Monday, April 23, 2018

My Favorite Movies: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)



Directed by Taika Waititi

Screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost

Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Cate Blanchett as Hela
Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk
Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie
Jeff Goldblum as Grandmaster
Idris Elba as Heimdall
Karl Urban as Skurge
Taika Waititi as Korg
Anthony Hopkins as Odin

Of the three original Avengers, Thor is the one who has had the bumpiest road with his series of films. I like the first two Thor movies just fine, but they are certainly the weak links of the MCU. There's some good character groundwork and world building, but they're missing that special something that movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy have. When Thor: Ragnarok was announced, I was a bit skeptical. It didn't help that this was the original title card which was similar to the font of the title card for Thor: The Dark World.


It bothered me that the series was seemingly going to continue in the same direction and it felt that Marvel had learned nothing from the past two movies. Thor does not need to be dark. There's plenty of room for fun. Later, it was announced that director Taika Waititi would helm the film. Knowing of his films like the horror comedy What We Do In the Shadows peaked my interest. Then they unveiled the new title card and it was clear this was going to be a new direction for the series.


What a difference this made. It looked like something out of an 80's film, not unlike Flash Gordon. Then in the spring of 2017, the first teaser was released and after seeing it, it was pretty obvious that this was going to be a complete tonal makeover for Thor and it looked fucking awesome.



The use of humor including the now famous line, "We know each other! He's a friend from work!", suggested to Chris Hemsworth by a Make-a-Wish kid visiting onset, felt appropriate. The look of the film was that of a classic Jack Kirby Thor comic. The use of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song" was perfectly suited for the God of Thunder. My hype for the movie grew exponentially after seeing this teaser. It was also exciting that the new official release date was on mine and Liz's birthday. We were both pretty excited for the movie. I even bought this shirt to wear to the Thursday premiere screening.


The night finally came for us to see the film. Reviews had been very kind to the film, the interviews with cast members and Taika Waititi were fun and enjoyable. Within the first opening five minutes, I knew I was going to love this movie. There are plenty of movies that show the hero being captured by the villain and they then make their grand escape. This movie elevates that cliche, but sprinkling humor into the situation while then following it up with a totally bad ass action sequence set to "Immigrant Song". There's a current trend in trailers where there will be a song featured and then it's nowhere to be heard in the film. I was very happy to hear "Immigrant Song" used not only once, but twice and it's used to perfect effect both times. The movie only got better from that opening and by the end, Liz and I were immediately ready to see it again, a feeling that has only grown stronger with each repeat viewing. We then saw it the next night on our actual birthday and then a third time the night after. My limit for seeing a movie in the theater is four. I think that is plenty of times to see one film, because you don't want to grow tired of it. Liz and I loved this movie so much that we saw it a grand total of seven times in the theater. We have seen it eleven times at this point and the movie is simply an endlessly rewatchable blast. I don't know if I'll ever be happier with a comic book film.

Taika Waititi pretty much saved the Thor series with this movie. I've seen people complain about the amount of humor and jokes in the film, but I think it only makes the movie better. Waititi is known for his style of humor, so it should not have been a surprise to anybody who was familiar with is previous movies, especially What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He's also a very talented filmmaker. The way he frames certain shots in this film is astounding work. I love one of the shots early on when Hela arrives in Asgard and the palace is framed right in the center of her headpiece. There's also that creative reflection shot when Loki and Valkyrie are having a meeting with the Grandmaster. I think the humor gives the movie a tone that stands out. It's easily the funniest of the Marvel films. The movie is serious when it needs to be and it still manages to fit in with the other two films. Waititi also sneaks in themes of the horrors of imperialism and colonialism into the film and it works. If you own this film, I cannot recommend Waititi's commentary enough. It's clear that he put a lot of thought into every little detail and is truly a fan of the world of Thor and Marvel. It's also a consistently humorous listen.

The characters are all at their best in this movie. Thor feels the most fleshed out he has ever been. It's been clear that Chris Hemsworth has great comedic timing and Taika Waititi made sure he was able to use it to his fullest advantage. Thor should be a character who has a good sense of humor to him. The movie also uses his hotheadedness to humorous effect. He also has some pretty solid serious moments with characters like Loki and Odin in this film. Finally after two films, Thor finally ascends the throne to become the leader of Asgard. It feels earned at this point, because Thor has grown in many ways and he's finally willing to accept becoming king.

Loki feels better written, too. He's still the mischievous trickster, but both he and Thor have accepted that it's who he is. He's probably not going to change and that's ok. I like that when we first find him, he's disguised as Odin, watching a play that is a glorified tribute to his death and how great he was. He does have some nice growth and in the end, he comes to save his home, fighting alongside Thor for once and not against him. He stands alongside his brother on the throne in the film's final moments and it feels like he's proud of Thor. Their brotherhood has grown stronger and while they may not always see eye to eye, they're the only family that they have left.

Not only is the best Thor film, but it's the best Hulk one, too. I didn't read Planet Hulk until after seeing the film, but it's now probably my favorite story in comic book history. This is the closest we will ever get to a film based on it and I am completely satisfied with it. They borrow plenty of elements from that story including the setting of Sakaar, Hulk battling people in gladiatorial combat, the characters of Korg and Miek are in it, and the obedience disks are used. Mark Ruffalo is at his best as Bruce Banner with this performance. He's able to flesh out both identities. I think the moments with Hulk are excellent because he actually gets some characterization for once. He's learned to speak and when he transforms back into Banner, we see the external struggle between the two, which we have not in previous films. Bruce also has a great arc since he feels that he's starting to lose control and he may not change back if he turns into the Hulk again. During the battle of Asgard, he makes the choice to use the Hulk to save lives, even if it means giving up Banner in the process. It also leads to what I think is the funniest moment in the entire movie when he hits the bridge with a thud, not transforming right away. I've loved Thor and Hulk's dynamic since The Avengers, so it's nice to see it presented so prominently here. They give us equal amount of time with both Hulk and Bruce and it's really entertaining to see Thor share scenes with both.

