Marvel Cinematic Universe-Phase Three
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck Featuring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Djimon Jounsou, Lee Pace
In Marvel’s latest film, Captain Marvel, Brie Larson suits up as Vers, a fighter living on the planet Hala who’s harnessing her powers for the Kree community. She’s part of the StarForce unit and crash lands on Planet C53 (Earth) in hopes of finding the Skrulls. They’re shapeshifters bent on finding Dr. Lawson (Bening) whose secret project involves light speed. Vers’ special powers catch the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D agents Colson (Gregg) and Nick Fury (Jackson) who want to protect her as they see great potential within her. Vers’ time on Earth awakens memories of a life she once had as a fighter pilot named Carol Danvers and the people she’s lost along the way.
Here’s my review
ANT-MAN AND THE WASP
Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Hannah John-Kamen, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, David Dastmalchian, T.I., Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer
If you’re up to date on your Marvel Cinematic Universe, you may remember the topical and powerful nature of Black Panther and the serious, and somewhat depressing, nature of Avengers: Infinity War. We still don’t know who lived and died in that film. Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige has lightened things up for their third film in 2018. One of the notable heroes missing from Infinity War was Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. We last saw him in Captain America: Civil War, and now we pick up with Scott Lang/Ant-Man living under house arrest for the last two years following the events of that film. It’s easier if you just accept the timelines and move on versus trying to recollect what happened at the end of that film or the first Ant-Man. He’s doing the best he can at being a good father to his daughter, Cassie. Any sort of housebreak could result in twenty years behind bars. This poses a problem for our troublemaker of a hero who starts having visions of a young girl playing hide and seek with her mom.
These visions are of Hope van Dyne/Wasp (Lilly) and her mother, Janet (Pfeiffer). Janet was the original Wasp who risked her life to save others when Hope was just a kid. Hope, along with her father, Hank Pym (Douglas), have always believed she was still alive after transporting to the Quantum Realm. Once Scott successfully came back from the Realm, Hank has been working on a tunnel that could possibly rescue his wife. If only Pym’s lab could have stayed a secret. After being shrunk down to briefcase size, it’s stolen by a masked and hooded figured, known only as Ghost (Ready Player One’s Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase in and out of physical spaces making it all more complicated for Ant-Man and Wasp to pin her down. It’s a bit unknown as to who Ghost really is and what she’s really after. She’s not some henchman but a complicated antagonist with a connection to Hank Pym’s past.
The tone of Ant-Man and the Wasp is a stark contrast from the movies I mentioned earlier. Marvel needs to shake things up every few movies, much like we saw with the vibrant Thor: Ragnarok. They’re great at keeping themselves in check without ever taking their work too seriously, which is something that keeps them a step ahead of rival DC. The Ant-Man sequel is pure playful fun from start to finish. Director Peyton Reed who helmed the first one is back again with a five-person writing team. It’s a light, screwball comedy that fully gives in to the ridiculous nature of its premise of having our two heroes dressed as insects that can reduce their size for a quick getaway or enlarge themselves to reiterate their power and abilities. They’re not the only ones that can changes sizes on a whim. Pym’s technologies allow Ant-Man and the Wasp to blow up a salt shaker, a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser, toy cars, and a swarm of ants as their defense weapons. It makes these scenes somewhat unpredictable as anything can happen when size and physical state of being are no issue. Reed treats these big actions sequences like he’s a kid again playing with action figurines. You can almost hear him and Rudd making explosion noises when they crash into things and defeat the bad guys. Unlike Thor or The Hulk, this isn’t the kind of superhero that relies on brawn and muscles to save the day.
One key reason as to why Ant-Man works as well as he does is Paul Rudd who brings his usual sarcastic charm to the role. He’s never trying to be a hero. He was once a thief and still gets excited about the powers he has when he puts on the suit. It’s a great attitude to have to play off of Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym who is getting to be more and more of a curmudgeon as he gets older. In a surprise move, Ant-Man and the Wasp gives Douglas more to do than just roll his eyes at Rudd. The core basis of the story is less about Ant-Man but more about reuniting Hank and Hope with Janet, played effortlessly by Michelle Pfeiffer. The hope of being reunited is all they want. That eternal drive to be with our loved ones is the heart of the movie and showcases an appreciation for Douglas and Pfeiffer as actors. It’s a pleasure to see Pfeiffer back in a giant superhero movie given her iconic role as Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns.
