Avengers: Infinity War Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers regarding the first few minutes of Infinity War, and regarding the ending of previous MCU film Thor Ragnarok*

The Marvel Cinematic Universe proved to be the most successful gamble in movie history. What was at one time (if you can believe it) a risky move to see if the “shared universe” concept of comic books could be translated to cinema, the MCU has since become the biggest franchise in movie history.

When The Avengers was released in 2012, it brought together Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the former four having a feature film or two of their own beforehand, and the latter two having ‘guest roles’ in those same features. At the time, this was an unprecedented feat, and marked the point when the MCU came to fruition.

Little did we realize that The Avengers wasn’t the big payoff, but merely the end of the opening act of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. An unseen threat loomed behind the action in The Avengers, with the film’s mid-credits sequence revealing the foe to be Thanos, an intergalactic despot of immense strength and cataclysmic ambitions. That wasn’t a simple tease to the next Avengers film, however, as 2015’s Age of Ultron felt like an odd detour in the proceedings. The Thanos reveal was a glimpse at the full story arc of the entire MCU.

It would take the MCU a full decade from the release of Iron Man – the first film in the mega-franchise – before it reached its crescendo. After eighteen proceeding films from 2008 to 2018, everything came to a head with Avengers: Infinity War, the “first half” of the conclusion of the MCU up to this point.

Yes, after all this time, Thanos (Josh Brolin) decided to finally get off his floating space chair and go on his universal Easter egg hunt for the six Infinity Stones – five of which had been featured as previous plot devices in the MCU – with which he can alter all of reality as he sees fit with the snap of his fingers.

Infinity War begins shortly after the events of Thor Ragnarok. The spaceship housing the last surviving Asgardians after the destruction of their homeworld has been overtaken by Thanos and his cult-like followers, who have already claimed one Infinity Stone. Thanos has killed half of the Asgardians on the ship and subdued Thor, and bests even the Hulk in quick fashion, before finally killing Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to claim the Tesserect, and the second Infinity Stone within it. A dying Heimdall (Idris Elba) uses the last of his power to send Hulk to Earth, to warn its heroes of Thanos’s impending invasion. The Hulk winds up in the Sanctum Sanctorum, where he reverts back to Bruce Banner, and relays the warning to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

This all happens in about the first five or so minutes of the film. It’s certainly a strong opener for Infinity War, filled with a surprising amount of emotion, and effectively showcasing Thanos as the ultimate threat in the MCU. Though on the downside of things, if you were a fan of Thor Ragnarok, that film’s hopeful ending is undone almost instantaneously here.

Without going into too much detail, the plot from then on out involves Thanos’s quest for the remaining Infinity Stones, and how it draws the various Avengers (and Guardians of the Galaxy) from all over the cosmos to try and put a stop to his machinations. In terms of the sheer amount of characters present from so many different movies, and how the story takes them to different corners of the universe, Infinity War presents an unprecedented scope.

On top of the aforementioned heroes, we also have Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). In addition, the Guardians of the Galaxy consist of Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Strangely, despite being one of the original six Avengers, Hawkeye is suspiciously absent.

Unquestionably, this is the biggest cast of any super hero movie. It would be easy for the film to collapse on itself under the pressure of juggling so many different characters and trying to give them all a place in the story. But Infinity War, against all odds, manages to make it work. Sure, its balancing act isn’t quite as perfectly executed as the original Avengers in 2012, but considering how many more heroes were added to the MCU since then, the fact that Infinity War manages to tell a coherent story at all is in itself a minor miracle.

“The man himself.”

In an interesting twist on super hero norms, it’s the villain of the story, Thanos, who is the closest thing Infinity War has to a main character amidst its robust ensemble. And this was probably the only way it could have gone. The first Avengers reused a villain in Loki, in order to keep its focus on joining its heroes together, and it worked beautifully. Age of Ultron floundered more than a little bit because it rushed its titular villain’s entire story arc into a single film that was also trying to tell so many other stories.

