Archive for the Superhero Category

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 9, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.”

Why not be both? Benedict Cumberbatch may get top billing, but the driving force of the narrative is Elizabeth Olsen. She is Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch. The woman loves her sons Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) dearly. She simply wants them back with her safe and sound. Nothing wrong with that, right? The problem is, to accomplish this, she has to create a lot of chaos. What’s a mother to do? Enter America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to travel to different worlds in the multiverse. Unfortunately, America cannot control her abilities. She is being chased by a demonic entity and requests the help of Dr. Stephen Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong). Strange realizes he needs further assistance and so he appeals to Wanda Maximoff for help.

The chronicle is surprisingly basic but made needlessly complicated. The title may be saddled with the sobriquet “In the Multiverse of Madness,” but this is a direct sequel to Doctor Strange. It’s not a movie for uninformed viewers. It demands knowledge of other Marvel properties before watching. Obviously, you must see part one. A familiarity with Spider-Man: No Way Home and the TV shows What If…? and Loki might also improve your experience. Essential viewing is the Disney+ TV show WandaVision. In that series, Wanda has two kids and the love for her sons is her motivation here in what could have been a straightforward saga. Complicating matters are cameos that distract from the drama at its heart.

This sequel is conspicuously hampered by a slavish devotion to being a piece in a much larger puzzle. Callbacks to other individuals within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) pop up to check off boxes and remind the viewer this is merely a chapter in a media franchise. The saga is burdened by the introduction of people that reference other releases and suggest potential developments in future films. A tedious detour presents Stephen Strange attending the wedding of Christine Palmer where Dr. Nic West also happens to be a guest. The extended sequence hijacks the narrative only to justify that Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg’s names be included on the movie poster. In another development, we meet Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo. He is the Sorcerer Supreme of the Illuminati, a secret society made of superheroes that Doctor Strange originally formed. This includes alternate versions of well-known characters from previous MCU features that have been recast. It feels like a distraction shoehorned into the account. They have little to do with the central tale. Even screenwriter Michael Waldron seems to secretly loathe their presence. No detailed spoilers, but I wouldn’t get attached to all of them.

It’s nice when an auteur can bring their style to the Marvel machine. Let’s face it. In this context, directors are talent for hire that must adhere to a set of rules overseen by a committee with the final say. The caliber of notables tapped to oversee something within the MCU is a most impressive list. Some are more successful than others at injecting their stamp onto the material. Taika Waititi added camp to Thor: Ragnarok. Chloé Zhao brought thoughtful introspection to Eternals. Sam Raimi brings his eccentric spirit. He’s already familiar with the superhero genre. The Spider-Man trilogy he helmed starring Tobey Maguire beginning back in 2002 is iconic. But it’s the horror aesthetic of The Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell that informs the DNA of this picture.

Doctor Strange 2 (yes I’m calling it that) is a weird and wild blockbuster. Director Sam Raimi’s signature is all over this film. When Stephen Strange and his ally America are falling through multiple universes, it is a surreal trip employing bizarre visuals and music. At one point they even briefly become cartoons. The snippet is one of the most inspired bits I’ve seen in a movie all year. Later Stephen Strange uses Dreamwalking (don’t ask) to take over the corpse of another variant of himself called Defender Strange. His walking and talking zombie is hideous. It can be entertaining — especially when Elizabeth Olsen is on screen as The Scarlet Witch doing her magic. When the story gets sidetracked by tributaries and detours it’s less captivating. It’s a mixed bag for me, although I lean toward a recommendation. It’s a fun summer flick with fantasy elements and special effects. I guess I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

05-05-22

Morbius

Posted in Action, Adventure, Horror, Superhero with tags on April 4, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The idea that each new superhero release must be a crucial component of some grand interconnected universe, is a bit wearying at this point. Morbius is indeed a meager slice of a larger pie that includes the Venom flicks. So far the three pictures are the cinematic manifestation of Sony’s rights to Spider-Man. Despite Morbius’ attempt at worldbuilding, its aspirations are low. The straightforward tale is just a monster movie at heart. Its undemanding nature is ironically a strength.

