Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

Age of Ultron, the 2015 follow-up to The Avengers, is an interesting movie, but not always for the right reasons. While 2012’s Avengers was a simple, focused showcase of action and fanservice, Age of Ultron seems unsure of what it wants to be. The Avengers movies should be the apex of their respective “phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating the individual story arcs of the heroes of the preceding films, and giving a justifiable reason for them to collectively close those chapters of their stories. Age of Ultron, however, rarely seems like the follow-up to what its predecessors were building towards, and often seems preoccupied with hyping up the movies to come. Combine that with a villain’s story arc that feels rushed into the proceedings, and Age of Ultron is the Avengers film that feels all over the place.

Age of Ultron reunites the Avengers: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They’ve successfully raided the fortress of the Hydra commander Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, who was in possession of Loki’s staff (spear, scepter, whatever) from the first Avengers film. It’s here that the Avengers first encounter Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), twins who have been given superhuman powers by the experimentations of Strucker (Wanda has telepathic/energy powers, and Pietro can run at super speeds).

Later, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner discover that the gem on Lok’s staff possesses an artificial intelligence, and in secret from the rest of the team, decide to utilize it to finish Tony Stark’s dream of the “Ultron” global defense system.

Things don’t go as planned, however, and Ultron gains a sentience that – after instantaneously developing knowledge of the world via the internet and various databases and archives – determines that humans are in need of extinction. Ultron destroys Stark’s beloved AI, J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany), and takes control of many of Stark’s machines, creating an army of robot bodies for himself. Ultron (James Spader) sets out to bring about human extinction, and recruits Wanda and Pietro – who only wish to defeat the Avengers and are unaware of Ultron’s true intentions – to his cause. Naturally, it’s up to the combined efforts of the Avengers to put a stop to Ultron’s evil plot.

The idea that the Avengers needing to save the world from an evil robot may not sound too complex of a plot, but thanks to a few creative missteps, Age of Ultron ends up feeling overstuffed and confused as to where it wants to go. There’s still entertainment to be had with Age of Ultron, but it falls considerably short of its predecessor by not studying what made the first Avengers work so well.

The first of Age of Ultron’s great sins is Ultron himself. Though Spader gives a good performance – adding a touch of humor to the mad machine’s menace – the character often feels lost in the shuffle. The original Avengers worked so well largely because it resurrected an established villain. Loki had his introduction in Thor. His character, motivation and power were all introduced in that film. By bringing Loki back for The Avengers, the film didn’t need to take the time to establish him as a threat, and instead could focus almost entirely on the idea of the heroes teaming up to stop him.

By contrast, Ultron’s introduction in his titular movie feels insanely rushed. At no prior point in the MCU was Stark’s idea for any global defense system (let alone one named ‘Ultron’) ever brought up. Age of Ultron rapidly presents the idea as something Stark and Banner have discussed before, sees them create the AI, and shows Ultron gain sentience and go berserk all in a single scene. The film then scrambles to make Ultron a viable threat that warrants the necessity of the Avengers to reunite.

Ultron would have worked so much better as a villain if he had a proper build. Perhaps if Stark’s idea for Ultron – and his and Banner’s work on the project – were established in a previous film, then Age of Ultron could have simply seen the AI go rogue and become the villainous robot he was destined to be. As it is, Ultron’s very presence feels rushed into the film, and because his entire arc is presented in a film that already had to continue the arcs of each Avenger (in addition to introducing Wanda and Pietro, as well as Vision, an artificial super being with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s conscience), it makes Age of Ultron feel more bloated than epic.

The other big issue with Age of Ultron is that much of it is sidetracked with hyping up the future of the MCU. Every MCU film hints and teases at what’s to come in the mega-franchise, but the Avengers films should serve as some form of closure. Sure, the original Avengers brought us the initial glimpses of the MCU’s big bad in the form of Loki’s cosmic benefactor, but it did so on the side. The Avengers linked to the greater mythology of the MCU through that one element, but it was underplayed, with the film otherwise bringing a sense of closure to “Phase One” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Age of Ultron, by contrast, features an entire subplot of Thor having visions of the Infinity Stones, and the big bad who wishes to claim them. We even get a few teases of Black Panther with the presence of Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) and several Wakanda name drops.

2012’s Avengers wrapped up everything that preceded it with a nice little bow, while giving a small hint of the future. Age of Ultron, unfortunately, is so preoccupied with hyping future installments that it’s own story – which already didn’t have the luxury of being built up in previous films – flounders because of it.

With all this said, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t an all-out bad movie. It still contains some top notch action set pieces that should satisfy any super hero fan (though none of the action scenes here match up to those of the original Avengers). And the returning Avengers still have their distinct personalities, with plenty of fun quips and one-liners still present (one particularly funny running gag involves the technicalities of Thor’s hammer, and how only the “worthy” can lift it).

