Archive for the Superhero Category

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Superhero on January 9, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_into_the_spiderverse_ver2STARS3.5How much Spider-Man do you need in your life? Sequels, reboots, so many origin stories – This is the 7th feature film to star the Marvel superhero since 2002 and the first animated movie in the franchise. That’s roughly a new release every 27 months. This chapter has certainly put the other entries in perspective. The cognoscenti extolled this feature as the best Spider-Man ever, some even going so far as to call it the best superhero picture of all-time. Those are some pretty lofty declarations. It’s an enjoyable production to be sure. Just based on innovation alone, this production justifies yet another iteration. At this point, those Amazing Spider-Man movies with Andrew Garfield from 2012 and 2014 are only worth watching if you’re a die-hard completist.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse plays with tradition. I wasn’t up on my comic book history. Those well versed in such lore will be at a distinct advantage. If that’s you, go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph. In fact, go ahead and skip the whole review. This movie was made with you in mind and I can recommend it to you wholeheartedly. Ok now for you casuals and non-superhero fans,  apparently the setting is a shared multiverse called the “Spider-Verse”, which has alternate worlds. This is the first to feature Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager from Brooklyn. He was a re-invention of the character in 2011 by writers Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli. Miles admires Spider-Man /Peter Parker (Chris Pine), the classic guy with whom we are familiar. In this realm, Peter Parker is blonde, fit and seemingly perfect. Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider in the very same way and also develops the same powerful abilities.

That’s merely the beginning. Maniacal crime lord, Wilson Fisk AKA the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his top scientist Liv Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), the head of Alchemax, are the baddies. They’ve built a particle accelerator to access parallel universes. Fisk wants to reconnect with his wife and son who died in a car accident. His use of this thing allows various forms of Spider-Man to come into contact with Miles and interact. There’s Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a more disheveled, brown-haired Spider-Man that sort of acts as his mentor. He’s from another dimension.  There’s teenaged Gwen Stacy, a Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), a brooding reporter from the Great Depression called Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), an anthropomorphic pig parody called Spider-Ham AKA Peter Porker (John Mulaney), and Japanese-American high school student Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who pilots a robot called SP//dr. Does this sound confusing? Believe me, it’s even more dizzying as you’re watching it. Each one of these versions gets a chance to tell their tale of how they became a “spider-man”. The production boasts three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) and five producers including Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind The Lego Movie. They don’t adhere to the past rules of the live-action films. It’s not based in reality. It’s ridiculously bonkers. I suppose that’s part of its charm.

Spider-Verse sets up some emotional stakes. This Spider-Man is still another origin story about a guy coming to terms with his superpowers. In those broad terms, this doesn’t distinguish itself. It’s another hero’s journey.  However, Spider-Verse does a great job at introducing people we care about. We understand Miles. He’s the teenaged son of Jefferson Davis, a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales, a Puerto Rican nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). Despite the different surnames, they are married. His uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali ) is a supportive presence who encourages his nephew to express his artistic side. Brothers Jefferson and Aaron have drifted apart, however. At one point Dad pleads with his son not to drift away like his brother did. The conversation occurs while Miles is in his room on the other side of a closed door. It’s very poignant.

Spider-Verse is a built upon the DNA of comic books. I’ve explained how the story utilizes that aesthetic but it also infects the trippy graphics as well. The stunning visual design is what captivated me the most. The computer animation is distinctive. Its bold colors and images almost bleed through the lines. Not constantly, but the effect is noticeable at times. Initially, I thought I had accidentally walked into a 3D showing without the glasses to render the proper effect.  It was an intentional choice. The technique recalls the Ben-Day Dots printing process of old, pulpy magazines on cheap paper.

The visuals are gorgeous. The computer rendering gives the faces a photo-realism. It’s incredibly expressive. Their faces emote. Yet it’s still filtered through the style of a comic book. It’s a nice balance. Thought bubbles occasionally pop up. When someone activates his Spider-Sense it’s conveyed through squiggly lines around their head. Then the hyperkinetic action sequences kick in. It can get a bit insane. The interconnected characters from other dimensions start to glitch and become unstable. This random twitching seems to increase when they’re fighting.  At times this mixes with the action on screen and it can be a lot to process for the uninitiated.  “What is happening?!” I thought to myself on more than one occasion. Yet it’s always a wonder to behold. “How much Spider-Man do you need in your life?” I ask.  Spider-Verse proves that when creativity and innovation are fully engaged, there’s always room for one more.

12-28-18

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Aquaman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

aquaman_ver11STARS3.5Well, it finally happened.
Aquaman got his own film.  What was once a running gag on the HBO program Entourage (i.e. “James Cameron’s Aquaman”) has become reality at the cineplex.  Life imitates art.  Alright, so James Wan of Furious 7 fame is the director in this case, but it became a huge hit just like it did in the TV show.  The idea of a half man and half Atlantean superhero that communicates with fish as a superpower was always kind of humorous.  His wholesome depiction in the animated 1970s TV series Super Friends certainly didn’t encourage viewers to take him more seriously.  The remedy?  Re-imagine the look of the character, keep things somewhat lighthearted and embrace the silliness. Aquaman is like the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s & 1940s that featured characters like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon.  Obviously, a DC movie from Warner Bros. features an astronomically higher budget.  This allows for eye-popping special effects, colorful set design and a whole raft of stars that include Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, and Nicole Kidman.

