Spider-Man: Homecoming (Full Review)

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man franchise started off just fine, until Spider-Man 3 made it come to a dark, disco dancing halt. Sony Pictures then rushed a pair of needless reboots into production starring Andrew Garfield which had their moments, but crumbled in 2014 when the studio became more obsessed with setting up sequels and spin-offs than with actually delivering a fun Spider-Man story. All of this led to the landmark deal that has finally given Marvel Studios the opportunity to use their biggest A-lister. After being one of the many bright spots in Captain America: Civil War, it’s time for Tom Holland to take center stage in the iconic red and blue spandex.

Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterAfter recruiting Peter Parker (Holland) to aid in the events of Civil War, Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns the super powered 15 year old back to his home in Queens, New York with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Despite wanting the life of a full-fledged Avenger, Parker spends his Spider-Man nights catching bicycle thieves and helping old ladies cross the street while Stark’s assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) keeps tabs. Peter’s daytime life consists of he and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) talking about Star Wars, participating in quiz bowls, getting teased by a bully (Tony Revolori), and pining after a pretty senior (Laura Harrier). When the spurned leader of an Avengers battle clean up crew (Michael Keaton) begins selling high tech weapons to criminals in the city, Spidey sees catching him as his big chance to impress Mr. Stark and becoming a true Avenger.

We’ve seen Spider-man done justice, so we never actually needed a new solo outing. While this version is younger, there isn’t really anything new brought to the character other than a high tech suit and a ton of nice, but not necessary Avengers Easter eggs. And yet, in many ways, the story that Spider-Man: Homecoming comes up with manages to be arguably the character’s most definitive one.

Pater Parker is still smart, snarky, and brave. But by making the character younger and placing him in a world where superheroes are both abundant and older, we are allowed to truly see Spider-Man’s coming of age as a likable hero. Holland’s version, more than any other, is a kid. He is naïve and inexperienced and to become the iconic hero, he must mature. Thus, this Spider-Man film feels like a true origin story even though we’re allowed to skip out on Uncle Ben dying and the inevitable radioactive spider bite.

The sensational supporting cast helps. Robert Downey Jr. portraying Tony Stark as Parker’s mentor and father figure works incredibly well, with some of the best dialogue coming between the two. Jacob Batalon injects wholesome likability into every scene he’s in as Ned. And even though her role at times seems shoe horned in, Zendaya has some fun quips as Parker’s classmate Michele. As for Michael Keaton, who plays the villainous Vulture, he gives a performance that isn’t just one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but rivals Alfred Molina’s iconic Doc Ock in 2004’s Spider-Man 2. By giving the titular hero a worthy adversary, we are able to truly explore his fears and vulnerabilities.

It’s not quite the best Spider-Man movie ever. There are a few pacing issues, the CGI often gets a bit too cartoony, and I’m not a fan of young, more attractive Aunt May. But this film nails the overall tone of one of the most popular characters in pop culture. Calling an MCU movie fun is like calling a Tim Burton movie ‘quirky’ so that aspect should go without saying. At this point, the producers of these movies have mastered making the audience laugh without getting too hokey. With their knack for exhilarating action sequences and exploring mature themes while still keeping things light, the MCU has proven that Spider-Man belongs in this franchise. So if they can keep things from falling apart (like the Iron Man sequels), they’ve finally got a version that audiences can stay behind.

FINAL GRADE: A

 

 

 

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Full Review)

No film in Disney/Marvel’s massive gallery was as much of a surprise success as 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The film about a ragtag group of space anti-heroes transcended its lesser known source material to become a fun summer blockbuster full of exhilarating action and humor. But it’s hard to follow up a breakout hit with something better or even just as good. Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron showed us, that while the Marvel Cinematic Universe always keeps things entertaining, sometimes their sequels can’t quite live up to the hype.

GotG_Vol2_posterGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the adventures of a group of intergalactic heroes for hire. Returning are Drax (Dave Bautista), a slow witted mustle man who lacks subtlety; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a rude and violent talking raccoon; Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a naive tree monster reduced to baby form following the first film’s climax; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) skiled assassin and daughter to a space tyrant, and Peter “Star Lord” Quill, (Chris Pratt), an Earthling with a human mother and an alien father he’s never met. After the crew makes enemies out of a society of genetic purists (led by Elizabeth Debicki), the Guardians encounter Ego (Kurt Russell), an antient, powerful being claiming to be Quill’s father, and his socially awkward aprentice, named Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Michael Rooker also returns as Quill’s former mentor Yondu, and Karen Gillan reprises her role as Gamora’s sister/hated rival, Nebula.

