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

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X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review

Before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, before there was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, before even Sam Raimi brought Spider-Man to the big screen, there was X-Men. When the first X-Men film was released in 2000, super hero movies weren’t nearly as commonplace as they are now. Sure, Superman and Batman had successful cinematic runs from time to time, but it was when X-Men hit theaters that the genre really started to pick up, with the aforementioned likes of Spider-Man, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and most prominently the MCU coming into existence in its wake. The super hero genre is now the movie genre, with this success being traced back to X-Men. But now, after almost twenty years, the X-Men film series – in its current state – comes to an end.

Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox means it’s only a matter of time before the X-Men get rebooted and integrated into the MCU in some capacity. But if recent claims by Marvel and Disney hold true, that won’t be any time soon. That’s probably for the best, however. After almost twenty years of X-Men movies of wildly varying quality, and multiple timelines that have made less sense with every installment, the franchise is a bit exhausted. And its final proper entry, Dark Phoenix – quite ironically given its title – feels burnt out. It has its moments of promise, and it’s certainly not the worst X-Men movie, but Dark Phoenix suffers from simply not being good enough. It fizzles out this decades-long movie franchise instead of giving it a satisfying conclusion, and isn’t strong enough to make you forget about what a bumpy road it’s been to get here.

The creative burnout of the franchise is perhaps most evident by the fact that Dark Phoenix is treading familiar territory. This is a film that adapts the famous Dark Phoenix story arc from the comics, in which psychic mutant  Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) gains insurmountable power from a cosmic force, which turns the once-friendly X-Woman into a deadly super being. This storyline was already adapted back in 2006 with X-Men: The Last Stand (the final installment of the original trilogy of films). The only real difference here is that it features the younger cast first established in X-Men: First Class (2011), who have somehow been featured in more films in the series than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (who portrayed Charles Xavier and Magneto in the opening trilogy and Days of Future Past, and were perfectly cast in their roles, even if the films themselves were never worthy of those great casting choices). I can’t think of another instance of a movie franchise that adapted the same storyline twice without being properly rebooted first. So I guess that tells you where the X-Men movie franchise is at as it breaths its last.

Jean Grey is at the center of this story. The film begins with her as a young child in 1975, and how her psychic abilities inadvertently caused the car accident that killed her parents (while protecting herself from damage). She was then taken in by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), so that her abilities could be nurtured and grow into something positive. But Xavier, being a psychic himself, tampered with Jean’s more tragic memories, making her forget that she accidentally caused her parents’ deaths and that her father, fearing mutants, never loved her.

Fast-forward to 1992, Apocalypse has been defeated, the events of Days of Future Past happened…sometime, and human-mutant relations are at an all-time high. Charles Xavier (who looks exactly the same – sans the hair – even though he should look like Patrick Stewart in only eight-years time) now has a direct hotline to the White House, as the X-Men are now trusted with aiding the US government during times of crisis (is it just me, or does answering to the government because you were born with unique abilities actually sound like a bad thing?).

The film wastes no time in finding such a crisis, as a “solar flare” has critically damaged a space shuttle in orbit. As one would do in such a situation, the president calls a professor to send his students into space to fix the problem. Xavier chooses Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kofi Smit-McPhee), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and of course Jean Grey (who doesn’t get a cool nickname), to save the stranded astronauts from the doomed shuttle.

Using their different powers (Nightcrawler’s teleportation seems particularly handy), the X-Men manage to save the astronauts by bringing them aboard the X-Jet. But when rescuing the final astronaut, Jean gets stranded in the shuttle just as the solar flair breaks through. The flare rips apart the rocket, and travels inside of Jean’s body, saving her from certain death in the void of space. Nightcrawler manages to rescue Jean, and the X-Men return to Earth with the astronauts.

As you might expect, having a mysterious cosmic force bury itself in your body comes with a few side effects, and it isn’t long before Jean’s psychic abilities begin to amp up considerably, and she even gains newfound abilities like flight and energy projection. She also starts having severe mood swings, and begins remembering the events of her past that Charles Xavier once made her forget. With these repressed memories coming back to haunt her, in addition to gaining a power she can’t control, Jean is quickly becoming a dangerous force that threatens the X-Men themselves.

As it turns out, this “solar flare” wasn’t a solar flare at all, but the Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity of unimaginable power. Hot on the Phoenix Force’s tail are a race of shapeshifting aliens called the D’Bari, who infiltrate the Earth looking for a way to use Jean’s newfound power to help them turn Earth into their new home world.

The plot may be a bit closer to the original comics than The Last Stand was, but many of its elements still feel overly familiar, and those that are new here aren’t very compelling. The D’Bari are entirely forgettable villains, with their only named character, Vuk (Jessica Chastain), being a lackluster big bad trying to manipulate Jean Grey for her power.

