “Coulson has been evil this whole time, somehow” I’m not sure what’s left to do that could meet that challenge (and that would be stupid.)
NEXT WEEK: Nothing, because Thanksgiving. But the week after next brings “CLOSURE,” the penultimate episode before the series breaks for Winter (and Season 2 of AGENT CARTER.)
Apologies, once again, for the delay. It won’t repeat for tomorrow’s show.
Just a quick update: This last week (and counting) has been murder on my schedule, which is why a recap for S.H.I.E.L.D from the previous week didn’t end up running. It will run sometime later this evening, and the regularly-scheduled one for tomorrow should run on time. Apologies for the delay.
This looks suuuuuuper goofy. So I’m totally onboard.
I really only have a passing familiarity with the “lore” of WARCRAFT (Paula Patton is a human/orc hybrid, I take it?) so my interest in this has been less about what it get’s “right” than about what it does to justify its own existence in a tonal/aesthetic sense. For me, the main thing that’s been kneecapping video-game movie thus far is that even densely-plotted stuff like WARCRAFT tends to be a melange of genre tropes where the originality comes either from unique design/character work or from the built-in strangeness that comes from interactive storytelling; but film adaptations have thus far tended to downplay much of the “video-gamey” weirdness – resulting in films that don’t seem to have much reason to exist.
If nothing else, WARCRAFT seems to have those priorities straight. This first trailer feels cut/scored to feel as akin (plotwise) to yet another LOTR also-ran, dialing back the plot/character/mythos details to focus on getting a mass-audience onboard, so the more interesting storyline we’ve been assured is in there is taking a back seat to the look of the thing – but man, it’s a hell of a look.
I’m especially liking that the design is very clearly erring on the side of new/different/interesting over “realistic.” Much as I’ve enjoyed seeing most of the genre from LOTR to GAME OF THRONES find a working balance between classical high-fantasy art and practical reality, WARCRAFT’s world is on a whole other bonkers level in terms of bizarre creatures and locations – half-measures in that direction were never going to cut it. I’d rather the Orcs be detailed and ridiculous-looking than photorealistic (the CGI is great, but we’re in Hulk-territory here where nothing is going to fool you into thinking this being can physically exist), or the humans’ armor/weapons to look like super-expensive cosplay, or the locations look absurdly over-designed than try to water down everything that makes this world worth inhabiting – I mean, I’m pretty sure that one gut at 1:07 has some kind of flint-activated shotgun in a medieval-fantasy setting. That’s wacky.
I imagine the question will be how Universal/Legendary think they’re going to sell a mainstream audience on this stuff. HARRY POTTER was the movie-arm of a once in a generation pop-literature phenomenon hitting at the zenith of its popularity. LOTR was already widely known and had the selling point of “You’ve never seen live-action fantasy look this huge before.” By contrast, the WARCRAFT franchise’s “moment” in terms of mainstream-ubiquity (i.e. WOW) feels like it came and went awhile ago, and “LOTR but twice as melodramatic and a thousand times more cartoonishly odd” doesn’t sound like a sure thing.
I doubt the studio is too worried – Universal is sitting on a ridiculous mountain of cash after a year of absolutely massive smash-hits (they literally went from a struggling industry has-been to having JURASSIC WORLD, MINIONS, FURIOUS 7, PITCH PERFECT 2, 50 SHADES OF GREY and STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON all hit in the same year) and we’re still in a gold-rush period where content-starved Russian and Chinese audiences are going to turn damn near any remotely-serviceable 3D-ready actioner into a moneymaker. But they’re looking for this to be a long-term multimedia tentpole, and other studios with game-adaptations in the waiting are hoping that either this or ASSASSIN’S CREED do the deed of finally breaking the genre for Joe Popcorn. That sounds like an uphill climb (and one they should’ve been advertising for much earlier than this) but I’m rooting for it.
NOTE: This review is possible in part through donations to The MovieBob Patreon.
First things first: Relax.
