Tag Archives: Marvel movies

Evil Strange

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

by Brandon Thomas

Welcome back, Sam Raimi. 

The madcap director of the Evil Dead series, Darkman and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, makes a triumphant return to the big screen with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has battled other sorcerers, alien threats and even villains from alternate realities. All of them pale in comparison to the dark entity chasing young America Chavez (Xochil Gomez) across dimensions. As Strange fights to protect the young girl, he finds that the line between good and evil can easily be blurred – and sometimes even compromised by the best of intentions. 

The jump in quality between the first Doctor Strange film and Multiverse of Madness is more of a leap than a step. The first film sets it up well enough, but like many of the Marvel origin stories, it takes a while to get to the good stuff. Raimi’s film has no such issues. Cumberbatch is more comfortable in the role now, having appeared in two Avengers films and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Despite having a packed to the gills story, there’s still a lot of meaty character work for Cumberbatch to latch onto. 

Speaking of the story, yes this is another Marvel film with lots of tie-in to movies that came before and movies that will come after. Like the more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavors, Multiverse of Madness delicately threads the needle and never feels too chaotic or unfocused. Raimi fought that battle and lost once before with Spider-Man 3.

There are plenty of surprises in the film. The marketing team behind the trailers should be commended for spoiling next to nothing – not even the main villain. Surprises are a big selling point for these MCU movies, and Multiverse has plenty of them up its sleeve.

Multiverse of Madness is Raimi firing on all cylinders. The movie absolutely crackles with the filmmaker’s energy and signature style. I nearly jumped out of my seat in delight when a couple shots of doors slamming in dutch angles appeared on screen. Few directors attack action sequences with the inventiveness and fun that Raimi does. You can feel the director’s personal flourishes coming through in those scenes instead of pre-visualized dreck from VFX artists in Vancouver.  

The film also leans into horror. Like his skill with action, horror carnage is a specialty of Raimi’s. Witches, demons and undead sorcerers pop up, and Raimi delights in tossing them at Cumberbatch’s Strange. I doubt the director tortured Cumberbatch like his friend Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead films but it is fun to speculate. 

By embracing the character’s more horror-centric roots, and letting director Sam Raimi cut loose, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness offers up one of the most exciting – and different – films in the MCU so far. 

Father, Figures

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Imagine finding out your best friend and karaoke partner isn’t really a mild-mannered valet attendant, but a highly-trained ass-kicker with chiseled abs who’s the son of an immortal conqueror leading his own army.

That’s a lot for Katy (Awkwafina) to digest, but when thugs come for her bestie Shaun (Simu Liu), the bus ride beatdown he gives them goes viral – in the first of many spectacular fight sequences – and the truth comes out.

Shaun is really Shang-Chi, whose childhood was filled with intense training to one day fight alongside his father Wenwu (Tony Leung), a God-like figure powered by the five rings worn on each arm.

The tragic death of Shang-Chi’s mother Li (Fala Chen) brought grief that stripped the mercy from Wenwu, forcing Shang-Chi to leave his younger sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and run from his destiny. But Daddy’s patience for his wayward children has run out.

So some familiar Disney building blocks are in place, with well-positioned signage (“post blip anxiety?”) and cameos (one very surprising, and welcome) to remind us what universe we’re in. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings soars highest when it follows its groundbreaking hero’s lead and vows to build its own world.

A quick look at the indie drama sensibilities of director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) might prepare you for the savvy complexities his Big Movie brings to Marvel’s favorite topic: family dynamics and daddy issues. But his filmography would not suggest this level of badassedness when it comes to action sequences. (And let’s be honest, neither would that subpar trailer.)

The setpiece on the bus, though, tips you off. It’s followed by plenty of fun and funny, with often breathtaking feats of fisticuffs and flight (with dragons, no less!)

Performers balance humor and pathos in that patented Marvel manner. This, of course, is Awkwafina’s wheelhouse and she is a hoot.

Liu, who’s done mostly TV, shoulders lead responsibilities with poise and charm. Michelle Yeoh, always welcome, adds gravitas as Li’s sister Ying Nan, but Zhang struggles with Xialing’s underwritten angry sister storyline.

Cretton’s film layers in feminism that almost works, but not entirely, as three women support a boy who must stand up to his father to become a man. Points for trying, I guess?

But the wait for the MCU’s first Asian Avenger (sit tight for those 2 extra scenes) ultimately pays off with a visionary, big-screen-begging spectacle full of emotional pull and future promise. Pure, eye-popping entertainment is a welcome ring to reach for – especially now – and Shang-Chi never misses.