I will fault the five screenwriters for having too many characters. Some work well like Scott’s buddies from the first movie played by Michael Peña, T.I., and David Dastmalchian who are all back in their scene-stealing roles. Peña gets to run his mouth but is never annoying about it. Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale also come back as Scott’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend and are basically unnecessary to the sequel. As Ghost, Hannah John-Kamen isn’t your traditional villain. She comes with her own understandable baggage without feeling like the obvious maniacal archetype. I wish the writing team would have trusted this character a bit more as they’ve underwritten some side henchmen led by Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight). He’s underutilized as a greedy tech-dealer for Hope. He’s too good of an actor but falls back on standard tropes we’ve seen from him before.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is a welcome change of pace for Marvel. There’s an easy breezy summertime fun to it. It’s never trying too hard to be funny or sentimental at any given moment. It exists within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and connects itself briefly to Avengers: Infinity War. That being said, it’s perfectly enjoyable on its own without that pressure of having to go back and revisit previous Marvel movies to prep for it.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? There’s nothing wrong with Marvel-Lite
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Chris Evans, Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Zoe Saldana, Paul Bettany
Marvel fans have spent the last ten years and eighteen movies engrossed in a variety of superheroes and villains duking it in order to save Earth and other galactic empires. Some have proven more successful than others, yet Marvel fatigue never seems to set in even after all these years. They’re coming off one of my favorites and their biggest hit to date, Black Panther, which came out in February. A few of those characters along with roughly thirty other Marvel heroes are coming together for the first time to take on the ultimate villain, Thanos, portrayed by Josh Brolin via motion capture technology. Infinity War picks up with Thanos and his army of minions capturing a space station carrying Thor (Hemsworth), Loki (Hiddleston), and the Hulk (Ruffalo). Thanos is looking for the tesseract which holds one of six infinity stones he’s looking to get his hands on. His massive golden glove holds the power once all six stones are set in place. The stones represent six different elements: time, reality, space, mind, power, and soul.
If you’ve been following along with every other movie, you may remember that these stones are in hiding for this very reason. The time stone is guarded safely around Doctor Strange’s (Cumberbatch) neck, but when the Hulk is transported back to New York, Strange and Iron Man (Downey) know something must be up. What the Hulk doesn’t know is that the Avengers separated ways following the events of Captain America: Civil War making this new mission against Thanos a bit complicated. One of the other stones coming into play is embedded into the forehead of Vision (Bettany) who’s off in hiding with Scarlet Witch (Olsen). Thanos and his swarm don’t make it easy for any of our heroes who are forced to make life-altering decisions in order to save their loved ones and the galaxy from Thanos’ reign.
At the helm of this giant epic are brothers Anthony and Joe Russo who are no strangers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe having brought the previous two Captain America films to the big screen along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The four of them are a winning team, and frankly, the only ones who could have brought everyone together given their stake in the MCU. We, the audience, may know all of these characters inside and out, but it’s easy to forget that the characters don’t always know each other, and they’ve done an remarkable job at pairing them together. It’s fun to see the supremely arrogant nature of Tony Stark try to match knowledge and wit with the like-minded Doctor Strange. The Guardians of the Galaxy led by Star-Lord (Pratt) answer a distress signal that comes from the spaceship Thor was on that opens the film. The banter perfectly fits for the brawny Thor trading jabs with the dashing Star-Lord who’s used to being the number one man in charge of his ship. Without giving too much away, the writing team makes good use out of sending part of our team to Wakanda to meet Black Panther (Boseman), Okoye (Gurira), and Shuri (Wright).
Infinity War is the first of a two-part conclusion to this chapter. Avengers 4 is due in theaters next year. Going in with the right expectations is key if you think of it like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I. By nature, these films don’t have the traditional arc or character development we’re used to from other movies in the series. Marvel doesn’t need to fully develop these characters all over again as that’s what the first eighteen movies were for. Instead the writing duo have the daunting job of trying to cram in as many characters as possible while adhering to their individual voices as laid out by previous writers. Some characters like Tony Stark/Iron Man or Steve Rogers/Captain America are aged and weathered having been put through the ringer far too many times. They don’t have the plucky attitude of the teenage Spider-Man (Holland). A majority of them just feel like they’re supporting roles with limited dialogue as they’re separated into different groups each in their own combat battle. It’s as if we’re watching a season of Game of Thrones played out where you’re going from one group of characters and their storylines to the next. It may be fifteen or twenty minutes before someone like Iron Man or Star-Lord returns on screen. We only really get each character a fraction of the time that we’re used to and then clamoring for them to hopefully be united as one army by the end.
What we do see here are a few new relationships played out that are vital in giving this story an emotional weight behind it. The father/daughter relationship between Thanos and Gamora (Saldana) is brought to the forefront to the point of us seeing a backstory between them with flashbacks to young Gamora. The other relationship worth noting is the romantic one between Scarlet Witch and Vision. This provides them with some of their best moments in all of Avengers movies.