As it turns out, Guardians Vol. 2 has many of the same problems as Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron in that it seems more concerned with making the audience laugh and giving them shiny new CGI to gawk at than with forming a coherent narrative. As such, the plot to this film is all over the place for the majority of its seemingly lengthy runtime. There are far too many threads that are overly emphasized such as a subplot about Yondu’s connection to a former mentor (played by Sylvester Stallone) and his dismissal from the bounty hunting Ravagers. It isn’t until the admittedly exciting climax that things seem to actually come together, but the means hardly justifies the ends.

There’s still a great bit of humor throughout. Dave Bautista (who has greatly improved since his acting debut) is hilarious in every scene and most of the banter between the team is fun. But even here, things don’t feel as consistently organic as they did the first go round. Too much of the jokes are awkwardly raunchy (get ready for penis jokes… yes, penis jokes), and the cartoony slapstick is so abundant that it often undermines scenes that should probably be taken more seriously.

The film manages to add some weighty emotional moments to make the story feel grounded and a bit more necessary. A few scenes between Saldana’s Gamora and Gillan’s Nebula do a fantastic job of adding depth to both characters. In fact, most of the cast deserves credit for injecting likability into each of their characters. But with the story, much of the humor, and even the soundtrack all feeling like a step down, its hard to make a case that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is memorable. Not every follow up is going to be The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight, but I can’t help but feel like characters this fun deserve an adventure that isn’t predominantly a throw away.

FINAL GRADE: C

A = Must See/Top 10 Nominee

B = Good film. Flawed, but still very entertaining

C = Not Bad, but highly flawed/Probably better off waiting for Redbox

D = Terrible Movie with a few redeeming qualities

F = I wanted to walk out/Don’t waste time or money

Doctor Strange (Full Review)

“Forget everything you think you know”. That’s what seasoned sorcerer Mordo (Chiwtel Ejiofor) tells Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) when he first encounters him. It’s a perfect mantra for Marvel’s latest addition to their vast, successful universe. A superhero film with a dash of Harry Potter and a sprinkle of Inception makes Doctor Strange unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

doctor_strange_posterThe film stars Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange, the world’s best neurosurgeon whose ego makes Tony Stark seem humble. After a car accident leaves his hands damaged beyond medical repair, Strange pushes away his only friend (Rachel McAdams) and ventures out to Nepal in a last ditch effort to heal himself. There he encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an ageless guru who trains Mordo, snarky librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), and many others to conjure up magic and defend the world from a former pupil (Mads Mikkelsen) keen on releasing an ancient evil. Strange must put aside his ego to not only heal himself, but also summon the hero within.

One thing that makes Marvel movies so inherently watchable is their ability to add humor and charisma to everything they make. Doctor Strange is no different. Fused with a phenomenal cast and snappy dialogue, there isn’t an ounce of stiffness to speak of, giving the film loads of personality that helps usher the audience into this trippy new universe.

But it’s that trippy universe that truly makes Doctor Strange a unique film. Remember that amazing hallway fight sequence in Inception. This film has that x 10. Stunning visuals made for 3D create sequences that are jaw dropping. From intricate CGI runes and shifting camera angles to scenery that literally twists and turns like a kaleidoscope, almost every action scene is compellingly unusual but never nauseating.

Being so different from anything else in the comic book genre, Doctor Strange manages to pace things well, explaining key information when needed but never overindulging with exposition. With Cumberbatch at the helm, there is a sense of tangibility that makes it all feel possible. Even the villain (usually Marvel’s biggest weak spot) has a slight wit and intelligence to him that makes his plot seem like an interesting perspective even if it’s the same as any stock megalomaniac.

Without the subtle references to other films in the MCU and the obvious post credit connections, Doctor Strange would manage to feel like its own entity. One that is rich in lure and fascinating characters. It almost makes you wish that it was its own franchise instead of just another precursor to an Avengers movie. But even if we never get a dose of Strange as good as this film, the mark has undoubtedly been set as an entertaining and memorable one.

