Friday, 29 April 2016

Captain America: Civil War

It is eight years since Iron Man first graced our screens, introducing the world to a Marvel Cinematic Universe that has continued to grow both in its cast but also in its scope. With Captain America: Civil War it feels like the universe has reached a definitive high point.

With this many characters jockeying for screen time, it would be easy for the threads to become tangled, but the Russo brothers have masterly built a thriller which gives everyone a place in a jigsaw puzzle that under lesser hands would have fallen into disarray. It’s near impossible not to make comparisons to the other big Versus movie of the year, and to say there is little to no comparison would be an understatement. This is a vastly superior film

From the start it is important to note that while the cast list would suggest otherwise: this is squarely a Captain America film and not Avengers 3. I was lucky enough to see the film as a triple bill screening alongside First Avenger and Winter Soldier, and viewed that way you realise that these movies stand not just as a technical trilogy but actually a three part story. This is the evolution of not just Cap, but of Bucky too, as they build from being young adults in Brooklyn to take on the roles destined for them.

Like Winter Soldier before it, this has all the elements of a great spy thriller, with the superhero backdrop as Rogers must work under the radar to try and prove his friends innocence while Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo tries to frame and discredit him at every turn. 

While it draws on many elements of the graphic novel bearing the same name - the need for Superhero supervision leading directly from a deadly superhero inflicted explosion being an obvious one - this story is unafraid to jump off from this starting point and packs plenty of surprises too, and for that it deserves a lot of credit because none of these plots feel forced.

Right back to Avengers Assemble it has been clear that Rogers and Stark are peculiar bedfellows, both sharing very different world views. The further on through the story we have got this has only exemplified, with Stark's guilt growing deeper with every passing calamity. As the mother of a dead boy chastises him for his role in the Battle of Sokovia, he finally reaches a breaking point. While his Ultron project may have failed to put the shield around the world, he cannot sit idly by any longer, realising something needs to be done. 

He is not entirely without fault of course - he (like many) wrongly believes in Bucky's guilt after the UN is bombed, and refuses to listen to Cap's explanation that there is a darker force at work, and this is where the two men's stories will separate at last. Iron Man is ready to be the soldier the world requires, while Captain America instead evokes the very thing Dr Erskine saw in him way back in 1942, that he will put what is right above his orders every time. 

He is ultimately a good man, even if that means he cannot be a good Avenger, or a good soldier. The emotional crux of the film, as the final battle reigns down is the moment he realises he cannot kill Stark. He will defend Bucky to his last breath, even giving up his role as Captain America if needs be, but he cannot kill Stark. 

The film also marks the first appearance on film of Black Panther, as well as the long awaited appearance of Spider-Man in his rightful place alongside these heroes, and both is handled perfectly. Boseman’s Panther is a master warrior, introduced in the throes of an epic chase through the streets after telling Black Widow simply that he will kill Bucky himself if needs be, to avenge his late father. He is a stoic if somewhat silent protector for his people, and it will be interesting to see the character grow when given his own stage. 

Without harping on too far in comparison between this and BvS, the reason this succeeds where the latter failed is that it is bursting to the seams with fun, something Dawn of Justice lacked entirely. The film is sidesplitting in its gags, and they just keep coming and coming and coming. I feel certain I need to see the film again because in laughing so hard I will have missed others. 

While everyone from Ant Man to Falcon have their moments, nowhere is this more true than in the introduction of Peter Parker.

Seeing Stark visit him and Aunt May (nice to see a very different take on May - “aunts come in all shapes and sizes”) was a nice touch because it made it feel real. If he had simply turned up on the tarmac at the airport something would have felt missing, but now we have seen just enough of his world to make us want to come back for more. This is a Spider-man far younger than any we have encountered on screen, but the fresh faced Holland steals every scene he is in. 

When we get to the true introduction therefore at the airport, we can take a step back and see the sequence through his eyes. These are character’s we have known for years so we forget just how majestic they are. Yet to see this young guy in their presence, desperate for approval - but at the same time holding his own with enough quick talking smarts to put even Stark to shame - puts the entire sequence into perspective, and also helps further Stark’s point (while inadvertently also pointing towards Cap’s). Children are following them. They have to hold themselves to a bigger standard.

It is also telling that Daniel Bruhl is by some margin the most understated of Marvel villains. There are no electric whips or red skulls here. He is just a man. A mercenary who’s very goal is to turn the Avengers upon one another. He doesn't need an arsenal of weapons or gadgets or even an ability, he just needs to light the fuse and watch as they blow the hell out of one another. 