The story is extremely basic. Michael Morbius is a doctor who suffers from a rare blood disease. Michael’s colleague is Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) and she predictably becomes his girlfriend. In his quest to cure his condition, he accidentally turns himself into a vampire who craves blood. Now Morbius is constantly torn between his human and monster states. He gets special powers whenever he transforms. Extra-sensory hearing is one ability. It bizarrely converts his ears into what looks like the gills of a mushroom. “Mad scientist cursed by a beastly alter ego” is a familiar trope. The same idea afflicted The Incredible Hulk and his alter ego Bruce Banner for example. There’s even a moment where Morbius utters the line “Don’t make me hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.” Sometimes a joke is so eye-rollingly bad it ends up being good. Granted the chronicle is cobbled from the details of other better films. Morbius’ deep fascination with vampire bats even recalls Batman.

Morbius has idiosyncrasies that amuse, sometimes unintentionally. Coming off of his flamboyant but enjoyable achievement as Paolo in House of Gucci, Jared Leto surprisingly underplays the role with a quiet intensity. With his neatly trimmed beard and long locks parted in the center, he suggests a Jesus-like figure in his well-groomed appearance. He is an odd personality. He arrogantly refuses the Nobel prize because his groundbreaking work may have saved millions of lives, but it didn’t improve his own. Well, that’s a stupid decision. His incongruous reference to The Notebook when a character gets sentimental is also comic. Speaking of whom, Matt Smith does the scenery-chewing as Morbius’s surrogate brother. Milo suffers from the same illness. Smith invigorates the silly drama with a goofy performance. His little dance as he’s getting dressed is an amusing interlude.

Morbius is not great for a variety of reasons. The saga frequently relies on wonky computer special effects. It culminates in the type of generic battle that blights even the best superhero installments. An end-credits sequence renders the film we just watched as a prelude to a sequel. I’m not looking forward to more chapters. However, if you can disregard that annoyance, the film is an uncomplicated piece of entertainment. It demands so little. At 104 minutes it unfolds in a blip — an antidote to bloated epics marred by their distended runtimes. Comic book obsessives usually don’t uplift a shorter account as better. Perhaps my unfamiliarity with the material helped. While the narrative is derivative, it’s pleasant as a creature feature. Morbius is not an experience that requires you dash to the nearest theater, but it is fitfully diverting.

03-31-22

The Batman

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on March 7, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Did we really need another Batman movie? At this point, the question is akin to asking whether we want more James Bond flicks, an additional performance of A Christmas Carol, or a new production of Hamlet. For any film lover, the answer will forever be yes. The obligation is to make it good and to bring something fresh to the table.

Every new incarnation of Batman seems to top the previous one in darkness and gloom. Tim Burton’s 1989 vision was a game-changer compared with the lighthearted TV show of the 1960s. However, by the time Joel Schumacher had directed parts 3 and 4, the 1990s series had devolved into a zany cartoon. Christopher Nolan recalibrated with The Dark Knight trilogy. It’s the definitive version as far as I’m concerned. That spirit inspired the DC Extended Universe franchise with Ben Affleck. The R-rated spin-off Joker upped the ante considerably and now we’ve got this reboot in 2022.

The title points to a back-to-basics approach. Bruce Wayne is the Batman, a vigilante uncovering corruption in Gotham City. He has a personal vendetta against the kind of criminals that took his parents when he was 10. Director Matt Reeves — who wrote the screenplay with Peter Craig — wisely spares us the umpteenth dramatization of that murder. A slow-motion shot of Martha’s pearl necklace falling apart is burned into my mind. But I digress. The caped crusader is conflicted by the ethics of vengeance. He has the uneasy support of Lieutenant “not quite Commissioner” Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). In Batman’s quest to bring criminals to justice he meets The Riddler (Paul Dano). The arch-villain has been singling out corrupt officials suggesting a connection between them and the criminal underworld. The web of corruption runs deep. It may even impugn the hallowed legacy of the Wayne family.

The Batman is yet another melancholy depiction of the superhero, but the narrative does distinguish itself from the others. The biggest difference is that this interpretation leans very heavily into the idea that Bruce Wayne is first and foremost a detective. Lest we forget, DC stands for Detective Comics after all. The story is set after he’s been fighting crime for two years. The Riddler is a sadistic serial killer in this iteration. Think of Batman as Sherlock Holmes dropped into the thriller Seven or even a Saw movie. The Riddler places his victims in these contraptions that recall the devices from that horror franchise. He taunts the Dark Knight with a string of riddles. Each one conveyed in a greeting card. Batman’s pursuit of justice will lead him to an organized crime conspiracy in Gotham city and a variety of different characters.

