Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avengers_Endgame_poster.jpgThe cultural event the whole world seems to have been waiting for has finally arrived. Avengers Endgame is finally open to the public. The secrecy can cease. The debates can begin. Disney can start raking in the billions. And I presume, on the whole, the general public can let out a collective sigh of relief. The studio hasn’t ruined the tightly shepherded franchise and for those with a share of skepticism, Avengers‘s “final chapter” does some things quite well. At the very least, it brings back the epics of old for one evening of entertainment. That in itself is enough of a compliment.

Certainly, at our most jaundice, one might contend Endgame needs to solely succeed in the area of wish fulfillment. Never has a franchise so effectively mobilized and harnessed the fervor of nerd culture around a film franchise (except maybe Star Wars and Disney owns that too).

Many of the same old grievances and world struggles are hashed out around tables and conference rooms led by the opposing ideals represented by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). It’s true the expositional scenes with sciency jargon have the usual clumsy clunkiness. Films have never been known for their seamlessly technical dialogue.

The Russo Brother’s camera (gotta love ’em) is swirling around as much as ever. The compositions of scenes are rarely something we have time to appreciate as the images fly by with typical rapid-fire cutting. The superpowers are bigger, better, more colorful, and continue to leave the realm of reality behind for CGI visions, all the easier to rectify when you’ve made a mess of the world. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again is so much easier with computers.

The jokes are there and the cultural references to Back to the Future and others are easy wins without any risk. Likewise, resident superhuman fighter pilot, Carol Danvers (a steely Brie Larson) seems like a convenient enough deus ex machina to piece the narrative back together in the wake of Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Are there plot holes? We’re working in convoluted increments of time so events get dicey and yet the narrative comes out mostly intact leaning into emotion rather than mere systematic logic.

It’s right here where Endgame manages to satiate our desires for — not just closure — but a meaningful denouement to this storyline. I am one of those to decry this lumbering beast at times and still as the hypocrite and movie fan that I am, there’s no way to be totally immune to this cultural force.

In the days when going to the cinema palace for a roadshow and being subjected to an earth-shattering moment seem all but behind us, this epic is the closest thing we have to such an experience in the 21st century. Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars it is not. Still, it means a great deal to this generation. It functions as its own entity — a cultural touchstone for this decade.

The story does well to tap into this zeitgeist. Here’s a forewarning for mild SPOILERS. Endgame takes the genre of a time travel heist to layer upon the world we already know. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has mostly functioned in the periphery but now he is an integral piece because it is the technology he brings, created by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), giving the remnants leftover a chance to right the past — this is their one-in-a-million chance as indicated by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Marvel screenwriting vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do well in essentially turning their latest story into a riff on a time travel heist film. It fits the context of how they might conceivably bring their friends back — not so much by changing the past — but creating an alternate reality of sorts where things can work out the way they were meant to.

Three task forces must go after the six infinity stones in the years before Thanos got a hold of them. We flashback to 2012 in New York with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Scott Lang. This self-reflexive nature serves the story but also an increasing sense of nostalgia. Because I remember sitting in that theater having barely seen a Marvel movie before.

There I was in the first row with my friend Mike. I remember playing ultimate frisbee the afternoon before. I had marathoned Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor the previous night. College was starting in a few months. And it was the epitome of a summer blockbuster. This twofold experience is not lost on me. Both the movie and my experiences intermingle. We cannot separate them.

Then, a sullen Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a Rip Van Winkle beard and giant beer belly must return to Asgard, witnessing its previous glory and seeing his mother (Rene Russo) only hours before she would be killed. They share a poignant moment even as the retrieval of the Infinity Stone and the presence of Jane (Natalie Portman) takes secondary importance. I didn’t mind because all I could remember was sitting in those reclining seats with Adam and Kayt during the midnight showing back in 2013.

Next, we moved on to our first meeting of The Guardians of the Galaxy. It was the summer of 2014 and I was back from college catching up with my buddy Nick. What a pleasant surprise we had watching a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a tree (Vin Diesel) jam out to Redbone. By this point, the plot feels almost unimportant. It can ride along on the dynamics of characters and my own nostalgia. In some weird way, it felt evocative of simpler times — even just fives years ago. It’s often how we manage to romanticize in hindsight, which works handsomely to the film’s advantage.

I bemoaned the fact in Infinity War, it felt like I didn’t care about these characters anymore — whether they lived or died. Endgame does its darndest to make us remember relationships, friendships, all the things making each one of these superhumans, gods, or otherwise sentient beings like us. The opening pre-credit hook is case and point. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is teaching his daughter to shoot. His wife (Linda Cardellini) is getting the food together for a family picnic. It’s the antithesis of epic. But it feels real. There is instant recognition of stakes.

There didn’t seem to be any finality to Thanos decimating the world because it was a cliffhanger. However, there is no such weakness here. It earns its ending. No after-credits tease. No drawing the story out or pulling punches to undermine the impact of the final scenes. In fact, I’ll rip off the band-aid now. Beloved characters do die and there is no turning back time for them. They’re gone. That’s okay. It feels real and their deaths have meaning. And those still living move forward with lingering sorrow but also the hope of the future. They have roots, they have family, and lives to lead beyond the confines of a film.

Tony Stark and Pepper (Gwenyth Paltrow) have a daughter now. He worries about giving up his family — his last fragment of happiness — in order to alter the earlier events. And yet if we remember the brilliant egomaniac circa 2008, Tony is radically different now. His arrogance gives way to sacrifice, even as meeting his old man makes him appreciate his own dad (John Slattery) and how similar they really are — young fathers trying to do the best for their families as imperfect human beings.

Cap changes too. His almost untouchable emblematic image of Americanism was laid to rest. Not in some anti-establishment, unpatriotic turn. Instead, he became even more human in order to romance the love of his life (and mine!) Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and cherish the dance of life together.

Chris Hemsworth’s fatty Thor might be the finest comic relief in the movie but he manages an evolution of his own as a character, realizing his lifelong need to be lauded by others will no longer rule his own life. He gives up his kingship for a worthy successor, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sibling dynamic is of less importance but Nebula is an integral figure as she tries to reconcile her former self with what she knows she can become. Even as Thanos waits for his pursuers in the biblically inflected “Garden,” tilling the earth, his daughter must come to terms with where she falls along this gradient of good and evil.

But are you ready? For all those who’ve been waiting patiently, you will be rewarded. There is the long-awaited behemoth death match to help realize the childhood aspirations of any boy or girl who has ever dreamt themselves a superhero warding off the evils and saving the universe either vicariously through their action figures or in their own imaginations.