There’s still fun to be had with Age of Ultron. There are plenty of moments that provide some good, solid entertainment. But when it faces the inevitable comparison to its predecessor, it falls considerably short. The first Avengers could have been a disaster with all the elements it had to juggle, but it miraculously weaved them all together in a way that delivered a satisfying coming-together sequel of all its involved parties. Age of Ultron simply didn’t repeat what made its predecessor such a roaring success.

The Avengers films should be the culmination of what all the preceding MCU features build towards. But Age of Ultron doesn’t continue what any of its predecessors started, and is so busy being a hype machine for future MCU installments, that it simply doesn’t live up to its status as an Avengers film.

 

5

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Marvel’s The Avengers Review

In 2008’s Iron Man, its now-trailblazing after-credits sequence featured Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of the organization S.H.I.E.L.D., confront Iron Man himself, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Fury would utter the line “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers initiative.” This was the first tease of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a bold concept that sought to link different Marvel movie franchises together as part of one singular mega-franchise.

Having multiple narratives take place in a shared mythology was something that comic books (and to a lesser extent, video games) had been doing for decades. But such a concept seemed too monumental a task to undertake in the movie world. Comics and video games provided easier means for creators to spread out their own works. But movies would require different creators to work on different films (often simultaneously), giving each their own unique vision, while also weaving them into a coherent whole.

Iron Man was followed by The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), each one featuring teases and hints of a greater franchise shared between them. The Marvel Cinematic Universe came to fruition with the release of The Avengers in 2012.

The Avengers brought together the stars of the five previous films: Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, mercifully replacing Edward Norton from the 2008 film), in addition to two other heroes featured in the previous films, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

The heroes are all brought together when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) – the villainous brother of Thor – is transported to Earth, and absconds with the Tesserect, an all-powerful energy sourcewhich was being studied by S.H.I.E.L.D. Loki, under instruction from a mysterious cosmic despot, is equipped with a magic weapon that can control the minds of others (the film humorously can’t decide if this weapon is a spear, staff or scepter). Loki takes control of several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (including Hawkeye) and one Dr. Selvig (Stellen Skarsgard), and makes off with the Tesserect, destroying the S.H.I.E.L.D. base in the process. A desperate Nick Fury decides now is a grave enough situation to finally act of the Avengers Initiative.

It’s a simple enough setup, but that’s part of why the film ends up working so well. It never overthinks what it needs to be, and wisely understands that the literal plot isn’t what needed all the time and attention in this particular instance. The important thing was how to bring all these characters together and how they interact with one another.

Naturally, there is conflict among our heroes, with their differing personalities butting heads with one another, particularly Captain America and Iron Man (the former being the ideal selfless hero, and the latter, while still ultimately good, is an arrogant showman). Thor, being from another world and still having sympathy for his vengeful brother, is often at odds with the earthly heroes. And there’s always the lingering tension that Bruce Banner can, at any minute, become the monstrous Hulk. It’s Nick Fury and Black Widow who have the coolest heads among them, while Hawkeye gets the short end of the stick as a mindless zombie under Loki’s control for most of the film.

There was something truly special about seeing all these heroes come together on the big screen back in 2012. And even though the MCU is omnipresent nowadays, there’s still a lot of charm exuding from this first Marvel hero get-together.

Another reason The Avengers works so well is that it functions as a proper sequel to all parties involved. The Avengers can be enjoyed on its own merits (another big plus), but it made the wise decision to utilize assets established in all five of its preceding films in order to tell its own story. The joining together of the different heroes is obvious, but re-using an established villain in Loki was a brilliant move. As the bitter younger brother of Thor, we already know his personality, his desires, and his goals. He’s an established threat powerful enough to justify the coming-together of all these heroes. And after his defeat at the hands of his brother in Thor’s titular film, Loki is more determined than ever, and wishes to enslave the Earth as a petty means to get back at his brother. Even the plot device Loki wishes to use, the Tesserect,  was first introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger.

None of these aspects simply feel recycled, however, and instead The Avengers uses these established characters and elements to build its own narrative. Some of the characters, including (if not especially) Loki, even became more fleshed out with their appearances here. As stated, there’s not a whole lot to the storyline other than “good guys need to team up to stop the bad guy,” but that’s part of why The Avengers works as well as it does. The previous five installments of the MCU gave us the stories of these characters, and Avengers was to be their big, fanservice-heavy collective sequel. It’s not an origin story like its predecessors, but one big action movie that happens to star the heroes of five previous super hero films.

The action set pieces remain some of the best not only in the MCU, but of the entire movie decade. It’s final battle – which sees Loki summon an army of aliens called Chitauri into New York City – is an extensive battle sequence that ramps up the excitement as it goes on. It should rank as one of the best battle sequences in movie history, and was inarguably the best since The Lord of the Rings trilogy gave us the battles of Helms Deep and Minas Tirith.

But The Avengers is also a very funny movie, which adds to its entertainment value. This is a rare example of a movie which gives each of its distinct characters the opportunity to ease the tension with one-liners and witty quips. Naturally, the sarcastic Tony Stark dishes out the most zingers, but the humor is successfully spread throughout its cast, playing uniquely into each of their distinct personalities. It’s a genuinely funny movie.

