FILM: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (dir. Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson)

In a year where so many blockbuster films are showing the strain on writers and visual effects artists, and the shine has gone off some of the tentpole franchises, Across the Spider-Verse arrives to save everything. The praise lavished on the film so far has been rightly effusive, and partly I imagine because it’s such a relief to see a work of art which feels so loved – in which the writing, the animation, the direction, the performances, all feel intentional and crafted and precise, and all contribute to a dizzying, intoxicating whole. It’s a film that offers to restore faith in blockbuster filmmaking, realising the potential of multiverse storytelling to reflect on human concerns that Everything Everywhere All at Once opened up, bringing an indie sensibility to massive-budget studio pictures.

Miles and Gwen sit upside down on a platform, looking a an upside-down New York skyline.
The world turned upside down

Following the multiversal incursions of Into the Spider-verse, Gwen finds herself in her own universe fighting a Renaissance paper version of Vulture (the creativity of universe-hopping here putting Doctor Strange to shame). She’s helped out by the arrival of a team of Spider-people who are tasked with keeping the parallel universes on track and dealing with incursions, who she joins after her father – who has been pursuing Spider-Woman for the murder of Peter Parker – realises who she is and wants to arrest her anyway. But as Gwen joins the multiverse Spider-Squad, she’s also barred from ever visiting Miles in his own universe – for reasons that are at the heart of this film’s big crisis.

Miles, meanwhile, is missing his multiversal pals and living life as Spider-Man. His ‘villain of the week’ is The Spot, a scientist who developed the curse/ability to create holes in space following an accident. One of the film’s pleasures is that Spot (voiced hilariously by Jason Schwartzman) is self-aware of his own place in the story, insisting on becoming Spider-Man’s nemesis rather than a passing conflict, and that desire to be important – and in doing so, his successful quest to become a multi-verse threatening villain – reflects Miles’s own sense of insignificance within the wider universe. Spot’s gradual transition from comic aside to genuinely terrifying threat is skilfully done, and it aligns beautifully with Miles’s own desire to be included in Gwen’s new fraternity when he finds out about it, even if no-one else wants him.

The thing is – Miles both is and is not special. He’s one in an infinity of other Spider-people, but he’s also Ground Zero for multiversal infractions, because the spider that bit him had actually been transported from another dimension, and thus he was never ‘meant’ to become Spider-Man. And as a fifteen-year-old kid wrestling with feelings for a girl, with what he wants to do with his future, and with the desire to live up to his parents’ expectations but also to be his own person, the existential crises of his superpowered self fuel his own adolescent battles. It’s a deeply human film, with both of Miles’s parents enjoying a lot of screentime. The fact that the film’s big climax is an emotional one – full of reunions and consolidations and personal chats – rather than yet another big fight is itself groundbreaking. Miles’s sense of trying to find where he needs to be is paralleled with Gwen’s return home to the father who rejected her, with Peter B. Parker settling into his family life, and even with Spot realising his true purpose. The emotional story is not a series of tacked-on beats to try and give action meaning; it is the whole story.

But it’s told amazingly. Words can’t do justice to the visual inventiveness, with each dimension given its own distinctive art style (Gwen in washed-out watercolors whose palette evokes the trans flag, giving added metaphorical significance to her coming-out to her father), and so many Easter eggs and side jokes that the film demands immediate rewatching. Core universes include the Escher-like void in which Oscar Isaac’s driven, serious Miguel O’Hara presides over the multiversal Spider-team, a void contained within a future that includes a space freeway on which the Spider-folk fight; the Indian-dominated world of Pavitr Prabhakar which fuses New York and Mumai and where Miles causes another canon-threatening event by saving Pavitr’s girlfriend’s father (borrowing from What If? and Loki, the premise of this multiverse is that core events have to happen); and the crime-ridden universe 42 to which Miles returns at the end of the film – the universe that his spider came from, and which never had its own Spider-Man.

Aside from the core universes, though, the constant creativity is breathtaking. A brief glimpse into a LEGO universe is especially fun; a Donald Glover cameo is welcome; the references to both the MCU and the Sony Spider Universe do important work tying together the franchises; the existence of dinosaur, automobile, cat, baby, gunslinger versions of Spider-Man is very funny; the editorial inserts to explain jokes and give footnotes; Pavitr’s hilarious education of Americans in why you can’t say ‘chai tea’ or ‘naan bread’; and the continual scene-stealing performance of Daniel Kaluuya’s Hobie Brown; all add up to a film which packs in so much that it’s hard to take stock. And yet, it’s cohesive and coherent. The laughs always feel earned, but never take away from the severity of what is at stake; and indeed, Peter B Parker even reflects on the fact that the humor of Spider-Man is precisely to make the serious stuff bearable. Everything set up here depends now on Beyond the Spider-verse to stick the landing, but even on its own terms, Across the Spider-Verse makes an early claim for film of the year.