It’s messy, full of explosions, and spastic choreography. Why harp on the faults because if you cannot consider it with the imagination of a child, the movie probably isn’t meant for you anyway. If anything, the eye candy gives an obligatory “moment” to all the heavy hitters, big and small.

Fortuitously, the film allows the time and space to wrap up its character arcs and call back all the relationships built up over 10 years of film. In another movie, the climax would have peaked too early but this picture is making up for two movies, if not far more. There is a great deal riding on these final moments for the very reason we expect satisfaction as an audience.

What felt so exhilarating about Endgame, again, was the very finality. I know there are more projects ahead with Spider-Man, Guardians, etc. but even with characters like Cap and Iron Man, we are reminded that sometimes things cannot go back to the way they were before. Life changes as do peoples and societies.

Cap dancing in the arms of Peggy for one last time (or the first) with the melody of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” drifting through the air is enough for me. It’s the love story I always seemed to care most about and always longed to be realized in some gratifying form. Am I wrong to say this taps into some innate fairytale-like inclination? To want not just the happy ending but the reunion, the realization of lasting love.

I won’t say the Marvel franchise has always been a cutting-edge statement on the state of our world but it has been in many lives for a very long time — as an extension of our experience — sometimes it’s good and right to bring things to an end. How can you appreciate the times and memories you’ve had and really cherish them without closure? I thank Marvel for respecting its characters enough to give them this — to allow them to rest in peace — at least for the time being. It’s true that after the 22nd film we rested, briefly. Better late than never.

4/5 Stars

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man_Into_the_Spider-Verse_poster.jpgThe onus is on every new superhero movie to delineate itself from the pack by sidestepping the plethora of genre cliches. It’s almost assumed they have something fresh to say about superheroes with their origin stories, self-actualizations, inner demons, and ultimate ascension to defeat the enemy. We have Marvel and to a lesser extent DC to thank for these loaded expectations.

I speak for myself in admitting that I’m weary of this brand of story. Spider-Man is a prime example with now three iterations comprised of three different actors with 7 films and counting. Tom Holland might be dead in Infinity War Part I but heaven forbid he miss out on Far From Home.  He’s just getting started. However, yet another interpretation on top of this would seem nothing short of monotonous.

The brilliance is how Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse by no means spits on its traditions. In some miraculous sense, it’s able to have its cake and eat it too. Because the worlds occupied by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland have their place but everything is funneled through the original vision of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko while being rejuvenated by new minds.

The trends continue with Spider-Man receiving another very simple facelift in the form of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) while still keeping him planted in comic books. Here is the film’s greatest asset. It is immersive in the best sense as we get a feel for the tactile world our protagonist exists in through music (including the instant earworm “Sunflower”), bustling NYC streets, and even graffiti subculture. But it does well to meld styles and techniques so the experience never feels flat or stagnant.

Again, with Marvel’s laundry list of entries, everything else has been presented through live action and in practical terms, it removes these characters from their true element. This animated work more closely realizes and adheres to the comic book format and maintains a suspension of disbelief, splitting the difference between our universe and the colorful collages of retro Ben-Day dots.

The subsequent explosions become an aurora borealis of trippy pyrotechnics. They prove as beautiful as they are psychedelic but this is an element the canvas of comic book animation allows. The Spider-Verse uses it phenomenally to tell a story of vision and verve. The sheer possibilities of it all stagger the imagination.

Nevertheless, it’s also full of real-world touches. A roommate might have an instantly recognizable Chance The Rapper album on his wall and yet a battle scene at Aunt May’s house (Lily Tomlin) plays out more like a round of Super Smash Bros. Brawl than any fight we’ve seen prior.

Like The Lego Movie before it (from Phil Lord & Christopher Miller), it does not fudge on the entertainment and nothing is lost by deigning to be a movie welcoming to the whole family. In fact, it probably gains something in the process by welcoming a wider cross-section of the viewing public and bringing moral dilemmas to the fore.

I’ve realized with increasing clarity why Spider-Man was one of the easiest superheroes to connect with from the get-go. It comes with the fact he exists in territory we can readily understand, whether it be navigating high school, maintaining relationships with parents, or even coping with personal loss.

In Miles’ case, he has recently been transplanted to a high-achieving charter school across town at the behest of his father who is a local police officer. Although his dad does harbor some reservations about Spider-Man’s tactics, both he and his wife nevertheless are loving parents. It feels like a normal situation. Even as it gets complicated by extraordinary circumstance, Miles still finds himself befuddled by adolescence seeking some kind of solace in his reprobate uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Instead, he is forced to look for role models elsewhere.

The conceit of parallel universes is a risky endeavor. In the case of The Star Trek reboot it can feel like mere convenience, but in this storyline, the multiverse pays heavy dividends. Far from being a gimmick, such possibilities allow this story to be far more robust. It has to do with this glorious mishmash of characters because they are necessary for this empathy to build up but in the most basic terms, they are satisfying extensions of the world — glitches and all.

If Miles is the unrealized, conflicted talent nervous about taking a “Leap of faith,” Peter Parker (Voiced by Chris Pine) is the fallen hero and Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) is his regretful alter ego. Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) starts as a love interest with a chill disposition only to be promoted and hoisted up as someone even more intriguing. The simple novelty of such sideshow attractions like Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glen), and Peter Porker (John Mulaney) wears off and manages to develop into something meaningful when it comes in the context of an ensemble. They are all necessary cogs even if Miles is at the center of this web-slinging collective.

To echo my praise of Black Panther, Into The Spider-Verse does well to layer its villains so there is a depth and true threat afforded them. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is not necessarily an extraordinary antagonist but his motives are clear. For him, these parallel universes are the one last hope he clings to in order to get his family back. Likewise, Doc Oc is not only an imposing opponent but loaded with killer intellect. The Prowler, for his part, strikes close to the heart of our story. There is weight to each character challenging Miles.

However, for the first time, it feels a superhero has true community because The Avengers never quite cut it. However, these people share the closest life experience you could possibly ask for. So although Miles has to make his own decision, he’s by no means alone. This feels like an utterly unique circumstance because masked vigilantism is normally an isolating venture. It’s strange to even admit, but here it feels like something galvanizing and full of mentorship and camaraderie.

