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Birdman ••••

Birdman_posterStarring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárrit,  Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: November 14, 2014

Riggan: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

Riggan: Single, P-PP Emotional, Ant (Self Villain)


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg, Michael Keaton once played Batman. Now he plays Birdman.

It’s uncanny the parallels between reality and fantasy in this surreal depiction. Let’s recap.

In the opening scene, we meet an aging actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who is levitating in a room while practicing meditation. Riggan once starred in the movies as a superhero named Birdman but he has since fallen on hard times. He is now trying to resurrect his career by writing and starring in his own Broadway play called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan uses his telekinesis abilities to arrange for a light fixture to fall on the play’s co-star who is doing poorly during rehearsals. Riggan and the play’s producer (Zach Galifianakis) are now desperate for a name-brand actor to step in and attract an audience.

Enter Mike (Edward Norton), boyfriend to another actor in the play, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who suggests he take the role. Mike is just off another project and needs a job. Riggan is desperate and can use Mike’s popularity to boost the attendance. Mike wastes no time changing his lines and giving directorial suggestions – not to mention hitting on Riggan’s just-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone). Riggan has a lot on his plate trying to get through the first rehearsal when Mike succumbs to an outburst because Riggan switched his vodka for water. After all, Mike wants everything on stage to be real, and if his character is drunk, so should he be.

Greg, I’ll come right out and say it: Birdman is one of the year’s best films. The movie is probably not for everyone; it is odd, edgy, and stylish. Birdman pulls us into the tortured life of our hero Riggan Thomson, grabs us, and never lets go. Director Gonzalez Inarritu’s use of continuous, seamless transitions between scenes is partly responsible for the relentless power of this movie. But mostly we’re riveted because of the Pulp-Fictionesque intensity of the characters and their dialogue.

Birdman’s themes are dripping with irony. Thomson is well-accomplished yet haunted by an inner-emptiness. On Thomson’s mirror is a placard that reads, “A thing is a thing, not what people say about the thing.” Yet Riggan is obsessed with what fans and critics think of him and he is most known for the Birdman role that hid his true identity. He saves a note that he received many years earlier from a fan who admired his honesty, yet Riggan wears a toupee and acts for a living. The enigmatic subtitle of this film (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) hints at the value of self-oblivion, but we’re left unsure. This is a movie of such depth that it begs to be seen twice.

Scott, Birdman is the type of movie that makes you feel stupid for watching it. There are so many references to the Broadway scene, hidden meanings (like the sign you mentioned), and inward winks to itself that I couldn’t really follow what was going on. It was so sly and self-aware that it left me dangling trying to understand what the film-makers were trying to say. Everything was some sort of mystical symbol for something else. Riggan obviously didn’t have the ability to levitate or move things with his mind, but there it was. Was it symbolic of something? I don’t know. And was he able to fly? There were several scenes where it looked like he could – or at least believed that he could.

And then there’s the Birdman character itself that is constantly inside Riggan’s head. He’s there to expose the doubts that Riggan has about himself. Then later, the Birdman appears to Riggan. The Birdman keeps reminding Riggan that he should have done that Birdman 4 sequel. This is fine with me, I can follow the symbolism of the Birdman being the voice of doubt for Riggan. But what does it mean when, at the end of the film, Riggan seems free of the voice, but when he looks in the mirror, he sees Birdman taking a shit on the toilet? Is this some sort of high-brow-low-brow commentary? I don’t know. It’s beyond my capabilities to understand.

I think you’re right, Greg, that this movie is a tough nut to crack, but it leaves enough clues to draw me in, make me think, and inspire me. There are similarities between this movie and Toni Morrison’s classic novel, Song of Solomon. We are thrown into a quasi-magical world and encounter the theme of flight as a means of escape. We witness the self-inflicted forces that drag us down and keep us there until circumstances and self-insight liberate us. Both Song of Solomon and Birdman conclude with a seemingly supernatural flight of redemption that signals either hope or doom, depending on how one interprets the ambiguity of the final act.

The villain structure appears to fall under the category of Man versus Self. As you mention, Greg, Riggan is haunted by the voice of his alter-ego Birdman and tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to rise above the dark commands of the voice. Earlier in our review of Whiplash we observed the villain to be a dark mentor figure, and one could say that Riggan’s inner Birdman voice serves as a dark mentor. In this way we have within the same character both a heroic persona and a villainous mentor character.

I think it’s more than just a tough nut to crack, I think it’s purposely cynical both about the audience and the Hollywood system that will nominate it for an Oscar. This is a very slickly produced story that tries so hard to have meaning that the meaning is lost. Which is exactly what is going on in Riggan’s life. He desperately wants the respect of the theater but is still seen as Birdman despite his best efforts.

This is a film that was made for the Hollywood elite to show how much the film-makers understand the inner psyche and problems of Hollywood – how actors are stuck in their roles. But the film is filled with so much introspection that the rest of us are merely along for the ride. In my opinion the purpose of a movie is to entertain the audience, not to share a wink and a nod with your peers. I have no doubt the academy will nominate and possibly even award an Oscar for this film. But for the rest of us, it begs the question: What is this about?

Our hero is a man caught between two worlds. We have his daughter who is telling him that what he really wants to be relevant. But the problem is that none of us is relevant. But then she goes to the extreme and tells him that to be relevant he has to appear on YouTube or Twitter. In other words, get with the times. At the other extreme he’s faced with the movie critic who has vowed to kill his play with the swipe of her pen because he’s not a legitimate actor, just a celebrity. And “we don’t want your kind in our town.”

If there is a physical villain here, it might be Mike. He’s constantly getting in Riggan’s way. Riggan wants to make a play with meaning and Mike keeps telling him to amp-up the reality. I agree with you that Riggan is at war with himself. In the end, he tries to destroy himself, only to create a spectacle that raises him to higher heights. That makes him a redemptive hero.

Birdman is a complex and gripping piece of cinematic art. It is exhilarating, thoughtful, and complex. We are treated to intelligent character exchanges and nimble camera direction. Most notable about Birdman are the extraordinary performances from the cast. Keaton and Norton deserve Oscar nods for their portrayal of two men attempting to overcome powerfully neurotic, loveless lives. These are men who dive into the acting profession because it is a reprieve from the facade of reality. The themes of authenticity and flight to freedom sustain our attention and encourage a second visit to the theater. For me, it’s a no-brainer awarding this film 5 Reels out of 5.