TELEVISION: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, ‘Ghosts of Illyria’ (dir. Leslie Hope)

It’s hard to overstate just what a delight Strange New Worlds is. As opposed to the heavy serialisation, unbalanced ensemble work, and narrative laziness of so much of Discovery and Picard, Strange New Worlds is giving its vibrant, fun crew a different mission every week which allows the writers to imagine different kinds of challenge and, crucially, rotate the narrative around its crew. By episode three, the pleasingly TOS-sounding ‘Ghosts of Illyria’, the series has already settled into a compelling pattern, and this week it’s Number One’s turn.

Number One and La'an sit in a bar together.
Where’s Guinan when you need her?

‘Ghosts of Illyria’ is a classic ‘away team bring back a disease’ episode, and inevitably this feels timely in the COVID era, especially as Una – left in charge of the ship when Pike and Spock are trapped on the surface, in an instance of such poor mission planning that it becomes the episode’s one jarring note, a narrative expedience that should have been avoided – orders a full lockdown and confinement of the crew to their quarters or essential workplaces. The disease that is affecting the crew after they’ve visited a destroyed colony of Illyrians starts making the crew do desperate and self-harming things in the pursuit of brighter light, but for some reason – after an initial manifestation of symptoms – Una seems to be fine.

By removing the captain and science officer from the equation, the rest of the crew get more to do, and it becomes immediately clear that there are a lot of secrets in play. Dr. M’Benga has been a quiet presence so far, but it becomes clear that he’s hiding something when he gets antsy about Chief Engineer Hemma checking the medical transporter. Una herself is hiding something. And Security Chief La’an is dealing with her feelings as a descendent of Khan Noonien Singh about coming to a planet of aliens who were rejected from the Federation for their experiments with genetic augmentation, showing deep anger and prejudice towards the colonists.

Alongside this, Pike and Spock are hanging out on the surface, riding out a deadly ion storm, and researching to see what happened to the colonists. As some energy beings start emerging from the storm, initially seeming to attack them but eventually preserving them, it starts to become clear that what happened to the colonists was much more complex. The prejudice of Enterprise’s crew towards genetically augmented people is understandable, given Earth’s history with the Eugenics Wars, but the Illyrians had a much healthier relationship with the idea of genetic modification, working to align themselves better with nature, to transform themselves rather than their homeworlds, in ways that the crew gradually in this episode come to realise are more benign.

The big revelation is that Una is herself an Illyrian, who has been keeping this secret from everyone as this would have banned her from joining Starfleet. She’s always been impressive, but as the crew fall apart, Una starts revealing the true extent of her strength and prowess, easily beating a frenetic La’an in a fight when La’an puts the ship in jeopardy. The idea of a virus that travels via light is very cool, and there’s plenty of Science that goes into saving the crew as they work to create a blackout, but seeing Una show what she’s physically capable of is also a thrill, with some great fight choreography. And the whole episode is complicated further by the revelation that M’Benga is keeping his terminally ill daughter in transporter stasis until he can find a cure – but in doing so, put the rest of the crew’s life in danger.

The episode is, in classic Trek fashion, about prejudice. Una offers to resign her commission, but Pike not only refuses but also promises to defend her if Starfleet ever comes looking. Una then pays this down to M’Benga, working with him to find a safer solution to preserve his daughter. And the crew go on their way happily, with a more positive disposition towards people with genetic modifications. But in the best bit of writing, Una’s closing log entry – which she immediately deletes – reflects on how hard she works to prove herself, and on whether she’d have been accepted if she hadn’t saved everyone else’s lives. Star Trek has often slipped into the model minority mode, with exceptional individuals treated as transcending their species. Una’s wistful reflection here – on something which can never truly be known – sets Strange New Worlds up as a much more thoughtful approach to the issues it wants to tackle.

FILM: Mission: Impossible III (dir. J.J. Abrams)

The immediate thing one notices about Mission: Impossible III is the hair. Finally, after two films of floppy locks, Ethan Hunt now has a decent haircut which doesn’t actively distract from the task at hand. But more to the point, the franchise now feels like it’s starting to settle into its own identity, and indeed seems to anticipate Captain America: The Winter Soldier with its combination of heroics and audacious conspiracy while starting to build up more of a team for Ethan. But also – and in keeping with the other long-running franchise that accompanies this series, The Fast and the Furious, this film ends up being substantially about family.

