Tag Archives: superhero movies

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.

One Vision

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

by George Wolf

No matter what you thought of Justice League 1.0, the mere arrival of this “Snyder Cut” is fascinating on multiple levels.

It’s more than the Everest of fan service. There just isn’t any way Snyder’s DCEU epic – this version of it anyway – would exist without the Snyder/Whedon mashup mess of 2017.

It’s four freaking hours, people! You think Snyder’s gonna get that (and the extra millions for reshoots) without the whole hashtag campaign? But while the extended time and money giveth, they also taketh away, meaning that first JL debacle can take some ironic credit for all that’s better – and worse – about round two.

But it is indeed better.

More than anything, it’s a singular vision. The first was nothing if not a super-sized compromise, but this is Snyder unbound, no compromises. The 4:3 format is enriched with greatly improved CGI, specifically the “armor of scales” appearance of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), the underwater depths of Atlantis and the complete absence of Superman’s (Henry Cavill, again a perfect Clark Kent) distractingly altered upper lip.

The character development – as you would hope with this run time – is much more satisfying, especially with the two justice leaguers we know the least: Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

And while truly important moments (Superman’s death and rebirth, for example) get the extra time they need to resonate, Snyder can still linger too long (those mini music videos, ugh) when he could be moving on.

Ben Affleck reminds you he’s a fine grizzled Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman gets more badass moments and fewer leering camera angels, and at its core, the basic plot remains the same. Steppenwolf is seeking to unite the three “mother boxes” that will conquer another world for his master Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter). But with the nurturing of return characters and the welcome appearance of new ones (like Darkseid), the chaptered storytelling feels more natural and complete.

Yes it is dark and brooding, and this League may hold the mother lode of daddy issues, but it never becomes tedious. And while you can’t quite call it fun, it is super, and heroic, and sometimes thrilling.

The stinger (actually an epilogue)? It’s a humdinger (nothing rhymes with epilogue), one that will more than satisfy the die hards while setting a major hook for more justice, darkly served.

Of a Feather

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

First on the Harley Quinn playlist: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Harley (Margot Robbie, positively electric) tells us she and the Joker are done, and she didn’t take it well. What’s worse, Harley’s new relationship status means anyone in Gotham who’d like her dead (and there’s plenty) doesn’t have to worry about payback from “Mr. J.”

Shuffle: It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s World

At the top, there’s Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, hamming it up to glorious effect) who likes the faces peeled off of his enemies. He wants a priceless diamond that’s been lifted by teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and Harley, forced to bargain for her life, promises to get it.

But Gotham has no shortage of talented women fed up with being kept down, and Harley tends to attract them. The vocally gifted Black Canary (June Smollett-Bell), the deadly mysterious Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, scene-stealingly deadpan) and the conveniently suspended Detective Montoya (Rosie Perez, nice to see you) all find themselves on the wrong end of a sizable bounty, and things get messy.

Shuffle: Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

The badass girl power isn’t limited to the cast. Director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) serves up an irresistible cocktail of Scott Pilgrim visual flair and Tarantino continuity clash. Yan seems to relish the freedom of an R-rating (see “face-peeling” above), crafting memorable set pieces bursting with slick fight choreography, cartoonishly satisfying violence and wonderfully stylish pandemonium.

Shuffle: Respect

As Hope’s dad told the many Madden girls growing up: eyes, nose, throat, groin, knees are all equally vulnerable no matter the size of the attacker. Yan appears to be the sister we didn’t know about, but she certainly knows how to hurt a guy.

Writer Christina Hodson has become the go-to for ridiculous franchises that need more than we dare hope (she’s the one who wrote the only Transformers movie that didn’t suck). She teams well with Yan and her badasses, offering backstories and traumas that toe the line between superhero/supervillain legend and shit women deal with every day.

If you saw the stale trailer, noted the deadly release date, remembered the limp Suicide Squad and feared the worse, we hear ya. And maybe Birds of Prey benefits slightly from low expectations. But there’s no denying the raucous, foul mouthed, glitter-bomb fun.

Shuffle: Free Bird (live version).

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.