The character of Riggan Thomson is one of the most memorable characters in the movies in 2014. With the death of Robin Williams earlier this year, we are reminded of how actors use their craft to mask their inner demons. For me, Greg, Birdman doesn’t wink at us as much as it winces in pain at us. Riggan’s journey rings true to me and his flight of triumph at the end suggests a successful end to his heroic journey. Again, I give the highest rating of 5 Heroes out of 5 here.

The Birdman villain residing with Riggan is the semi-human face of one’s anchors and limitations. We’re not given much backstory about the origins of Riggan’s inner demons, but we do know that the our hero is burdened by a ruthless absence of self-worth and self-validation. The dark self-mentor figure residing within Riggan lacks the depth of Riggan himself and thus only earns a respectable 3 Villains out of 5.

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For me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to follow. It was life-imitating-art-imitating-life in a tight spiral. I wanted to like this film but it just seemed so interested in being clever that I never got a chance to appreciate it. The camera work was great. It appeared to be shot on one unending reel. So, well-done. But if you want me to enjoy myself at the movies, you need to think about me when you make your work. To paraphrase that great philosopher Peter Griffin, Birdman insists upon itself. I give it just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Riggan is a tortured hero who is wrestling with real existential demons. He’s tormented about his past, and about how he’s forever tied to decisions he made as a younger man. While the past is gone, no one will let him move on. And as he looks to the future he realizes that the number of days ahead of him are much fewer than the days past. If ever he’s going to do something with his life, now is the time. This is a hero I can appreciate. Riggan gets 5 out of 5 Heroes.

If Riggan is at war with himself then the Birdman inside his head is the manifestation of his inner villain. Birdman torments Riggan mercilessly to the point of insanity. I have to admit I don’t know how to rate such a villain. I’ve already rated the hero a full 5, can I rate his mirror image any less? I don’t think so. I award Birdman 5 out of 5 Villains.

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Nightcrawler ••••1/2

NightcrawlerfilmStarring: Jake GyllenhaalRene RussoBill Paxton
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Crime/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: October 31, 2014

Bloom: Single, N-NN Moral, Pro (Irredeemable Anti-Hero)

Police: System, P-P Moral, Ant (Untransformed Government Anti-Villain)


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Scott, it’s time to crawl out of your hole and write a review with me tonight.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I’m out of the hole and at my keyboard. Time to review Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. You first, Gregger.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a disreputable young man who makes ends meet by stealing chain link fence and manhole covers for the money he can negotiate from the smelters. He is scraping the bottom of the barrel when he happens upon an accident where he witnesses some professional videographers who crawl the night looking for stories to film and sell to area newscasts. Louis decides this is an easy way to make money and steals a bicycle which he hocks for a camcorder and police radio receiver.

Lou first films the scene of a fatal accident and takes the clip to a local TV station whose new director, Nina (Rene Russo), welcomes his gory footage. She encourages him to bring her videos of violent accidents and crime scenes with white affluent victims. Lou hires an assistant, Rick (Rick Garcia), and the two men find some success hunting down bloody car collisions and murders to put on film. To obtain better videos, Lou alters some crime scenes and arranges dead bodies to create better images. He even sabotages a competitor’s van so that his competitor suffers a gruesome accident for Lou to film. One night he and Rick arrive at the scene of a horrific mass murder before the police have arrived. This sets in motion more graphic violence for Lou to orchestrate (and videotape) with the goal of earning more money from Nina.

Scott, Nightcrawler is an intense look behind the scenes of local news. It’s not enough to show the events as they happen, but Lou is advised to find events that show the urban world encroaching on the suburban world. Or, to show people of color robbing or killing white people. These are the stories that garner higher ratings. And higher ratings garner more advertising dollars. Lou realizes this and starts to manipulate not only the crime scenes he’s supposed to be reporting on, but also the people around him. He convinces his “intern” Rick to work for peanuts and even gets Nina to sleep with him so that he will continue to feed her these high-value videos.

Lou is an unusual hero for a movie. He has many of the characteristics we look for in a hero. He’s resourceful as he finds a way to make a living. He is intelligent – he studies the internet and reads up on all things having to do with network news and how it works behind the scenes. In his own way, he is charismatic as he uses his motivational speaker skills (which he learned from the internet) to induce people to do things they really don’t want to do. He rises from a position of low social status to running his own business.

But he severely lacks any empathy for how other people feel. He is completely self-absorbed and manipulates people into doing things that are illegal and ultimately even life-threatening. He will do anything to get what he wants, no matter the cost to others. Scott, Lou Bloom is a textbook definition of the anti-hero. He is a villainous person cast in the role of the lead character of the story. Unlike the more likable anti-heroes (like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Bonnie and Clyde), we learn to fear and even despise Lou Bloom.

For me, Nightcrawler is a disturbing look at a disturbed man. Lou is a classic sociopath who lacks a conscience and has no empathy, remorse, or moral core. He uses people and hurts people to obtain his goals. We’ve seen characters like this in the movies before, of course, but usually they are secondary characters, i.e., the villains who occupy limited screen time. But in Nightcrawler, we’re subjected to Lou’s heinous character for two solid hours. He appears in just about every scene. Although this film was extremely well made, I was uncomfortable being exposed to pure evil for such an extended period of time in the form of Lou’s psychopathic personality and escalating malevolent behavior. It was relentless.

As you point out, Greg, we know villains share four of the Great Eight attributes of heroes. Lou is smart, strong, charismatic, and resilient. But Lou is lacking the most telltale signs of a hero: He has no heart. It was repugnant watching him deliberately ignore suffering people, harm others, and even kill them, in order to sell his videos at a higher price to Nina. Nightcrawler makes us think about the ethics of paparazzi and ambulance chasers. It even raises ethical issues about television news journalism and where they can and should draw the line between morality and legality.

With Lou already playing such a villainous role, it’s hard to identify any villains in Nightcrawler. Lou’s arc of going from harmless gadfly to devious mastermind is the epitome of the Villain’s Journey – which is the mirror image of the Hero’s Journey. So, I look for the more heroic characters to offset Lou’s villainy.

Nina is already a pretty cut-throat news director. She’ll do anything to advance her career – even put clearly illegal source material on the air. She doesn’t offer an impediment to Lou’s advance. In fact, she aids it. There is a minor character in the form of the station manager, but while he is the voice of morality and reason, he offers little in the way of opposition to Lou.