They didn’t botch it. They didn’t break it. They didn’t screw it up. The Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus etc you’ll be seeing up onscreen and/or introducing the next generation to are largely the same ones you grew up with; and they’ve arrived in a perfectly agreeable, modest, sweet little movie that should re-establish them as touchstones for another several decades to come. So if those were worries you’d been nursing about THE PEANUTS MOVIE, you can exhale: It’s fine.
THE PEANUTS MOVIE is probably the first pop-culture “nostalgia revival” blockbuster in a good long while to face the (potential) hurdle of having to scale itself up to fit onto the big screen. Whereas other long-lived, mass-marketed intellectual properties like the Marvel movies or TRANSFORMERS land in development already dragging decades of mythology and narrative sprawl needing to be whittled down to manageable size for a feature film, Charles Schulz’s PEANUTS is a gag-a-day newspaper comic strip built almost-exclusively around incidental observation that reached it’s prior adaptation high-point in the form of 20-30 minute TV specials with prior attempts at movie-length adventures meeting a mixed reception.
The filmmakers solution to this problem, evidently, has been to eschew trying to “solve” it altogether: In lieu of trying to retrofit Charlie Brown’s world into a space for feature-sized adventures, they’ve instead conceived a set of four individual mini-stories that feel very much of a kind to the classic TV specials the characters are arguably best known from, joined together by the relatively constrained scope of the action (school, the neighborhood and the individual kids’ homes) and a narrative through-line about the ever-luckless Brown haphazardly trying to reinvent himself so that a new student (the enigmatic “Little Red-Haired Girl” of the comic-strip lore) might see him as something other than the “blockhead” everyone else has become accustomed to.
This kind of episodic storytelling, coupled with the gently-deliberate pacing that Schulz’s world exudes as a matter of course, feels like something of a risk in an age of kids’ movies where frenetic yet sprawling, plot-heavy quest narratives are the order of the day; but it pays off. The result is a quietly profound little gem that can’t help but recall other classic child’s-view-of-childhood vignettes like A CHRISTMAS STORY or Bradbury’s DANDELION WINE. Rarefied company, yes, but well-earned – this might not be the best or most exciting children’s movie of the year, but it’s hard to imagine one more emotionally nutritious.
I’ll admit: I was a little worried when the “Little Red Haired Girl” plot element reared it’s head. Her function in the plot makes sense given her place in Peanuts canon, but in 2015 the last thing movies (especially movies aimed at the next-to-rise generation of little kids) need are more stories where a female character exists mainly for their affection to be a prize motivating the hero. Yes, LRHG gets a name and a face for this iteration, but she’s still inhabiting the role of an out-of-reach ideal for Charlie Brown to strive for – not far removed from that football Lucy will never let him kick, come to think of it. He’s effectively elected this person the arbiter of his own self-worth without asking if she has any interesting in that role, and the plot isn’t terribly concerned with her agency or whom she might be beyond that.
So, yeah. That could be a bit (ugh) “problematic” in a modern context, but the specific context of the circumstances neutralize the issue almost immediately (or at least they did for me): These are very young kids, written and performed as such, and there’s zero real sense of prurient interest at play in Charlie Brown’s intentions (indeed, he’s already decided that “the new kid” is a reason for him to fix himself before he knows anything else about him/her) or anyone else’s. Yes, she’s a (mostly-offscreen) metaphor for more powerful forces, much like the disembodied trombone-voiced adults or Snoopy’s imagined Red Baron nemesis, but I’d say that’s okay in a movie that has so many other rich and varied characters (male and female) otherwise.
More importantly, the story they’re using this setup to tell works. Charlie Brown is uniquely defined as a pop-icon by the tragi-comic confluence of his innate goodness and the Universe’s seeming utter disdain for him. Few characters have endured more martyrdom with less cause, and here he tries everything from flying a kite to a talent show to a school dance to a book report on “Leo’s Toy Store by Warren Peace” to remake himself as… someone capable, basically, and is continually derailed either by his own selflessness (it’s a wise stroke that we’re made to understand that he’s a fundamentally decent person every bit as much as a luckless one early one) or the cruel chaotic randomness of fate at every turn.