The film comes with a hefty run time of two and a half hours, yet the Russo brothers know there is no time to waste and get the ball rolling with an explosive opening. Thanos makes his presence known, and we get our first taste of the fatalities at hand. There’s really no slowing down from there, and the runtime flies by faster than expected. It culminates into a massive battle sequence in Wakanda as well as a few other locations. This is a war film after all, and it’s far darker in tone and atmosphere than say the bright Guardians of the Galaxy movies or even Thor: Ragnarok. The cinematography is quite moody adhering to dark blues, grays, and purple tones. As the final scenes were playing out, I wanted the Russo’s to have made some bolder, more definitive choices. Given the major death that occurs in the opening, I wanted that same emotional punch to happen again, but I was left in a state of befuddlement. On one hand, it ends with a giant cliffhanger as everything holds in the balance as to where it’s going to go next. The Russo’s leave it up to the viewer to determine what just played out in the final moments. Some may see it as the end, but knowing that there’s another film makes it all the more ambiguous and open for the rules to be changed.
Avengers: Infinity War is a tricky one as it doesn’t quite feel complete given it’s natural order within the collective universe, and for the fact it’s the really the first half of this story. The Russo’s remarkably unite our heroes together, and it’s great fun to see their initial interactions together. There are plenty of witty one-liners with jabs passed from one character to another as well as a self-deprecating nature to this idea of a character heavy movie. One character clarifies that there’s both an Ant-Man AND a Spider-Man. Josh Brolin does an admirable job at bringing Thanos to life without drowning under the motion capture. He’s a brutal and unapologetic villain. There are a few new characters that come with his army, but I wouldn’t call any of them memorable. The end leaves you wanting more as there are far too many questions left unanswered. No Marvel fatigue yet, but hopefully by the the end of Avengers 4 I will feel emotionally exhausted, which should have happened with this movie.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Buckle up Marvel fans
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker
We were first introduced to Black Panther, played exceptionally well by Chadwick Boseman, in Captain America: Civil War. Marvel has now given the character his own standalone film to build on his backstory and legacy. As we saw in the previous movie, T’Challa/Black Panther’s father was killed at the United Nations explosion. T’Challa is now the rightful heir to the throne taking his place as the new king of the African nation, Wakanda. He’s in mourning over his father’s death and doesn’t feel ready to take on the responsibilities of being king. Wakanda is not the third-world country people make it out to be. Hidden from the naked eye is a technologically advanced community run on a mysterious element known as vibranium. When ingested, as we see with T’Challa, he gains strength, speed, and lightning-fast instincts. T’Challa’s newly appointed title doesn’t sit well with Erik Killmonger (Jordan) who believes he should be the new king. Back in London, he poses as a museum visitor when his partner-in-crime, Klaue (Serkis) arrives and stages a heist stealing artifacts with hidden vibranium in them. As we learn with the standard third act twist, Killmonger is out for vengeance hoping to use the vibranium against T’Challa and the people of Wakanda.
With every new Marvel movie, I go in with glee but wonder if fatigue will set in with the fact we get two or three movies per year. Rest assured when I tell you that ten years and 18 movies later, Black Panther is one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s empowering to see a massive blockbuster superhero film written, directed, and starring people of color. Marvel likes hiring newer directors, and Ryan Coogler fits the bill making this his third film following Fruitvale Station and Creed. All three star Michael B. Jordan making this a fantastic director and actor partnership. One that will one day join the ranks of Scorsese/De Niro and Spielberg/Hanks. More so than other Marvel films that may be a bit lighter like Thor: Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy, Ryan Coogler uses modern day struggles and issues as the backbone for his story. It may be set in the present day, but Coogler examines a world where the traditional can be intertwined with modern and contemporary. The film honors and displays the rich centuries old African culture while fusing it with a slick, ultra-cool futuristic society. This juxtaposition is fully realized in the stunning costume design by Ruth E. Carter who presents very traditional clothing for the citizens of Wakanda while dressing Black Panther, Killmonger, and the other warriors in harder, edgier materials. We also see this played out in the music by Kendrick Lamar and Ludwig Göransson and the film’s production design.
Coogler has aligned a cast full of force and drive. As T’Challa/Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman commands every scene he is in whether it’s the smaller intimate moments dealing with his father’s death or the big action sequences. He’s the strong and silent superhero more concerned with doing the right thing for Wakanda rather than getting overly cocky with his super powers. To counter him is Coogler’s muse Michael B. Jordan as head villain Eric Killmonger. His motivations are grounded in a realistic truth as opposed to the standard, diabolical bad guy with a maniacal laugh. Jordan gets to flex his muscles, literally and figuratively, as he’s often given the underdog role as we saw in Fruitvale Station, Creed, or even NBC’s Friday Night Lights. His right-hand man, Klaue, is brought to life by Andy Serkis who’s best known for his motion capture work in the Planet of the Apes or Lord of the Rings trilogies. Klaue is another slimy character, and one of the only few live action performances we’ve seen from him.
If Wonder Woman laid the groundwork for strong female heroes, then Black Panther continues that tradition by giving actresses Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) and Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars) the chance to be just as dynamic and powerful. They battle alongside Black Panther every step of the way. It’s refreshing to see that its T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) who gets to be his tech guru, much like a Q or Luscious Fox as she preps his Black Panther suit, weapons, and slick car. Rounding out the cast is Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother and Queen of Wakanda, Get Out Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya, and This is Us Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown. Can you get any cooler and badass than this cast?