Word Up or Nerd Up

Shazam!

by George Wolf

To paraphrase a classic segment from the old Letterman show: Can a guy in a supersuit get into a strip club?

Easily, which is pretty exciting for the teenage boy inside the super man inside the suit. And it’s just one example of the irreverent vibe Shazam! rides to bring home one of the most fun origin stories in recent memory.

The teenage boy is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who’s just been placed in the latest of a string of foster homes. Just as he’s getting to know his foster family, including the superhero-crazed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer from IT, impressive again), Billy is chosen to replace the aging Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) as protector of the Realms, bringing a youthful energy that will ensure the Seven Deadly Sin-Monsters cannot assume Earthly forms.

The super-villainous Dr. Thaddeus Silva (Mark Strong, gloriously slimy) does not approve, and vows to defeat the new Shazam (Zachary Levi) and assume all his powers.

So it’s on!

But first, Billy and Freddy have to find out just what superpowers are brought on by saying that magic word, which sets up a series of amusing tests and is the springboard for getting to know this grown up superboy while he mulls over possible super names.

“Thundercrack?” “No! That sounds like a butt thing.”

If you’re thinking Big (and the film acknowledges that you are with a cute homage), you’re right on. Writer Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) fills the script with action, humor, heart and spunk, while director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) keeps things lively and engaging with plenty of impressive visual pop.

The entire cast is wonderfully diverse and consistently winning, and a few corny moments aside, makes the feels on friendship, family and responsibility land nearly as flush as the winking riffs on superhero tropes.

There really isn’t much Shazam! doesn’t deliver (okay, maybe it delivers a slightly bloated running time that includes two post-credits stingers), and as fast as you can say the magic word, DC has the best film in its universe since Bale was the Bat.

 





Just a Girl

Captain Marvel

by MaddWolf

We had very high expectations for Captain Marvel.

Because showcasing this historic, female Marvel hero offers the chance to see everything from a new lens?

That’s awesome, but no.

Because Oscar-winner Brie Larson is always a kick and we could not wait to see what she could do with such a big movie?

True, but no.

We were pumped because writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are amazing filmmakers and we always, always have high expectations for their work. Who cares that it‘s a superhero movie? True, they’ve made their names with indie standouts (Half Nelson, Sugar), but we were betting they could move the setting to “blockbuster” and keep their character-based storytelling instincts.

After a wobbly start, that bet pays off.

So does Larson. She commands the screen—not to mention earthlings and aliens alike—and is a flat-out gas as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Even better is the way Boden and Fleck address sexism with a character who’s basically just always pissed off.

Agent Fury (Sam Jackson – hilarious) is right: the “grunge thing” suits her.

Grunge is a thing because Captain Marvel wallows gleefully in all things 90s – especially the tunes. A glorious action sequence set to Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl” is a high point, and could’ve rivaled Kingsman‘s “Free Bird” segment if given a Skynyrd-level running time (lighters down, please). A needle-on-turntable shot seems a bit out of place, but hey, that Nirvana tune that follows goes down just fine.

The throwback vibe entertains and the clever soundtrack kicks all manner of ass—as does Marvel. The humor feels mostly right, the galactic tensions carry greater weight as the film progresses, and both the mid and end credits stingers are winners.

Boden and Fleck (with co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet) streamline Danvers’s comic book history effectively, but as is often the case with these origin stories, act 1 still sputters, betraying a lack of intergalactic vision (or too much of a fondness for cheap-ass Star Trek movies). Once Vers (The Captain’s pre-metamorphosis name) hits earth and some deeper themes are woven into the fun, Captain Marvel finds its groove.

Much of that is thanks to Jackson, whose chemistry with everyone is his trademark in films, and his screen time with Larson is always a sparkling, witty treat. Because of its time stamp, the film can also craft an engaging origin story for Fury, Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the entire Avengers project, aided by continually amazing advancements in digital fountains of youth.

Jude Law, Annette Bening and Lashana Lynch sparkle in a supporting cast buoyed by Ben Mendelsohn’s welcome presence. Playing sometimes with, and sometimes against type, he reminds Big Box Office audiences that he’s so much more than his scenery-chewing villains of late. (Boden and Fleck, who cast him in their amazing poker flick Mississippi Grind, already knew this.)