The MCU would naturally mature over time, with appropriately more dramatic storytelling. But the first gathering of the Avengers was just all-out entertainment. And there’s something that remains delightful about that. It hints at the largest threat of the MCU (Loki’s mysterious benefactor seems important), but only does so in small doses, and wisely keeps its focus on the individual heroes needing to set aside their differences for a greater good. It’s a rare instance of a big blockbuster in the 2010s knowing exactly what it needs to be, and doing just that.

Yes, the MCU has grown up a lot in the seven years since The Avengers was released. And the heroes have now shown up so frequently in each other’s movies that seeing them all join together here may not seem as mind-blowing as it once did. But The Avengers is still perhaps the ideal go-to entry of the MCU for those simply looking for a consistently good time.

 

8

Shazam! Review

Shazam! is a pleasant surprise. While the DC Extended Universe has been a bit of a mess – trying to play catch up with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe too quickly and filled with movies who think forced brooding and edginess equate to maturity – Shazam! takes a step back, looks at the current state of the super hero genre, and happily takes it back to its more innocent early years. In a time when even Marvel’s films are becoming more and more serious (though they have actually earned their more mature tone after years of growing, and still understand that being ‘serious’ doesn’t have to come at the expense of fun), it’s fun to see a movie like Shazam! embrace the sillier side of comic book super heroes.

Formerly known as Captain Marvel (yeah, it’s a little confusing, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now), Shazam is actually one of the oldest comic book super heroes. And yet, he’s remained relatively obscure, never reaching the mainstream heights of Superman, Batman or Marvel’s Spider-Man. Hopefully this movie can change that, and do to Shazam! what 2008’s Iron Man did for its titular super hero, and turn its subject into a mainstream attraction.

It’s a wonder why Shazam has remained in Superman’s shadow. The origin story of this hero is at once simple and earnest, and something of a parody of super hero conventions (which it did long before parodying super hero conventions was a thing). Most super heroes are born with their powers (like Superman or the X-Men), gain them through freak accidents (the Incredible Hulk) or make them through their own skillsets (like Batman and Iron Man), and have duel identities of hero and civilian. Shazam, meanwhile, is a kid who transforms into an adult superhero by the magic gifted to him by a wizard.

It’s a beautifully simplistic origin story, really. And I kind of wish more comic book authors would have looked to it for inspiration over many of the more convoluted super hero origins that became the norm.

The kid in question is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan who has bounced around from one foster home to the next, often running away on his own volition. Billy eventually finds himself in another foster home, where he becomes foster brothers with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled super hero fan who quickly becomes Billy’s best friend, despite their differing personalities.

Meanwhile, in another dimension, an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) has been keeping seven demons (named after the Seven Deadly Sins) imprisoned with his power for centuries. But Shazam’s body is succumbing to age, and his seal on the demons is withering along with his body. Shazam has thus been seeking an heir to inherit his immense magical power, both to keep the demons sealed away, and to protect the mortal world from any other supernatural threats. After his fellow wizards put their faith on a successor that went rogue long ago, Shazam sought to find the perfect heir.

Shazam’s spells had found him many candidates through the years, but all of them failed his tests of character in one way or another. So he continued his duty despite his weakening seal on the demons. One of these failed heirs, however, became obsessed with discovering the way back to Shazam’s dimension. Naturally, this individual became an evil genius, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). After Sivana discovers a portal to Shazam’s realm some decades later, he takes revenge on the wizard by taking the power of the demons, which he plans on unleashing on the Earth for his own nefarious gains.

With no more time to lose in his misguided quest for a ‘perfect’ candidate, Shazam changes course to find the best possible candidate in the time he has left. And when Billy displays his strength of character by standing up to some bullies who were harassing Freddy, he is summoned to Shazam’s chambers to inherit the wizards unfathomable power, which he can call upon at any time by saying the sorcerer’s name.

In place of merely possessing the wizard’s abilities, Billy is transformed into an adult super hero (Zachary Levi) whenever he utters Shazam’s name (and reverts back to his normal self whenever he says it in his hero form). Not knowing what to do with his newfound power, Billy seeks the aide of Freddie’s extensive knowledge of super heroes to discover the true extent of his abilities.

The premise itself is just so much fun. I make no secret my disdain for Superman, a character who can essentially outdo every other DC hero at their own game, and does so with a holier-than-thou disposition. But here we have a hero who is just as powerful as Superman (more so in some continuities), but has the carefree, irresponsible and sarcastic attitude of a kid. While Superman often seems to look down on “lesser” beings, Shazam is likely to be as surprised and amazed by his own powers as everyone around him. Superman is so often treated as a perfect beacon of heroism, but is actually kind of arrogant and condescending. Shazam, on the other hand, is recognized as having flaws despite his power, and has to learn and grow because of his faults, making him a far more compelling character.

Yeah, I’m going on about the contrasts between Shazam and ol’ Supes. But I find that Shazam as a character is essentially a better and more lighthearted version of the Man of Steel. I’m happy that this movie might make more people recognize the character of Shazam after being left out of the mainstream for so long.