Black Panther works incredibly well despite it being an introductory movie. It does suffer from the same flaws we often see in these Marvel movies. Coogler is forced to cram in as much story as possible leaving some pacing concerns. I couldn’t tell if the movie had slowed down or if so much was happening that more time should have passed by. It all feels necessary, so I’m less concerned about the editing or lack of purpose. I’ve never read the comics from which it’s based but the use of a metal/serum/element, in this case vibranium, seems like an outdated plot device. I don’t think it’s spoiling the film too much to state that there are some twists and turns along the way as T’Challa learns more about his father’s past and how he needs to build his own destiny. I couldn’t help but wonder if Coogler is drawing homage to another Disney property, The Lion King. Outside of those little squabbles, the film is highly impressive from start to finish. The special effects and action sequences feel quite immersive to the audience thanks to Rachel Morrison’s cinematography. She’s another Oscar nominee this year for her work on Mudbound.
As the new king, T’Challa has to wrestle with a few issues that seem topical in today’s society. Black Panther feels more aligned with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy than some of the other Marvel films in this regard. He struggles with how to protect and serve his people when he’s supposed to lead with peace. Coogler asks the audience if Wakanda and/or the United States have a responsibility to use their resources and technology to help other less fortunate countries. The ending monologue given by Chadwick Boseman drives home the film’s themes of looking at what connects us as humans versus what is constantly dividing us. If you can’t get enough of Black Panther, know that we’ll see these characters again very seen when Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters in May. Until then, I will have to trek to the theater and see it a few more times.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Black Panther is the superhero we need right now.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Idris Elba, Karl Urban
Chris Hemsworth will forever be known as Thor, the god of thunder. Thor: Ragnarok is his third solo entry in the franchise on top of the two Avengers ensemble movies. He knows how to use his charm and mighty strength to get himself out of any situation. He manages to escape from the fire demon Surfur and learns his father Odin (Hopkins) is no longer on their home planet of Asgard. Brother Loki (Hiddleston) has banished him to New York City, but when they arrive they find out he’s no longer there. With a little help from a friend (no spoilers!), they are sent to Norway where they’re finally reunited with their father who is nearing his final days. Odin reveals they have a long-lost sister, Hela, who is hell bent on revenge. With Cate Blanchett sporting a fierce black suit and a horn-filled helmet, you know she means business. The film’s title “Ragnarok” refers to the fall of Asgard. Hela is the goddess of death and the rightful heir to the throne. She’s not one to be messed with, as Asgard isn’t her only goal. She can take down full armies hoping to rule over every realm in the universe. It’s not an easy trip back to Asgard for Thor who finds himself stuck on the planet Sakaar. He is unwillingly thrust into the ring as the latest opponent to take on the reigning champion of an arena-style fight. That champion is his good old buddy, The Incredible Hulk (Ruffalo). Once Thor and Hulk manage to make their way out of Sakaar, it’s a race against time for them to stop Hela before she destroys Asgard.
Thor has previously been the beefy serious Avenger, but in this film, we get the playful more comedic side of the character. Don’t worry; he’s still as beefy as ever. His trusty hammer and flowing locks are long gone, so he’s left scrambling to find some new tactics. The overall tone falls more in line with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies than the other Thor or Avengers movies. The film is practically all CGI exploding with colors, textures, creatures of all shapes and sizes, and cosmic sorcery all set in a very techno inspired world thanks to the score by Mark Mothersbaugh. Even with a villain as wicked as Hela, it’s rarely doom and gloom–a stark contrast to what their rival DC is doing with their superhero universe.
Actor/director Taika Waititi, best known for the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, brings that very self-aware tone to the forefront. As a whole, the writing team doesn’t seem all that concerned with advancing the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a plot sense. Sure, there are mentions of the Infinity Stones and the last Avengers movie, but it’s all in passing. Ragnarok is a kick butt, joyous side movie that will easily please the fans. The comedy is ever present with very cheeky dialogue and physical comedy gags, particularly in the gladiator scenes between Thor and Hulk. There are jokes about wearing Tony Stark’s tight pants and what the Hulk looks like naked. It’s total buffoonery and makes no apologies for it.
Marvel has never skimped when it comes to finding just the right cast for their heroes and villains. Chris Hemsworth has proven before he can handle comedy with his role in Ghostbusters and stints hosting Saturday Night Live. Here he gets to flex those chops in almost every scene he gets. Mark Ruffalo also gets to have more fun as the Hulk. Once he returns into Bruce Banner’s body, we get to see a more confused side of Banner, but one that comes with this childlike wonder that hasn’t been explored in past. Those returning to the franchise include: Tom Hiddleston as Loki, one of the best Marvel villains to date, Anthony Hopkins’ Odin, and Idris Elba as Heimdall, the hidden hero of Asgard.