FINAL GRADE: A

Captain America: Civil War (Full Review)

Just over a month ago, DC/Warner Bros. released a movie about superheroes fighting superheroes… sort of. Now, along comes the superhero film Goliath that is Marvel to one up them. Captain America: Civil War is an adaptation of one of the most popular comic storylines ever, pitting two of their most iconic heroes against each other. Loosely based on the source material, this cinematic version serves as a sequel to 2014’s phenomenal Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well as being a quasi Avengers 2.5.

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterIt’s been a year since the Avengers stopped Ultron from destroying the earth and now Captain America (Chris Evans) leads a new team featuring assassin turned heroine, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), intelligent android, Vision (Paul Bettany), sorceress, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), winged soldier, Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and Iron Man bestie, James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle). After a mission to stop a vengeful terrorist (Frank Grillo) goes horribly wrong, former Hulk adversary and current U.S. Secretary of State, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), brings down the Sokovia Accords: a doctrine forcing all heroes to adhere to the United Nations rather than act as an independent force. While guilt causes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to support the new law, the ever weary Captain America refuses to serve a government agenda, causing things to get dicey when Cap’s former best friend turned brainwashed assassin resurfaces (Sebastian Stan). The conflict splits the Avengers in two, with half siding with Iron Man and the others with Captain America.

All of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films aren’t great, as some might have you believe. Some are mediocre (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and others I just flat out don’t like (Any Iron Man movie after the first one). But the Captain America films have always stood out to me over the rest. This is due in large part to deeper subject matters and more intricate storytelling. Civil War is no different, in fact, it may be the MCU’s most earnest film yet.

Let’s start with the conflict, unlike with March’s Batman v Superman, this film’s budding rivalry has had several years to brew. So when things go downhill, it feels genuinely heartbreaking to see the two comrades and former friends warring against each other. An exceptional script that does a solid job sharing the two perspectives without condemning either one, makes this film feel more realistic than any Marvel movie to date. Both sides are right just as much as they are wrong, and this aspect drives the entire film and gives it more emotional weight than anything else in the MCU.

A stellar cast helps. Casting is perhaps the greatest strength of the MCU, and here everyone shines, even characters like Hawk Eye (Jermey Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) who are only on screen for a few scenes. As for the newcomers, they make their mark and prove that they are worthy additions to an already impressive roster. Chadwick Boseman portrays vengeful Black Panther with a regal fervor while Tom Holland is perfectly witty and exuberant as the new Spider-Man. Both make you excited to see them in future films. And while the MCU hasn’t always given us the best villains, Daniel Bruhl is stellar as the film’s sneaky antagonist.

The film drags a bit in its final act, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo deserve a ton of credit simply for managing to effectively juggle the massive horde of characters involved. It never feels like too much or too little, and when the titular battle goes down, it feels like something out of nerd heaven for fans of the genre even in spite of a few noticeable patches of spotty CGI. But visuals are only one part of making a memorable film. Captain America: Civil War isn’t great simply because of its action. Its captivating subject matter and emotional core are what make it one of the best superhero film’s ever crafted. So regardless of whether you’re Team Cap or Team Iron Man, you’ll come out of Marvel’s latest film feeling like a winner.

FINAL GRADE: A

My (UPDATED) Top 15 Favorite Superhero Movies

Two years ago, I posted a list of my Top 15 Favorite Superhero films. With movies in the genre coming out left and right, that list is passed due for a revamp. A quick reminder on the criteria of being considered a “Superhero movie” in my eyes:  A) The movie must have a costumed hero or heroine lead … B) be based off of a TV show, graphic novel, or comic… no video games movies or teen novels… and C) Need to have been watched at least 50% of the way through. There are also movies based on comics that I left off of this list, because I consider them a different genre (Guardians of the Galaxy is more Star Wars/Star Trek sci-fi than superhero film). Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, here’s my (emphasis on my) list of the Best Superhero movies of all time…

15. Batman (1989)

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Long before Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and Heath Ledger came along, it was Tim Burton, Michael Keaton, and Jack Nicholson who made the Dark Knight cool and dark again. Nicholson’s performance as Joker is just as memorable as any film villain and Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is still arguably one of the best.

