The Delta Variant is felling the film industry at a time when studios and exhibitors were beginning to see a small light at the end of the COVID tunnel. Turns out there’s no off-ramp for the time being, and streaming once again dominates the headlines in spite of moviegoers’ increasing willingness to venture into movie theaters. And despite media myths regarding the greater number of viewers when releasing on-demand, Warner Bros’ simultaneous release strategy with HBO Max and Disney’s Premiere Access method haven’t yielded the mass audience success such myths had us believe would be automatic. Not when moviegoers aren’t conditioned to pay $30 for a digital rental and not when marketing for first-run blockbusters at home is a tricky endeavor. The splashy excess and volume of theatrical marketing is difficult to beat when it comes to motivating people to watch. If streaming were a home run future for blockbuster filmmaking, more than a paltry two million subscribers (out of more than 100 mil subs) would’ve paid for Jungle Cruise on Disney Plus opening weekend. Branding in the streaming age isn’t as easy as waiting for folks to show up as they do for theme park-style theatrical exhibition.
Space Jam: A New Legacy (HBO MAX)
Space Jam may not be a great film, or even a good one, but I’m a child of the 90’s, so the Michael Jordan-starring original holds a special place in my heart. A sequel more than twenty years in the making, A New Legacy will not do the same for young’uns now twenty years from today. In fact, it’s so far the worst film of the year, with only Mark Wahlberg’s Infinite coming close to matching its wanton awfulness. It’s not that I hate Lebron James. Like many, I once thought of him as an egotistical showboat who disappointed more than he delivered in basketball. But I grew up, and began to appreciate the frontrunners and alpha dogs among us. Greatness is a rare trait, and we should only be so lucky to witness in our time such success at such a high level. That being said, this movie was clearly made for those of us who consider themselves FANS of Lebron. From fake-humble ragging on his legacy, on the infamous “Decision,” to not-so-pithy in-jokes and career references galore, Warner Bros. is expecting folks to know everything there is to know about the man’s bonafides. For someone like me, somebody in on the jokes but nevertheless the most casual of casual NBA viewers, this doesn’t pass muster as comedy. And for kids watching, Bugs Bunny has a moment or two of lunacy, how could he not? However, amid the Looney Tunes ruckus and computer-generated upgrade, there comes a sinking feeling (and one eventually confirmed) that the film is nothing but a two hour ad for Warner Bros. You’ve heard such criticism lobbed already, but what you haven’t heard is the picture surrounding said ad is poorly acted and incredibly unfunny for a film riddled with legendary cartoon characters. A New Legacy wants to thumb its nose at the future of media algorithms, and instead embraces the vacuous present of branding above all else. This Space Jam is far too in love with Lebron James and Warner Bros. itself to succeed.
Jungle Cruise (DISNEY PLUS & IN THEATERS)
Folks rolled their eyes from Disney World to Disney Land when the Mouse House announced a film adaptation of their popular theme park ride the Jungle Cruise. And when marketing materials came to light, it was obvious the film was a desperate attempt to recreate the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. From a roguish hero to a sassy female lead, from the big boat setting to zombified villains made of gnarly creepy crawlies, the influence was more than apparent. Fortunately, Shallows helmer Jaume Collet-Serra knows how to cast his pictures, choosing Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt to inhabit the wily, charismatic pair of adventure-seekers, and selecting Jesse Plemons to go big in the boisterous role of an eccentric German prince out to pilfer an ancient artifact from the Amazon jungle. Much like his shark thriller, Jungle Cruise is B-movie schlock, but this time of the swashbuckling serial sort. It’s riddled with terrible narration, inconsistent visual effects (that are far too dependent on green screen locations versus real locales), and an ending so lathered in Disney schmaltz it’s a miracle the movie is as good as it is. What keeps it alive in spite of all of this is a commitment to a few bizarro choices, a nostalgic, magical aura of adventure, another winning score from James Newton Howard (with excellent assist by none other than Metallica), and a 20-minute opening salvo on a couple of real sets that is better than it has any right to be. This is a picture where Plemons argues with a bee in a spitty German accent and steers a submarine into oblivion. Such occasional sparks of sublime buffoonery go a long way in making Jungle Cruise the rare case of studio self-wanking that actually works. Regardless of my issues with “streaming is the future” rhetoric, best to remain home and fork over $30 if you have Disney Plus. I imagine the ruddy green screen looks even worse on the big screen, and the Rock’s brand of wink-wink joviality provides a comfy, old-fashioned serial writ-large from the comfort of your couch.
The Suicide Squad (HBO MAX & IN THEATERS)
James Gunn’s sequel to the critically reviled 2016 smash hit may confuse many layman moviegoers. For one, the title implies a reboot unaffiliated with the Will Smith-starring original. For two, Idris Elba was cast as new character Bloodsport, a career criminal with preternatural aim and an estranged young daughter, a role not at all dissimilar from Smith’s own Deadshot. For three, between two Batmen co-existing (Affleck, Pattison upcoming), two Jokers co-existing (Leto, Phoenix), and four timelines co-existing (Snyder’s world, the post-Snyder world, Joker‘s elseworlds, and soon whatever Matt Reeves’ The Batman is supposed to be), the DC universe on film is unquestionably a clusterf**k at the moment. Expecting mass audiences to dutifully follow along when changes come and go faster than a Flash movie can begin filming is a fool’s errand. Branding is of utmost importance when it comes to titling for franchise pictures, and The Suicide Squad needed a subtitle. Read and weep at the box office numbers and you’ll know folks were confused. Delta variant or no, $26 million is a troubling come-down for the genre that can be attributed to such poor marketing, as well as Warner Bros’ cockamamie release strategy. Timing is everything, and unfortunately for original helmer David Ayer, his film was produced well before R-rated home runs like Logan and Deadpool. James Gunn clearly received less pushback or studio interference, and for that his film is a much bigger success. It’s a funny, free-wheeling, giddily violent men-on-a-mission adventure that makes good use of its sprawling ensemble, in particular David Dastmalchian’s suicidal Polka Dot Man, Daniela Melchior’s sleepy millennial Ratcatcher, and John Cena’s walking American satire Peacemaker. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is a highlight as always, and the script’s anti-imperialist themes (as well as Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller off the leash ethically speaking) tug at the dark heart of America’s foreign policy foibles, a fact suddenly relevant once again in the aftermath of our decades-long failure in Afghanistan. Idris Elba’s Bloodsport is a step above Deadshot, despite the multitude of similarities between them. Gunn and co. perfectly tread the line between rendering these no-do-gooders as outright heroes or as unlikeable cads we cannot root for no matter the fun and guts. Make them too sympathetic, and the purpose of villains being used for “good” loses its purpose, its edge, its ultimate luster. Make them too unlikable, and the film itself suffers for forcing us to spend time with unsavory savages. The Suicide Squad never sacrifices fun for proselytizing or substance for empty spectacle.
P.S. in the battle between vocally limited, computer-generated creatures voiced by beefy, boom-voiced action stars, both directed by Gunn, Stallone’s King Shark is a triumph over Groot, believe it or not.