When Alan Moore gets spiky

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022) is a rather misnamed movie from the start. Honestly, what it should be called is Sonic 3 and Knuckles: the Movie, because the plot of this film basically follows said game beat-for-beat. Not that I’m complaining about that, mind you. One major selling-point of Sonic 2, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that it essentially refuses to go the darker and edgier reboot route of too many comic book / superhero / video game movies recently. Sonic 2 keeps the tone light, colourful and overall faithful to the games.

Sonic the Hedgehog has more or less adapted to his life in Green Hills, Montana, though he has a rather troubling habit of attempting (with limited success) to moonlight as a superhero in Seattle. Unbeknownst to him, however, his old nemesis Dr Robotnik, despite being marooned on a planet populated solely by mushrooms, is able to generate a pulse using one of Sonic’s quills that attracts the attention of the last surviving member of the Echidna tribe: Knuckles. In return for rescuing him from the planet (and taking revenge on the blue hedgehog who trapped him there), Robotnik agrees to help Knuckles fulfil the quest of his tribe and discover the hidden location of the Master Emerald—a rather formidable chunk of beryllium aluminosilicate that is imbued with the supernatural power of bringing dreams to reality. Now, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything that any video game fan doesn’t already know when I point out: does our evil robotics professor have any intention of honouring that promise? Of course not! But Knuckles has to find that out the hard way.

The core message of the film is, for the most part, fairly unexceptionable: family is good; friendship is good; altruism is good; kids should be allowed to be kids. Pretty straightforward and kind of what you’d expect in a kids’ movie. But Sonic 2 has an unexpected but deeply interesting and subversive twist in its message. Despite it being essentially a superhero film—with the ultimate action being three anthropomorphic alien animals fighting a gigantic evil mecha—Sonic 2 takes these really intriguing potshots at superhero lore and the entire ethos of superheroes generally which I couldn’t help but note with approval.

Sonic 2’s criticism of superhero movies clearly isn’t the aesthetic Scorsese and Coppola critique. That would be a level of irony one way too high for a blockbuster-tier CGI-heavy film based on a video game. Rather, although it doesn’t go quite as far as the half-Postman, half-Nietzsche anti-superhero pathos of Screenslaver in The Incredibles 2 (which in turn owes much of its force to similar arguments by, for example, Alan Moore), it’s clearly three-point starting its red running shoes a bit further in that direction.


The opening action sequence where Sonic is foiling a robbery in downtown Seattle, with predictably disastrous results, is meant to point out the flaws of the sort of vigilantism which Batman engages in (and whom Tom even calls out by name). It also showcases how ordinary people would interpret the wreckage that superheroes seem to leave behind them wherever they go, if it happened to them in real life. (‘You’re a terrible hero!’ screams the hostage that ‘Blue Justice’ rescues in this scene, after he destroys an entire city block and endangers about two dozen innocent bystanders in the rescue attempt.) Maybe there is a certain level of wink-nodding irony here, though, since the guy who ends up lecturing Sonic about using his powers responsibly is played by the same actor as Scott Summers / Cyclops from X-Men. But the opening scene isn’t just a one-off. The film actually takes multiple digs at the MCU and DCEU superhero franchises, calling them to task for their heroes doing things that clearly recklessly endanger innocent civilians. It actually becomes something of a theme.

One of the big questions of Sonic 2, which the movie explores in a mildly thought-provoking way, is: what does heroism actually entail? There are hints that arise when the tragic pasts that link Sonic and Knuckles together are dredged up, and when Sonic has to make the choice of whether or not to save the life of a ‘bad guy’ at risk to his own life. There are hints that arise around the entire question of who gets the Master Emerald and what they use it for. The movie leaves us with something between a cheap laugh and a serious aporia when Super Sonic uses his godlike abilities to summon the ultimate cosmic chili dog: what actually constitutes responsible use of power? At the end of the film, Sonic essentially walks away from the ability to become a superhero in favour of a chance to grow up, echoing Alan Moore to the approval of Sheriff Cyclops. Although Marvel (and less so DC) talk a good game about how ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, they somehow all basically get put to shame when it comes to walking the walk by a hyperactive cerulean talking erinaceid from outer space.


