Spider-Man: No Way Home Review

Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third installment of the Spider-Man sub-series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It seems the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has had a strong influence on the direction of the MCU’s Spider-Man, with No Way Home introducing a multiverse into the series. While the whole multiverse concept is done to death these days (and often feels like a cheap means to “change up” a series and its characters), No Way Home at least uses the concept in a fun way to connect itself to the pre-MCU Spider-Man films (AKA the better Spider-Man films, at least in regard to the original Sam Raimi-directed features). While the merging together of different Spider-Man adaptations provides an entertaining feature filled with fanservice that I think is a step up from the previous Tom Holland-era Spider-Man flicks, No Way Home can feel a bit overstuffed at times, and it doesn’t always do right by the characters it brings back from yesteryear.

Taking place shortly after the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home, No Way Home sees the aftermath of Peter Parker having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Having been framed for the death of Mysterio, Parker becomes public enemy number one, with his worldwide infamy not only affecting his life, but also those close to him: his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).

With his life in shambles, and his loved ones suffering as a consequence, Peter Parker turns to his fellow Avenger Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to find a way he can get his life back to normal (I guess if you know a wizard, that’d be the person to turn to for answers). Strange says he can perform a spell that will undo the world’s knowledge of Peter Parker’s identity (in a scene I’m sure you’ve seen a hundred times in the trailer). But because Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is annoying and intrusive, he keeps bothering Dr. Strange during the spell, and the magic is botched. Not only does the spell fail to erase the world’s knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity, but it also starts summoning people from other universes who are aware of Spider-Man’s identity in their world. Namely, it starts bringing in Spider-Man’s foes from other worlds: Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Dr. Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), Flint Marco/The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx).

With all these villains on the loose, Dr. Strange instructs Peter Parker to help him collect these villains in order to send them back to their own worlds, as their continued presence in this world threatens the fabric of reality. But after learning of the sad fates that await each of his foes in their own world, Peter Parker starts to have second thoughts about his mission (though Sandman got off pretty easy in Spider-Man 3, if you remember).

The plot is a little… wonky, for lack of a better word. I love the idea of bringing back these past villains, particularly because the Sam Raimi era antagonists (the first two, anyway) were much better written than any baddie in the MCU (their inclusion here is basically Marvel’s way of admitting “yeah, we can’t do better villains than that. So just bring them back in our movie.”). But the setup of resurrecting these villains just feels kind of clunky. It gives off the impression that the filmmakers saw Into the Spider-Verse, and wanted to use a similar multiverse setup, and then had the idea to use that as a launching pad to connect the film to pre-MCU Spidey films and bring back the classic villains (an admittedly fun idea). But then they suddenly remembered they had that cliffhanger from Far From Home that they needed to address, and then scrambled to find a way to connect that cliffhanger with their multiverse/returning villains idea. And because these MCU Spider-Man movies love shoehorning in another Avengers hero, they decided to use Dr. Strange – a wizard – as an easy means to link their new concept and lingering plot thread together (because the MCU only acknowledges magic when it’s a convenient plot device).

“I gotta say, I’m getting really tired of Spider-Man being gifted with all these gadgets and gizmos from other Avengers. As if Spider-Man needs anything other than being Spider-Man to be cool.”

So the premise is weak. But at least it gives us a chance to revisit all these memorable foes of yesteryear, with the highlights of course being Willem Dafoe’s Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock (the latter of which I’ll still say is hands down the best villain in any Marvel movie). On the downside, No Way Home seems to take delight in poking fun of these characters and their movies as much as it pays homage to them, because of course the MCU just has to undercut anything serious or heartfelt with a snide remark or two.

The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, as campy as they could get at times, never felt the need to belittle their own stories for the sake of jokes. That might explain why I still remember them so fondly, whereas the MCU films have much less of an identity of their own (that, and the MCU’s constant need to hype up future movies at the expense of the story at hand). The Sam Raimi films could be cheesy, but they were honest and genuine in a way that even the best MCU films are not. Even Spider-Man 3, as messy as it was, was at least its own mess.

I mention this because, by bringing in characters from the past Spider-Man films, No Way Home inadvertently exposes the MCU for its over manufactured nature. We’ve seen this same Green Goblin and this same Doc Ock in other movies that had heart. No Way Home acknowledges that these villains have more to them than meets the eye, but it’s tough to say whether or not No Way Home has anything more to itself. Just as Green Goblin and Doc Ock are displaced from their time and place in the film’s story, they’re also displaced as complex villains from more genuine superhero movies who now find themselves in an increasingly pandering “cinematic universe” (fun though it may be). The films Green Goblin and Doc Ock came from had something to say. The MCU is always hyping what’s on the horizon, rarely taking the time to say much.

Annoyingly, the film makes the returning villains out to be not much of a threat on their own – being quickly beaten or outsmarted by MCU’s Spidey and Dr. Strange – and only banded together do the bad guys prove dangerous to the MCU heroes (because the MCU is childish like that and NO ONE CAN BE STRONGER THAN ITS CHARACTERS!). It’s just kind of weird how the film wants us to delight in the nostalgia these characters provide, only to undermine it by enforcing the idea that these characters aren’t as good as the new ones (a concerning trend in the MCU as of late). There are ways to make a current story feel more important without stepping all over the past. Maybe by caring more about the present and less about hyping the future? Just a suggestion.

I guess I shouldn’t say it’s all hype this time around. No Way Home gives a solid effort and has some strong emotional moments, but it still ultimately succumbs to some MCU-ness that takes some of that away. At least Tony Stark’s overbearing presence is no longer casting a shadow on these Spider-Man films, though you could say Dr. Strange simply takes over that role, conveniently just in time to build hype for his upcoming sequel.

“Dr. Strange knocking the soul out of Spider-Man… it’s almost symbolic of Strange’s role in the movie itself.”

Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative. But I suppose most of my complaints are more towards the MCU as a whole, and how it affects No Way Home, than they are with No Way Home itself. On the positive side of things, No Way Home brings fun back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Eternals saw fit to be an excruciating bore.

Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t skimp on the action scenes, and though they can’t quite match those of the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the action scenes here are more visually distinct from most of those in the MCU. An early encounter against Doctor Octopus on a freeway over a bridge is a notable highlight (due in no small part that Doc Ock’s conceptually simple power of having mechanical arms on his back provides a visually perfect supervillain). A duel between Spidey and mentor Dr. Strange also delivers a visual spectacle (especially since it seems to unapologetically turn to the video game Portal for inspiration). And of course, No Way Home features plenty of great fanservice moments, perhaps more so than any other MCU film (Endgame be damned), seeing as it gives so many blatant callbacks to the original Spider-Man trilogy and the Amazing Spider-Man films in addition to the usual MCU fare. Again, some of the references are deprecating, which is disappointing. But when No Way Home pays proper respects to past movies, damn, it’s satisfying. Without spoiling anything, one moment in particular is probably the most touching piece of nostalgia/fanservice I’ve seen in a long time, and honestly gave me a lump in my throat. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s probably not the moment you’re thinking of. Or that other one. Or that other one. But it was special to me.

“The perfect Spider-Man villain doesn’t exi…”

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a very entertaining movie, even with its faults. It provides the crowd pleasing fun you’d expect from the MCU, and even has moments that pack an emotional punch. Simply seeing Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe back as Dock Ock and Green Goblin (and to a lesser extent, the other villains) is an utter joy. But it’s a shame the setup to it all feels a bit forced. It has plenty of merit, but Spider-Man: No Way Home can’t help but feel a bit cluttered, and the overarching MCU is starting to negatively affect the individual stories within it (I’m really not spoiling much by saying the end-credits sequence here is literally a trailer for the Doctor Strange sequel). As big as the MCU has become, it would do well for itself to learn from the movies that No Way Home borrows from.

“And the rest!”

I think my point can be summed up by the character of J. Jonah Jameson. While I couldn’t be happier that Marvel brought back the great J.K. Simmons to portray Jameson in the MCU (making him something of the “connective tissue” between Spider-Man’s cinematic past and present), the MCU version of the character is purely antagonistic. He’s a corrupt newsman who spreads misinformation and fearmongering. While the real-world parallels are timely, they come at the expense of the character himself, who’s now a one-note villain. Compare him to the Jameson of Sam Raimi’s trilogy: he was still a biased newspaperman who let his emotions get the best of him, but there was more to him than that. In the 2002 film, Jameson was loud, bombastic, and was out to smear the good name of Spider-Man, the hero we were meant to cheer for. But as soon as Green Goblin attacked Jameson in his office demanding to know “who takes the pictures of Spider-Man” for Jameson’s paper, without missing a beat, Jameson wouldn’t surrender Peter Parker’s name to the Goblin. The same character who up until that point was depicted as antagonistic comic relief was suddenly willing to risk his life to save someone he barely knew.

“The perfect comic book movie casting doesn’t exi…”

That’s the kind of character element that continues to make the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films so memorable. And it’s something the MCU is sorely lacking. Spider-Man: No Way Home tries to replicate that by bringing back the classic villains and the stories they entail. But it only seems to half-understand what it has on its hands. Either that, or it’s place in the MCU only makes it able to half-realize it.

To this day, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 is not only my favorite Spider-Man movie (sorry Into the Spider-Verse), but my favorite Marvel movie. And possibly one of my favorite movies outright. It had its faults and its cheesy moments, but damn it all, it had heart! Suffice to say, I don’t think Spider-Man: No Way Home poses any threat to displacing Spider-Man 2 as my favorite Marvel/Spider-Man movie. But in a way, No Way Home reminded me why I love Spider-Man 2 so much. I suppose that’s a victory in its own right.

7

Eternals Review

*Caution! This review contains minor spoilers*

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has long-since grown into the biggest movie franchise in history, producing 26 films since it began with Iron Man in 2008, and is now finding its way into television series (well, it did that a few years ago as well, but now those early ones don’t count). 2021 will ultimately see no less than four new movie entries in the franchise, and the past few months have already seen several streaming series added to the MCU. While the sheer amount of Marvel content is getting excessive, at the very least, it’d be hard to describe any entry in the MCU as “boring.”

Until now.

Although not all of the MCU films are equals, Eternals – the third MCU film released in 2021 – is the first that had me waiting in anticipation not for something exciting to happen (though anything exciting would have been appreciated), but just for it to end. Even the weaker Marvel Studios movies (The Incredible Hulk, Captain Marvel) have at least provided some entertainment value, but Eternals – in a misguided attempt to prove its importance – apparently decided that it has no room for fun. Though the film’s over two and a half hour runtime suggests they could have found some time to boost the audience’s spirits.

Eternals tells the story of, well, the Eternals. An immortal race of super beings created by even more immortal, even more super beings called Celestials (basically giant robot gods). The Eternals were created to protect Earth (and other inhabited planets) from the Deviants, their evil counterparts. The Eternals are permitted by the Celestials to only use their powers to fight the Deviants, as to allow life on Earth to continue, but are not permitted to interfere with human conflicts and advancement (which is really just a weak excuse as to why the Eternals haven’t shown up in the MCU until now).

But they seem to interfere a hell of a lot anyway, with the Eternals being the real beings responsible for a number of human inventions (because God forbid humans are actually capable of accomplishing something). One of the Eternals even has the power to mind control humans, which seems entirely contradictory to their instructions not to interfere with humans.

The Eternals had seemingly rid the world of Deviants long ago, and gone their separate ways. They’ve moved on to live regular lives on Earth while they wait for centuries for their creator Celestial – Arishem – to instruct them to leave Earth in their ship (which looks like a triangular Kit Kat bar). But it seems the energy produced by the “snaps” of Thanos and the Hulk have somehow reawakened some Deviants, which have begun wreaking havoc once again. One Deviant, in particular, is capable of stealing the powers of Eternals and is beginning to gain sentience. So the Eternals must reassemble to stop the increasing threat of the Deviants (I guess the Avengers turned a blind eye to this one).

“The Deviants all basically look like variations of Bahamut from Final Fantasy X.”

The Earth Eternals are an ensemble cast of characters: Ajak (Salma Hayek) is their leader, and has the power to heal. Sersi (Gemma Chan) is the compassionate one, and has the power to manipulate inanimate matter. Ikarus (Richard Madden) is the strongest, and possesses the powers of flight and laser eyes. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) can shoot projectile energy from his hands. Sprite (Lia McHugh) is an Eternal with the appearance of a child, and can project lifelike illusions (so she’s basically Loki). Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has the ability of invention, which isn’t really a superpower, but I guess it is in this movie since humans are incapable of invention themselves. There’s also Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a deaf Eternal with super speed. Druig (Barry Keoghan) possesses the aforementioned mind control. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has the gift of super strength, and is the gentle giant of the group. Finally, Thena (Angelina Jolie) is the fiercest warrior of the Eternals, and can produce energy weapons from her hands.

