Sunday, November 12, 2017

Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase II

Hey did you read my Thor: Ragnarok review yet?  You should, scroll down and do that it’ll be fun, I’ll wait.  Ok are we good?  Welcome back, let’s dig into the glorious recent past.  It was my grand ambition to watch/re-watch all 16 movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe before Ragnarok was released, only to fall a few films short.  We actually finished up Phase 2 a day after seeing Ragnarok but considering we already knew Guardians well and Ant Man has nothing whatsoever to do with Thor we were appropriately up to speed.

So getting through MCU films 7-12 led me to a few pleasant surprises, reinforced some initial reactions and connected a few more dots together.  So as before I would recommend seeing all of these films before reading these reviews, or at the very least just read about the ones you’ve already seen because major spoilers will abound.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Welcome to the world of hindsight.  The third Iron Man film came out almost exactly a year after The Avengers and was something of a trial run for how the MCU would go after our individual characters went their separate ways.  Shane Black took over directing duties from Jon Favreau (who still played Happy Hogan), which signaled in more ways than one that this film would be a bit different.  

I was certainly excited about it when it came out.  I previously mentioned Iron Man was my favorite comic book character, and Marvel fatigue had not yet set in.  I was also very excited about Shane Black co-writing and directing.  In addition to being part of the greatest cast in action movie history (Predator) he also had his hand in writing some damn good action/comedies, most famously Lethal Weapon.  I knew this film could get dark but would also lean more towards intentional comedy or at the very least clever dialogue.  This film delivered on both fronts but somehow I left the theater in 2013 a bit disappointed.

Now a little more personal backstory for me.  I was trying to remember whether or not Mandarin was my favorite villain because he was Iron Man’s greatest nemesis or if Iron Man was my favorite super hero because Mandarin was my favorite villain.  This is something of a self-perpetuating cycle, and I know 6-7 year old me saw Mandarin in that Marvel Series 1 trading card and thought (yeah that guy is awesome).  The fact that Iron Man is basically Bruce Wayne with a drinking problem and a more powerful suit helped solidify Iron Man’s place in my adult years.  So after a tease at the end of the first Iron Man when the first mention of the ten rings is made I had been patiently awaiting Mandarin.  Hearing Sir Ben Kingsley was going to play Mandarin gave me mixed feelings.  Sure he won an Oscar and is part of a long line of ethnically ambiguous Hollywood actors that can play anyone, but I always pictured Mandarin as David Lo Pan (James Hong) from Big Trouble in Little China.

So much wasted potential
This brings me to my next point and the double edged sword of being a comic book fan.  If you are familiar with these characters and the film deviates from the source material it is usually something that angers the blood.  However if they stick too close to the source material it is predictable and boring and often doesn’t live up the first time you read those stories.  The continuity of Marvel comics is so head scratchingly insane that it’s entirely possible any given story ark is perfectly faithful to some story just not the one you’re most familiar with.  I’ve learned over the years, particularly after Guardians of the Galaxy to just accept these films as their own things.  Comic story lines are constantly being ret-conned to fit the times or new characters so I don’t doubt this film would be more enjoyable for someone with no knowledge of Iron Man except for the previous films.

So after being on a role with the first phase, I watched this film knowing full well that they did not do one of my all time favorite villains justice.  Ben Kingsley does do a great job, but they decided his character would be ridiculous and that Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) would be the main bad guy.  The fact that there was an animated Iron Man Extremis series before this film was made led me to believe that would be the focal point of this film, despite how much I wanted The Mandarin and his 10 rings to finally show up.  They eventually made an apology film to let us know there might be a “real” Mandarin out there somewhere.

So lets get to the good part, I love this movie.  Hell I might even say this is my favorite Iron Man movie now.  The fact is Shane Black is a better filmmaker than Favreau and his script is actually damn good.  This isn’t just a showcase for jokes and various witticisms, which are things Tony Stark was always supposed to have, they just weren’t as well written before.  Robert Downey Jr. even gets a chance to act for once, instead of standing around smirking while CGI happens around him.  Black knew that if you just discovered there are gods from other worlds, and aliens who want to destroy your planet that you might be a little fucked up.  Superhero films aren’t usually a place for a serious depiction of anxiety, but it’s handled well, and shows a vulnerability that few random rogues could give Tony/Iron Man.

Now along with his recent cameo in Thor: Ragnarok, this previously held the title for favorite Stan Lee cameo, as he’s a judge in the Miss Chattanooga beauty pageant.  I’ll quietly forgive the fact that it wasn’t filmed in Chattanooga or probably anywhere close, but still got a kick out of it.  Perhaps another time I may get nerdy enough to rank Mr. Marvel’s cameos but that’s a subject for another blog.

As far as things I loved, I thought Guy Pearce was damn good, and I loved Happy’s mullet during the 1999 flashback.  The narrative structure worked well also.  The first two Thor movies begin with Odin narrating, but none of the Marvel films have first person narration, which is definitely something Black used in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang along with other films.  I did love the reveal that he was telling all this to a sleeping Bruce Banner who politely informs Stark that he isn’t that kind of doctor.  Minor Avengers cameos in these films are always welcome, even if they don’t come around until the very end.