Giving them all a run for their money are the new players, especially Cate Blanchett. The two-time Oscar winner (The Aviator, Blue Jasmine) is wickedly good, as she always is, as the film’s token villain. You can tell Blanchett is having the time of her life as she can let loose and play into the over-the-top villain angle. Jeff Goldblum takes on the role of Grandmaster who is in charge of the planet Sakaar. Goldblum is one of the few actors I can think of that can play a parody of himself and have it work in every movie. He adds a bit more flamboyance to the Grandmaster than in other roles, and you just want more of him throughout. Tessa Thompson (Creed) is another great addition to the cast as the bounty hunter Valkyrie.
Marvel has kept some of their recent films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Captain America: Civil War grounded on Earth where the stakes are a bit more tangible. I tend to gravitate toward those films a bit more if I were to rank the Marvel movies. That’s not to say that Taika Waititi’s approach to Thor: Ragnarok should not be applauded. Sure, the plot is fairly simplistic but he went all out it taking a character in the complete opposite direction. It’s a necessary step if you going to continue cranking these movies out. Ragnarok is all dazzle and charm with a winning cast whose energy radiates onto the audience in a Hulk-size way.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Marvel’s comedic approach to Thor delivers on all accounts
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori, Tyne Daly, Abraham Attah, Hannibal Buress
If you think three different iterations of Spider-Man within a ten-year period were too many, you may be right. I present to you Spider-Man: Homecoming, which may change your mind a bit after the disappointing Amazing Spider-Man movies. We were first introduced to actor Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man last year in Captain America: Civil War. Homecoming opens in the aftermath of the first Avengers movie with Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes collecting various alien debris that was left in the path of destruction. Eight years pass and we see him having fully constructed a variety of weapons powerful enough to cause serious harm to the city. He’s also created a suit for himself giving him the ability to fly. As his alter ego Vulture, he’s the token villain this time around.
The present day scenes are in the days following the confrontation in Civil War. There’s a fun scene where Peter is watching a video he shot of that big fight. It’s all very meta and self-aware. That’s one of the tonal differences you’ll find with this Spider-Man versus the others. Tom Holland looks more like the high schooler he’s actually playing unlike Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield. Peter is itching to become an official Avenger and has been working undercover with Tony Stark as part of the Stark “internship program.” At school, he’s a complete nerd often getting picked on as part of the school’s quiz bowl team. He’s determined to keep his other identity a secret, and it’s even worse when best friend Ned (Batalon) finds out that he’s Spider-Man. When Vulture’s weapons start appearing on the black market, Peter gets a little too carried away with his newfound abilities and desire to protect the citizens of New York.
You may be asking yourself why we’re seeing a third Spider-Man. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes legal shenanigans that had to happen as the character was owned by Sony despite Disney owning Marvel. Marvel president Kevin Feige had to pull some legal strings to get the character back to where he belonged. It should be noted that while this is the first full-length movie we’ve seen with Tom Holland as Peter Parker, this is not an origins story. The audience is well aware by now that a radioactive spider bit Peter, so the writers know they can save time and skip over rehashing that part of the story.
I was bit cautious as I didn’t think there was a need for more Spidey movies, but Homecoming has changed my mind. Marvel is continuing to cross genre lines as they did with Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool. We may think of these movies as action-filled superhero movies, but Marvel continues to pump as much comedy in them as possible. This take on Spider-Man is vastly different than the other two series. The six member writing team and director Jon Watts have used the old John Hughes comedies from the 1980s as their guide. Many of the film’s scenes are set within the walls of Peter Parker’s high school. The execution of the high school life feels tangible and realistic. Homecoming aptly brings a welcome diversity its cast of characters, which would be found in this kind of high school. We see some of Peter’s friends prepping for the homecoming dance and there’s talk of whom Peter will take as his date. This is also extended to one of the major action scenes taking place at the quiz bowl competition location.
Due to the extremely youthful presence of the film’s setting, one could see this as Marvel-lite. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It still feels like a Marvel movie, but it’s by far the most kid-friendly we’ve seen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland brings an energetic vibe to Peter. Sometimes the character’s been too morose in the past dealing with the death of Uncle Ben. That’s another storyline that has been sidestepped in this movie. Holland’s Peter is just so excited about saving the day and becoming an official Avenger. Many kids will be able to relate to what he brings to the character. Going toe-to-toe with Holland is Michael Keaton as Vulture. He’s practically done a 180 in his career as he gained notoriety for playing the hero in Batman, and in Birdman he played an actor who once played a superhero. Keaton brings his lavish and erratic style to Vulture in that quintessential Keaton way that we have come to love and respect him for. Vulture’s a great villain, and Keaton makes him one of the best we’ve seen in a Spider-Man movie. The rest of the cast includes a delightfully oblivious Aunt May (Tomei), Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, and Jon Favreau as Stark’s main guy Happy who has to be in charge of Peter Parker.