It readdresses the core message of The Lego Movie though tackling it with a different protagonist. The bottom line is Spider-Man now being promoted as a universal concept, further championing a message of cooperation, acceptance, and selfless sacrifice. This is not new. The trick is executing it in fundamentally inspired ways, juggling all the expectations for thrills, laughter, and poignancy. Spider-Verse does it beautifully. It might just blow your socks off.

Though the late, great Stan Lee was the most visible, Steve Ditko, his partner in crime, also past away in 2018. Thus, it seems fitting to end with the quote dedicated to both of them at the end of the picture. There are no more applicable words than these:

“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real SUPERHERO.”

4/5 Stars

 

 

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster.jpgEntering into the latest Avengers blockbuster I felt like I was missing something thanks to a cold open that places us in an unfamiliar environment. It’s a feeling that has come upon me on multiple occasions previously.

Not only because as a mild enthusiast I’ve missed a stray entry here and there but I also easily forget interconnected events and after a certain point, why bother? We have come to accept there will always be another Marvel movie.

Yes, this is the culmination of 10 years that began inauspiciously with Iron Man in 2008 only to balloon into a skyrocketing phenomenon that will not disappear any time in the near future. Superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and so many others have reemerged as integral parts of the public consciousness. And many fans have been waiting with bated breath for this day and they will wait again and again for future movies like it. That’s an established fact. Regardless, they can breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy themselves with this realization of all their dreams up on the big screen. It will hardly disappoint.

To describe the plot of Infinity War is almost arbitrary as SPOILERS in this day and age are guarded against like the plague but here is a nibble anyway. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a being who has long been alluded to, is finally on the scene. The opening sequence is a microcosm of what he hopes to do on a cosmic scale, leveling half of the remnant left over from Asgard.

As a supervillain, he has a vision for the world that’s not too unbelievable. He seems to have been acquainted with Thomas Malthus’ work (even unwittingly so) while holding a contorted view of what empathy is. What others term mass genocide he deems an indiscriminate mission of mercy — killing half the universe’s population will mean resources are more widely available for everyone else left alive. He proves to be one of the most interesting characters within the narrative for the very fact we have barely met him before.

Infinity Stones also become of utmost importance again as Thanos must add them to his collection so he can rise to the stature of a demigod and dictate the outcome of all life with the snap of his finger. That’s some kind of power! The stones themselves are exquisitely color coordinated. One is safeguarded by Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumbertach), another is implanted in Vision (Paul Bettany) and fiercely protected by his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Soul Gem brings Thanos back in contact with his two stepdaughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) with grave consequences.

Everyone else who makes an appearance (and at times a lightning-quick cameo) relies on a viewer’s running tabulation of everything up until this point in the MCU. And though you’ll probably enjoy seeing these characters that you have some familiarity with — and you even laugh throughout — there is a sense they are only vague contours. There are too many of them for the resonance to run deep and personal. It really only works if audiences have bought into the machine and already have some background with these heroes in place. The scarier thought is if viewers do not. Infinity War would be void of any meaning. All flashes of imagery, destruction, and hyper-frenetic editing. Any other actual amount of personality would be absent.

Some people live and others die but to confess I didn’t much care whether any of these characters perished is one of the most unfortunate realities of the movie. It’s not that I know they are coming back necessarily or anything of the sort. I admit to being fickle. I can’t remember why I should care about these characters. Because for some so much time has passed since I had any connection with them. To watch them become collateral damage has little resonance with me. I’m numb to it.

I won’t make allusion to archetypal literature like Hamlet or film references like Star Wars or Harry Potter because in some ways that would denigrate that material. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I am. In fact, it was Hary Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2010) we have to thank for this current reality followed close behind by The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Stories like these coincidentally begun the practice now popular in the industry.

It was no longer about simply having sequels but milking a movie for all it was worth — breaking them up into pieces — making films that were meant to be a part of a greater whole.  It’s not a film so much as a commodity. Differing from the earlier examples like The Godfather movies or even The original Star Wars trilogy — those were pictures that very much could stand on their own merit. Not that they were not enriched and more fully realized with their later installments but we could consider them alone.

Infinity War comes out of this philosophy where a film was never meant to be taken by itself. Everyone knows it. The producers, the directors, the actors, and the audience.  By now as a collective assemblage of viewers, it seems like we’ve been cowed into submission.

I for one watched the movie and never quite relished it — there was nothing all that new or novel — and yet I was never bored per se. However, even my newest favorite superhero Black Panther felt like he was now fit into the Marvel mold. Nothing surprised. Nothing ignited a deep-seated exhilaration inside me. A Stan Lee cameo comes and goes.

Though the picture does promise action and verbal sparring which it delivers handily. In fact, if you consider the screenplay by writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do an admirable job with both the monumental juggling act and crosscutting of multiple storylines. The same can be said for the other dynamic duo directing, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who must perform the same type of orchestration that would have buried a single director in his grave.

Still, there is an uncanny feeling the picture is made up of two kinds of scenes. You have action sequences packaged nicely with all the trimmings and CGI to your heart’s content. Then you have in contrast many stagnant sequences with all these big names standing around in a single location talking it out usually over some point of conflict, sprinkled with a few jokes or exposition that feels all too familiar. The well-timed comic relief disguises how run-of-the-mill everything is.

That’s what’s Marvel has in many ways perfected. In this regard, there’s nothing lacking and if it’s what you signed on for now 10 years ago (without even realizing it) it takes little hesitation to say you will be satiated at least until the next Marel movie and the next installment of Infinity War in a year’s time.

However, I couldn’t help but leave the experience feeling slightly lackluster about the affair. Because in many ways Infinity War is the culmination of a generation of films and really the emblem of where Hollywood continues to head. Sure, we have yet to get the second half of our story but if this is any indication of what we have to look forward to in the future, it does look like a fairly blasé fate at that. Though the jokes and the pyrotechnics are present in full force, there is little magic — that certain amount of intangibility lifting entertainment above the mediocre and allowing it to capture our imaginations. My only question is — as someone unread in Marvel comic literature — what could the Deus ex Machina possibly be?

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Black Panther (2018)

Black_Panther_film_poster.jpgFor some Black Panther might be a stellar actioner, consequently, brought to us by a visionary director, Ryan Coogler. It’s top-tier as far as Marvel movies come; there’s little doubt. For others, I completely understand if Black Panther rocks their entire paradigm because there’s so much of note here. The box office seems to confirm that just as much as the dialogue that has been created in its wake.

