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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

15 years. 6 movies. 3 different lead actors. 2 reboots. I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of the American public likely knows more about Spider-Man than their relatives. In 2002, the first Spider-Man movie kicked off the new century by affirming to studios that superhero movies are a sound financial investment. Director Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire kicked off the glut of superhero cinema, paving the path for the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its own unparalleled run of financial and critical success. Then the overreach killed off Raimi’s Spider franchise in 2007 and overreach again killed off Sony’s Spider reboot in 2014. Sony wisely sought out an assist from the gurus of Marvel, striking a deal and having the web-slinger return to the MCU. Fans rejoiced. Spider-Man: Homecoming announces itself as a brash, exhilarating, hilarious, and amazingly assured film that immediately lines up with the upper tier of the MCU. Marvel should use this as Exhibit A, submit it to Fox, and say, “Here’s how we can do your franchises better.”

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is your ordinary 15-year-old from Queens, New York who was given amazing powers after being bit by a radioactive (or genetically modified) spider. It’s been weeks since he was called into action by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to thwart Captain America (Chris Evans). Now Peter is back home and waiting for his literal call to adventure, for Stark to officially call him up to join the Avengers. Peter anxiously waits for school to end so he can don his Spider-Man suit, modified by Stark Industries, and fight local crime and injustice. This mostly amounts to stopping bicycle thieves, helping old ladies with directions, and other inglorious tasks. Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) would prefer he focus on his studies rather than the time he’s been spent on the “Stark internship” (his fib to cover said crime-fighting). New weapons begin appearing on the streets, built from the discarded alien technology from The Battle for New York. Spider-Man investigates the source, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a pilot who adopts the moniker of The Vulture while in the sky with his winged jet pack. The formidable weapons pose a real pressing danger to society, and Peter pushes further, at his own peril, to confront the Vulture and stop the flow of high-tech weapons.

For many fans of the webhead, this will feel like the first time they’re watching the Spider-Man of the comics on screen. This is the first film incarnation where Peter remains in high school for the entire duration of the movie, and it’s also thankfully the only telling that eschews an origin story. He just is Spider-Man, however, the arc of the movie is him settling into that identity. It’s in many ways a coming-of-age story for the superhero set, as Peter has to come to terms with his earnest desire to help others and his own maturation, both as Spider-Man and as a high school sophomore. He’s learning just as much to be Peter as he is Spider-Man. Just because he has these powers doesn’t mean he’s ready for the rigors of the world. Homecoming is very much a high school movie. There are familiar John Hughes influences throughout, and the film smartly subverts certain high school tropes (driving lessons, prom dad from hell). It presents our hero struggling with asking the cute upperclassman (Laura Harrier) to the dance just as much as the demands of being a fledgling local superhero. His interior life is much more available and relatable but he’s still a teen navigating the world. Also, by having Peter be the youngest film incarnation yet, it allows for the satisfying indulgence of superhero wish-fulfillment. Whereas the X-Men powers are naturally linked to the progression of puberty, those are usually portrayed as a curse, something that ostracizes, confuses, and produces great anxiety and fear. With Spider-Man, being a superhero is the coolest thing in the world. He’s not consumed with angst like Andrew Garfield’s broody Peter Parker and his weirdly special DNA (what was the deal with his parents and that conspiracy? Oh well). Watching this exuberant Peter Parker embrace his new abilities with glee is a great way to keep the movie light and bouncy.

This is also, bar none, the funniest film yet in the MCU (yes, even dethroning Guardians of the Galaxy). With the lighter tone, the movie finds consistent opportunities to inject comedy, from the irony of Peter trying to lead a normal life, to the awkwardness of Peter’s attempts at crime-fighting, to his over eager demeanor, to misunderstandings and hasty excuse-making to conceal his double life, to the sterling supporting cast of characters that contribute different flavors of jokes when called upon. If anything there is so many talented supporting players I wanted even more time with them (Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr). This cast is a comedic embarrassment of riches.

I was laughing pretty much from beginning to end with Homecoming. Just thinking back on the school’s morning announcements (complete with anchor Betty Brant) makes me giggle. Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the movie’s chief source of comic relief, and in less careful hands he would become rapidly annoying. Instead, he’s a reliable presence and given a character arc with a payoff of his own, his desire to be Peter’s “guy in the chair.” It’s genuinely impressive screenwriting when even the comic relief sidekicks have arcs. Zendaya does an impressive job of selling every one of her jokes, which traffic in a very specific smart-aleck, apathetic tone. She’s graduated from the Disney Channel to the bigger leagues. There’s a hysterical series of inspirational education videos featuring Captain America, and if you stay past the end credits there’s a great payoff for that. There’s even some sly meta jokes calling back to Raimi’s Spider-Man. Every joke at least lands and most of them hit hard, benefiting from strong development and timing.