The MCU as a whole had been teasing Thanos’s role as the ultimate big bad of its mythology since the first Avengers film, though he was mostly shrouded in mystery. His goal of obtaining all the Infinity Stones was made clear from the get-go, but that was the extent of audience’s knowledge of the character. Infinity War ends up working by being the payoff to Thanos’s hype. While The Avengers could keep its focus on the heroes by enlisting a fully-established villain like Loki to fill the antagonist role, Infinity War kind of does the opposite. Seeing as this is the third Avengers film, the MCU is used to seeing its heroes teaming up by this point. By shining the spotlight on a villain we only saw hints of in the past, Thanos is able to become a fleshed-out character, and serves as the anchor that holds this massive story in check. And Josh Brolin gives a standout performance that makes the character live up to the hype.

On the subject of Thanos, I guess it’s only fair to address the elephant in the room. The Mad Titan’s motives for wanting the Infinity Stones is finally made clear in Infinity War, and it’s proven a bit divisive.

After Thanos’s home planet became overpopulated, its resources were ravaged at an alarming rate, leading to the planet’s complete collapse. After that, Thanos became obsessed with population control, and initially accomplished this by means of traveling to different planets with his armies, and killing half of their population, thus “saving” those worlds from suffering the same fate as his, in his warped mind. Thanos seeks the all-powerful Infinity Stones because, with all six incrusted in his gauntlet, he can eliminate half of all life in the universe with a single snap.

The point of contention with all this being that, if possessing every Infinity Stone would essentially make Thanos omnipotent, why wouldn’t he use such godlike ability to create more resources in the universe? Even I admit that point popped up in my head the first time I watched Infinity War. However, everyone who cries foul that this is some sort of gaping plot hole is sorely mistaken. It’s certainly not a plot hole (at worst it would be considered inconsistent logic within the character), but repeat viewings have proven this to be entirely consistent with Thanos as he is portrayed in the film.

Thanos is an unflinching sociopath. He is nihilistic when it comes to the lives of others, and has a god complex when it comes to himself (suffice to say, a volatile combination). In his perverted mind, making more resources would mean people would ravage them twice as fast. He’s utterly faithless and hopeless in regards to his fellow man. Not to mention, by controlling the population of the entire universe, Thanos would simultaneously be feeding his god complex.

Some would argue that such details need a better explanation in the film, but do they really? If you take the time to study the character, instead of just jumping at the first opportunity to lambast a movie for its perceived faults, Thanos’s actions explain it all. Besides, it’s a vast improvement over the comic book version, in which Thanos is in love with the personification of death, and wishes to wipe out half of all life to win her affections (Geez! Killing half the universe just to impress a girl? Slow down there, High School!).

What ultimately matters, however, is that Infinity War succeeds in making Thanos the ultimate threat of the Avengers and company. Though some may miss the carefree entertainment of the first Avengers film, it makes sense that the series would grow up and mature for its grand finale. And Infinity War is a fittingly dramatic epic that brings a sense of urgency to the MCU that hadn’t been felt before.

“Everyone is here.”

That’s not to say that the fun has gone away from the series. Our heroes retain their distinctive personalities and sense of humor, so the film still finds time to lighten the mood when it’s appropriate (with Tony Stark and Drax getting the best comedic bits). Just don’t expect the villains to be cracking jokes in the way Loki and Ultron did.

Naturally, there’s still a good deal of action sequences to be had, some of which are among the best in the MCU. There may not be a single battle as memorable as the fight for New York at the end of the first Avengers, but we still get a good fill of action set pieces.

Infinity War isn’t perfect, of course. There are so many characters here that, naturally, some will comparatively get lost in the shuffle. It seems every Avengers film features a character who drew the short end of the stick (Hawkeye in the original, Ultron himself in Age of Ultron). Here, it’s Vision who comes across as little more than dead weight for the team. Sure, not everyone could have a big role in a film that has so much going on, but considering the character entered the picture in Age of Ultron with some promise (he managed to lift Thor’s hammer), the fact that he fizzles out so spectacularly in the big payoff movie makes Vision feel like a disappointment.