It’s an eclectic lineup of characters, and the movie seems to have good intentions with its diversity (along with the culturally diverse cast and one character being deaf, Phastos is also gay), but the film ultimately fails these characters because they never really show any development as individuals.

Perhaps the one exception would be Kingo, who at least has a fun character history. While most of the Eternals have lived low-profile lives on Earth, Kingo has found fame as a Bollywood star. More specifically, as an entire lineage of Bollywood stars (to keep his immortality a secret). This would be the movie’s best idea, except it’s bettered a few moments after being introduced when – after Kingo is called back into action – production of his current film is halted, so he has his manager Karun (Harish Patel) join the Eternals on their adventure to film the whole thing as a documentary. So the manager is just tagging along for the rest of the movie.

“The saving graces of this movie.”

An immortal superhero who doubles as a Bollywood star with his (quite regular human) manager at his side? Now that’s a fun idea! I’d see a whole movie based on that concept in a heartbeat! It’s just a shame the rest of Eternals is nowhere near as fun or creative as that one element.

The entire movie seems to be an extended sequence of flashbacks and exposition. It gets so tangled up in talks about how things happened and introduces so much faux-philosophy of how things could be, that Eternals seems to forget to actually tell the story at hand (the previously mentioned Deviant who gains sentience seems completely forgotten about as soon as he gains that sentience, until he randomly stumbles into the finale as the movie remembered about that loose end at the last minute).

There’s an attempted twist with the plot early on when the true nature of Arishem’s plan is revealed: Long ago, Arishem selected Earth to be a host planet for the birth of a new Celestial. The “seed” for the Celestial was planted within the Earth, but in order to grow, it needs a large number of intelligent life to inhabit the planet in order to produce the amount of energy needed to birth the Celestial (or some BS reason like that). So Thanos wiping out half the population prolonged “the Emergence,” while the Hulk bringing that half back all at once sped it up. The looming threat being that the birth of a Celestial means the death of the planet that births it.

“So like, are the Celestials the greatest power in the Marvel universe, or is it the TVA? The mythology of the Marvel movies seems all over the place right now. Just bring in “The One Above All” and call it a day.”

This is where that ‘faux-philosophy’ rears its ugly head. Once Arishem’s true nature is revealed, the movie seems to think it’s providing some deep moral dilemma for the Eternals (and the audience) to ponder: do they save the Earth and its people at the expense of a Celestial? Or do they let Earth die because the Celestial could maybe make more planets that may or may not develop life?

That’s a stupid ass question. Of course saving the Earth is the only right answer! It’s not like another inhabited planet is at stake. It’s literally either the lives of every human being and living creature on Earth, or save some space robot so he can create some space junk and see what happens. We’re already here. So tough luck, space robot.

If the movie took a direct approach and came to the obvious conclusion that yes, Arishem is wrong and Earth needs to be saved, it would be alright. But the fact the movie treats it as such a thought-provoking conundrum is unintentionally hilarious. Although I suppose even if Eternals just ran with the idea, the whole “we were working for the bad guy all along” concept is the single most obvious “swerve” a movie like this could have possibly attempted. We now live in a time in which a movie where the good guys are simply the good guys and the bad guys are simply the bad guys would be a refreshing, original concept.

The movie as a whole just has an undeserved air of importance. It’s something closer to DC’s Man of Steel than it is any of the entertaining MCU features of yesteryear.

I am the first to admit that I dislike when Marvel movies (or any movie) undercuts emotional moments with an unnecessary bit of humor. So many movies today seem hesitant to let audiences feel emotions (“gotta throw in a dumb joke in a sad moment or the audience might actually feel sad!”). But now, here I am being a complete hypocrite, because I wish Eternals could have provided me with something, anything, to lighten the mood.

“I’m packing you an extra pair of shoes and your angry eyes, just in case.”

The whole movie is so joyless, and embracing in that joylessness as some kind of intellectualism. We have a bunch of apathetic characters who have lived for thousands of years (later revealed to actually be millions of years, because unless something is at least a million years old it doesn’t matter in Marvel movies anymore), and all they ever seem to talk about is how terrible humans are based on all the horrors they’ve witnessed over time. And of course, anything good humans did was actually an accomplishment made by the Eternals. How convenient.

You know what I miss? I miss the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. Now those were Marvel movies that showed what a super hero should be: a symbol of hope. Crucially, they also showed the importance of the people Spider-Man was fighting to protect, with the first two Raimi films featuring memorable scenes where the people of New York helped Spider-Man save the day, and stood up for their hero. Even J. Jonah Jameson was given a moment of selfless heroism.

These days, between the mini-series Loki and now in an even more boring package with the Eternals, the modern Marvel movies and series seem to treat humanity as an afterthought. The heroes are no longer fighting for people, because people are insignificant and just exist to run around and scream whenever the villains are doing something bad. As a result, the heroes just come across as fighting for their own egos instead of fighting for what’s right.

Eternals was directed by Chloé Zhao, who has recently risen to prominence and even won an Oscar. One would hope that such a director would bring a new artistic touch to the superhero genre. Instead, Zhao’s film simply strips away the artistic merit the genre does have, and tries to turn it into something else. Eternals is an attempt to turn a superhero movie into an arthouse film, and not a very good one.

These Marvel movies show no signs of slowing down. Here’s hoping that Eternals is simply a bump in the road, and that these movies can get back to what made us all like them to begin with.

At least Shang-Chi was good.

3

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the twenty-fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By now these Marvel films are so frequent, that it may be easy to take for granted the fact that they’ve been mostly good. Shang-Chi is the second of four MCU movies being released in 2021 alone, and it comes after we’ve already had four different Disney+ series set in the MCU in recent months. Amidst so much Marvel-ness, a movie like Shang-Chi (which harkens back to the superhero origin stories of the MCU’s early days) could have been drowned out as the rest of the MCU seems to be aiming for grand scale epics. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings not only stands on its own two feet, but stands tall among its MCU contemporaries. It may not exactly reinvent the Marvel formula, but Shang-Chi manages to improve on it in a few key areas.

Although the film’s hero is the titular Shang-Chi or “Shaun” (Simu Liu), the film’s backstory centers around his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung).