The saga incorporates a terrific cast. This includes a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and a mobster played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell. Oswald Cobblepot is his name but you might know him better as The Penguin. Of course, the most important person is Robert Pattison as the main character. He’s officially the 10th person to portray Batman in a live-action picture. Pattinson manages to offer a unique take on his personality. Bruce Wayne is significantly more troubled with what he is doing. The most depressed and broken interpretation of the character we’ve seen thus far. He’s also younger than the most iconic portrayals. Pattinson is physically slight, less stocky. His emo haircut says he’s sensitive and even sports eyeliner when he wears the cowl. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows,” he whispers. This Batman doesn’t growl like his predecessors.

The Batman is a lot of things. Simply consider the definite article before the name. The title is a declaration that’s a little presumptuous right off the bat, no pun intended. The film is also too long…nearly three hours. The convoluted tale features the labyrinthian twists and turns of an investigation. Although to its credit, it doesn’t drag. But most of all it’s dark. I’m talking pitch black. The atmosphere is not an innovation. We’ve seen this somber rendition before. It’s so bleak but it does affect the compelling mood of a neo-noir. Director Matt Reeves stages the action with such visual flair underscored by the stunning cinematography of Greig Fraser (Lion, Dune). One stylish scene with Selina Kyle takes place in a sordid private club amidst the flashing strobe lights. The movie feels cinematic. Although it may not top Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, there’s still much to admire. That’s enough for a recommendation.

03-03-22

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Spider-man has had a long and varied history on film. It all began rather inauspiciously in 1977 with a made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot for The Amazing Spider-Man series on CBS. That starred Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music). Since then, we’ve gotten productions with a considerably higher budget: the Sam Raimi directed pictures (2002–2007) starring Tobey Maguire and those helmed by Marc Webb (2012–2014) with Andrew Garfield. Sony’s Licensing agreement with Marvel Studios then allowed a group of movies featuring Tom Holland to officially become a part of the MCU. There was Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), then Far From Home (2019), and now the latest No Way Home. The recurring word “home” appearing in every title has always made differentiating these titles a little difficult for this reviewer. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed them. The latest is no exception.

The story is refreshingly succinct at heart. After Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man, Peter appeals for help from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to conjure a spell to make people forget his true identity. Complications arise.

What makes the 8th Spider-Man entry different in yet another SONY-produced installment is the way it effectively embraces nostalgia. Peter Parker must contend with a panoply of villains in this episode. These include the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). This then is the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album if you will. Still using that analogy, I will offer there are a few bonus cuts as well. The additions will delight longtime fans of the franchise. It’s a superficial pleasure, but a genuine one.

The screenplay’s attempts at poignancy and significance will resonate more with people who come to this movie already invested. Learning from your mistakes and the link between power and responsibility are imparted as words of wisdom. Another lesson is giving people second chances, even at the expense of making some extremely bad choices. A key plot point is that Peter is conflicted by people who divide over whether he is a hero or a menace to society. J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons ) is a conspiracy theorist with his own news show on the internet. Jameson vociferously speaks out against the web-slinger. The public seems divided, although we the audience are invited to view Jameson as a crackpot.

Then Peter makes a choice. Director Jon Watts is working from a script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Up until this point, they had managed to keep me on board with the various machinations of the story. Even the leap required to accept that Doctor Strange would agree to cast that ridiculous spell. Peter’s error in judgment goes against the strict admonitions of Doctor Strange. It is a highly flawed decision that I could never get behind. Quite frankly, it’s indefensible. “You only have yourself to blame!” was my reaction to every bad thing that happens thereafter. This includes someone’s death.

No Way Home is still a sturdy, entertaining flick. You’ll get the requisite battles and they’re fine. More appreciated is the camaraderie between these beloved characters. Actors Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ Jones-Watson), and Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds) have a rapport that is deeply affecting. They have a connection. You truly believe in their core friendship. However, I would argue that Holland has become so ultrabuff he looks out of place, especially in one scene where he appears shirtless. Their interactions are what carried me through the standard-issue action scenes. The screenplay seeks to inject sentimentality into the narrative with emotional developments. These efforts are more meaningful because of their chemistry. The relationship of this trio goes a long way into making us care.

To say this picture has resonated with audiences is an understatement. Spider-Man: No Way Home has accomplished what heretofore seemed impossible post-pandemic. At $260 million, it’s the 2nd biggest U.S. opening OF ALL TIME. Only Avengers: Endgame did more with the $357 million it earned in April 2019. Given that the theatrical landscape was a lot more welcoming in 2019, it makes the achievement even more incredible. This made more in just one weekend than the entire gross of any movie since 2019. The last was Rise of Skywalker with $515 million. No Way Home may just top that. Stay tuned.