Zhen, in a red dress, gets out of a flashy car in the middle of the Vatican.
Not your usual Vatican wear

Ethan has left the field and is now teaching, leading to various ribbing from his old teammates. He’s also getting married, to a very nice lady, Julia, who doesn’t know what he has spent most of his life doing for a living. But as the pre-credits sequence shows us, Julia is also going to be a new problem for Ethan, as we see her tied up and gagged, a gun to her head, as evil Owen Davian interrogates a captured Ethan; the credits start rolling at the point when Owen shoots her at point blank range. It’s an undeniably tense opening that casts a pre-emptive pall over the celebrations of Ethan’s happiness and his insistence that he can make having a partner work with his life, despite all his teammates’ warnings.

The mission, given to him by boss Musgrave, is to locate and rescue a captured IMF agent who has been tracking Musgrave. However, while the team manage to get her out (in a surprisingly militarised operation which shows how far the franchise has already come from its no-noise origins), she dies from an implanted explosive device in her head during the escape, causing new IMF director Brassel to come down hard on Musgrave and Ethan. To revenge the killed agent and to get back in Brassel’s graces, Ethan and his team go on an off-the-books mission to the Vatican to kidnap Musgrave, who is working on selling a weapon of unspecified catastrophic potential (a running joke throughout the film is that no-one knows what the weapon actually is or does).

The Vatican sequence feels like classic MI, with face-swapping (the tech now actually shown) and elaborate escape plans. But on the return journey, Davian threatens Ethan’s wife, and then – just after the team realise that Davian is being abetted by someone high up in IMF – a helicopter-led rescue attempt shoots down their convoy on a road bridge and rescues Davian – who promptly kidnaps Julia and gives Ethan 48 hours to retrieve the device he was looking for. Musgrave helps Ethan escape, and the team are back out, this time to Shanghai, to steal a weapon for a supervillain.

The structure of the film thus takes the same core team – now included Maggie Q’s Zhen, Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s Declan, and Simon Pegg’s Benji as well as the reliably returning Luther – repeatedly onto task-oriented missions which are increasingly unapproved, meaning that they’re not only fighting Davian but also their own people. This is where the film starts feeling more like a latter-day Fast and Furious film, as the high-tech, superpowered gang have to work against the system and make choices to look after their own ‘family’. It also means that there’s a pleasing shrinkage of the film – by the end, Ethan is the only member of the team still in the field, and it’s just him versus Davian trying to rescue Julia (in the most tasteless fake-out, it was a different woman who Davian killed at the film’s opening).

This is J. J. Abrams’s directorial feature debut, and it’s an assured film. While elements are a little slow, the use of long shots for Ethan’s desperate run through the streets of Shanghai, the tense two-shot gunpoint interrogation, the helicopter chase through wind turbines, the vertiginous skyscraper bouncing, and the claustrophobic final fight all pay off. The combination of explosive spectacle and intimate stakes, coupled with the growing ensemble, are starting to root Ethan in something more identifiable and distinct, which is what the following films in the franchise would build on.

FICTION: Naomi Novik, ‘The Golden Enclaves’ (Del Rey)

After two books confined with The Scholomance, The Golden Enclaves blows open Naomi Novik’s wizarding world and, in doing so, reveals what the underlying plan was all along. While, in some ways, the final book in this trilogy enters more generic territory – this is, in many ways, a retelling of The Deathly Hallows, and follows a more traditional globe-trotting adventure structure – it also brilliantly builds upon what’s been subtly laid in the previous two books to make this a potent warning about capitalism and global catastrophe, in which constant expansion without consideration of the costs nearly destroys the world.

Cover of The Golden Enclaves
Floaty eyes

El has escape the Scholomance after being pushed out by Orion, but she can’t get back into the school to rescue him. And so, she sets about recruiting a team to get back in, just as the magical world stumbles into an Enclave war. El is very quickly in demand to go and help the magical cities which are at risk of destabilising and falling into the void – many of which are also under attack by maw-mouths sensing weakness – but is also conscious of the prophecy that says she will destroy all the Enclaves, even as the people she’s rescuing become suspicious of her power.

The breakneck pace of The Golden Enclaves largely works in its favor, not allowing El the chance to sit and reflect at any point. The main casualty of this is El’s mum, a wonderfully drawn character who is so good and wise and powerful that the book has to find ways to keep El away from her for as long as possible, few of which are convincing. More than anything else, this is where the series’ reliance on El’s stubborn resistance to help feels its most strained; it seems unfeasible that El wouldn’t ask for help from her own mother, and it’s hard not to get frustrated at her self-sabotage. Thankfully, she’s otherwise much better at asking for help now, and it mostly comes from Liesel, who not only takes on a welcome larger role in this book – her German efficiency is always fun – but who even starts up a physical relationship with El. The awkward tension of their relationship is perhaps the most surprising element of the book, and a welcome distraction for the reader as well as for El.