As stated, Infinity War just has so much going on, that it doesn’t always have as clear of a focus as the first Avengers (though it certainly has more of it than Age of Ultron). Again, I can’t be too hard on it, because the fact that it works at all – let alone as great as it does – is a true achievement. But I’d be lying if I said there aren’t a few moments of exhaustion from the sheer size of the film.

Avengers: Infinity War may have some rough edges, but it is no doubt an appropriately epic and dramatic first chapter to the conclusion of the MCU (so far). It ups the stakes of previous entries considerably, and even tugs at the heart at times. And even when the film may start to feel overstretched at times, it’s memorable villain who lives up to the hype, in combination with the returning personalities of the heroes, helps keep it afloat. This is a grand finale (at least, the first part of it) that actually feels grand.

 

8

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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

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

Ant-Man and the Wasp Review

Some were a bit skeptical about Marvel releasing the sequel to Ant-Man as the follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War. After all, Infinity War is the (first part of) the grand crescendo of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe up to this point, and Ant-Man is a more lighthearted and small-scale sub-series within the MCU. But really, after the heaviness and somewhat exhausting Infinity War, a movie like Ant-Man and the Wasp is exactly what the MCU needed. Sure, it’s one of the smaller Marvel movies of recent times, but it’s kind of nice to have a film in this mega-franchise that feels like it goes back to basics with a simplistic super hero romp, without having the need to connect to the bigger goings-on in the MCU.

Ant-Man and the Wasp follows Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the one-time Ant-Man, under house arrest, following the events of Captain America: Civil War. But Scott soon finds himself getting pulled back into super hero duty by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily).

After the events of the first film, in which Scott Lang managed to escape from the “Quantum Realm” after his shrinking powers as Ant-Man were taken to the extreme, Pym and Hope believe they can find a way to rescue the long-lost matriarch of their family, who has been trapped in that very dimension for thirty years. Meanwhile, Pym’s technology is soon the target of two very different antagonistic forces: the black market criminal Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), and the mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman with the ability to phase through solid objects.

It’s a refreshingly small-scale plot, and one that is consistently fun due to how it juggles between its different sub-plots (one of the more unique aspects of the story is how it’s always finding ways for Scott to go back and forth between being Ant-Man, and continuing his house arrest, all while finding ways to get the authorities to believe he never left his home). It also becomes all the more fun when the film’s central plot device becomes Pym’s lab itself, which he can shrink to become a wheeled briefcase. I don’t know, there’s just something fun about a miniaturized building being at the center of the action.

Speaking of action, that’s another area where Ant-Man and the Wasp shines. The first Ant-Man made super hero action sequences fun with the way Scott Lang was able to change size during the fights, and now that he’s joined by Hope’s alter-ego of the Wasp – who has the same shrinking abilities plus blasters that can change the size of other objects – the filmmakers are able to get really inventive with how the action scenes play out.

One of the things that made the first Ant-Man one of the more memorable MCU movies were the characters themselves, and this is another area in which Ant-Man and the Wasp delightfully follows suit. Scott Lang differs from many of the other heroes of the MCU thanks to his everyman personality, and his standing as a father doing his best for his young daughter amidst his divorce and criminal background. Hope continues to be a great foil, as her intellect serves as a great contrast to Scott’s more comedic ‘averageness.’ Ghost is also made into one of the MCU’s more interesting villains, going into a life of crime not for selfish gain, but to find a means to save her own life. There’s even an excellent scene in which Ghost and her accomplice dialogue about how far they’re willing to go for her goal, and even set a perimeter for what they’re not willing to lower themselves to.