The other Asgardians get justice, too. Odin is only in three scenes, but Anthony Hopkins brings his all to each moment. His final scene with Thor and Loki is one of the most emotionally effective in the entire series. He also does a great job of playing Loki playing him. Heimdall also gets more to do than he's ever had before. I like that he's the hero saving the Asgardian refugees. It's a proper role for him. The movie also kills off the Warriors Three, which I think was a wise move. They served their purpose in the other two films and killing them off provided stakes, while establishing Hela as a proper threat.

The new characters are all great as well. Hela is the first female MCU villain and she's also one of its best. Cate Blanchett is having the time of her life in the role and it shows in her performance. She is everything I want out of a comic book movie villain. She's riding that perfect line of menacing while being fun. I adore Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. With just this film she has become one of my favorite supporting characters in the MCU. It's great to see a female character with this type of personality, because it's usually reserved for male characters. Her entrance is an all-time best in a Marvel movie. Her flashback sequence is stunning and it tells you just enough about her past without dwelling on it. Jeff Goldblum is a delight as the Grandmaster. He's clearly having a good time and he's a pretty solid villain, too. Karl Urban as Skurge even gets a good amount of characterization with what little screen time he has. Korg played by Taika Waititi is a character I didn't know I needed until I saw him. He's one of the funniest parts of this movie and it's not distracting that Waititi is playing him considering he's a fully CGI character.

Doctor Strange also has a cameo in this film and it's clear that Cumberbatch is still the best choice to play him. It's also hinted that Strange has only become more of a powerful sorcerer since his solo film. He doesn't feel shoehorned in. He's used for the proper amount of time and he has two of my favorite exchanges with Thor in the entire film. One of them is this:

     Thor: "So Earth has wizards now?"

     Doctor Strange: "The preferred term is Master of the Mystic Arts. You can leave that now."

     Thor: "Alright, wizard, who are you? Why should I care?"

The other is this exchange:

     Thor: (Concerning Odin) "If you knew where he was, why didn't you call me?"

     Doctor Strange: "I have to tell you, he was adamant that he not be disturbed. Your father has chosen to remain in exile. And you don't have a phone."

     Thor: "No, I don't have a phone, but you could have sent an electronic letter. It's called an email."

     Doctor Strange: "Yeah, do you have a computer?"

     Thor: "No. What for?"

The look of this film is like a technicolor Jack Kirby dream and it is absolutely gorgeous to look at. They use every color in the crayon box to full effect. Both this movie and the Guardians of the Galaxy films are movies that actually look like a comic book brought to life. So many frames look like splash pages or even paintings. I love the look of Sakaar and how much detail is put into that world. The architecture is unique, the citizens all have amazing costumes and hair styles, the designs of the spaceships stand out, it's all stunning to look at. There's a lot to find in every scene with each viewing.

The action is directed pretty spectacularly as well. Every set piece is memorable. The opening in Muspelheim when Thor fights Surtur is probably my favorite opening action sequence in a Marvel film. The Hulk and Thor fight that was used a lot in the marketing delivers in every satisfying way. The spaceship chase through Sakaar feels like it's right out of an 80's sci-fi adventure. The battle for Asgard is an epic, grand set piece that doesn't overstay its welcome. I remember getting chills multiple times when "Immigrant Song" played that second time and Thor and company were all kicking ass during that battle.

Mark Motherbaugh's score is another all time best for the MCU. It's a wonderful combination of 80's synth and orchestral pieces. I've listened to the score multiple times and it stands on its own quite nicely. The Ragnarok Suite is exceptional work.



I have never been so thoroughly satisfied with a comic book film in the way I am with Thor: Ragnarok. This film is everything I could ever want in a big-budgeted comic book blockbuster. The character work is well done, the action is exciting, the humor is used appropriately, and the overall look would make Jack Kirby proud. Taika Waititi put a lot of love and care into this movie as well as everyone else involved. It makes for the best Thor movie and an all-time favorite for me. It's that kind of special film that constantly impresses and delights me.




Saturday, April 21, 2018

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


Directed by Jon Watts

Screen Story by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley

Screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man
Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes
Jacob Batalon as Ned
Marisa Tomei as May Parker
Zendaya as Michelle 
Laura Harrier as Liz
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan
Tony Revolori as Flash

Spider-Man had a pretty great streak going filmwise. The first Sam Raimi film was a game changer for the genre, the second film is one of the greatest comic book sequels ever made, but then Sony had to come along and force too much into the third film. Spider-Man 3 is a movie that I don't find to be terrible like many people do, but it is too bloated and unfocused. It's too bad they didn't just let Sam Raimi do what he wanted, because we could have had a near perfect trilogy for the beloved web-slinger. Jump ahead five years later and Sony decided to reboot the series by giving it a darker tone with Andrew Garfield taking over the lead role. Say what you will about Spider-Man 3, but The Amazing Spider-Man is one of the most dull, flat, uninteresting comic book films I have ever seen. I didn't even bother seeing the sequel, which I heard was even worse. Thankfully, Sony's proposed Spider-Man cinematic universe failed after the second film under performed and did poorly critically. That's when Marvel Studios stepped in and made a deal with Sony to integrate the character into their expanding cinematic universe. It was definitely the right move because Peter Parker had an excellent introduction in Captain America: Civil War and his first solo MCU movie is easily the best Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man: Homecoming comes as a much needed new direction for the character and it's incredibly satisfying.