Nevertheless, just because it happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year, Spider-Man: Homecoming still finds plenty of space to be dramatic and thrilling. The comedy doe not tonally detract from the other elements. This is not an insubstantial movie just because it knows how to have some fun (take notes, Zack Snyder and DC). This is not a flippant movie because of tone or the heavy joke quotient. There are sincerely sweet moments born out of the characterization, like when Aunt May takes it upon herself to teach Peter how to dance (this would not be possible with a geriatric Aunt May). Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) has a steady command with his high-flying visuals and maintains the tight walk of tone that allows all the elements to work together as a blissful whole.

There are superb action sequences that advance the story forward and allow for the characters to grow. It’s exactly what good action is supposed to do, besides, you know, quicken the pulse. The humor can also arise naturally from these set pieces. Take for instance Peter suiting up while attending a suburban house party. He spots some alarming energy discharges on the other side of the suburb, but without any tall buildings for him to latch onto, he has to hoof it the whole way on foot. It’s a smart comedic aside and it helps to remind us that this Spider-Man isn’t an instant pro after getting his powers. It all comes together best in a D.C. rescue at the Washington Monument. It bridges the personal with the action. The bifurcated ferry set piece serves as the Act Two break and it’s a killer segment that pushes Peter to his limits to solve a dilemma that seems incapable of being fixed. There may not be any action scene to rival Raimi’s finest but the character-centric action and the organic development of the complications lays a foundation for a consistently entertaining film littered with joyful payoffs.

The biggest fear I’ve read from Spidey fans was that the involvement of Robert Downey Jr. would tip the scales, turning a Spider-Man movie into a defaco Iron Man sequel. Considering America loves Iron Man, I don’t see how his inclusion is a problem. Civil War was still very much a Captain America film even though Iron Man was the co-lead. Tony Stark represents a distant mentor for Peter and also the gatekeeper. Peter is anxious to become an Avenger and looking for Stark’s approval, which brings an enjoyably unorthodox paternal side from Downey. If there is a complaint I can foresee, it will be that Spider-Man is too similar to Iron Man thanks to the special suit. Spider-Man’s suit has its own Jarvis-style A.I. program (adeptly voiced by Jennifer Connelly, wife to Paul Bettany, former voice of Jarvis) and extra special gadgets including a spider drone and unusual web shooting options. It provides a new sense of discovery for the character since we’re already starting with him powered. The second act is Peter getting accustomed to the boost his suit gives him, becoming reliant upon them, and then having it stripped away as a natural Act Two break so that the conclusion has even more stakes without the security of the suit. It makes Peter much more vulnerable. The Iron Man parts are more a background motivational force and this is still very much a Spider-Man film.

Holland (The Lost City of Z) is already my favorite Spider-Man. Period. He made such an immediate and strong impression in Civil War that I was greatly looking forward to his first big starring venture, and Holland does not disappoint. This is the first Spider-Man that doesn’t feel crushed by the heavy burden of being a superhero. He’s a kid eager to grow up and join the world of other caped crusaders, but he’s modeled his crime fighting from what he’s seen on TV. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s still an awkward kid, and Holland brings great authenticity to the smaller character moments and the bigger heroic strides (while maintaining a convincing American accent). This is a more relatable, vulnerable, and interesting Peter Parker. Even though he thinks he should be beyond the mundane life of high school, he doesn’t ever act pompous or look down on other characters, which is endearing. At times Holland feels like he’s going to explode with energy, as if life is too much to process in the intermediary. He’s a teenager and the world feels so big and open. It’s an instantly engaging and likeable portrayal that wonderfully capitalizes on the introduction from Civil War. This is a Spider-Man, and his spider world, that I want multiple sequels to further explore and challenge.

Keaton’s Vulture already ranks as one of the best villains in the MCU (a low bar, I admit), and that’s because the movie humanizes him and gives him significant moments. He’s just a regular working-class man trying to provide for his family. In fact the first five minutes of the movie focus exclusively on Toomes and explains his sticky situation. He feels cast aside by those in the upper echelons of power. His eventual “you and I are the same” speech to Spider-Man has credible points. You can see, from his perspective, how he’s an underdog sticking it to the rich elites. Shockingly, there’s only one death in the entire movie and even that is an accident. Toomes is not your standard comic book villain, and there’s a brilliant third act twist that makes him even more centrally involved in the narrative. That opens a delicious sequence of dramatic irony. Keaton has a quiet menace to him that’s very unsettling. It’s all in the lower register. His character doesn’t blow up. He just narrows his brow and intensifies that scary stare. I’m glad the filmmakers realized that more Keaton was an asset to the film.

Let’s also take some time to celebrate the sixth Spider-Man movie for having a diverse population of characters that would actually represent Queens. Peter’s best friend is of Filipino descent, the girl he crushes on is biracial, the loner girl is biracial, and even the high school bully, Flash Thompson, is Hispanic, played by Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel. This might be Marvel’s most diverse cast yet, though “yet” being the operative word considering that Black Panther is arriving in early 2018.