What’s so revolutionary about this addition to the cinematic landscape is that this is not simply a superhero movie created by a predominantly black cast and crew but that their very heritage is so crucial to the roots of the story. The identity and complex history of Africans and African-Americans is wrapped up in the very sinews of the narrative. A whole diverse patchwork of ancestry and generations of culture is meticulously infused into the African nation of Wakanda.

Many may have forgotten that in an earlier Marvel installment the king of the 3rd world nation of Wakanda was killed in an act of terrorism. His son T’Challa proved to be next in line to the throne as long as no challengers arose from any of the five tribes that encompass the country. In such a case the two warriors take part in a ritual combat.

Far from just having intricate primordial traditions, the nation has also long-harbored an immense secret. Under the pretense of an archaic nation, they have built a technologically advanced empire around the versatile metal vibranium. In order to keep its properties protected, they have foregone sharing it with the world at large. Already you begin to see one of the primary themes running through the film. With great power comes great responsibility. How you choose to wield it is of vital importance especially when the world around you is hurting.

I have long been a fan of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan and the partnership continues to impress. Coogler somehow managed to take a Marvel franchise film (which we’ve had too many of) and turned it into a radically personal picture. It works on both levels — arguably catering to all audiences.

His female characters are imbued with tenacity and still a capacity for great good. Lupita Nyong’go is a perfect example as the lifelong sweetheart of the ascending king T’Challa because she has left her homeland to help the oppressed in less fortunate lands. She jokes that she would make a phenomenal queen one day because she’s stubborn but it’s the truth.

Meanwhile, the king’s mother (Angela Basset) is stately; caring deeply for her children while his sister (Letitia Wright) is feisty and blessed with the ingenuity of an inventor. She’s the Wakandan Q if you will. And there’s Okoye (Danai Gurira) the fearless leader of the all-female royal guard. Far more than an assassin, she is guided by a sense of honor and loyalty that splits her right down the middle.

Many people will be happily surprised by a soundtrack that synthesizes original music by Kendrick Lamar with a score by Ludwig Goranson (Community) infused with distinctly African instrumentation. It makes for a satisfying marriage in music. But no less impressive are the intricate costumes and set designs which develop this appealing aesthetic of the old with the new. Coogler’s team seems to have a very keen awareness of both which is refreshing.

When Black Panther falters at all the problem is simply due to repetition. After 17 other entries, we can hardly blame a film like this for doing something that’s seemingly derivative even momentarily. It’s inevitable. Because if you’ve seen one fight scene between two agile, armored superhumans you’ve seen them all to some extent.

And yet this picture does so much more within that framework that’s moving because there’s a certain ambition and an innate understanding of what movies are capable of. They can help us cull through crises while still maintaining the exhilarating guise of a superhero action flick. It’s true that at times it feels like we are watching a Bond film only rejuvenated with more diverse characterization.

Like the best films in that franchise or any other really, the villains are noticeably tempered in a very particular way that is stimulating. Yes, multiple bad guys and when I say that I mean that each has unique shading giving us different looks. Andy Serkis is the chortling international arms dealer who seems small scale and yet he’s made dangerous. There’s a distinct edge to him.

Even more important is Erik Warmonger (Michael B. Jordan) because he acts as T’Challa’s character foil. As we find out, they have a lot more in common than they would have been led to believe except Warmonger has more sinister intentions. The joy of Jordan’s performance is that the character is high-functioning, charismatic, and actually poses a threat as we see on multiple occasions. But no matter how twisted or misguided he might seem there’s still some level on which we can understand his lifelong resentment. Also, let me just say it now. From his clothes to his swagger, he just looks cool…and supremely confident.

Meanwhile, fellow tribesman such as M’Baku (Winston Duke) and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) do not necessarily have sworn allegiances staked out and so that gives them some agency to shift the tectonics of the story this way or that. Again, they have a certain amount of power that gives them an undeniable presence.

Like The Winter Soldier or Civil War (arguably my favorite Marvel entries thus far), the villains are compelling because they invariably feel planted in the real world or better yet they’re made up of friends and family. There’s nothing more disconcerting than people who aren’t villains at all and yet they still go in opposition of you.

Thus, Ryan Coogler has succeeded in constructing a layered story that might be one of the few Marvel films I would gladly pay a second viewing to. It hinges on so many issues with consequences for our contemporary landscape. Again, with great power comes great responsibility.

It deals with the afterlife as represented by the ancestral hunting grounds where first T`Challa and then Erik commune with their fathers to receive insight. For the former, it means reconciling with his father’s own failures during his lifetime so he might not make the same mistake. For the latter, it means connecting with his own father about their joint Wakandan heritage which Erik never knew first-hand living in America.

Black Panther calls into question themes of isolationism as much as it does a complicated history of colonialism. Look no further than the African artifacts exhibit in the History Museum and you can plainly see that we are still grappling with the same issues planted in the same past. Far from dismissing it, we would do well to continue to entertain a dialogue. The roles that museums, archivists, and archaeologists play in all of this are important too. Suddenly, even for a brief instant, I’m starting to second-guess Indy’s obdurate assertion that artifacts belong in a museum. Where do we draw the lines on such an issue while not unwittingly promoting colonialist traditions? I don’t quite know.

The final words of Warmonger linger in my mind as well:

T`Challa: “We can still heal you…”

Warmonger: “Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

His words sting, as they should because so much truth dwells right there. I have always struggled to reconcile those very things because for being a nation made of immigrants the African-Americans are nearly the only ones who did not come to The Promise Land of their own volition. The handprints of such a reality can still be spotted in our world today.

There are deep roots that are set in place. In the History Museum corridors you see documentation of a muddied past of colonialism. Then, in Oakland (Coogler’s hometown) along with basketball and Public Enemy you see obvious signs of social decay and problematic issues of drugs and gun violence.

That it is actually put out there is nearly a relief and a necessity. However, and this is a big however, there seems to be an underlying hopefulness that we can somehow live together. Marcus Garvey once proposed blacks recolonize their native country and that in itself brings up other issues of cultural identity.

Erik Warmonger is right at the center of that with African descent and yet longheld ties to American society. What do we label him? I’m not sure we can. I’m not sure we need to. That’s for the individual. Regardless, it’s a work in progress. Messy no doubt but hope is still present.

Like Fruitvale Station (2013) before it, being rich in black culture by no means that the film is completely exclusive in the same regard. Far from simply being a token white person Martin Freeman is allowed to be a hero just like his counterparts and anyways maybe for once it’s okay for the Caucasian characters to take a momentary back seat if only to allow other voices to speak.