12-21-21

Eternals

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on November 7, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Well, it’s about time. It’s been 13 years and now 26 films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has given us something unlike anything in the franchise thus far. Oh sure, they’ve dabbled in different genres before: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is a 70s style political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is a space opera, Ant-Man (2015) is a comedic heist picture. There’s the coming-of-age teen movie envisioned in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the Afro-futurism of Black Panther (2018), and the martial arts of Shang-Chi (2021). Eternals deviates from the formula far more than anything before. Yet that’s what makes it so fascinating. The ambitious character-driven drama is a lot more intimate. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Director Chloe Zhao won the Oscar in 2021 for directing the very introspective Nomadland.

The saga is a sweeping epic that spans eons concerning the Eternals — a diverse group of 10 immortal aliens created by god-like beings known as the Celestials. Eternals also interact with humans by imparting their wisdom and offering protection but are forbidden to alter human history. The main adventure, set in the present, follows Sersi and company as they try to reunite the Eternals and defeat the Deviants, a race of enemy creatures who have suddenly reappeared after 500 years. However, the movie frequently flashes back to show the past of these cosmic beings, their impact on humanity, and why the group disbanded at one point.

That’s the basic outline. Delve deeper and we are confronted with a very mature and reflective piece. The tale manages to juggle ten superheroes, each with their own unique power. Watching the Eternals work together to take down the Deviants is thrilling. The distinctness of their superhero abilities is a little ill-defined. I mean they’re all super strong and can fight. Everyone seems indestructible too. On a couple of occasions I thought someone was finished, only to magically restore themselves. The Eternal that gets the most focus is Sersi (Gemma Chan). Her compelling personality has such compassion. She’s currently dating a history professor (Kit Harington) in the present day. Her skill is she can transform matter. Then there’s Ikaris (Richard Madden), who — like Superman – can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. (Yes I know Superman is DC Comics) He and Sersi share a romantic past. The two have been a couple through the ages. Sersi and Ikaris experience a genuine moment of — ahem — intimacy. That’s another first for an MCU film.

The rest of the cast gets a little less attention but each is a charismatic individual. Thena (Angelina Jolie) can produce weapons. Ajak (Salma Hayek) has the power to heal, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) fires projectile blasts from his hands and Sprite (Lia McHugh) can generate illusions. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) round out the ten. I won’t detail them all since their specific talents are unimportant. The overall manifestation of the team working together is what compels the viewer. This is a family of sorts with an emotional backstory. These people are interesting and that’s crucial. It recalls the familial relationships in films like The Incredibles (2004) and The Avengers (2012). I was completely invested in the stories of every last one. That raises the stakes when they have the requisite battles. My engagement made these big, awe-inspiring displays even more exciting.

The chronicle wrestles with grand philosophical and theological questions. That’s always a risky venture. It mostly delights but there are disappointments. The account depicts the dropping of a five-ton bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. An event so horrific should never be casually inserted in a superhero fantasy. Eternals regrettably exploits this real-world tragedy to add significance to its narrative. Additionally, it jumps back and forth in time a bit too much and left me a little confused as to where we were in the story. And lastly, at 157 minutes, it is far too long. A little editing would have presented a cleaner account. Yet those are minor quibbles when compared with the many positives.

I haven’t even mentioned the visual spectacle. This gorgeous-looking picture features cinematography from Ben Davis (Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel). While still CGI heavy during battle scenes, the production has this grounded reality in the world around it. True to its title, the tale travels to various locations throughout history. It covers thousands of years from ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon to the Gupta Empire and the Aztecs. The beautiful background vistas add to the weight of what’s happening. Chloé Zhao employs a lot of practical location-based filmmaking to simulate these environments and it makes a difference.

The screenplay swings for the fences. I admire that. Chloé Zhao (co-written with Patrick Burleigh and cousins Ryan & Kaz Firpo) wants to engage your emotions. The adventure has a lofty scale. It may not score a home run, but I wholly appreciate her successful attempt to try something different. Much like the Eternals who have this world-weary pathos about them, I personally suffer from superhero fatigue. Eternals flips the script and gives us a contemplative, character-driven drama. No, it’s not a typical superhero film. That’s a good thing. I am here for this new innovative direction.