This movie is a total blast. Spider-Man: Homecoming actually manages to give new life to a character that has already appeared in five other movies. That’s an amazing feat. Another amazing feat is that six different screenwriters, including the director, are credited with this movie, yet it feels fully coherent in its vision and presentation. This is Peter Parker, the teenager struggling with self-doubt, hormones, and an eagerness to grow up, and the movie feels much more human-scaled, forgoing giant CGI smash-em-ups for something more grounded, personally involving, and ultimately successful. Just because Homecoming is fast-paced and funny doesn’t mean it lacks substance. I was elated during long portions of this movie, impressed by the steady stream of setups and payoffs, the incorporation of the many characters and comedic voices, and the varied action set pieces that were focused on character progression. If you are tired of superhero stories, I’d still heartily recommend this movie. Dear reader, I feel like I’m failing you and turning into a frothing fanboy because I can only think, at worst, of negligible quibbles against the film. Everything in this movie works. Everything. It’s everything I was hoping for and then some.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

If Marvel was ever going to have a dud in its near historic run of blockbuster success, it should have been Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that asked audiences to care about a talking raccoon and a tree creature who could only say three words. And yet that movie had me in tears by the end, and I was not alone. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) graduated from Troma to demented indie films to the Big Time with studio tentpoles. A sequel was fast-tracked and is definitely one of the most highly anticipated films of 2017 not named Star Wars. Can Gunn still deliver fans what they want without falling into the morass that is fan service, a sticky trap that can sap big-budget sequels of differentiation and make them feel more like product?

Set mere months after the events of the first film, the Guardians are enjoying their newfound celebrity and taking lucrative for-hire jobs. Star-Lord a.k.a. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are still going through their will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still looking to gain the upper hand. Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is growing up and still cute. Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family and trying to better fit in. And Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still making rebellious, self-destructive decisions, like stealing valuables from The Sovereign, a race of genetically bred golden snobs. The leader of the Sovereign, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, looking good in gold), declares a bounty on the Guardians for their disrespect. The Ravagers are hired to collect the Guardians, though Captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hesitant to go after his surrogate son, Peter. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Ego (Kurt Russell), a mystifying man who happens to also be a living planet and Peter’s biological father.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is highly enjoyable with great moments, great action, and great characters but I was left feeling like it was a step or two behind the original and I’ve been trying to articulate just why that is. I thought perhaps it was better to be upfront. I think it all stems from the fact that it’s not as fresh the second time, it doesn’t quite have the same blast of attitude and personality to disarm and take you by surprise, and I’ll admit part of this is just due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a hugely popular movie. However, also because of this there are now a set of expectations that Gunn is leaning towards because audiences now have acute demands.

We have an idea of what a Guardians of the Galaxy movie can provide, and from those demands spur creative decisions that don’t fully feel as integrated this go-round as they did in the first film. It feels like Gunn is trying to also work within a box he’s created for himself, and for the most part he succeeds admirably, but it still feels slightly lesser. The standout musical moment occurs during an opening credits that involve an action sequence from a Baby Groot-eyed point of view. As the Guardians are flying and falling to destroy a ferocious alien blob in the background, Groot is strutting and dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO. It’s a moment of unrestrained pleasure and it also undercuts action movie conventions by having a majority of the events obscured or implied. It’s the moment that feels the most like that electric feeling of discovery from the first film. There are also 80s pop-culture references and cameos and some off-kilter comedy again. Much of it is fun, especially one cameo in particular as it relates to Peter’s father, but they also have the noticeable feel of boxes to be checked, expected items that now must be incorporated in what a Guardians of the Galaxy feature should be. Expectations can lead to fan service and then that leads to less chances and originality. Hey, I loved the 2014 original and consider it my favorite Marvel movie so I don’t want them to simply chuck out everything that worked just for something one hundred percent different. You want what you loved but you don’t want it exactly the same, which is the creative bind. Gunn leans into what the audience wants and I can’t fault him too hard. It’s still a really good film.

What Guardians vol. 2 does best is remind you why you love these characters. It even elevates a group of supporting players from the first movie into characters you genuinely care about, chiefly Nebula and Yondu. Both of these characters were slightly defanged antagonists in the first film, problems but problems you didn’t want to see go away. Yondu gets the biggest boost thanks to the thematic bridge of Peter’s search for his father. The notorious leader of the Ravagers has a definite soft spot for the scrappy human and it’s finally come to a head with his tempestuous crew. They mutiny on Yondu and declare him to be an unfit leader, unable to do what is necessary. This direction allows for a lot of introspection for a character that was essentially just Michael Rooker in blue paint. He has a history to him and he makes a moral deviation from his expected path, one that bears ongoing consequences. He’s Peter’s real surrogate father, and his acceptance of this reality brings a snarling secondary antagonist into the realm of a full-blown character that earns our empathy (a Mary Poppins joke also had me in stitches).