This is not your father’s version of the superhero.  He stands in stark contrast to previous incarnations of the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.  “I’m the first mixed-race superhero,” star Jason Momoa has said.  With his long hair and tattoos, the native Hawaiian’s winking portrayal makes perfect sense in the story.  Aquaman is a half breed born to a human father (Temuera Morrison), who’s a lighthouse keeper and the Atlantean princess of a deep-sea kingdom (Nicole Kidman).  Momoa plays the titular character with the swagger of that guy you’d want on your side in a bar brawl.  “Permission to come aboard” he introduces himself well after he has already smashed his way into a submarine.  The line could’ve been uttered by Arnold in his prime.   That’s Schwarzenegger to you children.  Momoa’s charismatic personality complements the impressive production design.  After the Kingdom of Atlantis sunk into the ocean, it split into seven separate realms.  Each one is a whimsically imagined metropolis where people ride sea dragons and sharks.   No seahorses though.  Apparently,  they weren’t macho enough.  There’s a lot to dazzle the eye.  Yes, I’ll admit the film is far too long and there are perhaps too many generic battles that drag things down. Nevertheless, this is mostly a lighthearted production where people actually take the time to discuss things.  The spectacle is the triumph of a creative spirit.   Its essence is quite simply, pure fun.

12-21-18

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

antman_and_the_wasp_ver2STARS3.5Back in 2015, Ant-Man was one of Marvel’s lesser offerings in their seemingly never-ending blitz of superhero movies. After Avengers: Age of Ultron of that year, it sorta felt like the cheese course following the main entree. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Ant-Man and the Wasp functions in very much the same way. At the beginning of the summer, Avengers: Infinity War was a game-changing adventure in the ongoing epic of these champions of justice. Comparatively this agreeable little interlude feels like a dessert. I like dessert. Dessert is sweet and delicious. It’s just that this is like a yogurt parfait and I was craving a baked New York–style cheesecake.

Given the lighthearted atmosphere, the narrative is curiously overcrowded with a massive ensemble of characters. Scott Lang, better known as Ant-Man, has been under house arrest after violating the Sokovia Accords by working with Captain America. His home is now a veritable playground so he can entertain his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) when she visits. She’s dropped off by his ex-wife (Judy Greer ) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale). The proper story begins when Scott has a vision of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the first Wasp, still trapped in the quantum realm. Apparently, the two of them are quantumly entangled after Scott visited the quantum dimension when he went subatomic in the last film. Get used to hearing the word “quantum” a lot in this movie. The screenplay even makes a joke about this. “Do you guys just put the word quantum in front of everything?” Scott Lang asks.

Scott’s ability to return from the quantum realm is noteworthy. This compels him to contact Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Hope shows up, wisely ditching that severe black bob for a much more-practical-for-fighting ponytail. Extracting Janet from the quantum field is the ostensible point of this picture. That’s it. Coming after Infinity War where half of humanity was in danger, the uncommonly low stakes are refreshingly simple here. They all join forces with the help of Ant-Man’s X-Con Security crew Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). Luis secures the hilarious high point of the picture during an interrogation scene when he reveals Scott’s location after being injected with truth serum. It’s unquestionably amusing (again) but since we got this same exact joke in the last Ant-Man the charm is somewhat lessened this time around.  The elder Hank must reluctantly seek the help of former friend and partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Incidentally, despite the buoyant tone, Hank affects such a grim, humorless personality, that it feels as if the actual actor, Michael Douglas, is supremely unhappy to be in this movie.

Surprisingly, the narrative never becomes too convoluted despite the sheer number of actors involved in this plot.  Scott, Hope, and Hank are all confronted by a cadre of corrupt people who impede their progress. There’s Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), also known as Ava Starr.  She has the ability to move through solid matter but has difficulty stabilizing herself.  She requires Janet’s quantum energy at all costs — even if it means Ghost needs to kill her.  There’s a black market tech dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants to get his hands on Hank’s lab.   Also added to the mix is FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) whose job it is to monitor Scott Lang should he try to break free from the house arrest of his home. He’s also after Hank and Hope as well. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) is a college professor and former associate of Hank’s. He shows up too, although I’ll keep his nefarious associations a secret.

This is a stridently pleasant production. The drama along with the assorted villains unfold under a mishmash of silly antics. That means we are presented with less crucial stakes but lots of upbeat humor and a jovial mood. This is an innocuous film about simple pleasures.  There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching things enlarge and then quickly shrink down. Tiny cars zipping around the streets of San Francisco or watching Hank’s gigantic lab reduced to a rolling suitcase never gets old.  Ant-Man and the Wasp essentially takes what made the original good and fine tunes it to make it a little bit better.  Yes, this is an improvement over the 2015 entry, but it’s still the B side throwaway ditty to the A-side single. This isn’t a story so much as a framework on which to hang a disposable tale with affable gags.  I remember the frivolous jokes.  The plot machinations, not so much.  Honestly, I had to take to the internet to remind me of the details of this saga.  The specific components fade from memory but I remembered the comedy.  Hey, this is a very funny movie.

