Ant-Man and The Wasp (Full Review)

Welp… someone had to draw the short straw. 2015’s Ant-Man was a pleasant surprise, mainly because it relished in being a comedic heist film more than an outright superhero movie. But this time around, Marvel’s shrinking hero has the unenviable task of following up the two highest grossing films in the history of comic book cinema. And while no intelligent person should be going into Ant-Man and The Wasp looking for it to be as thematically profound as Black Pantheror as epic as Infinity War, it is fair to expect a film equally as fun, or exciting, as the first Ant-Man.

Ant-Man_and_the_Wasp_posterAfter aiding Captain America in Civil War, ex-con, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) finds himself under house arrest. Determined to finish the last days of his two year sentence and spend more time with his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), he has given up the moniker of Ant-Man. But, having escaped the subatomic quantum realm in the first film, Scott is also the key to helping the original Ant-Man, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), rescue his long lost wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the same mysterious dimension. With the FBI, a black market tech dealer (Walton Goggins), and a villain who can phase through solid matter (Hannah John-Kamen) standing in their way, Scott takes up the mantle again with Dr. Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) as his partner.

Calling Lilly’s Wasp the “partner” is actually pretty ridiculous. By the first action sequence, it becomes clear that the movie should be called The Wasp and Ant-Man. She is tougher, smarter, and more heroic to the point that it relegates Lang to being, not only more of the sidekick, but inherently mere comic relief and a plot device for her adventure. And that would all be fine if this sequel had the same narrative flow as the previous film. But it never rightfully gives her the tonal forefront.

Miguel Peña, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, and Davis Dastmalchian all return as Lang’s goofy, ex-con coworkers. Laurence Fishburne appears as a former colleague to Dr. Pym. Oh… and Randall Park also plays a bumbling FBI agent. By the end, there are just too many characters and story threads. The over-reliance on quips and gags makes for a ton of disjointed scenes that, like in Thor: Ragnarok, undermine serious stakes. Meanwhile, Walton Goggins and his crew of buffoons seem to be onscreen only to provide henchmen to beat up, which only wastes the potential of John-Kamen’s visually stunning, but underdeveloped villain, ‘Ghost’.

Peyton Reed returns to direct, and he tries mightily to give this film the same tone. But at its core, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t a heist film. With Hope and Dr. Pym’s emotional journey to reunite with their lost matriarch being the main focus, The Wasp should’ve been the main character. Rudd’s Lang is still charming, and his endearing relationship with his daughter was enough of a subplot to bring him along for the ride, but he needed to take more of a backseat. Continuously giving screen time to clownish characters is frequently becoming Marvel’s biggest weakness. And here, it squanders the showcasing of its tremendous female lead. It certainly has some fun moments, but there’s too much going on for Ant-Man and The Wasp not to land near the bottom of the Marvel Cinematic Universe spectrum.

FINAL GRADE: C

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Avengers: Infinity War (Spoiler Free) Review

The word ‘Ambitious’ isn’t quite enough to describe it. Marvel Studios Producer Kevin Feige probably couldn’t have imagined that this vast cinematic universe would become as successful as it is when Iron Man first released ten years ago. Along with a host of incredible directors and acting talent, he has carved out a collection of unique films that seamlessly blend into one cohesive story. It has all led to a film that holds no punches.

Avengers_Infinity_War_posterThanos (Josh Brolin), an intimidating force who has been pulling strings behind the scenes in several films, has finally come to the forefront. Hell bent on wiping out half of the universe to create balance, he along with his minions, are out to capture the Power, Space, Reality, Soul, Time, and Mind infinity stones. Standing in their way are Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Vision (Paul Bettany), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Braldey Cooper, Pom Klementieff, and Vin Diesel) along with a horde of supporting characters from the MCU (Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Letitia Wright, Karen Gillan, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba).