So far so good. On the whole, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a very fun and humorous addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With all the positives though, the downside to Ant-Man and the Wasp is that, in the end, it doesn’t exactly ascend beyond the majority of quality MCU entries. It follows the winning formula, and like its predecessor, does so with one of the MCU’s best casts. But now that we’re at a point when three or four MCU films are released a year, it’s all the more important for each individual MCU entry to stand out. And, well, if you’re a little super hero’ed out at this point, Ant-Man and the Wasp probably isn’t the entry that will pull you back in. I’m someone who has greatly enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe films (Iron Man sequels and Thor 2 aside), and even my enthusiasm for them is getting a little diluted by this point.

That’s a shame, because had Ant-Man and the Wasp been released a little further apart from Infinity War, and Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnorok (and so on), it might be better remembered. But being the smallest Marvel release in a year that’s crammed with their heavy-hitters, Ant-Man and the Wasp ends up having a bit of a ‘flavor of the month’ feeling to it. The fact that it follows Incredibles 2 – a super hero feature that greatly ascends from the genre’s standards – hurts this Ant-Man’s sequel’s appeal all the more.

Ant-Man and the Wasp may be a really enjoyable film in its own right, but unless Marvel and Disney can start changing up the MCU formula a bit, they may need to rethink their release strategy for their smaller MCU features, lest they get lost in the shuffle.

 

7

Black Panther Review

Marvel has been on a roll in recent years. Okay, so I suppose one could say they’ve been on a roll since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man ten-years ago(!). Sure, there have still been a few stinkers here and there (even within said Cinematic Universe), but for the most part, the MCU – despite its seemingly constant stream of releases – has been pretty consistent. That’s been especially true of the past few years. As Marvel builds up to the first part of its crescendo with The Avengers: Infinity War, they’ve been releasing some exceptionally entertaining features, such as Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the franchise reviving Thor: Ragnarok. The latest of these releases is Black Panther, Marvel’s last film before Infinity War hits theaters. Black Panther manages to match Marvel’s recent winning streak and – with the possible exception of Homecoming – manages to surpass them in the story and character department.

Taking place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther sees T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ready to take the throne of the African nation of Wakanda; after his father, the king, was killed during the events of Civil War. Wakanda is secretly a highly advanced nation due to its abundance of a substance known as Vibranium, which has allowed Wakanda to remain hidden from the rest of the world, posing as a third world country. Of course, Wakanda is also the most “Marvel” country that Marvel could have concocted, given that its king also serves as a super hero known as the Black Panther, given superhuman speed and strength from a “heart-shaped flower” during a ceremony, and wearing a Vibranium suit that adds to his abilities.

Like the best Marvel movies, Black Panther takes a premise that may sound silly on paper (super king!), and turns it into a genuinely good story due to its characters and storytelling. T’Challa proves to be one of Marvel’s more fleshed-out heroes, and is given more inner drama to deal with as the film goes on, which is a nice change of pace (not to mention Boseman’s acting helps elevate the character all the further). T’Challa is nicely countered by one of the MCU’s better villains in Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a vicious soldier who has allied himself with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black market arms dealer who has been stealing Vibranium for decades. What sets Killmonger apart from the vast majority of MCU villains is an actual sense of motivation which – although not the first MCU foe to boast such an element (Have we already forgotten Vulture?) – gives him a sense of depth that this mega-franchise has often struggled with in regards to its baddies.

It’s the fleshed-out hero and villain, and the dynamic between the two that – like Spider-Man: Homecoming – helps elevate Black Panther to being a more character driven narrative than most of its super hero kin. The film also squeezes in some social and ethical commentary that comes into play between hero and foe (Killmonger has a very understandable chip on his shoulder in regards to Wakanda hoarding its technological advancements for itself in secret, when they could easily help the rest of the African continent, and the world, with it).

If there are any troubles to be had with the film’s plot, it’s that the very nature of Vibranium can come across as an overly convenient device all too often. With how frequently it seems Wakandan technology can just do anything, it can seem like an easy means to get the story from point A to point B without having to give things much thought. Vibranium can come across as more of a magic element than Dr. Strange’s actual magic at times.