The same can be said for Nebula, who is working out some serious daddy issues. She is the stepsister to Gamora and holds quite a grudge against her green sibling. It seems that their father, Thanos, would constantly pit them against one another, and Nebula would always lose, and with each loss came a painful consequence. It’s the kind of back-story that’s given more time to breathe and develop. It opens up an antagonist into another person who is dealing with trauma and pain and who doesn’t play well with others, which seems as good a job description to join the Guardians as anything. Nebula has a fearsome sense of competition with her sister, and that parlays into some fun over-the-top action sequences. When the movie allows the two women to talk, as surviving sisters of rather than enemies, is where Nebula comes into her own.

Gunn makes sure there’s a grounded and emotional core to his characters, which makes these appealing underdogs and antiheroes ever easier to root for. Guardians vol. 2 doesn’t really move the overall plot forward too much but it does explore the relationships and their personal lives with greater depth and clarity. The characters are spread out into smaller pairings for a majority of the extended second act, which allows interesting connections and developments due to the personalities. Drax is paired with Ego’s assistant/pet Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and it’s an instantly winning couple, a man who only speaks literally and a woman who is able to channel the feelings of strangers through touch. They’re both relied upon for the greatest amount of comic relief and they routinely deliver. Klementieff (Old Boy) is a wide-eyed delight. Rocket and Yondu being stuck together allows for both to come to realizations that feel organic though also too fated by Gunn’s hand. Their general disregard for decorum leads to some great action sequences. Gamora and Nebula are working through their family issues and it makes both more interesting. When they come to a form of resolution it still feels awkward but earnest and right. But the biggest personal exploration is Peter and his own lingering space daddy issues.

Another fantastic addition to the movie was the character of Ego because of the wonderfully charming Russell (The Hateful Eight) and also because of what the character allows for. The very fact that Ego is a millions-year-old living planet is a clever curveball for the Peter Quill “who’s your daddy?” mystery sweepstakes. It also opens all sorts of intriguing questions that the second act wades through, like the exact mechanics of how Ego exists, projects a Russell-looking avatar, and what is his ultimate purpose. I’m going to steer away from spoilers but fans of the comic will already have suspicions where this whole father/son reconciliation may lead, and you won’t be disappointed. Russell radiates paternal warmth and it goes a ways to cover up the purposeful obfuscation of the character. Because Gunn has to hold back on certain revelations, some of them gasp-worthy, he can’t open up the father/son dynamic too fast or too unambiguous. As a result, the latent bonding relies upon more familiar touchstones, like throwing the ball out back with your pops or sharing a love of music. Russell makes even the most ridiculous thing sound reasonable, which is important considering we’re talking about a planet boning ladies.

Gunn also takes several steps forward as a visual filmmaker with the sequel. He has a great feel for visual comedy and how to undercut the more boilerplate heroic moments in other superhero fair. He fills his screen with crazy, bight, psychedelic colors and has a Tarantino-esque instinct for marrying film with the right song. The sequel doesn’t have as many iconic moments set to music but it will play most agreeably. The special effects are pretty terrific all around but I appreciate that Gunn doesn’t allow the movie to feel overwhelmed by them, which is important considering there are fundamentally CGI-only characters. Gunn’s action sequences, chases, escapes, and breakouts are presented with plenty of dazzling style and witty attitude to spare without feeling obnoxious. The comedy is consistently funny and diverting. There’s a bit with the need for tape that just keeps going and actually becomes funnier the longer it goes, undercutting the end-of-the-universe stakes with the search for something as mundane as tape. My screening was presented in 3D and I was worried about the film being set in space and being too dark. This is not the case at all, and while the 3D isn’t a high selling point like it was for Doctor Strange, it is a nice experience that doesn’t dilute Gunn’s gonzo color scheme. The level of thought put into his novelties can be staggering, like an end credits series of dancing clips that also manages to play upon a character note for Drax. Gunn manages to further comment on characterization even during the freaking end credits. The final showdown goes on a bit longer than necessary and is the only section of the movie that feels consumed by CGI spectacle, but the fact that only the end feels this way can be considered another small triumph of Gunn fighting through a corporate system.

Marvel knows what it’s doing to a molecular level. Almost ten years into their system, they know what works in their criss-crossing franchises and how to calibrate them for maximum audience satisfaction. At this point after Guardians, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, they’ve more than earned the benefit of the doubt no matter the premise. However, entrenched success has a way of calcifying audience expectations. Guardians of the Galaxy was so funky, so different, so anarchic, and so wildly enjoyable. It should only be expected that the things that made it different would now be folded into audience expectations. The misfits can only be misfits for so long. It may not be as brash and fun or memorable as the first edition but it does benefit from the strong rapport of its cast and the deeper characterization, tackling some serious subjects while still slow motion stepping to a murder montage set to the golden oldies of the 1970s. The movie matters not because of the action, or the funny one-liners, or the adorableness of Baby Groot. It’s because we genuinely love these oddball characters. The first one introduced them and brought them together, and the second film deepens their bonds and widens their scope of family. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a sequel that provides just about everything that fans should want. If it feels slightly lesser it’s probably just because it can’t be fresh twice, but Guardians vol. 2 still dances to its own beat and it’s still a beautiful thing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Doctor Strange (2016)

doctor-strange-comic-con-posterAfter eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.

doctor-strange-movie-tilda-swinton-benedict-cumberbatchDoctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.

