Category Archives: Marvel Cinematic Universe

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is the third stand alone film based the character of Thor, who is in turned based on the mythological Norse god of Thunder. Many people feel that Marvel studios have been floundering a bit with what exactly to di with this character. His first outing in Thor many said was a story and scope that seemed to small, too constrained for such a gran operatic character, while the second movie Thor: The Dark World many accused of trying too hard for gravitas. Personally, I enjoyed both movies and Blu-rays of each sit in my library, but they are also not my favorite films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This time out Thro is dealing with Ragnarok, the Norse myth’s end of days prophecy, and event being hastened along by Hela the Norse goddess of the death. Taking a tonal cue from the successful Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, Thor: Ragnarok is a film that has serious potiential outcomes for its character and the MCU’s grander continuity while also playing many of it’s beats and scene for laughs. This is a very difficult balance to effect and while I think there were one or two miscues overall Thor Rangarok lands well and it a very entertaining movie. Chris Hemsworth, following on his performance in the remake of Ghostbuster, proves that comedic muscles he displayed in that re-envisioning were no fluke. Mastering the emotional turns of dram to comedy with flair and competence. Tom Hiddleston continue to show why he is the most popular actor in the MCU, and sadly Idris Elba continues to be criminally underused for an actor of his tremendous talents. Of course it wouldn’t be an MCU film without newcomers to welcome to the grand canvas. Tessa Thompson show good range and depth with her character, a scavenger with a mysterious toe to Asgard. However it is Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster that simply steals scene after scene, proving that while Hiddleston and Hemsworth has charisma and talent they are no match for old age and treachery. Goldblum has always guided his performances with a off-center balance that makes them difficult to predict, and in this role his abandons all pretense of balance craft a villain that is at turns comedic, threatening, and full of guile. Of course there has been plenty of chatter about Cate Blanchet as Hela. Cate is Cate and her performance is enjoyable. What a treat it would have been had Hela and Grandmaster share a scene or two.

Mark Ruffalo returns as Banner/Hulk and for the first time I truly enjoyed a Hulk sub-plot. Upping the characters’ verbal abilities and improved FX makes it possibel to have the Hulk as a character.

If you enjoyed and mix of drama, action, and comedy seen in the two Guardians of the Galaxy films then Thor: Ragnarok is likely to be a hit with you.

Share

Movie Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

With his appearance in Captain American: Civil War, Spider-Man became part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Now home at the creative company that birthed him, the character appears in his first dedicated MCU film Spider-Man: Homecoming.

I wish I could say that this movie is great, but I can’t. I am happy to say that movie is not bad, nor is it terrible like the last few outing of the character when guided by the corporate meddlers at Sony. No, Spider-Man Homecoming is just, okay.

The film does a nice job of recapping some of the major events of the MCO, including Spider-Man’s own participation in Captain America: Civil War without simply falling back on either rethreaded footage or bad voice-over narration. The film also wisely centers on Parker’s civilian life, his troubles in high-school, and the confusion as he transits from teenager- towards adult in a world populated by heroes and his own feelings of inadequacy. There is a lot here, but unfortunately it is never handled in anything other than a workman-like manner. Parker, anxious to become an Avenger and to be seen as a hero in his own standing, chaffs at what he perceives as neglect from Tony Stark/Iron man while as Spider-man Parker hunts for good to do and adventure to be lived. Stumbling across a band of low-rent criminals equipped decidedly high-rent tools provides Parker with an opportunity to prove himself. During the course of his investigations he contends with crushes, best friends, and protective adults as he follows this story of growth.

The problem with the film isn’t that this arc is uninteresting but rather it is handled in a route predictable manner. The characters are engaging, the actors talented and well cast, but the story simply moves from plot point to plot point without much in the way of any new to say. Compounding the troubles is the inclusion of Tony Stark/Iron Man in the film. Stark is a larger than life, all-encompassing character and he tends to crowd out other characters. Placed inside of another hero’s story he tends to bend the arc around himself, like a black hole of story. An additional element of flabbiness to the movie is that there is a set action piece that has nothing to do with the plot. It doesn’t advance the story, it doesn’t illuminate character, it doesn’t present growth, it is simply a bit of razzle dazzle action. Cut it out and the story doesn’t change. This is not a bit in a montage, but a stand alone major set piece that service no purpose other than action for action’s sake.

I would also have to say that this film post-credit button is the most disappointing and the filmmakers seem to be aware of it. Nothing demonstrates the lack of original thought more than this added bit.