It’s refreshing to see an age-appropriate actor like Tom Holland play Peter. There’s an attitude toward Peter when he’s told “You’re too young to understand.” It takes him some time to realize that there’s more to being a hero than wearing a suit. These scenes between Tony and Peter and the connection between Peter and his friends give the film heart. Director Jon Watts is better with these moments than action sequences, which feel a bit sloppy and poorly constructed compared to others we’ve seen from Marvel. The studio likes to take chances on aspiring directors, and this is Watts’ largest film to date. Homecoming may not be my favorite from Marvel, but Holland has made a lasting impression as the character. He’ll be a great addition to the upcoming Avengers movies.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Tom Holland makes this a surprisingly welcome return to the world of Spidey.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017)
Writer/Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn
In 2014, Marvel took a chance at a fairly unknown series in their canon named Guardians of the Galaxy and unleashed it as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It felt fresh and exciting for the superhero genre and made star Chris Pratt a bona fide action star. Three years later, the sequel is here to make fans laugh all over again. Chris Pratt leads our group of Guardians as Peter Quill/Star-Lord alongside Gamora (Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Bautista), feisty Rocket (Cooper), and the adorable little tree Groot (Diesel) who are fighting off a gigantic slug with razor sharp teeth on the planet of Sovereign. Despite killing the slug they find themselves in quite the bind with High Priestess Ayesha (Debicki) on a planet where everything and everyone is gold. Gamora is confronted with her sister Nebula (Gillan) who has a bounty placed upon her on another planet. There is no love lost between the sisters. Meanwhile, Rocket steals some coveted batteries on the planet sending Ayesha off attacking the Guardians as they try to flee. The Guardians crash land on another planet barely escaping Ayesha’s warriors. They’ve also been followed by another ship through this portal. The pilot of this mysterious vessel is Ego (Russell), Peter’s father whom he hasn’t seen since childhood. His guard is up and not ready to trust his father who left his mother many years ago. The question remains as to why Ego has taken it upon himself to find Peter all of a sudden. I could go with divulging more about the various plotlines involved in Vol. 2, but I don’t want to overly complicate things that could wind up being spoilers.
Within the film’s first opening moments, writer and director James Gunn, who also conceived the first film, reminds the audience why the Marvel Cinematic Universe sets itself apart from the DC movies. I sat back with a big grin and chuckled along with the bickering among Peter and his crew. Gunn then takes time to shift the action a bit by focusing in on little Baby Groot who is off dancing to his own rhythm when there is a big monster right behind him. To compliment his cuteness is Bradley Cooper voicing Rocket who is full of attitude and opinions. Cooper is so memorable and dynamic as Rocket that I’m still contemplating if this is his best role to date. Is that fair given it’s an animated hero versus his edgier work with David O. Russell or Clint Eastwood?
Marvel has done well by making their sequels work just as well, if not better, than their predecessors. Once we move past the introductory stories, we can start having more fun and experiment with the characters. That’s precisely what Gunn has done as you can tell by that opening scene. He has written a witty and playful sense of humor with nearly every major character given their time to shine with a snappy comeback or retort back to their adversary. The script is also chock full of pop culture references throughout including bits about Cheers, Mary Poppins, and David Hasselhoff. Back again is the catchy rock music that fills the soundtrack as Peter turns on his cassette of “Awesome Mix 2” for inspiration.
Like most sequels, everything is bigger and more lavish in Vol. 2. I often lament about the overreliance on CGI and special effects when practical sets and effects could be utilized. This is that rare example where they were used exceptionally well to the point where I was never distracted by it. The costumes, make-up, and production design are exploding with color and texture in every frame. They fit right in with the galactic tone without looking cartoony. There are plenty of dynamic action sequences yet none of them felt like they were dragged out for too long like we’ve seen in some of the Marvel or DC movies. James Gunn raises the stakes for our heroes by making them reaffirm what the idea of family means to them. Peter’s reunion with Ego is front and center as well as his relationship with the paternal Yondu (Rooker), while Gamora and Nebula test their definition of sisterhood. In a broader sense, the Guardians have a family unit among themselves and are constantly reminded that, despite their differences, they are an unbreakable force when united for the common good.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is another highly entertaining outing for Marvel. James Gunn is fully aware of the story and world they have created and have fun with it. It sets out to be an entertaining ride that never takes itself too seriously. It starts to feel a bit long and stretched out in the middle due to the various plotlines which has our team separated but regains its momentum once a big character reveal occurs. It’s great to be back with these characters again, especially scene-stealers Rocket and Baby Groot. Rocket’s wiseass cracks yield some of the biggest laughs, and it’s hard not to adore the cuteness overload in the animation given to Baby Groot and Vin Diesel’s various intonations of “I am Groot!” Kurt Russell is a great addition to the cast as he easily dips into his ultra-cool persona as Ego. He’s having a highly successful year thanks to this and starring in The Fate of the Furious. Make sure to stay through all of the credits, as there are five post-credit sequences and the announcement that “The Guardians will return.”