Well just like the films themselves my reviews are getting formulaic, let’s talk about what I didn’t like.  In the four years since this film premiered I’ve come to terms with the injustice done to Mandarin, and can laugh at it now.  No, let’s talk about that stupid fucking ending where Tony blows up his Iron Man suits.  I have no idea whose idea that was, but it was dumb then and it’s really fucking stupid in hindsight.  Especially because the next time we see Iron Man it’s at the beginning of Age of Ultron, and there is zero reference to him rebuilding his suits or why the in the holy hell he destroyed them in the first place.  We have to wait over three years for even a half-assed explanation.

 I get that there was going to be some sort of finality to Iron Man, and contractually it was still up in the air if Downey would reprise his role going forward.  Him fucking off into the sunset is fine, and there is some nice little closure to this film particularly with his own open heart surgery.  I did like the scene where he repays the random kid who helped him in Tennessee, but those “toys” he got him definitely seemed geared more towards a full grown adult probably going through a mid-life crisis than a kid who still has to deal with bullies.

Not sure how I would rank it among the other Iron Man films as they’re all good in their own ways, but this is arguably the only film where Stark shows any growth.  These films are also very good at setting up the long payoff.  What seems as a natural reaction to alien invaders and the panic attacks Tony has feel real.  It wasn’t apparent in 2013 that it would lead Stark to help create Ultron and lead to his own paranoia in Civil War.  

Thor:  The Dark World (2013)

Alright everyone let out a subtle groan.  The Incredible Hulk was the bastard stepchild of the first phase of the MCU and the one that most people quickly forgot about.  I defended that film and think that even if it isn’t the strongest film from the first wave it is definitely worth another look.  Thor: The Dark World by default takes the title of weakest link in the phase 2 chain.  That doesn’t mean it’s a total bust or a waste of time, but every other film from phase 2 is easily better.

Now I’ll try and streamline this because like super hero movie fatigue, you and I might be feeling super hero movie review fatigue.  So Kat Dennings might be my favorite thing about this film.  She reprises her role as Darcy Lewis and is much needed comic relief especially considering how serious this movie takes itself.  I love the fact that she recruits her own unpaid intern, and also loved the fact that they eventually hook up.  She is the one holding down the fort while Jane Foster is off in Asgard recreating Attack of the Clones, and Professor Selvig is in the nut house.  Speaking of Selvig I did like some of his crazy moments, including running around Stonehenge nude and stealing Stan Lee’s shoe.

Ultimate good cop bad cop
Much of the early interaction with Loki is also quite good.  The fact that he gets to be the hero for a bit and that they even play off his penchant for treachery works quite well.  I do think that had Loki stayed dead it would have made the film itself probably better.  Unfortunately Iron Man 3 and the Agents of SHIELD show already demonstrated that death means nothing in the MCU.  You’re waiting the whole movie to see that Loki isn’t really dead and the only bit of surprise I can gather is that it took that long for the filmmakers to reveal he was tricking everyone somehow.

Now this movie is a bummer.  Malekith is a lame villain.  A weird dark elf who wants to return the nine realms to darkness for reasons, blah blah blah.  I’m not blaming Christopher Eccleston for the performance it’s just a really lame faceless bad guy to motivate the plot.  The whole final fight is just more CGI nonsense and unlike other films where the character development is more fun and enjoyable we’re left with a villain whose sole motivation seems to be, I’m evil and darkness for some reason is important to me.  

Wake me when you're interesting
 Considering the film is subtitled The Dark World it makes sense that these people would be dark, but after the cold sunless frost giant’s planet in the first film it seems too familiar and too drab.  All the filters make the film seem like it would be part of DC’s depressing chores they call movies.  I think this is somewhat of a tipping point for these movies.  Stick with me but I’m about to make a strange analogy.  Remember puberty, particularly if it was before high speed internet was in your home?  At a certain point in time if you saw naked boobies anywhere it was awesome.  Didn’t matter, you’d stay up way too late if you had HBO or Cinemax to try and catch a glimpse, or there was always that random mysterious Playboy that showed up somewhere.  Sure it was great if you knew who that sweet nakedness belonged to but any nudity would do.  

For a few years comic book movies were the same way.  I mentioned before about watching that god awful Captain America movie from 1990.  Seeing comic book characters on screen doing anything was enough.  After enough years, and internet access for that first point you need more to be interested.  Loki is a well known character so seeing him be an antagonist is awesome.  Malekith is just a random baddy.  If it was played by a better actor you could say “oh shit ____ is in a Marvel movie, bad ass”.  Instead we’re given random nudity with no emotional investment or notability.  By 2013 we needed more from our super hero movies and this film simply phoned it in.  Anyways next movie please.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

There is a tendency to feel a need to top yourself when it comes time to make sequels.  You can’t just remake the first film, it has to be bigger and better and with more explosions.  This is what made the original Batman movies progressively more ridiculous until they became full on self aware parodies.  Marvel had done a decent job of slowly amping up their films but still very much falling in line with the “bigger, badder, more CGI” mantra of sequels.  With the exception of Iron Man 3’s final silly fight, Winter Soldier is arguably the tipping point for this.