Over a thousand years ago, Wenwu discovered the Ten Rings, mystical artifacts that granted him superhuman strength and abilities, as well as immortality. With them, he became a warlord and established his army, which he dubbed “The Ten Rings” after the source of his power. As centuries passed, the Ten Rings organization adapted with time, eventually becoming more of a terrorist organization than an army. But their goal was still the same: bringing down nations and give Wenwu more power.

In 1996, Wenwu had begun searching for a legendary village called Ta Lo – which serves as a kind of gateway to a dimension of mythical creatures – in hopes to conquer this new world. Wenwu finds the entrance to Ta Lo, but is confronted by its guardian, a woman named Ying Li (Fala Chen). Ying Li has powers of her own, granted to the people of Ta Lo by its dragon protector. Despite the power of the rings, Wenwu is defeated by Ying Li. But the two quickly fall in love, with Wenwu making return visits to the site just to see Ying Li again. Her love changes him to the point that he removes the rings and abandons his organization so he can start a family. But the people of Ta Lo frown on the relationship, and won’t allow Wenwu access to their village due to his dark past. So Ying Li leaves her people (and her powers) behind in order to be with him. Shang-Chi is born to the couple a few years later, followed by a daughter named Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).

When Shang-Chi and Xialing were kids, a tragedy struck that cost them the life of their mother. With Ying Li gone, Wenwu fell back into his old ways, reclaimed his organization and put the rings back on. Shang-Chi became just another assassin in training to his father. Xialing became ignored by Wenwu, who claimed his daughter reminded him too much of his late wife to even look at her (she would learn to teach herself the same techniques Shang-Chi was learning in order to survive the world her father created). Eventually, Shang-Chi couldn’t handle life under his father any more, and so he left, leaving his sister behind.

Fast forward to the present day (which I believe is currently 2023 in the MCU), and Shang-Chi, as Shaun, has been living a mostly normal life in America. He’s become a chauffer at a fancy hotel alongside his friend Katy (Awkwafina), with whom he often spends long nights goofing off. That is until one day, when assassins sent by Wenwu confront Shang-Chi during a bus ride, leaving him no choice but to reveal his past (and fighting abilities) to Katy (as well as providing one of the MCU’s best set pieces in quite some time). Wenwu is after both siblings, so Shang-Chi – with Katy in tow – sets out to find his sister and uncover his father’s plot.

For anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I think it’s safe to assume is pretty much everyone at this point) the story of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings won’t feel like anything new. It follows the established Marvel formula pretty closely. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stands out in at least two key areas.

The first are the action scenes. As enjoyable as these Marvel movies are, I have to admit their familiarity can extend beyond their narrative structure, and even bleed into the action sequences. They’re almost never boring, but many of the MCU’s action scenes can feel a bit deja vu, as if Marvel has found its safe spot with its action, and doesn’t wish to tread new waters with it. But Shang-Chi is one of the exceptions, with beautifully choreographed fighting sequences, and big set pieces that dare to do something visually distinct from the rest of the pack (pointing again to the bus sequence, where one moment has the audience peaking in on the action from the windows).

The other area in which Shang-Chi stands out is in its villain. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a pretty persistent villain issue, with the baddies not being nearly as memorable as the good guys (kind of a reverse of the superhero movies from before the MCU, in which the villains often outshined the hero). If an MCU villain isn’t some rich guy with the same powers as the hero, it’s another underdeveloped bad guy from the deep reaches of space (see Ronan the Accuser or Malekith). Very few of the MCU’s bad guys could be called “interesting,” with perhaps the only examples so far being Thanos, Erik Killmonger, and Adrian Toomes/Vulture (okay, and I suppose Loki… at least until his own series turned him into the most passive and boring hero in the MCU). But I think Wenwu is arguably the best of the lot.

Wenwu is the MCU’s proper adaptation of the Mandarin character (mercifully retconning the ridiculous twist on the character from Iron Man 3. And don’t worry, Shang-Chi addresses that whole situation brilliantly). But Wenwu certainly transcends his (outdated) comic counterpart. Wenwu is a villain who’s ruthless but sympathetic, powerful but pitiable. While audiences were expected to understand where Thanos was coming from, with Wenwu you actually kind of feel for him.

Without spoiling too much, Wenwu’s ultimate goal is to be reunited with his late wife. He’s a man who’s lived for over a thousand years, but only the small handful of years he spent with Ying Li meant something. Despite living centuries with power as his only ambition, he willingly gave up that power when he found someone he could love. The problem is he could only love that one person. And the fact that that love didn’t extend to his children after his wife’s passing is part of what makes him a villain.

Though the movie is well cast all-around, I do feel that Tony Leung’s performance as Wenwu deserves special mention as one of the best in the MCU dating all the way back to the first Iron Man.

There are other, smaller things I like about the movie: the titular Ten Rings are one of the more fun super powers the Marvel movies have provided. Wenwu wears five rings on each arm (they’re more bracelets than rings, really), and can shoot them off and bring them back with his mind, they can link together to make a whip or shield, or just hover around him like some kind of magic satellites. Conversely, Shang-Chi himself doesn’t seem to have any actual super powers. He’s a really good fighter, but doesn’t have any powers in the traditional sense. I thought that was a fun little twist on Marvel norms.

I also kind of like that Shang-Chi is a (mostly) self-contained origin story. I feel like that’s what Marvel should have focused on for a while after Avengers: Endgame, though Shang-Chi is only an exception here, as Marvel seems hellbent on fast-tracking the next Endgame-level scenario (*Cough! Loki! Cough!*). So enjoy these more standalone MCU features while you can.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may be familiar Marvel territory in a lot of ways (which isn’t too bad of a thing, given Marvel’s track record), but for both hardcore fans and the more casual Marvel audience, the action scenes and villain may make it stand out in the Marvel canon, no matter how many movies and TV shows they churn out.

7

Marvel’s Black Widow Review

The old saying “better late than never” gets thrown around a lot, but it is very appropriate when talking about Marvel’s Black Widow, which finally give’s Scarlett Johansson’s titular character her long overdue solo film despite being one of the original big screen Avengers. Though you could also argue that Black Widow’s starring role has come too late in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Johansson’s Black Widow debuted in 2010’s Iron Man 2, a year before Thor and Captain America even joined in the proceedings. Though she was a secondary character, and marketed mostly for her sex appeal back then, Black Widow quickly grew into one of the MCU’s more complicated characters. Taken from a young age, brainwashed, and trained as a KGB spy under the “Red Room,” Natasha Romanoff (AKA “Black Widow”) would later gain her freedom and dedicate her life to saving the world, as a means to redeem her tragic past. She would eventually become an Avenger, no less (one of the original six, as far as the MCU is concerned).