So, over 20 films and DC’s Wonder Woman success later, the MCU offers its first female lead, a fact certainly not lost on Boden and Fleck. They pull no punches when it comes to the idea of heroism: question authority, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t accomplish, fuck mansplaining. Oh, and heroes rescue refugees, they don’t cause them more suffering.

And as much as Wonder Woman earned its acclaim, Marvel manages to one-up DC yet again. Captain Marvel is anchored by even more unabashed girl power, and stands strong on its own while whetting your appetite for what comes next.

 





Across the Universe

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

by George Wolf

Should we really be surprised a spider-based franchise has so many legs?

It wasn’t that many years ago when Spider-Man 2 was the conventional wisdom pick for all time best superhero flick. Then last year, Homecoming erased the memories of some disappointing installments with a tonally perfect reboot.

And now, Spidey gets back to his animation roots with Into the Spider-Verse, a holiday feast of thrills, heart, humor and style that immediately swings to the very top of the year’s animated heap.

Teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore from Dope and The Get Down) is juggling a lot of teen drama. He’s trying to make friends at a new school, make nice with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), and practice graffiti art with his cool Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), so he really doesn’t need to be dragged into an alternate universe with Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) right now, okay?

But, thanks to an evil plan from Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) and Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn), that’s just what happens. And before you can say quantum theory, Miles is meeting kindred heroes from all over the Spider-Verse, including another Spider-Man (Chris Pine), Spider-Man Noir (classic Nicolas Cage), anime version Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham, a hilarious Looney Tunes-style crime fighting pig (John Mulaney).

Writer Phil Lord follows his winning scripts for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie with an even bigger bulls-eye, one that manages to honor franchise traditions as it’s letting in some fresh, hip, and often very funny air.

In the hands of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, the story bursts to vibrant life. The dazzling animation gives a big soul kiss to comic books and pushes nearly every frame to its action-following limit.

This Spider-Man is filled with everything you want in a superhero flick today. There are compelling characters and engaging conflicts within a diverse climate, and a vital, clearly defined message of empowerment that stays above the type of pandering sure to bring eye-rolls from a kid’s b.s.detector.

And man, is it fun. That still works, too.





Holding Out for a Hero

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

by Hope Madden

Teen Titans was a beloved, fairly-serious, sometimes thematically challenging Cartoon Network program based on Glen Murakami’s comics.

Teen Titans Go! was Cartoon Network’s sillier spinoff show. Think Muppet Babies versus The Muppets: smaller, cuter, sillier and basically inferior in every way.

No, that’s too harsh. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies—the diminutive superheroes’ cinematic leap—is not without its share of charm. Directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail (both from the TV series) bring the same zany, juvenile, self-aware sensibilities to the big screen that burst for years from the small one.

Robin, Cyborg, Raven, Beast Boy and Starfire aren’t being taken seriously by the superhero community. What they need is their own superhero movie! Everybody else has one! That’s how you know you’re really a hero, and not just a sidekick with a bunch of costumed goofball buddies.

What follows is a comment on the oversaturation of the superhero film punctuated by a lot of poop jokes.

The voice talent from the TV show (Scott Menville, Hynden Walch, Khary Payton, Greg Cipes and Tara Strong) is joined by big names (Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Will Arnett, Patton Oswalt, Jimmy Kimmell) in fun cameos.

The best, most on-the-nose cameo belongs to Stan Lee, who sends up his own omnipresence as well as the Marvel/DC conflict and general nerdom with a spry little number.

There are laughs—some of them tossed with a surprisingly flippant sense of the morbid—and energy galore, but it’s all a kind of sugar rush. It’s fun for about 22 minutes, but by minute 23, you’ll be checking your watch.

By minute 50, you will be squirming restlessly in your seat.

By minute 80 you may have that fidgety kid next to you in a headlock, but who’s to blame him for kicking and wriggling and causing a ruckus? He’s as bored as you are!

By the 93-minute mark, you may be rushing for the door, and that’s too bad, in a way, because the bittersweet stinger you’ll miss with your hasty exit only brings home how slight and silly a spinoff Teen Titans Go! really is.

 





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.