Tom Holland was awesome in the amount of screentime he had in Captain America: Civil War and he's only gotten better with this film. He is the perfect actor for the role. Toby Maguire was a perfect Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Holland balances both roles flawlessly as well. He's a worthy successor to Maguire. The makers of this film know exactly how to do Spider-Man right. He is constantly giving up his social life to be a superhero and he ends up saving the villain's life in the end. To me, that is Spider-Man. As for the Peter Parker scenes, they are equally great. I'm thoroughly satisfied with the journey that he goes through in this film. He's still learning to be a hero and I'm glad that he turns down the one thing that he's wanted for the whole film. He realizes that he isn't ready to be an Avenger, because he's grown as a character. He's nearly killed by Adrian Toomes, just because he's so eager to stop him. It makes for one of the best scenes in the film. His panic attack under the rubble is an accurate portrayal of what anxiety can feel like and then seeing him encourage himself to keep going is one of the most inspirational moments in the film. At the end of the film he's not as eager to push things further so quickly and that he still wants to have a somewhat normal life. He still wants to look out for the little guy, just like he said back in Captain America: Civil War. It'll be cool to see him become an Avenger in Avengers: Infinity War, but I'm glad he's learned some good lessons. It's very much in character.

It's also nice to see the diversity of students portrayed in this film. Liz, Michelle, Ned, Flash, and several of the academic decathlon team members are all played by people of color. It's nice to see these characters represented differently from their white comic counterparts. Also, a school in New York would have a variety of different ethnicities in it. I think all of the actors portray their roles quite well. Liz is more than just the love interest. Most of the movie focuses her on being involved in the academic decathlon and other school activities. Flash Thompson is a verbal bully instead of a physical one, which is good to see. In more recent times those are the kinds of bullies that are in schools now as opposed to the jocks portrayed in the early comics. Ned is great in the best friend role. He and Peter have what feels like a genuine friendship, which Peter and Harry were kind of lacking in the Sam Raimi films. You can tell they care for each other and have each other's backs. I enjoy that Ned actually gets to help Peter in the third act. He gets to be Peter's guy in the chair and if not for that, Peter would not have gotten to Adrian Toomes in time. 

Michelle is one of my favorite characters in the film. While she isn't Mary Jane, she's still MJ since her name is Michelle Jones. I think Zendaya has really solid comedic chops and I like that she's a more laid back character. If she is to become the main love interest in future films, I am all for it. We've had three movies with Mary Jane Watson and two with Gwen Stacy, so I'd say it's time for a new love interest for this series.

Another update I'm happy with is a younger Aunt May portrayed by Marisa Tomei. She may not be the old woman caricature from the comics, but the base of the character is still there. Her and Peter have a nice relationship and it's good to see her do some care taking for Peter in the film like when she's preparing him for homecoming night or when she comforts him after he loses his suit. She also has maybe the best final line in any of the MCU films. I always get a good laugh out of that any time I watch the movie.

Robert Downey Jr. is only in about four scenes in the entire film and it's just the right amount of Tony Stark for this movie. He steps into the mentor role well. I love his and Peter's relationship. I feel like it's Marvel's way of passing the torch from the original hero to its newest one. It's nice to see him somewhat recovered after the events of Captain America: Civil War. He genuinely cares for Peter and wants him to excel and be successful. The scene where he takes Peter's suit away makes for an excellent story beat and it ups the excitement, because Peter has to learn to do more without it. I think the updated Stark Tech suit is a cool addition to Peter's character and I'm glad that he doesn't know how to fully use it.

Michael Keaton is one of my absolute favorite actors and his portrayal of Adrian Toomes makes for probably the best villain a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie has ever had. The best part of the character is that he's humanized. I like that he resorts to being a criminal only after he lost his job. He's a middle class working guy wanting to provide for his family. The reveal of him being Liz's dad is genius writing. It leads to the film's most tense scene and it just makes the third act all the more investing. I also like that the one guy he kills is completely accidental. It also helps that Keaton is incredibly charismatic. The best villains in Spider-Man's rogue's gallery are the ones who are humanized. It's why Otto Octavius is the best villain in the Sam Raimi films. With Adrian Toomes, you get exactly where he's coming from and he's far more interesting because you relate to him.

I'm also happy with the side antagonists in this film. While movies like Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had too many villains packed into one film, this movie wisely uses its side villains as part of Toomes' crew. Shocker and the Tinkerer don't need to be fully focused on. Toomes is enough of a solid villain for this movie, so I like that the other two are just guys who are doing their jobs. Shocker is Toomes' muscle and Tinkerer is the guy who makes the weapons that they're selling to criminals. It's a simple, yet proper amount of focus on these characters. 

The action sequences are appropriately grounded. It's nice to see scenes like these in a Spider-Man film, because they're unique and not similar to those of the past films. He is more of a street crime hero after all. The Washington Monument sequence shows how he has to get somewhere without the aid of surrounding skyscrapers, the ferry sequence shows when he underestimates a situation, and the final fight does a great job of showing his determination.

Michael Giacchino returns to the MCU to compose the score for this film. It's not quite as memorable as his Doctor Strange score, but after a few listens I have picked up the themes and melodies more and it's become one of my favorites in the MCU. It fits Spider-Man well and the main theme is pretty uplifting. Here's a nice Marvel suite that was performed at Giacchino's 50th birthday celebration concert.



Spider-Man: Homecoming is the happiest I have been with a film starring my all-time favorite character since Spider-Man 2. While it's not able to top that film, it's a worthy addition to the web slinger's filmography. Tom Holland is a perfect Peter Parker, the movie doesn't feel by the numbers nor tired and worn out, but instead refreshing and exciting. It's one of the most grounded films of the MCU and that's what it makes it stand out among the current wave of comic book films. It captures the essence of the wall crawler and his world about as solid as the MCU could. It's wonderful to have him home at Marvel where he belongs.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

My Favorite Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)


Written and Directed by James Gunn

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord
Zoe Saldana as Gamora
Dave Bautista as Drax
Bradley Cooper as Rocket
Vin Diesel as Groot
Michael Rooker as Yondu
Karen Gillan as Nebula
Kurt Russell as Ego
Pom Klementieff as Mantis
Sean Gunn as Kraglin/On-Set Rocket

It's pretty rare that a sequel can live up to the original film. They've been around since the early days of movies and yet only a select amount of them are truly great. Marvel has made several so far. I think Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Thor: Ragnarok surpass their original films in unique ways and I feel the same about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. As much as I love the first film, its sequel is even more character-driven, while also being smaller and intimate. James Gunn has said he sees this as an independent film with a blockbuster budget and I have to agree with him. This movie doesn't try to go for bigger and better. It shows a restraint and focus in a way that few modern sequels do.