The rival video company owned by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) is Lou’s only opposition. He’s a good guy, plays by the rules. But he’s a tough businessman. At one point he see’s Lou’s abilities and tries to hire him. But instead of taking Joe’s offer, Lou tampers with Joe’s brake line and causes him to be in an accident that heartless Lou films for the morning news. And that ends any opposition that Lou might have.

Really, the only decent character with any screen time is Rick, who plays the role of the sidekick who repeatedly questions Lou’s actions and character. Rick is in such desperate need of money that he looks the other way while Lou engages in awful conduct. Rick’s also such a weak character that he is no match against Lou when the two men eventually collide over morals.

If there is an oppositional force at work against Lou, it exists mostly in the form of the ineffectual Los Angeles Police Department, who appear at the scenes of accidents and murders, and who also try to keep Lou from getting in the way of emergency personnel as well as their investigations of what happened at these scenes. The LAPD may be the type of villains that we call institutional villains — a large bureaucratic entity that lurks in the background as the main impediment to our main character’s goals.

Nightcrawler is more frightening than any horror movie for its vivid portrayal of the realities of mainstream news. The thing that makes it scary is just how real and current the story is. This could be happening now. This is a tale about how we are being fed stories – and how they could potentially being crafted – to titillate and spread fear in the name of news and money. It begs the question – what is news? I give Nightcrawler 5 out of 5 Reels for showing us a very scary reality.

Lou Bloom is a terrifying anti-hero cast in the world of network news. He frightens us not for any super powers that he might have, but for how amazingly ordinary he seems to be. He seems in every way an under achiever. He is not handsome, overly intelligent, or even athletic. But he is a cunning villain in the way he manipulates his prey. We are witness to a complete Villain’s Journey here. I give Lou Bloom 5 out of 5 Villains.

There are no strong heroes in this story for Lou to combat. You’ve already pointed out that the LAPD detectives were completely ineffectual against Lou. And rival Joe Loder was no match for Lou. A stronger hero for our anti-hero would have made Nightcrawler a completely different movie. I can only give these side-heroes 2 out of 5 Heroes.

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Nightcrawler is an extremely well made movie but you won’t catch me watching it again. The movie is two relentless hours of the devil in human form at work on the streets of Los Angeles. I was disturbed by the main character (notice that I cannot call him a hero) and his wanton disregard for human life, and it was disheartening that no heroic character in the film could even come close to combating him. I don’t know what good can come from making such a movie or even watching it, other than the possibility that it can be used as fodder for ethical reform for the ways TV networks solicit film clips for their evening news. I give this movie 4 Reels out of 5 simply out of respect for the filmmaking and for Jake Gyllenhaal’s extraordinary performance.

There is no hero in this story, as this is a tale of the triumph of evil. Our main character is the devil running roughshod over everyone in his path. Like a cancer, he just grows and grows in his size and power, and he is shown flourishing in the end. He doesn’t change or evolve or transform like a heroic character might. He has no mentors or friends and he eliminates his sidekick when the sidekick outlives his usefulness. Our main character’s evil simply gains strength for two disturbing hours. The absence of a hero story here leads me to assign a rating of 0 out of 5 Heroes.

Inasmuch as our main character is a villain, this is a movie about villainy and how it blossoms. Nightcrawler shows us how villainy is allowed to prosper when we allow it to prosper, when we condone it, when we cooperate with it, and when we place money ahead of principles. Nina and Rick are probably not terrible people; they simply succumb to greed. As the main character, Lou does encounter some resistance from a rival videographer (whom Lou severely injures), a sidekick Rick (whom Lou eliminates), and the LAPD (whom Lou outsmarts).  There aren’t many villain stories that are better told than this one, and so I’ll give Lou an impressive 4 Villains out of 5.

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The Equalizer •••1/2

The_Equalizer_posterStarring: Denzel WashingtonMarton CsokasChloë Grace Moretz
Director:Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay:Richard Wenk
Action/Crime/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Date: September 26, 2014

McCall: Single, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Lone Hero)

Teddy: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Henchman Villain)


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, after seeing The Equalizer, I want to stay on Denzel Washington’s good side.

I thought he was going to balance my stereo system. I was wrong. Let’s recap…

We meet Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), a retired special forces agent who works at a large Home-Mart hardware store in Boston. Robert enjoys helping people, such as his buddy Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), who aspires to become a security officer at the store, and a young woman named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) who sits in the same coffee shop that Robert frequents in the middle of the night. Teri is a prostitute working for the Russian mob, and one night Robert sees Teri’s pimp abuse her.

That’s when Robert decides to equalize the odds. He strides into the office of the head mob bad guy and lays down $9800 to buy Teri’s freedom. The head guy not only refuses Robert’s offer, but tells him he can have Teri only after he’s “used her up.” That’s when Robert locks the door behind him, starts his stopwatch, and begins to lay some serious hurt on the bad guys.

Greg, The Equalizer is one of Denzel Washington’s best movies in recent years. It’s far from being a perfect film, but it does feature a powerful hero archetype. The archetype is that of a gentle older man who appears harmless but turns into an unstoppable killing machine when provoked. Notable examples of this archetype include Mr. Myagi in The Karate Kid and Bruce Willis’ Frank Moses character in Red.

As an audience, we apparently love highly moral heroes who have supremely powerful abilities and who have the wisdom to hide those abilities from just about everyone — except very, very bad men who deserve to get their butts kicked. Denzel plays this role to the hilt. We can’t help but love the man who looks out for others and who only uses his immense talents when someone he cares about is in grave danger.

Denzel does this well. We like McCall because he is altruistic: he gives his time and experience to younger people to help them better themselves. As such, he plays a mentor role as well as the hero. McCall also has a deep inner pain as a man who lost his only true love – his wife. He made a promise to her not to indulge in his super-spy ways. But when evil is done to an innocent, as McCall would say, he makes an exception.

We also like McCall because he has a few social tics that make him relatable. He’s focused on finishing the 100 books his wife started reading but died before she could complete them. Also, he is a bit obsessive compulsive: timing his every activity, laying out his dinnerware just so, and at the mob’s office, aligning a row of glass skull ornaments on the bad guy’s desk. These quirks make our super hero more human, more sympathetic.

And since we’re talking about the villains, the mob guys are typical bad guys. Tattooed, rotten teeth, wife-beater-wearing thugs. But when word of McCall’s dispatching of the thugs reaches the head Russian mobster (Pushkin), he sends a more interesting villain. He sends Teddy – and we don’t mean Teddy Bear.