This was a wise move on the part of the Russo’s because ultimately Zemo is of only a passing importance. He is the catalyst for the fight to come, rather than being the end game. The audience is here to see Captain America and Iron Man do battle, and when the film reaches its inevitable climax (with a reveal that has been perfectly portended while not overtly spoiled throughout), that is exactly what we get. 

This has been the point the franchise has grown to over many years, cracks showing in our heroes ideologies running all the way back to their first joint adventure in Avengers Assemble, but here that story reaches a tremendous climax, and the jumping off point for something new. 

The Avengers have ripped each other apart, half are jailed, the other half broken physically and mentally, and it will now be the job of Phase 3 on the MCU to see exactly how we rebuild from here to get our heroes back on side by Infinity War.

For now though we can just sit back and enjoy the ride as we reach the absolute high point of a story eight years in the making. 

Monday, 4 April 2016

Wrestlemania 32

I'll preface what's to come with a warning that this particular review is going to end with a rant. Not a rant about the show, but about those in attendance. But I will get to that later.

For now though lets begin at the beginning, with the Intercontinental Championship ladder match. This was a match that was a darn sight better than it ever deserved to be. A strange build left this feeling sort of as if it had been thrown together at the last minute, with many wondering why the WWE hadn't simply gone for Zayn v Owens straight up, rather than hedging their bets. 

The match itself though was incredibly well executed, with just the right mixture of spots, while never feeling massively contrived in the way ladder matches so often do.  As the match went on I genuinely found myself lost in the action, with no idea who was going to win. First Owen's climbs the ladder, only to take the most brutal bump I've ever seen, then Miz appears. Surely its not going to be the Miz? It would be a shock sure but not a welcome one. 

Then, as if answering the very question we were all asking, from the back of the frame appears Zack Ryder. I was watching in a crowded bar full of wrestling fans following a packed out indie show that evening, and when we saw Ryder the entire place erupted, rising to their feet. This was the little engine that could, finally reaching the pinnacle. 

If I'd been asked to rank the likelihood going in of any of the seven men winning the gold, I would probably have placed Ryder last. Not because he was unworthy, but because the company has never really got behind him before. It was a true underdog story, and one I hope will continue now even with him as champion. Book him against bigger, stronger guys, and have him pull out some victories. The fans want to be behind this guy, so let them. Don't hotshot the championship. You've given him the ball now let him run with it.

Zack spoke of just wanting to hear his music play at Wrestlemania at long last after years of being in battle royals and multi person tags. Well not only did he leave hearing his music, he left a champion. His father hugging him in the ring in a moment this man will never forget. The Internet Champion no more, he was the People's Champion that night (The Rock will just have to forgive the gimmick infringement). I saw a tweet which read: "If you're not happy for Zack Ryder right now, you need to find a different sport." and I couldn't agree more. 

Then came another shocker, in Jericho V Styles. Again going in this felt like a foregone conclusion. This was Styles' coronation as a megastar, cementing his place in the upper card. But - and this would be a theme for Wrestlemania 32 - not all went to the assumptive blue print, and after a hard fought match, in which Jericho would reverse the Phenomenal Forearm into a Codebreaker, Y2J was walking out victorious, tying up their series at 2-2. 

The match wasn't quite as effective as their other three matches of late, but perhaps that has to do with us having seen it several times in quick succession already, but I enjoyed this thoroughly nonetheless. It was a good match, even a very good one, but not the GREAT one I believe they're capable of. We can just hope that when the inevitable fifth match comes (probably at Extreme Rules if I were a betting man), that the two really kick it fully into top gear, leaving this feud with both men better off than when it started.

Next up, my favourite act of the moment, The New Day would make their presence felt. Falling out of a giant box of Booty-O's, dressed in full Dragonball Z cosplay, the nerdiest tag team in the company just made me love them even more. But, and given the way the night was going this perhaps shouldn't be surprising: their fun was cut short by a surprise win by the League of Nations. A team which can't buy a win usually. To say it was a surprise would be a massive understatement. It almost didn't make sense.

It doesn't make sense that is, until the League of Nations get on the mic and talk about how no-one can beat them, only to promptly be met head on by Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, and the Texas Rattlesnake himself: Stone Cold Steve Austin. Its a nostalgia pop sure, but one which made this event feel larger than life. These are legends, standing across from the current generation, and just from the brief stare down they were elevated. 

It was a really fun segment, which ended with the New Day trying to convince the legends to join them in their dance, only for Xavier to get a stunner for his troubles. Even now they are faces, seeing Xavier getting his butt handed to him is still fun, so that was just fine by me. 

One more surprise result for what was fast becoming the most unpredictable Wrestlemania in years. So often you can work out most of the results way in advance. This year it feels like more often than not it was far from the obvious choice they would go for.

As Brock Lesnar and his advocate Paul Heyman marched to the ring next, the night kicked up a gear. The Beast Incarnate brought the fight to Ambrose throughout, hurling him around like a rag doll. Even in a losing effort though it was Dean who left looking like a million bucks here. After double digit suplexes, he continued to get up and bring the fight to Lesnar before an F-5 would seal his fate.

My one minor gripe would be that having been gifted weapons by both Mick Foley and Terry Funk, these were perhaps a little bit under utilised. This could have been a true passing of the torch moment for Ambrose from these two men, and in the end neither really factored. A really fun match though for sure. 

And then to quote The Rock's promo later on: its gonna get good! An already excellent show was highlighted by three women determined to make a name for themselves. Earlier in the night Lita had announced the end of the Divas division, and formally reinstated the Women's Title, now adorned with its own mirror image of the World Title belt. This is a proper belt, for a proper division, not a toy like the butterfly belt was.

The three women sent out to fight for it, all understood the gravitas of the situation, and rose to it, stealing the show in absolutely the Match of the Night. If there was ever going to be a match to kick start a whole new division this was it. Counter after counter, blocked submission after blocked submission, these women fought like this title was the only thing which mattered to them. They've fought their way from developmental to the main roster, and now to grandest stage to be one of the main events. 

They worked body parts to allow them to get their submissions locked in, they sold the pain of every move both on their faces and in their bodies. These are three masters of the game, presenting their craft for all to see, and the very fact the company gave them this chance, and not a five minute including entrances segment, shows just how far we've come. Divas are dead. Women's wrestling is forever. 

All three women did every thing they could to make this feel like a big fight. Gone are the days when you'd go to the bathroom during the women's match. This was real wrestling, and they made you care about every second from bell to bell. Both Sasha's incredible Frog Splash, and Charlotte's near perfect Moonsault will appear in Wrestlemania highlight videos for years to come.

I was pulling for Sasha, who I truly believe will be the face of the division one day, so as the match reached its final moments and Ric would screw Sasha out of her win, I was pissed, but I get it. The face chases the title. Thats how the business is most effective. This was Sasha's first chance at it, she didn't need to win yet because her fans will now be even hungrier to see her win. When it finally comes (I'm calling Summerslam, a year to the day after her instant classic at NXT Takeover Brooklyn), Sasha will ascend into megastardom, and thats because she was screwed out of a fair win here.

This is something a lot of the matches recently have forgotten. Wrestling is most effective when there is a clear face and a clear heel, and the heel cheats, and the face gets screwed until they finally rise up and overcome. Sasha, Becky and Charlotte just get it, and they put on a masterpiece, making history in the process

Definitely the match most hyped up before the show, Shane McMahon would meet the Deadman in his yard. Hell in a Cell is always interesting because there are various ways of working it. Some take place almost entirely in the ring, with the cage a barrier to stop escape. Some use the cage itself as a weapon, throwing people into it. And some involve crazy bumps. 

Shane and Taker took door number three. The question going into this was whether we could ever see the Shane of old now he is in his mid forties, but we needn't have worried. From the very start he barely misses a step, getting in and out, dodging Taker's onslaught while making his own offence count when he can. When Taker finally gets his hands on him the greatest pure striker in the business takes the Boy Wonder to task, but again Shane uses his mind, managing to get Taker into a triangle choke, before the pair would break down the wall of the Cell, and head outside.

Again, the bar I was in rose to its feet as Shane looked up. He wouldn't?! He would. The fourth generation superstar dove 20 plus feet to the table below as Undertaker rolled to safety.

I loved Michael Cole's call here: "For the love of all mankind, Shane just exploded through the table". A subtle reference to the last man to take that bump. Thankfully Shane looked like he took a far flatter bump than Mick did back in 1998, so I'm sure he'll be fine. 

Shane demanding Taker bring it was a nice spot too, and gives credence to Shane's never say die attitude. He forced Taker to beat him, rather than just letting the match stop.