Favorite Moment: As Batman saves Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and uses a series of gadgets to escape, Joker replies “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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The amount of people that don’t like this film is stunning to me. Yes, I know it takes a while to get into the action scenes, but I enjoyed every minute of the set up. Chris Evans does a great job of making us forget about that other Marvel superhero he played by giving us a fine portrayal of the scrawny good guy turned muscled hero. Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones are equally good in their supporting roles. My only gripe is how little Hugo Weaving was able to bring to the role of the Red Skull.

Favorite Moment: After the rest of the platoon struggles to crawl up a flag pole to retrieve a flag, the crafty Steve Rogers simply unscrews the entire pole. Brain > Brawn.

13. Batman Returns (1992)

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Much respect to Anne Hathway, but the best portrayal of Selina Kyle AKA Catwoman is in this movie. Michele Pfeiffer’s hauntingly sexy performance is the cornerstone for this film. Danny DeVito also strikes the perfect chord between charismatic and creepy as The Penguin.This was one of the first movies I ever saw in theaters. How it didn’t give me nightmares is a mystery to me.

Favorite Moment: I know I just talked about how great Catwoman is, but it’s Penguin’s takeover of the Batmobile and using a kiddie-ride to remote control it that I can’t help but love.

12. Watchmen (2009)

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Zach Snyder may be hit or miss with some of you, but I loved him here. I was only vaguely familiar with the critically acclaimed graphic novel, about a darker take on superheroes, before I saw the first trailer for this film. That trailer, complete with a rendition of Smashing Pumpkins’ The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning, was so good that it prompted me to read the source material. I immediately realized why it was so lauded. The film version is perfect, matching some frames from the comic shot for shot while also managing to make the necessary tweaks to make the source material a bit more believable.

Favorite Moment: The noir inspired beginning in which Rorshach (Jackie Earl Haley at his best) investigates the death of his fallen comrade.

11. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

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The plot of this movie sounds like it was written by a 10 year-old fan boy. Nevertheless, Joss Whedon deserves major props for actually pulling this movie off. What it lacks in story, it easily makes up for in action and humor. Not to mention the fact that it revolutionized the genre by bringing together heroes from multiple superhero films.

Favorite Moment: Anyone who grew up loving comics and cartoons has to get goosebumps when the camera first pans around all six heroes, but I specifically love the throw down between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) while on the Hellicarrier.

10. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

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Unlike most people, I didn’t care much for the first Spider-man. I wasn’t a fan of Toby Maguire as Peter Parker and William Dafoe was just too cartoony as Green Goblin. Part 2, however, completely changed my outlook on this series (Too bad Part 3 brought it crashing down again). The reason for the upswing was undoubtedly Frank Langella as Doc Ock. The charisma and heart that he brought to the role set the tempo for the movie and the rest of the cast managed to follow suit with their best performances of the original trilogy.

Favorite Moment: Spidey and Doc Ock’s fight scene atop a moving train is still one of the best on-screen brawls to date.

9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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The third installment in Christopher Nolan’s Bat-Trilogy has its flaws from a storytelling standpoint, but few can argue that it’s the best Part Three of any movie in the superhero genre. This is due less to the story and execution and more to the villains. Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway are both scene stealers as Bane and Selina Kyle.

Favorite Moment: Several to choose from. I love the opening highjacking scene as well as Bruce Wayne’s first pursuit of Bane’s henchmen on the Batpod, but the best scene has to go to the first showdown between Bane and Batman that ends in the Dark Knight’s back being broken.

8. V for Vendetta (2006)

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Few actually realize that this movie is based on a 1982 DC Comics graphic novel (written by the same genius who wrote Watchmen). The theatrical version is nothing short of brilliant from its action sequences to its cast led by Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman. Produced by the same team that developed The Matrix, Vendetta is certainly one of the most thought provoking films in the genre.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Before taking out some thugs, V gives an introductory monologue using seemingly every word in the dictionary that starts with the letter V.

7. X-Men: First Class (2011)

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X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine nearly killed the X-Men franchise. Luckily, Director Matthew Vaughn came along to bring us a well-acted, James Bond-like prequel/reboot to rejuvenate one of the best series’ in the genre. The story, which mingles the usual mutant drama with the Cuban missile crisis, is good but even better is the chemistry between James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Michael Fassbender’s young Magneto uses a small knife and a gun that is never actually in his possession to kill a few former Nazis in a bar. Bad. Ass.

6. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

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Bryan Singer (X-Men 1 & 2) blessed us with a return to the X-Men film franchise he helped create. Singer managed to mold the great tone that Matthew Vaughn established in First Class with the amazing visuals and storytelling that he perfected with X2: X-Men United. The result was a brilliant adaptation of one of X-Men’s greatest storylines that helped solidify a new X-Men film universe while subsequently paying homage to the original cast.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Anything involving Blink (Fan Bing Bing) is visually amazing, but nothing beats Quicksilver (Evan Peters) helping Magneto (Fassbender), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) execute a daring prison break using his super speed.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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Captain America’s second big-screen adaptation was far more exhilarating than what was already a great first film. It also managed to solidify Chris Evans as a lead action star. With a story that molds elements of a political thriller with eye-popping action sequences, Winter Soldier manages to feel like much more than a superhero flick. It’s easily my favorite in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 2.

FAVORITE MOMENT: A street action sequence that features Hydra attempting to take out Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Cap. The ensuing fight between the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Captain America has some of the best fight choreography I’ve ever seen in a superhero film.

4. The Dark Knight (2008)

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Surprised that it isn’t in the Top 2? This is a fantastic movie, but it does get a little long in the tooth around the two boats with detonators part. And I can’t help but be underwhelmed by Two-Face’s untimely demise at the end. That being said, this movie is still an absolute classic… and we all know why. Heath Ledger’s incredible performance as the Joker is the best portrayal of a villain in any movie… ever. Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is no slouch either.

FAVORITE MOMENT: The vehicle chase seen with Joker in a truck and Batman in the Batpod is good, but the scene where Joker walks in on a meeting between mobsters is better. “Want to see a magic trick?”

3. Iron Man (2008)

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Kudos to Robert Downey Jr. for making Tony Stark as much of a household name as Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. In the movie that started the Marvel Cinematic revolution, Downey Jr. is at his snarky best. His chemistry with Gwenyth Paltrow also gives us one of the best hero/girlfriend relationships ever on screen. All of that aside, it’s the groundbreaking special effects that help this movie’s cool factor exceed almost anything we’ve ever seen. Still waiting on Iron Man to have another solo outing as good as this one.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Iron Man shoots a small missile at a tank, then walks away as it explodes… like a boss.

2. X2: X-Men United (2003)

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One of the most re-watchable movies of all time. It’s got a better plot than nearly every movie on this list and also manages to bring together a deep cast of characters and give each one their moment to shine. I have a hard time believing there will ever be an X-Men movie better than this one. The opening scene with Nightcrawler (Allen Cumming) in the White House is still the best opening to a superhero movie ever.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Too many to choose from… so I’ll just give them all:

1) The aforementioned opening scene.

2) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) going berserk on soldiers in the mansion.

3) Magneto (Ian McKellen)’s escape from an all plastic prison.

4) Pyro (Aaron Stanford) fighting off the police.

5) Storm (Halle Berry) creating tornadoes while also piloting the X-Jet.

6)  Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) flipping Stryker (Brian Cox) the bird while sneaking into his underground facility.

7) The fight between Wolverine and Deathstrike (Kelly Hu).

8) The ending that sees Jena Grey (Famke Janssen) “sacrifice herself” to save the team.

1. Batman Begins (2005)

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Can you tell who my favorite superhero is? Not only did this movie manage to make Batman cool again after Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin nearly ruined him, but it also brings a more realistic flare to superhero films. Christopher Nolan does a magnificent job using non-linear filmmaking to tell the ultimate superhero origin story while Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Cilian Murphy are perfect as Bruce Wayne, Alfred, and The Scarecrow.  The two sequels may get more attention, but both posses more flaws then this movie, which in my opinion has none. Some might dislike the fact that the Batman himself doesn’t make an appearance until an hour in, but I argue that the scenes where Bruce receives his training from Liam Neeson are just as good if not better. The plot twist that involved Liam Neeson’s Henri Dukard actually being the mastermind main-villain, Ra’s al Guhl, is still arguably the best in the genre.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Batman makes his first appearance in the film, roughing up some mobsters while scaring the pure Hell out of them at the same time. The ending exchange between Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman is a close second…

Gordon:  “I never got a chance to thank you.”