What we are left with as King T’Chala addresses the United Nations is not the sense that one people group is better than another or the new should overthrow those who have long been in power but that we should find those points of intersection — the things that unify us.

“Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

It’s a fitting summation because this is a film that draws up different tribes, turns people against each other nearly in an instant, while constantly rearranging factions and who holds the keys to the kingdom. If it’s resolved in the end it’s only a fragile peace at best and if we are to maintain that we need far more than vibranium. We need a heavy dose of human understanding and empathy.

We can acknowledge our past failures as a society but must never allow them to shackle us for good. Mistakes are meant to be learned from. It’s when we’re not willing to learn and to change that dire straits look inevitable. I hope for our sake that the film’s call-to-action might still stand true.

But the film itself is also an imperative to take deep abiding pride in your heritage and who you are as a human being — unique just as you are. Thus, it seems utterly misguided to desire a future world where we do not see color but instead, we might yearn for a day when everyone can look at the rich strains of human diversity and proclaim “It is very good.” Where we can survey that same world and see that every color, creed, and tongue is finally one tribe instead of many.

4/5 Stars

Thor Ragnarok (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_posterMy heart lept in my chest when I heard that Taika Watiti (What We Do in The Shadows) was going to be helming the latest Thor movie. Because it’s hardly a well-kept secret that Thor has essentially been the weakest of all the Marvel threads (Hulk’s individual film excluded).

So once more Marvel has done an impeccable job of keeping lukewarm bandwagoners such as myself mildly interested. Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. Brie Larson in the upcoming Captain Marvel movie — another personal favorite. Then, we have Ryan Coogler directing Black Panther with one of the most glorious casts in recent memory. They make their product so alluring despite my general lack of interest in the perennial juggernaut.

But back to Thor Ragnarok which goes far beyond the quip-filled, light-hearted humor that Marvel has often boasted, to great success, I might add. Even with its darker moments and strains of drama, there’s little doubting that Watiti’s brand of near insouciant humor is alive and well. Exhibit A is the very fact that we are reintroduced to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he swings precariously from a rocky prison encased in chains about to be executed by a fiery conflagration of a villain.

In case you haven’t realized it already what we are about to be served up is a comedy about an apocalypse. Oxymoronic as it may sound, the film all but pulls it off. Still, more explanation is in order.

Thor returns to Asgard only to begin quibbling with his black sheep of a brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) just like old times. They call on their father (Anthony Hopkins) whose imminent death is less an ending and more a god-like dispersal. There are other asides involving Dr. Strange (Cumberbatch) and yes, we even found out a little bit more about the Hulk and what Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been doing the last couple years.

Being the weasel that he is, Loki’s always betraying his brother and Thor winds up getting captured by a former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who has taken on the life of a slave trader, bringing in fighters for the Contest of Champions. Thor is destined to be the newest attraction on center stage.

Watiti most obviously makes his general tone felt in the film through his own character Korg, a giant rock monster who is more like the Michelin Man than The Thing. Watiti’s understated voice coming through so clearly as he matter-of-factly talks about the not uncertain death that awaits nearly everyone. But he’s also handy for a few rock, paper, scissor jokes as well.

Jeff Goldblum is probably the film’s other finest creation for his own brand of oddly perturbing flippancy with gladiatorial violence and hedonistic relish of death matches. But in the same breath, The Grandmaster also happens to be probably the funniest addition to the cast for those very same reasons.

In fact, it’s these themes touched on briefly that are most crucial to drawing conclusions about Ragnarok. It’s deeply entrenched in issues of death and mortality, violence and warfare. By no small coincidence, the main villain brought to the fore is Hela (Cate Blanchett) who helped Odin build his kingdom and has come back to rule it as her own. It’s not a particularly inspired creation but what did we expect? It is what it is.

Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is the film’s favorite hard-hitting tune to conjure up for perfect trailer sound bytes to crosscut with the action at hand. Whether it serves any other purpose aside from just being a bit of retro-cool is probably beside the point.

There’s a line that seems apt for such a film that I couldn’t help recalling. It goes like something like this, “We laugh at death because we know that death will have the last laugh at us.” It’s one thing to make light of death as a coping mechanism and as an outlet to grapple with something we don’t completely understand, quite another to completely dismiss it. Because the far easier road is to try and evade dealing with it altogether.

The usual CGI extravaganzas and spectacle aside, there is something still to relish in this movie. What I’m trying to say is that Thor Ragnarok is a deathly funny superhero film. In spite of the usual tiresome amount of pyrotechnics, random cameos, and overzealous action sequences, there is an ephemeral and still a delightful enjoyment to be found in this picture. It no doubt bears the imprint of Watiti while still wearing some of the tiresome Marvel tropes.

The one theme it does suggest most overtly is that “Asgard” was built on past indiscretions, bloodshed, and violence. But moreover, the mythical nation is not simply a place. It’s the people that make it up. And in the wake of an apocalypse, it’s some amount of solace. That and Jeff Goldblum giving the commoners a pat on the back. It’s always good to undercut solemnity with another punchline following the credits.

3.5/5 Stars

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

220px-Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterThis was yet another pleasant surprise. Just when I think I’ve finally washed by hands of superhero movies the cineplexes are blessed by two pictures like Wonder Woman and then Spiderman: Homecoming. And they couldn’t be more different. Still, as much as Wonder Woman was invested in its heroine, you get the sense that the crew behind this film care some about Peter Parker too.

Peter (Tom Holland) is living the dream. He got to do battle with the Avengers and Tony Stark has taken him under his wing and he has video proof of it all. He’s expecting great things. He’s expecting to leave the drudgery of high school classes, band, and academic decathlon behind.

Except for most of the film, he is relegated to thwarting small-time crime and he never gets to fight extra-terrestrials or other unearthly beings from outer space. It’s precisely this point that suggests there’s something profound about this character without any of that added white noise.

It’s the very fact that Peter is struggling with his own identity, how to be Spiderman and keep it a secret while simultaneously trying to realize the full extent of his abilities. He’s walking a tightrope because he wants to tell his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and he wants Mr. Stark’s right-hand man Happy (Jon Favreau) to call him up for his next assignment so he can prove himself. And yet nothing happens like he wants. No one takes him quite as seriously as he wants. After all, he is a teenager. As some famous philosopher once noted, “with great power, comes greater responsibility.”