Despite not getting her own movie until now, Romanoff had one of the more fleshed-out backstories of the MCU, up there with Iron Man and Captain America themselves. While the MCU hasn’t always done right by Johansson’s character (that forced romance with Bruce Banner that came out of nowhere in Age of Ultron comes to mind), she remained a fan favorite all throughout. And with years of rumblings of a Black Widow solo film, it makes it all the weirder that such a film is only happening now.

As of Avengers: Endgame, Romanoff’s story in the MCU – like many of the original Avengers – is over. As such, Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, so I guess it counts as a prequel at this point in the MCU. So here we are, after eleven years, and Black Widow’s long-awaited first solo film is also her last, which seems woefully unfair to the character and to Johansson. I would have enjoyed a series of Black Widow movies.

Still, while a Black Widow movie should have happened sooner, I guess one Black Widow film that serves as Johansson’s farewell to the MCU is better than no Black Widow movie at all. Though the film has its issues, it’s a fittingly entertaining installment in Marvel’s mega-franchise that does give its titular character some additional closure.

Black Widow gives Romanoff that closure by means of finally having her confront the Red Room, the organization responsible for robbing her – and many other women – of their lives by turning them into child assassins (or “Black Widows”). So we finally get to see Natasha Romanoff get some much-desired recompense.

Here we delve even further into Romanoff’s backstory, and learn that, for three years during her childhood, she was part of a family. Well, a fabricated family that was a front by the Red Room. The real identities of her “parents” are Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a Red Room spy and former Black Widow; and Alexei Shostokov (David Harbour), Russia’s only super soldier, the “Red Guardian,” and thus their answer to Captain America (with whom Alexei claims to have a long-standing rivalry). Meanwhile, Natasha’s younger ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) is destined to become another Black Widow.

Once Alexei finished his undercover mission in America, the ‘family’ was broken up, and the sisters separated. While Natasha was forced back into her old cycle of training and brainwashing, things were taken further with Yelena, who became one of the Red Room’s test subjects of full-on mind control. So while Natasha was eventually able to break free, Yelena didn’t have that ability.

Fast forward to the present (of this particular movie), and things take a turn for Yelena when one of her targets exposes her to a substance called Red Dust, which cures her from her mind control, and she then defects from the Red Room. Taking the remaining Red Dust, Yelena sends it to Natasha, hoping the now-Avenger can help her free the other Black Widows from the Red Room’s control.

Naturally, the Red Room is on Natasha and Yelena’s trail, sending its soldiers after the duo, not least of which being the Taskmaster; a mysterious, masked foe. So the two Black Widows will need allies to take down the Red Room and its leader, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Keeping in mind that this film takes place after Captain America: Civil War, Natasha is part of the group of Avengers who are now fugitives from the law (some are already in custody, others are in hiding). So she can’t just call for backup here. But perhaps she can reunite her old “family” for help?

Admittedly, the film treads a lot of familiar ground for the MCU, especially echoing the Captain America sequels, which Johansson’s character is already strongly associated with. The entire “mind-controlled soldiers” idea is very Winter Soldier-esque. And with David Harbour’s character literally being the Russian equivalent of Captain America, you really can’t escape the similarities. On the plus side, the Captain America sequels are highly regarded as some of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Black Widow is at least aiming high with which past entries it emulates.

Black Widow has some strong themes it wants to convey, though they may get a bit lost in the shuffle at times. It’s obviously dealing with many of the same ideas of freedom that the aforementioned Captain America films also dealt with. And it probably won’t be lost on anyone that it’s a man pulling the strings of mind-controlled female assassins (the film makes sure Winstone’s Dreykov is the kind of villain you can’t wait to see get his ass kicked).

Where the film really delivers is in its action scenes. The set pieces of Black Widow feel more akin to those of the recent Mission: Impossible films than the usual MCU fare. Although Black Widow can’t quite reach the heights of the recent Mission: Impossible outings (admittedly a very high mark), the action sequences here are similarly satisfying.

Perhaps the best aspect of Black Widow are the characters themselves. Natasha has been one of the MCU’s mainstays due in large part to being one of its most beloved characters, and Black Widow is a great way to finally focus on her as a character (though sadly also reminding us that this all should have happened much sooner). Yelena is every bit her equal, not just in combat skills but also as a character, showing a strength and depth that should make her one of Marvel’s primary heroes going forward (don’t wait a decade to give her her own movie!). And Alexei is part huggable bear, part dumb lummox; his fabricated family being just another mission to him, but he slowly begins to realize what his ‘daughters’ really mean to him. Melina may be something of the odd woman out in regards to screen time, but I think her character shows enough promise that she can be expanded on in future movies.

“The fact that Chris Evans’ Captain America never shared the screen with David Harbour’s Red Guardian breaks my heart.”

Sadly, the Marvel villain curse rears its head once again in Black Widow. It’s weird how the MCU has done a (mostly) wonderful job in regards to bringing Marvel’s comic book heroes to life, but its villains haven’t been anywhere near as consistent. People remember Thanos and Loki, of course. And some other villains have received quieter acclaim (Michael Keaton’s Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming really deserves more praise). But many of the MCU’s villains either mimic the heroes too closely, are too underutilized, or fall back on a disappointing twist.

Though I mentioned Dreykov is effective in making the audience hate him, he falls under the ‘underutilized’ category, only really getting a few short minutes of screen time. Meanwhile, Taskmaster falls under the ‘plot twist’ category, with a reveal that ends up feeling as underwhelming as it does pointless. With a stronger villain scenario, Black Widow may have kicked things into a whole other gear.

Black Widow is one of the smaller-scale films the MCU has seen in recent times (‘smaller’ being a very relative term in regards to the MCU). But that’s kind of what I like about it. Just because the Avengers have saved the universe by this point doesn’t mean all of their adventures have to be taken to such extremes. A big super hero romp can still be a great time even if the stakes are smaller and more personal. Though I suppose it’s all the more of a shame that over on Disney+ we have the obnoxiously apathetic Loki beating us over the head with the idea that nothing in the MCU matters compared to Loki’s wacky shenanigans through space and time. But let’s ignore that show for now (please) and appreciate that Black Widow can make a ‘smaller’ story in the MCU still feel important to it, even after all the places it’s been.