Batman: “And you’ll never have to.”

… Cue Fan boys tears and applause.

HONORABLE MENTION: X-Men (2000), Man of Steel (2013), Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Blade (1998), The Wolverine (2013), Dredd (2012), Kick Ass (2010), Thor (2011), Ant-Man (2015)

Ok, that’s my list that I will undoubtedly be changing in another 2 years after the hoard of superhero movies that arrives in 2016. Check out my disgruntled list of the Top 15 worst superhero movies and feel free to comment or follow me on Facebook.

Marvel’s Ant-Man (Full Review)

Never judge a book by its cover. In a world that is oversaturated with superhero films, it’s easy to write off a movie titled Ant-Man. It’s obscure, unintimidating, and seemingly unintriguing. But there’s a reason why the Marvel Cinematic Universe reigns supreme. It’s because the studio knows how to shake convention, and more than any other producer of comic book films, they know how to entertain.

Ant-Man_posterBased on one of the original comic book Avengers, Ant-Man follows former ex-con, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), as he is recruited by scientist and former superhero, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Along with Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), they plot a mission to break into Pym’s former Tech headquarters and prevent Pym’s former protégé and current company CEO, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from replicating dangerous shrinking technology and selling it to the military. To pull off the mission, they’ll need the use of Pym’s super suit that allows its wearer to shrink down to the size of, and communicate with, ants.

Such an obscure premise needs precise execution to not come off hokey and to be refreshing. After all, we’ve seen superhero origin stories done to death. But Marvel manages to pull Ant-Man off by creating not so much a superhero film, but moreso a science fiction heist film. From the start, when we are introduced to Scott Lang’s comedic crew of thieves (Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, and David Dastmalchian), the movie doesn’t really feel like the normal superhero flick.

Instead of big CGI-filled fight scenes and over-the-top set explosions, we actually get great character building. And the cast is spot on, from the headliners to the supporting roles. Paul Rudd is endearing and charismatic as a divorced father willing to do anything to reconnect with his young daughter. The father-daughter redemption theme is represented even stronger in captivating performances by Douglas and Lilly. The one weak link is Corey Stoll as the villain, Yellow Jacket. Stoll doesn’t do a poor job, but he can do little to escape the scripted cliché of a cackling megalomaniac villain that has unfortunately become a staple in nearly every MCU movie.

Even though humor and character drive the film, it’s still a Marvel movie, and with that come some impressive visuals. It almost feels reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. And just because there aren’t as many super powered fight scenes as there may be in Avengers movies, doesn’t mean the movie is void of action. The stunning shrinking sequences, which are all absolutely made for 3D viewing, are each breathtaking even before punches are thrown, but rest assure the scarce fight scenes always deliver.

Like with most movies in the MCU, Ant-Man connects well to the other films thanks to a few well placed references and some unexpected cameos (and of course, post-credits scenes). But unlike other Marvel films (*cough* Thor: The Dark World) the film would easily be enjoyable without the connection to the vast superhero world that the studio has created. You may be disappointed if you’re looking for the usual punch throwing, damsel in distress, superhero flick that we’re all accustomed to. But if you’re looking for a witty, visually stunning, adventure with just enough heart to keep you emotionally invested, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how entertaining Ant-Man is.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review (Spoiler Free)

Avengers was overrated. Now, before you throw rocks at me and swear off my reviews forever, please hear me out. Is Avengers one of the best superhero movies ever? Yes. It’s one of my all time favorites. But when you go back and look at the actual plot, it doesn’t really stack up to other iconic hero films like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, or X-Men 2. One of the heroes’ arch enemies teams up with a random alien army to invade earth; it sounds like the plot of an animated, straight to DVD Marvel movie. But Avengers wasn’t great because of its story. It was a success, because it was fun. A little chemistry between actors, and some great action scenes go a long way. But to feel like a better movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron needed to feel a bit smarter.