11-04-21

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on October 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you ever seen a movie that you enjoyed in the moment, but was so inconsequential you immediately forgot about it a day later? Such is Venom Let There Be Carnage, the sequel to Venom, Sony’s massive 2018 box office hit. As an entertaining time-filler, the film succeeds, but it’s hard to write about since it made virtually no impression on me. The mid-credits sequence had more of an impact than the proper saga. No details. I’ll only offer that it acknowledges Venom is a Marvel character originally introduced in the Spider-Man comics.

I could pretend this story is complicated but it’s easy to simplify things. The narrative isn’t complex. Venom is the alien organism that uses the body of investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) as a host in which to live. The alien symbiote is a frightening presence because he wants to eat human brains. Nonetheless, he is resigned to eating chicken and chocolate because of Eddie’s admonition to do so. Venom has become a friendly dweller in his body.

The extraterrestrial must face a new enemy named Carnage who inhabits a serial killer named Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson). At first, this guy only wants to get back to his true love but Carnage gives him powerful abilities. Girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris) has some superpowers of her own. Incidentally, the same actress is also Miss Moneypenny in the new James Bond flick No Time to Die. Harris is enjoying a most productive October.

The best thing about this production is what made the original so enjoyable. That is — the oddball relationship between Eddie Brock and Venom, the alien who uses him as a host. While he possesses his body, you can hear them talking to each other. They are at ease with one another. They bicker with the comfortableness of an old married couple and it’s amusing. They even experience a break-up. The screenplay has moments of hilarity. However, there are still many opportunities for jokes that aren’t exploited. At one point, Carnage incongruously shouts, “Let there Be Carnage!” The title is stated verbatim without nary a wink or a nudge to the audience. In another scene, Eddie ducks into a women’s bathroom to argue with Venom — and save for the surprised face of one occupant in the adjacent stall — nothing of consequence is mined from the situation.

There is little here to recommend to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the comic book. The chronicle is all in service of a climactic duel between the two monsters. The battle is terrible as it showcases garish and nonsensical CGI action that is just a bunch of craziness up there on the screen. Director Andy Serkis keeps things simple and brisk. That can be a plus. They say brevity is the soul of wit. If you subscribe to that point of view, then the fact that this a mere 90 minutes should increase your enjoyment considerably. The production stays light, but — ya know — with mass destruction. Oh, and the brutal — albeit bloodless — deaths of several characters that test the confines of a PG-13 rating. It’s like a violent sitcom.

09-3-21

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on September 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The discussion of race and diversity within superhero movies has grown significantly over the last half-decade. Studios have expressed a desire to elevate representation within their stories. Whether this is a marketing move or an altruistic desire to be inclusive is a question you can discuss amongst yourselves. Nevertheless, Marvel Studios promoted Black Panther as their first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with a black lead, and Captain Marvel was publicized as their first female warrior to get her own film. In March 2020, Marvel Comics announced its first-ever non-binary superhero called Snowflake who uses they/them pronouns. Any idea on how long that picture will take to be made?

A shift occurred in 2016 during Phase 3 of the MCU with Doctor Strange. Scottish actress Tilda Swinton was cast in the role of the Ancient One, a Tibetan. Never mind the fact that the release was a huge financial success. The social media backlash was vociferous and enduring. It continues to this day. At the time Marvel President Kevin Feige defended the decision but he would later apologize for the “whitewashing” controversy and express regret for not casting an Asian actor.

In that spirit, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the first Marvel release with an Asian lead. No production should have to carry the entire weight of Asian representation within the MCU but 25 films in, and that’s where we are. The best of intentions are nice but “Is the movie any good?” is the bottom line. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings delivers. It’s a solid mid-level addition to the MCU. The newest entry stands on its own and that counts for a lot.

I often forgot I was watching yet another installment of a franchise. OK, so a couple of characters do pop up that are callbacks to earlier entries. Wong (Benedict Wong ), who worked alongside Doctor Strange, is seen at a cage fighting tournament here. Ben Kingsley also reprises his Trevor Slattery character from Iron Man 3. This chapter is part of the same shared world, but thankfully the narrative doesn’t rely too much on the previous movies. In many ways, it feels like a completely separate entity. I appreciated that the drama could be enjoyed without having seen the other pictures.

Shang-Chi boasts a charismatic cast. Actor Simu Liu (Canadian TV sitcom Kim’s Convenience) makes for a likable hero as the titular character. Initially, he seems just like a normal, mild-mannered guy who parks cars as a valet. His skillful fighting abilities are a secret. They’re first revealed while traveling on a bus with his friend Katy played by Awkwafina. The two share a warm friendship and their chemistry is a delight.

