RIP Stan Lee

The world of entertainment lost one of its greatest minds today, and the world lost one of its most profound imaginations. Stan Lee, the mastermind behind Marvel comics, has passed away at age 95.

Stan Lee is well-known the world over as the creator of timeless characters such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and the X-Men, among many, many others. His characters and worlds brought joy to countless lives over the years, due in no small part to the depth and human understanding Stan Lee weaved into his stories.

Although his creations ranged from superhuman to cosmic beings, Stan Lee didn’t rely solely on epic feats of strength for his characters, but grounded them with human reliability that many people in the comic book industry seem blind to, even today (the less said about what more contemporary comic writers have done with his characters in works such as Marvel Zombies, the better). While many comic artists strive to be “cool” and “edgy,” Stan Lee knew it was most important to make his characters human, no matter how outlandish their powers or outward appearance might be.

A forward-thinking storyteller, Stan Lee was often described as having “a heart of gold and balls of steel.” He made characters who were flawed, and who taught readers it was okay to be different. The fact that famous creation, Spider-Man, is depicted as a nerd who was regularly bullied in school is a testament to how ahead of the game Stan Lee was, seeing as movies and other mediums have only started catching up in making such characters in more recent years. Stan Lee wrote stories that appealed to people of all backgrounds, that captured the imagination, and made even the biggest outcasts feel at home.

“Stan Lee even appeared in animated form in Disney’s Big Hero 6.”

Despite being a comic book writer, Stan Lee’s influence has reached out to seemingly all forms of media. The world of cinema is now dominated by Stan Lee’s creations, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular being the highest-grossing film franchise in history. And let’s not forget that, over the years, Stan Lee became the “King of the Cameos,” appearing in virtually every movie based on his characters in Hitchcock fashion. He even ended up having cameos in films unrelated to his works in more recent years.

Stan Lee has left a nearly unparalleled legacy in the world of entertainment. One that will continue to delight and inspire countless people forever more.

Excelsior!

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Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4) Review

Control is something we too often take for granted in video games. Even exceptional games usually require the player to get into the meat of things before they get truly engaging. But every so often, a game comes along where it’s thrilling as soon as you pick up the controller. It’s rare that you find a video game where the simple act of moving the character is a joy unto itself. Super Mario has continuously won us over by setting the standard for platforming controls in both his 2D and 3D iterations. Sonic the Hedgehog dared us to see just how fast he could go, bouncing around stages like a pinball. Alucard traversed the haunted halls of Dracula’s castle with a sense of grace worthy of Ayami Kojima’s beautiful illustrations. And Link paved the way for 3D combat with the likes of Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker.

Thanks to Insomniac Games, Marvel’s Spider-Man now enters these hallowed halls. Although there’s plenty to enjoy about Insomniac’s take on the iconic web-slinger, its single greatest joy is found simply in moving Spider-Man around New York City. From swinging on skyscrapers to running up walls, Marvel’s Spider-Man succeeds in making players feel like they’re the one behind Spider-Man’s mask. It’s that rare kind of game that just feels right. This is how Spider-Man should play.

“Dr. Otto Octavius once again proves to be the most complicated character, just as his Spider-Man 2 incarnation remains the most complex character in any Spidey film.”

Insomniac puts their own spin on the Spider-Man mythology. Mercifully ignoring the origin story we all know, this version of Peter Parker has donned the Spider-Man name for eight years, frequently butting heads with the forces of William Fisk (AKA “The Kingpin”), and putting away super villains like the Vulture, Rhino, Shocker, Electro, and Scorpion some time ago. When he’s not fighting crime, Peter works as the assistant to an down-on-his-luck Dr. Otto Octavius (who has yet to become the villainous Doctor Octopus), giving up his job as photographer at the Dailey Bugle (though his lady-friend Mary Jane Watson is now a reporter for that very newspaper). Meanwhile, Norman Osborne has not become the evil Green Goblin, instead having been voted as the (corrupt) mayor of New York City some time ago.

This unique take on the Spider-Man universe gives the game a fresh slate to build on. With Spider-Man being a veteran at his spider-duties, and his two most iconic villains yet to take up their mantles, the story and setting of the game definitely stand out in the franchise.