07-05-18

Incredibles 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Drama, Superhero with tags on June 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

incredibles_two_ver11STARS4As far as this animation fan is concerned, The Incredibles is still the greatest Pixar movie ever made. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made as well. I mention this because it helps to appreciate my mindset as I entered the theater to watch Incredibles 2. This was 14 years in the making. I had high expectations and I greeted this sequel with breathless anticipation. Did it deliver?

In a word, yes. It’s an absolute joy. The kid in me was delighted. It’s entertaining and colorful and funny and all the things that a good feature should be. The action embodies the peaks of Whiz! Bang! Pow! spectacle. The score by returning composer Michael Giacchino is profoundly compelling. I highly recommend this to anyone that wants to see a good film. That’s everyone obviously. However, and this is why I opened my review with where my head was at, this doesn’t even come close to the heartfelt emotion of the previous story. Part of that lies in the inherent qualities of original vs. sequel. The first was blessed with the grace of purity. The Parr family was realizing their abilities right before our eyes and the mere exploration of that was a simple pleasure. In a follow-up, that novelty is gone. Now there is an expectation to expand upon the world and deepen our understanding.

As such, this is a more complicated production. The chronicle picks up where The Incredibles ended. After failing to stop the Underminer from robbing the bank with his massive drill, the authorities are worried. The destruction caused to the city has forced the Incredibles and other “supers” to retire from duty for the moment. I initially thought of the Sokovia Accords that regulated superhero powers in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Although Pixar was first. The theme of assimilating powerful individuals into normal society was present in the studio’s 2004 entry as well.  Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who leads DEVTECH, a telecommunications company, with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener).  She is voiced with the world-weary sarcastic knowingness of Catherine Keener sporting a cartoon face that looks hyperrealistic — especially when compared to her brother’s ridiculously long face.  Winston is a fan and wishes to reignite public support for “supers”.  Since Winston deems Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to be the least destructive, he advises her to fight crime as part of a publicity stunt.  It is during this period we are introduced to a new villain, Screenslaver, a baddie who hijacks screens by flashing hypnotic images that brainwash civilians.

With Elastigirl out fighting crime, the adventure reverses the traditional gender roles of mom and dad.  Thanks to DEVTECH corporation’s plan, Elastigirl is now the public face of superheroes while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) stays home to take care of the kids. It’s not easy for him.  We’re so far past thinking this notion is a revolutionary concept that it’s positively quaint when the screenplay presents the idea as if it’s treading new ground. Look! Women can go to work.  Men can take care of their own children.  The basis for the plot is positively retro like a sitcom still firmly rooted in another era.  Even the obstacles with which Mr. Incredible must contend while being a stay-at-home dad seem like issues out of the past. While assisting his son with his arithmetic, he exasperatedly exclaims in frustration “This is Math! Why would they change Math?” There’s even a part where the Incredibles are given a space aged home filled with technological advances. I was reminded of the 60s cartoon The Jetsons. I wouldn’t be surprised if they struggled with similar issues.

I’m nitpicking mind you. Despite its inferiority to the original, Incredibles 2 is still the second best “Part 2” that Pixar has ever put out. The best sequel being Toy Story 2. We love this family. Their wholesome relationship is just as captivating as before. Older sister Violet (Sarah Vowell) and her brother Dash (Huck Milner) complete the family dynamic.  Bob’s best friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is back too.  Fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) is wisely inserted into the drama again but she doesn’t overstay her welcome. The revelation of each unique personality is gone, but it’s nice to see everyone return nonetheless.

The character that really gets his due is Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). The baby has an entire cadre of various superhero powers and much of the fun/laughs is discovering what this tiny tot will do next. His fight with a raccoon is a specular tableau, one of several in this film.  Writer/ director Brad Bird really knows how to frame an action set piece and there are many to dazzle you here. Once again, an Incredibles film out marvels Marvel. Amazingly this particular one all takes place within the confines of the backyard of their home. It’s telling that simplicity is its strongest asset. It’s that restraint that is missing from a somewhat more cluttered narrative.  The motivation for the villain is a bit convoluted too.  This doesn’t achieve the sheer feeling of Pixar’s very best works.  Instead, I will remember Incredibles 2 mainly for the spectacular action, music and style….but oh what style!

06-14-18

Deadpool 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero on May 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

deadpool_two_ver15STARS3Deadpool 2 is a comedy first and then a superhero movie second. Now that we’ve established that, let’s proceed. The latest installment within the X-Men universe is a difficult feature to criticize because the issues that kept me from wholeheartedly embracing this film would actually be considered the strengths by its adherents. In other words, take my measured critique with a grain of salt. I don’t speak for card-carrying members.  I gave the original a marginal pass because I enjoyed it in parts. I found its meta-awareness to be humorous. I hadn’t ever seen a superhero production quite like it. It was so completely self-aware, the point of view was rather novel. Obviously, with a sequel, a lot of what made the introduction of his personality fresh and witty is gone. In its place, is more of the same. Deadpool really doubles down this time on the self-referential style. I’ll admit this pastiche of stuff still made me chuckle, but what was once unique and innovative has now become smug and tiresome.