But Tom Holland imbues Peter with a genuine likability that lights up his performance from end to end. This guy isn’t a jerk or a moody loser. He falls somewhere in the middle, making idiotic decisions but always because he believes them to be right in that wayward teenage brain of his; he only gets distraught because in his world Spiderman is all he has. Without it he is nothing. That’s his own insecurity speaking.

In one scene that’s undoubtedly meant to be impactful and which subsequently gets referenced later, Tony Stark takes away Peter’s suit after a debacle with an ocean liner and in so many words he says that if Peter needs his suit to be someone then he doesn’t deserve it. Maybe this and the related scenes are needlessly overt in reflecting our hero’s fall and redemption but if nothing else they cast our protagonist in a positive light. He is one of us.

Another thing that constantly reminds us of this fact, has to do with the world and characters he is surrounded by. First of all, the writers do something fairly refreshing and they give him the honor of fighting a villain who is grounded on earth — a man (Michael Keaton) just trying to provide for his family. He is vengeful when the government (Tyne Daly) cancels his contract in favor of the affluent private corporation of Stark Industries. It’s a very real issue wrapped in a superhero film similar to Civil War’s antagonistic dilemma, part of what made that previous film and this one compelling.

But whereas that was a battle among friends, this picture is understandably a high school story. In fact, I couldn’t help noticing the John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldenstein writing credit not to mention the inclusion of a certain decathlon advisor (Martin Starr) making it hard not to draw up a minor Freaks & Geeks connection.

Honestly, it’s hard to put Spiderman on that level but it does begin to tease out the high school experience as Peter is forced to live a double life while chasing after Adrian Toomes and his clandestine arms operation all across town. Because just as important are his friendship with his Star Wars-loving best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon), teenage crushes, parties, National Decathlon Championships, and, of course, Homecoming.

That’s the beauty of this story. It never tries to take on some epic agenda but far from settling it finds the importance in both the hero’s journey and the growth of someone in the throes of their adolescence. Peter knows that his nighttime activities are hurting his relationship with his aunt and hindering anything that could be between him and his amiable dream girl Liz (Laura Harrier).

The film’s greatest twist (which I’ll consequently omit)  is a beautiful bit of storytelling because it links together Peter’s two worlds so openly. Before they were two entities crisscrossed and tied together like chords of his spider webbing. But there comes a point where they are so closely connected he can no longer keep them separate. He must face it all even if it can’t be resolved as he would like.

So as the Marvel Universe rolls ever onward this picture turns out to be a rewarding entry because in some respects it chooses to tell a smaller story. Still, that story has some lovely touches and a rich cast that more than carry our attention.

The fact that the school outcast (Zendaya) wears a Sylvia Plath t-shirt cracked me up as did a bit of shameless Star Wars product placement, not to mention Captain America fitness videos. But there’s also some sentimental nods as well, namely to Ferris Bueller and the war memorabilia in the Principal’s office honoring his relative who fought alongside Cap during WWII (played by Kenneth Choi in both films).

Michael Keaton turns in a surprisingly sympathetic performance as a “villain” and everybody from Marisa Tomei to Donald Glover are enjoyable in their admittedly small parts. Of course, we have the laundry list of cameos from Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Gweneth Paltrow, and Stan Lee too as expected.

I won’t harp on this topic too much but it’s obvious that Spiderman is making a concerted effort to be ethnically diverse with its cast which is awesome and refreshing on so many levels. Whether they’re trying too hard with this perfect spectrum of ethnicity is not something to criticize at this point in time. Still, it does suggest that surrounding your typical characters with a lot of diverse individuals in cameos and supporting roles is good enough. Rather than forcing these smaller roles to meet public outcry, there’s a necessity for a better solution.

If the recent Hawaii Five-O pay equality news is any indication, the current state of affairs often has more to do with how the parts were initially created whether in Spiderman or Hawaii Five-O and not how they are interpreted. What might be more radical still is creating these same types of stories and standalone parts for actors who have normally been relegated. I would love to see a Donald Glover movie (on top of Community of course), a Kenneth Choi movie, or even a Jacob Batalon movie. But while we wait, go enjoy Jon Watt’s film for all it’s worth without an ounce of reluctance.

4/5 Stars

Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)It might sound like meager praise but Wonder Woman is the most engrossing DC offering thus far. It also seems almost unfair to compare across the aisle against main rival Marvel with its terribly lucrative cottage industry or for the very fact that any comparison might suggest how derivative this feature must be.

Yes, Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman cannot hold a candle to most of their competition and Suicide Squad was an atrocious misfire. But this is a film that stands on its own two feet — on the feet of its director Patty Jenkins (Monster) and its heroine Gal Gadot.

Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is ripe for praise and adulation on multiple fronts.  Its closest equivalent would be Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) with its period setting as a stunning backdrop for a superhero narrative. In this one, Diana Prince (Gadot in her first true starring role) is joined by a ragtag band of renegades including Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his eclectic compatriots including a drunken sharpshooter, a failed actor with a penchant for linguistics, and a resourceful Native American of formidable stock. They look to sneak into the heart of enemy territory to bring a decisive end to the war (in this case WWI).

But the film also plays a bit like a fish out of water comedy. Diana is the girl born of the Amazons in antiquity and isolation living out the legacy of Greek mythology  — which consequently also seems fused with the Judeo-Christian God and the Fall depicted in Genesis.

Like Thor, she too is god-like, a being outside the realm of humans, trained by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) and shielded from the outside world by her mother (Connie Nielsen). Thus, when she actually enters into their world it’s ripe with humorous cultural incongruities. Casual conversation about ancient treatises on sex, sporting the latest fashions which are a bit more modest than her typical attire, learning how to dance, and getting her first taste of an ice cream cone. Each brings a smile to our faces as an audience.

Still, despite her immense skills and innumerable abilities, Diana like Agent Peggy Carter from Marvel is faced with a culture that is not ready for someone who is simultaneously beautiful, strong, independent and wholly unencumbered by normal male patriarchy.  Someone who will not be repressed, blasting through the glass ceilings and cathedral steeples for that matter.

Diana can hardly comprehend how these discrepancies exist. In her eyes secretaries are only glorified slaves and powerful men who sit together in rooms making decisions have no honor whatsoever as their men are brutally slaughtered. It’s ludicrous and it many ways she’s not wrong. We begin to empathize with her character and the problems she sees in the world — the innate desire she holds to make everything right.