And yes, the film Shazam! fully embraces the silly nature of the character. This is one of the funniest super hero films in recent memory. While the majority of the DCEU has been bogged down by its “edgelord” mentality, and the MCU has grown more serious as it reaches its crescendo, Shazam! is a delightful break from brooding that tells a good story, and has a whole lot of fun with it.

That’s not to say the film lacks seriousness. On the contrary, the character development feels organic, and the emotional moments feel rightly earned. Shazam! is a super hero film that understands you can laugh at the material without making itself a joke. The acting is similarly well done, with Angel, Grazer and Levi all giving memorable performances that add to both the film’s story and its sense of humor.

Unfortunately, Shazam does make a few missteps with its pacing. A number of key story moments come off as rushed, while other, less important moments can linger at times. In one notable example, the first scene we meet the adult Dr. Sivana and learn of his quest to return to Shazam’s dimension…is also the the scene in which Dr. Sivana discovers his way back to Shazam’s dimension. The film’s opening scene (which depicts a young Sivana who fails Shazam’s test) gives us a good understanding of the character’s motivation, but it’s a shame that when we’re re-introduced to the character in his proper villainous state, we kind of get rushed through his ambitions.

Still, whatever pacing issues the film may have ultimately can’t detract from Shazam!’s entertainment value. Shazam! is a film that rewinds the clock back a bit, to a time when super hero films were a bit lighter and more breezy, but still treats its story with respect and dignity. Shazam! is a funny and surprisingly thoughtful movie that delivers on its poignant moments almost as often as it does its comedic ones (the relationship between Billy and Freddy is a refreshingly original dynamic for a super hero film). It’s certainly the best DCEU film so far, and one of 2019’s most charming movies.

And yes, I think Shazam would totally beat Superman in a fight.

 

7

Dumbo (2019) Review

No movie studio has ever had the sheer dominance that Disney has now. Between its own animation division and that of Pixar Animation Studios, Disney’s animated output has never been stronger critically and commercially. Combine that with their adopted branches of Marvel and Star Wars, and Disney nearly has a monopoly on blockbuster filmmaking in the modern age. Outside of these “big four” divisions, Disney has also found a recent trend of creating live-action remakes of their animated back catalogue, which have also proven to be box office successes, though they have a much more mixed reception than the aforementioned Disney franchises.

The Jungle Book (2016) is the most widely embraced of these remakes, though 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a substantial box office success as well. Still, many audiences still question the necessity of these live-action remakes as a continuing sub-genre for Disney. After all, if Disney’s animated films are already considered timeless classics, they never really needed to be remade to begin with.

But Disney will continue with these live-action remakes (which I personally don’t mind, as I’ve enjoyed some of them, and it’s not like they take anything away from the original films). And now the House of Mouse has gone back to the well that started it all by enlisting Tim Burton – who directed 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, which set this sub-genre in motion – to helm the live-action remake of one of Disney’s most beloved films, Dumbo.

Now, I do have to admit, I’ve had an inescapable fondness for Dumbo ever since I was little. The original Disney film made elephants my favorite animal as a kid, helped me learn about storytelling, and yes, I attribute Dumbo as being the reason I’ve never drunk alcohol. As such, Disney would have had to actively sabotage this remake in order for me to outright dislike it. Don’t get me wrong, 2019’s Dumbo suffers from a number of the same shortcomings of not only the past live-action Disney remakes, but of Tim Burton’s resume as a whole. But I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t melt every time the film manages to find its footing and tell the simple story of a misfit baby elephant who just wants to see his mom.

Of course, it’s because Burton and company see fit to expand this simple story that this remake isn’t on the same level as the original, but that’s not to say that their efforts are completely in vain. There’s a stronger focus on human characters this time around, and while they can at times overshadow the titular pachyderm we all came to see, they can also add to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, the main human character, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), is a little on the bland side. Farrell is fine in the role, but the role doesn’t have much of note written for him. Holt is a former circus performer-turned soldier, who returns home with only one arm, a deceased wife, and the circus he called home stuck in a rut. The character’s backstory is decent, but Holt has little else in the realms of personality, nor does his story arc go very far from where we meet him. Holt has two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finely Hobbins), the former with hopes to become a scientist, and the latter… well… he’s a boy (I honestly can’t give more of a description of the character).

On the brighter side of things, the down-on-his-luck ringmaster of Holt’s circus is Max Medici (Danny DeVito). And do I really need to explain why Danny DeVito as a down-on-his-luck circus ringmaster is entertaining? The other strong human character is V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a rich entrepreneur in the entertainment industry who begins to notice Medici’s small-time circus once word spreads they’ve found themselves a flying elephant. Vandevere of course sees nothing but dollar signs in Medici’s star attraction, and Keaton wonderfully plays the role as a kind of sequel to his performance as Ray Croc in The Founder. Vandevere is often accompanied by the French beauty, Collette (Eva Green), though unfortunately she’s only slightly more interesting than Holt.