Deadpool 2 offers more of the same meta-humor that made its predecessor a huge hit. In that sense, it delivers lots of gags, but creatively it offers nothing new.  It’s a mildly diverting collection of tributes to entertainment loosely connected by a meaningless plot. The story, such as it is, is set in motion when Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) a.k.a Wade Wilson is spending the evening with girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). She is killed when a criminal breaks into their home. This occurs as they are celebrating their anniversary and it’s one of the few moments I think the screenwriters actually want you to react with an emotion other than glee. However, in a film that is constantly cracking wise, that’s a problem. It’s just so cavalier about everything, it’s difficult to care.

The screenplay (by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds) keeps feelings at bay. Since Deadpool’s regenerative qualities make it impossible for him to die, the stakes are never very high. Deadpool is so distraught he attempts to commit suicide but is put back together by Colossus (Stefan Kapicic). Then Deadpool does a lot of stuff. He reunites with Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) from the first episode. He rescues a 14-year-old boy named Russell Collins, aka Firefist from an abusive orphanage. Firefist is portrayed by the wonderful Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A mutant from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) later materializes to destroy Firefist. Deadpool assembles a team called X-Force to aid in protecting the boy.  They include a charismatic Zazie Beetz as Domino and comedian Rob Delaney as the hilarious Peter. The superficial developments are an excuse to make more allusions to contemporary tastes.  The mood is so glib and affected. Woe unto the audience member that even dares to feel something, anything, for these people.

Nothing is sincere. Even the soundtrack of Deadpool can only appreciate music in a post-modern ironic way.  “Ashes” is a newly recorded ballad by Celine Dion. It sounds like the anthemic wannabe theme from a James Bond flick. It’s genuinely sung well although in this context it sounds cheesy. “All Out of Love” (Air Supply), “9 to 5” (Dolly Parton), “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher) and many other tunes appear as pop cultural appropriation. They underscore scenes where their incongruous appearance is the actual joke.

Every mention of another property, whether it be a song, a movie, a TV show or something else, is presented as humor. For example, numerous actors show up in cameos. Look fast when the identity of Vanisher, an invisible mutant, is revealed. But what is the joke exactly? Introducing something familiar out of context is an imitation of wit.  This is simply an opportunity to exclaim “Hey! I know that thing!” Sharknado, My Little Pony,Fox & Friends, Basic Instinct, Say Anything, DC vs. Marvel, the list of targets is extensive. I did laugh. There are some legitimately intelligent observations that have some thought behind them. When our hero Wade notes the melodic similarity between “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Frozen, it’s a definite moment of insight. Those are few and far between, however. Most of the A-ha moments are merely playing musical ditties like “Take on Me” in the background.

5-17-18

Avengers: Infinity War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

avengers_infinity_war_ver2STARS3.5There’s no denying that Avengers: Infinity War is a most impressive undertaking. The internet recently confirmed this back in March when a series of memes dubbed the movie “The most ambitious crossover event in history” followed by alternate examples of when two other fictional pop culture universes collided. Infinity War is the apex of a decade’s worth of installments. All eighteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been leading up to this picture, or at least that’s what we were promised. A drama in which all, or at least most, of the Avengers would unite against a common threat. You see there’s this evil guy named Thanos. He wants to collect these things called Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of humanity. We’ve already seen this brute pop up in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. But now he’s taken center stage. The antagonist is made to be the central focus around which all of our favorites can unite against.

This is a saga about what happens when good faces off against evil in a series of combat scenes. The action is connected by quieter moments in which people discuss things. The good news is, these moments of conversation are well written. Let’s give credit to a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America films – The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) that manages to juggle a ridiculous amount of speaking parts and still captivate our interest. The best parts of Infinity War are the opportunities to see allies that have never shared the screen, interact with each other. Instead of a wild open-ended free-for-all, it deftly commands some organization by compartmentalizing like-minded personalities into vignettes.

Certain individuals really get their moment to stand out. Watching alpha male Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) go toe to toe with another dominant spirit like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a heated exchange is a comical delight. The same goes for when megalomaniac Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) converses with the egotistical temperament of sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). During another encounter in Wakanda, the Scarlet Witch has her back up against the wall in a clash with Proxima Midnight, one of Thanos’ crew. Black Widow and Okoye come to her aid in a rousing display of female sisterhood. Unfortunately, the script must reduce some characters to surprisingly lackluster personalities in their designated scenes. With his beard, Chris Evans feels more like Paul Bunyan than Captain America in his limited appearance. On the other hand, Thanos as the villain of the piece is given an incredible amount of attention. He’s fully a CGI creation with a facial motion capture performance by Josh Brolin. Granted the entire plot is built around Thanos but I would have reduced his role for the opportunity to give some other people a chance to shine – Black Panther for example. His screen time is frustratingly restrained.

In many respects, Infinity War is fashioned around the Guardians of the Galaxy and it is these heroes, along with Thor, that are utilized the most. In particular, Thanos and Gamora have a prior history that informs much of the storyline. I’m not sure if I completely bought into his inner turmoil, but I’ll give the script points for trying to inject some emotional stakes. What ultimately keeps me engrossed is a sense of humor. This often takes the form of memorable one-liners that touch our funny bone. Star Lord has always been good for some hilarious observations. I’m not saying it’s the wittiest thing he’s ever said, but once Star Lord calls Thanos’ chin a giant ball sack, I couldn’t unsee it for the rest of the film. #unsettling. Another nagging feeling that affects me in all these pictures, is when some character suddenly manifests an unexpected burst of power that makes you wonder why they waited so long to do just THAT. Okoye gets perhaps the funniest quip when the Scarlet Witch finally decides to join the confrontation in Wakanda.