Anyone familiar with comics knows that you have to often suspend your notions of practicality to enjoy the overarching stories and their themes. Avengers: Infinity War is no different. The movie moves at a sometimes disorienting pace that will leave those who aren’t familiar with these types of films in the dust. There are so many characters, that the movie can’t help but feel complex and at times muddled. But after eighteen films of character building, Infinity War serves as a visual narrative treat to those who have been there every step of the way.

The vast collection of cast members intermingle with characters they’ve never been on screen alongside with an almost flawless chemistry. We get Thor teaming up with Rocket Raccoon and Groot, Iron Man with Dr. Strange, The Avengers with the army of Wakanda. When fan favorites arrive on the scene there’s a nostalgic sensation that is enough to make fans absolutely giddy. So even at its rare hokey moments (one character does something atypically stupid and a new character feels completely out of place), Infinity War revitalizes the same fun, awestricken feeling audiences got with the first Avengers movie.

The humor feels organic, but make no mistake, this movie raises the MCU stakes unlike any other. Thanos, off nothing more than sheer might, determination, and intimidation, manages to cement himself as one of cinema’s most daunting villains. The heart pounding climax of the film is sure to leave audiences frozen in their seats as the credits role. For a franchise whose biggest flaws have usually revolved around lack of strong antagonists and unwillingness to sacrifice major characters, the Russo Brothers (Captain America Winter Solider and Civil War) manage to create a film that serves as a middle finger to anyone who ever criticized. The result is a sometimes uneven, but overall shocking, emotional roller coaster that feels like the Empire Strikes Back of the superhero genre.

FINAL GRADE: A

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Avengers: Infinty War is the remarkable culmination of ten years of superhero filmmaking. When Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios first embarked on this bold venture it seemed farfetched that it would reach its current level of success. But now, even lesser known comic characters like The Guardians of the Galaxy have become household names. All of the movies in the MCU haven’t been classic, but some are incredible. So here is my rank of all of the movies that have made up the greatest comic book franchise in film history so far. (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen some of these movies)

18. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

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This film wasn’t awful. In fact, in comparison to Ang Lee’s non-MCU Hulk film, it’s fantastic. But the film isn’t remotely memorable and was the first inclination that this universe might not succeed. Other than an appearance from Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross in Captain America: Civil War and a post-credit cameo by Tony Stark, it has no real connection to the rest of the franchise. Edward Norton’s stale performance doesn’t help, and it makes me wonder what this movie might’ve been if Mark Ruffalo had starred in it instead.

17. IRON MAN 3 (2013)

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The most egregious error of this film is making a mockery out of The Mandarin, Iron Man’s arch nemesis in the comics. But there are a ton of other problems with it too. Rhodey doesn’t do much of anything and too much of the film is spent with Tony Stark out of his Iron Man armor. There was also a few plot holes and the arc of Stark mentoring a young boy fell flat. The biggest saving grace is the army of Iron Man suits that shows up in the climax, but even that was spoiled by the trailers.

16. THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

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Like The Incredible Hulk, this film was also unmemorable and had by far the weakest villain of all the MCU films. It also brought back the useless humans of the previous Thor movie. But there are some bright spots that keep it from being terrible. There was the great chemistry between Thor and his brother Loki, as well as a pretty awesome fight sequence that showed how much of a bad ass Thor’s mother Frigga is.

15. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

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This movie was a letdown for me. It was far too much like the first Avengers and had a lot of left field plot points. Hawkeye having a family, Thor going to a “mind bath” that foreshadowed the Infinity Stones, and the random romance between Hulk and Black Widow were just some of the things that just felt out of place. Even Ultron, though performed impeccably by James Spader, felt underutilized. So while there are some awesome moments, the muddle of characters and frenetic plot made this movie underwhelming.

14. IRON MAN 2 (2010)

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This movie is better after repeated viewings, but it still pales in comparison to the first Iron Man film. The plot goes all over the place, with Tony inventing a new element in one day and Black Widow’s debut feeling forced. The story also doesn’t do enough to develop Mickey Rourke’s villain Ivan Vanko, but it does feature Tony Stark’s impressive suit case armor and a nice climactic battle with Don Cheadle finally debuting as Iron Man’s partner War Machine.

13. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017)

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The movie was certainly entertaining. But it was hard to live up to the hype of the previous Guardians film’s breakout success. The biggest problem with this movie, other than the muddled plot, is that it tries too hard to be funny. Jokes are thrown at the audience at every turn, often undermining serious moments. Meanwhile characters like Dave Bautista’s Drax get virtually nothing to do other than be another form of comic relief. And even though the death of Yondu was a nice endearing touch, the father-son dynamic between he and Star Lord felt forced.

12. THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

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Just like Guardians 2, this movie hurts itself by constantly trying to be funny. It’s even more unusual here, as the plot revolves around very serious stakes including the apocalypse of Thor’s homeworld, Asgard. It also doesn’t feel true to the other Thor films, as it discards important supporting characters from the previous films like they never even mattered. The movie does make up for some of its flaws thanks to some awesome action sequences and good chemistry between the cast.

11. THOR (2011)

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The parts spent on Earth aren’t very interesting at all. But this is still the most compelling Thor movie. The visuals are stunning and Tom Hiddleston’s debut as Loki is nothing short of sensational. Up until Black Panther, his performance was by far the greatest villain in the MCU and it gave this movie a Shakespearean feel when it focused on Asgard and not humans.

10. CAPTAIN AMERICA (2011)

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I thoroughly enjoy this movie more than most. Chris Evans’ performance as scrawny do gooder turned super soldier is fantastic. The World War II vibe is a unique touch and the movie paces well. The only real flaw is the unfortunately underwhelming portrayal of The Red Skull, Cap’s arch nemesis. When you cast someone like Hugo Weaving for your villain, you expect a little more nuance then your run of the mill megalomaniac.

9. ANT-MAN (2015)

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Like Guardians of the Galaxy, this movie was a pleasant surprise. Marvel was smart to make it more of a heist film than a superhero origin story, which gives it a distinctive quality among the genre. The villain isn’t memorable and there are a ton of hokey moments, but Paul Rudd manages to be a compelling lead and the visuals to this movie are absolutely incredible.

8. AVENGERS (2012)

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This was the movie that first proved that mixing a bunch of superheroes from different worlds could work. The chemistry among the cast is perfection and many of the action sequences are jaw dropping. But let’s not act like the plot to this film wasn’t weak. Loki just brings a random alien army to earth and the superheroes team up. Not exactly nuanced stuff.

7. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

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Tom Holland cemented himself as a perfect Peter Parker with this coming of age story mixed with superhero flare. The supporting cast brings great comedic timing and every piece serves a purpose. Michael Keaton brings his A-game as one of the MCU’s best villains and Robert Downey Jr. does a great job in the mentor role. If there were more action in this movie, it would be higher on the list.

6. DR. STRANGE (2016)

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Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely kills it as the arrogant and downtrodden Stephen Strange. Chiwetel Ejiofor also is great as good guy turned future villain Baron Mordo. And even though the Mads Mikkelsen’s villain isn’t wholly memorable, the plot paces well, the humor doesn’t feel forced, and the visuals are some of the most impressive in superhero cinematic history.

5. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

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Easily the most surprising success in the MCU’s history. This movie is fun from start to finish and Director James Gunn does a wonderful job to pace the story and center the plot around its eclectic, yet charismatic characters. Even though the movie features another generic villain in Ronan, there are enough stakes to make the journey worthwhile. Chris Pratt is phenomenal as Peter Quill and the movie’s comedy feels organic. The film’s soundtrack is also another plus.

4. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

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While it was by no means as massive as the comic book event it is named after, Civil War ended up righting many of the wrongs from Age of Ultron. The dynamic between Tony and Cap came together well to create stakes that felt higher than in any previous MCU film. The epic airport battle and the successful introduction of Black Panther and Spider-Man into the franchise help make this into one of the best film’s of the MCU’s Phase III.