Because that gets to what is really truly phenomenal about Wonder Woman. For even the mild superhero enthusiasts she is emblematic of the entire genre with everyone from Batman to Superman, Captain America, Spiderman, Hulk, and all the others. But the one thing that puts her in a class entirely her own is that she is a woman. And this is not meant to single her out but to suggest how important this film is. Lynda Carter gave a landmark performance on the television airwaves in the 1970s but this is the first time this monumental icon has made it to the big stage and it is long overdue.

As such this film becomes a fitting parable reflecting the struggles of women in a callous industry and an oft callous world. Diana becomes a champion of all those women thoroughly capable of living life with individuality, confidence, and above all love for their fellow human beings. Diana comes at life from what some narrow-minded folks might call a woman’s perspective caring deeply about the helpless and their suffering but for the rest of us, it’s a very human point of view.

However, it’s equally important to note that in an attempt to make Diana of great import does in no way relegate the other characters and Steve (Chris Pine) becomes one of the most enjoyable supporting blokes in recent memory.

Gadot and Pine play complementary roles that perfectly mesh together. They’re both brave, they’re both extraordinary, they both care deeply but it can be in different ways. Steve finds himself rescued by Diana and protected by her immense powers as he continues his espionage activities behind German lines. Still, he’s able to explain the intricacies of the world to her and lead her to realize that humanity is not as black and white as she assumed it to be. That is big. In Diana’s eyes, the whole arc of the film is like so. If she can kill Ares, war will be over and mankind will fall back into unity as Zeus had originally ascribed.

Wonder Woman supplies a final twist that while somewhat understandable from a cinematic point of view still manages to take a little of the meaning out of Diana’s realization. Since this is also a love story, that in some ways slightly salvages an ending that succumbs to the usual superhero tropes and pyrotechnics. It’s this further discovery that while Diana may not be to blame for all this chaos, humanity despite their faults is still worth fighting for. What Steve calls “truth” I would probably call “grace” and it’s semantics really but it simply suggests this idea that we do for others what they do not deserve, out of love, the highest noblest form of sacrificial love — always seeing others before yourself even those you disagree with — even when it comes at great cost. For Steve and Diana, those mean two entirely different things again as he tries to thwart the Germans nefarious intentions and she battles it out with someone with powers, not unlike her own.

Despite an admittedly clunky framing device to set up its narrative, the film does learn something from the Suicide Squad as well by focusing on origin story over a mere objective or mindless action. Wonder Woman begins to falter when it simply gets caught up in the normal rhythms of superhero films with villains, explosions, and the like.

What’s interesting are these characters, the wounds that they carry with them, their environments and how that shapes the world that they find themselves in. In this case, Gal Gadot proves to be a winsome heroine with an impeccable blend of innocent beauty, boldness, and heart that’s completely disarming. Meanwhile, Pine’s as charming as ever but let’s not forget whose film this is because we’ve waited long enough. Wonder Woman has made a triumphal return and not a moment too soon for DC.

4/5 Stars

Happy Independence Day!

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

GotG_Vol2_poster.jpgI find that my own life was greatly influenced by my father during my most formative years, in particular in the realm of music. I grew up on the classics of the ‘60s. But there’s that juncture in time perhaps during middle school where you begin to branch out and you latch onto other sounds for some inexplicable reason. And it doesn’t have to be modern artists but even those who your parents never imparted to you. That is to say that “Brandy” by Looking Glass is such a song for me. I loved it the first time I heard it and not on any provocation of my parents. I consider it one of my own personal favorites.

Thus, when Guardians of the Galaxy opens in Michigan in 1980 “Brandy” blaring on the radio of a sleek convertible I resonate with the moment. The man and the woman are unknown to us but that familiar Dairy Queen Middle America matched with that paradoxically joyfully melancholy love song pulled me into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in an instant.

In this way, the film still plays to its strengths namely a retro vibe that’s in perfect cadence with the tongue in cheek tone and explosive sci-fi storyline. Writer-Director James Gunn is back in the driver’s seat delivering his expected riff off the Marvel blockbuster that at this point is both irreverent and violent with persistent zingers and mild touches of heart. It’s the kind of entertainment that will easily find a broad audience because once more he delivers the goods while simultaneously making light of them. We generally like him for not taking his subject matter too seriously, even if sometimes it, ironically, feels like the story dips too quickly into melodrama.

Still, at its core is a misfit hero that we love to cheer for in Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). This film examines in greater depth his own identity as a part human part spaceman. He’s still reeling in the shadow of his mother’s death many years ago and then he meets the man purported to be his father (Kurt Russell) the charismatic Ego.

Meanwhile, there are his other relationships to be parsed through and in many ways, they get pushed to the fringes. Baby Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel) definitely ups the cute factor and Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper), as well as Yondu (Michael Rooker), are there to play their crusty curmudgeon roles that nevertheless are given a bit of definition. We like them better by the film’s end as might be expected just as we are made to consider the dynamic between Gamora and her vengeful sister Nebula.

So Guardians is not only grounded by Walkman and classic tunes and a very human sense of humor but these relational moments. True, they’re not played out to the best degree as Quill tries to figure out his “Sam and Diane” thing with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) or reconcile his feelings for his father but that’s okay. 

My only qualms are the fact that sometimes Gunn seems to play too much into the jokes and tries to delve into the conflict too quickly so it comes off a little shoddy. The laughs are funny initially and the drama compels us at first but at times Guardians seems to stretch itself too far tonally. It was not meant to do that much.

But the characters are still an endearing ragtag band of misfits, the music is spot on (IE. Sam Cooke, Glenn Campbell, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, etc.), and there are some purposeful references to Cheers, Mary Poppins, and Night Rider that come off wonderfully as nods to a bygone era and an earth that we know and love. Brandy’s place at the center of the film’s narrative helps in in the nostalgia department as well. Whereas, in a film like The Martian you get the sense that disco was considered a cool addition, in Guardians music is often so closely tied to the storyline and the tones created in each scene visually. It uses its soundtrack incredibly well. 

An interesting caveat is the fact that in the rather unexpected arena of a superhero film, spiritual issues are briefly touched on. Namely ideas of a god complex, this idea of paneverythingism as coined by Francis Schaeffer, and even the idea of duality of persons compared to a trinity. It’s all perfectly introduced to us as we enter Ego’s creation with the sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” wafting over the landscape.

Even if it only scratches the surface we are in some small ways asked to consider the true purpose of man, a being that while fallen is certainly meant to live in fellowship with others. What that’s supposed to look like is another issue altogether. If that’s a little too heady then there’s enough anarchy and joyous eye candy to fall back on. Enough said.