I'm happy to see that James Gunn decided to focus more on the characters in this film. It's what made the first film stand out and it helps the sequel even more. While the first film was focused more on Peter Quill's development, this movie further develops everyone else. The movie's themes of family, fatherhood, abuse, love, and loss really resonate with me. Ego and Yondu remind of both of my dad and step dad. Gamora and Nebula's relationship kind of feels like the one between my sister and I. For those reasons, the film means a lot to me on a personal level.

It's still very much an ensemble piece and it gives an equal amount of time to everyone. It doesn't feel like anyone got left out. At the end of the previous film, Peter's arc isn't quite complete because he's still immature at times and he hasn't quite earned a romantic relationship with Gamora. After this movie though, it feels like he's gotten a proper amount of development and it hints at the end that he and Gamora have finally admitted that they romantically care for one another. He also deals with meeting his father, Ego, as well as losing both father figures minutes apart from each other. 

Gamora and Nebula's relationship really gets more personal for both characters and it's after their fight on Ego's planet where it's revealed that Gamora was the more competitive sister who didn't focus on how it was hurting Nebula. It's effective, but at the end Gamora is trying to heal their relationship and have them both move forward. They're both victims of abuse, as well as a lot of the characters are in this film. James Gunn has said that this film is for the people who have been abused and are learning to work past it. He says the very core of the Guardians' story is about a group of adults who suffered childhood trauma and heal from it through their relationships with each other. I think that's why I connect with so much in these two movies. I relate to so many things that these characters have been through, even if they are from alien worlds.

Drax and Mantis are a good pairing. I think that while Drax constantly taunts Mantis, he does see his daughter in her and he develops a care for her as the film progresses. Mantis is a funnier and more innocent character than she is in the comics, but I think it helps her personality a lot within these films. Drax is also a lot funnier in this movie and he has some of the best lines and moments. It feels like he's let go of a lot of his anger and is finding happiness with the people around him.

Rocket and Yondu have my favorite relationship in the film. Both are characters who've been abused and have had life just shit all over them. Seeing them connect is the most emotionally resonant part of the film. Rocket finally finds someone who he sees himself in. We see him at the end of the film, perhaps contemplating his own funeral, marveling how his friends still stick with him despite him pushing them away. This shows just how far he's come in these two movies. He's definitely become one of my favorite characters in the entire MCU. Michael Rooker is also at his best. He gives a fully realized performance and when he sacrifices himself at the end it's earned because we've gotten to know Yondu a lot better. His funeral hits me emotionally every time. I'm glad that one of these Marvel films shows that there are stakes and that not every character is safe.

Kurt Russell is one of my favorite actors and he is fantastic as Ego. He's one of the best villains that these movies have ever had. He's charismatic, he has a personal connection with our heroes, and the film slowly builds to his villain reveal while developing him first. He also is one of the few antagonists that feels like a huge threat. The fact that he can wipe out all of the universe by using Peter shows that there are stakes and the third act feels thrilling when our characters are trying to stop him.

The soundtrack is even better than the first film's. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 has a lot of great songs, but a good amount of them are pretty well known. I like that Vol. 2 digs a bit deeper for a soundtrack that is full of gems. James Gunn really chose some of the greatest artists for this one including Fleetwood Mac, George Harrison, ELO, Sam Cooke, and Cheap Trick. The way the songs mesh with scenes in both films are a lot more effective than most. The way they use "The Chain" both times is absolutely flawless. Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" is also used pretty damn perfectly and it just makes the ending all the more hard hitting. It's the most emotionally impactful scene in a Marvel movie to date.

I'm amazed at how well these movies combine emotional beats with levity. I don't think any other Marvel movie has pulled off the two tones better. None of the humor undercuts any of the serious scenes. The tone of these movies was established with the opening two scenes of the first film and it's worked for them since. I think James Gunn's writing is very focused and he and the actors really pull off the tonal balance.

The action is smaller scale, even when the Guardians are fighting a planet, and it works because we've gotten to know our characters even better. A lot of the scenes stand out. I think the opening with Groot dancing and the Guardians fighting the Abilisk is an all-time best sequence in the MCU. The Abilisk is such a neat monster, projecting rainbows out of its mouth as a defense mechanism, which is something I feel only James Gunn could have come up with. I also love Rocket's attack on the Ravagers, because sometimes it's easy to forget that he's a pretty intelligent character. The film also includes one of my top five favorite MCU action sequences when Yondu, Rocket, and Groot slaughter the mutinous Ravengers. It is so creative, satisfying, and it shows that sometimes less is more.

The look of the movie is absolutely stunning. It has a vibrant neon color scheme, the locations are all gorgeous and massive, and it stands out among the look of the other MCU films. I don't think Captain America's films need to look bright and colorful, but some of the other MCU movies do lack a good color scheme. Both Guardians films look like a comic book and these are the movies that pull it off best.

There are very few sequels that I consider as good as the original film. There are even fewer that I call perfect. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 excels as both. I think its more intimate story and focus on characters really makes it stand out in the current wave of blockbusters. It's clear that James Gunn has a passion for making these movies with these characters and it really shows onscreen. Here's to looking forward to what he has in store with Vol. 3. Few films make me as happy as these two, but there is just one other comic book film that I love as much as them and it's the last movie I'll be reviewing in this MCU rewatch before Avengers: Infinity War. (Ok, enough teasing. It's Thor: Ragnarok.)