There’s also a wonderful amount of world-building, especially as El travels to London, New York, Beijing, Dubai, India, Portugal, and more. Everyone believes that there’s a maleficer going around destabilising the Enclaves, though no obvious candidate presents themselves. Orion’s mum in New York turns out to be an especially evil witch, though, and gradually the state of play of this world comes into focus. Each Enclave was built on a sacrifice of a pure wizard; El’s unease at the Enclaves has also come from sensing the corpse at the literal foundation of the sanctuary. Further, the spell cast by Enclave councils to kill the wizard is what creates maw-mouths, which roam the world separately, the consequence of creating safety for a few. But the maw-mouths remain connected to the Enclave, so that when El has been killing maw-mouths, she’s been destroying the Enclaves that created them. Further, in the most devastating revelation, Orion’s mother created Orion himself as a living maw-mouth; his ability to destroy comes from exactly the same power, leaving El with no option (apparently) but to kill him before he can be used as the ultimate – and ultimately unstoppable – weapon against wizardkind.

As these revelations slowly emerge, Novik’s imaginative skill comes into ever-clearer focus. The young people are charged with creating a better world, one in which Enclaves are built through harder, purer work and through protecting everyone rather than a few. But while El’s solution is so much clearer and kinder, the Enclaves understandably resist – because giving up comfort and privilege is never easy, even if it means you’re condemning the rest of the world. And so, Novik wraps up the current environmental catastrophes being faced by the world with the selfishness of capitalism, pointing squarely to the problem – it’s not any one evil individual, but an entire civilization of often good people, for whom changing the way things have always been done and giving up a sense of personal safety and entitlement is too much of a change. The book’s sober conclusion offers hope but also makes clear the uphill struggle that the world faces if it’s ever going to commit to change.

Ideologically, this is a brilliant book. Writing-wise, it’s the weakest of the tree, the larger scope sometimes leading to odd leaps in time to allow Novik to skate over narrative inconvenience, while at other times slowing down (an interminable magical mystery tour in the void spaces under London feels like it could have been a footnote). And El’s constant rage, while understandable, feels even more out of place here; at least in the Scholomance, with no-one to turn to, her anger made sense, but here, without the same constraints, there’s a stronger sense of her needing to get out of her own way. Nonetheless, the scale of the stakes makes this a continually compelling read, and an important and empathetic one.

FILM: Mission Impossible II (dir. John Woo)

Where Mission: Impossible was a proto-Bourne film, drawing on Brian De Palma’s interest in conspiracy, Mission: Impossible II is a no-holds-barred Bond rip-off. John Woo’s sequel is widely considered the worst film in the franchise, and it’s true that it’s barely coherent, with unexplained plot deviations and a fairly disastrous and seemingly eternal violent climax. But the director of Face/Off brings his own unique spin to the series, and there’s still promise here.

Tom Cruise hangs from a cliff by his legs.
Leg day, Cruise-style

Unusually, Ethan Hunt is actually on a mission in this film. A respected scientist has been killed in an apparent plane crash, but it initiates a search for a terrifying virus and its antidote; the bidding war to get hold off this disease and its profitable cure is ramping up to shift the global economy, and will probably kill a lot of people in the process. And the villain is a fellow agent from Hunt’s agency, who used to serve as Ethan’s double. And so, this is also a reckoning with what the agency itself has created.

While this might sound quite Bourne-y, Woo pushes the film straight into Bond territory. While this film at least has a woman in a central role, Thandiwe Newton is immediately objectified as the master-thief who is still nowhere near as good as Ethan, but has boobs. Woo really wants us to know the latter fact, the camera regularly just cutting out Newton’s face altogether so it can gaze more or less through her cleavage at a delighted Cruise. Happily, while Newton’s role as Nyah Hall is very poorly written, the excellent actress manages to find complexity and wit in the role; the attempt to create chemistry through a ridiculous road race is stupid, but there’s definitely an on-screen spark, and Newton – at least for the first half of the film – comes across as an independent agent who has the most interesting role as she infiltrates the evil Sean Ambrose’s inner circle (he’s her ex) and tries to play the two agents off against one another.

The Bond-ness also comes from the globe-trotting, the high-stakes and hi-tech espionage (an elaborate sequence which sees Ethan dive through the air vents of a skyscraper is much less interesting than the smaller, tenser companion sequence in the original), and the glamorous settings. Dougray Scott, though, is stuck in a very weird role, especially as the film so closely references Goldeneye, with Ambrose as the Sean Bean-equivalent, an agent cosplaying a supervillain. He’s unhinged, erratic, violent, and over-confident, and honestly quite boring, especially in the hilarious sequence where he announced that he wants ‘STOCK’ as his pay-off.

The action is also rather less inventive. Woo’s trademarks are all present and correct – there’s a ton of slo-mo, including through a flock of pigeons at one point – but they’re out of place here. The action feels desperately slow, a feeling exacerbated by the repeated shots and constant slowing down. And there are guns everywhere. Ethan dives and shoots guns, killing any number of people, instantly making him a less interesting protagonist then he was in the original, and the long slugfest as he and Ambrose fight it out on a beach is interminable but also horribly violent as they slam each other against rocks.

