Kingsman: The Golden Circle Reminds Us to Embrace ‘Weird’

There’s something refreshing about a film that embraces its own ridiculousness; it’s a shot of Apple Sourz straight to your grey-matter. Certain genres are unavoidably daft, so wrapping them in grounded seriousness sucks a lot of the joy away. Superheroes are a prime example. Movies such as Logan and The Dark Knight are fab, yes, but there’s a lot to be said for comic book weirdness as well. Villains like ‘Crazy Quilt’ or Batman’s ‘Bat Train’ are delightfully crap, for instance.

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The villain’s daft secret lair is one the The Golden Circle’s greatest strengths – concept art for Kingsman: The Golden Circle

It’s the same for spy-flicks. Indeed, Kingsman: The Golden Circle threw its baseball cap into the ring this week. Matthew Vaughn’s ode to classic Bond reminds us what was so special about it in the first place; although the modern, Craig-led iteration is good for several reasons, you can’t beat 70s-era 007 for tongue-in-cheek absurdity. Accordingly, The Golden Circle is one Close Encounters of the Third Kind jingle away from Moonraker. It’s cheeky, self-aware, and completely off its rocker. I loved it precisely for that reason.

It also made me remember how much fun a daftly themed supervillain can be. Forget plots to uproot decedent Western society. This film’s baddie runs a 50s-themed diner in the South American jungle. She also has robot guard-dogs at her beck-and-call, not to mention a bowling alley. Oh, and a penchant for turning foes into hamburgers. It’s barking mad and completely delightful.

The only problem I had turned up mid-way through the film, actually; it’s an exaggerated mockery of elder Bond that I was uncomfortable revisiting. If you’ve seen the latest Kingsman, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

As Vaughn mentions in an interview with The Independent, scenes like this and its companion in the original were ‘supposed to be funny and a wink to “can you believe this is how they used to end movies?”’. And I get that; there’s a lot of humour to be mined in doing so. It also puts its hero in a bind that plays on guilt to great effect. However, when does humour end and good taste begin? Was there another, less fabricated way to achieve the same result? It felt unnecessary and left something of a bitter taste in my mouth.

I bring this up because it’d be a shame for people to shake their heads and remember that one moment when The Golden Circle is mentioned. It’s much more than that. In fact, the film is an object lesson in having fun. Grounded genre movies are excellent, but there’s no reason to brush over their daft history either.

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Story & Voice Acting for Metroid: Samus Returns? No Thanks

Should Nintendo games have full voice acting? What about a greater focus on story? These questions are roughly the same age as Neolithic cave-paintings. It feels like that, anyway; we’ve been discussing the issue for decades and no-one’s able to agree. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild nudged us in one direction, but it’s yet to be seen if Metroid: Samus Returns will follow suit. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

What? Why, yes, I believe that’s the sound of hell freezing over.

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SHOOT THE THINGS, SAMUS.

For clarification, I’ve got no problem with a deeper narrative in Zelda or Metroid. Their settings are certainly rich enough. However, I’m not sure a traditional story is necessary. It’s a generalisation to say that gameplay is the main attraction for both, yet I think that’s a fair argument nonetheless. Do we get involved for character-arcs, cutscenes, and dialogue? That feels ill-fitting for either franchise. Their MO is one of lonely exploration and discovery through play, not a plot-driven experience. Similarly, there’s something wonderfully quirky about scrolling text and grunts from an NPC. Rather than being a sign of antiquated thinking, it’s become a Nintendo calling-card.

I’d prefer to see them take inspiration from Dark Souls instead. Considering their emphasis on player-led exploration, scattering narrative and lore throughout the environment is a much better match. Build up the world of Zelda and Metroid, by all means; just let us puzzle out the details ourselves.

Becoming the Heroes We’re Supposed To Be, Just in Time for Destiny 2

Destiny’s story wasn’t what you’d call a runaway success when it hit in 2014. If anything, it was a muddle of techno-babble that often forgot to explain itself. With no distinct characters and a tendency to side-line talent (Nathan Fillion was reduced to spouting one-liners), it also felt as if we were skimming over the surface of something deeper. Luckily, those problems are old news. The Taken King added a ‘quest’ system that strung missions together in a more logical fashion, and these steps give in-game blurbs that provide us with more background (not to mention an idea of what’s actually going on). It’s almost worth going back if you felt lost the first time around.