3.5/5 Stars

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterIn spite of being a jaded viewer at this point, the Russo Brothers (Arrested Development and Community) and the screenwriting duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Narnia Franchise) proved still capable when it comes to keeping the Marvel Franchise afloat and, nay, helping it to flourish like few franchises ever have.  The pair of directing and writing duos who brought us Captain America: Winter Solider were able to add another link in the armor, and Marvel has remained stalwart. There are moments of misguided drama, times when the fight sequences become monotonous rather than momentous, but Marvel always does well to keep their funny bone intact.

As with any superhero movie Civil War calls for a suspension of disbelief, but it also becomes a balancing act, because for any movie to truly resonate with a mass audience its characters must feel human in some way shape or form. Where their powers and superhuman abilities must be on display for all those awaiting a popcorn thriller, but still restrained enough to keep them relatable.

In this case, Captain America (Chris Evans) is swayed by the love of a friend he’s known for over 70 years. Bucky Barnes is once more in the middle of a manhunt, and yet Cap has faith in his old friend. But it’s exactly that kind of loyalty that lands him on the wrong side of the law. Meanwhile, our other force of nature Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) rehashes the tragic death of his parents and tough times with Pepper Potts leave him conflicted. He’s ready to concede to the United Nation’s demands to put the Avengers in check and that’s where he breaks with his former ally. When the two undisputed leaders of the Avengers become polarized that forms the dividing line between factions and the whole film becomes fascinating as the sides are slowly drawn up. As an audience, we are forced to make a choice. It’s either the true blue Steve Rogers or the wonderfully snarky Tony Stark or perhaps we watch as an impartial observer. But, nevertheless, a mental decision must be made.

And it’s not only a balancing act of super versus human qualities, but the sheer size and scope of the cast could easily be a hindrance. Equality of screen time or at least moments in the spotlight for everyone are key, and the film generally does that capably enough. Marvel revels in the callbacks and Civil War is no different. In this installment alone we have the pleasure of seeing numerous returning players sans Hulk. In fact, the most entertaining fight sequence involves everyone duking it out, and the fact that it feels almost like play fighting rather than full-fledged combat is of little consequence.

But the new additions are also noteworthy including the likes of  Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Spiderman. Credit due to Tom Holland for in some ways making Peter Parker into an invariably entertaining persona, who feels different than his predecessors. There are a few others in smaller roles of note including the likes of William Hurt, Martin Freeman, and even Jim Rash.

By this point, we have long grown tired of villains rising up from outer space harnessing some unfathomable amount of power. The antagonists that are truly compelling are those who are closer to home, more realistic, and sometimes even within our own ranks. Built into this film’s title is that type of conflict, between former friends, between people who used to be close or would be on the same side given any other circumstances. But Civil War ups the ante not by getting bigger and grander necessarily. It’s the fact that it gets more personal that makes it work surprisingly well.

Daniel Bruhl is a delightful actor, and he does well to play what some might call a villain and others might simply label a pained, vengeful man. That’s oftentimes far more interesting.

It’s overstuffed with players, many who are admittedly wonderful acting talents. Its editing and cinematography is at times overly frenetic and mind-numbing. While Civil War is the expected superhero extravaganza, there are dour, more mature interludes that are difficult not to appreciate. If Marvel has not completely kept me enraptured, due to so many subsequent films, they still have me coming back and if I’m any indication, there will be many far more ardent fans than me who will truly enjoy what this film has to offer.

4/5 Stars

The Incredibles (2004)

 

The_IncrediblesCertain superhero storylines are beginning to overstay their welcome. Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, and even The Avengers spring to mind. The remarkable thing is the fact that this wildly popular genre headlined by numerous wildly popular franchises does not appear to be leaving us anytime soon. And when the prospects of monotonous superhero film after monotonous superhero film get a little too much, it’s rather comforting to return to The Incredibles. Yet again Pixar proved they knew how to craft animated films with great storytelling, but also a depth of character.

Over a decade ago now Brad Bird helmed a project that would introduce us to a very different batch of superheroes. Yes, they began as individuals named Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible, but soon enough they ceased being that. But these weren’t a ragtag alliance like the Avengers or the Guardians of the Galaxy. They were something perhaps more broken and complicated – a family.

Back in the glory days, the superheroes were civil servants held in high regard – one of the foremost of those being Mr. Incredible (voiced by Crag T Nelson), but they soon fell out of favor due to scandal and public controversy. Thus, they drifted into obscurity and their aliases quickly became their real life.

This is where this story gets interesting, as Bob and Ellen Parr, as they are known now, are living life with three kids. Ellen (voiced by Holly Hunter) is happy to give it a go and live the normal everyday existence, but Bob yearns for something more than rush hour traffic and a cramped cubicle in a thankless job. And when he gets a mysterious message with mission impossible-like implications. He is indubitably intrigued.

He begins moonlighting again, sneaking around behind Ellen’s back not wanting to needlessly worry her. He touches bases with his old friend and colleague Edna Mode (Bird himself), who supplies him with a new super suit sans cape. It’s just like old times with the super getting the respect he once garnered from everyone, and his family is happy and healthy. Everything is looking up.

But of course, behind these missions of his is something a little more sinister than he could have ever imagined. Of course, when his wife catches wind of it she expects something completely different – their marriage must be failing. That’s the only possible reason for him sneaking around.

Thus, mother and two stowaways head to a volcanic island smoldering with destructive peril. Mr. Incredible meets his match and is brought low as his past mistakes finally catch up to him. He realizes his weakness and more importantly how much his wife means to him. He could not go on without her. However, his wife and kids do not wallow in their predicament as they try and save the world from the dastardly deeds of the begrudging supervillain Syndrome. It’s in this final showdown that Mr. and Mrs. Incredible are back in their element with their compadre Frozone (Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson). Except now they are joined by their speedy son Dash and their invisible, force-field wielding daughter Violet, who both feel confident in their skin.  A giant mechanical robot is no match for such a crew, especially when they’re a family.

True, these characters have superpowers and special abilities, but then don’t we all in some way, shape, or form? This is a story about the nuclear family when that dynamic is blowing up, and a story about being comfortable in your own skin, in a society that often makes that difficult. So Pixar does the seemingly superhuman yet again by delivering up a popcorn-action-adventure-family film, that still somehow holds up to multiple viewings. It’s retro cool, quotable, and gives its voice actors space to gel. They breathe life into this story, while their contours come alive on screen. It’s a childhood favorite and for a very good reason.

4.5/5 Stars