3. IRON MAN (2008)

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We wouldn’t even be here without this breakout hit. As superhero origin stories go, this film had virtually everything. A flawed, but charismatic hero in Robert Downey Jr.’s debut as Tony Stark, a strong supporting cast, and fantastic special effects. It revealed the MCU’s potential and made Iron Man a household name. If only they could’ve recaptured this magic. Neither of its sequels were able to match it’s perfect blend of tone, pacing, and action.

2. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

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The Russo Brothers, who also directed Civil War and are set to make Infinity War and Avengers 4, turned this Cap film into an exhilarating thriller that felt like more than a superhero film. Chris Evans once again turned in an earnest portrayal as Captain America and the film’s political undertones also made the movie feel as nuanced as it was action packed. Fun supporting characters, brilliant fight choreography, and an interesting plot made this my #1 MCU film up until 2018…

1. BLACK PANTHER (2018)

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No, I’m not being prisoner of the moment here. This movie isn’t just the best movie in the MCU, it’s possibly the greatest superhero film ever made. Chadwick Boseman’s performance has James Bond levels of suave. But the supporting cast is what makes this movie transcendent. The horde of strong, magnetic female characters each add something to both the story and the hero’s journey. Even characters like Winston Duke’s M’Baku manage to shine in only about twenty minutes of screen time. The villains are also sensational. Andy Serkis brings comedic charisma to the role of Ulysses Claue while Michael B. Jordan delivers an incredibly passionate and endearing performance as Erik Killmonger, an antagonist whose compelling ideology leads to enlightenment and growth for the protagonist. Oh, and if that weren’t enough, the action sequences are jaw dropping. No other MCU film is as fun and thematically profound as Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.

There you have it. Don’t like my rankings? Feel free to comment your thoughts and share which MCU films are your favorite. As always, thanks for reading, liking, and sharing!

Black Panther Review (Spoiler Free)

When you are excited about a film and you want it to succeed, one of two things can happen. It can be a massive disappointment (Glaring at you Batman v Superman) or it can live up to the hype to become a timeless cinematic classic. From the moment the Black Panther graced the screen in 2016’s sensational Captain America: Civil War it became clear that this character, originally created by Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, was ripe for his own memorable adventure.

Black_Panther_film_posterChadwick Boseman returns to the role of T’Challa, heir to the throne of Wakanda, a secret nation located in the heart of Africa. Using a unique and powerful element known as vibranium, Wakanda is a technological utopia, ruled by four peaceful tribes who vow to shield the nation’s resources from the chaotic outside world. As he ascends to his new role as King, T’Challa must use the mantle of the Black Panther to protect the country from those who wish to steal the throne and exploit vibranium for violent means.

As grand as the scope and visual elements are in Black Panther, it is the film’s characters, and specifically the supporting cast, that make it feel transcendent. Chadwick Boseman is once again regal and captivating as T’Challa, but it is the women around him that steal the show. Danai Gurira is wonderfully strong willed as Okoye, the Black Panther’s right hand women. Lupita Nyong’o brings alluring sophistication to the role of Wakandan spy, Nakia. Her chemistry with Boseman provides an intriguing romance that makes it feel like the characters have been on screen together many times before. And Letitia Wright is an absolute scene stealer as T’Challa’s brilliant and feisty younger sister, Shuri.

As for the villains in the film, they are the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most compelling to date. Andy Serkis, expanding on his small role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, brings deliciously wicked humor as the terrorist Ulysses Klaue. But it is Michael B. Jordan who solidifies the film’s surprisingly emotional themes. Jordan brings undeniable swagger and intense passion to the role of Erik Killmonger, a character whose heartfelt motivations make him someone easy to route for. The best action movies are the ones that can create the perfect foil to the main protagonist and here, Director Ryan Coogler crafts a script that gives Killmonger motivations that are easy to understand and sympathize with. What it creates is something akin to Civil War and X-Men, where the villain’s ideals are admirable, but his methodology is treacherous.