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Become legend, even if you don’t have the foggiest idea what’s going on – concept art by Jamie Jones

I’ve been polishing off leftover missions recently in prep for Destiny 2, and this renewed focus stayed with me. When I originally booted up Bungie’s shooter three years ago, I hadn’t the slightest clue why I was jetting around the galaxy punching aliens in the face. What’s more, Peter Dinklage never failed to spout unintelligible nonsense whenever I thought I was getting the hang of it. Because of this, I focused on finding loot and shooting bad men instead. And not being pushed off cliffs by my Fireteam. Damn it, Shaun.

However, Destiny’s story is miles better than it was back then. Despite sounding like a case of ‘too little too late’, the plot is now much easier to follow. Why are we on the moon, for example? Because a dead Ghost we found up there reveals the Hive’s plan for an invasion of Earth. Each level has been given this kind of exposition.

What’s more, certain missions have been shunted into more appropriate storylines. For instance, the quest that asks you to destroy Crota’s sword has been slotted into The Dark Below. Considering its focus on Crota, that makes a ton more sense. These small touches lift the narrative out of incomprehension.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still flat and unambitious. Nevertheless, today’s Destiny can at least be followed without the help of a Wiki or doctorate in sci-fi jargon. Considering the fact that Bungie could happily have left it alone, this retcon is something worth applauding.

If you want to take a look at these old missions, check your ‘Abandoned Quests’ board. That’s where I found mine!

I Don’t Fancy Jon’s Chances in Game of Thrones Season 8

Folk are understandably concerned about who will make it through Game of Thrones’ next season. It’s the final series, for one thing; with six episodes to go and a White Walker invasion imminent, the action will come thick and fast. Equally, the actor who plays Jaime Lannister has suggested that a few main characters are bound to turn into blue-eyed zombies before we’re through.

However, I’m most worried about Jon.

Spoilers for Game of Thrones follow. Don’t look if you’re not caught up yet, you daftie!

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Can anyone face this band of nasties and make it out alive? Concept art by Karakter Design Studio

Although that may seem odd considering the suit of story armour he’s been swaddled in for the last two seasons (even death couldn’t keep him down), I’m not sure we should assume his survival just yet. If anything, I’m worried that he’s got a bullseye stapled to his fur-clad back for precisely that reason. To begin with, his arc fits all too neatly into the ‘noble sacrifice’ mould. Jon was resurrected so he could complete some unknown purpose, and this is presumably battling the Night King. The pair have locked eyes on multiple occasions in a ‘we’re arch-nemeses now’ sort of way, so both going out in combat with one another would be a logical end for their arc. They’re too dangerous for either to survive a direct clash, especially if Jon is Azor Ahai (the prophesised saviour who’s destined to battle White Walkers) as many suspect.

Snow’s role as a reborn hero of myth would therefore suit the cliché well; dying in the process of saving the day is a classic trope. Countless genre-stories have mined this idea, and examples range from The Matrix to Mass Effect. Because of his Jon’s honourable, self-sacrificing personality, it’s hard not to see this happening to him as well. It’d be in keeping with Game of Thrones’ bittersweet air, too. The world is saved… but its greatest hero is gone.

I’d be happy if I was wrong, of course; it’d be nice to see someone we’re rooting for make it out alive. I just don’t see it being Jon.

The Defenders’ Biggest Problem? The Hand

I’d like to return the last 12 months, please; I think they’re faulty. Politics have been detonated in favour of unpredictable scandal, beloved stars were taken too soon, and – on a much less significant note – Netflix’s spotless Marvel run is blemished with misfires. Iron Fist wasn’t exactly flavour of the month, for instance. Although it’s a fun ride with many saving graces (including Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing), it didn’t live up to the standard Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage set. Similarly, pacing in The Defenders left many scratching their head. It found its feet before the finale, but there’s no escaping the fact that it took two or three episodes for the cast to even meet.

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I’m not sure the Hand were the foes these heroes deserved – concept art by Joe Quesada

It also pivoted away from some of Daredevil’s more interesting ideas. Because of this, I hope we’ve not seen the last of the Hand; there’s so much more that can be done with them.

Spoilers for The Defenders follow, so don’t read any more if you haven’t seen it – you crazy person, you.

Back when the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen pranced around in a bandana, the Hand were an enigmatic force we barely understood. Horrific taskmasters who blinded their servants to ensure compliance, they dabbled in supernatural goings-on that were never explained. What on earth was that little boy in the shipping crate? The showrunners wisely kept this a secret.

As such, revealing their leaders to be embittered K’un-Lun students who just want to go home is underwhelming. The reveal makes perfect sense and creates synergy with Iron Fist, but it always felt as if there was something more than human about the creepy (yet strangely likeable) Madam Gao. Something demonic, perhaps; she can punch grown men across the room, disappear at will, and move things with her mind. Those aren’t tricks you learn from monks in a martial-arts dojo.

Accordingly, leaving Gao with such a pedestrian backstory reduces her mystique. She’s abruptly less scary.

Equally, we never saw a resolution for that carriage of sand Daredevil stumbled across in his second season. This sent goose-bumps up my arms; in the comics, the Hand’s soldiers are undead ninjas who collapse into ash when destroyed. How chilling would it be for our heroes to see dust coalescing into demon-kin around them? Except that element was promptly forgotten for The Defenders in favour of normal grunts who were bizarrely averse to guns, so I hope we see it again in his third outing.

Finally, can we please do something with the man Stick reported to after his first appearance (the scarred one who seemed to lead the Chaste)? He’s disappeared into a gaping plot-hole, much like any explanation as to what a Black Sky is. We’re still none the wiser on that latter point despite The Defenders showering us in bluster about how they’re prophesised to lead the Hand to victory. It initially seemed like they were powerful vessels for a supernatural presence, but then we learned that they were just great at kung-fu. Or something. Fingers crossed we get a solid and more satisfying answer before long.

You see, there’s still so much that can be done with the Hand; pushing them off the table after The Defenders finale would therefore be a waste. Seriously, ask anyone who’s read a comic featuring them. Here’s hoping we go back to their creepy, inexplicable air from the first season Daredevil.

Are the Sinister Six Out There in Spider-Man: Homecoming? Nah, Probs Not

Please excuse me – I’m still quietly screaming over Spider-Man: Homecoming. Funny, heartfelt, and true to the character in a way the other movies didn’t quite manage, it was both familiar and deeply novel. What a cracker of a film.

Naturally, the internet’s already getting over-excited about what its sequel might feature.

Watch out! Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming follow. Duck and run for cover if you’ve not seen it yet.

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Is Spidey’s rogue’s gallery about to get more… Sinister? Concept art by Ryan Meinerding

The most popular theory is based on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quote from the mid-credits sting. After winding up in prison for his high-flying antics, the Vulture is approached by petty crook Mac Gargan (a small-timer that Spider-Man stopped in the ferry scene) and is pressured to reveal the webhead’s identity. According to Gargan, there are some ‘interested parties’ who’d like to get their revenge on the teen superhero. Cue an evil get-together for the next film.

Many have assumed that this refers to the Sinister Six, a classic team of villains who all want Spidey dead. It’d be an intimidating line-up for any cape-wearing do-gooder, never mind one who’s only 15; although their roster changes on a regular basis, the Sinister Six often count Doctor Octopus, Electro (last portrayed by Jamie Foxx), the Vulture, and Green Goblin amongst their number. The idea is clearly on rightsholder Sony’s mind, too. Prior to the current deal that allows Spider-Man to appear in MCU movies, it was a concept the Amazing Spider-Man series was setting up for a solo film. As such, some think that these baddies must have already crossed paths with the new version of Spidey.

I call bull on that one, however. Firstly, I’m not sure Marvel would want to repeat villains that have been handled before in other incarnations. We’ve seen three different Green Goblins in the last twelve years, for example.

It’s also implied in Captain America: Civil War that Peter’s never fought other superpowered people before – this is his first time. While that can be easily reversed, the period after his battle with Cap can’t; a big feature of Homecoming is Iron Man stopping him from fighting anything other than street muggings and theft. Because of this, the goons Mac Gargan is referring to are probably small-fry gang members or Spider-Man’s less powerful foes (Mysterio is just a bloke with clever gadgets, for instance). The theory is suddenly a bit less exciting. Look out, it’s the Big Wheel! Yes, they are exactly as stupid as they sound.

Not that this makes Gargan’s plan any less dangerous, of course; he’s well known in the comics as Scorpion, an insane killer with a suit designed specifically to take down the wallcrawler. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vulture’s tech expert (the Tinkerer) has something to do with that.

What’s more, he could always recruit some extra muscle if needed. Kraven the Hunter is another villain who wants the ultimate kill – Spider-Man – and Hugh Jackman was tweeting something about being ‘partners’ with Disney recently… Just sayin’.

What the Hell Happened to Diana Between Wonder Woman and BvS?

Mystery doesn’t do us any harm. If anything, it’s the kind of trick that can catapult a story from ‘good’ to the heady heights of great. Audiences remain invested through speculation, and it’s a well-established Fact that things are cooler when you’re connecting the dots. Darth Vader lost some of his mystique after we heard him grumble about sand, for instance. However, Wonder Woman’s different.

WARNING – very mild spoilers for Wonder Woman and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice follow. Abandon ye all hope if you haven’t seen them, etc.

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I’m not sure Wonder Woman is done with war just yet – concept art revealed by Entertainment Weekly

In spite of a painful coming-of-age and the loss of Steve Trevor, the movie ends on a fist-pumping high after Diana overcomes David Thewlis’ moustache. Inspired by what she’s learned, she resolves to protect humanity in the name of love. Then we fast-forward a few decades to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and she’s decided it’s not worth the effort after all (soz, humanity). Having gone into hiding where she can lament our failings and listen to Evanescence or something, it’s the polar-opposite of her heartfelt determination post-WWI. What the hell happened? All we know is that she lived through a ‘century of horrors’, implying that she was involved in some capacity. It’s a weighty question neither film is willing to answer.

Although it’s fun to leave some backstory to the imagination, this arc in particular is worth exploring; not only is it a complete u-turn of Diana’s outlook, it feels as if we’re missing the central chapter of a trilogy (especially if it involves character development so central to the hero’s MO). I may be overcomplicating matters, of course – perhaps Wonder Woman’s resolve was shattered by the beginning of WWII mere decades later, not to mention other recent conflicts – but it seems like we’re missing something.

Hopefully we’ll be filled in during Wonder Woman 2, a movie rumoured to be set in the 1980s, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that it goes even further back in time. Specifically, I’d love for DC to tackle the Justice Society in one form or another. The premier superhero team pre-Justice League, it was comprised of early versions of characters we’ve come to know so well; for instance, a 1940s Flash and cape-wearing Green Lantern (whose weakness was wood, amusingly) were both on the roster. They’re a fascinating group. Formed by the President of the United States to combat the Nazi threat and protect the American home front, this band of ‘Mystery Men’ was involved in at least one undercover government op during WWII. As Wonder Woman later became a member of the Justice Society, perhaps her sequel could take inspiration from this and send the team on a secret mission against the Nazis that, naturally, goes wrong. This would explain why she hangs up the sword and lasso until BvS. It’s the kind of story that writes itself.

I’m not sure how likely this is considering the rumours about Wonder Woman 2’s setting, but a man can dream. It’s a gap in the tale well worth plugging, so I hope we get to see the missing piece of her story before long.

Nebula’s a Better Fit Than Gamora for Guardians of the Galaxy – Come At Me, Bro

As the torrent of superhero movies gushing from Hollywood can attest, comics are a treasure-trove of inspiration to draw from. With hundreds of characters and a half-century of storylines to choose between, this isn’t a well in danger of drying up soon (whether that’s a good thing or not is rather more complicated). However, they can also clip a film’s wings. Despite their whimsical brilliance – and I’ll hear nothing else, dammit – Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 and its predecessor suffer from this a little thanks to resident badass Gamora.

Sibling rivalry. Concept art by Andy Park

She often feels like a third wheel, for instance; there’s a whiff of her only being there to kick-start the adventure and/or because she’s a corner-stone of the comic iteration. Although Gamora’s vital in saving the day, she often seems to be facilitating the plot of others rather than following her own arc. She’s arguably the team’s least-developed member because of this; where Star-Lord learns to let others into his life, she doesn’t really change from beginning to end. While Drax and Rocket must move on from their past by accepting a new family, Gamora’s moment of growth – turning on her adoptive father and rediscovering morality after all she’s done – happens before the story gets started. As a result, I wonder whether her vicious sister Nebula wouldn’t have been a better fit for this team. There’s so much potential for growth with the latter.

Menacing, tragic, and unhinged, she’s arguably more compelling than her straight-laced counterpart. Gamora always earned daddy’s praise for a job well-murdered, so Nebula was ripped apart and replaced with robotic bits to make her the former’s ‘equal’. That’s a significant knock to your ego. Moreover, being kidnapped and turned into Thanos’s right-hand killer has left Nebula a broken husk who refuses to let herself feel lest it hurt her. In comparison, Gamora doesn’t seem too weighed down by the guilt of what she’s done. While she’s trying to make up for it by stopping the film’s villain, it leads to a predictable (if acerbic) stoicism. I’m not sure she has a huge amount of depth. Meanwhile, Nebula is emotionally volatile and ready to blow. She’s every bit the killer we’re told Gamora is… yet rarely get a sense of. That redemptive path Nebula’s following is ripe for narrative conflict. I’m not not sure Gamora’s is.

Simply put, it feels like Nebula would have made for a more nuanced Guardian than Gamora (all the same, Zoe Saldana’s great in the role and the part is well-written… even if it leaves me cold). She’s a damaged young woman desperately trying to prove her worth, and that’s a hotbed of stories waiting to happen.

As such, I’m glad she got plenty of screen-time in the sequel. More for Avengers: Infinity War, please!

Alien: Covenant is a Reminder that Space Might Be Pretty Damn HORRIBLE

Space is a damn scary place to be, at least according to movies like Alien: Covenant. If you’re not impregnated by facehuggers that vomit eggs down your throat, you’ll be eviscerated by xenomorphs who rip people apart for fun. It implies something dark, primal and aggressive lying in wait amongst the stars, and the idea of going to space is suddenly made 100% less appealing. It’s a horror film, naturally, but it does raise the possibility that our universe won’t be easily conquered.

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If we find life out there among the stars, we might get more than we bargained for – concept art by Valentin Petrov

New planets hide unknown threats, and some might be microscopic; it stands to reason that an alien world would carry alien bacteria if there really is life out there, and this is a threat our bodies aren’t ready for. While that isn’t nearly so horrific as a monster crawling its way out of your chest, the result wouldn’t be all that different – you’ll still die in a lot of pain and indignity.

Our immune systems are unprepared for such viruses, and they’d be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Consider the death-toll when conquistadors marched into South America: local Aztecs were unfamiliar with the likes of European smallpox, and their immune systems crumbled beneath the strain. It’s easy to see how extra-terrestrial germs or pathogens could have a similar effect on us (if they existed, anyway).

Accordingly, spores like those unleashed in Covenant aren’t unrealistic… even if what follows isn’t. The image of someone falling desperately ill for reasons unknown hits close to home. Cheerful, right?

We may not have to fend off inhuman creatures when we start colonising the stars, but our problems aren’t over nonetheless. We’d probably be better off with the xenomorphs: at least you can see them coming.

Beauty and the Beast Shows That Reality is, Like, Overrated

By ‘eck, I wasn’t a fan of outlandish RPG settings when I were a young(er) lad. The likes of Morrowind – complete with crazy mushroom infestations and giant fleas – were all well and good, but I preferred more down-to-earth landscapes that didn’t stretch suspension of disbelief quite so much. Yes, I appreciate the hypocrisy of this when I’d spend most of the time spamming fireballs out of my hands.

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Look at the sparkles. LOOK AT THEM (concept art for Beauty and the Beast by Karl Simon)

Anyway. It wasn’t until I heard a 15 year-old complaining about the same thing that I realised how much of a 180 I’d done. These days I’m less interested in realism: an immersive, enjoyable experience is far more important to me (not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course). There’s a lot to be said for sheer wonder, and a project that really epitomised that recently was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake.

Musical numbers aside, the screen burst with a colour and vitality that you rarely see in cinema now. Overrun with a blush of green and warm orange sunsets, the contrast was amped up until it popped in a loud, primary-coloured firework. The cottages in Belle’s village were also brilliantly wonky, leaning at awkward angles as if they’d been plucked directly from the fairy tales that inspired this story. It was a place bursting with magic and joy, and that’s exactly the kind of place I’d want to hang out in. As with The Lord of the Ring’s Hobbiton, you’d have to drag me away by my ear.

The same could be said of Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s Mediterranean paradise. A scattering of romantic Grecian architecture that blossomed up the side of wooded mountains, it was full of hidden corners and powerful artefacts atop thundering waterfalls. This contrasted fantastically with the dingy reality of WWI. It made Diana’s home a place I’d book flights to without thinking, too. That’s a notable departure from Batman v Superman’s landscapes: they were a hodgepodge of miserable urban jungles that can be best described as ‘damn grey’.

In short, it’s the kind of approach you can only get in fantasy. I’m glad I’ve broadened my horizons enough to see it. While realistic and dour settings are grand, we don’t always champion pure delight as much anymore.