Obviously, there are quite a few human characters, which won’t sit well for everyone, considering this is Dumbo. Thankfully, the film is much more consistent when it decides to focus on the titular elephant. As in the 1941 original, Dumbo himself never speaks, nor does he need to. Though sadly, Dumbo doesn’t have a talking mouse to speak for him this time around, which kind of epitomizes the complaints geared towards Disney’s live-action remakes. In their attempts to be more grounded, they rob these stories of some of their most imaginative elements (considering this is a story about a flying elephant, is a talking mouse really so out of place?).

What’s unique about this particular remake is that, contrary to some of its recent predecessors, Dumbo does justify its existence a bit more by actually remixing the story a bit, instead of merely retreading it. The 1941 film ended with Dumbo learning his ability to fly with his oversized ears, but here, the revelation takes place in the first act. The counterargument to this change would be that it mostly exists to create more conflict between the human characters (with Vandevere manipulating Medici to procure the elephant), but it is admirable to see Tim Burton and company try their hand at their own take on the story.

The film makes a few other changes as well, some of which surely won’t sit well with purists. Along with the absence of Timothy the mouse (who only shows up in a seconds-long cameo, unable to speak), the psychedelic ‘Pink Elephants’ number – which warned of the dangers of alcohol in a way only animation could – has been gutted. Some of the Pink Elephants imagery is recreated as ‘bubble art’ in Vandevere’s amusement park, but it lacks the purpose and surrealism of the song that inspired it.

What matters most, of course, is that the film gets the heart of the story right. That is to say, the relationship between Dumbo and his mother, Mrs. Jumbo. Thankfully, as sidetracked as the film might get at times, when it does focus on Dumbo attempting to be reunited with his captive mother, it finds its footing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little misty-eyed on a few different occasions when the film shifts its focus back to “sad baby elephant wants to see his mama.”

Is Tim Burton’s Dumbo cheating its way to my heart through the use of a story I’ve had an innate love for since I was a child? Maybe. But I’m also not a machine who can turn off their emotions, and “baby elephant wants to see his mom” is a setup that will always make my heart swell. And, well, this remake delivers on just that.

Tim Burton’s interpretation of Dumbo may be far from perfect – as it gets too distracted too often, and a number of the human characters fall flat – but it still manages to find the heart of the story when it matters. Sure, if you’re not a fan of Disney’s live-action remakes, this version of Dumbo won’t win you over. But the film has Burton’s distinct visual style, and manages to blend it with the colorful world of the source material without it ever feeling off-putting. Both Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton’s characters are great, and yes, Dumbo’s simple journey to be reunited with his mom still tugs at the heart strings.

 

6

Captain Marvel Review

As we approach Avengers: Endgame, we’re not only coming to the conclusion of Phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the climax of the ten-plus year journey of the MCU so far. As such, we’re beginning to see the next generation of key players come into the MCU, from Dr. Strange to Spider-Man to Black Panther. The newest player in the MCU (and the last one introduced before Endgame) is none other than Captain Marvel, whose Marvel Studios proclaims to be the most powerful character in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, no matter how powerful a super hero is, it doesn’t amount to much if the story they’re telling is weak. And with Marvel’s recent string of hits, Captain Marvel has a pretty steep hill to climb.

Unfortunately, despite being the MCU’s most powerful super being, Captain Marvel can’t seem to carry her own movie. It’s not that it’s a bad movie per se, just that it’s so by-the-books and average that it doesn’t stand out in any way. It’s so average that by the day after I saw it, I saw a commercial for it and thought “oh yeah, I saw that movie.” Unless you somehow haven’t seen an MCU movie for the past several years, there’s nothing about Captain Marvel that will prove particularly memorable.

Taking place in 1995, Captain Marvel is a prequel to the all but one other MCU film (Captain America: The First Avenger). Our titular heroine is called ‘Very’ (Brie Larson), an Earth-born human pilot who gained incredible power after she was involved in a mysterious plane crash that also left her with amnesia. She was then taken in by the Kree, a race of “alien warrior heroes” who have been battling an endless war against the Skrulls, mysterious shape-shifting beings.

Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers has become an unstoppable fighting machine in the war against the Skrulls. Though she longs to remember her true past, especially after she meets up with ‘The Supreme Intelligence’ – the Kree’s AI leader who appears to different individuals as “the person they most admire” – whom appears to Vers as a woman she’s seen only in flashbacks (Annette Bening).

Vers inadvertently gets her wish to rediscover her past, when an encounter with a Skrull named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) ends up sending her down to Earth, where she meets a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and embarks on a journey that takes her to many places from her past.

Again, it all sounds promising. And I once again stress that the movie isn’t bad. It’s just that, when all is said and done, it really doesn’t feel like anything new. It’s the most ‘vanilla’ MCU film to come along in a good while.