Avengers_Age_of_UltronObviously seeing the films since the previous Avengers (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier) are pivotal to understanding cameos, plot points, and certainly the opening sequence of the movie. But newcomers can get the gist pretty quickly. Cocky, but brainy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns as Iron Man along with straight laced leader Captain America (Chris Evans), master assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), snarky sniper Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Shakespearean speaking muscle man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and of course, the loveable rage monster. Hulk a.k.a. Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). The gang reunites to recover Loki’s mind controlling staff from HYDRA and a pair of super powered evil twins (Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). After a seemingly successful mission, an uber paranoid Tony Stark decides to create an artificial intelligence to protect the world, ultimately resulting in the creation of the evil android antagonist for which the film is named.

The first thing you need to know is that everything that was good about 2012’s Avengers is back. The characters all have tremendous chemistry. Evans and Downey Jr. are a perfect rocky, but efficient tandem. Johansson and Ruffalo manage to create a beautiful, albeit random, romance. And Jeremy Renner manages to steal the show with some timely quips and genuine heart. Newcomers Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are welcomed additions if you can overcome their lousy European accents. Their characters, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, have the most visually appealing powers in the film. The only actor lost in all of this seems to be Hemsworth’s Thor, who never really has his moment to shine. James Spader makes it all come together well as Ultron, a charismatic villain who makes his dreams of human extinction justifiable through a very childishly hopeful, yet almost God-like perspective.

The problem is; it might be too much of the same. Director Joss Whedon seems to not have learned from the flaws of his last Marvel venture. He just seems to have traded aliens for robots. Even the climactic battle, as pleasing to the eyes as it may be, is almost an exact retread from the New York City skirmish in Avengers. Ultron even does his best to pull a Loki and make the team turn on each other.

There are also things that purists (anyone who has watched all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) will undoubtedly notice. For instance; if the Avengers are all buddies who are ready to just jump back into action when needed, then why didn’t they appear in each other’s solo adventures? I’m pretty sure Thor could’ve used Captain America’s help when Dark Elves were destroying London in The Dark World. And where were Iron Man and War Machine (Don Cheadle) when S.H.I.E.L.D. fell apart in Winter Soldier? Come to think of it; didn’t Tony Stark destroy all of his Iron suits at the end of Iron Man 3? And yet, there he is in the opening sequence, in his armor and controlling a host of drones.

It might seem nitpicky, but Marvel’s cinematic universe prides itself on the connectivity. Why have a bunch of dots on the page that don’t connect in the final picture? This is not to deter you from seeing the movie, by any means. Avengers: Age of Ultron is fun and exciting and a must watch for any action/adventure fan. I left feeling excited about what’s to come as you probably will too. I just wish Marvel would put the same thought into their biggest money maker, as they do with the smaller ones.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

In basketball, there is something called a “Heat Check”. Many of my sports fans out there will be familiar with this term, but for those who aren’t, I’ll gladly explain. Let’s say a player comes out and hits his first ten shots. He makes the easy ones, and the hard ones. It seems like he can’t miss. So, the shooter then decides to test the limits of his hot streak with a “heat check” shot. This shot, is so crazy and so asinine that it can only lead to one of a few options: A) A horrible miss that sends the shooter into a cold streak. B) A horrible miss that will ultimately be a small blemish on an otherwise fantastic game. Or C) It goes in, and you begin to wonder if the shooter will ever miss again. Now that you understand that concept, let’s review Guardians of the Galaxy, a.k.a. Marvel/Disney’s “heat check”.

guardian-of-the-galaxy-posterMarvel has been on an absolute role ever since they launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s Iron Man (X-Men and Spider-Man aren’t included as they are owned by different studios). To date, they have made three Iron Man’s, two Thor’s, two Captain America’s and are about to release a second Avengers. So why not switch things up by doing something off the wall like a space adventure?

The story revolves around Peter “Star Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), an earth-born abductee who makes a living as a space pirate. After he stumbles upon a dangerous weapon, he becomes wrapped up in a dangerous psychopath(Lee Pace)’s attempt to destroy planets. While trying to sell the weapon, he gets arrested and meets up with an evil tyrant’s assassin daughter, a muscled idiot out to avenge his family, and a pair of bounty hunters who happen to be a talking raccoon and a talking tree. Trust me, it’s no weirder than Star Wars is when you really think about it (think Chewbacca and Yoda). These band of misfits eventually join forces to stop the bad guys.