I want to start by saying that this is a good film and I very much enjoyed it, arguably more the second time I watched it.  I’m just also saying that shit gets absolutely ridiculous.  The story is somewhat well known among comic book fans and one that I predicted several years before the film was made, so yes I’m patting myself on the back for being so smart.  Quick recap, Bucky never died, Soviets discovered him, turned him into their own super soldier, brainwashed him and Cap tries to bring him back.

Like the last several MCU entries, this also shows once again death is a relative term in Marvel.  We find out Bucky never died, then Amin Zola is somehow alive inside a computer, so it surprises absolutely no one when Nick Fury doesn’t die.  Watching the film the first time you have to just keep saying “Oh yeah Nick fury is totally dead, sure guys I believe you”.  Now while I keep ripping on this film I will also say that whole fake death was handled in such a stupid way.  Oh he didn’t know who to trust, oh he has some magic Romeo and Juliet drug to slow his heart down and appear dead, oh and he also didn’t bother telling Cap or Romanov for reasons.  This could have worked slightly better had death not become completely meaningless with Pepper falling only to have her Extremis powers save her in Iron Man 3, Agent Colson somehow be alive in the Agents of SHIELD show, and Loki doing his own bamboozle in Dark World.  By this point it’s old hat and it would be more surprising if he actually stayed dead.

So I’m flipping my script and getting the crap out of the way first.  Now onto what I loved, because remember I did like this film a lot.  At this rate we’ll have to wait until 2030 for Black Widow to get her own film, and we’re still a year or two away from any female super hero being the lead in the MCU.  Here Scar Jo gets quite a bit of screen time and this is as much Black Widow as we’re likely to get as a featured player for awhile.  She’s gotten to show some of her skill set in previous films, but here she definitely seems to be a little more than just a sidekick.  Frankly Steve Rogers would be lost without her and it doesn’t go unnoticed.  

Pictured: Someone being needed
I do like how they show Captain America adjusting to life in the 21st century.  We basically go from him waking up at the end of The First Avenger, to him leading the team in Avengers.  His home life and awkward assimilation is done quite well and pleases most of the comic book nerds out there.  We get slowly introduced to Sam Wilson and Sharon Carter who will play larger roles later on.  Now I didn’t watch Agents of SHIELD, but I was told by those who did that a lot of it’s plot ties directly into Winter Soldier.  The culmination of a weekly show paying off in a movie is not unlike Wrestlemania featuring the long brewing title fight set up over weeks on Raw.  Although it might not have been as epic without all the TV backstory, it’s not like you’re lost watching the movie.

Finding out Hydra has compromised SHIELD and apparently always has leads to lots of blowing stuff up.  The scene of them switching out chips in the helicarriers seemed nearly shot for shot redone in Star Wars: Rogue One, but let us never speak of that film again.  At a certain point, and this film is definitely past that point, collateral damage just becomes ridiculous.  They destroy so much, and make Washington DC look like Berlin on May 8th, 1945.  Cap is definitely impulsive and we’re led to believe he implicitly knows the right thing to do.  Some of his decisions might seem rash and not really well thought out but they appear to be the right ones.

His costume needs more feathers
Part of me wishes there was more awkward Cap fitting in with modern society.  The awkward pda between him and Natasha is great at the mall, and I loved his random list of things to catch up on that includes Thai food.  Sequels can be a great place to build on characters, and we already know that Captain America will keep fighting and doing what he thinks is right.  Learning more about his personality and what makes him tick is more interesting, and this film definitely shows more of that side.  

The destruction of SHIELD does help set things up going forward though.  We learn Hydra never ended with Red Skull and has been running things secretly since forever.  Robert Redford is awesome here and I couldn’t help but feel like the man should get more work these days, not unlike Michael Douglas in Ant-Man.  As a main antagonist he breaks the let’s destroy the world mold of a lot of random bad guys.  He doesn’t have super powers so his power seems so much more frightening in a real world situation.  The nerd in me also appreciated the random reference to Dr. Stephen Strange as a potential threat for Hydra to eliminate.  

Even though the villain might not have been some alien bad guy, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a ludicrously over the top final showdown.  It’s hard not to feel sorry for Bucky here, and it’s fun to speculate on just when he might get it through his head who he really is.  I’d say overall it’s a fine sequel and what it does right it does really well.  A lot of seeds planted here are more developed in Civil War, but it’s a fine introduction to our modern day Captain America.  Also worth the price of admission to hear Gary Shandling say “Hail Hydra”.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

…And now for something completely different.  After building up enough good will with mostly well known characters, there was a definite chance taken here.  A relatively unknown property, certainly when compared with Iron Man/Thor/Captain America it seemed like a leap of faith.  They also definitely took a gamble on a lead actor Hannibal Burress called “objectively the sixth most famous person on Parks and Recreation” with Chris Pratt.  Those gambles certainly paid off and for more than a few people Guardians proved to be the best Marvel movie yet.

Pictured:  Not the Avengers
For many people the cosmic side of Marvel comics is the far more interesting stuff.  Considering most super heroes in the Stan Lee era were some person with matching initials + radiation = super powers.  I’m not saying Lee phoned it in, and the lasting impact of his characters is proof that formula worked well.  The cosmic world was always a little more varied and interesting.  Many of it began with The Fantastic Four, who got their own bit of radiation from outer space, but really blossomed once John Byrne started regularly writing for Marvel’s first family.

Since for contractual reasons the Fantastic Four aren’t part of the MCU, we gotta get our cosmic shit from somewhere else.  The Guardians went through quite a few permutations before we settled on this version.  Being only moderately familiar with them from random crossovers I knew their leader was Cyclops’ father and that was about it.  Scrapping all of that, the Guardians got their own early millennium reboot.  The new group was random, disjointed, and broken making quite a contrast to the super group of the gods The Avengers represented cinematically.   

To me it really helped that this film was composed of characters relatively unknown. I didn’t go into this movie with any preconceived notions of what was going to happen, just secretly hoping Thanos showed up at some point.  So I will point out the obvious that this movie delivered on all fronts.  The cast was great, the story worked, the tone was perfect, and I’m legitimately racking my brain to come up with something I disliked about Guardians.

As often happens when a film is wildly successful, people try to figure out what that winning formula was.  Often people miss the point and try and replicate that success and miss the entire point.  The fact that Pratt has become an A-list Hollywood star tailor made for blockbusters is incorporating one of the things that worked here.  Using a soundtrack of bitching 70s songs seems to come in waves every few years.  Dazed and Confused and Wayne’s World were great movies not necessarily because of their soundtracks.  Using the music of Peter Quill’s mother here gave the film some grounding in our world so when we’re flying around in space ships and stealing infinity stones it’s still relatable.  Simply putting a Ramones song during a fighting montage doesn’t have the same effect.  This also marked a change in the MCU where films need to have some levity and be almost half comedies.  More on that later though.

Time for the nitpicking stuff, and spending a few years and a revisit I’m no closer to having the answer to a few questions.  For starters, where the hell are Quill’s batteries coming from? I basically just assumed there was some “space battery” that never needed to be replaced, because anyone old enough to remember using a Walkman knew they didn’t last several decades.  My other random gripe is how the hell Quill has any idea who Jackson Pollock is.  Either this was a massively cultured 10 year old kid when his mom dies, or he’s keeping up on earth entertainment in his spare time.  I also have no idea why Baby Groot stops dancing whenever Drax looks his way.  Sure Drax isn’t one for dancing, but why would he care if an animated plant did?    

These are those things that if you think too much about can drive you nuts but they don’t really take anything away from the film.  Hell Glenn Close’s ridiculous hair was more distracting than the battery situation.  Everything pretty much works here.  I like the fact that we got some Thanos even if it was mostly behind the scenes.  Ronan is an awesome character and was menacingly evil.  I also appreciated how his vendetta was against one planet and group of people instead of some maniacal let me take over the universe and destroy shit for the sake of destroying it.  You could argue that once he had the infinity stone his ambitions became larger but the cosmic MCU in no small way made this Kree-Xandar war one of race.  Typically the racial undertones were much more up front in X-Men but that doesn’t mean intolerance isn’t prevalent throughout the galaxy.

Pictured: the most ridiculous thing in a movie with a talking Raccoon
Watching this in light of Vol. 2 being released helps add something to the mysteries here.  It’s cool to know who Quill’s real father is, why Yondu abducted him, etc.  As a standalone film in the MCU Guardians would probably get my vote as the best movie.  James Gunn seemed to have free reign, and it benefits from a unified vision, something that occasionally hampers some other entries with multiple writers and random continuity interference.  I was also somewhat surprised how dark the film is in terms of it’s color scheme.  A lot of the ads have stressed it as a bright colorful space adventure, and this was taken to extremes with it’s sequel and Thor:  Ragnaraok, but a lot of this film is rather dimly lit and dark.  It helps that the tone of the film is somewhat light, which helps balance the occasionally dark Ronan moments.

Picture of a satisfying villain
In many ways this follows the Star Wars blueprint to great success.  There’s some outsiders who have to work together to defeat a more powerful foe.  Our main protagonist is a human in a galaxy full of weird and colorful aliens who may or may not be the chosen one/gifted.  At least here we wisely avoid the Luke Skywalker young kid and just combine his destiny with Han Solo’s awesomeness.  There’s a giant sidekick with limited vocabulary (Groot), etc.  Star Wars and it’s numerous sequels and prequels seem to forget the things people actually enjoyed about these films, giving us way too much mythology and ideology when all we want is a fun space opera where shit blows up.  James Gunn delivered and this film still very much stands up.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Ah here we are back on earth.  After a very fun little diversion with Drax, Gamora, Rocket Racoon, Groot, and Star Lord we’re reunited with Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and the others.  This film picks up more or less where Winter Soldier left off, with the Avengers looking for rogue Hydra things and blah blah blah let’s fight.  Like many sequels this begins with an action sequence and serves as a breezy re-introduction to our heroes.  Some of the humor is set up right away with Captain America’s “language” comment, and yes this film might not take itself too seriously.

The gang's all here
It does though, it very much takes itself seriously.  Age of Ultron though is a classic example of why it’s been so beneficial to revisit these films after some time.  Like Iron Man 3 I left the theater feeling a little let down.  As good as The Avengers was, I did feel like it left room for improvement, and in 2015 I wasn’t too convinced that this film delivered.  I once again found myself whining about things not being the way they were in the original comics, and we got way too much Hawkeye.  This film is considered a tipping point for many in the super hero movie fatigue, and at times it felt exhausting first time around.

A little time and perspective, and marathoning every other MCU entry helps change some things.  I’ll say it, this film is awesome, and easily better than the first Avengers movie.  There is a lot going on here, and when you accept it within the MCU and stop looking for a film that fits your preferred comic book timeline there’s so much that works here.  Now I’ll admit this film doesn’t really work as a solo entry.  What makes these sequels and crossovers successful is the fact that we’re invested in the characters.  We’ve seen them grow, I’ve constantly referenced the fact that big giant CGI battles are not what make these films work.  There are definitely some great character moments here and that’s the stuff I watch these movies for.

Watching this film immediately brings up one question, what the hell was that nonsense at the end of Iron Man 3?  I mentioned my large dislike of that finale, and not a word is spoken of it at the beginning of Age of Ultron.  I appreciated the explanation we get in Civil War from Tony, where he mentions Pepper Potts not being around because he wasn’t able to quit being Iron Man.  At the time it just seemed like Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman wanted too much money to appear in the party scene so they were just easily written out of the film.  This is obviously one problem of comics vs. films.  There are contractual reasons why someone can’t just stop by.

So before I get into what I liked about the film, because remember I did love this movie, I’ll get the rest of my bitching out of the way.  Hawkeye is lame, I can’t help it.  I feel like they took all his character traits from the comics and said “Hear us out, what if we just took that all away and replaced it with nothing?”  Sure in the early Avengers his sole job is to bitch about how old Captain America is and whine about not being the leader, but some of that would have been great here.  His character is so completely devoid of humor or any distinguishing characteristics that it’s really hard to root for him.  I can’t imagine any kids thinking Hawkeye is their favorite Avenger.  The scene with him at home is definitely in response to the fact that he was the most under developed character, but all it does is reinforce his boringness.  That said he does get to redeem himself near the end when he gives Scarlet Witch a little pep talk, and toys with the idea of shooting Quicksilver.  The attempt to make him compelling seems a little forced, but he definitely has his moments.  I also had to love him being the only Avenger to avoid Scarlet Witches hex, referencing the first Avengers movie when his mind was manipulated.

The final Ultron battle on Sokovia is just silly.  Ultron is an amazing villain, and his quest of destroying the Avengers is actually well written and worked out.  He’s not fulfilling some prophecy of destruction or just vengeful, his misguided logic is leading him to bring peace to earth by eliminating mankind for all of it’s violent tendencies.  However, if he made his army of Ultron bots out of vibranium, the same stuff that made Captain America’s shield, why the hell can every avenger tear them apart like tissue paper?  Having an army of murder robots made with the strongest element on earth (because they couldn’t get the rights to use adamentium for some reason) would be menacing but there is absolutely zero tension when they show up.  This is similar to Iron Man’s many, many, many suits at the end of Iron Man 3.  It makes it seem like cheap junk when they’re so disposable.  Now perhaps Ultron cut corners and saved all the vibranium for himself, but that never gets explained.

So let’s talk about what this film did well.  The MCU is definitely handling Dr. Hank Pym differently than the comics, so it makes sense that Tony Stark is the mad scientist that winds up creating Ultron.  Him and Banner have their own little sub-group of nerds that go behind everyone’s back but it works.  In the larger scheme it ties in themes from the first Avengers movie and Iron Man 3 which helps show just what could lead Tony to creating Ultron in the first place.  We know his mental weakness and his own anxiety and fears could lead him to something that might inadvertently create his own destruction.  

The party scene is mostly a good time.  We get to see Rhodes and Sam Wilson interacting, and it helps tie all the films together.  I still get a kick out of everyone trying to lift Thor’s hammer, and Cap being the only one who got to budge ever so slightly.  The look on Thor’s face in that scene is priceless.  As random as the Banner/Natasha romance might seem, I do like it.  Both of them are just fucked up enough to work together and it helps explain how she can say a lullaby to get Hulk to change back to Banner.  

Probably the best shot of the movie
Now a few movies have shows infinity stones, but often as some mysterious power.  This is the first time we actually learn what stone is powering Vision.  Vision is a great character and I like how he is introduced here.  He’s part child of Tony Stark and Ultron, with immense power.  I love how he picks up Mjolnir effortlessly and that’s pretty much all Thor and the Avengers need to convince them he’s on their side.  Vision is a complicated character in the comics and we don’t get a ton of time to really get into that, but every scene with him is great.  How he so effortlessly dispenses with Ultron at the end is just a brief glimpse into how powerful this Avenger could be.  I’m also forever hoping they can establish his attraction towards Wanda/Scarlet Witch for my own Avengers West Coast nerdiness.

Speaking of Avengers West Coast, why is Hawkeye’s wife not Bobbi Barton aka Mockingbird?  Having some random pioneer woman out on the farm raising a litter of Bartons is as unexpected as it is clumsy, but I’ve already gotten into that.  The scenes on the Barton farm aren’t entirely wasted though, I enjoyed the subtle joke of Captain America’s massive pile of chopped wood next to Tony’s more moderate collection.  As you might be able to tell I’m all in favor of characters hooking up in these movies, and had this movie gotten a different rating we might have gotten a Banner/Natasha shower scene, oh well.