The one bit of originality Captain Marvel attempts is telling the origin story of its titular hero in a non-linear, out-of-sequence fashion, with the film jumping between the present day of the film and Vers’s plane crash and the events leading up to it. The film also does a pretty good job at delivering a more novice Nick Fury learning his craft (as well as explaining how he lost one of his eyes).

Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn and Annette Bening all give memorable performances (with Ben Mendelsohn’s character getting a pleasantly surprising amount of comedy, and Bening playing a duel role that showcases very different personalities). The CG used to de-age Samuel L. Jackson is also impressive (we’ve come a long way since the creepy young Tony Stark from Captain America: Civil War), though I suppose it helps that Sam Jackson has aged very well.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the cast is as impressive. Brie Larson feels void of charisma in her role, which is especially affecting to the film seeing as she’s the main character. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that the character is written so blandly, with the film continuously emphasizing how powerful she is, without giving us much reason to care for her as a character. Captain Marvel is already at risk of being a deus ex machine for the MCU, if she is indeed the one to defeat Thanos after just being introduced to the mega-franchise in the eleventh hour. The fact that the character is written without any real character flaw makes this even more concerning.

Although not as big of a detriment, Jude Law’s role also seems surprisingly empty. The movie builds him up to be an important figure in the story, but through long stretches of the film, you may forget he’s even a part of it.

Again, I don’t want to sound too hard on the film, because it isn’t necessarily bad, just resoundingly uneventful. It has great special effects (again I emphasize the de-aging on Jackson), the action scenes are fun, and the overall entertainment value is there to a degree. But the same could be said about most MCU films, and aside from the aforementioned back and forth with the origin story, Captain Marvel doesn’t really try its hand at anything new for the franchise. And when the film starts veering into a series of plot twists that feel like they’ve already been done in the MCU, this is only emphasized. Combine that with the film’s disappointingly wooden heroine, and Captain Marvel fails to live up to its potential.

I’m sure plenty of people will have fun with Captain Marvel. But it too often comes across as too little, too late for the MCU. There’s just not enough here that feels special or unique, and if anything, Captain Marvel feels more like its regressed back to the Phase One days of the MCU with its simple and straightforward origin story. Captain Marvel may be “the most powerful character in the MCU,” but her movie feels like one of the least powerful of the lot in a good while.

 

5

Fighting with My Family Review

*Caution: review contains spoilers*

The world of professional wrestling is one of peaks and plateaus. Depending on the quality of the in-ring action, promos and backstage segments, pro-wrestling is either monumentally entertaining, or so bad it’s cringeworthy. Middle ground is almost nonexistent.

This extreme contrast has seemingly found its way into movies based on professional wrestling. You either have the serious side of things which depict the hard lives professional wrestlers live (usually through documentaries), or the completely moronic comedies that insult the intelligence of their audience, seemingly because they assume wrestling fans are stupid (like Ready to Rumble).

Fighting with My Family is a pleasant surprise then, pulling off a feat which has previously seemed impossible: delivering an entertaining and heartfelt movie rooted in the world of professional wrestling. A family-based comedy/drama revolving around real life professional wrestler Paige (real name Saraya Bevis), and her journey to the WWE, which eventually lead to her to changing the company’s perception of women’s wrestling for the better.

Taking place in the early 2010s, Fighting with My Family follows Saraya/Paige (Florence Pugh) and her family of wrestlers: older brother Zak “Zodiac” (Jack Lowden), father Patrick “Rowdy Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost) and mother Julia “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headey). You probably noticed that Paige’s real name is her mother’s ring-name. That’s how dedicated the family is to the sport.

Patrick and Julia own a small-town wrestling promotion, and have trained Zak and Saraya from an early age to follow in the family tradition as professional wrestlers, with Paige having had her first match at the age of thirteen. Both Paige and Zak have sent audition tapes to the WWE in hopes of making it big in the industry, and eventually NXT (WWE’s developmental brand) stops by their hometown looking for tryouts. Paige and Zak’s coach in NXT training is Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), whose cold disposition emphasizes the rough road the siblings have ahead of them. And when Paige is eventually selected to move on to the NXT brand while Zak is denied, it creates a riff in the sibling’s relationship.

What caught me by surprise about Fighting with My Family is that it’s a genuinely good and entertaining – even inspiring – biopic whether you’re a wrestling fan (such as myself) or not. The film was written and directed by Stephen Merchant (best known as co-creator of The Office, but best known to me as the voice of Wheatley in Portal 2), and executive produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who has a recurring role as himself in the film). Merchant’s writing and directing, in addition to the performances by the actors (especially Pugh, Lowden and Frost) help give the film a strong emotional weight, as well as a strong sense of humor (though not all of the jokes stick the landing).

Fighting with My Family is ultimately an underdog/rags-to-riches story, but one that feels pretty unique for two key reasons: one is the simple fact that it treats the world of professional wrestling as a serious and relatable backdrop for its story. Under less capable hands, the film may have aimed lower, given the popular misconceptions of the pro wrestling industry (news flash Hollywood, we all know it’s a show. That why we like it).