Assassins Assemble

Black Widow

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Avenger Natasha Romanoff had to wait a while to get the green light on her own standalone origin story, and then even longer for the big screens to carry it. Now Black Widow is finally here, and Natasha’s not even the most interesting character in her own show.

And the film is better for it.

Director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson surround Natasha with uniquely compelling personalities that become important parts of a whole, while surrounding star Scarlett Johansson with a supporting ensemble skilled enough to make this one of the MCU’s most character-driven successes.

Oh, there’s action, too, but we start with a prologue set in 1995 Ohio, when Natasha’s family is trying to flee the country at a moment’s notice. Father Alexei (David Harbour), and mother Melina (Rachel Weiss) were prepared for this day, so they scoop up young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) and put the escape plan into action.

An overlong, Watchmen-style montage mixing music and news headlines brings us up to 2006, when the family is long estranged. Natasha is on the run since the Avengers “divorce” (between Civil War and Infinity War), Yelena (Florence Pugh) is taking names in Norway, Alexei is in prison and Melina’s loyalties seem tied to some talented pigs. Meanwhile the villainous Dreykov (Ray Winstone – nice! His accent – not so much) has plans to build an army of mind-controlled “Black Widow” assassins.

That means females only, but while the reveal lands as a clear metaphor for sex trafficking, Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, the underseen gem Lore) and Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong, Thor: Ragnarok) never belabor any well-taken points. Even better, they fill the entire adventure with enough organic, self-aware humor about posing, too tight supersuits and the need for pockets that very few of the 133 minutes seem laborious at all.

The core foursome is uniformly terrific, as you would expect from actors of this caliber. Performances blossom and surprise, their chemistry buoying the familial longing required of every superhero backstory while anchoring action in characters you can care about.

Pugh—sympathetic, comedic and badass—is the standout, but Johansson shines, especially in a climactic bout with Winstone that lands satisfying jabs about weak men.

Shortland never forgets the point of a superhero film, though. The breathless action in Black Widow impresses as much as it entertains, whether hand-to-hand or aerial.

And it is a Marvel film, so be sure to stick around post-credits for an intriguing stinger and a welcome addition to the universe.

Teen Titan

Spider-Man: Far From Home

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Spider-Man: Far From Home has more than a webshooter up its sleeve.

One part reflection on the state of MCU, one part statement on our cartoonishly ridiculous world today, one part charming coming-of-age tale, the latest Spidey episode almost takes on more than it can carry. But return writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers embrace franchise strengths while betting director Jon Watts, also back from Homecoming, can maneuver slick surprises.

The wager pays off, and Far From Home winds up being a film that feels a bit campy for a while, but in retrospect succeeds precisely because of those early over-the-top moments.

Peter Parker (the immeasurably charming Tom Holland), having returned from oblivion (Infinity War), then universal salvation and personal loss (Endgame), would like a vacation. The poor kid just wants to take a trip abroad with his class and get a little closer to his crush MJ (Zendaya).

But that is not to be, is it?

Not with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) following him across the globe, or the surprise appearance of Quentin Beck aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a new monster-slayer from another Earthly dimension.

“You mean there really is a multi-verse?”

That’s a nice nod to the stellar animated Spidey adventure from last year, and a big clue about how self-aware this chapter is determined to be. The front and center ponderings about what Peter (and by extension, Marvel) is going to do now threaten to collapse the film from self-absorption.

To the rescue: a jarring and unexpected pivot, and that wonderfully youthful vibe that now has one eye on growing up.

Interestingly, Tony Stark fills in for the guilt-inducing father figure that’s always been missing from this iteration of Peter Parker’s tale. Without Uncle Ben, Stark becomes that hallowed hero whose shadow threatens to obliterate the fledgling Avenger.

Peter’s still a teenager, after all, and Homecoming soared from embracing that fact, and from Holland’s ability to sell it in all its wide-eyed and awkward glory.

He still does, but now our hero’s naiveté is shaken by some mighty timely lessons. Number one: “It’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves.”

Not exactly subtle, but fitting for the world of a distracted teen. And for kids of all ages, there’s no denying how cathartic it is to see world leaders, their media lapdogs and widespread buffoonery on blast and blasted across the largest screens, where good will inevitably conquer.

As fun and funny as this keep-you-guessing Eurotrip is, its core is driven by a simple search for truth. And don’t leave early, because that search doesn’t stop until Far From Home plays its second post-credits hand, and you walk out re-thinking everything you just saw.