Other elements simply feel rushed, such as how Magneto (Michael Fassbender) gets thrust into the proceedings, and his motivation for the rest of the film feels flimsy. So many scenes zoom on by, and though the action scenes can be fun, they feel strangely crammed together. The final  set piece personifies this, as I didn’t even realize it was the finale until it was almost done. It provides some fun action and visuals, but it never feels like the climactic battle it should be.

It all goes back to the film simply being “not good enough.” The majority of the cast is comprised of good actors, but aside from McAvoy and Turner, most of them come across as disinterested. The film even includes a notable character death in the first act (which the trailers infamously spoiled), but instead of feeling like a well-earned emotional moment, it comes across more that the actor in question just wanted out of their contract.

Another problem I’ve had with these X-Men films is how the makeup effects haven’t evolved since the first movie was released nearly two decades ago. The actors may have changed with First Class, but the effects used to bring the more fantastic-looking mutants (read: the blue ones) to life look outdated. The makeup for Beast remains as it was in the 2006 film, while Mystique’s hasn’t been altered since 2000. Some might say the filmmakers are aiming for continuity between the films, but seeing as the X-Men movies have retconned, reset and flat-out ignored so many established character and story elements in the past, clearly continuity isn’t at the forefront for this franchise. Save the continuity for the storytelling, people. If the makeup effects look outdated, change them up a bit.

I’m sounding incredibly negative towards the film, but I admit it’s not a total lost cause. There are moments of fun to be had in Dark Phoenix, but again, nothing that feels like anything more than your run-of-the-mill superhero fare. And considering this conclusion to the X-Men comes relatively shortly after the MCU’s decade-long payoff with the exceptional Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix feels all the more underwhelming.

I don’t think Dark Phoenix is on the same level of franchise ruination as say, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald. But seeing as it was destined to be the final installment in this nearly twenty-year old X-Men movie franchise once Disney started eyeing Fox, Dark Phoenix is a big letdown of a sendoff.

 

4

Avengers: Endgame Review

*Caution: though this review only contains minor spoilers in regards to Endgame’s plot, it does consist of major spoilers to the ending of its predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War*

It’s rare that I see a movie that I feel won’t be replicated. But Avengers: Endgame is one such film. After eleven years and twenty-one previous features, Endgame brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it to a grand, satisfying close.

Yes, there will be plenty more super hero films in the future, and yes, the MCU will very much continue on. But I honestly can’t see another movie series – even the future MCU itself – managing to pull off an overarching storyline that lasts longer than a decade and culminates after this many films. Endgame marks the conclusion to an unprecedented achievement in filmmaking, one that I simply can’t see happening again on this scale.

Endgame begins a few weeks after the events of Infinity War. The evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) has succeeded in his perceived destiny. He collected every Infinity Stone, and with their limitless power, wiped out half of all life in the universe with a snap of his fingers. The Avengers failed, with half of the super heroes being turned to dust along with half of the rest of the universe. The heroes lost, Thanos won.

As you can probably guess, Endgame takes a more somber tone than the past Avengers films for this reason. While in the past, the Avengers movies served as the means to wrap up collective chapters for their heroes, Endgame is instead largely based on how the surviving heroes cope with the fact that their failure lead to such devastation.

The remaining Avengers (and Guardians of the Galaxy) include Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Okoye (Danial Gurira). Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) also returns to action, after his family is among those turned to dust by Thanos. And Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) shows up whenever she deems it convenient for herself.

I won’t divulge too much of the plot in detail, because Endgame takes so many bonkers twists and turns that going into any specifics beyond the first few minutes would feel like a spoiler. Suffice to say, however, that the Avengers look for a means to undo the catastrophic damage Thanos has done to the universe, and just might find a way once Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from the Quantum Realm, which he’s been trapped in since the mid-credits sequence of Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Despite having missed out on the events of Infinity War, Scott Lang was only in the Quantum Realm for a brief time by his perspective, leading him to believe the Avengers may be able to find a means to manipulate the Quantum Realm to go back in time to gather the Infinity Stones themselves and save the people Thanos wiped out. Not-so-spoiler alert: The Avengers find a way to time travel using the Quantum Realm.

Before you ask the obvious questions that may come to mind when the good guys build a time machine to stop the bad guy, it should be stressed that Endgame makes a point that its concept of time travel works very differently than what we’re used to seeing in movies. And while its idea of time traveling doesn’t always make sense (why is it only Back to the Future got it right?), it does ultimately work for the story that’s being told here.

Time travel is admittedly a risky move on any franchise, as it has often been used as a cliche that’s employed at the point when filmmakers “jump the shark.” But in the case of Avengers: Endgame, it works wonderfully. As the culmination of a decade-long, twenty-two film story arc, Endgame has earned the right to dive headfirst into whatever insane direction it pleases. And I’m happy to say that Endgame is the most flat-out insane feature in the entire MCU.

“Welcome back, Hawkeye.”

With such a varied cast of characters now having the ability to go back in time, Endgame uses the premise to not only bring out the best comedic aspects of its heroes’ personalities, but also to create a story that simply couldn’t have existed in any other movie. Endgame makes various callbacks and recreations of the past films in the MCU (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively), and finds ways to remix and recycle elements from the mega-franchise’s history all while telling a story of its own. It’s a beautiful example of a story actually benefitting from fanservice, with every callback to the Marvel films of yesteryear not only providing a nostalgic glee, but also serving as a piece to the overall puzzle that is Endgame’s storytelling.

Like the preceding Avengers films, Endgame is an exceptional action feature, with every set piece and battle sequence delivering on their staggering promise. The final battle specifically – without giving too much away – is the most ludicrous, ridiculous and fanservice-heavy battle scene I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderful.

Endgame can be a really funny movie at times. Just because the film takes place after the doom and gloom finale of Infinity War doesn’t mean Marvel has lost its sense of humor (especially where Tony Stark and Scott Lang are concerned). But Endgame is ultimately (and appropriately) the saddest and most emotional film in the MCU. It’s everything you love about the Avengers, now with the heart of a Pixar movie.

It is only fitting that, as the series has moved forward, it has also matured and become more serious. Yes, there’s still plenty of action, humor and fanservice to be had in Endgame. But it also has a poignancy about it that makes it feel unique among all the MCU films, which only adds to its status as a fitting finale.

How often is it that we can say a movie franchise has a satisfying conclusion, anyway? It seems like most trilogies lose their footing when it comes to the third entry, and the franchises that go further than that still falter around the same point. But here we have a twenty-two film series, and its grand finale is more than likely the best film of the entire lot. It delivers on all the entertaining aspects of its many predecessors (oftentimes outdoing them), while adding a new sense of emotional weight and depth to the series. Endgame proves to be a surprisingly melancholic and reflective story.

While Endgame may feel like a perfect conclusion to the MCU (so far), it isn’t quite a perfect movie, with at least two elements that feel…off.

The first is that Thanos’s role has been largely reduced. It’s not a total loss considering Josh Brolin had his chance to shine as the character in Infinity War, which was the ‘Thanos movie.’ Much like how the first Avengers film reused Thor‘s Loki to fill the antagonist role as to keep its focus on the heroes coming together, Endgame pulls off something similar by reducing Thanos’s screen time now that we’ve gotten to understand the character. But without spoiling anything specific, I can’t help but feel the means in which Endgame removes Thanos from much of the plot, and how he finds himself back into the proceedings in the third act might feel a bit cheap to some audiences.

Again, that’s forgivable. And depending on who you ask, they may not mind that Thanos has taken a bit of a backseat. Less forgivable, however, is the character of Captain Marvel. One could say she’s this Avengers film’s token “short end of the stick” character (similar to Hawkeye in the original, or Vision in Infinity War), given that she does very little in the movie despite Infinity War’s post-credits scene hyping her up. But unlike the less fortunate characters of past Avengers movies, I’m actually glad Captain Marvel has such a limited presence in the film, because she’s far and away the most unlikable character in the entire MCU.

Between her obnoxious arrogance and her eye-rolling ability to basically do anything, the film gives audiences absolute zero reason to care about the character. The filmmakers of the MCU have – in a shoehorned attempt to capitalize on social movements – backed Captain Marvel into a corner. Either her presence undermines every threat the Avengers face since she can just overpower anyone, or her absence makes her seem like the single most selfish person in the universe, given that she’s supposed to be helping the Avengers save the universe. Essentially, in going overboard and forcing Captain Marvel to be a strong female hero (something the MCU already accomplished – and infinitely more organically – with the likes of Black Widow and Scarlett Witch), they’ve instead turned Captain Marvel into an entirely unrelatable deus ex machina. But again, at least she’s barely in the movie.

Aside from Thanos’s questionable means of entering and exiting the story when necessary, and the utter unlikability of Captain Marvel, pretty much everything else about Avengers: Endgame is top notch. It brings out the best of so many aspects of the MCU, and ties it all together with a stronger emotional weight than ever before.

Yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue. But I honestly can’t imagine it recreating what has been done here in Avengers: Endgame. The fact that Marvel managed to successfully string together twenty-two movies over eleven years, and bring it all to such a satisfying conclusion is nothing short of a miracle in movie making. There will surely be more Thanos-level baddies whose story arcs will branch across the MCU. But I can’t imagine Marvel (or anyone else) replicating things to this scale again.

For those who have watched the MCU since its humble beginnings with Iron Man in 2008, you’d be hard-pressed to ask for more from a grand finale than what you get here. And for those who yearn for the more innocent early years of the MCU like Iron Man, I imagine that’s what we’ll be going back to for a while as the series rebuilds itself after this most fitting end.

The MCU has grown up alongside its fans, and seeing it reach its apex is a bittersweet rollercoaster. Avengers: Endgame is not only the ending we all hoped it could be, given its unprecedented build-up, but it should also rank as one of the best blockbusters of all time.

 

9

Avengers: Infinity War Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The man himself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone is here.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

8

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5

Marvel’s The Avengers Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

8

Captain Marvel Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5