Still, there are surprises here. Brendan Gleeson and Anthony Hopkins show up; Newton is always great (until she ends up as merely a carrier for the virus, rather reducing her agency); and Ving Rhames gets a bit more to do. But this is an unpleasant film. Once again, Ethan’s unprofessionalism is his own enemy (there’s no way Bond would have get himself compromised in quite this way), and the mapping on of an attempt at a love story never quite works, simply because – for all of Cruise’s other talents – Cruise is incapable of forming a convincing romantic attachment with someone on a movie screen. But the opening rock climbing sequence is audacious, authentic, dizzying, and worth the price of admission alone. Less snogging and guns, more dangling off impossibly precipitous surfaces, please.

FILM: Mission: Impossible (dir. Brian De Palma)

The fact that the first Mission: Impossible film came out twenty-seven years ago is extraordinary, and rewatching it feels like a time capsule. There’s a tense montage sequence in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt . . . sends multiple emails! Someone decodes a message ‘On The Internet’! The Channel Tunnel is the height of travel sophistication (even if the timing of release in the same year as the Channel Tunnel Fire was hardly optimal)! But in cinematic terms, before the revolution of the action-spy thriller initiated by The Bourne Identity and consolidated by Casino Royale, Mission: Impossible serves as a taste of what’s to come in the post-9/11 conspiracy thriller.

Ethan Hunt dangles from a cable mere centimetres above a floor, looking unhappy.
High-stakes breaststroke training

There’s much that is immediately dated about Mission: Impossible. The sexual politics, for one, are abysmal, as an impossibly young Cruise leans in far too close to every woman he shares a screen, with even Vanessa Redgrave looking like she’s about to jump his bones. Ethan manhandles and orders women around brutally in service of his mission, and women ultimately serve the purposes of more driven and forward-thinking men, which is continually dispiriting as Ethan assembles a team of more complex dudes around him. It’s also naive in its imagination of how spy agencies and super-villains operate; the MacGuffin is a floppy disc with the identities of spies on it, but each side in the feud is pretty simplistic (at least compared with the intricate Langley politics of the Bourne films).

But in other ways, the datedness of the film plays in its favour. A more recent action film would have fighters dancing about on the top of a speeding train; here, the climactic special effects fight largely features Ethan pinned down and barely able to move, as he and Jon Voight’s villain Jim try to make their way to a waiting helicopter in desperate fits of movement. And more generally, director Brian De Palma finds ways to make slowness count. The most famous sequence takes place in almost complete silence as Ethan hangs from a cable in a vault, trying to access some information from a secure computer terminal without making any noise, disturbing anything, or even raising the temperature, and it’s riveting, despite being the kind of thing that would be a footnote in a Marvel film.

And this extends to character, too. The blueprint is here for Daniel Craig’s reboot of Bond in Casino Royale in the reimagining of a classic spy at the start of his career. Ethan Hunt is young and super-competent, but also reckless. He blames himself for the deaths of his team during a mission gone wrong in Prague, and while he’s the victim of a massive conspiracy, he’s also not wrong that he went against orders and jeopardised his friends and colleagues. He’s also a bit clumsy, a bit careless, and gives up obvious advantages needlessly. He gets through negotiations with charm and laughter but surprisingly little guile. In the era of super-competent, preternaturally foresighted spies that followed, Hunt stands out for being something of a genuine improviser who doesn’t always have a good escape route, but persists.

The relatively low tech gadgets (Jean Reno has to hold Ethan up during his dangling heist by brute strength; walkie-talkies have limited range) also leads to an interesting respect for the materiality of this world. Much of the film appears to be shot on location, and De Palma’s roving camera drinks in the scope and scale of a fairly mundane world, in ways that do seem to suggest that spies could be moving about in the streets around us. Meanwhile, the actual violence is pretty minimal – Cruise doesn’t fire a gun at all, and what fights are necessary are pretty brief and rarely the source of sustained interest. While it would be a stretch to claim this is an especially intelligent film, it does consciously shift from mindless action to a cinematic world where violence is not spectacle, but essential to the plot.

And of course, there are enough quirks to keep this fun as well. From the self-destructing tapes to the ludicrous latex masks, this does enough to prevent the mundanity of a truly serious ‘grounded’ thriller, and the conclusion featuring a befuddled train guard watching a helicopter fly down the Channel Tunnel behind his train is delightfully silly. It’s a shame in some ways that the Bourne films would come along and do almost all of this much better – but of course, that would leave space for the longer legs of the M:I franchise to develop in a very different direction.