A group of henchmen launches an attack on public transportation. The passengers amusingly look on, stunned with their mouths agape. One villain stands out because he’s a hulking Romanian bruiser in a cast full of Asian actors. Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) brandishes a machete blade for a right hand.

The baddies turn out to be part of a nefarious organization known as the Ten Rings. Their leader is Xu Wenwu portrayed by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs, Hero) making his Hollywood debut. Wenwu also happens to use a powerful set of ten discs worn like bracelets around his arms that he uses in combat. Wenwu is Shang-Chi’s father. He also has a daughter named Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Yup Shang-Chi has a sister and she’s just as much of a badass as he is.

This is a perfect time to mention the fight choreography is phenomenal. That scene on the bus is an outstanding highlight. Another takes place on the scaffolding of a high rise. Shang Chi draws on the tradition of Wuxia. The martial arts genre of Chinese fiction usually takes place in a historical setting but often involves fantasy elements. The action sequences also recall some of the stunt work of actor Jackie Chan.

These cultural details distinctly separate this superhero from previous episodes of the MCU. That’s good. The bad is that there is too much exposition that is dumped on the audience. The twisting alliances and people’s motives comprise details I won’t spoil here, but it’s a convoluted web of needless complications. The 3rd act ends up at a magical village called Ta Lo. The atmosphere suddenly morphs into a full-blown fantasy epic. The spectacle devolves into a total CGI fest with flying dragons and lots of special effects. It is nowhere near as captivating as the human drama that plays out in the first two acts. That’s the part I loved. Oh and the martial arts. The hand-to-hand combat is so cool.

09-03-21

The Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Comedy, Superhero with tags on August 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Director/Producer/Writer/Actor James Gunn is a hyphenate who’s known for doing many things. He famously — and successfully — directed Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and its Vol. 2 continuation in 2017. After he was temporarily fired by Marvel Studios from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, he was snapped up by Warner Bros. to helm this movie.

A superhero lineup of misfits that unite to get a job done is kind of becoming his thing. James Gunn loves The Dirty Dozen (1967) and it shows. That blueprint is utilized again for The Suicide Squad. Note that this standalone sequel has a definite article before the title to distinguish itself from its predecessor. The filmmakers have been distancing themselves from the 2016 entry in interviews but this feels like a Part 2 and a superior follow-up at that. Actors Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Joel Kinnaman (Colonel Rick Flag), Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang), and Viola Davis (Amanda Waller) all return in the same roles. Notably not present is Will Smith as Deadshot. An entirely new character named Bloodsport played by Idris Elba shows up. He’s similarly a gun-toting killer who coincidentally also happens to have an estranged daughter.

At first glance, The Suicide Squad may seem rather similar to Gunn’s Marvel superhero franchise. Instead of Rocket Raccoon, we get Weasel (Sean Gunn). In place of a tree-like humanoid that repeats “I am Groot,” there’s a different oddball with a limited vocabulary named King Shark. The overlap of talent includes Sylvester Stallone who provides his voice. Additionally, Michael Rooker and Pom Klementieff have minor parts. Yet the movies couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone. Guardians was rated PG-13. This is rated R. That’s a hard R predominantly for strong violence and gore.

First and foremost, The Suicide Squad is a comedy. Yes, it’s funny, but only if you embrace Gunn’s cynical point of view that life is disposable. Ah, but how to discuss a picture that inspires essays that rank the various deaths. Don’t get attached to anyone. Everyone is fair game including a false start of a beginning that introduces us to Suicide Squad #1. There’s more than one team. James Gunn doesn’t believe shocks are more potent when doled out sparingly. His nihilistic ethos of “more is more” will test all but his most ardent fans . If you saw this on opening weekend (or immediately viewed when it debuted on HBO Max) you probably loved it. The saga employs a gleeful abandon toward cruelty and death but all for comedic effect. In that spirit, the bloodshed is cartoonish and silly. The action is uniquely absurd for a while. Over two hours, the grotesqueries pile on top of each other and it grows exhausting.

There’s still a great deal here to recommend. Idris Elba and John Cena play Bloodsport and Peacemaker respectively. They’re superheroes on the same side but always at odds. Their constant bickering is amusing. Fresh off of Birds of Prey (2020), Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quin. Third time’s the charm. This is the most I’ve enjoyed her character. “Recently I made a promise to myself that next time I got a boyfriend I’d be on the lookout for red flags…” she declares to justify an unexpected decision. David Dastmalchian as the edgy Polka-Dot Man and Daniela Melchior as surprisingly sweet Ratcatcher 2 are interesting members of the outfit. Their backstories and abilities significantly support the narrative with something this adventure needs more of…heart.