If you’re already invested, as millions already are, you won’t be disappointed. Avengers: Infinity War does not present a self-contained, single-part story.  It wasn’t advertised as such, but this is essentially part 1 in a five-hour movie.  Part 2 is ostensibly due May 3, 2019, when Avengers 4 will be released. What can you really say about a simple narrative where who lives and who dies is the ultimate spoiler? That’s not what captivates our attention. You came to a production like this to see the camaraderie of champions you love, amusing jokes and big fantastic battles. It delivers in that realm. As a bombastic piece of entertainment that unites at least 27 characters with speaking parts along with an assortment of other entities, it’s miraculously enjoyable. In an adventure where the stakes are the very existence of the entire universe, it’s hard to take anything very seriously. You know things aren’t always as they seem. The ending is a somewhat less than satisfying experience, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for a cliffhanger. Avengers: Infinity War promises a doozy. Bring on Avengers 4!

04-26-18

Black Panther

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on February 22, 2018 by Mark Hobin

black_panther_ver3STARS4It isn’t hyperbole to say that there has never been anything quite like Black Panther. The film is a game changer. This picture has been out less than a week and already earned $263M in its first 5 days of release. Its weekend debut was bigger than virtually every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Only The Avengers (2012) had a bigger opening. I think it’s safe to predict it will ultimately earn at least $600M although it has the potential to earn even more given the extraordinarily positive word of mouth. Its influence has become a phenomenon. That would’ve been enough to set Black Panther apart from its predecessors. The fact that it’s a genre film (sci-fi, rom-com, horror, etc.) that weaves racial politics and black identity within the framework of a Marvel superhero movie makes it even more unique. Its cagey ability to capture the ongoing cultural discussion and insert it into the plot is masterful. News stories blanketing its release have dominated social media as of late. Whether it be U.S. educators leading money-raising efforts for kids to see Black Panther for a school field trip or fans dressing up in African inspired clothing to attend showings, the publicity surrounding the picture is unprecedented. It has become an event.

Black Panther captures the zeitgeist as shrewdly as any in recent memory. It concerns the fictional East African nation of Wakanda. An opening narration informs us that centuries ago, 5 African nations went to war over a metal called Vibranium — a substance so vital that, according to Slate.com, the word is uttered an average of every 5.36 minutes in the screenplay.  Now there’s a drinking game that’ll get you inebriated, but quick!  The metal is so powerful that it allows the African nation to appear as a third world country to the other nations of the Earth.  In reality, Wakanda has developed the advanced science to become a technological utopia of which only its own residents are aware.  The current black panther is T’Challa, a king that has assumed his role after a combat ritual. The present leader of the Jabari Tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) challenged him but yields to his win in defeat. T’Challa wishes to continue Wakanda’s isolationist policies and separate itself from the rest of the planet.  Where have I heard that before?  Enter Erik Stevens who adopts the not-so-subtle moniker “Killmonger” after his success as a U.S. black ops soldier.  He disagrees with T’Challa’s stance and strongly advocates for a different policy.  He feels it is Wakanda’s duty to share its resources with the African diaspora so that they may rise up and overthrow their oppressors all over the globe. This handling of different political ideologies informs the basis of the central conflict.

Those conflicting beliefs are embodied by the main protagonist and antagonist.  Actor Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa or the titular Black Panther. Since 2013, the actor has portrayed Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall all to rapturous reviews. T’Challa is a reflective, at times somber individual. That makes him an admirable character, but perhaps not as compelling as those that surround him. In contrast, Michael B Jordan is a commanding presence as Killmonger. A dominant villain full of swagger and defiance galvanized by a painful event in 1992 while growing up in Oakland, California. The time and place — carefully selected by the Oakland-born director Ryan Coogler — are NOT fictional and very intentionally so. More than any Marvel property before, the director (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole) is the visionary behind the manifestation of a comic first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

What makes the narrative so compelling is that it comprises a raft of complex characters any one of which could form the basis of their own movie. T’Challa is protected by royal bodyguards called the Dora Milaje headed up by Okoye (Danai Gurira). Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a superspy for whom he has personal feelings. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is his feisty sister and technology guru. She is to this story what Q is to James Bond. I loved her. Everyone has their moment, but Letitia Wright’s use of words like “sneakers” and “colonizer” injected some much-needed humor. Her charismatic performance (and anonymity to me) forced me to look her up on the IMDb to see what else she had done. My anticipation for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One in March 2018 just got more fervid. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is T’Challa’s best friend whose own loyalty will be tested regarding the capture of a black market arms dealer who threatens Wakanda’s safety. The aforementioned M’Baku portrayed by Winston Duke is probably the side character I most wanted to know more about. When is he going to star in a film? Angela Bassett is majestic as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, and Forest Whitaker is elder statesman Zuri. There’s also a couple of white actors from the Lord of the Rings series. The movie isn’t about them – Tolkien white guys played by Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue) and Martin Freeman (Everett K. Ross). My apologies for appropriating an old joke from when the trailer dropped back in October, but it still makes me laugh.