FICTION: Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate (Del Rey)

Where A Deadly Education spanned only three weeks, The Last Graduate gives us a full year to settle into the Scholomance. The expanded time scope of Naomi Novik’s second book in the trilogy allows for deeper world-building, but also for a change in the stakes. Where the first book was very much about individual survival but then shifting to a larger sense of tackling the system by the end – not, really, unlike the first Hunger Games book – the second book deals with the question of burning down the whole thing – not unlike the second Hunger Games book. And by subverting the school series genre by having the graduation book as the penultimate one, Novik also blows her universe wide open.

Cover of The Last Graduate.
But who is it?

Having presumably fixed the graduation hall machinery, El’s final year in the Scholomance is now beginning, and the school appears to be out to get her. It dumps her in a seminar with a bunch of defenceless freshmen in a deeply unsafe classroom, forcing her to waste all of her mana protecting them. It gives her a specialist seminar in Sanskrit so she can work on her sutras, but puts her in another dangerous classroom. And it appears to be sending all of the mals in the school at her – and at the same time depriving sort-of boyfriend and definite-mal-killer Orion of any prey at all. It seems that the school is out to kill her.

El had shown off some of her talents in the last book, but this is the year in which she finally starts realising her true destiny. She’s been fighting for her whole life not to become a dark witch, but what she’s now doing is tapping into the scale of her power as a means of destroying evil. And so, her schoolmates get to watch as she becomes increasingly powerful, resisting dramatic attacks (but never killing even those who attack her), and becoming dedicated to the cause of saving others. El is still as delightfully caustic and grumpy as ever, but she has increasing purpose, which Orion has helped her see with his selfless heroics.

Only, it’s changing the balance of the school itself. The obstacle courses designed to help the Seniors train to get out become unbeatably difficult, with only El and Orion able to help others through. The anger of the previous top dogs at becoming reliant on El and at the school making things harder apparently in order to rise to her level is gradually replaced by this book’s massive leap – that what we’re building towards is the school wanting to be destroyed. El’s plan – which gradually becomes a mass plan – is to get the entire student body out of the school, while at the same time luring almost all of the world’s maleficaria in, and then decoupling the school from reality – saving all of wizardkind forever.

As such, this book gradually takes shape as an unfolding of manifest destiny, El gradually learning what the school wants from her and then putting it into action. It’s prevented from being simply a chosen-one narrative, though, by El’s own brilliantly written character. She’s flawed and funny, refuses to ask for help, and needs her amazing friends around her to call out her bullshit. The growing cast of characters are richly drawn – the brutally efficient German Liesel, class valedictorian, who has even fewer social graces than El and thus is perhaps the only other student who El respects, is a great addition – and Orion’s transformation in this book is especially cool, turning the invincible hero into someone more broken and vulnerable, making him more of a perfect match for El, however much she resists it.

The book builds towards its well-plotted and beautifully executed climax, raising the stakes to game-changing highs while (partly through Liesel, who becomes a great plot device for imposing order on chaos) keeping clear exactly what’s happening. And as graduation approaches, Novik captures the fear and anxiety, but also excitement, about what awaits after school – what it means to have finally found a place and your people, only to now find yourself a smaller person in a big world. And the book’s cliffhanger keeps this in mind – the pull between wanting to leave school, and perhaps not entirely being ready to leave it at all.

May 2023 round-up

Here are The Pedlar’s wares for May 2023.

CINEMA: The Little Mermaid; Fast X; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.

FILM: Wings of Desire; Howard; F9 (extended version); A Matter of Life and Death; All About My Mother; The 39 Steps; Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

TELEVISION: Ted Lasso, ‘We’ll Never Have Paris‘, ‘La Locker Room Aux Folles‘, ‘International Break‘, ‘So Long, Farewell‘; Succession, ‘Living+‘, ‘Tailgate Party‘, ‘America Decides‘, ‘Church and State‘, ‘With Open Eyes‘; The Walking Dead, ‘Walk With Us‘, ‘A Certain Doom‘; The Eurovision Song Contest Final 2023; A Black Lady Sketch Show, ‘My Love Language is Words of Defamation

MUSIC: U2, ‘Stay (Faraway, So Close!)

BOOKS: Naomi Novik, A Deadly Education; Annie Garthwaite, Cecily; Islam Issa, Shakespeare and Terrorism; Terry Pratchett, Night Watch.

THEATRE: Finding Our Season (MBU Theatre); The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 (Silver Line)

TELEVISION: Ted Lasso, ‘So Long, Farewell’ (dir. Declan Lowney)

The finale of Ted Lasso is underwhelming, but in the best possible way. It crams in too much, it’s slow, it’s mawkish, and it squanders almost all of its climaxes. But to look at it this in the most generous way – which is, of course, a philosophy that the show encourages – this is precisely because it’s an episode about endings that aren’t actually endings. In one of the episode’s highlight moments, Leslie offers a reading of life as Keatsian negative capability, in which perfection is never achieved, just striven towards, with people trying to be a little bit better every day. And so, this is an episode in which everyone tries to be a little bit better – and that’s how it ends.

