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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Review

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is some kind of revelation. A western animated feature that creates a visual look that’s completely removed from the Pixar style that has remained the basis of the medium for over two decades and, even more notably, a super hero film that’s wildly original. Into the Spider-Verse is not only the best Spider-Man film since 2004’s Spider-Man 2, it’s one of the best Marvel movies period, and one of the best films of 2018.

The first thing audiences are bound to notice about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is its animation. Simply put, this is one of the most uniquely animated films ever made. It emulates the look of a comic book in a way no live-action film ever could. Although Spider-Verse is computer animated – as is the standard of today – it combines it with traditional hand-drawn techniques, and a unique cel shading to give it its aforementioned comic book vibe. It’s quite stunning to behold in motion.

Perhaps the best thing about Into the Spider-Verse is that its story nearly matches its visuals in the originality department.

Spider-Verse tells the story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a teenager who, like the more widely known Peter Parker, is bitten by a radioactive spider, which grants him super human strength and agility, as well as a ‘spider sense’ that alerts him to danger. Sure, it doesn’t matter who is behind the Spider-Man mask, we all know the origin story so well any reminder of it comes across like a joke. And in fact, Into the Spider-Verse makes the origin story into its biggest running gag.

Yes, we do see how Miles Morales becomes the famous web-slinger, but the tale is given more than a few new spins. For starters, the Peter Parker Spider-Man (Chris Pine) already exists by the time Morales gets bit by the fateful arachnid. And soon after Morales gains his powers, he stumbles across an epic battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Live Schreiber), which include the Prowler and the Green Goblin (whom, in this highly stylized version, is an actual goblin-like monster). The plot gets an extra dose of originality by how Miles (and by extension, the audience) just kind of happen upon Kingpin’s evil plot as it’s unfolding, instead of having a good chunk of the first act dedicated to explaining Kingpin’s plans.

What Miles stumbles on, however, is Kingpin’s attempts at opening portals to other dimensions. Though the machine used to achieve these means collapses on itself – causing great damage to New York City and even wiping out some of Kingpin’s forces – it does succeed on a small scale, allowing the Spider-Man equivalent of five other dimensions to enter Miles’ world.

These ‘Spider-People’ include a cynical, down-on-his-luck Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), who is divorced from Mary Jane Watson and quite out-of-shape, and becomes a disinterested, reluctant mentor to Miles. There’s also Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), the Gwen Stacy from a separate dimension, who took up the Spider-Mantle in place of her friend Peter Parker, who was killed in her world. These two, along with Miles, make up the film’s primary characters. Though another trio of Spider-Men join the fray later on: Spider-Noir (Nicholas Cage), a gumshoe from a 1930s dimension; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese female Peter Parker from an anime universe with a spider-mecha; and Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a pig from a slapstick cartoon universe who, in contrast to the rest of the group, was originally a spider before being bitten by a radioactive pig. As you might expect, it becomes the mission of Miles and his newfound Spider-Friends to prevent Kingpin from reactivating his machine and completely destroying New York City.

Admittedly, it is a bit of a shame that the latter three characters don’t get nearly as much screen time, seeing as they bring out the most style in this most stylized film. But I suppose sequels and spinoffs are already in the tank, so here’s hoping Spider-Noir, Peni Parker and Peter Porker can all star in their own movie, which can take advantage of their wildly different styles. Though hoping that the secondary heroes can get their own sequel is hardly a complaint, and is more telling of just how wonderfully realized Into the Spider-Verse’s heroes are that even the supporting cast leaves such an impression.

If there is one element that is a little disappointing, it’s in the film’s villain scenario. Kingpin is actually given a pretty unique motivation for a super villain, but his story ends up suffering slightly as it never really evolves beyond its initial reveal. Perhaps an even bigger misstep is that many of Spider-Man’s best villains, like the aforementioned Green Goblin and even Doctor Octopus, really end up feeling shortchanged as mere henchmen of Kingpin. Spider-Verse has some unique ideas for these villains, but by giving them bit roles, they feel wasted. Spider-Verse has an ace up its sleeve in regards to sequels in that, by introducing alternate universes, this series can continually reinvent these villains and promote them to the primary antagonist role. Though you do have to worry that the filmmakers may not go that route since they already used said villains.

These are ultimately small prices to pay for an otherwise stellar movie. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse continuously finds new ways to reinvent not only Spider-Man, but the super hero movie genre as a whole. It’s briskly paced, throwing Miles Morales’ story into the grander plot without slowing down for the usual super hero expositions. And the film is a constant barrage of style and flashy visuals. There’s not a single moment in Into the Spider-Verse that doesn’t burn its way into your memory with its flashy colors, vibrant effects and fun character designs (Kingpin in particular, with his massive body and relatively small head, looks like he walked out of a Sylvain Chomet film). It’s the most uniquely animated film since The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

In this day and age, where super hero films are a dime a dozen, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse stands above its contemporaries by creating a super hero tale that looks and feels stunningly original. Into the Spider-Verse tells a story that makes one of pop culture’s most enduring heroes feel fresh all over again, and it does so with every last frame being drenched in style.

 

8

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!

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