The Suicide Squad has an “everything but the kitchen sink” aesthetic. French poet Paul Valery proclaimed, “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.” Simply put, the most visionary work comes from figuring out how to invent through the constraints. Tell someone they can’t drop an F-bomb in their picture and they’ll have to devise creative words to circumvent that rule. On the contrary, this chronicle is the product of a filmmaker unrestrained and free to do whatever he wants. It is a violent, bloody, action-packed exhibition. I’ll concede there are some memorable displays. The colorful climax owes a serious debt to 1984’s Ghostbusters. As I sat gobsmacked by the spectacle, I was indeed entertained. So much stuff crammed into this movie that it’s impossible not to be. At least I can say I was never bored.

08-05-21

Black Widow

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Black Widow was first introduced 11 years ago in Iron Man 2. The perpetually sidelined superhero has finally gotten her own standalone feature in 2021. It’s long overdue.

There are two mindsets in which to approach this film. The first is as an expert. This is the 24th chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Anyone able to keep track of the way all the various people, alliances, and developments fit together, deserves a Ph.D. in comic book history. You have my respect. The rest of us — me included — are better off disregarding trying to remember everything that happened in the past. Simply appreciate the movie at face value for what it is. In this case, a decent spy thriller.

Black Widow succeeds as a character-driven action thriller. As a necessary installment to clarify the MCU franchise, it comes up short. Case in point: the chronicle feels like an afterthought. A fan will notice the adventure is retroactively set during an earlier time to adhere to the series’ continuity. These events take place right after Captain America: Civil War occurred in 2016 but before what happens in Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. The picture should have come out 4-5 years ago. Ah but Black Widow is still an entertaining actioner. Better late than never.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been isolated from the other Avengers. Dissension amongst the group has split them up. She signed the Sokovia Accords at Iron Man’s behest but then sided with Captain America when it really counted. Oh snap! She played both sides. She’s currently not on friendly terms with Iron Man and on the run. Did you follow any of that? No matter. The setup merely provides an opportunity to present a completely new cast. Except for William Hurt who returns in a cameo as U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross. We meet mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour). Surprise! The people who raised Natasha in suburban Ohio may not actually be biologically related to her.

At a young age, Natasha was placed in a covert Soviet facility known as the Red Room. There she was brainwashed and schooled in combat and espionage. Many other girls received this spy training as well. They became mindless assassins without free will, turning them into “Black Widows.” Her sister (Florence Pugh) likewise was also educated in this fashion under the direction of evil mastermind General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). He also commands an elite operative called Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) to do his bidding — a tangent that unnecessarily complicates a deeply tortuous narrative. Director Cate Shortland (Lore) directs from a screenplay written by Jac Schaeffer that was rewritten by Ned Benson, who was in turn replaced by Eric Pearson. There’s a lot of plot. The story excels when it’s focused on fewer characters, not more.

The core “family” forms a ragtag group somewhat reminiscent of dynamic in The Incredibles. That’s where the film finds its groove — in comedy. There’s a scene where David Harbour is attempting to squeeze into his old suit as The Red Guardian aka Russia’s version of Captain America. Then there’s Rachel Weisz as a seasoned professional and mother figure. She’s two steps ahead of Alexi with the plans. Then most notable of all, Russian sibling Yelena, portrayed by UK actress Florence Pugh, giving cold unemotional line readings that amusingly make us love her even more.

It’s a bit ironic that Black Widow’s sister outshines the titular superhero in her own movie. Florence Pugh is supposed to be support but her personality is just so darn funny. She totally takes the air out of Natasha’s sails when Yelena mocks her battle stance. “Why do you always do that thing? That thing you do when you’re fighting? With the arm and the hair, when you do like a fighting pose?” she deadpans. Yelena then hilariously affects a posture akin to a ballet position. “It’s a fighting pose. You’re a total poser.” Yelena’s enthusiasm for vests is cute too. She loves the pockets. She has even made some modifications on the one she’s wearing . Her pride is infectious. As expected there are some good action scenes but it’s the character-driven bits that I savor the most. Those parts elevate the film into something I really enjoyed.

07-08-21

Wonder Woman 1984

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on December 24, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

** Mild spoilers ahead ** but honestly, I think the info contained within this review will actually help you understand this most confusing movie.