The Equalizer gives us a villain whose level of evil matches the level of good in our hero. Teddy (Marton Csokas) is a true sociopath who ruthlessly hunts down our hero Robert McCall. Teddy is handsome, smart, charming, and relentless. We can’t help but admire his tenacity and brutal efficiency. Greg, this movie needed a villain we could revile and it delivered.

Once again, we have an evil mastermind (Pushkin) who lurks behind the scenes and sends his henchmen to do his dirty work. This hierarchical structure to villains appears to be common in the movies. I do have a few criticisms of the choices made by director Antoine Fuqua, including the degree of senseless violence shown by Teddy toward his victims. We don’t need to see as many blood-splattering blows to the face as this film shows. Decades ago, Alfred Hitchcock showed us that when it comes to violence, less is more.

Scott, Teddy is the villain we’ve been looking for all year. His demeanor is calm and collected in presentation. But when he wants to send a message, he is savage. And the bigger the message, demeanor he gets. We’re also given a backstory to this villain. McCall has done his research and learns that Teddy was a troubled child taken in by a virtuous man. But the young Teddy couldn’t fathom the generosity he was shown. So, rather than accept his new reality, he killed his benefactor before he could disappoint him. That’s a really cold story.

Overall, I liked this movie but found it pretty uncomplicated. And in places, it was completely impossible to believe (McCall apparently has the faculties to destroy an entire oil tanker). I was entertained from beginning to end, but there were no surprises. I give The Equalizer just 3 out of 5 Reels.

McCall is a great hero and I suspect we’ll be seeing more of him (there is a planned sequel). He embodies all the great elements of the hero including altruism, intelligence, and mastery. And, in an interesting turn, he never fires a weapon. However, he lacks a transformation that would give him a nice story arc. Still, he is a catalyst for change in the people he helps. I give McCall 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The majority of the bad guys in this film are typical stereotypes: Russian mafia hit men and cops gone bad. But Teddy really saves this story from being a run-of-the-mill action flick. He is everything his heroic counterpart is, but lacks any empathy. This makes him a villain worth fighting against. I give Teddy 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Greg, I like The Equalizer a bit more than you did. Perhaps it’s my admiration for Denzel Washington, who wields his talents here in impressive fashion. Perhaps it’s the type of hero he portrays, the older gentleman whose hands are lethal weapons, whose wits are unmatched, and whose morals are in all the right places. The Equalizer is a very good film well worth seeing if you enjoy a classic battle between good and evil. Director Antoine Fuqua makes some poor decisions here and there, but overall this movie provides great entertainment. I happily give this film 4 out of 5 Reels.

The character of Robert McCall is one of my favorite hero types and most certainly is thrown into a different world where he must triumph over a formidable villain. But it’s not the strongest hero story for a few reasons. While Robert must kill the bad guys to accomplish his mission, does he really need to use corkscrews and power drills? Like Teddy the villain, Robert’s level of violence seems a bit over-the-top. Second, there is no classic hero transformation here. Robert is a benevolent bad-ass when the movie starts and he remains one by the movie’s conclusion. As much as I love Denzel, I can only give a hero rating of 3 out of 5 here.

I agree with you, Greg, that Teddy is a terrific villain. The scene you mention in which Robert converses with Teddy in the restaurant is a fabulous piece of work; the scene is tense, taught, and meaningful for our understanding of what’s going on with these two powerful characters. All the bad guys and henchmen were fun to watch and had my full attention at all times. There is a fascinating backstory to Teddy that helps us understand his horrific disregard for human life. Like you, Greg, I give Teddy and his associates a meritorious 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ••••

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_ApesStarring:  Gary OldmanKeri RussellAndy Serkis
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Action/Drama/Science-Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: July 11, 2014

Caesar & Malcolm: Duo, P-PP Moral, Pro (Classic Divergent Heroes)

Koba, Dreyfus: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villains)


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Well Scott, here comes another performance capture movie starring Andy Serkis. It truly looks like he’s playing another Sirkis animal!

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Sirkis is chimply marvelous in this role. Let’s recap.

It’s been ten years since Caesar (Andy Serkis), the genetically modified chimp from Rise of the Planet of the Apes escaped into the forests of San Francisco. A lot has happened. There was an outbreak of simian flu that decimated humanity leaving only a handful of humans who were genetically immune to the disease. Meanwhile, Caesar has freed hundreds of apes from human captivity and taught them to communicate by sign language. They’ve created an entire culture separate from the humans. Then, one day, a human named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) in search of a hydroelectric dam happens upon a couple of apes and he shoots one of them.

Caesar warns the humans never to venture into ape territory again. But the humans need to get the dam operational to regain electrical power. They send Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and a few others, including Carver, to negotiate access to the dam. Caesar agrees, but only if the group gives up their guns. Carver hides a gun and threatens Caesar’s infant son with it, causing an uproar that is only quelled by Ellie’s willingness to provide medical treatment to Caesar’s wife. Meanwhile, an ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell), who will not accept any peace with the humans, sabotages relations between the two groups by secretly setting fire to the ape settlement and attempting to assassinate Caesar.

Scott, this was a much better film than 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There were some real personalities here and some real conflict. We see two sets of characters at play – the humans and the apes. On the side of the humans we have Malcolm who wants peace with the apes. On the other side is Caesar who looks at the dam agreement as their one chance for peace with the humans.

But both sides have their hawks as well. The humans have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who is so mistrustful of the apes that he starts hoarding weapons. This, of course, inflames the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) who has reason to distrust humans as he was the victim of experiments at the hands of human scientists. This creates a great conflict both between human and ape as well as between hawks and doves.

Sadly, Keri Russell isn’t given much to do here except “stand by her man.” And the female chimp (Caesar’s wife) does little more than give birth and get sick. Apparently, the future is still male-dominated.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a complex film. Admittedly, it does have some of the telltale signs of a summer blockbuster – flying bullets, daredevil stunts, and plenty of explosions. But these superficial trappings of summer popcorn bely the true meaty core of this very measured and thoughtful movie. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes made me think, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had to really turn my brain on at the movies.

First and foremost, this is a movie about the very real and very demanding challenges of resolving intergroup conflict. We learn that sometimes good leadership isn’t enough. There must also be good followership in that a critical mass of people being led need to be on board with the vision of an effective leader. As you point out, Greg, we have peace-loving leadership on both sides but only a few bad apples can undermine all the good intentions.