After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.

I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.

doctor-strange-spell-cumberbatchThe acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.

With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.

Nate’s Grade: A-

 

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

captain-america-civil-war-15Think you were disappointed by last summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron? The pressure-packed experience broke writer/director Joss Whedon who swore off being the creative shepherd of the Marvel cinematic Universe (MCU). Enter the Russo brothers, a pair who were widely known for their work in eclectic TV comedies like Community and Arrested Development before blowing away all modest expectations with 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier. I can say that the Russos are more than capable for the challenge. My simplistic blurb for Captain America: Civil War is thus: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong this movie does right.

After the cataclysmic events of multiple movie climaxes, the world governments are wary of the power wielded by the Avengers. Secretary Ross (William Hurt, the lone returning element from 2008’s Incredible Hulk) is pushing the superheroes to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would put them under the control of a U.N. joint panel. This panel would decide when and where to deploy the Avengers. Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is worried about a group of people taking away their choice. Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), believes that they need to accept limitations and that agreeing to these terms staves off something worse later. This division becomes even more pronounced when Rogers’ old friend the Winter Soldier, a.k.a. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), reappears as the chief suspect in a U.N. bombing. Black Panther, a.k.a. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), swears vengeance against Barnes for the bombing. As the assembly of heroes squares off over the fate of the Winter Soldier, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is tracking down classified Hydra documents to uncover pertinent information that will topple an empire.

Captain-America-Civil-War-Team-Cap-attackingWhile I don’t want to turn every new film review as an opportunity to beat a dead horse, I cannot help but draw immediate and stark comparisons between Civil War and the earlier titanic superhero slugfest, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Let’s take this case point by point so there is no reasonable doubt left for the jury of ticket-buyers.

Batman vs. Superman doesn’t set up its conflicts with enough time to develop them and it lacks real emotional stakes.”

With BvS (I’m saving my fingertips some drudgery), we hadn’t known these characters for more than one movie at best, and in the case of Bruce Wayne less than one. When they fought there wasn’t any real stakes despite the apoplectic marketing because we hadn’t built relationships with these characters. In the case of Henry Cavill’s Superman, many were turned off entirely by the guy (not necessarily by Cavill’s physique, though). Did anyone really care who won? The filmmakers relied on the audience to supply their pop-culture good will for the characters instead of proper characterization and development. In the case of Civil War, we’re dealing with the cumulative effect of having twelve movies to build up storylines and character relationships. We’re invested in these characters and their friendships, so when they fight it actually does matter. You feel for both sides and multiple characters and the movie does a good job of providing each side a credible motivation. It’s a political thorny issue but it’s kept very streamlined, focusing more on the characters. If the MCU has had one nagging problem throughout its history it has been a dearth of good villains. There’s Loki and… Loki. One solution is to just pit the heroes against each other and this produces as many fist-bumps as winces. My audience was gasping at reveals and twists and turns. They weren’t doing that with BvS. And wouldn’t you know Civil War actually has a climax that’s more than just an increasing series of punches and kicks (though plenty of those are featured); the climax is an emotionally grounded confrontation that cuts to the core of the group. The events of this movie matter and while obviously it can’t follow its divisions to an irrevocable end, I appreciated that not everything is resolved. These storylines and the conflicts between characters will carry onward when we pick up the pieces in 2018.

Batman vs. Superman is too burdened with setting up an array of other film franchises that it loses badly needed focus and momentum.”

Captain-America-Civil-War-images-previewTo be fair, this charge can also be laid at the feet of Age of Ultron, which buckled under the heavy weight of setting up multiple other future movies rather than telling a completely satisfying movie in its own right. Once the franchises gave birth to mega-franchises, the wheels-within-wheels of moneymaking, now the studios require a lot of heavy lifting from our entertainment. They’re investments in futures and if done improperly can easily crumble under the failed execution like the Amazing Spider-Man series (R.I.P. 2012-2014). Miraculously, Civil War finds ways to involve every member of a large ensemble cast into the story in ways that matter. The movie finds small character moments that make them feel better rounded, like Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and it introduces featured supporting players with great care. Black Panther is a terrific addition and brings a quieter intensity that contrasts nicely with the more colorful characters. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) introduces himself and Black Panther curtly says, “I don’t care” and goes back to fighting. Boseman (ageless I tell you!) is smooth and magnetic. Then there’s everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or whom I’m already referring to my pals as “best Spider-Man.” It’s another incarnation of Peter Parker but the first that feels like an actual teenager, a bundle of adolescent energy and excitement. He’s the voice of the fans and during the big battle he can’t help but gush that he gets to be involved alongside the big names. Spidey’s a fanboy too. He also has a few choice meta one-liners that had me cackling. Holland (The Impossible) makes an immediate impact and, unlike BvS, finds new ways to make us care. I’m genuinely excited for solo Black Panther and Spider-Man adventures with these characters. Even the more traditional villain of Civil War, Baron Zemo, is handled in a way that provides an emotional motivation for his character that is sincere rather than mustache-twirling villainy. In a lot of ways this feels like a third Avengers film just with the size and scope alone. The dozen characters are juggled skillfully but the emphasis is always on Rogers and Stark and their significant personal conflicts.