Despite these somewhat serious questions, there’s a lot of fanservice and general tomfoolery in this movie. Miles ‘Tails’ Prower, Sonic’s vulpine sidekick, is voiced by his English-language seiyû from the video games, Colleen O’Shaughnessy. (Tails’s personality, like Sonic’s, has been massaged a bit for the big screen. His hero-worship of Sonic has been toned down significantly, and we get to see him grow more confident in his abilities with Sonic’s encouragement.) The visual effects, palette and aesthetic style in Sonic 2 are clearly inspired by the games, to a much greater degree than the first movie—everything from the hidden subterranean palace on a palm-lined island, to Robotnik’s moustache. Minor details from game lore are sprinkled throughout like so many Easter eggs: Sonic’s fear of water; spikes coming out of the walls; snowboarding down an ice-capped mountain to outrun an avalanche; Tails’s penchant for inventing things and love for antique aircraft; the fistfight between Knuckles and Sonic; the Final Weapon (whose operation manual looks a hell of a lot like a Sega Genesis booklet).

Another thing to love about this movie is Knuckles himself. Idris Elba voice-acts the militant merbromine monotreme with a blood-knight charm that owes itself in about equal portions to Drax the Destroyer from Guardians of the Galaxy and Mr Worf from Star Trek. Elba’s Knuckles rides the line between villain-with-a-redemptive-streak and sucker pretty finely for the first part of the movie; but as we continue to watch and get glimpses into Knuckles’s inner world a bit more, we discover a child of war who was never really given a chance to grow up—a dimension that enriches Sonic’s choice at the film’s climax, and further makes the final baseball scene (which manages light-hearted nods to both ‘Emissary, Part II’ and ‘Take Me Out to the Holosuite’ from Deep Space Nine) somewhat bittersweet.

Unfortunately, Sonic 2 has a decided weakness which makes it, in my own humble opinion, a decidedly lesser-quality offering than the first live-action Sonic the Hedgehog. That weakness can be summed up in three words: trying too hard.

The first movie had a bar fight scene with a bullet-time sequence set to a quirky alt-rock number. So what does Sonic 2 do? Puts in a dance-off sequence set to ‘Uptown Funk’… in a bar in the middle of Siberia. The first movie cracked one chili-dog fart joke, so what does Sonic 2 do? Puts in three of them, including one within the first five minutes. In the first film, we see Sonic’s love for The Flash comics, Speed and Fast & Furious, followed through by his delivering rapid-fire one-liners from them during the action sequences. So now we get almost non-stop references to pop-culture touchstones from the late 80s, 90s and early 00s (Limp Bizkit, Bridezillas, Army of Darkness, Rush Hour, The Incredibles) such that it sometimes feels like Robotnik and Sonic have developed their own private language out of them. (‘I don’t want to die like this! It’s derivative!’)

The climactic fight scene has Robotnik making a one-line reference to one of Donald Trump’s speeches. It’s not particularly obnoxious, but it does stick out like a sore thumb, and it’s likely to age about as well as Kuzco’s and Kronk’s Bushisms in The Emperor’s New Groove. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man gets referenced twice by the same character. The Olive Garden gag comes back in the most obvious way possible. ‘Steamed Austrian goat milk’, a throwaway gag line from the first movie, for some reason merits multiple rehashes here. You know how jokes get less funny the more you tell them? ‘Cuz I think somebody forgot to tell Jeff Fowler.

As Ben Croshaw of Zero Punctuation put it regarding Portal 2: ‘It’s a quantity over quality issue. It’s the difference between having a Punnett containing three nice plump cherries, or one containing five nice plump cherries and a handful of sawdust. You’re either left wanting more or left with a mouth tastes like a pigeon’s been roosting in it.’

Jim Carrey, of course, continues to steal the show with his maniacal villainous scenery-chewing. Suffice it to say that everything I said about Carrey’s Robotnik in my review for the first movie holds true here as well. And despite the slightly-disappointing recurrences of Agent Stone and Officer Wade, at least one of the recurring bit characters manages to get something of a payoff with Tom’s hostile sister-in-law Rachel (Natasha Rothwell) playing a pivotal role. The relationship between Tom, Maddie and Sonic actually manages to get pinned down a bit more solidly here, too, with Tom being less of a buddy-cop for Sonic, and Tom and Maddie together being more self-consciously parental figures and mentors for Sonic.

So, final thoughts on Sonic 2. It’s not the wooooooorst, far from it. The soft-pedalled Alan Moore / Neil Postman critique of superheroes actually gives it a thoughtful and self-critical dimension that the first movie didn’t have. And for fans of the games, particularly Sonic 3, there’s a lot to love here with the many layers of Easter eggs and references. But some of the questionable writing choices, problems with the pacing and regurgitated humour did leave me with something of a strange aftertaste.


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