Ted and Rebecca sit together in the Richmond stands, both smiling.
Best seats in the house

The other important message which comes out of the episode is Ted’s own comment on Trent Crimm’s book. Beard has a stack of notes for Trent, but Ted says it’s wonderful – but that the title is wrong. The book shouldn’t be called The Lasso Way, as it was never about Ted, and Trent agrees, retitling his book The AFC Richmond Way. For all that the episode plays with romcom tropes and the possibility of last minute reprieves, it’s all a feint: it starts with Ted having decided to leave, and it allows him to play out his final match and then leave, going back to his son. It’s what he said he was going to do; it’s what was always going to happen. This was a temporary period, during which Ted came to Richmond, helped people desire to be a little bit better, and then went home back to what’s truly most important – his family.

Yet the little ways in which people get to be a little bit better are worthwhile. Much of the episode is taken up with Richmond’s final match against West Ham, which they win – just – but come second in the league as Manchester City win their own match elsewhere. But this was never about becoming champions; it was about our gang getting to be better. Isaac gets to take a penalty, and blasts it through the net. Jamie realises his full potential, and gets a goal. Nathan’s tactics help them clinch a winner. The actual match is a bit weirdly paced (including a VAR feint which feels narratively inert), and is also taken up too much with Rupert’s bizarre tantrum on the pitch. But the point of the match is that Richmond love one another, believe in one another, and are striving to be the best versions of themselves that they can be. And, in one of the episode’s most genuinely moving moments, Colin gets to kiss his boyfriend on the pitch.

Not everything works as well, though. The utterly bizarre decision to have so much of Nathan’s redemption arc happen off-screen continues, and the bit of conversation he does have with Ted this week jumps straight into a tearful apology that feels unearned and crowbarred in; it’s actually lovely to have Nathan back in the locker room, but it’s been impossible to follow what, if anything, the character has learned. The sudden rupture in Roy’s character in this episode as well – in which he suddenly becomes a colossal twat claiming dibs on Keeley and having a fight with Jamie – also feels like a betrayal of that character’s growth. Yes, it’s in service of a narrative about Roy’s disappointment in himself for not having changed, but as the episode itself notes, he has changed, and the sudden backwards step feels disappointingly misogynist on the show’s part as well, given that it patronisingly builds up to the conclusion that Keeley gets to choose to have neither of them, as if she hasn’t shown a huge amount of agency across the series. Keeley, sadly, gets very little to do in this episode at all.

Instead, the relationship that gets most space is that of Ted and Rebecca, who have come to the end of the time together that has most defined the space of the show, whose inciting incident was of course Rebecca employing Ted in the first place. Hannah Waddingham remains amazing, and – true to Ted’s remark that it was never about him – it’s she who gets the biggest changes this week. First she says she’s going to sell the club, as she won’t stay without him. But then, she allows herself to receive the thanks of the boys in the pub, to realise that Richmond is her family (the psychic was right!), and to decide to sell 49% of the shares to the fans, broadening her family and returning Richmond to being a properly community club, symbolised by the brief sequence showing everyone gathering in Leslie’s front garden. Rebecca’s arc has truly been the show’s most important one, and the finale does her justice.

The closing montage is all a bit silly, and may even be intended to play as Ted’s dream (but surely isn’t, because that really does undermine everything), with Beard having a Stonehenge wedding, Keeley proposing a women’s team (which is hardly the air-punching victory it’s presented as, given that the notion of a Premier League club not having a women’s team is unthinkable – the challenge is to give those women’s teams attention and money, which this show certainly didn’t, and to throw in a tokenistic gesture at the end rather speaks to a massive failure of imagination and meaningful work on the part of the show), and Roy taking over as manager. But the finale is best summed up with two indelible images: the team putting the ripped-up ‘BELIEVE’ sign back together from the shreds they had each lovingly kept; and Ted coaching his son’s junior soccer team with exactly the same enthusiasm and investment he’d given his Premier League players – just continuing to exhort each person in his life to want to be a little bit better.

FILM: The Little Mermaid (dir. Rob Marshall)

There’s one moment in Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid – the latest in Disney’s ‘live action’ recycling of its back catalogue – that justifies the existence of this film. ‘Part of Your World’ is a showcase for Halle Bailey, in a wonderful turn that just about manages to surface from the swirling waters of desaturated CGI that characterise the film. The song is badly choreographed, sure, but it at least allows Bailey’s expressive face to be clearly seen, complementing her beautiful, narrative-rich recounting of the classic song. In a couple of minutes, Bailey works harder than the rest of the film to communicate the yearning, the desire, the misunderstood frustration of a young girl who wants to be something other than what her world tells her to be. It’s piercing and heartfelt. But sadly, it would be far better as a stand-alone musical number than stranded near the start of a ponderous, over-long, and joyless film.