Over all the film is watchable but it will join The Incredible Hulk as an MCU film not in my library.

Share

Craftsmanship Takes Time

So today Universal, the people who originated the shared cinematic universe, released The Mummy, an attempt to launch a new cinematic universe to drink from the fire hose of money that Marvel discovered.

But the reviews are saying that The Mummy sucks.

And Marvel did not discover that fire hose of money, Marvel laid the pipes, installed the plugs, corrected defects, and the opened the valves.

Oh, and Iron Man did not suck.

In 2008’s Iron Man there are hints of the hopes for a Cinematic Universe, but those hints never upend the storytelling of Tony Stark’s journey to self-discovery. During the play of the film the biggest hint is SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, a part that looks utterly forgettable on the page but brought to fantastic and sardonic life by Clark Greg. Hell, they don’t even call it SHIELD until the end of the movie, making the long, cumbersome full name a jibe for characters to play off and a hidden bonus for fans of the property. The most famous hint of the wider universe Marvel hoped to bring to life didn’t even happen until after all the credits had finished  when Stark met Fury.

If you never watched another Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in your life, Iron Man would remain a self-contained and fully satisfying film. This is putting the story and the movie first, ahead of corporate plans, but more importantly it is understanding that quality can rarely be rushed.

Warner Brothers, with the suits meddling in the productions, has tried to rush to their big shared universe and to date the movies of that cycle have produced one watchable film, and it just came out last weekend. (The Christopher Nolan Batman movies are lovely but were not designed as part of the DCEU and they do not graft well onto the larger framework because they are best viewed as a stand-alone series.) Mind you, WB/DC has a rich history and mythology to draw from, half the work is done, and still they are botching the project. Universal seems to think you can just slap together any series of movies, force linkages, and that will make people line up at the box office.

The Mummy, classically, is a horror story. (In fact the original film was mainly a rip-off of Universal’s big hit Dracula.) Later, as the Universal’s horror movies stressed the monsters over the horror they began having their creations battle each other, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-man, and so on, but these films played more and more to children. This incarnation of The Mummy seems to have lost all elements of being a horror story and is instead an action movie. One, if reviews are to be believed, that spends considerable amounts of time delivery poorly written exposition that does not even explain this movie but hopes to establish their ‘Dark Universe.’

Tell this story, tell this story really really well, and lay foundations for future expansions, that’s the thing you needed to do Universal. All you have done this outing is waste money and the audience’s good will.

Share

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Middle films are difficult beasts. When you are part of a larger franchise, particularly with the experiment in printing money called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pulling off a satisfying film that takes place during an unresolved arc can be challenging. It is a challenge that many fell George Lucas failed at with The Empire Strikes Back but that Peter Jackson succeeded with in making The Two Towers. James Gunn has succeeded with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Since the Guardians are going to be playing a major role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars the sequel to their own hit movie was sort of trapped running in place, unable to invest in major changes of the sort Marvel’s did with Captain America: Civil War. Gunn’s solution to this problem is a terrific one; Focus On Character.

The heart and theme to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is family; the family that we can’t choose and the family that chooses us. Major unresolved threads from the first film, principally the identity and nature of Peter Quill’s father sort as the engine moving the narrative along, but every character is explored through the lens of family. It is a testament to the writing that when reveals are exposed we can see that Nebula’s hatred for her sister Gamora is not entirely unfounded.

Another aspect of the scrip that displays true craftsmanship is the proper implementation of Chekov’s Gun. This is not a reference to the Enterprise’s humorous nationalistic navigator but the esteemed Russian playwright who famously advised that of there is a gun on the mantle in the first act it must be fired by the last. There are plenty of writers who competently place those guns on the mantel, fired them diligently, and then drop them to the side, forgotten. The best writers not only put the gun there, but use it again and again through the story, drawing a tight weave of elements making it so that the gun is not there simply for that one shot, but is a legitimate part of the world’s texture. Elements in Guardians are established, play their part, and then return to play further parts, driving the narrative forward with a relentless sense of inevitability that heightens the resolutions.

This film would be fun to watch on its own, but as a further exploration of these quirky characters and their tangled relationships, it’s a sheer joy. I fully endorse anyone going out and seeing it.

Share

Missed Opportunities in Marvel’s Doctor Strange

First off since I am writing about missteps in the latest MCU film clearly there will be mild spoilers about the story and how it unfolds. I will try avoid any if the major wow moments of the movie but I will be discussing the villain, his motivations, and ways that might have been handled by the writers. So, if you want to go into the film unspoiled skip this post.

 

Still here? Okay let’s get into it.

 

1-mads-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2Mads Mikkelsen plays the film’s central villain, Kaecilius a man obsessed with avoiding death. For Kaecilius even the heat death of the universe is too soon, unlike Voldemort Kawcilius truly wants to live forever. Given the macguffins of the movie and such this is a perfectly adequate motivation, in fact the missed elements that I keep thinking about all revolve around this powerful motivation.

We are introduced to Kaecilius in a rather standard scene where he and his band of zealots murder a librarian to gain access to the spells that they believe can give them a shot of truly infinite life. The murder itself is typical bad guy behavior and right there is a missed illumination of Kaecilius’ character. They didn’t have to kill him, They overpowered him easily enough that they could have taken what they wanted without murder and Kaecilus could have left with a vague pronouncement that the librarian would die soon enough. At this point we the audience would interpret that as a villain’s threat about the coming nastiness, but later once Kaecilius’ real motivation were unveiled his words would become about character and not plot.

Second missed chance: Kawcilius’ zealots. His has a few followers, all expecting the same eternal life, and we are never given a chance to see who they are as characters. They end up being just nameless thugs for the heroes to overcome. Even a few lines of dialog would have gone a long way to revealing that these are sad desperate people propelled by their utter fear of dying. We could have that these were dangerous men and women who still were objects of pity.

Third Missed shot: Strange kills one of the Zealots and we get no reaction from Kawcilius. This was a man he was leading to eternal life. This was a man who trusted him to avoid this exact fate. This was someone who trusted him and now the up-start has killed him. I would have loved to have seen a scene where the villain of the piece lectures/berates the hero for his killing; for the villain to remind Strange of his oath to do no harm. Then we could have Mordo later try to convince Strange that he did the right thing and that would have set up a stronger conflict between Strange and Mordo and helped establish Mordo eventual fall.

I think these small changes would have opened up a deeper more character driven view of Kaecilius. But all this is more in the vein of ‘go write your own story, Bob’ than a just critique.

Share

Movie Review: Doctor Strange 2016

The year designation is essential as there has already been a made for television movie that was a pilot for a failed Doctor Strange program and a direct to video animated feature film of the good doctor. (And that’s not counting the 1992 Dr. Mordid – a direct video movie that was very nearly a Strange film but the filmmakers lost the right at the last moment and changed enough names and details to avoid a lawsuit.)

My two favorite characters of the Marvel comics continuum are Tony Stark/Iron Man and Dr. Stephen Strange. The MCU started off on the right foot with a terrific adaptation of Iron Man to the big, silvered screen and continues that tradition with this week’s entry Doctor Strange.

1-doctor_strange_2016-hdStephen Strange is an arrogant, brilliant, surgeon and when his life is turned upside down by a cruel twist of fate and he loses that which he cherished most he ends up on a voyage of self-discovery where he not only learns the value of things beyond self but becomes the Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. The film is a competent and exciting addition to the MCU. If you enjoyed the other films in the sprawling saga of stories then you are likely to enjoy this one. If you are a fan of the character in particular then again this movie should work for you. Marvel is adapt at keeping the tone of their prosperities right where they need them. Serious enough that the stakes have weight but never forgetting to have fun along the way; a lesson WB and DC have yet to learn. This movie is an origin story but as the general public is unfamiliar with the ins and out of the Strange’s backstory I do not think that this is a misstep. It is presented in a established narrative fashion and perhaps they could have played with that a bit more. In a film where time itself proves to be fluid I think a non-linear approached might have been an interesting thematic take. That said, the straight forward narrative style works just as well.

One knock against the movie I have heard from different courses is that some people feel that Strange’s personal arc feels too much like a repetition of Tony Stark’s arc from the first Iron Man film; arrogant self-centered man suffers a tragic events, learns that his actions have consequences (or inaction in Strange’s part) and by the journey’s end he adopts the mantel of someone who cares about others. That’s fair as far as it goes but this arc is a well established story line, you could always look up Scrooge if you don’t believe me.

That brings be to the performances. Everyone did a good job, particularly Tilda Swinton taking a stereotyped role and giving it some life and depth, but the film either soars or falls flat on Cumberbatchs’s Strange. Just as with Robert Downey jr, Cumberbatch has tons of personal charisma and makes a character who could have been quite unlikeable one you truly care about. This is a very tricky thing for an actor to pull off. Stark, Strange, Scrooge, with all these characters if you don’t see beneath their surface and perceive a person capable of change and one you want to change, the story is going to fail. Either the change feels like it comes out of nowhere and for no reason or they never seemed that bad to begin with. Arrogant jerks are hard film characters to love and now Marvel, with excellent casting, has pulled it off twice. (Three times if you count Thor – but he struck me as immature more than jerk.)

This film is well worth the time for any Strange or Marvel fan.

Share

Supergirl – Two Episodes In:

1-supergirl_tv_series_0001Before going to bed each night I usually watch something to let my brain wind-down from its high RPM state. For this I either select something known to me and this requiring light processing or something less heavy for the last two nights it has been the new series Supergirl. (Which is now on Netflix so I am a season behind, but that make no matter to me.)

I do like that this show has a light tone. It doesn’t play it all for yucks, but the over touch is a whimsical one and a generally optimistic outlook. a far cry from Snyder’s dreary, washed, whinny take of the Man of Steel.

I have two observations about the series so far.

 

First: the writing needs a little more polish. The plots are fine and story works but where it feels clunky is in the dialogue. Characters tend to speak to specifically and not in the usual shorthand that real people use among each other.

Second: this series shows the vast gulf between DC attempts at a cinematic universal and the same project as realized by the Marvel Studios. The deep mythology of the story is inconsistent.

Does the Superman Symbol stand for hope or is it a family crest for the moto ‘Stronger Together?’

Is Krypton a world of genetic engineering and unnatural births or one of families and even twins?

 

I’ll stick with the series, unless it seriously upsets me, the tone is fun and perfect for an unwinding brain, but I do hope the dialogue gets sharper.

 

Share

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

In2008 with Iron Man Marvel studios took what many considered to be their second string heroes and started an ambitious project; a shared cinematic universe of superhero films. (Some call it a first, the shared universe film set, but Universal did the same, though not by initial design, with their classic horror films.) The successes of the project have remade the movie-going business and continue to this day with the release of MCU movie # 13, Captain 1-iron-man-and-captain-america-civil-war-4k-wallpaperAmerica: Civil War.

It is amazing that this film, so deeply indebted to the storytelling that proceeded it, is so truly marvelous. Carrying on with the character of Steve Rodgers AKA Captain America after Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, CA;CW though studded with massive battle set pieces, is ultimately a story about the small character beats, choices, and conflicts that drive people and teams apart.

The world is reacting to the presence of enhanced individuals and the enhanced threats to safety and security that they represent. While on the surface those appear to be the issues dividing the Avengers, what is really driving them are their own psychological needs and problems. This is a far better way of telling a story that simply a big bad with a big bad plan. Make no mistake. there is a villain in this piece, but unlike Loki, Ultron, the Red Skull, or Hydra, the threat is not about global destruction but about the personal costs and choices in such a universe.

There is a third act reveal that I should have seen coming but I was so suckered into the characters and their lives that the filmmakers managed a blindside that made me actually gasp out loud. No really, in full on cliché mode my hand went to my lips and I gasped. It was so obvious, so perfect, and so devastating.

Another area where this could have failed spectacularly is the sheer number of characters. With a cast of speaking roles so large it would have been far too easy for most of the characters to lose their sense of individuality and become nothing more than plot points and exposition. That did not happen, the writers, the directors, and the actor all utilized their briefs amounts of screen time to imply and inform the audience as to who these people are. It is amazing.

The new additions to the MCU, Spider-Man and The Black Panther, are handled well and with slowing or stopping the film to explain them Everything feels natural and organic. I even approve of the reinterpretation of Aunt May.

I think, but I can not be sure, that a person coming in cold to the film, having seen none of the other, would still enjoy and understand it, but I also wonder how long can that be maintained. At what point does the weight of cinematic history make any one movie incomprehensible to a novice viewer to the MCU?

Only time will tell, but it isn’t here.

This film is good. Go see it. In theaters.

Share

Casting Ethnic Characters

In the last few weeks, there have been two points of conflict in the geek and geek-adjacent film communities over casting of characters in upcoming movies.

This November we get a movie I have been really wanting, Doctor Strange, my second favorite Marvel Superhero. (Iron Man has always been by tops.) In the source material Strange learns his arts from an old Asian fellow known as The Ancient One. In the film this part has been gender-flipped to a woman and is being played by Caucasian actress Tilda Swinton.  Some have been upset by an character that was clearly Asian suddenly becoming Caucasian.

Frankly this one has bothered me that much. The ‘character’ of the Ancient One was dreadfully close to stereotype and over the line as a cliche. Moving away from cliche is an improvement. I know that there are many who disagree with me and I understand their sincerely held position, but I am not convinced. A cliche is bad writing and I’m happy that we have hopes of avoiding such things in this film.

The second storm is centered on a live-action version of the well-known Japanese Anime Ghost in the Shell. I have never seen the original, but I am open to it, it’s just my exposure to Anime in general is rather limited. However what we have here is Japanese source material, with Japanese characters, now being made with the lead character, Kusanagi, being played again by a Caucasian, this time Scarlett Johansson. I have nothing against Scarlett, she is a talented actress and I have seen her deliver a number of very interesting performances but there is no reason to ignore the ethnicity of character in the casting.

Producers and Directors generally defend these casting decisions as being forced by the financing forces beyond their control. Stating that without a big star they can’t get big budgets to make these epic films. This is true – as far as it goes, but there is a lie of omission here.The banks and

The banks and investor group that fund these project DO want big stars attached to the projects. The signing of major stars signals serious resources and commitment to a project. Without that, it is very hard to raise the fund for a massive budget. I would say beyond hard and nearly impossible. But nowhere is it written that the big star have to have the lead role. That is the dirty secret they would prefer you not recognize.

Here is a famous case to prove this: Superman The Movie. When the producers signed a negative pick-up deal with Warner Brothers to make them film, that put them on the hook to raise the funds the make it, and this was not going to be a cheap movie. They needed stars who were ‘bankable’ and indicated a level of serious artistic commitment. Kids at this point that did not sign relative new-comer Christopher Reeve as their lead, they signed Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. That, coupled with star writer Mario Puzo, brought in the funds to make the movie.

This argument – oh we can’t have a Japanese actress the lead because we won’t get funding – is a dodge, don’t fall for it. They made the call to cast it the way they did, their call not something forced and beyond their power to counter. (There’s also been an excellent argument made elsewhere that Asian actors haven’t been given the chance to build up to star power the way other have been. Look at the long line of credits Scarlett has before she exploded to a top line budget item. That matters too.)

So in short, Doctor Strange I am fine with, less cliches is better, Ghost in the Shell I call shenanigans.

Share

Movie Review: Ant-Man

The Marvel Cinematic Universe moves into Phase III with Ant-Man. (Phase I ended with The Avengers, Phase II with Avengers: The Age of Ultron and Phase III will culminate with Avengers: Infinity War Part 1.)

AntmanAnt-man is a film with a  troubled history. Numerous re-writes and replaced directors rarely yield a classic movie. While that trouble it evident in a somewhat schizophrenic storyline, this film is not a failure. The characters are likable, the action interesting and different, and the intersection with the Marvel Cinematic Universe consistent and  on point. There are nice call-backs to the earlier films with appearances from characters such as Agent Peggy Carter and Howard Stark. The digital process pioneered in Tron: Legacy that allows older actors to portray younger versions of themselves has matured  allowing Michael Douglas to play troubled genius Dr. Hank Pym across a span of ages. The film also pays tribute to the twisted history of the Ant-Man character, paying respect to both the Hank Pym Ant-Man and the new Ant-Man Scott Lang.

In the movie Dr. Hank Pym, decades after being forced out of his own company and from the international security organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is forced into action, replaying upon his daughter and an idealistic ex-con, Scott Lang, to prevent devastating technology from fallen into evil, insane hands. Scott Lang, played in a fairly likable comedic tone by talented actor Paul Rudd, struggles to find himself and a way back into his family’s good graces while dealing with becoming the newest hero in the expanding MCU.  In the end, it is friendship and ingenuity that save the day.

The film is serviceable and I enjoyed the two hours watching it, however, more than once it falls into formula. There is a cliche, well worn in genre films, where an experience or warning that occurs early in the film establishes the method for the hero’s final victory. This was subverted nicely in 2008’s Iron Man when the ‘icing problem’ Tony encounters during his first flight as Iron Man is only part of the climax’s resolution and not the totality of it, In Ant-Man the telegraphed information, plays straight into the hero’s victory in an unoriginal manner typical of the cliche. that said this is a problem that is likely only to be visible to those already deconstructing plots and stories.  Over all I think most people who enjoy the popcorn fun of summertime superheroes will enjoy Ant-Man.

 

Share