Monday, April 9, 2018

Doctor Strange (2016)


Directed by Scott Derrickson 
Screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo
Rachel McAdams as Christina Palmer
Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One
Benedict Wong as Wong
Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius 
Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Nicodemus West

There are six Marvel characters that I have a love for more than anyone else in that universe: Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Rocket, and Doctor Strange. While it was easy to find comics, books, and other pieces of merchandise for the more popular Marvel characters, Doctor Strange didn't have as many available, and what was available I could never find. My first introduction to him was through the Marvel Ultimate Alliance video game. He shows up about halfway through the game when the team of heroes takes refuge in the Sanctum Sanctorum. I was immediately fascinated by this setting and with Strange himself. You then go on a mission where your group of heroes travel to Mephisto's realm. Midway through the mission, you find Ghost Rider trapped by Mephisto. Doctor Strange volunteers to take Ghost Rider's place, because he says that he is the only one who can withstand it. With that moment, I wanted to find out everything I could about this guy and he became an instant favorite character of mine.

However, graphic novels and books were scarce for the character, so I mostly used the internet to find out about him. It wasn't until just a few years ago that I started to read comics of the character. The first single issues I bought were from Jonathan Hickman's run on New Avengers, where Strange is a member of the Marvel Universe Illuminati. It was my first exposure to the character in comic form and I couldn't get enough of him. Then Marvel launched his new title back in 2015, which I've gotten every issue of since. Jason Aaron's run on the title is a great starting point for new fans and after he left, Donny Cates took over as writer and he's doing a pretty solid job, too. I also picked up the graphic novels of The Oath, a retelling of Strange's origin while telling a new story as well, and Triumph and Torment, a story where Strange and Doctor Doom go to Mephisto's realm to save the soul of Doom's mother. Both titles are excellent Doctor Strange stories and I'd highly recommend both. I'm still trying to collect more of the graphic novels, but I'm satisfied with how much I've gotten to read.

When this film was announced, I thought it was definitely time for the Master of the Mystic Arts to come into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch was announced to play Stephen Strange and I thought he'd be a perfect choice. The teaser really impressed me. The visual effects looked awesome and the American accent that Cumberbatch was using sounded pretty good. The film would also be having its Thursday night premiere screenings on my birthday. The big reason that I still like celebrating my birthday is because I share it with Liz, so having a big Marvel film open on it was also pretty awesome. Leaving the theater, I was incredibly satisfied and with repeat viewings I still find it to be an excellent representation of the character and his world. The few things that don't hold up are some moments of humor, but nothing too distracting. Also, I wish there was more moments with Rachel McAdams, because she's a very welcoming presence as always.

Benedict Cumberbatch is another case of pitch perfect casting thanks to Sarah Halley Finn. I want to give a shout out to her, because she's been with Marvel Studios since the beginning and she really has an eye for the best possible actors to inhabit these roles. I could not be happier with Cumberbatch's performance. I like that they are willing to show just how selfish he is early on, because it makes his arc a lot more satisfying. I'm also glad that he is not the Sorcerer Supreme by the end of the film. It's nice that he still has more to learn. Cumberbatch also really sells Strange's intelligence. He may not quite be on the level of Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, or Reed Richards, but he's still one of the Marvel Universe's best minds. While I don't think an origin story is always the best route to go for a superhero film, I feel that it was necessary here, because the general public is not as familiar with Stephen Strange. I really enjoy watching his training and seeing him develop the skills as a sorcerer. Once it gets to the big action set pieces, I feel more invested, because they've taken the time to establish him and his powers.

I know nothing about Christine Palmer's character, but I think Rachel McAdams does a pretty solid job playing someone who isn't just a love interest. She single-handedly saves Stephen's life at one point, which is a scene that clearly takes its inspiration from The Oath. They also never kiss once, which is refreshing to see. They seem to have a care for one another, but it feels like they aren't quite ready to be a couple again yet. I also like Michael Stuhlbarg in this film, because I'm happy to see him in just about any current movie. I like that Stephen even has a moment with him where he realizes he can't operate on the Ancient One, so he trusts West to do so. It's a nice moment of redemption for Stephen after he humiliated him early in the film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is such an awesome choice for Mordo. An actor of his talent is perfect for the role of the character who eventually becomes one of Strange's biggest antagonists. We get just enough information on him and I'm glad we only get hints of his past. He gets a pretty good arc as well, only it's his turn to a darker path. His and Cumberbatch's scenes together are among the film's best. Benedict Wong is also a perfect Wong. I'm glad they don't have him in the man servant role like he was in the original comics and he's more of Strange's equal.

Mads Mikkelsen does well as Kaecilius, but it's more the fact that it's a great actor like Mikkelsen playing him. I think he's a good enough villain, but he's one of the less interesting characters in the film. He's nowhere near the level of Darren Cross or Malekith, but he's one of the middle tier villains.

There was a big controversy of Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One. I personally wish they had cast an older Asian man in the role. It's who the character is and as long as they didn't play into the stereotypes, they could have pulled it off well. They even have a character who could have been him in the movie with Hamir. But I do think Swinton does deliver a solid performance and the scene that really sells her being a good choice is her final moments with Strange. That's one of the best scenes in the film and the two actors deliver it perfectly.

The action set pieces stand out for a comic book film. While I think the action had been fun for the past few movies, this was the first one since Guardians of the Galaxy that had action that felt particularly memorable and they both have an aesthetic that actually looks like a comic book. It helps that the CGI is some of the most impressive I've seen this decade. The digital artists really outdid themselves with this movie. With this viewing, I noticed just how seamless the scenes are that involve the actors and green screen. The visual effects are astonishing and they look like pages straight out of a Steve Ditko comic. I was lucky enough to see the film in IMAX and the 3D conversion was probably the best I'd ever seen. It really added depth to the visual effects and made them all the more stunning.