Black Panther is a rather dignified picture. It’s also glorious. A colorful Afro-futuristic sensibility informs gorgeous landscapes, opulent costumes and a large, mostly all-black cast in which even the supporting parts are played by name actors. Not since the kingdom of Zamunda in Coming to America have we seen pure African style presented in such a regal manner. Although I’ll admit the role of women in Zamunda was decidedly less enlightened. Black Panther has a vision unlike any Marvel episode before it. I have never seen a chapter that is less interested in the way that it fits within the MCU. Except for a concluding title card that informs us of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (which got the Pavlovian round of applause anyway) this feel more like standalone entry than any of the 17 installments that came before. I must admit that I like my superhero productions with a bit of humor. I’ve often said in my reviews that dressing up in tights and fighting crime is inherently silly. So why not treat your creation as such? A tongue in cheek attitude serves your worldbuilding well. This is why I particularly love Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok. In contrast, Black Panther is a very noble superhero feature. It’s telling that the action, while serviceable, is the least interesting thing about the picture. Instead, it’s highlighted by a narrative steeped in a complicated and detailed backstory that brilliantly weaves reality into fantasy. It’s more than a film. It’s a mission statement that manipulates the spirit of our time into entertainment.

02-15-17

Justice League

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

justice_league_ver9STARS1.5A good film introduces us to interesting people. It provides exposition as to what motivates them as characters so we can empathize with their plight. The tale should essentially lay the groundwork for an account that will feature enriching individuals that develop over the course of an adventure. Their inner journey is part of a larger narrative that we can follow and enjoy. In this way our emotions are captivated and we can feel some emotional component to what’s happening on screen. Justice League is not one of those films.

To be fair, this picture concerns superheroes with which a large portion of the moviegoing public has some previously built-in awareness. Icons like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman already have a recognizability factor, yes. You’re granted a certain amount of shortcuts when detailing familiar characters. Still, that doesn’t absolve the screenwriter or the director from presenting something coherent. Justice League is an absolute mishmash of unfocused plot threads and pointless mayhem. Given the basic elements of what normally constitutes a story, I struggle to even define it as such. It’s a visual chaos of color and activity with dreary conversations sprinkled throughout to give the appearance that something interesting is developing.

The first 30 minutes are as bad as any in the entire 120-minute runtime. The chronicle bewilderingly opens with what appears to be archival camera phone footage of two kids talking to Superman. “What’s your favorite thing about earth?” one asks. The clip stops short before we can get an answer. Now cut to Batman chasing an unknown man on a rooftop that has just committed a robbery. Batman dangles the man over the edge and apparently his fear lures some flying monster out of the shadows. The creature inexplicably explodes moments later leaving 3 boxes. I immediately had questions. Who is the robber? What is that monster? What’s in those boxes? Some of these are answered later while others linger on well after the movie is over. But first some arbitrarily inserted scenes of Superman’s earthly mom (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) pontificating on how they miss Superman. He’s dead of course, but you already knew that, right?  If not too bad because the screenwriters have assumed you do.  Cut to the city of London where Wonder Woman is stopping a bank robbery. Then abrupt edit to Batman journeying to Iceland to recruit what looks like a long haired bodybuilder with tribal tattoos that cover his body. It seems that this is Aquaman. He declines. Bruce is sad. He’s trying to assemble a team. He wants Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) too. Cut to hastily inserted scenes featuring those people as well. The narrative is so haphazard. Plot elements are distributed to viewers like the shuffled deck at a blackjack table. The only difference here is that there is no winner.

Justice League doesn’t resemble a story so much as the random insertion of recognizable characters doing puzzling things. Without any meaningful focus, we’re left to try and appreciate the visual spectacle. Computer generated imagery infects every frame of the film. Action set pieces are grotesque displays of blurry images. The action is confusing and uninvolving. We’re missing the human element. The human visage can charm an audience. Yet even Superman’s face doesn’t look natural in his opening vignette. Here’s where a little background information might be helpful.  You see, actor Henry Cavill had to come back late in production for reshoots.  At that point he was sporting a mustache that he was contractually obligated to keep for another picture. CGI was used to erase the facial hair. Hence the bizarre unnatural look to his face in this scene.

The film has bigger storytelling problems than ugly CGI though. It’s characters we couldn’t care less about. Batman (Bruce Wayne), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are unlikeable protagonists that are dour at best. Their interactions gave me the impression that they hate each other. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Superman (Henry Cavill) at least smile occasionally but the screenplay limits their chances to connect with the audience. What a comedown from this summer’s far superior Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot is mainly in action mode and Henry Cavill merely occupies the final quarter of the picture. Only The Flash (Ezra Miller) has that spark of a personality that engenders warmth. His plight is emotionally involving. Ezra Miller was well utilized. Oh well him and the personal trainers of Jason Momoa & Henry Cavill. The cinematography makes sure you notice how physically fit they are. Duly noted. Everyone else was wasted. The rest of the actors are meaningless ciphers – stand-ins for where charismatic people are supposed to be.