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Will no doubt please fans, but also those growing tired of the genre
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Benedict Wong
Benedict Cumberbatch is no stranger at playing characters with super egos as that is how he interprets Sherlock Holmes. He brings a similar quality to Doctor Stephen Strange. He’s a neurosurgeon in the top of his field. He’s massively rich, a music savant, and probably smarter than his own good allows. His colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) happens to be a former flame, and there is still a spark between them. On a stormy night he cruises along a curvy road headed to dinner with the elite where he is to make a presentation. He gets a work call about a potential procedure with accompanying scans to view on his phone. It’s that split second he took his eyes off the road that forever changed his life. I hope all the teen drivers out there are paying attention. His loses control and his precious sports car veers off the cliff. The horrendous accident results in massive surgeries on his arms and hands rendering him unable to work. That is his whole life and now he’s lost it.
When he comes to the realization that no other experimental surgeries will fix the nerves in his hands, he heads to Nepal to seek out a mystic healer who has been known to work miracles. There he meets the Ancient One (Swinton) who opens his mind to the concept of reorienting our spirit to better heal our body. He adapts to the practice at lightning speed as he harnesses energy to cast spells and magic. What he doesn’t know until it’s too late is that the Ancient One has chosen him to go after Kaecilius (Mikkelson), a former master who has now switched to the dark side. Any further explanation of this rabbit hole would over complicate things.
I went into Doctor Strange without any knowledge about the comics. Then again, I basically go into every Marvel movie like that when they start introducing a new character. Marvel Studios has anchored their films with the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers, and now they’re breaking into their deeper cuts with stories and characters that may be new for many people. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, we’re reaching further into the obscure. Strange can be viewed without any previous knowledge of the Marvel Universe, as there are no direct tie-ins to other characters or story lines. There’s no mention of S.H.I.E.L.D, Hydra, Loki, or any member of the Stark family. Marvel knew that this film wouldn’t work early on in their foray into big screen adventures as you have to be willing to go on a very “experimental” type of journey with these characters. They trust that if you enjoyed a wise-cracking raccoon and a talking tree in Guardians, you can settle in for the mystic arts and viewpoints presented here.
One thing you’ll notice right away is that it stands apart from many of their other films in its approach all the while keeping it on brand for Marvel. It’s very sci-fi and fantasy based with an Inception meets Harry Potter tone. I had feared it would follow the typical origins type story about some arrogant man getting used to a new suit and powers thanks to advancements in technology. Okay, so maybe that premise is here but only to an extent. There are no mad scientists or bugs. It fully acknowledges that it doesn’t try to live in the reality of present day. There’s a paradox at hand as it tackles a variety of philosophical questions about how we see life, ancient healing, surrendering your ego, and the consequences of trying to break the natural order but it throws in opening time portals, shifting dimensions, and Doctor Strange’s new magical cloak. It’s also worth noting that it appears to be one of the most special effects heavy Marvel films due to how the imagery constantly bends and manipulates on itself. It’s a bizarre mix of colors and shapes as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope. Don’t worry, you shouldn’t get sick with the 3D but it provides a drug trip for the eyes.
Like the others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, casting is spot on. Benedict Cumberbatch wears the surgical gloves and cape with ease making him feel perfectly in tune with the character. It’s fun to see him as this egocentric fellow and the humor that comes from him exploring this new world. Only ardent readers of the comics will know how well he fits that version of the character. Having Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer, Michael Clayton) as the Ancient One is a risky casting choice due to the way the character is written in the comics, but Swinton handles it the only way she knows how to by bringing her quintessential avant-garde style to the Ancient One. A big blockbuster franchise doesn’t seem like the kind of project she would go for, but I’m ecstatic she went for it. She’s often accompanied by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) as Mordo. He’s one of her students learning the mystic arts and feels a bit in competition when Strange starts to excel at a faster pace. I’ve been a big fan of Rachel McAdams for years, and she’s another natural fit as Doctor Strange’s former love who finds herself thrust in this new idea of portals and dimensions. What would a Marvel movie be without its token villain? That belongs to resident antagonist Mads Mikkelson who has previously ruffled feathers as the bad guy in Casino Royale and the television version of Hannibal.