The game begins with Spider-Man taking the fight to Fisk himself. But after the Kingpin gets put behind bars, a new, more vicious mob begins to overrun New York City, the Demons. That’s a brief summation of the setup, though without spoiling anything, it does get a lot heftier than the simplicity of its setup would suggest. The story is split into three acts, with the final act almost feeling like a full-on sequel to the rest of the game. Overall, it’s probably my favorite Spider-Man story since Spider-Man 2.

“This is probably my favorite suit. It just looks so cool!”

Though the story is progressed one mission at a time, various side quests can be found around New York City, which not only give players plenty to do at their own leisure, but also provide numerous means to build up Spider-Man’s abilities. By completing side quests and meeting certain objectives, the player can unlock new gadgets – which give Spidey different web-based moves – and even new spider suits (many of which pay homage to Spidey’s past), with each suit providing its own bonuses and abilities. Spider-Man can also gain experience points and level up (it seems like every game requires RPG elements these days), which allows you to unlock new moves and upgrade the gadgets and abilities you already possess. Thankfully, not only does Spider-Man gain experience by traditional means (combat, completing missions), but doing things as simple as performing stunts during your web-slinging travels will inch you ever closer to the next level.

It’s actually surprising, how deep Spider-Man’s abilities go. With so many different play styles between Spidey’s moves, suits, gadgets and abilities, there’s no shortage of options for those who want to tackle the game their own way. I personally preferred trip mines that lassoed enemies together in webs, and throwing baddies to stick them to walls. But others may prefer explosive webs and the suits’ special weaponry. Or they may just love throwing environmental objects at enemies. There’s all kinds of ways to enjoy the combat of Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Speaking of combat, you will be doing much of it throughout the game. Mechanically, it works a lot like the combat system of the Batman Arkham series, though it flows more fluidly and feels more polished. And as stated, you have a lot more options to work with here, so no matter how many times you get in a scuffle, you can always try out different abilities and combinations to see what you like best. Unfortunately, there is one drawback to a number of combat sections that lives on from the Arkham games, and that’s that many combat sections just drag on and on. Again, the combat is never bad, but there will be numerous occasions when you’ll feel like the waves and waves of enemies feel unnecessary and redundant. It’s not a major issue, but while the sheer joy of swinging across New York City may never lose its luster, you may feel that many of the combat sections overstay their welcome.

“This version of MJ is infinitely better than whatever Spider-Man: Homecoming was going for.”

The game’s other downside is that many of the side quests will become repetitious after a while. Almost every optional objective is part of a series of similar objectives (conducting research for Harry Osborne while he’s away in Europe, performing quick challenges for the Taskmaster, etc.). In small doses these side endeavors can be entertaining detours in their own right, but for those aiming for either one-hundred percent completion or maximizing Spider-Man’s stats, you may grow weary of doing the same objectives over and over again.

“One of the game’s best segments has players taking control of MJ, with the player telling Spider-Man when to jump in and take out an enemy.”

These elements ultimately prove to be minor complaints, however, as the main story is filled with fun twists and turns both in terms of its narrative and in its gameplay. There are even sections where you can play as Mary Jane Watson or Miles Morales which emphasize stealth (given their lack of super powers). Admittedly, the Miles Morales sections lack variety, but the MJ segments find ways to keep building upon themselves in fun ways.

Of course, the biggest appeal of the game is Spider-Man himself. The Arkham titles were previously considered the benchmark for super hero games for the way they made players feel like Batman. But I don’t think even the best entry in that series quite captured the essence of its titular hero the way Marvel’s Spider-Man puts players in the role of Spidey. The combat is fun and always evolving, but it’s the simple act of motion – the speed, the momentum, the physics – that provides the game’s greatest triumph. The game even features one of the most robust photo modes you will find in a game, a totally unnecessary but greatly appreciated feature that really hits the point home of all the crazy scenarios and actions Spidey can find himself in.

“My all-time favorite Marvel character, J. Jonah Jameson, makes a triumphant appearance via his podcast, which you will frequently hear among your travels. Per the norm, he negatively comments on Spider-Man’s recent activities depending on the player’s actions.”

The side quests and other character sections aren’t always winners, and sometimes the game may not know when enough waves of mobsters are enough, but they’re small prices to pay for how well Marvel’s Spider-Man realizes its story and characters, and for how exhilarating it is just to travel around New York City as everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

 

8

Venom Review

Venom is the kind of movie I wish I could say I liked more than I did. The idea of a Marvel film based around a villain/anti-hero certainly stands out in this day and age when several films based around Marvel heroes are released every year. But while the concept of Venom has some promise, and some strong performances, it ultimately feels indecisive with what kind of film in wants to be, which continuously halts any momentum it gains.

Venom of course tells the origin story of its titular anti-hero, a hotshot reporter named Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) who, after raising suspicions of illegal activity with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) – the billionaire head of Life Foundation, a scientific research organization – loses his career and credibility, as well as his fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). It turns out (of course) that Drake really is committing heinous crimes, having homeless people kidnapped and experimented on under the guise of medical tests. In truth, the Life Foundation has come into possession of blob-like alien lifeforms called Symbiotes, which can’t survive on Earth for long without latching onto (or, more accurately, into) a host. Drake is using his victims as guinea pigs for the Symbiotes, but if the host isn’t a perfect match, the connection between them and the Symbiode will quickly kill the host.

Luckily for Eddie Brock, at least one of Drake’s scientist actually has a conscience, and she seeks him out so he can expose Drake’s crimes (the cops are a no-go due to Drake’s threats, which I guess also include any official press, so Eddie – being fired and all – is her go-to I suppose). She sneaks Eddie into the facility, and during his escapades he accidentally releases a Symbiote, which then uses him as its host. Thankfully for both Eddie and the Symbiote, they are a perfect match for each other. Not that the film gives much detail as to what that means. Are they a biological match? The Symbiote also affects his mind, so does it feed off his emotions? The former is probably what the film intends, though the latter scenario seems like it makes for a more interesting character.

With the Symbiote in his body and mind, Eddie Brock is able to become the creature Venom, who can manipulate its liquid-like body in a variety of ways, in addition to possessing superhuman strength and agility. Although a decent stretch of the film is dedicated to Brock getting used to a life shared with an alien parasite, it eventually becomes your standard superhero fare, with Venom destined to stop Drake’s evil plots involving the other Symbiotes.

The film is at its best when it focuses on Eddie and his struggles with the Symbiote. Tom Hardy’s performances as both Eddie Brock and the voice of Venom are the film’s biggest highlights. Hardy gives both characters a sense of complexity that you wish were present in the rest of the film. Not that Venom is ever truly terrible (I’ve seen many worse superhero films), just that it can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s edgy and serious one minute, then tries to pull a Deadpool-esque joke between Brock and the Symbiote the next. It can, at times, be effective with being serious or comical, but it never finds a way to make them mesh together cohesively. So when we do get to the ‘funny bits’ after so much angst, it can come off as more awkward than funny.

Sadly, the characters outside of Eddie/Venom just come off as stock superhero movie stereotypes. Although Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed put in the effort, the characters they have to work with are just kind of flat and boring. This is particularly true of Carlton Drake, who falls squarely into the most cliched of super villain roles: the evil billionaire. I suppose it’s an easy archetype to work with (give a bad guy unfathomable wealth and it gives a good excuse why he can afford to act out evil schemes), but it doesn’t exactly change the fact that we’ve seen the evil billionaire super villain a thousand times before. On the plus side of things, the mandatory mid-credits sequence does give us insight as to who the villain in the next film will be, and given the character (and the actor they nabbed to portray him), that raises hopes for the sequel.

Without a more interesting villain here though, Venom suffers. Again, the film is at its best when it’s dealing with Eddie Brock’s struggles with the Symbiote. The film may have greatly benefitted if those struggles in themselves were the primary conflict of the movie, as opposed to the stock villain. Take a note from the Dark Knight films, with the first movie focused on its protagonist’s origin story, then deliver the big villain in the sequel. Venom got the second part right, at least.

As much as I appreciate the concept of a standalone superhero film these days (though I’m sure Sony will make sure Venom doesn’t stay that way), I can’t help but think Venom also suffers from existing in its own bubble without the Spider-Man aspects of the mythology. I understand that Sony has ‘lent’ Spidey to Marvel Studios, but I’m not saying this film needed to have ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s an animated Spider-Man film on the horizon with no connections to the MCU, so why not at least mention that the world of Venom has its own Spider-Man? After all, part of what makes the Venom character stand out is his contrast to Spider-Man. Spidey is the altruistic hero who’s willing to forgive even his greatest foes, while Venom is the more tormented soul who may have morality to him… but only to an extent, having no qualms with biting the head off someone more wicked than himself. With Spider-Man seemingly non-existent in this film universe, there’s no ‘greater good’ to compare Venom’s conflicting good and evil traits to, which ultimately makes him feel not all that different from any other super hero (sans for the head biting).