The hero structure looks like (what we describe in our book Reel Heroes: Volume 1) a divergent duo. They start out as separate characters, opposed to working together. But with time, they form a bond. They work together toward a common goal. During this period they are buddy heroes. But in the end, they go their separate ways. Destiny has played its hand and humans and apes cannot be friends – war is their ultimate demise.

Good call on the heroes in this movie being divergent heroes, Greg. I’m beginning to believe that divergent hero stories are my favorite kind of stories because they provide two separate hero tales for the price of one. Often, the two separate hero journeys become intertwined in surprising ways. Last year’s Philomena comes to mind, for example. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and Malcolm are wise and well-intentioned, yet they are brought down by forces beyond their control that rage all around them. The joy of the movie is watching how our two heroes act on their virtuous characteristics, and how they respond to the treachery of their sidekicks.

One of my beefs with this movie centers on the character of Carver. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with Carver needlessly shooting one of the apes. He’s a racist hothead who should never have been chosen to go on the expedition in the first place, and yet, inexplicably, he’s chosen again to accompany Malcolm on the trip to repair the dam. Surely there are more even-keeled and reasonable alternatives to Carver. Yes, we need Carver’s misbehavior to help add dramatic tension, but it stretched the bounds of believability for me.


I have to agree with you on that. I was really impressed with the quality of the CGI in this film. There’s a point where Caesar and Malcolm touch foreheads and you cannot see any dividing line between them. Caesar’s hair becomes matted down by Malcolm’s head. It’s simple amazing. And the full articulation of the facial features is wonderful. This is an order of magnitude better than the original Gollum character that Sirkis created for Lord of the Rings.

The villains in this story are driven by their fear – the heroes are driven by their vision. It’s a compelling difference to watch. As you point out, Carver is the bigot who cannot see past the limitations of stereotypes he’s been taught. Koba, the hawkish ape, has been harmed so badly by humans that he cannot see past his pain. And Dreyfus is intent on saving what’s left of humanity. He doesn’t have the space to work toward a peaceable trust. This was an interesting collection of villains, with just enough depth to make them interesting.

What I appreciate most about the heroes and villains in this movie is the fact that they exist on both sides of the dispute. There are ape heroes and ape villains. And there are human heroes and human villains. This film could have taken the easy route and made one side all good and the other side all bad, but it decided that nuance and realism were more important than the usual oversimplification we see at the movies.

I also appreciate the complex motives that drive the villainous behavior. Besides the usual racist ethnocentrism, there is fear that drives both sides to aggress against the other. There is also the bitter memory of past oppression, which fuels Koba’s hatred of humanity. And finally there is pure ignorance. The humans underestimate ape intelligence, and the apes underestimate human goodness. Again, this film really nails the genesis of intergroup conflict.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent and intelligently crafted science fiction thriller that examines the heart of war. At 130 minutes long, it tested my attention in places. However, it is the best of the Apes franchise and I give it a hearty 4 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this story are interesting and deeply drawn. The emotive power of Sirkis’ Caesar was simply amazing and helped to tell the full story. The duo/divergent heroes is a pattern we’ve seen before, but played especially well here. I give Malcolm and Caesar 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the villains were not as strong as the heroes. Carver plays the typical purely bad guy. Koba is at least given a decent backstory to motivate his hatred. Dreyfus as the leader of the humans will do whatever he can to ensure the survival of his people, but is too blind to see the larger picture. I wish the villains were as detailed as the heroes, so I give them only 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Greg, we’re on the same page on two of the three ratings. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a refreshing reprieve from the usual summer mindless popcorn fare that infects movie theaters. This film is a thought-provoking look at human conflict, how it begins, how hard it is to avoid, and how difficult it is to stop once it has started. Yes, this movie reeks of patriarchy, and once again the limited role of women in a Hollywood film is disappointing. Still, I enjoyed this movie very much and give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

Our two divergent heroes are a joy to watch, not just because they time and again show wisdom and compassion, but because their journeys are arduous and realistic. Are they transformed by their journeys? Yes, and in profound ways. Caesar has certainly learned the true value of family and friends, and he pays a dear price for holding naive views of ape goodness and human trustworthiness. Like you, I’ll give our pair of heroes 4 out of 5 Heroes.

We disagree about the villains, Greg. Most movies devote little time to fleshing out the details of villains’ motives and backstory. With Koba, we see the origins of evil; the past torturing of Koba may not justify his actions but it makes them understandable. The human leader, Dreyfus, also has a history and set of motivations that leave us understanding his aggressive behavior but not condoning it. The villains here are complex and fascinating. I’m happy to give them a full 5 out of 5 Villains.

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Maleficent ••••

Maleficent_posterStarring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley
Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton, Charles Perrault
Action/Adventure/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: May 30, 2014

Maleficent: Single, P-N-P Moral, Pro (Redeemed Lone Hero)

Stefan: Single, N-NN Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)


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Scott, it looks like Angelina Jolie is back with a Tomb Raider sequel.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I’d say she’s sprouted her wings and gone beyond Lara Croft. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to a very young faerie named Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) who lives in the Moors. The faerie world doesn’t get along with the human world so it’s quite a big deal when the young man Stefan (Sharlto Copley) appears to her. They strike up a friendship and eventually fall in love. The problem, though is that Stefan has ambitions to become a higher-up in the king’s court. This causes Stefan to abandon his new love. Over the years Stefan does grow in the king’s graces and he needs to impress the king and be named successor.

To gain the king’s favor, Stefan returns to the Moors and wins Maleficent’s heart again. One night he moves to stab her in her sleep, but he cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, he cuts off her wings and brings them to the king as proof of her death. Maleficent’s disfigurement turns her into a bitter, vengeful witch-like figure. When she discovers that the new King Stefan and his queen have given birth to a daughter named Aurora (Elle Fanning), Maleficent inflicts a curse upon the baby such that Aurora will fall into an endless sleep and can only be revived by a true love’s kiss.

Scott, this is a prequel to the classic Sleeping Beauty story. Maleficent does for Sleeping Beauty what Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz. The story focuses on the evil queen and how she came to be who she is. The production values are amazing. The world of the Moors is colorful and full of interesting creatures.