The third act is the most satisfying of any of these films. The time reversal effects are astonishing and the Dark Dimension looks amazing. My friend, Tim Lehnerer, says that every comic book film has the jock ending, where the heroes punch the bad guys harder, so they win. He says that this film is the first one to have the nerd ending, where Strange must use his mind to outwit Dormamu. I love that Strange pesters him for so long, that Dormamu just finally gives up. Strange has also come full circle; willing to give his life over and over again just so everyone on Earth can live. It's so satisfying compared to a lot of formulaic third acts that these movies tend to have. Even some of the MCU films are guilty of having those.

Michael Giacchino's score is memorable, resonant, and rounded. I think this is my favorite of the MCU scores. I have the CD and I've listened to it multiple times since. The variety of instruments really make it stand out and it's a perfect fit for the Master of the Mystic Arts. Giacchino is one of my favorite modern composers and he really outdid himself with this score. Linked below is the excellent end credits suite. 



Doctor Strange is just about everything I could want in a Stephen Strange film. I think Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect in the role, the characters are all interesting, the origin story doesn't feel repetitive, and the visual effects look as if they came straight from the pages of Steve Ditko's iconic artwork. 


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Captain America: Civil War (2016)


Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier
Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa/Black Panther
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch
Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon
Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine
Paul Bettany as Vision
Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye
Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man
Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man
Daniel Brühl as Zemo

I absolutely despise the comic that this movie gets its inspiration from. I think writer Mark Millar is a misogynistic douchbag hack who wrote one of the worst Marvel event comics of this century. The premise was somewhat interesting, having the Marvel heroes be divided, but the execution was sloppy, uninspired, and overall uneventful. So I was a bit concerned that Marvel Studios had decided to make a movie with the same idea of turning its heroes against each other. Thankfully, the movie's only idea it borrows from the source material is dividing the heroes and tells a way better and more compelling story. When I first saw the film, I thought it was a contender for one of the greatest comic book movies ever made. I saw it a total of four times in the theater. With repeat viewings, only a few cracks have started to appear. It still holds up quite nicely.

There are a few scenes that are pulled from the original comic but they are handled so much better in this film. The scene where Tony is confronted by a grieving mother is shown with subtlety and heartbreak, whereas the moment in the comic just has the mom shrieking at him over and over again. In the film, we see Tony's guilt drape across his face and we know exactly why he thinks the Avengers need to be supervised. The scene that sets off the events in the comics involves a group of unknown heroes who get a ton of people killed due to some stupid accident. In the movie, Wanda is forced to act quick to save civilians, but unfortunately still gets people killed in the process. It holds so much more impact by having the tragedy be caused accidentally by one of our established heroes. 

It also makes more sense for Tony being in favor of the Sokovia accords and Steve being opposed to them. In the comic, the heroes' motives aren't as clear, where here they completely make sense. Tony feels guilty for the deaths of civilians during their missions and thinks supervision is needed. More importantly, he wants the Avengers to stick together. Steve wanting to protect the Avengers' rights is also in character. If I were to pick which side I agree with, I'm lenient towards Tony's, because he makes a good argument by wanting Wanda to be protected, having Bucky be transferred to a psychiatric facility, and wanting the Avengers to remain a team. However, after finding out he's made a mistake he is immediately willing to help Steve. Though when he finds out that Bucky was responsible for his parents' deaths, the conflict once again arises and it makes for the most heartbreaking and emotional fight in the entire MCU. While I do enjoy the airport sequence, I think the final fight between Steve and Tony is the best action set piece in the whole film, because it comes down to the two most important characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at odds with each other. There's a lot more emotional resonance. The airport sequence is a lot of fun, but the one-on-one fight is more impacting. It's heartbreaking to see Tony watch his parents' murder while their killer is just feet away from him. It's also a testament to the film that I understand both sides and get why each character has made their specific choice.

I don't like that the heroes have to fight each other, but I think the Russo brothers really make it work. It also makes sense to divide them before the big culmination in Avengers: Infinity War. I think they do a pretty good job of juggling twelve heroes in a single movie. All of the previously established heroes get properly represented in screen time. Some characters do get more focus than others, but I think everyone gets at least one great moment. Ant-Man and Hawkeye are basically extended cameos and they both have some of my favorite moments in the airport fight. While it is a film with twelve heroes, it still very much feels like a Captain America story. He's still the main focus and the plot revolves around him for the most part.

The film also introduces two new characters into the fold and they both get the establishment time they deserve. First is Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa/Black Panther. I think he is a great presence in this film. He has a little bit of an origin story, but I'm glad they took the route of not having it take up a huge chunk of the film. We get exactly the right amount of time with him and I think he's probably the best character in the film. By the end, it's clear that he is the movie's conscience. While he wanted vengeance for the death of his father, as soon as he finds out it wasn't Bucky, but Zemo instead, he decides he's done being vengeful. He sees it consuming everyone around him, but it isn't want he wants anymore. He just wants justice and what's right and that leaves at the perfect spot to lead into his solo film. Also, I love in the mid-credits scene, that he is so selfless that he is willing to help Bucky, even though he was someone who T'Challa thought was responsible for his father's death.

We're also introduced to Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Anyone who knows me and of my love of Marvel superheroes, you'll know that Peter Parker is my favorite character of all time in any medium. The first two Sam Raimi films are movies that I love dearly, however as I watch them now, I don't think there is a single definitive portrayal of Peter. Tobey Maguire did a damn good job, but what Tom Holland brings to this role is such a perfect representation of the character I grew up with. At this point, with just this movie alone, I thought Holland was on par with Maguire's performance. The biggest reason for that is the scene between him and Tony, where Peter explains why he does what he does as Spider-Man. Rewatching that scene tonight, I thought to myself that this is how you represent Peter Parker properly onscreen. It's my favorite scene in the entire film, because it's the perfect introduction to Marvel's most iconic character into their cinematic universe. I also think his scenes as Spider-Man are equally flawless. I'll just say right now that I am really excited to review his solo outing in the coming weeks.

The action is pretty impressive for the most part. I like that once again, the Russos use a lot of in camera effects and stunts. It makes it more effective and engaging to watch.  The airport sequence is solid, but I think the other set pieces are just as exciting.