Tangled webs, indeed.

Game of Stones

Avengers: Endgame

by MaddWolf

“How many of you have never been to space before?”

There is a lot to resolve in Avengers: Endgame, but it’s the film’s commitment to character and character relationships as articulated by fun, throwaway lines like that, that continue to elevate this series above its single-hero franchisees.

The Avengers who haven’t yet done space travel put up their hands, and it instantly rings true, underscoring a pillar of the MCU.

In every group setting, the different heroes don’t fight for opportunities to remind viewers who they are—the angry one, the sarcastic one, the winsome one. Instead, each reacts to another character; duos and trios bicker or riff, and true character dynamics emerge.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Marvel vets all, return to reap what they’ve been sowing for years. With that veteran cast bringing instant investment to their respective roles, the filmmakers cultivate relationships Joss Whedon sparked back in 2012 when he first put Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner and Thor at the same table.

You may have heard, Endgame goes to new lengths in the MCU: three hours and one minute, to be precise. While you might skip the jumbo soda to avoid restrooms trips, you won’t begrudge this film its time. In fact, give Marvel props for not splitting it into two separate blockbusters that would have diluted the impact of such an apt, respectful and yes, emotional capper to the saga.

There’s plenty of humor here, as well, but never at the expense of the drama or action developing. Rather, it’s the natural ribbing born of well worn, familial relationships. (One Lebowski comment and another about “America’s ass” both land really well.)

On the other hand, we still cannot get behind where this series has taken the Hulk. These developments may have comic-book roots, we won’t pretend to know, but outside of a memorable scene with The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) this Hulk is no smash.

Thematically, the film thinks big: time, love, loss, sacrifice. It moves impressively from ruminating on a post-9/11 reality to the importance of cherishing your own time and place, even while you accept the challenge of fighting for a better world.

There is plenty of fighting. The action is well-placed and well-presented, delivering fireworks without the dizzying, rapid-fire editing which can often reduce battles royale to battles of patience.

And we need to clearly see who is doing what when these Avengers assemble, because, let’s be honest, Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his Infinity Stones are a tough out, and it’s going to take all hands on deck to take him down.

For any upset fanboys who might still be wondering, that does include female heroes, a fact the film makes inescapably clear with a sequence that’s well-intentioned but maybe a tad pointed (or tardy?) in its parting defiance.

In the months since Infinity War, there have been plenty of theories about how Marvel will address that mountain of a cliffhanger they dumped on us.

Maybe you’ll guess some of it, maybe you won’t (you probably won’t), but wherever the MCU goes from here, Endgame is character capital well-spent,

As long goodbyes go, this one is satisfying and …pretty marvelous.


Hardy Boys

Venom

by Hope Madden

We don’t need another superhero. That’s what the Venom trailers told us, and it’s pretty true.

So, what Venom had to offer—an antihero, a Jekyll/Hyde thing starring a brilliant actor who excels with complex, dark roles—felt like a great change of pace.

Tom Hardy was the ideal choice for the dual role of Eddie Brock, semi-doofus reporter, and Venom, flesh-eating alien symbiote. This should have worked, partly because Hardy knows how to mine villains for their humanity, and watching him wrestle with the good v evil duality never ceases to be impressive.

What Venom suffers from more than anything is the expectations set by a Marvel release. Don’t be mistaken, were this the DC universe it would be the second best comic book film released since Christopher Nolan cast Hardy as a super villain.

But it is, indeed, Marvel. (If you forget, Stan Lee shows up to remind you.) And for that reason, regardless of the fact that Venom boasts superior acting, FX, story arc, action choreography and writing than anything DC has done this century besides Wonder Woman, its regrettably traditional execution makes it feel a bit stale. Because it is Marvel.

A characteristically committed Hardy elevates scenes, indulging a far more humorous tone than what we’ve seen lately from the versatile actor. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Four Lions) is a solid choice to play Eddie/Venom’s nemesis. Never campy or over-the-top, Ahmed evokes a type of lifelong genius who cannot be persuaded that his ideas are at odds with the ideals he alleges to support.

Michelle Williams is uncharacteristically flat, and the balance of the cast is mainly forgettable, but the real problem with the film rests on uninspired direction.

Ruben Fleischer showed a flair for action, colorful theatrics and humor with his 2009 breakout Zombieland, but the joy of carnage and camaraderie that infected that flick is sadly missing here.