As on-screen teams go, the Guardians are pretty likable. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora may be a bit flat for some. She is pretty much your run of the mill sexy, bad ass woman with a soft heart (Catwoman, Black Widow, etc.). Dave Bautista’s Drax is the clear weak link. His acting makes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson look like Leonardo DiCaprio. But the other three main characters are the movie’s heart and soul. Chris Pratt plays Star Lord with the same swagger and zeal as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. The sentient tree, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) will tug at your heart strings and make you chuckle with his puppy-like antics. And Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is just downright hilarious. He reminds me of the Chicken Hawk in those Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t have the luxury of individual prequels like Avengers did. And with so many characters (many I won’t mention), character development and back story often take a backseat to spectacular action sequences. Exposition is often thrown at you without much time for it to resonate. And sometimes the film tries too hard to be funny (usually anytime Dave Bautista speaks). Luckily, the film does succeed in making us care about the main five heroes and their reluctant friendship.

Sure, some of Marvel’s movies (*cough Iron Man 2 & 3) weren’t spectacular, but none of them are as bad as these. So, make no mistake, this was a long shot for Marvel. Because you more than likely don’t know anything about the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet, director James Gunn and the Marvel producers found a way to use that to their advantage. This is unlike anything you’ve ever seen (In fact, only Avengers and the post credit scene of Thor: The Dark World even connect to this movie). It’s Star Trek, meets Star Wars, meets Indiana Jones with a dash of Avengers. And it’s absolute summer fun. So yes, Marvel flung up a half court shot… it rattled around the rim for a bit, but ultimately… they nailed it again.

FINAL GRADE: B+

P.S. The post credits scene is NOT worth waiting on. It has nothing to do with anything relevant.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Full Review)

ImageThe opinions on Captain America: The First Avenger are mixed. Some found it cheesy and boring. Others basked in the nostalgic feel and endearing story. As my list of the Top 15 superhero movies will tell you, I lean heavily to the latter. But even I can admit that there was something lacking from Cap Part One. After watching Disney/Marvel’s latest venture (I say Disney/Marvel because X-Men, Spider-man, and Fantastic Four are not owned by the same studio), I now know what that missing link was, because Part Two was fully injected with it as if it were the super soldier serum itself.

First off, as with all superhero movie sequels, it helps if you’ve seen the previous outings. So don’t sit and watch this film without at least viewing Captain America (2011) and Avengers (2012). Unlike Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, this film deals more directly with the aftermath of Avengers, with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, now working directly with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (the visually flawless Scarlett Johannson), Maria Hill (Colbie Smoulders) and the secret agency organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. Series newcomer Sam Wilson aka The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) also plays an effective Robin to Steve Rogers’ Batman.

While Cap is no longer a social fish out-of-water, emotionally he is as conflicted as ever, because in today’s day and age the bad guys are no longer so clearly defined as much as the Hitlers and Red Skulls of his old days. In today’s world, the “good guys” can be just as twisted and corrupt as the terrorists they strike. “This isn’t freedom,” Cap says in the film, “This is fear.”

Winter Soldier takes that concept and runs with it as the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. turns on our hero led by organization head Alexander Pierce (Roebrt Redford) and his secret weapon The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The result is an action packed thrill ride that is every bit James Bond and Mission: Impossible as much as it is a comic book fantasy. The fight choreography is better than anything Marvel has ever done, but the movie also manages to maintain just enough heart to be more than just a comic book Expendables. There are plot turns and surprises that should satisfy diehard fans and newbies while also setting up changes that will ripple throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Make no mistake. The game has thoroughly changed. And Disney/Marvel are the ones who changed it. The recent announcement of Spider-Man movie spinoffs, X-Men movie spinoffs, and Batman vs. Superman are all Sony, Fox, and Warner Bros. attempts to catch up to what Disney/Marvel Studios is already running to perfection. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and S.H.I.E.L.D.) is more than a collection of movies. It’s a live action look into the comic books and cartoons we grew up loving, but on a larger, bigger-budgeted, and more cohesive scale. And if Winter Soldier is a sign of things to come, then Disney/Marvel might as well surgically strap the Box Office Championship Belt to their figurative torso.

FINAL GRADE: A

P.S.: As always, stay after the credits to get a cool look at two new characters coming to Avengers: Age of Ultron next summer.