There are many ways that Captain America: Civil War could have felt lackluster or it could have been executed poorly. I think the Russos do such a fine job of bringing this many heroes together onscreen and investing the audience enough into this conflict. I still think it's a damn solid culmination of the MCU up to this point. I think Infinity War is in great hands with the Russos helming it, because they have proven they know what they are doing with these characters twice already.

Ant-Man (2015)


Directed by Peyton Reed
Story by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish
Screenplay by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd

Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man
Michael Douglas as Hank Pym
Evangeline Lily as Hope van Dyme
Corey Stoll as Darren Cross/Yellowjacket
Bobby Cannavale as Paxton
Michael Peña as Luis

After the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel was able to adapt and experiment with their more weird, unknown properties. Ant-Man seemed like a character that could easily fit into this onscreen universe. Edgar Wright had been wanting to make a film with the character for years so when it was finally announced, I was quite excited. I knew next to nothing about the character. I've never read a single Ant-Man comic and I was only somewhat familiar with Hank Pym. I had never even heard of Scott Lang until this movie was being made. I didn't find Hank Pym to be a very interesting character, but I had total faith that Edgar Wright could make a solid movie out of the character. Being a huge fan of his Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, having him involved in my favorite movie franchise was pretty exciting. Unfortunately, he departed the project due to creative differences with the studio. While Wright and Joe Cornish's overall story was still kept somewhat intact, there were rewrites done to the film before shooting began. Peyton Reed took over directing duties and the film still made its July 2015 release date despite Wright's departure being very close to the start of shooting. I was somewhat looking forward to the film, but was pretty bummed that one of my favorite directors would not be making it. He did however get to make his passion project, Baby Driver, which may have been the best outcome because that movie is one of the best action movies of the decade, where this is just an alright comic book movie.

I think the movie is one of the middle of the road MCU films. I do find it to be pretty fun, but it really does feel more like a standard comic book movie. Edgar Wright would have elevated the material a lot more. Peyton Reed does a fine job directing, but he doesn't have a distinct visual style the way that Wright does. I do still own the movie. I don't mind watching it every now and then, but it's one of the MCU films that I don't revisit often. Honestly, I don't think I had rewatched it since it first came out on Blu-ray.

The action is pretty creative. I think it's one of the film's strong points. It's cool seeing things shrink and enlarge and I'm glad the movie has appropriately smaller stakes. The climax takes place mostly in a bedroom and it works. I appreciate how weird it gets like the Thomas the Tank Engine and ant both growing to enormous size. I also think it's neat how they filmed real objects up close and then added in the Ant-Man and ant models in post. It helps the look of the action scenes and this way it's not all done in a computer. The quantum realm does look pretty cool and it's the probably the best full CGI scene in the entire movie. I hope we get to see more of it in the next film because we do see the outline of Janet van Dyme briefly.

The one thing that makes me happiest is that Paul Rudd now has a big movie series to star in. He has been one of my favorite comedic actors since The 40 Year-Old Virgin. The film has a sequel coming out in July of this year and he got to appear in Captain America: Civil War after this. I think he does a great job as the leading man in a comic book film. He's able to bring his comedic charm to the material and put it to good use.  

I never found Hank Pym to be that interesting of a character in the comics. I thought he was kind of a dick, especially after he hit his wife Janet, the original Wasp. The only comics I'd seen him appear in were classic Avengers stories and the recent Age of Ultron. But Michael Douglas does an excellent job portraying this character by making him really likable and not a total prick like he was in the comics. He does have some character flaws in this movie like keeping information from his daughter and he turned his back on his protegee, but you can tell he had genuine love for Janet and he does finally tell Hope the truth about her disappearance. 

Evangeline Lily does a fine job as Hope van Dyme, but I'm glad that she'll be suiting up in the sequel and that they'll be bringing Janet into the MCU. The Wasp is one of the most important founding members of the Avengers and I hope she's given the respect she deserves. Hope looks pretty cool in action in the trailer, so that has me quite excited. The Wasp is one of my absolute favorite female characters in the comics.

Darren Cross is definitely the worst villain to come out of any of these movies. I'd say he's even more bland than Malekith, which is really saying something. He's incredibly generic, his plan isn't interesting, and he has no depth whatsoever. When he gets into the Yellowjacket suit it's a little bit more fun because we get to see him and Scott fight, but he's still such a one-note villain. Even from the first scene he appears in, you know he's already the villain.

Michael Peña and the other two members of Scott's crew are great supporting comic relief characters. I think they all play off of each other well. Some of the humor doesn't work, because they use it a bit too much to undercut serious moments. Most of it hits, though.

A lot of the story beats are clichés that have been used many times before like the ex con trying to be good or the idea of a heist, but I think the material is elevated, because the script does a good enough job of making us care. Shame it wasn't Edgar Wright's movie, because he would have elevated it even more.

Ant-Man is one of the middle tier MCU films. It's a fun little film that does show promise for future films because of its lead. Paul Rudd is worthy of leading a big comic book franchise like this and it's good to see Marvel venturing into the more weird elements of their universe.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)



Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye
James Spader as Ultron
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff
Paul Bettany as Jarvis/Vision
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

A sequel to the biggest comic book movie of all time, though that probably won't be the case after Black Panther completes is theatrical run, has to have lots of pressure behind it when it comes to expectations. I sure know mine were high when this film was announced. The first trailer had an eerie feel to it with Ultron creepily quoting Pinnochio and seeing our heroes looking quite distraught. I obsessed over this film for months leading to its release. I was highly anticipating the fact that we were already getting another chance to see Earth's Mightiest heroes team up again and for one of their greatest villains be brought to life. Liz, Carl, and I saw it opening night. I left the theater really excited, thinking it had lived up to my expectations. But as weeks passed, I accepted that it wasn't on the same level of greatness as the first film. It's a good movie, but it's kind of a disappointment when comparing it to not only the first film, but some of the other MCU films to come before it.