Zombieland was aided immeasurably by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose irrepressible irreverence made the Deadpool films such a riot. It’s a tone sorely lacking in this screenplay, penned by a team of four whose output includes a Fifty Shades film, Kangaroo Jack and Fleischer’s abysmal 2013 mob flick, Gangster Squad.

Venom is not a bad movie. It’s fun, competently made entertainment.

And a disappointment.





Personal Space

Ant-Man and the Wasp

by George Wolf

Like the titular heroes who get small to do big things, Ant-Man and the Wasp gets a boost by making its stakes more personal, and its mojo a sweet, witty blast.

“Do you guys just put ‘quantum’ in front of everything?”

Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) asks that question for him and for us. The answer is yes, they do, but don’t sweat the science and the fun will win out.

Scott’s on the outs with just about everyone since his assist to Captain America (“We call him Cap!”) in Civil War, but he just might be what Dr. Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) need to rescue their long lost wife/mother Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the “quantum realm” that’s held her for decades.

The team could be on to something huge, and their research has many interested and scary parties, including “Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen from Black Mirror and Ready Player One), a molecularly challenged young lady who thinks it could save her life.

Too serious? Anything but.

Thanks to Rudd’s comic timing and affable charm, Ant-Man becomes the family friendly cousin to Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool. Like Reynolds on his DP projects, Rudd again earns a writing credit, filling his character with plenty of snappy dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor that feels like a comfortable extension of Rudd’s own persona.

He’s a natural, but Lilly is the welcome surprise here. The Wasp’s intro in the first film often seemed like an awkward distraction, but she earns the equal marquee time with a script that allows Lilly the chance to make the character matter.

Director Peyton Reed is also back from part one, showing a confident grasp on Ant-Man’s role in the Marvel Universe. He keeps the pace quick, the gags (many featuring a scene-stealing Michael Pena) on a PG-13 speed dial, and the effects team busy, showcasing plenty of the amazing scale-altering set pieces that give this franchise its unique calling card.

The film knows its place in Marvel’s lineup, too, and that’s hardly an accident. Good as Infinity War was, the break from galaxy-hopping is welcome. Two of the writers from Spider-Man: Homecoming are on board this time, bringing some of the less-is-more sensibility which gave that film such an unexpected freshness.

Yes, it could stand to lose about fifteen minutes of excess, but AMATW has an unassuming vibe that is infectious fun, and the perfect palate cleanser before another bite of Thanos.

And don’t leave early, or you’ll miss a mid-credits bonus that might drop some jaws.

 





Grateful Dead

Deadpool

by Hope Madden

R-rated super hero movies are few and far between, but there are some subjects that would be so neutered with a teen-friendly rating that the hero would cease to be. Like Deadpool.

A thug with a quick wit, foul mouth, a likeminded girl, and quite possibly a ring pop up his ass, Wade Wilson has it all – including inoperable cancer, which sends him into the arms of some very bad doctors. The rest of the film – in energetically non-chronological order – is the revenge plot.

Directing newcomer (longtime video game FX guy) Tim Miller gets the nod with this off-season but still highly anticipated Marvel flick, and he does two things quite well. He knows how to stage an action sequence – which is key, obviously. But more importantly, he understands the tone needed to pull this film off.

Deadpool was introduced onscreen back in 2009 in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but those films are so serious. Miller understands that, to make the most of this character, humor is the name of the game.

An utterly unbridled Ryan Reynolds returns as the titular Super (yes) Hero (no), and though the actor’s reserve of talent has long been debated, few disagree that his brand of self-referential sarcasm and quippage beautifully suits this character.

T.J. Miller and Morena Baccarin go toe to toe with Reynolds, and Leslie Uggams gets a couple of good lines, too. I’m sorry – what?

Penned by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – scribes behind the brilliant and hilarious genre mash up ZombielandDeadpool is a nasty piece of fun from the opening credits (as magnificent a gag as any you’ll see for the entire 108 minute run time).

Even the sloppy and slow pieces – the inevitable X-Men tie ins, for instance – are sent up mercilessly, as if the writers and Reynolds himself know what the audience is thinking, which is: Who are these two lamos and why are they in this movie? Seriously, where’s Mystique?

All the sarcastic cuteness can wear thin, but Deadpool does not stoop to hard won lessons or self-sacrificing victories. It flips the bird at the Marvel formula, turns Ryan Reynolds into an avocado, and offers the most agreeably childish R-rated film of the young year.

Verdict-3-5-Stars