I found the story to be captivating and moved along at a nice pace. I rarely felt bored as we were carried from scene to scene as the story twisted along this Villain’s Journey. We start out with a young, happy, vibrant Maleficent. Then she is betrayed by her lover. Then she curses the baby Aurora and the story switches to the growth of Aurora. Maleficent also grows during this period. Disney created a beautiful world full of color and life.

I agree, Greg, that this is a fascinating tale. For me, Maleficent is first and foremost a story of a hero who can be misunderstood to be a villain. Beyond its obvious entertainment value, Maleficent highlights the fine line that exists between heroes and villains. Capitalizing on this ambiguity, and even toying with it, is no doubt one of the main goals of the film.

We’re introduced to a sweet young girl, a fairy with impressive wings, who seems by all appearances to be a heroic figure — or at least potentially one. After a man physically brutalizes her, she takes on a villainous persona. Bitterness consumes her and leads her to an act of vengeance that she later regrets. Most importantly, she falls in love with the very person who was the target of her vengeance. This love redeems her. We witness the healing power of love, as our fairy becomes the sweet person she once was. For me, this is a dramatic and powerful hero’s journey.

I was thrilled that we get the full round trip here. Maleficent starts out with all the characteristics a heroic character. She’s smart and happy and she does good deeds for those around her. Despite her physical superiority to other faerie people in the Moors, she’s their advocate and protector. Then once she is betrayed, she turns dark and starts down a path that appears to have no return. She puts up barriers to the Moors that the humans cannot penetrate. For a generation she steeps in her anger and builds a hatred for the humans. She reaches the pinnacle of her villainy when she lashes out at an innocent child. Aurora is cursed to fall into a deep sleep on the day of her 16th birthday.

Then Maleficent starts on the return path to heroism. She observes the child growing up and as she does she comes to love her. It is this love that touches Maleficent and causes her to return to goodness. Ultimately, Maleficent comes to defend Aurora and it is Aurora who saves Maleficent. It is a wonderful tale of a fall from grace and redemption.

Totally agree, Gregger. As the film’s narrator suggests, Maleficent may be both hero and villain, a combination that is needed to unify the human world with the faerie kingdom. Maleficent’s dual role allows us learn many things about the parallel journeys taken by heroes and villains. We learn that both heroes and villains are summoned to an unfamiliar world that challenges them in significant ways. We learn that both heroes and villains acquire a main mission, and they attract allies who help them and foes who oppose them. We learn that both heroes and villains are damaged goods in some way, and that how they handle that damage ultimately comes to define them.

We also learn how villains differ from heroes. Maleficent is a character who illustrates beautifully how heroes find ways to redeem themselves, even when they appear to be irreparably damaged. Heroes never let physical or emotional injury define them, at least not in the long run. Heroes transcend difficult circumstances. Villains succumb to them. Maleficent rises above her pain, thereby cementing her heroic status.

I might argue the Maleficent is the anti-villain. She has to have something to catalyze her to turn from villainy back to heroism. If it weren’t for Aurora’s beauty and love, Maleficent would have been lost forever. We’ve seen this catalyst in last weeks’ Million Dollar Arm. In that movie the lead character was going down a dark path until his girlfriend and the young men from India show him a different way. Both these stories remind us how very close a hero is to a villain.

Maleficent is a colorful, suspenseful, and thoughtful examination of the psychology of villainy. I heartily recommend it both for adults and children. Although, personally, I thought some parts were too dark for younger children. I give Maleficent 4 out of 5 Reels.

Maleficent is a great heroic character traveling first from innate heroic qualities, then diving into the depths of villainy due to a painful betrayal and then the return to heroism through the catalyst of love and beauty. Angelina Jolie was just amazing in the role. I give Maleficent 4 out of 5 Heroes. And because we get the full villain’s backstory, I give Maleficent 4 out of 5 Villains as well.

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Maleficent isn’t a great movie but its lead character, Maleficent herself, is one of the most compelling and complex Disney characters ever to appear on the big screen. Angelina Jolie shines in the role and gives Maleficent the depth and nuance needed to portray character’s long, painful, yet ultimately redemptive journey. I’m torn between giving the movie 3 versus 4 Reels but because I enjoyed the layers of this character so much I’m going to award Maleficent 4 out of 5 Reels.

The ambiguity of the heroic status of Maleficent, and the twists and turns that her character experiences, are great fun to behold. I honestly didn’t know whether her turn to darkness was permanent or temporary, and I was delighted to see a character that is redeemed by love. Such a message offers hope to all of humanity. Like you, Greg, I also award Maleficent 4 Heroes out of 5.

The true villain of the story is Stefan, who is slave to his deep desire for power and glory. The only love he knows is the love of conquest and ambition. He’s not a particularly deep or interesting villain, as his role is mainly to flesh out the depth of Maleficent’s character. Because Maleficent herself shows a villainous side and showcases the fine line between heroism and villainy, I give the pairing of Stefan and Maleficent 4 out of 5 Villains.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past ••••1/2

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_posterStarring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Date: May 23, 2014
Professor X/Magneto: Duo, P-N Moral, Pro (Divergent Buddy Heroes)
X-Men: Ensemble, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Episodic Heroes)
Trask: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Mastermind Untransformed Villain)


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Well, the days are past when we can see X-Men: Days of Future Past.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I predict that in the immediate future, we’ll review this movie. Let’s begin.

Our story begins in the not-too-distant future where robots with amazing morphing capabilities (Sentinels) are hunting the X-Men to extinction. Young Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) is able to send messages into the past by mind-melding with another X-Man. She is visited by Professor X, Magneto, and Wolverine (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman) who want her to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to 1973 where he must convince young Charles Xavier and Max Eisenhardt (Professor X and Magneto) to team up and change the dystopian future that awaits them if they cannot prevent mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the inventor of the Sentinels, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

Wolverine goes back to 1973 and convinces a young, broken Xavier to stop Mystique from killing Trask. Wolverine enlists the aid of Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose super-speed enables them to free Magneto from a prison cell beneath the Pentagon in Washington. In Paris, where American and Vietnamese representatives are negotiating the end of the war, Mystique attempts to assassinate Trask but her plan is thwarted. Magneto decides that killing Mystique is the only way to foil her plan, complicating Wolverine and Xavier’s mission. When President Nixon approves the Sentinel program, all hell breaks loose as the X-Men try to stop Mystique while battling Trask, the Sentinels, and Magneto himself.

Scott, Marvel does it again. This is a story full of action, suspense, and thrills. Nobody creates a complete story the way Marvel studios does. There are at least a dozen stars, although the story centers around Wolverine and the young Charles and Magneto. There isn’t a wasted moment both in terms of the plot or in the on-screen action. This is a complete win in terms of both story and special effects.

There are plenty of heroes to choose from here. In the future, all of the remaining X-Men are battling to save their world. In the past, Charles is the one with the most transforming to undergo. And undergo it he does. We see him start out as a beaten man, taking drugs to make his legs work, which also dulls his mental powers. Wolverine is all action and no growth (which is the mold he filled in last year’s The Wolverine). And we look for growth in Max/Magneto but he falls into his old patterns and devolves into a villain again.

You nailed it, Greg. Marvel is on a roll this summer with yet another rich, dense, and ambitious story of super-heroism and super-villainy. Like Spider-Man 2, which we reviewed recently, X-Men: Days of Future Past has many characters, but not too many; it has a complicated plot, but not too complicated; and it conveys messages about life and virtue that resonate with us all. Almost without exception, the characters in this movie attract and maintain our interest. They show depth and nuance, and they behave in surprising ways. They also delight us with their quirky, memorable inner qualities and behavior.

We have an ensemble hero cast, with Wolverine and Professor Xavier serving as the main hero duo within the ensemble. In any good story, the hero undergoes a transformation, and as you note, Greg, Wolverine doesn’t change much in this movie. But Xavier is radically transformed. During the flashback to 1973, Xavier is a lost soul, bitter about the toll that the Vietnam War has taken on his school and also resentful about having to choose between the loss of his legs or the loss of his mental powers. With help from Wolverine, Xavier grows to see beyond his disability, deciding to sacrifice the use of his legs so that he can access his superior mental abilities which will help defeat Trask and the Sentinels.

There are villains a-plenty here as well. Mystique walks the line as she stalks Trask with murder on her mind. But she’s stopped at the last minute. We get to the end of the story and she appears to turn to the side of good, but it is a bit ambiguous where she goes from there.

We see the familiar “brother” pattern that we saw in Spider-Man 2 – two close friends start out with a common cause but are separated by ideology by the end of the story. Xavier and Magneto work together at first, but Magneto ultimately returns to his diabolical ways. He’s certain that the only way forward is a war between mutants and humans, and as a result, he becomes the opposition force in the end.  Then there’s the overlord villain in the form of Trask. This villain is bent on the destruction of anyone who doesn’t fit his idea of “pure” and will do whatever it takes to kill off every mutant. His lack of selflessness and caring make him the typical evil villain.

For me, the primary villain here is Trask. He’s an interesting villain in that his motives aren’t entirely evil. Trast genuinely wants to protect the world but he overestimates the threat that the mutants pose and cannot entertain the possibility of living in a world where mutants and non-mutants can co-exist. This is a common shortcoming of villains. They see divisions between people, and often exaggerate those divisions, whereas heroes seek cooperative unity between people.

One other note about Trask – he is a dwarf, which in a way is an unfortunate choice as it suggests that villainy and physical deviance are somehow connected. But it’s also not uncommon in fables and mythic tales for villains to be physically different from the norm. If nothing else, Marvel makes movies that resonate with ancient storytelling. The Sentinels are a formidable foe, showing an invincibility against the X-Men’s powers. Again, this movie invokes a common pattern in storytelling by showing us a main villain, Trask, who enlists the aid of a monolithic herd of henchmen, and in this case they are diabolical, technologically sophisticated instruments of evil.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself at X-Men: Days of Future Past. The story was well-told (although a bit thin in places) and there weren’t too many plot holes. The special effects were seamless and abundant, but always in support of the story. The characters were rich and colorful – literally. I really can’t find fault with any aspect of the presentation and so I award the film 5 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes were many and varied. There were the war-weary heroes of the future and the innocent verging on naive heroes of the past. While Wolverine doesn’t grow much, it is Charles Xavier who overcomes his inner demons and shows us a transformation worth the price of admission. I give them all 4 out of 5 Heroes.

In classic Marvel fashion, the villains were as potent as the heroes. This gives our heroes something to work against. The powerful Trask and his high-tech Sentinels were an oppressive force to be reckoned with. And Magneto started out as an ally kept true to his wicked self and turned into the villain he needs to be for the X-Men universe to maintain some sense of conflict and tension. I give them 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Once again, Marvel constructs a movie that is deliciously meaty and doesn’t insult its audience’s intelligence at all. Anyone who enjoys superhero movies should thoroughly enjoy X-Men: Days of Future Past. Besides delighting us with great characters and a juicy plot, the movie gives us several thoughtful take-home messages, the main one focusing on the role of adversity in shaping our destiny and character. This wisdom is far from original but it is used effectively to help young Xavier transform himself. This film is a terrific two-hours spent in the theater, and I award it 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero duo of Wolverine and Xavier truly shines, as we not only witness the transformation of Xavier but also the transformation of their friendship. All of these characters are complex, including those of a couple of the X-Men (Magneto and Mystique) who defy simple categorization of good or evil. This ensemble is impressive and the duo within it shines. I’m happy to award them all 4 out of 5 Heroes.

You’re right on target about the villains, Greg. Trask, the Sentinels, Magneto, and Mystique are all either fully villainous or show streaks of villainy. Another oppositional force that Xavier must contend with is his own inner demons. The Marvel universe works so well on so many levels, including the interpersonal and intrapersonal levels. The villains here are all great fun and make us think, too, which is great praise for any movie. I give them 4 out of 5 Villains.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ••••1/2

The_Amazing_Spiderman_2_posterStarring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx
Director: Marc Webb
Screenplay: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 142 minutes
Release Date: May 2, 2014
Spider-Man/Peter: Single, P-P, Pro (Untransformed Episodic Hero)
Electro/Max: Single, P-N Moral, Ant (Fallen Lone Villain)
Green Goblin/Harry: Single, P-N Moral, Ant (Fallen Lone Villain)


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it looks like Marvel Comics has just spun another web of super-heroism and super-villainy.

My spider senses are tingling! Let’s recap.

We begin with a flashback to when scientist Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) was murdered but not before he was able to download a complex message for safekeeping. In the present, his son Peter (Andrew Garfield) is crime-fighting superhero Spider-Man, who saves the life of OsCorp employee Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx). Meanwhile, OsCorp CEO Norman Osborne (Chris Cooper) is dying from a heritable illness and gives his son Harry (Dane DeHaan) key information that may prevent Harry from also perishing.