While far from perfect, this was the best Undertaker Mania match since the End of an Era Hell in a Cell at Wrestlemania 28, and will be remembered for both the cell bump and the excellent Coast to Coast dive. 

It will be interesting to see how the story progresses from here, as Shane, even in a loss still has the leverage of the contents of the lockbox. He swore if he lost he would give it to Vince, but there's nothing to stop him just announcing it all first before leaving, knowing it will force Vince and Co. out of the company. We will have to wait for Raw to see how that goes, but taken as a match in and of itself, rather than as part of a developing story, this was excellent, and historic (albeit in a very different way to the match which preceded it)

I'll skip The Andre, except to say well done Corbin, and welcome to the main roster, and then move onto The Rock. As they announced the cheerleaders coming out, this was the first time I looked at the clock all night, and realised they had very little time left, especially with a main event to come. The 4 hour show was already at 3hours 30minutes. Then Rock got a flamethrower. And blasted for a few minutes. It was epic, but this was the moment I found myself thinking: Wow, they're going over. This is the beauty of the Network vs PPV. They can go as long as they like. 

Rock announces the all time Wrestlemania attendance record has finally been broken. Twenty nine years since Wrestlemania 3 and the record falls. We can finally stop lying about the Pontiac Silverdome attendance and admit it was probably 75-80000, not 93. 

Then we get down to business, as Bray and the Wyatt family march to the ring, telling Rock that they chose him because he is the symbol for everything they hate. He despatches Erick Rowan inside of 6 seconds, breaking another record (something I think the company did to erase Daniel Bryan's name from the quickest loss on the record books), before John Cena made a surprise return to clear house for the Wyatts.

Take from this what you will but the symbol on the WWE Network page right now for Payback is The Wyatt Family. Could we be about to see Rock and Cena Vs The Wyatts?! Probably not. But it would be incredible if we did. 

Now, as promised, there is a rant coming. Is Roman Reigns a perfect superstar? No. But he has one hell of an upside, and he is progressing incredibly. Yes, the WWE has clearly chosen him to be the next top baby face. But you know why they did it: because the fans were so behind him just 2 years ago in the Shield. He was by some margin the most over member of the Shield at the time, and it was only when the company made clear they were moving forward with Reigns that the smart marks online turned on him.

From the very moment the bell rang, boos rang down throughout AT+T Stadium. These fans were not going to even give Roman the chance to throw his first punch before they wrote him off. There were Gable and Jordan chants, Ole chants, NXT chants, Boring chants.

The in ring product actually WASN'T boring though. It really wasn't. I've gone back and watched the match with the sound off, and its a perfectly fine match. Not a five star classic by any means, but a perfectly fine, solid main event match. Hell, Hogan was the most over superstar ever and not one of his Wrestlemania matches was this good. More memorable for MOMENTS (slamming Andre), but not actually better matches by any means. 

I'm getting really tired of certain portions of the IWC who are just going to crap all over anything the company does. If you don't like it for genuine objective reasons that is different. But if you don't like Roman because he's The Guy, that isn't a good enough reason. 

If you just want to crap on WWE, then go away. Find another promotion. Go watch New Japan, or TNA, or Lucha Underground. Go support your local indie promotions. Roman has been a victim of poor booking yes, and I wish he could come in as a stronger competitor (his booking at the Royal Rumble was atrocious for example, he should have broken his own elimination record, looked as strong as possible before the moment came for Hunter to eliminate him) but that doesn't mean he isn't an incredibly talented performer, who absolutely has what it takes to lead the company into the future. 

The company has stuck to its guns not out of some blind belief that they know better (they showed with Bryan that they aren't afraid to admit their mistakes), but they clearly believe in Reigns if he is given the chance. Now its up to us to give it a fair shake. We cannot right him off from day one. Lets see if he can run with the ball. He might fall flat on his face, but at least then we will know. Or he could be a megastar who we come to love the way we loved Rock and Austin and Flair and Hogan. We've seen #GiveDivasAChance come to fruition so now I reverse the aim of this from the company itself to instead implore wrestling fans: #GiveRomanAChance


All of this said: while this was far from the high watermark of say a Wrestlemania 3 or 30, this was a really great show, with some REALLY great moments, chief among them the women's championship match, which we will look back on a decade from now as the beginning of a new movement in women's wrestling. 

It will be interesting to see exactly where the company goes from here, and I am super psyched to see Raw tonight.