I really wanted to love Justice League. The idea of these superheroes all joining forces and fighting crime together is an inherently exciting idea. Any child of the 70s like me will remember the animated Super Friends Saturday morning TV series. I loved that show. Yet the joy of that concept is completely subjugated under the helm of Zack Snyder. Sadly the director had to leave due to a most regrettable family tragedy. Joss Whedon stepped in to finish things up. I can’t ascertain as to whether the change helped or hurt the movie. I can only offer that the final product is an absolute travesty to anyone who values an intelligible narrative. At this point, the central villain doesn’t even matter, but even he is a non-entity.  He registers not as a personality but as a plot device.  His name is Steppenwolf and comprises the whole reason the Justice League must assemble. The monster isn’t even portrayed by an actor but a completely fabricated creation using CGI and motion capture technology. Ciarán Hinds’ body movements were utilized for reference. However it’s telling that the poor actor never even met the rest of the cast. He’s merely an afterthought in a production that treats the humanity of a human actor as an inconvenience when telling a story. That kind of sums up the viewpoint of the entire film.

11-16-17

Thor: Ragnarok

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero on November 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

thor_ragnarok_ver2STARS4A lot has happened since 2013, the year Thor’s last standalone film came out. Eight, count ’em EIGHT Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entries have separated Thor: The Dark World and the current Thor: Ragnarok. Perhaps that’s why the difference between the two chapters is like night and day. Where The Dark World was a ponderous, needlessly complicated dirge through exposition, Ragnarok is a light, breezy comical fun fest. I’ve always been a fan of humor in my superhero flicks. I mean the idea of people dressing up in costumes and fighting crime is inherently silly so any narrative that understands this idea is a favorable one. It’s the reason why the Guardians of the Galaxy adaptations are so wonderful. New Zealand director Taika Waititi brings a lighthearted take to the proceedings. His interpretation of the MCU is a hysterical delight.

Thor: Ragnarok does have some supplementary explication if you’re needing that sort of thing. We’re told that the kingdom of Asgard will soon be destroyed in the prophesied Ragnarok, the final destruction of the world. Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is dying. His passing will allow his firstborn daughter — and Thor’s half-sister — Hela (Cate Blanchett) to escape from a prison. She is an evil badass and a serious threat to peace. She’s so powerful in fact that she forces Thor out of Asgard. He is soon apprehended by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) a servant of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). As the ruler of the planet Sakaar, the Grandmaster holds gladiator tournaments. Holy shades of Flash Gordon! Unfortunately, the advertising spoiled who Thor meets in that tournament. It should have remained a mystery so if you haven’t seen the trailer, I won’t ruin the surprise here. Anyway, Thor still wants to save Asgard and prevent Ragnarok from happening. The script plays fast and loose with the hallmarks of the character. Thor sports a different outfit, his golden tresses are shorn and his hammer Mjolnir is shattered. The fact that these things happen isn’t a spoiler but knowing how and why would be. Therein lies the joy. The way things unfold is enjoyable and always served with a heaping cup of frivolity.

Thor: Ragnarok boasts an impressive cast of A-list talent. Chris Hemsworth’s interactions with the supporting cast are uniformly great. Cate Blanchett is the over-the-top villainess Hela and she is hella good.  She is an effective evocation of a goddess that draws on both the physical and psychological qualities of Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. With her horned headdress, she is like the manifestation of some magnificent elk in human form. Her evildoer is just as much a camp depiction as it is a CGI exhibition of special effects. Jeff Goldblum is a sardonic delight as The Grandmaster. Mark Ruffalo turns up as Bruce Banner/Hulk and his presence is a welcome addition. Ruffalo’s ability to alternately convey both the aggressive and warm tendencies of the character is admirable. Tessa Thompson (Creed) is a tough-talking, hard-drinking Valkyrie. Karl Urban is Skurge, an Asgardian warrior who becomes Hela’s right-hand minion. Idris Elba is back as Heimdall, and Anthony Hopkins appears briefly as Odin. Also returning is Tom Hiddleston as Loki but he gets a deeper mention in the next paragraph.

This is Chris Hemsworth’s fifth portrayal of the Norse deity in an MCU movie and he’s really grown into the role. Honing his comedic sensibilities and embracing the personality in a way that feels more lived-in.  He’s getting more in touch with Thor’s psyche.  The actor has always looked the part but now he seems to embody the mindset. His considerable charisma is at its peak. He’s more engaging than ever. For the first time,  Hemsworth doesn’t feel like he’s guest-starring in his own movie. Tom Hiddleston as Loki has always been a highlight in these ensembles, and he is great here too but now he’s supporting the god of thunder rather than stealing his thunder. The two of them have always had palpable chemistry and their scenes together here are wonderful. Combine that with an extravaganza of sheer excess and you’ve got a bold, splashy color-soaked spectacular. There is probably more eye candy than the human mind can grasp in one sitting. Multiple viewings may be needed to appreciate it all. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t the most thoughtful story in the MCU, but it could be the most visually appealing. I sat back in my chair, jaw agape at the spectacle. It’s also exceptionally comical throughout. Warning: there is a passage through the space-time continuum called the Devil’s Anus. Perhaps not always funny on the level of Guardians of the Galaxy, but pretty close. All of that combines to make this a rousing good time at the movies. It’s entertaining AF.