Yes, adults will see where this is all going a mile away: of course when this particular Job meets his “god” she’ll have taken notice of his good intentions all along, and of course he’ll come to understand that he was already worthwhile just as he is; but you know what? That’s one of those lessons every new generation of kids could stand to learn as early and as often as possible, and who better to relay it to them than Good Ol’ Charlie Brown?
And make no mistake: Despite the group-inclusive title, this is a Charlie Brown movie, through and through. The supporting Peanuts, though, get their room to shine. To a certain extent, the tertiary characters are the space where the film elects to go through its “greatest hits” catalog (“Dog germs!,” Lucy’s nickles, the stationary dance-cycles, the choral Christmas-carroling, etc), but what a catalog it is. The one spot where this begins to feel like a bit much are the Snoopy “WWI Flying Ace” fantasy-sequences that here do double-duty as act-breaks and showcases for more elaborate and 3D-friendly animation sequences. Don’t get me wrong: These slapstick divergences are a PEANUTS staple, and this is the same method Blue Sky Studios perfected for keeping younger kids engaged with the suprisingly character/dialogue-heavy ICE AGE movies i.e. breaking up the more “serious” parts with cutaways to Scrat and his acorns. But they eventually run just a touch too long for my taste, relative to how much more invested I was in getting back to watching “Chuck” keep trying to kick that football.
On the other hand, what I will say for the story beats involving the other characters is that it was a huge relief to find a near-total lack of self-awareness or obvious pandering to the nostalgia set. Yes, when one of the classic Jazz tracks from the Halloween/Christmas specials kicks up on the soundtrack or the camera pans across the skating-pond or “The Wall” older fans are meant to smile or get a little misty-eyed (my near-Pavlovian response to hearing Linus casually mention The Great Pumpkin hit me with a force I imagine would’ve made the filmmaker’s exchange satisfied high-fives) but if you’ve come for winking ROBOT CHICKEN-style asides to now-adult ground-floor fans about, say, Peppermint Patty and Marcie being “a thing” or whether or not Snoopy’s angry unintelligible squawks at Lucy being something particularly “obscene,” you won’t find them here.
In fact, the lack of attention drawn to the fact that this even is a nostalgia-revival property is kind of remarkable. Even as I was appreciating the attention to detail in matching Schulz’ original art-style and the unique limited-motion animation aesthetic of the cartoons (the 3D character-models are animated to look/feel more like embossed colorful stickers in stop-frame, with facial and motion-line details retaining a 2D line-art look), it took me until well after my initial viewing to realize how unusual it was that, despite no “time” being given for the setting, the characters are still using rotary phones, checking books out of libraries and otherwise existing in the same pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-iCulture world they’re best remembered in.
That’s almost-certainly a correct design choice (I shudder to think what a Charlie Brown with even less incentive to leave his room might be in 2015) but I’m strike by how effortless it feels where a lesser adaptation might’ve tried to hammer home some point about how much “better” childhood was under these circumstances. On the other hand, I look at scenes like an extended sequence where Snoopy and Woodstock try to negotiate a manual typewriter and I wonder if the youngest in the audience have any idea what that machine even is.
But those are minor quibbles, rendered barely worth a mention by how expertly the bulk of the film segues between the charming and the profound. THE PEANUTS MOVIE is a small, almost absurdly delicate thing in a world where even Dr. Seuss adaptations tend to become bloated, freewheeling pyrotechnic displays. But in it’s own way it’s an epic, understanding (in the way that only the very best movies about children and childhood do) how a “snow day” can feel like a miracle, how Summer can feel like a countdown, how time can compress and expand from fleeting the endless and back again between the seasons, or how things like a book report, a minor public embarrassment, the approval of a friend or the loyalty of a pet can be (if only for a moment) the most important thing in the world. It’s a monument to that moment in time when the expanse between home, school and the playground was the breadth of the universe, and a reminder that there’s a chance for even the chronically unlucky to be happy there – if only for that moment.
Hello again, Charlie Brown. And Snoopy. And all the rest. I missed you so much. Please don’t stay away so long again.