Batman vs. Superman’s action sequences are repetitive, joyless, and dank.”

I challenge some enterprising soul to even try and decipher what is happening during the climactic three-on-one monster battle in BvS. I was sitting in the theater and just gave up. I wasn’t having any fun and I couldn’t even literally tell what was happening onscreen with all the confusing CGI obfuscation. The action droned on and on with little variation and was at pains to include certain members and storylines (Lois, maybe don’t get so hasty with that kryptonite spear). It was all just one big overwrought mess that made you question whether anybody on that film production actually liked these superheroes. With Civil War, the action sequences are smartly conceived and choreographed, making excellent use of geography and adding organic complications. The standout is the 20-minute superhero-on-superhero brawl at the Leipzig airport. It is nothing short of nerd nirvana. The characters use their powers together in exciting ways and it further helps them feel like an actual team taking proper advantage of their resources. It’s the culmination of a child’s imagination at play, the living embodiment of smashing action figures against one another and flying around the room. I was thrilled that the Russo brothers found ways to incorporate all the heroes into the action. The specific powers are taken advantage of in fun and surprising ways. The action changes as the stakes keep getting more complicated as more heroes enter the fray. It’s a set piece that will become legendary within film geek circles and it provides payoff after glorious payoff.

Batman vs. Superman is devoid of all fun and takes itself far too seriously. You feel beaten down, exhausted, and punished by film’s end.”

captain-america-civil-war-spider-manThe Marvel movies have earned a reputation for their brisk and breezy nature, which has unfairly been labeled as “weightless” and “silly.” I challenge someone to watch Civil War and tell me just how weightless and silly it is. The Russo brothers and the screenwriters take these characters seriously and their care shows. While there can be plenty of rapid-fire quips and one-liners, the movie’s sense of humor does not detract from the emotional weight of its dramatic shifts. There are political and thematic overtones, mostly the costs of vengeance and culpability, that provide extra depth to the onscreen derring-do. However, Civil War understands that an audience wants to be entertained as well with their heavy-handed messianic imagery. There are payoffs galore in this movie. Some are several movies deep from set up. It all comes together to make a thrilling and highly enjoyable movie experience that plays to its audience in the best way possible. It’s an expert summer blockbuster that packs its own punch. There’s a reason I have already seen Civil War three times already. There is so much to enjoy and it’s so tightly packed and structured that you can jump right in and go for the ride. This is the movie fans were hoping for. This is the movie that washes out the bad taste of the dreadful BvS. If one of my lasting disappointments with BvS was how it made me lose hope for future DC movies, Civil War has cemented my anticipation. The future creative direction of the MCU is in good hands with the Russo brothers. This is the movie that reminds you just how damn good superhero movies can be when they’re at the top of their game. I’d place Civil War right up there at the top of the MCU, though at this time I’m still holding Guardians of the Galaxy as the apex. They’re still achieving this high level of quality after a dozen movies, people. I would not have thought that Captain America would become the gold standard of the MCU but there it is. I felt beaten down by the merciless end of BvS. I felt the elation of an adrenaline-rush from Civil War.

I’ll conclude this unorthodox film review with my in-summary blurb: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong Captain America: Civil War does right. Do yourself a favor and start the healing process from BvS and enjoy Marvel’s latest cinematic gift to its fans.

Nate’s Grade: A

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

10869325_591589580977275_2778898650041679518_oThe Avengers wasn’t just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and rewrote the Hollywood playbook in the summer of 2012. It wasn’t just about powerful franchises anymore. Now it was about franchises that would link into a super franchise. Sony got anxious to expand their Spider-Man universe in a similar fashion as Marvel had done in buildup to The Avengers. After one poor movie, that plan was scuttled and now Spider-Man is being rebooted for the second time in five years, this time with active help from Marvel itself (look for Spidey to appear in Captain America 3). Writer/director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was the mastermind behind the jaunty smash-em-up fun of The Avengers and was quickly signed on for a sequel after the billion-dollar mark was crossed. With great success comes great risk of upsetting that continued success. It feels like Whedon’s hands were tied to the greater forces at work. As a result, I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still disappointed with how muddled and overstuffed as Age of Ultron comes across.