Still, Black Panther has a lot going for it, including some memorable supporting characters (and performances) such as T’Challa’s semi-love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and his genius inventor younger sister Shuri (Letita Wright); not to mention an almost-surprisingly good musical score that fittingly blends African inspirations with traditional super hero/science-fiction sounds. Other highlights include the film’s state-of-the-art visual effects and highly entertaining action set pieces, both categories being at the top of their game within the MCU.

Black Panther ultimately proves to not only be an exceptional good time at the movies, but one of the best films within Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. It does still fall prey to some of the franchise’s convenient plot devices (seriously, what can’t Vibranium do?), but like Spider-Man: Homecoming, its emphasis on character arcs and development helps elevate it above most of Marvel’s (admittedly enjoyable) output.

It may not completely reinvent the super hero genre in the way films like Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight and The Incredibles did way back when. But in a time when the genre can feel oversaturated to the point that even its more hyped releases begin to blur with each other, Black Panther helps reinvigorate the super hero film through its solid execution, unique setting and aesthetics, and character depth.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

I have to admit I was thoroughly lost during Spider-Man: Homecoming. Throughout the entire movie, I kept wondering how this Peter Parker kid became Spider-Man. I mean, what’s the backstory here? Why does he just have these powers? This is the kind of thing that begs for an origin story.

I am of course joking. Spider-Man’s origin story is such common knowledge that he, like Batman, doesn’t need another cinematic retelling at this point. 2002’s Spider-Man remains one of the best super hero origin story movies (along with, ironically enough, Batman Begins), and there really wasn’t a need for us to hear it again through the less-than stellar 2012 reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. Besides, super hero films tend to be at their best once the origin story is behind them, with Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight remaining at the top of super hero storytelling, as they could focus more on the characters themselves and not have to worry about how their heroes earned their costumes and powers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming wisely does away with re-re-introducing us to Spider-Man’s origin story, with the details of being bitten by a radioactive spider only being mentioned in passing, and the death of his uncle Ben only being implied. So Spider-Man: Homecoming not only serves as another reboot to Marvel’s iconic web-slinger, but also, thankfully, works as something of a self-contained sequel to a narrative we are all beyond familiar with by this point.

This “proper reboot” of the franchise is only one of the newsworthy aspects of this new Spider-Man series, with the other big news being that this newest incarnation is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most prominent movie franchise not called Star Wars.

We met this newest Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where he was part of Iron Man’s team who did battle with that of Captain America. But now we have Spidey’s first solo outing in the MCU, and it actually turns out to be one of the best entries in the mega franchise, due in no small part to the film taking cues from 2004’s Spider-Man 2 by creating fleshed-out, relatable characters in both its hero and villain.

Not only does Homecoming show us Spider-Man still trying to learn the ropes of being a super hero (and often stumbling), but it also dedicates a good deal of time to Peter Parker’s high school life, and the real-world problems and hassles therein.

Meanwhile, the film’s villain is the Vulture, whose secret identity is one Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). If the MCU has had one persistent problem – even in some of its better films – it’s that the villains have been largely forgettable, with only a select few standing out, and none of them really being anything more than a villain. What makes Toomes such a winning antagonist (along with Keaton’s excellent performance) is that, much like Peter Parker is depicted as a real kid, Toomes is a very relatable everyman. Tasked with cleaning up the damage that the Avengers leave behind (the film begins with Toomes’ crew beginning reconstruction on one of the set pieces of 2012’s The Avengers), Toomes and his men end up jobless as soon as the government decides to butt in. So Toomes, wanting to provide for his family and to keep his friends doing the same, goes rogue, and leads an underground operation that steals technology left in the wake of the Avengers, SHIELD, Hydra, and any other “super” organization, crafts their own weapons from it, and sells them on the black market.

The fact that Toomes is selling super-weapons to criminals obviously makes him the villain, but he’s also presented as a relatable figure who was wronged and simply wants to set things right. Unlike so many past villains in the MCU, Toomes actually has a strong motivation for his actions.