The other reason is its heroine. The pale-skinned, raven-haired Paige was as different as can be from the typical bleached blonde, spray-tanned, plastic-bodied “WWE Diva” that had been present in the company even before WWE’s wildly popular (but actually kind of crappy) Attitude Era sent things into overdrive. Though the film may suffer a tad from a mostly overly flattering portrayal of the WWE, it displays enough humility from the company to admit to its rampantly sexist past (a little eye candy and sex appeal is fine. But blatant sexual objectification is a problem, one which WWE indulged in for far too long). It’s pointed out in the film that every other female competitor training alongside Paige was either a model or a cheerleader hired for their looks, as opposed to a life-long wrestler like Paige.

The biopic chronicles Paige’s time in NXT and culminates with her debut on WWE’s main roster in 2014, in which she defeated AJ Lee to claim the WWE Divas Championship (at the time the company’s token attempt at a women’s title) to become the youngest women’s champion in company history. By ending the story when it does, the film ensures a happy, inspirational ending.

Though the sad truth is that Paige’s in-ring career has a more tragic ending. Despite being the primary centerpiece for WWE’s progressive evolution of its women’s division (though AJ Lee deserves some of the credit as well, she wasn’t the in-ring competitor Paige was), Paige barely got to see the fruits of her labor firsthand. Once she actually received some worthy competition on the roster with the likes of Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, Asuka, Bayley and Becky Lynch – as well as WWE dropping the “Divas” term entirely and introducing more serious women’s championships – a multitude of injuries saw Paige miss one opportunity after another, and shortly after a comeback in late 2017, forced her into an early retirement (she still makes various on-screen roles for the company, but can no longer compete in the ring). But I suppose it’s nice to see a wrestling movie have a happy ending for once.

As a wrestling nerd, I do have to nitpick some of the historical revisions the film makes, particularly in regards to NXT. In the film, NXT is presented as little more than a gym where wrestlers train for their WWE debut. While it’s true NXT serves as the company’s “developmental” brand, it is a fully-functioning brand in its own right, complete with championships and pay-per view events.

I only bring this up because the film skips over an important detail in Paige’s career as a consequence of this. Joining NXT in its early years, Paige was the inaugural NXT Women’s Champion, a title she held at the same time she won the WWE Divas Championship. I’m guessing the film was aiming to make the Divas Championship victory feel more important by removing a previous title victory. But considering Paige’s NXT Women’s Championship win was pretty much the first step in her changing women’s wrestling in WWE, it seems like a bizarre omission in the story.

Fighting with My Family is a pleasant surprise, a movie about professional wrestling that proves to be both entertaining and inspirational. Fans of professional wrestling will definitely enjoy it. And for a nice change, it’s a wrestling movie that you can enjoy even with no knowledge of the sport whatsoever. It may even get non-fans to tune into a professional wrestling show to see what all the fuss is about. I only hope that, should they tune in, it’s during one of its ‘peak’ moments…

 

7

Glass Review

*Caution: Review contains major spoilers for both Unbreakable and Split*

 

If ever there were a textbook example of how to bring a movie trilogy to a satisfying close… Glass is the exact opposite of it.

Now, to be fair, not everything in Glass is terrible: The early portions show a lot of promise with the concept of a singular film serving as a sequel to two others, and the main players of Bruce Willis as Dennis Dunn, Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price (AKA the titular “Mr. Glass”), and James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb (AKA “The Horde” due to the multiple personalities existing within him) bring with them all the talents they brought to Unbreakable and Split. But poor M. Night Shaymalan just can’t help himself. Instead of the satisfying conclusion to Unbreakable and Split’s respective mythologies we were hoping for – or the build-up to more Shaymalan super heroes and villains it could have been – we get an eye-rolling, stereotypical Shaymalanian plot twist that robs the third act of any and all momentum, with the remainder of the film limping feebly to get to the end credits.

It seems like “subverting expectations” is the big thing directors are going for these days. On one hand, I can totally respect that. Audiences don’t want to see the same thing over and over, and seeing something new or being surprised can be a real treat. But there are also times when maybe filmmakers should take a step back and not try to buck trends just for the hell of it. Subverting genre norms can indeed work wonders (M. Night Shaymalan did it himself with Unbreakable). But if you give me the option between a well-directed, good movie that may be a tad formulaic, or a clunky, bad movie that also happens to be original, well, I know which one I’d rather watch.

Glass seems like it’s actively trying to disappoint fans by the end of it. I’m almost impressed with how much effort seems to have gone into giving the “Eastrail 177 trilogy” as unsatisfying of an ending as possible.

Now, again, there is some merit to be had with Glass, but mostly in its first half. David Dunn now operates a security company by day, and dishes out vigilante justice at night. Having embraced his superhuman abilities since the events of Unbreakable, David has earned the monicker of “The Overseer” for the watchful eye he has over the city. The film begins with Dunn tracking down The Beast who, as anyone who watched Split will know, is the super-powered, animalistic personality of Kevin Wendell Crumb (who has a total of twenty-three other, non-super-powered personalities).