The unavoidable dark cloud when it comes to Black Widow, however, is simply that it should have happened years ago. For all the entertainment it provides, Black Widow can’t help but feel like too little, too late. For this movie to finally happen only after Natasha Romanoff’s story has ended and Scarlett Johansson is leaving the MCU behind her feels deflating, and the movie gives off a “contractual obligation” vibe as a result.

Black Widow gives us some great action set pieces, a good story, and Florence Pugh and David Harbour are great additions to the MCU that hopefully we’ll see a lot more of. It may be a fitting sendoff for Johansson’s agent Romanoff, but it probably shouldn’t have been a sendoff in the first place.

6

Francis Ford Coppola, You’re Despicable

*Alternative title: Settle down, Mr. Coppola, it’s Time for your Nap*

Recently, filmmaker Martin Scorsese put his foot in his mouth with some blatantly ignorant statements in regards to Marvel movies. When asked his opinion on Marvel films, rather than simply stating that they weren’t his cup of tea, instead made the blanket statement that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema.”

Suffice to say, Mr. Scorsese received some much-deserved tongue-lashings from the people who work hard to make Marvel movies a part of cinema. And by “a part of cinema,” I actually mean the absolute biggest part of cinema today. Fans of the Marvel films also (rightfully) took offense to Scorsese’s dismissively ignorant statements.

Well, it seems Martin Scorsese has at least one cheerleader on his side, as fellow out-of-touch geezer Hollywood sacred cow Francis Ford Coppola has rallied to the defense of his old frat buddy from the always-overhyped New Hollywood era (an era which we really should stop referring to as “new” unless we mean it with absolute irony). And Coppola’s words are even more ignorant, condescending and pompous than Scorsese’s.

As ignorant as Scorsese’s claims that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema” were, at least he came across as attempting to be respectful even in his ignorance. But Coppola, when asked for his response on the matter, came across as little more than a self-righteous jackass. His exact quote went as follows.

“When Martin Scorsese says that Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right, because we expect to learn something from cinema. We expect to gain something—some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Calm down there, grandpa. Just because the new music the kids are listening’ to doesn’t sound like what was around in your day doesn’t mean it’s the devil.

Seriously, what an ass.

Now I have to needlessly defend myself, because despite the fact that Coppola’s words are entirely blanketed, ridiculing the many people that make Marvel movies as well as the millions of people who see them, because he’s one of Hollywood’s deities, anyone who calls him on his bullcrap will be labelled as an angry fanboy or whatever. So allow me to say that I don’t care if old man Coppola doesn’t like Marvel movies. As I said about Scorsese, some people just won’t like some types of movies. That’s fine. He’s entitled to not like Marvel movies.

It’s not that he doesn’t like Marvel movies that’s the problem, it’s that through his complete dismissal of them – particularly by referring to them as “despicable” – Mr. Coppola comes across as little more than a self-righteous ass, who has nothing but utter contempt for the average moviegoer.

“The “New Hollywood” generation in a nutshell.”

Both Scorsese and (far more so) Coppala don’t come across as intellectual filmmakers critiquing the younger generation of their craft with these statements. More, they sound like a bunch of butthurt old men who still can’t accept the fact that their preferred style of movie hasn’t been the dominant force in cinema for decades (in fact, their time at the top was actually very short lived, all things considered). Their words don’t come across as wisdom (which I’m sure they think they do), just sour grapes. Nothing more.

Believe it or not, Mr. Coppola, but movies were originally created for entertainment’s sake. And while it’s great that they developed in so many great ways over time and audiences can learn from them, entertainment is still kind of important. At least Scorsese’s films can claim to have that element to them.

And yes, Mr. Coppola, even big franchises and super hero movies can teach audiences something. Just because they may not be self-righteous character studies or anti-war dramas doesn’t mean they can’t also be about something. Just because people actually, y’know, want to see them doesn’t mean they can’t also be art. But you know what, even if a movie is solely aiming for entertainment, that’s fine too. And you know what, even something like that should be considered art if it’s made well enough.

It’s especially Coppola’s use of the word “despicable” that most paints him as a pompous ass. What’s despicable about them? That they’re franchised and make money and have merchandise? I get that these Hollywood types love to spew the same, generic anti-capitalist rhetoric (while also being millionaires), but hey, it’s not evil if these filmmakers and studios want to make money. Maybe that doesn’t fit your worldview. Okay, you’re allowed that. But ‘despicable?’ Nope.

It’s also a funny choice of word, calling movies about heroes and good vs. evil as “despicable,” considering this is the same guy who makes movies about mobsters which conveniently skip over the atrocities the mob committed towards innocent civilians. Funny how The Godfather fails to bring up aspects such as human trafficking, and racketeering that sent many into poverty, it’s almost like a convenient way to paint monsters as sympathetic… But, y’know, heroes in silly costumes fighting alien villains or whatever, that’s despicable. Sure thing there, buddy.

Such statements from the likes of Coppola are just another glaring example of Hollywood’s utter disconnect with the average moviegoer. Coppola is speaking as a pompous filmmaker who makes movies for himself and his buddies, who either see these movies for free or are so rich they don’t even have to think about the cost. Well, they’re allowed to do that if they want. But the average person, who actually has to spend their hard-earned money to see movies whenever they can manage the spare time, have a tendency to prefer using said time and money on something entertaining that they’ll remember, over something that a self-righteous filmmaker made to preach to them. Heaven forbid after a rough week of work or school or what have you, that most people would want to spend their money to unwind with a superhero romp.

Yeah yeah, I know I’m sounding harsh. But honestly, Coppola’s words were harsh, condescending, and belittling to many, many people. So I kind of find it hard to go easy on the man right now. At least Scorsese just seemed “out-of-touch” ignorant with his comments (and at least Scorsese has made a good few movies that deserve their praise), but Francis Ford Coppola’s comments just paint him as a royal ass, who is so used to being surrounded by Hollywood types who treat him like a god, that he can’t comprehend that the rest of the world has moved on to other, far more entertaining movies.

You’re Wrong, Scorsese. Marvel Movies ARE Cinema

*Alternative title: Go Home, Scorsese. You’re Drunk*

Martin Scorsese is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in history, and one of Hollywood’s ‘sacred cows.’ But recently, he made a statement which  – in its blanketed ignorance – paints him as part of the problem with the world of cinema.