The Avengers are cleaning up the last remnants of HYDRA, taking them to a castle in a fictional Eastern European country. The HYDRA doctor has been genetically experimenting on volunteers, birthing Wanda “Scarlet Witch” (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She can tap into people’s minds and he can run super fast. They’ve got a grudge against the Avengers, particularly industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark takes a piece of alien technology and plugs it into his home system to build a super fleet of automated robots to patrol the world. In no time, the A.I. has taken form in the shape of an insane robot named Ultron (James Spader) whose mission is to save the planet by eliminating mankind. He builds an army of robotic soldiers with the assistance of the Maximoff twins. Tony, along with Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), must stop Ultron while not destroying much of the world themselves with their collateral damage.

avengers-age-of-ultron-trailer-hulkbusterEleven movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a movie of the size of an Avengers sequel cannot simply be a movie. It’s too important to the overall vision of the MCU, and so it has to set up and establish other characters, franchises, and the many monetary tributaries that keep the world of superheroes going. It’s already got a slew of superheroes and it adds even more new faces into the mix (I guess we needed an Avengers B-Team). The development of Ultron is also far too rushed; it’s literally minutes from being plugged in that he’s already settled into kill-all-Avengers mode. The movie barely has any time to even contemplate the perils of artificial intelligence before Ultron is already proving their fears correct. While Ultron is a fun villain (more on that later) his plan feels quite haphazard. His biggest strategic advantage is his duplication, the fact that he can exist without a physical body and can inhabit many bodies at once. Except for a hasty escape via the Internet and a climax stuffed with CGI robot mayhem, this advantage isn’t really explored. Why does a self-replicating creature beyond the bounds of physicality need or even desire a physical body? If you’re made from a nigh indestructible metal and can control numerous beings at once with a hive-mind intelligence link, why would you want to be turned into flesh thanks to what amounts to a 3D printer? The introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany, this time in the flesh) is quite muddled and confusing. The incorporation of the Maximoff twins is awkward and they feel more like accessories than needed additions. This Quicksilver doesn’t come anywhere close to the memorable prankish Quicksilver from Days of Future Past. The pacing of the film is so ramped that it feels like the movie is falling over itself to get to the next large-scale action set piece. At 140 minutes, they could have removed one or two action pieces and devoted more time to streamlining and cleaning up the narrative.

And the action sequences start off with a bang but they invariably fizzle out. The opening sequence begins with a Birdman-styled tracking shot to connect all our fighters, and it’s a fun way to kick things off while visually tying together the team. The Hulk vs. Iron Man brawl is fun for a while, partly because it harkens back to the pleasures of the first film, namely watching our heroes battle each other as much as the villains. After a while, the CGI onslaught becomes overwhelming and just dulls the senses. You’re watching CGI smash into other CGI and then keep smashing, with little variation. The disappointment with the action is that it too often feels weightless and hollow. It has glimmers of fun but it can’t hold onto these glimmers because the action doesn’t change. It gets bigger and more chaotic, yes, but it doesn’t develop with organic complications and real attention to setting. These big battles could happen anywhere because they almost all descend into simply fighting amidst rubble. Even Iron Man 3 found ways to spice up its action set pieces through complications, limitations, and clear differentiation. Perhaps this is a larger outcry of fatigue with the overall state of CGI overkill in effects-driven films. The concluding fight versus Ultron and his many copies just feels like the same scene on repeat but in slightly different locations. Whedon has shown an affinity to coordinate exciting and satisfying action sequences, but you just feel like the pressure and demands get the better of him.

However, every moment with Ultron onscreen is a highpoint because of the malicious cattiness of Spader (TV’s The Blacklist). He’s a perfect fit for a character who is at turns childish and petty, bonkers, and condescending. In some ways he’s like a giant robotic teenager who thinks he’s just above the rest of these so-called adults. It’s such an enjoyable villain, an area of real need in most MCU films (Loki can’t be everywhere for every movie), that I wanted more and more of him. My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey describes Ultron as the villainous alternative Tony Stark, and Whedon does a fine job of laying out the parallels, especially with regards to ego. It’s a weird reunion for the stars of 1987’s Less Than Zero.

The most boring characters, i.e. the humans, are the ones that get the biggest expansion for character development, with mixed results. Let’s face it, Hawkeye is never going to be anyone’s favorite Avenger. I think even he acknowledges this in a moment that almost breaks down the fourth wall (“None of this makes sense. I’m fighting with a bow and arrow.”). Hawkeye’s personal life is given a spotlight and it sets up an obvious worry that he’s going to bite it by film’s end. If there was an expendable member of this team, it would have to be Hawkeye. The added attention and personal attachments seem like a dead giveaway that he’s going to be dead. I don’t think I was any more invested in his character knowing about his hidden life outside the Avengers, but I certainly played a game of, “Is this gonna be it?” as the film continued. Black Widow started as an interesting character, a spy trying to make amends for her bloody past, or the “red in [her] ledger,” as they referred in the previous film. Her budding romance with Banner makes some sense but it still feels like the character is being forced into Romantic mode not because of her character but mostly because she has a vagina. Any romance with a guy who turns green and monstrous seems like it might be best as unrequited. She’s also defined by a past trauma that, while upsetting and cruel, is also a bit too tied into her identity as Woman/Mother. It’s an unfortunate positioning for what is an inherently interesting character (the slut shaming of the character in promotional interviews by certain Avengers cast members is also highly unfortunate). Can’t we get a Black Widow movie yet, Marvel?