There is plenty to like about the movie. It's great to see the team actually working together more, even if they do get at odds with each other because of the whole situation with Ultron. This foreshadows the coming conflicts in Captain America: Civil War.  The action is fun, if not quite as memorable as the first film. However, the Hulkbuster fight is just as epic and awesome as you would want it to be. All of the returning actors do a solid job. The plot is really interesting. I like the themes of creations through science ala Frankenstein. It's a smart move to carry over Tony's paranoia from his last movie into this one. The vision he's shown only further inspires him to create Ultron and we get some more Science Bros scenes between him and Bruce. Like it or not, Tony is the most important character in the MCU so it's fitting to give him a lot of the focus in this film, even though we don't quite get as much with some of the other Avengers. I would have liked to have seen a bit more focus on Steve, but he was getting another film just a year after this one. Even though that movie is more of an Avengers vehicle than a solo film, he still gets plenty of focus in that film so I'll give this one a pass.

While the other Avengers were given their fair share in the first movie with character moments and development, Clint really got the short straw because of being mind controlled for the first half of the movie. Luckily, he's given some strong development in this film and he's my favorite character in this movie. I really like the scenes on his farm. I'm glad that Hawkeye has a family. It's interesting to see the most down-to-earth Avenger have a life suitable for him. The other Avengers, excluding Bruce and Natasha, have their own solo films to further develop their characters, but we only have seen Clint in the Avengers films at this point. While Natasha was given some good development in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Clint and Bruce are the two that need more focus when it comes to these films. It's constantly teased that Clint may not make it to the end of this film, so it's nice to see him return home after the third act action has concluded. It's also because Joss Whedon wanted to shock people by killing off Pietro instead, but more on that in a bit.

While many complain about the setting up of future films in this movie, I think most of it is handled well. Since Guardians of the Galaxy finally explained what the Infinity Stones were, it feels necessary to further set them up here, especially since the Mind Stone is what powers Vision. Thor's sublot serves as this exposition for Age of Ultron. His dream sequence of Ragnarok is more of an issue to me upon rewatching because it just feels like a teaser for his next movie. Since that movie has come out it's very clear that they scrapped the darker tone of that scene, so it plays more awkward now. 

I think the new characters are all pretty good. The Maximoff twins are both well cast. I think Aaron Taylor-Johnson is having a lot more fun in this film than he was in the 2014 Godzilla, where he abundantly lacked charisma. He's really likable here. Elizabeth Olsen is an awesome Wanda Maximoff. I've been a fan of her character since the comics and it's clear that Joss Whedon has a liking for her here, because she's well developed and she holds her own in the scenes involving the other Avengers. Paul Bettany has always been a great Jarvis, but he really shines as Vision. If some of the other characters feel crammed in here, it's certainly not the case with him. He's a fascinating character right from his first scene. One of the best moments is when he lifts Mjolnir just to prove that he's on our heroes' side. My favorite scene in the entire film is when he and the last Ultron bot are in the forest. It's a superb scene showing both sides of the AI creations. James Spader is just as good as Ultron. He actually feels threatening and his plan is one you'd expect from a comic book villain. It's not in the silly way, though. The fact that he wants to wipe out humanity by lifting a crater into the sky only to use it as a meteor. It's kind of awesome and it raises the stakes for our heroes.

As for the flaws I have with this film, they're big ones. First, Pietro's death is bullshit. Joss Whedon has come out and said that he only teased Hawkeye meeting his demise just so he could kill off Pietro for shock value. There is no reason he should have died, with him having super speed and all. Whedon is known for having deaths for shock value and it's really annoying. I can't think of one that he has done where it felt like a natural conclusion for the character. It would not have been hard to keep Pietro around. I read somewhere that there was even an alternate ending where he was brought back through Helen Cho's cradle. If you're going to kill off a hero, make sure they've been around for several movies.

This next issue is more of a nitpick, but I'll bring it up anyway. The mid credits scene with Thanos is really lame and the reason behind it is even lamer. Joss Whedon simply wanted one more scene with Thanos, even though it serves no purpose. It's obvious that Thanos will have the Infinity Gauntlet and I don't see the point of a scene that isn't even 30 seconds long showing he has it. I wish they had teased another movie instead or just had a better scene.

One thing that really bothers me is the fact that the Maximoffs volunteered for Strucker's experiments. I assume they're still of Jewish descent in the movies, so why in the fuck would they volunteer for a Nazi organization's experiments?! I think that's really gross writing on Joss Whedon's part and that's not the only shitty writing he does in this movie.

Joss Whedon has constantly referred to himself as a feminist. I call bullshit. Just because his female characters make quips and punch people does not mean that they are strong female characters. The way he's written Natasha in this film is grossly misogynistic. After all of the great development she had in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it's almost thrown away in this movie. I absolutely hate that she is not only given a forced love interest in Bruce, but she's also captured by Ultron and has to be rescued. Both of these cliches were annoying decades ago and sure as hell are unbearable at this point. Her romance with Bruce feels incredibly forced and vastly underdeveloped. Natasha does not need a romantic partner in these films. She already has a fascinating enough backstory and it is plenty to help develop her character. The scene in which she compares herself to Bruce as a monster, because of her hysterectomy, is nauseating. Not only is the romance aspect unnecessary, but there are other ways that she could have brought up the monster comparison like the fact that she's killed people in her past. Natasha deserves just as much respect as her male counterparts and Joss Whedon really damaged her character with this film. I'm very happy that he is no longer involved in the Marvel films, because the feminist in me can't stand such shitty treatment of such a great character.

I liken Avengers: Age of Ultron to Ghostbusters II in which it's a pretty standard follow up to a perfect first installment. There is fun to be had and it's always a thrill to see the heroes once again come together, but in the end it pales in comparison. It's a movie that does a good enough job of bringing everything back that you loved, but it just doesn't quite deliver in the way you want it to.