The basis of Scorsese’s claims is that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema,” and that they are more akin to “theme parks.” This, of course, just comes off as the latest in the never-ending examples of the overblown egos and self-importance of Hollywood and its “serious” filmmakers and critics. It’s a display of the utter contempt they have for the average moviegoer, and the films that don’t directly pander to themselves, that makes so many in the industry so very hard to like.

Here is Mr. Scorsese’s exact statement in regards to Marvel movies.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

The statement is profusely arrogant and condescending on Scorsese’s part.  Granted, not every type of movie is for everyone. But Scorsese’s comments aren’t a display of a personal disinterest. Rather, the things Scorsese is saying are entirely dismissive to everyone who works in front of and behind the cameras on Marvel movies, and insulting to the audiences that continue to see them (which, by the way, are in far greater numbers than the audience for any Scorsese film).

Scorsese briefly tries to save face by throwing in the words “as well made as they are” in regards to Marvel movies. But it means very little to say that they’re “well made” while simultaneously stating that they don’t qualify as cinema, and that the actors could only ever possibly “do the best they can under the circumstances” if they’re cast in a superhero film. Way to dismiss any and all acting performances that go into these movies just because they’re in a genre you have a blatant bias against. Hey, at least when these Marvel movies re-use actors, they’re playing the same characters and furthering their stories, as opposed to casting Robert De Niro as different sociopath archetypes who may as well be the same character in the same story. But I digress.

When I first read Scorsese’s statements on Marvel movies, it reminded me of something else the famed director said way back in 2004. After The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King achieved the biggest clean sweep in Oscar history, complete with a Best Picture win (a rare instance when the Academy actually knew what they were doing), Scorsese was asked if he’d ever be interested in making fantasy movies. Scorsese’s response…

Real movies with real people.” 

It’s a predictably ego-centric answer from a director who has long-since been made out to be a Hollywood deity, though one I’m sure he himself though sounded profound. If he’s not interested in making fantasy movies, that’s fine. But again, his response was both dismissive and condescending.

“I don’t know, I find the likes of Captain America and Gandalf to be closer to “real people” than violent psychopaths like Travis Bickle.”

Fantasy movies, whether they be sword and sorcery or super heroes or what have you, are fully capable of delivering deep stories that connect with human emotion and psychology. They’re merely different methods of doing so.

Believe it or not, Mr. Scorsese, but films don’t have to follow your rulebook in order to qualify as films. There are these wonderful things called “styles,” “genres” and “mediums.” There are different kinds of artists with all kinds of different voices and tastes. They may not all be good, but just because their path doesn’t directly follow yours doesn’t mean their works should be disqualified, or that they “don’t count.” Maybe you don’t care for a specific genre of movie. Okay, that’s fine. But saying that it’s “not cinema” and just waving off their very existence is profoundly arrogant.

By now, I’m sure the film buffs who would rally to Scorsese’s defense and jump at any opportunity to lambast super hero films and the like would assume I’m just a rambling Marvel fanboy, or that I’m trying to be cool and edgy by talking bad about one of cinema’s most acclaimed directors. But I’d like to point out that I can’t remember the last time I read a Marvel comic book, nor have I enjoyed every MCU film (Iron Man 2, Incredible Hulk and Captain Marvel were pretty mediocre, and the less said of Iron Man 3, the better). Nor do I hate Scorsese’s body of work, some of it (like Goodfellas) I’ve quite enjoyed, though I admit I find Raging Bull to be an overrated bore.

I’m merely writing this because Scorsese’s comments relished in their own ignorance. And it’s mindsets like those represented in Scorsese’s comments that are holding the world of cinema back in many ways. Both those in Hollywood and film buffs put themselves on a pedestal, and treat themselves like they’re part of an elite club. And the common moviegoer, or those “lesser” filmmakers who make films audiences actually want to see aren’t allowed to join. It’s a level of pretentiousness that seems to constantly ooze out of Hollywood types, who in turn act completely dumbfounded as to why they get such a bad reputation. Scorsese may be a great filmmaker in many respects, but with statements like these, he proves he’s part of Hollywood’s problem.

For all the open-mindedness Hollywood likes to give itself a pat on the back for, they sure do have a pretty closed mind when it comes to their own  mediums. It’s like they want to punish movies for making money, or being crowd-pleasers, or if they’re rooted in fantasy or created with animation, etc. If Hollywood were half as open-minded as they bragged themselves up to be, they’d have no qualms with putting such films on equal levels with their preferred style. They should judge every film by how good they are individually, as opposed to considering certain types of films to be innately superior or inferior to others.

Though the world of video games has issues of its own, this “country club” mentality of those within its industry certainly isn’t one of them. In these regards, the video game industry has been completely open-minded as to what constitutes a great work in their medium. There’s never been a differentiating between where or how a game was made in terms of the quality of the end product. There’s never been a stigma against genres or franchises or commercially successful works. Sure, the self-righteous hipster types like Ben Croshaw tried their damndest to replicate the ignorances of the movie world and integrate it into the world of video games during the early 2010s. But thankfully, those clowns ultimately lost their battle, and no one in their right mind has adopted their self-indulgent contempt against popular works.

So while “serious” filmmakers may ridicule popular movies as “not being cinema,” the video game world happily embraces such popular works. I think it’s safe to say the Super Mario franchise has produced many of the most acclaimed video games ever made, while also being extremely cartoonish in nature and having mass commercial appeal, not to mention numerous sequels and countless spinoffs. Not every game with the name ‘Super Mario’ in the title may be an all-time great, but there’s no built in stigma against it for its tone, success, or commercial standing that prevents the Mario games that deserve such praise from earning it.

The world of movies, and the likes of Martin Scorsese, could certainly learn a thing or two about broadening their outlook on their own medium. Perhaps the best retort to Scorsese’s indulgently ignorant claims comes from Samuel L. Jackson, who of course has portrayed Agent Nick Fury in more than a few of the MCU films.

Mr. Jackson’s response went as follows…

“I mean that’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either. Everybody’s got an opinion, so I mean it’s okay. Ain’t going to stop nobody from making movies.”

Essentially, Jackson found a polite way to say “everyone has their own taste, but don’t be a pompous ass and disregard the hard work that goes into things that don’t fit your niche, as well as their audience.” Well said, Mr. Jackson.

So Mr. Scorsese, the point is it’s okay if real people enjoy watching Marvel movies. While no category of movie will ever be absolutely good, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has provided mostly good movies so far. They may not be your kind of movies, but they are still very much cinema.