It’s because of how wonderfully realized both its hero and villain are that ascend Homecoming to being one of the better super hero movies of recent times, though unfortunately, it does suffer a bit from its supporting characters, which can be a bit of a mixed bag.

Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) provides some good comic relief, but some of his actions may not endear him to audiences (the trailers already reveal that he learns of Peter’s secret life as Spider-Man, and he almost outs his best friend’s secret at the first opportunity). Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier) works well enough for the plot, but she doesn’t exactly get a whole lot of character development. They are forgivable though, since their characters have enough likable qualities about them. Less forgivable is the character of Michelle Jones (Zendaya) who, as you may guess by her initials, is to be the MCU’s equivalent of “MJ” Mary-Jane Watson.

Seeing as this is the second cinematic reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I perfectly understand the filmmakers trying to change up the characters a bit so we can see something we aren’t already overly familiar with. But the Michelle character is simply unlikable. Zendaya’s acting is fine, but what she has to work with doesn’t exactly make Michelle an appealing character. She’s obnoxious, pretentious, brags about not having any friends… She’s basically like a checklist of all the things older generations ridicule millennials for.

But the rest of the characters are all well and fine. This being the MCU, we of course have to have crossover characters involved, though Homecoming is wise to keep them to a minimum as to not take the focus away from the story at hand: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) returns as Peter’s mentor. Meanwhile, Stark’s former driver and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) returns to keep an eye on Peter while Iron Man is off with bigger things. And in perhaps some of the best uses of MCU cameos, Captain America (Chris Evans) is featured in public-service announcements in Peter’s high school.

I really enjoyed how Homecoming is a relatively smaller-scale Marvel movie. We’ve seen so many cities get leveled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by this point, that I’m starting to get more tired of the mass destruction than anything. But Homecoming takes the time to humanize both Spider-Man and the Vulture, while also showing us how complicated the lives of Peter Parker and Adrian Toomes can be. The stakes aren’t to save the planet, or even a city. It’s just about a kid trying to be responsible and to do the right thing, and trying to stop a downtrodden, misguided man who’s caught up in doing wrong. And by this point, that’s pretty refreshing.

Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t reinvent the super hero genre, but it does take inspiration from the better films from the genre’s booming early years (most notably Spider-Man 2) to make a film that may not be the most grandiose of super hero outings, but one that succeeds in the two areas where it most counts: story and characters. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have great action set-pieces, because it delivers on just that as well. But for the first time in a while, I feel like the MCU has a hero worth rooting for not just because of a charismatic on-screen presence, but also for his relatability. Just as noteworthy, the same can be said for its villain.

 

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Quick Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

Captain America Civil War

I just saw Captain America: Civil War tonight, and while I plan on writing a full review for both it and The Jungle Book soon (I hope), I thought I’d just give a few quick little thoughts right now.

To get it all out of the way, I really enjoyed the film, and thought it was probably one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. Having the main conflict be between Captain America (and company) against Iron Man (and company) was a refreshing change of pace, and brought to mind what Batman V Superman might have been like if it were actually a good movie.

Captain America Civil WarThe action scenes were some of the best to come out of the MCU (there were a few “shaky camera” moments though, unfortunately. But they were never excessive). I also thought it brought out new dimensions to the returning characters (Tony Stark is the bad guy of the equation, as far as I’m concerned), while smartly introducing and integrating the new additions of Black Panther and Spider-Man into the MCU (thank God we don’t have to see Spider-Man’s origin story again!). It even had a more interesting bad guy than the last umpteen Marvel movies, which is good since that’s become a recurring complaint of mine every time I walk out of a theater showing an MCU film.

Perhaps yet another highlight was how it served well as its own movie while still having a plot that involved events from previous movies. Some of Marvel’s recent picks have been so preoccupied with foreshadowing future films that they themselves end up feeling like little more than a full-length trailer of what’s to come. *Cough! Age of Ultron! Cough!*

I’ll try to write my full review soon and go into a bit more detail, but as it stands, Captain America: Civil War is a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hopefully, future installments will take notes.