Ariel sings on a rock.

Like the Aladdin remake a couple of years ago, this film takes a creative, funny, wacky animation, and leeches it of colour and wit. The emblematic sequence is ‘Under the Sea’. Even the lyrics refer to the fact that this is a song written to score a Busby Berkeley underwater festival with an aquatic band; the first two minutes of the song, though, are instead closer to nature documentary as Ariel and Sebastian look at the pretty fish that swim past; only at the song’s very end do they start leaning into the idea of some actual silly fish antics, and it’s extraordinarily tame. But this is the case for the whole film. The pace is slow, with weird pauses and lags. The silence after each song feels deafening. The underwater sequences are desaturated (Flounder is so translucent that it’s easy to forget he’s in the film at all). And to top it all off, there are endless scenes of Triton brooding in an empty underwater cave like he’s Anakin Skywalker. There are brief glimpses of an underwater environment with a whole mermaid population, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that Triton and his daughters are the only sentient beings in the ocean; it’s like they couldn’t afford a cast.

And so, what this feels like is a paradoxically low-budget cover version of a brighter and more spectacular original. The French chef trying to kill Sebastian may be an horrific stereotype, but there’s nothing fun to fill in its absence here. Instead, the film aspires to be portentous, ripping off Pirates of the Caribbean shamelessly in its bargain-basement Orlando Bloom of a Prince Eric (with a truly abysmal song, and a tokenistic gesture towards some kind of desire to make the world a better place, more on which later), and adding context-free murmurings from both the human and submarine monarchs about the inability of their two peoples to co-exist. Yet at the same time as the film gestures towards some kind of broader political environment, it also lowers the stakes everywhere. Ursula’s ‘poor unfortunate souls’ are left completely unseen; Triton, when he’s captured by Ursula, disintegrates. The underwater squabbles are merely a family feud, and Ursula’s plan is never defined, beyond her hatred for her brother Triton. Perhaps the most ridiculous moment of ‘realism’ is that, rather than have Sebastian whisper Ariel’s name to Eric during ‘Kiss the Girl’, there’s instead a bizarre pantomime which necessitates Ariel suddenly and inexplicably understanding both astronomy and the written alphabet and being able to construct an elaborate mime. It’s just . . . bad.

One of the most interesting choices of this film is to re-set it in the Caribbean, presumably at least in part to justify Sebastian’s accent (though why the film didn’t get an actor who can do a more persuasive Jamaican accent, I don’t know). The scenes of a luminous Bailey meeting the local people are among the film’s best. But it also raises deeper and more troubling questions. This is a Caribbean island during the period of British colonialism. Eric is an adopted white ‘prince’ on an island ruled by a Black queen, whose multi-racial people sell cotton to white traders. The Disneyfication of the Caribbean during the heyday of slavery and colonialism, with mixed-race couples and happy workers, feels like a shocking sanitisation, co-opting the aesthetic of an adventure-filled Caribbean by glossing over the contexts that made that ‘aesthetic’ possible. And further, the idea that the white Prince Eric is the one who is going to strike out and bring this island up to speed with the modern world inadvertently seems to imply that that island’s way of doing things is going to change, presumably to match what’s actually going on out there – which, er, isn’t a good thing?!

This, of course, implies much more conscious reckoning with the implications of the film than any of its actual choices indicate. The problem is, as with so much of Disney’s work, the inability to invest in the right things. The company’s drive towards diversity is laudable; but to do so by overwriting colonial and racially oppressive histories is not. The underwater scenes often look amazing, but are repeatedly undercut by shonky animation and by the desire to try and make it look real rather than fun (it’s a fish musical!). Melissa McCarthy is great casting as Ursula, but the campy excesses are all restrained and slowed down, and she looks like she recorded her whole part in a booth by herself. And while Bailey is wonderful in her silent scenes as Ariel, the surprisingly wooden quality of most of her human co-stars deprives these scenes of life.

If there’s one bright spark, it’s that – especially in the current climate – a story that has always passed as an analogy for queer experiences now feels even more overtly like a trans rights metaphor. Ariel wants to be something other than she is, and she needs to transform her body in order to do so. Her father is resistant to this, and keeps trying to keep her unchanging and closeted off; by the film’s end, though, he accepts and enables her transformation, and loves her anyway. It’s all couched in plausible deniability, but with enough emphasis on the bodily changes and the kinds of language used for dealing with transition that it feels deliberate and needed. But as a whole, the film is more trite than Triton, certainly not better when it’s wetter, and more driven by what it wishes it could be than what it is.