Max is obsessed with Spider-Man. At work he is tasked with fixing an electrical connection and accidentally falls into a vat of genetically altered electric eels. He is transformed into the super villain Electro. Meanwhile, when Norman Osborne dies, Peter visits old pal Harry and they rekindle their friendship. However, Peter’s relationship with the beautiful Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is on the rocks as Peter cannot reconcile a promise he made to her father on his death bed – a promise to keep Gwen safe by not seeing her.

Greg, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an ambitious work of art, a three-pronged story of heroism endowed with two heavy-weight villains. I say “three-pronged” because our hero has three missions in this film – to restore his father’s good name, to resolve his conflict with his girlfriend Gwen, and to defeat the supervillain Electro. These goals are intertwined and some might say that they somewhat over-complicate the movie. In any good superhero film, vanquishing the villain is the primary mission and this film is no exception, even with the two other main storylines taking place.

In most superhero stories, the superhero rarely shows much character transformation, remaining as solidly virtuous as a character can get from start to finish. One could argue that this shortcoming, if you could call it that, occurs in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, although we do witness Peter Parker learn a lesson or two about the perils of falling in love, possibly with the wrong woman.

You have really isolated the strength of this film. It includes the origin story of two villains in the Spider-Man universe as well as the love story between Peter and Gwen. But, as if that weren’t enough, it also includes a classic Brother Story. Peter and Harry are old friends separated by time, money, and a dark past (Richard Parker’s disappearance). So I see your three-pronged story and raise it one: battle-of-the-brothers.

This is an interesting pattern we see both in mythology and in popular fiction. We meet Peter and Harry who are friends at the beginning of the film. They reconnect after years of separation. Harry has a problem that he believes only Peter can solve. But Peter is unable (possibly unwilling) to help. This prompts Harry to take extreme risks that cause him to evolve into the Green Goblin – Spider-Man’s arch enemy. We also see this in the Superman/Lex Luthor origin story. It also plays out in the X-Men universe where we see Professor Xavier and Magneto start out as comrades only to end up on the opposite end of a conflict. It’s a great story dynamic that goes as far back as Cain and Abel.

Very cool observations, Greg. The two villain stories in this movie are as detailed and well developed as you will ever see on the big screen. We are privy to two classic personality defects that typically give rise to villainy, and those defects are selfishness and an inability to see the larger picture. The trait of selfishness is seen in Harry’s overwhelming preoccupation with saving his own skin at whatever the cost, without concern for others or for the risks involved. Max Dillon as Electro has the similar problem of being driven only by his own desperate need for love and approval, and when this need isn’t met he selfishly resorts to violence toward others.

The two villain stories also demonstrate the fine line that exists between heroism and villainy. Both Max Dillon and Harry Osborne first show promise and more than a hint of goodness in their characters. Their bond with Peter Parker suggests not just an awareness of right from wrong but a respect for it as well. Both Dillon and Parker suffer setbacks, as all heroes and villains do on their journeys. What tilts them toward evil is their choice to avoid taking responsibility for their problems and instead finding convenient targets for their anger. Peter Parker is the person closest to them, so he is the convenient target, a scenario that is not unlike the real world where people often hurt those whom they love the most.

As a hero, Peter Parker as Spider-Man starts out pretty strong. The opening scenes of the movie show a Spider-Man in control of his world and a Peter Parker who’s graduating from high school. He’s in love with his girlfriend Gwen and the world is at his feet. But it’s not long before he is faced with a conflict – that of finding out what happened to his father and mother who left him at the age of six with Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Peter is tormented by this puzzle from his past and it causes him to go places he’s never gone before. This, I think, is Peter’s missing inner quality and he resolves it by the movie’s ending.

Yes, exactly right, you’ve identified the main factor that separates heroes from villains. Heroes have the ability to see beyond their suffering, to find a larger purpose for it that transcends themselves. In contrast, villains are consumed by their suffering, cannot see beyond it, and project their anguish onto others in the form of evil. Hero transcendence is seen in the Batman franchise, where Bruce Wayne channels his pain and anger toward eliminating evil. Peter Parker’s losses also fuel his drive to conquer evil, and we see how difficult a task this is when Parker buries himself in his misery toward the end of this movie. However, as heroes must do, Parker summons the strength and moral courage to overcome his anguish to fight evil once again.

Scott, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a great kick-off to the summer blockbusters. It has everything you could want in a popcorn movie. It has great heroes, great villains, romance, and some wonderful supporting characters (who doesn’t love Sally Field as Aunt May). I give it 5 out of 5 Reels.

Peter Parker and Spider-Man have unfinished business in this film both in terms of the sins of his father and the promise he made to Gwen’s father to keep her safe. This creates a tension in the character that is played to the hilt and finally resolved for us in the end – albeit tragically. The “sins of the father” pattern is also a common theme in hero/villain stories. I give Peter and Spidey 5 Heroes out of 5.

Our duo villains underwent a complete transformation. We saw the full backstory for Electro which is so rare in any movie. We also were given the origin story for Spider-Man’s arch enemy The Green Goblin. Both had reason to feel anger toward Spider-Man and that anger turns them toward evil instead of good. However, I’m still reluctant to give them full scores. Electro was still a cartoonish villain – even though we got his full Villain’s Journey. Harry’s journey was incomplete in my mind. I’d like to see Harry invested in something more than just getting even with Spider-Man. I’m giving them just 4 out of 5 Villains.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t an amazing movie but it is ambitious, stylish, and densely populated with memorable characters. There’s a lot going on in this movie, perhaps too much, but none of it lacks fascination and appeal. This film features a great hero, a strong and anguished love story, and a pair of richly detailed villain stories. I enjoyed this movie very much and award it 4 Reels out of 5.

Peter Parker’s heroic journey lacks a notable transformative component but the character still packs a substantial punch with the challenges he faces and the ways in which he handles those challenges. The connection between our hero and the villains he encounters is shown in vivid and effective detail. I give Parker 4 Heroes out of 5.

This movie’s villain pairing is revealed to us in full form and in fascinating detail. We are witness to the genesis of evil, at least in the Marvel universe, and what we see is consistent with current psychological research on the origins of crime and aggression. Villains either fail to transform, or as you note, Greg, they undergo a perverse transformation toward heightened self-aggrandizement and narcissistic empire-building. For an up-close look at the birth and development of villainy, I award this movie 5 Villains out of 5.

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