When Dunn finds Crumb’s hideaway and rescues his most recent captives, the fight that ensues – true to the nature of the series – is nothing flashy or pretty to look at. It isn’t heavily choreographed and there’s no spectacular stuntwork. It’s an appropriate slugfest between an average Joe and a mentally unstable individual who both just happen to possess super strength.

“There’s a little too much of THIS in the movie. A little more anything else would have been nice.”

But then…the fight abruptly ends, as both men (all twenty-five men?) are then taken into custody by the police, and are sent to a mental institution. Another patient of the institution is Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price, the super genius with fragile bones who served as the deuteragonist/surprise antagonist of Unbreakable. Because of his super intellect, Price is under constant sedation to prevent him from causing harm or escaping. All three men are under the watchful eye of Dr. Ellie Stapler (Sarah Paulson), who believes all three men to be suffering from delusions of grandeur, and that there’s nothing truly ‘super’ about them.

And then… most of the film takes place in the mental institution. That’s right, this crossover sequel featuring a super powered Bruce Willis, an unhinged James McAvoy and an evil genius Samuel L. Jackson is predominantly relegated to the cramped rooms and halls of a mental institute. Gee, I’m sure that’s exactly what fans were hoping for after Split revealed itself as a surprise Unbreakable sequel just before the credits rolled.

Once again, in the name of fairness, I was onboard with the confined setting for a while, as it seems that the film was actually going to be more about David Dunn, Kevin Wendell Crumb and Elijah Price as characters than it was going to be about the epic showdown between the Overseer and the Beast. In that regard, the “subverting of expectations” was making sense to me. But once Glass veers off and takes a wrong turn, it just keeps making them.

At the end of Unbreakable, David Dunn is warned that villains come in different varieties, specifically “soldiers” and “masterminds.” Mr. Glass was revealed to be a mastermind, and when Split revealed that it was in the same world as Unbreakable, Kevin Wendell Crumb’s Beast gave us the answer as to who would play the role of soldier. All Glass really needed to be was the story of these three characters coming together. David Dunn taking on the Beast, the latter under the influence of Mr. Glass. And for a while, that’s what Glass seems to be building towards. But then it decides that isn’t good enough, and instead spends more time with Ellie Stapler trying to convince the established characters that they aren’t comic book characters before shoehorning in an utterly souring plot twist. Glass just overthinks what it needs itself to be, and ultimately stumbles because of it.

Of the three primary characters, only Kevin and his various personalities gets any real time to shine. We even get to see a few more of Kevin’s twenty-four personalities, which gives McAvoy plenty to do. If only Glass were as interested in the Unbreakable side of the spectrum. Once the film gets to the mental institute, David Dunn doesn’t so much feel like the hero of the story so much as a player who happens to be in it. We never really get a sense of motivation from Dunn. And Mr. Glass himself – the namesake of the movie – gets surprisingly little screen time. Of course Samuel L. Jackson steals the show when he’s allowed, but he rarely seems allowed. That’s a true shame, because Unbreakable made Mr. Glass into hands down the best character in any M. Night Shaymalan film.

“Each superhuman has a close affiliate: David has his son, Glass has his mother, Kevin has…his kidnap victim…”

Glass also ends up finding its own ways to cripple the characters that Unbreakable and Split built. Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the sole survivor of the Beast’s crimes, suddenly seems to hold pity for the kidnapper/murderer/cannibal, which seems to undermine her character growth from Split (I get that Kevin is an ill man, but he literally became a comic book monster, so… kind of hard to feel too sorrowful for the guy). Her sympathy for Kevin can – at the worst of times – almost come off as romantic, which pretty much obliterates her character arc entirely. Combine that with David Dunn’s lack of presence, and Mr. Glass’s limited screen time, and the movie ends up feeling squandered in many different directions.

“Is it too much to ask for a little more Mr. Glass in a movie named after him?”

Once again, I have to admit that there are moments of Glass that are good (one of my particular favorites sees Mr. Glass consoling Kevin’s perpetually nine-year old personality, Hedwig, by reassuring him that he too is ‘special,’ despite not boasting the superhuman abilities of the Beast. It’s one of the few moments that reminds us why Mr. Glass is such an interesting, charismatic character). The film is at its best when it feels like a continuation of Unbreakable and Split. But the more it delves into its own story, the more it seems to go off-the-rails and lose any consistency in themes or tone. It’s as though Shaymalan took his best film (Unbreakable) and his comeback (Split), and put them together while simultaneously forgetting to include the strengths of both films. The director’s infamous weaknesses come into play (“what a twist!”), which makes it feel as though Shaymalan refuses to learn from his past mistakes. That these weaknesses have found their way into the joining together of Unbreakable and Split ends up turning what should have been something special in Glass into a bastardization of both parties involved.

Glass should have been an easy win for Shaymalan. And while it’s far from the director’s worst work (we are talking about the man who helmed The Last Airbender here), it is, unquestionably, his most disappointing film. By the end of it, I can’t imagine any fans of Unbreakable and Split walking away satisfied.

 

3