One thing that somewhat bogged down this film on the first viewing which looks better in retrospect is how connected Age of Ultron is to the rest of the MCU.  We get our first references to Wakanda, even though we’re still a couple films away from Black Panther showing up.  The arms dealer who will become Klaw does show up, and even has his arm forcibly removed by Ultron setting up his super villain alter ego.  The scene with Thor in the cave makes no sense, and even seeing Ragnarok it doesn’t seem like it was necessary.  However Tony’s guilt about collateral damage becomes a huge issue in Civil War and essentially sets all the action in motion here.  It also helps to find out just where Hulk flew off to after disappearing.

Vision Smash!!
Age of Ultron works because it is greater than the sum of it’s parts.  It succeeds with the help of the films before and after it.  James Spader is perfect as the voice of Ultron, and Elizabeth Olsen is an excellent Scarlet Witch.  Her powers are kind of hard to explain to people and even Maria Hill has a difficult time telling the Avengers just what she can do, but she is awesome.  Olsen does a great job in the role and it’s nice to finally see some mutants in the MCU, even if they won’t ever be referred to as that.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson does fine work as Pietro/Quicksilver and offers a contrast to the one that shows up in Days of Future Past.  I would also have to applaud Whedon for actually letting a character die and stay dead.  

So I’ll wrap this up before I start repeating myself.  I wouldn’t necessarily put this above Guardians of the Galaxy, but Age of Ultron might very well be my new second favorite Marvel movie.  Like many of these films you might have forgotten about since they were in theaters, it’s worth watching again.  I didn’t even get to mention how awesome it was to see the Hulkbuster armor in action.

Ant-Man (2015)

Marvel’s first phase went out with a bang when the Avengers had assembled.  Phase 2 leaves us with what can politely be referred to as a whimper.  Ant-Man has always been a very minor character in Marvel comics and his solo film seemed to be in that “for fans only” camp.  After Guardians of the Galaxy exceeded all expectations the mantra “In Marvel we trust” carried a lot of people to the theaters for this.  The involvement of Edgar Wright was enough to get me interested, even if it took me two years to get around to watching it.

I have nothing clever to say
Now it remains to be seen what type of film we could have gotten from Edgar Wright had studio interference made him leave the film.  It is telling why so many of these Marvel movies are handled by relative unknowns when films with this box office potential could easily have their pick of top directors.  Watching the final product though there are tons of Edgar Wright-isms here, which unfortunately includes poorly developed female characters.  Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly) is little more than a nag who of course knows martial arts and has a very stupid haircut.  Maggie Lang (Judy Greer) is even more of a cardboard cut out of disapproving mother.  It’s a shame, I would have liked to see more of Fattie Magoo, and she seems just wasted here.

Where Edgar Wright’s stamp shows up all over this film is that this is basically a heist movie.  After catching his latest film Baby Driver in theaters there are a ton of similarities here.  Explaining the plan on how to get in and steal the whatever is important to the plot are set up and shot almost identically.  In this way, Wright is great at setting up these details, and he comes across as a man who has spent way too much time thinking of perfect heists not to be on some Interpol watch list somewhere.  Peyton Reed seemed like an odd choice to replace him as director, considering he is best known for Bring it On, Down With Love, and The Break-Up.  Either way he is experienced and competent enough to deliver a solid studio product.

What results on screen is kind of a mixed bag.  After years of seeing the continuing adventures of our established heroes with the occasional new supporting player thrown into the mix, we get full on origin story here.  There are countless scenes of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) learning his new suit and powers.  To let us know we’re still very much in the MCU though the film begins with Michael Douglas complete with anti-aging CGI wizardry telling a much older Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and other SHIELD big wigs they won’t have his secret formula.  

The rest of the MCU connection is a little weak here.  Ant-Man does get a chance to fight Falcon, which is as C-list as an Avenger as you can find.  Then we find out that Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is selling his replicated Pym particle to Hydra because of course he is.  The small (no pun intended) stature of this character makes it seem like it might be better suited to the Netflix world than as a $100 million budget summer blockbuster.  It’s a risk that doesn’t exactly pay off.

Seriously who signed off on that haircut?
Ant-Man does have some funny moments but if any MCU entry could have gotten away with going full comedy it’s probably this one.  The fact that they still try to play it straight and serious at times doesn’t quite work for me.  This has to be a very compelling film with some great characters to pull off what is definitely a minor character.  Even Scott Lang seems a little underdeveloped here.  Michael Douglas is fantastic as Hank Pym, and to me was easily the best thing about the film.  I would also argue that he seems to be the only developed and interesting character here.  

I do somewhat like Ant-Man’s inclusion with the Avengers, and I did like his appearance in Civil War quite a bit.  This is a character who should be a supporting player, and I can’t say I’m overly enthusiastic about the upcoming Ant-Man and Wasp movie.  The heist plot gives this a different structure than the typical video game boss battle climax, but even this film goes in that route later.  I’d say the final fight was much funnier this time around and it mercifully didn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s a good thing we established Scott’s daughter likes weird ugly things, otherwise that giant ant would be quite terrifying at the end.  For the record most of the CGI ants looked ridiculously fake and it was occasionally distracting.  

It’s hard not to look at this film as the weakest link in a chain.  I would probably rank it slightly above The Dark World but I’m apprehensive to recommend it to anyone who isn’t planning on watching every entry in the MCU.  The fact that I missed this in theaters does mean I’m writing this on my first impression, and if this post has demonstrated anything it’s that my first reactions aren’t always the right ones.  

See you in Phase III true believers

Monday, November 6, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

How about this kids, I saw a new movie on opening weekend and I’m actually reviewing it.  Our plan of being completely caught up with the MCU before seeing it fell short by a few films, but yesterday morning we watched Age of Ultron and that’s about all you need to see for Thor: Ragnarok to make perfect sense.  So before I get too far into the details of the plot and spoilers I will say this, see the film.  If you’re looking for a generic Siskel and Ebert capsule let’s just say thumbs up and go to a theater (or bookmark this and read it whenever you get around to it).

So as mentioned before the film picks up after Age of Ultron, just two years later.  Thor is “caught” by Surtur and gets a good dose of plot exposition as he tells him of the prophecy that is Ragnarok and destroying Asgard.  One thing that becomes evident right away is that this film isn’t going to take itself too seriously.  Now every Marvel film has it’s share of comedic relief, but the last two times we saw Thor it was under much more serious circumstances.  That bizarre Thor in a cave skinny dipping scene in Age of Ultron loosely sets this up but it doesn’t stop that scene from being largely unnecessary in Ultron,we could have easily gotten a quick “I had a vision and Asgard is in trouble”.  

A few things happened since The Dark World though that are rather important in terms of the tone here.  The Dark World itself was gloomy and as the title might suggest dark.  It also didn’t make ALL the money as previous Marvel movies have.  Obviously Thor is a mighty important cog in the MCU and in order to set up his story Disney/Marvel still needs to turn a profit.  Guardians of the Galaxy happened after Age of Ultron and seemed to mark a major shift for the MCU.  Not only in terms of interacting with cosmic beings and taking place pretty much entirely far from earth, but also being fun and at times downright silly.

Thor now with 50% more Hulk
Ragnarok from early ads seemed to clearly be riding more on the Guardians success than The Avengers.  This was going to be a bright colorful space movie with some of your favorites and a few new people to be bad guys etc.  They even marketed the film as a Guardians-esque band of misfits that need to learn how to work together to defeat fill-in-the-blank monster of the week.  The first step in this conversion was hiring Taika Waititi to direct.  Well known in New Zealand, he is perhaps best known here for being half the acting/writing/directing team behind What We Do in the Shadows.  He’s definitely firmly established in comedy and his involvement here seems in direct contrast to the direction the first two Thor entries took.

Ragnarok has a pretty difficult time taking itself seriously at any point.  It definitely takes a few minutes getting used to the very different tone here.  Now perhaps we’ve reached that stage in Marvel movies much like action films in the late 80s/early 90s when things just got sillier and sillier.  Or perhaps everyone has noticed how no one likes the depressing downers DC keeps foisting on people and wants to set these up as polar opposites.  Either way the change here is certainly welcome.  I won’t mince words when I say Thor has been the weakest franchise within the MCU.  The first film was fun and decent enough but The Dark World might get my vote for the weakest Marvel movie thus far.  This doesn’t mean either of the first two Thor films are bad, but someone’s gotta be in last place and before Ragnarok it was easily Thor.

Now with that out of the way, let me say this is easily the best Thor film, and would probably rank somewhere among the top 5 of Marvel movies.  As with all of these films there are plenty of great Easter eggs hidden in plain sight, some of which I’m sure I missed.  For example Beta Ray Bill was one of the faces on The Grandmaster’s tower where Hulk lives.  I’ll be honest that my nerdiness didn’t recognize the others, but thank the internet.  I also got a huge kick out of Korg (voiced by director Waititi) mentioning that a particular gladiator weapon would only be good for three vampires in close proximity to each other, an obvious nod to What We Do in the Shadows.  For the record this might also be my favorite Stan Lee cameo, as he plays the man who cuts Thor’s famous locks.  

It’s hard not to link these films together and although you don’t necessarily need to have seen every MCU film for this to make sense or be particularly enjoyable it certainly helps.  The treatment of Surtur here reminds me a little of Mandarin in Iron Man 3.  What sets up as an epic legendary villain is kinda treated as a throwaway and even comedic.  *Spoilers* Surtur does get to fulfill his prophecy of destruction and isn’t a drugged up stage actor, but he is clearly another false villain.  This isn’t too surprising considering how Thor treats him in the opening scene.  

Video game boss battle #17
Our main villain is of course Hela, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett and she’s awesome.  As Odin’s first born she is quite powerful and quickly fucks shit up.  Now I gotta admit I was a little bummed with how effortlessly and anti-climatically she dispatched with the Warriors Three.  There is certainly precedent in Marvel movies that no one ever really stays dead, and Loki was a prime example of that in Dark World, but there isn’t much to indicate any of the dead Asgardians will come back.  Surtur kinda put a permanent end to the planet as well so I don’t think they brought along their fallen.  