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Gal Godot is an absolute delight as Wonder Woman. This is simply a fact on which I will not entertain debate. The actress has a presence. She is goodness personified that recalls both Christopher Reeve in 1978’s Superman as well as the grace of Audrey Hepburn. She radiates decency. That’s a pleasure separate from how one feels about this finished product. Wonder Woman 1984 is the much-delayed sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman. This is arguably the most anticipated release of the year. Director Patty Jenkins is back with a script she wrote with Geoff Johns and David Callaham. Our adventure begins on a breathtaking high at the Amazon Games ceremony and ends with a ridiculous low involving a TV broadcast. From a very auspicious beginning, the story somehow loses its direction. It’s a mixed bag to be sure. There is so much to praise in the first half that I must recommend the film, but with reservations. In short, I was entertained.

The picture opens with an American Ninja Warrior-style competition where Diana Prince competes in a multi-stage athletic championship on the island nation of Themyscira. Here she is a little girl (Lilly Aspell) competing against adversaries twice her size and age. The event is an exhilarating spectacle and a astonishing display to seize attention right from the start. I was enthralled. It has virtually nothing to do with the subsequent narrative that takes place years later. It merely provides a setting for Diana’s aunt (Robin Wright) to teach the young champion the importance of truth.

The proper tale concerns Diana Prince who is now living a modest existence. She’s working as a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. studying antiquities by day and occasionally performing heroic acts in her free time. The media is baffled by the identity of this mystery woman who fights crime. At night she eats dinner alone. She continues to carry the torch for Air Force pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). You may recall Steve died in the previous installment, but when did that ever stop a screenwriter from bringing back a beloved character? If you’ve seen the trailer you know he’s back (sort of). 1940s Steve Trevor is fascinated by Pop-Tarts, fanny packs, escalators, subways, breakdancing, and parachute pants. He’s got all the naïveté that I loved about Diana Prince in the first film. As happy as I am to see him return, his reintroduction is poorly explained, much like most of what happens in this drama. I won’t spoil with details but the filmmakers introduce a lot of confusing plot developments. The further we delve into the saga the more we realize it makes absolutely no sense. If a script is a mathematical equation, the authors have completely removed the logic.

Things become dicey with the introduction of a magical citrine jewel that has the power to grant your desires. It’s like the Monkey’s Paw: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” as the old adage goes. This means your request is bequeathed but with qualifications. Once again the writers are asleep at the wheel. This concept is not clear when it’s introduced. There’s a segment fully halfway through that explains the mechanism by which this artifact works. The communication occurs far too late after the audience is already thoroughly confused by the powers of the antagonist. This conversation should’ve happened at least an hour prior. Despite the audience’s lack of understanding, businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) clearly already knows this information as he romances Diana’s co-worker (Kristen Wiig ) at the museum to acquire it. Barbara Minerva and Maxwell Lord are the prime antagonists. They affect the story in both positive and negative ways. Ultimately I thought Kristen Wiig enjoyably captured the nerdy demeanor appropriate of her character. Meanwhile, Pedro Pascal’s generic portrayal didn’t embody the larger than life magnetism required of a central villain.

Wonder Woman 1984 is the promise of a dream unfulfilled. The feature starts at such a wondrous zenith then comes crashing down to a heartbreaking low. It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment at which this release went off the rails. The ultimate nadir is a toss-up, but the final 30 minutes ranks with some of the worst displays ever witnessed in a superhero film. There’s a worldwide TV newscast by Maxwell Lord then Barbara Minerva’s full-fledged emergence as Cheetah. She debuts like rejected CGI from the cinematic adaptation of the musical Cats. Her appearance is an affront to the senses. Note to the producers of every superhero movie ever made: one villain is enough! (Yes, that includes Batman Returns). Two only add to a cluttered ensemble. Then the President of the United States (Stuart Milligan) shows up. The year is 1984 so that should be Ronald Reagan right? The actor suggests him in appearance but it’s never explicitly acknowledged. Furthermore, Wonder Woman 1984 has a surprising dearth of action set pieces in a genre that is usually dependent on them. The introductory sequence is the best thing and a car chase in Cairo is pretty exciting too. I’ll admit dialogue can be captivating too. The interactions between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor are worthy of note. Those two save this production as their integrity shepherds us through so many bewildering events. I get it. These movies of the DC Extended Universe are supposed to be fantasy. However, even fanciful flicks such as this should offer an account somewhat grounded in reality. Wonder Woman 1984 is a mystifying mess.

12-22-20