There are action sequences, like an intense car chase through the streets of South Korea, that are jaw dropping. But it is the drama that takes place in between that makes Black Panther stand out as something timeless. The film deals with the notion that it is one’s duty to serve those who are less fortunate while also exploring the dangers of adhering to longstanding traditions that no longer serve the modern world. Thus, it manages to be a movie that transcends the often formulaic nature of the prototypical superhero flick.

What has continuously made the Marvel Cinematic Universe the peak of superhero filmmaking is their ability to constantly reinvent the genre. With Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) at the helm, Black Panther cements itself as arguably the studio’s most unique film. From the costumes, to the inventive technology, to the captivating customs, the film creates a rich lore that feels like a sci-fi Game of Thrones with a neo-African twist. The CGI gets a bit flimsy at times, a problem becoming more and more prevalent in superhero films as they become more ambitious, and there is also a romantic relationship in the film that could’ve been better fleshed out. But neither of these miniscule flaws is enough to keep Black Panther from being a stunning creation that pays homage to a long ignored culture. With thought provoking themes, and a witty and exuberant cast each bringing their best performances to the table, Black Panther deserves to be celebrated as a pillar of what the genre can and should be.

FINAL GRADE: A

Thor: Ragnarok (Spoiler Free Review)

The Thor films have always been the weak link of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first movie about the God of Thunder was bogged down by hokey human characters and a setting that skimped on the action. Thor: The Dark World was a somewhat forgettable romp with one of superhero cinema’s weakest villains. But one thing the Thor films have always had, is two great lead characters with a compelling arc. Leaving Earth behind for a new adventure, Thor: Ragnarok reunites Thor and Loki and hopes to give them a story that leaves a memorable mark on the MCU.

Thor_Ragnarok_posterRagnarok finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Prince of Asgard and God of Thunder, searching for his displaced father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) whose throne was stolen by Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). But finding their father quickly brings them into contact with Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death who proves to be too powerful for the two of them. Banished to a junk yard planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Thor’s only hope of stopping Hela is to ally with a disgraced former Asgardian warrior (Tessa Thompson) and defeat the Grandmaster’s greatest warrior… who just happens to be Thor’s old ally, The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Ragnarok is certainly the most entertaining of the Thor films. It paces well and there are tons of CGI filled action sequences that make for good ‘turn your brain off and watch’ fun. New director, Taika Waititi, also infuses this latest entry with loads of colorful imagery and brilliant costumes and set pieces to create a world that make the previous films in the trilogy feel a bit bland by comparison.

But the story itself is no more intelligent or enlightening than any other Thor movie. The plot, which has elements of an epic and dark apocalyptic core, falters thanks to the hordes of new characters who take turns being utter buffoons. The cartoonish tone does deliver some laugh out loud moments, but seemingly spends every available minute trying to make the audience laugh which gets irritating once you take the overarching plot into consideration.

Even characters that should be grittier, severely emotionally grounded, and enticing throughout are weighed down by disjointed wacky moments. Tessa Thompson’s drunken Valkyrie is introduced in a way that makes it hard to take her seriously until the film’s latter half while Blanchett’s delightfully sinister Hela is brushed aside in favor of Goldblum’s clownish Grandmaster. So even though characters like the Grandmaster are occasionally funny, their antics make light of serious stakes.

Ragnarok is certainly ‘fun’, but a movie about the Asgardian apocalypse that features the deaths of several characters in the Thor mythos, probably deserves to be taken more seriously. No one wants another dreary Batman v Superman, but there’s a such thing as a happy medium. Someone needs to tell Marvel that it’s okay to have characters who don’t make the audience chuckle.  When everyone is a comedian, the stakes don’t seem so threatening and when the jokes don’t land, the whole exercise feels corny. Things are smoothed over by nice psychedelic visuals, fine chemistry between the cast, and a few endearing moments between Hiddleston and Hemsworth whose brotherly dynamic has become the only reason to pay attention to Thor. But it’s still irksome that to make Thor appeasing to the masses, they had to turn it into Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.