The-Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-645x370An aspect of Age of Ultron I did enjoy was how conscious the heroes are about mitigating collateral damage and especially human casualties. At every turn, the Avengers are thinking about saving those caught in the cross-hairs first. They go out of their way to save those left behind. I think, and I’m not alone in this conclusion, that Whedon is directly responding to the disaster porn that was Zack Snyder’s miserly Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie bothered me with how callous it was with human life, treating devastating city-wide 9/11-style destruction as mere entertainment. As Superman and Zod were colliding through every damn building in Metropolis, you knew thousands if not millions of unseen people were perishing in this rather pointless melee. Whedon’s band of heroes places a priority on human life regardless of region.

It would be disingenuous of me to say Age of Ultron is not entertaining. Whedon is still a terrific storyteller and that still shines through the troubled areas and spotty plotting. The action makes good use of the various heroes and their abilities, providing fun combos like Cap hurling his super shield so Thor can redirect it further with his hammer. The use of humor was one of the bigger enjoyments of the first Avengers, and while it’s still abundant and enjoyable here as well I’d say it’s overdone. When every character is cracking quips every fourth line of dialogue, it pulls you out of the movie and the stakes feel lesser. The running joke where the Avengers make fun of Captain America for his prudish sensibilities on profanity is a joke that works at first but then loses all sense of fun as it’s pounded into the ground on repetition. The larger set pieces each have their moments to delight, especially the opening and the Hulk vs. Iron Man battle. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie and it has some truly great moments and great character moments and payoffs, but it’s only moments. The plot meant to connect the dots is too labored with the burden of setting up several Marvel franchises. In the MCU pecking order, I’d place Age of Ultron right around Iron Man 2 quality (another movie compromised by the extra burden of setting up other movies, namely The Avengers).

It’s sure to set box-office records and I imagine fans of the original will happily lap up another super team-up, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a disappointment for me. The more I think about it the fun parts become a little duller and I find more areas of criticism. It’s just not as fun a movie experience, and that’s due to the rushed and muddled story and too many characters. After the critical and commercial success of the first film, I doubt that Whedon could have produced a film that would live up to the sky-high expectations, but that doesn’t excuse the finished product. It feels like Whedon had to struggle to pull this one off, especially with the added demands, and I can’t blame him for wanting a break from the MCU. The Russo brothers who so dazzled audiences with their direction of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be stepping in to direct the next Avengers sequel(s). I hope they’re up to the task because the burden of carrying a billion-dollar franchise with its tendrils connected to other franchises appears to have been overwhelming for one of the greatest storytellers of a generation. Enjoy Age of Ultron but be wary of what the future holds for the larger MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

imagesWho would have guessed that a movie that featured a talking tree and an anthropomorphic raccoon would be one of the best films of the year and one of the top grossing films of the summer? At this point for audiences, the Marvel name can do no wrong, but really it’s the degree of latitude given to Guardians of the Galaxy, an admittedly weird movie with strange characters, that allows this unique film to shine. Attaching offbeat director James Gunn (Super, Slither) to be writer and director was a risk that paid off tremendously, as Guardians is the Marvel film most entrenched with the particular personality of its creative director. This is a gleefully imaginative film that enjoys wading deep into weirdness, dancing to its adventurous Star Wars throwback beat, always with its focus set on comedy but not at the expense of quality drama or character development. Really, the characters are the focus of this entry into the franchise, and Gunn and his actors do a bang-up job of gathering the team and getting you to care about each and every one of them. Each one of these characters has a goal, several payoffs, and each is given their proper attention. In an ordinary superhero film, the archetypes would be ironclad. With Guardians, the tough guy made of muscle can also be a source of unexpected comedy with his literal-minded speech patterns. With Guardians, the talking raccoon can also be an emotionally disturbed victim of genetic experimentation who doesn’t know how to play well with others. These are damaged characters and their formation of an unconventional family unit is deeply satisfying and rather touching. I have seen the film twice and gotten teary-eyed both times. The real star of the film is Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation), and what a breakout role he is afforded; he’s like Han Solo’s more juvenile nephew. But like the others, the part is surprising in its depth, with a well of sadness and displacement he still hasn’t processed while he scavenges the galaxy. The plot can be a bit unwieldy at times but pays off better for repeat viewings. This is a world I want to spend far more time exploring and with these characters as my merry prankster guides. With a movie this action-packed, thoroughly entertaining, and gratifying, why come back to Earth?

Nate’s Grade: A

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