 Now rehashing the plot is pointless if you saw the film so let’s talk about some other things.  I don’t know how else to phrase this but Jeff Goldblum is becoming the new Bill Murray.  As those dreaded 90s kids are getting older they are fondly remembering the man who brought them Jurassic Park and Independence Day.  The internet has likewise fallen in love with Goldblum as evident by the stupidly popular Facebook group “The same photo of Jeff Goldblum every day” which currently has 316,000+ members.  He’s enjoying that subtle reintroduction into the limelight, and I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that he also is a semi-regular in Wes Anderson’s films, making him cool for all the hipsters.

As far as his performance as the Grandmaster it is everything you think it would be.  The man has become an icon by essentially playing a variation on the same character since forever, and he’s as erratic and random as you would expect.  If you’re clever enough to spot the resemblance to Benecio Del Toro’s Collector from Guardians of the Galaxy that is because they are brothers.  Along with the Infinity Gems that have been popping up here and there, this is one of the first minor links between the franchises, and I’m sure they’ll have their own reunion down the line.

So a few late spoilers ahead, let’s talk about the end.  No matter how many Marvel movies I see in theaters there is inevitably several people who leave the theater immediately.  When will these people ever learn?  Anyways once King Thor and Loki are discussing their plan a ship appears.  Now thanks to the wonders of nerds on the internet it leads us to believe it is Thanos’ ship, or at least connected to him.  Thanos has been a post credit tease twice before, so perhaps not showing him directly was a conscious choice.  It does answer one super obvious question which is whether or not Loki took the cube/Infinity gem when he went to resurrect Surtur.  We’re also left to assume that there might not be any more Bruce Banner and only Hulk from here on out, and the final scene certainly indicated that Hulk was sticking around for awhile.  Considering the precedent for Hulk going to sleep to bring back Banner, I look forward to Mantis eventually meeting Hulk and using her own powers on him.

I’d like to close with a little of my patented what I liked and disliked about the film.  I’ve gone into what I liked about the film quite a bit but I want to say officially I loved the cast.  Goldblum being Goldblum definitely worked for the Grandmaster.  I definitely love me some Hulk and this is as much Hulk as we’re likely to see in a movie for quite a while.  There might be a few gripes about Valkyrie looking considerably different from her comic book counterpart but the performance by Tessa Thompson here is pretty excellent and should shut up most people.  I also loved Anthony Hopkins as Odin being impersonated by Loki.

We all need more Goldblum in our lives
To be honest there is a lot I loved about Ragnarok, and much of the comedy worked well.  Seeing Banner fall flat on the Rainbow Bridge was hilarious.  It was damn satisfying seeing Thor embrace his God of Thunder moniker and shoot lightning bolts all over the place.  The fact that Loki hasn’t changed a bit works on two levels.  One it reinforces the character as the god of mischief and trickster that he is.  It also helps to show that as a villain/antagonist the MCU is evolving beyond him.  His designs aren’t grand enough especially once Hela, Surtur, or Thanos start wrecking shit.  I do feel like the films have significantly downgraded his powers, and would probably be done with him if he wasn’t so popular.

Now some nitpicking with the things I didn’t care for.  I feel like Odin has been dying since the first film, and he looked mighty healthy when he just disappeared in Norway.  Not sure if he should have been killed off in battle but dying of old age doesn’t seem like something a god can do.  Perhaps I missed something earlier but when did Thor and Jane Foster break up?  I don’t care too much because frankly their romance was awkward and reminded me way too much of Portman and Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones.  Another nitpicking moment is when could the Avengers Quinjet fly in outer space?  I previously mentioned the warriors three being dispensed with far too easily, and I felt like as characters they were a little more important than their instantaneous death would indicate.  I also imagine most people who haven’t seen the first two Thor movies since their theatrical run might be a bit lost as to what the hell was going on.

These are all minor things, and at least the hype of a new film didn’t disappoint.  Perhaps a future viewing might clear up some things or expose other flaws. Now for the big problem, the formula.  This is MCU film number 17 by my count and every single one of them is a monster of the week.  Bad guy shows up, is super powerful, and is hell bent on taking over the world/universe or destroying a person/city/planet/universe.  Hela was no different and Surtur took that to the extreme.  I thought The Grandmaster was a far more interesting antagonist because it would’ve had Thor and Hulk teaming up to overthrow him and free the planet as opposed to dispatching of him largely off camera and going to fight the monster that’s threatening Asgard.  A Running Man-esque tournament of champions would have been a far more interesting film that could have almost entirely ignored Asgard.  I’d say all but the most simple minded of movie goers are still impressed by a video game boss battle, and all the fight scenes are the equivalent of watching some really good gamer on Twitch.  

Video game boss battle #18
I would say it’s comedic tone might alienate a few people who like to take these things seriously.  To those people I might suggest lightening up and maybe giving it another go later on.  Revisiting the MCU before this film has taught me a few things about how these films hold up.  Nearly all of them are worth watching more than once, and a lot of things make more sense in light of future pictures. Sometimes my initial enthusiasm wanes a bit on closer inspection so before I start crowning this film I’ll see how I feel about it in the coming weeks/months.  I hadn’t been this excited for a new MCU film in years and this didn’t disappoint at all, so yeah go see Thor: Ragnarok.