As for Mr. Scorsese using “theme parks” as a derogatory terminology, well, if I had the choice to ride Space Mountain or sit through an overly-long character study about a wife-beating, sociopathic boxer, the theme park wins. Hands down.

Spider-Man: Far From Home Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers to Avengers: Endgame’s plot. Though the fates of certain characters from that film will be absent*

Avengers: Endgame may have concluded the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, but Spider-Man’s second MCU solo outing, Far From Home, serves as something of the epilogue to Marvel’s “Phase Three,” and everything in the MCU up to this point. Far From Home obviously doesn’t share the sense of finality that Endgame had, but the effects of Endgame reverberate throughout Far From Home, letting audiences know that the MCU will never quite be the same again.

This is admittedly a little bit of a doubled-edged sword for Far From Home. It’s certainly a capable sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, but with the exception of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) himself, no one in  Spider-Man’s corner of the world seems to acknowledge the severity of everything the world (let alone the universe) is recovering from post-Endgame. Far From Home is a good Spider-Man movie (though it’s no Spider-Man 2 or Into the Spider-Verse), but it can at times feel like its scrambling to remember its placement in the wider MCU.

While past MCU films have, for the most part, taken place in or around the year they were released, Spider-Man: Far From Home marks the beginning of a new trend, as the MCU timeline currently sits in the year 2023 post-Endgame. Thanos wiped out half of all life in the universe using the Infinity Stones in Infinity War, before the Hulk used the stones to bring back everyone snapped out of existence into the current day in Endgame.

Far From Home does have some good fun with the premise, with a school news reporter mentioning how he was among those snapped out of existence for half of a decade, while his younger brother remained during those five years and is now his older brother. Some of these jokes land, but it is a little off-putting that Thanos’ cosmically catastrophic actions are almost exclusively referenced in a comedic sense. In Endgame we saw the devastation and tragedy of it all, with many people (including Captain America) seeking counseling because of the continued grief the world was suffering.

On one hand, Spider-Man: Far From Home has a Get Out of Jail Free Card for the consequences of Infinity War and Endgame being brushed to the side: Peter Parker and his friends are still in high school. If anyone is going to shrug off the fact that half of the entire universe was turned to dust and subsequently resurrected five years later, while still worrying and prioritizing their daily drama, it’s high schoolers. So the film can be forgiven when Peter Parker’s friends still go about their usual routines despite the fact that they were among those snapped out of existence for five years by Thanos. Less forgivable, however, are when characters like Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) crack jokes about the whole situation at fundraiser events. Some lightheartedness following-up the drama of Endgame is fine, but if you get too jokey with it, you risk undermining the ongoing narratives of the MCU (no one in Star Wars, for example, cracked jokes about Alderaan getting blown up by the Death Star).

Even though Far From Home’s placement after Endgame could have been handled better, its placement as a sequel to Homecoming is much more successful.

Far From Home sees Peter Parker and his classmates heading on a two-week field trip of Europe, where Peter hopes to take a break from super hero-ing as Spider-Man and confess his feelings for MJ (Zendaya), his classmate and crush. But seeing as a movie solely about Peter Parker on a field trip would probably be a bit of an underwhelming Spider-Man feature, things naturally don’t go quite so smoothly.

Agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) of S.H.I.E.L.D. have been investigating the sudden emergence of Elementals – monsters who are, naturally, based on the elements of earth, fire, water and wind – who threaten the balance of Earth. Normally in a situation like this, Fury would call on the aide of the Avengers, but in this post-Endgame time, the Avengers aren’t so easy to call upon. While the answers to the whereabouts of each Avenger will probably be revealed in their upcoming sequels, the simple fact of the matter is they are outside of Fury’s contact. Spider-Man is the only available Avenger, and so Fury, using his influence, has pulled the strings to set up Parker’s field trip to Europe, where the Elementals are spawning.

“I’d make a joke about how Mysterio looks like the Duke of Zil from Felix the Cat: The Movie, but the fact that I just explained that proves that no one would get the reference…”

A super-powered man from another dimension named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), has fought the Elementals in his own world, and is determined to prevent the creatures from causing the same levels of mass destruction to this world as they did to his. Beck has been working with Fury, and needs help if he is to stop all of the elementals, hence the need for another hero like Spider-Man.

The film does a good job at dealing with Peter Parker’s double life, as any good Spider-Man film should. Sure, not all of the comedy works, and I still find this interpretation of MJ as well as Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) to be pretty annoying. But Tom Holland still makes for a great Peter Parker/Spider-Man, giving the character the right blend of humor and likability. Additionally, Jake Gyllenhaal’s presence enhances the film much in the same vein (but in a completely different way) that Michael Keaton did in Homecoming.

The story does have a few rough patches. Again, how Far From Home continues from where the MCU left off in Endgame could have been handled better. But as a Spider-Man sequel, Far From Home does another great job at telling entertaining, sometimes compelling stories through both of Peter Parker’s personas.

Spider-Man: Far From Home does feature a little bit of a twist involving Mysterio later in the film. Those who know about the character from the comics and other materials will definitely see it coming, but I can also imagine the nature of the twist might be divisive for some audiences. The MCU is no stranger to divisive plot twists, with Iron Man 3 in particular being a polarizing film due to its midway narrative shift. I can imagine some might feel Far From Home’s twist may bring that of Iron Man 3 to mind in some respects, though I believe the twist to be handled much better here, since it ultimately connects with established elements of the MCU and doesn’t undermine the themes the film had built up until that point like Iron Man 3 did.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is another solid installment in the unprecedented mega-franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The comedy might not always hit the mark, especially when it comes at the expense of the rather serious events of the past two Avengers films. But it makes for a worthy sequel to Homecoming. Far From Home is consistently entertaining, with great action set pieces for Spidey and some good character moments for Peter Parker. And while many MCU films can feel like their events are merely stepping stones on the way to the next big crossover, Far From Home tells a nice, self-contained story, and ends with a fun tease as to where Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s story will go next (with a mid-credits sequence that includes a cameo that I won’t dare spoil here, but that I will say is the single best piece of fanservice I think the MCU has provided so far).

The film may present Spider-Man as a smaller-scale super hero (which seems a little questionable by this point), but Far From Home is another testament that our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man may just be the heart of the Marvel Universe.

 

7

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.

 

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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, whom 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.  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 ‘Vers’ (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