11-02-17

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 8, 2017 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_homecoming_ver2STARS4.jpgWell color me red and call me an arachnid. I was the last person who thought we needed another Spider-Man movie. Especially a role that has been played by three, yes count ’em three, different actors since 2002. Even James Bond doesn’t change quite so frequently. The first series, a trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, was extremely enjoyable, notably parts one and two. The 2012 reboot with Andrew Garfield was unnecessary but tolerable. Now we have English actor Tom Holland (The Impossible) as the most teen-friendly version yet. What makes the idea of yet another Spider-Man distressing is that this is a reintroduction of the web-slinger.

So the question is, did we really need another Spider-Man? Well as it turns out, the answer is yes. The difference now is that Sony Pictures, who own the rights to the character, has made an agreement with Marvel Studios to finally introduce him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the first time, Spider-Man can be classified as a Marvel Studios film, although Sony still owns the property. The legal details are much more confusing than this reviewer cares to detail in a film review. The point is, this is good news for moviegoers. It means that Spider-Man can acknowledge people like Iron Man and Captain America in the same film. They can be a part of the same universe. For example, this gives Captain America (Chris Evans) the opportunity to pop up on a TV to give a PSA in gym class. As any fan of the MCU knows, they have done a spectacular job in creating a superhero franchise. That’s one indication that Spider-Man Homecoming is going to be distinctive. Another is that this is NOT an origin story. We’re on the right track.

Tom Holland is the most inexperienced Spider-Man yet, but Tony Stark (a.ka. Iron Man) sees his potential. There’s a lot of interaction between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. This gives ample opportunity to exploit Robert Downey Jr.’s considerable charisma. Oh yes, this adventure benefits from his presence. He’s grooming him for a spot on the Avengers team through an internship. Tony gives him a special Spidey suit but it’s locked preventing Peter from accessing all of its features. Spider-Man’s uniform is a character unto itself. The threads have their own artificial intelligence voice (Jennifer Connelly) that help him navigate the many gadgets. It’s more like a James Bond collection of weapons. He’s eager to be a crime fighter. When not at school, Peter surveys the city as Spider-Man trying to help people.

Spider-Man Homecoming is a breezy joy. This doesn’t feel like the umpteenth self-important version of a superhero movie. It’s different. In fact, some of the most interesting stuff happens when he’s a very human Peter Parker. The plot surrounds our hero with a captivating cast. Particularly in high school where we meet Peter’s classmates. The film’s title is sort of a figurative welcome of Spiderman into the Avengers fold, but there’s also a literal “homecoming” dance in this chronicle. His best buddy is Ned (Jacob Batalon), an affable nerd that steals every scene he’s in. Spider-Man has a crush on the popular “it” girl (Laura Harrier), interacts with a perpetually annoyed but brainy classmate (Zendaya), and is often taunted by a snotty rich kid (Tony Revolori). Girls dish about the Avengers in a teen game: “For me, I’d kiss Thor, marry Iron Man, and kill Hulk,” says one. This is the superhero production reimagined via the 1980s as a John Hughes teen drama. There’s even a brief reference to Ferris Bueller on a TV when Tom is running through the town away from some henchmen played by Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green.

Which brings me to the primary antagonist. Michael Keaton is a deeply nuanced villain. It’s one of the rare times where I kind of sided with the criminal’s motivations.  As Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, he is evil, but there’s an understandable purpose behind the menace. He’s not doing so well financially. As a salvage worker, he and his team have a contract to clean the city after the battle of New York. But he’s stripped of his responsibilities by U.S. Dept of Damage Control, a government agency that reports to Tony Stark. He’s got a family for which to provide and he continues collecting the technological parts anyway. He’s going to sell them on the black market. The proceeds of which will better his loved ones. Scoundrels are more effective when they’re a controlled bundle of rage and Keaton gives one of the most memorable declarations in a superhero film. It occurs, in all places, when he’s sitting in the peaceful solace of a car. It’s absolutely chilling because he conveys a quietly controlled ferocity that belies much more flamboyant actions. He’s a loving father. Now he’s frightening killer. The change occurs in seconds and Michael Keaton makes it believable. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has always been my favorite Marvel villain, and he still is, but Keaton gives Hiddleston some genuine competition.

Great story, well-developed characters, coherent action scenes, humanity, and heart. Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers on every level. The relatively unknown director Jon Watts (Cop Car) brings a unique sensibility to the proceedings. Seriously this trend to give promising new directors the chance to helm big-budget films is really paying off. The important takeaway from Spider-Man is that he is human. He’s a teen just coming to terms with his abilities. In that respect, we can identify with this crime fighter. He’s an underdog, a high school kid in way over his head. He has to evolve into the protector we know and love. Great heroes aren’t born, they’re created, is the screenplay’s take. Naturally, we get several big action set pieces and they’re great. Spidey must save his friends in a falling elevator at the Washington Monument and it’s thrilling. However, it’s in the quieter occasions, when Peter isn’t wearing a mask, that we connect with this individual. It’s telling that the very last line before the credits roll involves Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. It’s a perfect vignette because it involves a personal moment amongst family. It also me dying to see what happens next.

07-06-17