I don’t want to write off Venom completely. As stated, Tom Hardy’s performance does help elevate the film, and there are some fun moments and exciting action sequences. But by the time the credits start rolling, you won’t feel like you just watched a film that did anything for the superhero genre that you haven’t seen already. But at least when that aforementioned mid-credits sequence happens, you may feel that, next time, you just might.

 

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

Deadpool 2 Review

When Deadpool was released in 2016, it was a breath of fresh air for many. Not only did it take the super hero genre to R-rated territory, but it also emphasized humor to a much higher degree than the countless other super hero films on the market these days. Deadpool was a surprise hit, and a sequel was inevitable. Here we are with Deadpool 2, which outdoes its predecessor in most respects, though may not win over those who weren’t already Deadpool faithful.

While Deadpool told a straightforward origin/revenge story, Deadpool 2 ups the ante with stronger character arcs. Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has suffered a tragedy in his life, and is trying to find a greater purpose. He might just find it when he stumbles across a troubled teenage mutant named Russel Collins (Julian Dennison) – who likes to call himself Fire Fist – who is in need of a bit of guidance, not to mention protection once a hitman from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) shows up with the intent of killing Collins.

Its plot may not reinvent the super hero genre, but it feels fresher and deeper than its predecessor, due in large part to the dynamics between the characters. Russel and Cable may seem like typical sidekick and antagonist archetypes at first glance, but as the film goes on they reveal that there’s more to their characters. And this only brings out the best in Deadpool as a character as well.

Deadpool 2 also benefits from being a funnier film than the first entry. The pop-culture references, meta-humor, and zippy one-liners are in full force here. Everything from fellow X-Men movies to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to DC’s less-than-stellar Expanded Universe to Disney’s Frozen gets name-dropped and/or lampooned throughout. The film even opens with a pretty funny visual gag at the expense of the ending of 2017’s Logan. And of course Deadpool 2 is more than happy to make fun of itself most of all, with the crimson hero often deriding his own script and studio whenever an obvious trope or storyline convenience shows up.

While the 2016 original had its charm due to its sense of humor, its story was nothing to write home about. What elevates Deadpool 2 above its predecessor is how it finds a better balance at telling a good story, while also being able to break the fourth wall and make a punchline of itself every other minute. The story may not reach the same heights as some of the more recent Marvel films such as Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War, but its stronger emphasis on character arcs makes it a more memorable story to its predecessor, while not sacrificing the humor and wit that separates Deadpool from the armies of other super hero films of this day and age.

Unfortunately, Deadpool 2 still does suffer from a few of the problems that hindered the original. The action scenes can be either hit or miss, never quite deciding whether they want to be serious action sequences or parodies of them. Similarly, Deadpool 2 seems to have some inconsistent pacing, which admittedly has been a recurring issue with many of the films in the X-Men franchise. Certain characters, even important ones, seem largely forgotten for long stretches of time, and some of the plot revelations unfold somewhat unceremoniously. And although Deadpool 2 is an improvement over the first film, it may not be to quite the extent as to change the minds of anyone who somehow didn’t care for Deadpool’s antics the first time around.

What I’m getting at is, Deadpool 2 is very good, but just shy from greatness. There are moments of greatness here and there, particularly revolving around Reynolds’ and Brolin’s performances, as well as those aforementioned meta-gags. But in a time when super hero films (the Marvel ones, anyway) are reaching a newfound consistency in greatness, Deadpool 2 simply falls a bit short of some of its contemporaries. It may never be dull, but Deadpool 2 also simply doesn’t stack up to the recent MCU output.

If you enjoyed the first Deadpool, it only makes sense that you’d love Deadpool 2. It more or less takes the elements that single Deadpool out in the super hero genre (R-rated comedy, violence, etc.) and cranks them to the next level. If Deadpool can find a foundation that makes it feel more like some of the recent Marvel films and less like, well, the X-Men films, while still keeping its R-rated identity intact, it could be one of the best super hero franchises going (it may also benefit its studio to emphasize it over the X-Men films, which have become more than a little convoluted with their continuities and timelines, things which Deadpool can openly acknowledge and mock). As it stands, Deadpool will have to “settle” for being the funny man sitting on the shoulders of giants. Albeit he certainly would a lot of attention to that shoulder.

 

6

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.

7

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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