Doctor Strange follows in the line of having a relatively unknown director in charge. Scott Derrickson primarily has a horror background with the likes of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us from Evil. This is by far his biggest project, and he does a fine job of keeping Doctor Strange fun and exciting even if it’s a little bit “out there”. He has aptly brought forth the Marvel sense of humor that reminds us why these movies set themselves a part from the DC Comics movies. Many Marvel movies leave me wanting more. Not necessarily from that movie I came out of, but knowing that they’ve set up a great foundation and I’m looking forward to what’s going to come next. Mr. Cumberbatch will likely appear in the next Thor film and Avengers: Infinity War. Don’t get up too soon once the credits start as there are two post-credit sequences.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Probably not for a Marvel newbie, but it will surely please the fans.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Rudd, Daniel Brühl, Tom Holland
This is the thirteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The number 13 is typically an unlucky number for some, yet Marvel is in top form with its third Captain America film. With so many characters it may seem like the next Avengers film, but Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) and the relationship he has with best friend Bucky Barnes (Stan) is front and center. Bucky’s known as The Winter Solider and has been on the run following the events of the previous film, The Winter Soldier. He is believed to be the man responsible for an explosion at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna killing the Nigerian leader. Steve knows that Bucky wasn’t behind the explosion and seeks to find him before the authorities catch him. The man behind the explosion is Captain Helmut Zemo (Brühl) who’s after secret HYDRA reports from a December 1991 mission involving Bucky.
This isn’t the only problem plaguing Steve; the Avengers are starting to unhinge after witnessing and realizing their actions and attempts at saving the world come with a cost. Many innocent lives have been taken and an incident in Lagos, Nigeria left a shattering death toll. This all leads to the creation of the Sokovian Accords. If this passes, it would mean that the Avengers are no longer a private organization. The government would step in and control them. This concept drives a sharp divide between Captain America, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) and the rest of the Avengers.
For those following along closely at home, we have now entered Phase 3 of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Marvel continues to make smart choices with the direction of their franchises. The Winter Soldier has been lauded as one of the best in the franchise, so it was a wise move for producer Kevin Feige to keep that creative team in place with directors Joe and Anthony Russo and writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Marcus. As I think back on the entire Marvel canon, the Captain America entries have been the strongest and most consistent as they continue to evolve and raise the stakes for our central characters. You can’t just keep making the same “good guys vs. villain” film over and over or else they start to all feel the same. To a certain extent we have that here with Daniel Brühl in the villain role. The real conflict and heart of the movie falls with Steve’s relationship with Bucky and the core group of Avengers. Like many long-lasting friendships, there are times when you realize you vehemently disagree on a position. The film tackles that very concept and it’s a sharp move to ask the audience to take on that journey of how we act when we’re wrong but think we’re right. There’s an impactful image of each side lining up as if they are in a shootout at the O.K. Corral.
A majority of the fan favorite characters are back with the exception of Thor and the Hulk. Steve continues to play the role of loyal friend to Bucky as that’s the one friendship he can’t let go of from his past. It’s easier for him to turn against Tony. This is Robert Downey Jr.’s sixth film playing Tony, and we’re starting to see a very different side to the character. He’s worn down, exhausted, and no longer the hotshot playboy that we’re used to from previous films. He’s really starting to feel the ramifications of what Iron Man has done to his personal life with Pepper Potts and the lives that have been taken due to the Avengers.
Civil War also acts as the introduction to new heroes who will be getting future movies in Phase 3. Chadwick Boseman (42, Get on Up) is donning the claws as T’Challa/Black Panther. T’Challa’s father is the Nigerian leader who is killed in the U.N. attacks. It’s a relief to feel like he is given a proper arch in the film with a true conflict at hand against Bucky. The other noteworthy appearance is that of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. There had been some studio disputes involving the rights to the character who was previously played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. While it seems redundant to have yet another Spider-Man, Kevin Feige is taking a new spin on the character by reminding the audience he is actually a high school kid. This time he’s played with a spritely sense of humor by newcomer Tom Holland with Marisa Tomei popping up as lovable Aunt May. For those who were hesitant or feared he was a one-scene cameo, he is given more to do than what’s been shown in the trailers.
This film clocks in at being the Marvel film with the longest runtime at 146 minutes. In case you hadn’t noticed yet, the film has a lot of ground to cover with the multiple storylines and characters. It all coalesces together well without feeling gimmicky or a ploy to add unnecessary characters which I was originally afraid of with all of the hype surrounding the film. This can easily happen when screenwriters try to bite off more than they can chew, but I never felt lost or confused by their choices. The pace is kept up and never drags, as the action sequences are swift yet controlled in how they are edited together. I never felt like any of them suffered from being too long, which plagued Avengers: Age of Ultron and many other superhero films like DC Comics’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
I’m drawn to the superhero movies that feel like they have plausible stakes at hand. I am far more invested when the emotion and conflict is grounded in reality. Yes, you can have fun with a man who can shrink down in size, use a deadly shield, or fly around in an iron suit, but finding the proper balance is key. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have masterfully crafted their film and found that balance. Despite the serious tones and heavy weight put on Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, there is still so much humor in the film thanks to the witty script and comedic entries of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man and Tom Holland as Spider-Man. It’s a globe-trotting spectacle which fully utilizes every Avenger, side hero, and villain along the way. Just when you thought you might need a break from the superhero genre, it pulls you back in again. I need to find time in my calendar to see it a second time.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? It’s the best Marvel film in years.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS