Stan Lee’s impact on someone who never opened a comic book

I had just turned 9 years old when Dad took me to see “Spider-Man 2” at an Indiana movie theater. It was the summer of 2004, and there was little foundation in my mind for what I could expect to marvel at on the big screen, other than the first Spidey movie and a tie-in computer game I spent some time playing a few years prior.

Of course, that didn’t stop me, nor millions of others, from having a hell of a moviegoing experience. In 2018 “Spider-Man 2” still a highlight of the genre—even though its arrival was still early in the era of the superhero movie, when Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t yet a part of the Hollywood lexicon.

It was also a movie that led me to an epiphany. Continue reading →

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Review: ‘Justice League’ gets a gold star for trying

Hello, darkness, my old friend…”

Well. Here we are.

After three-and-a-halfish years of this iteration of the DC Extended Universe, a span of time which has seen film quality – and level of consumer confidence – fluctuate from acceptable (“Man of Steel”) to bad (“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”) to worse (“Suicide Squad”) to rebirth (“Wonder Woman”), we have finally arrived at what, we assume, should be a benchmark for this iteration of DC superherodom.

Instead, “Justice League” feels more like a litmus test, a way to test the loyalty of its fanboys while providing a predictable story whose flashiest moments still lack any really intrigue to stand out in a saturated genre. While easier to swallow than “Dawn of Justice,” you know you have a problem when there’s more charm in your 60-second mid-credits scene than everything that has preceded it. Continue reading →

Review: Marvel pokes fun at itself with ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ and has a blast doing it

It’s about time we got something like “Thor: Ragnarok.”

After nearly a dozen years of spinning an increasingly complex web of Marvel stories and characters, the studio realized a need for giving audiences something new and invigorating; something to keep the spark alive, if you will. And they picked the perfect franchise to do it.

With “Ragnarok,” one of the MCU’s least consequential (and – let’s face it – one of its least interesting) franchises doesn’t just get a facelift; it’s infused with a new energy. With the third solo entry for Thor – “solo” becoming more and more ambiguous the further along the MCU machine churns –  he’s officially the ugly girl you initially passed up on who went on to become a runway model. Continue reading →

2017: Surprises and storylines so far in movies

Welcome to (almost) August.

Well, ok, in the real world. But in the parallel cinematic universe that mirrors our own, it’s probably more accurate to say we’re coming up on the end of April as far as the movie year goes, what with most of the year’s best films to come as the weather gets cooler.

Nonetheless, 2017 has been supremely interesting for movies so far.

We got a 2018 Best Picture dark horse contender almost a full year early in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Following a series of misfires, DC finally gave us a film that is both a critical darling and box office smash in Wonder Woman. After La La Land invigorated the musical last year, Edgar Wright reinvented it with Baby Driver. And, of course, Marvel Studios keeps doing Marvel Studios things. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Logan’ is a bloodily introspective affair that ends an iconic journey with more of a whimper than a shout of triumph

“X-Men” movies have always been about strength in numbers, finding family where others might just see freaks.

That formula has stayed consistent even with the “stand-alone” Wolverine flicks (which really just mean our favorite mutant teaming up with new allies), and even with the franchise’s first decidedly adult foray in 2016 with Deadpool, as the Merc with a Mouth seeks the help of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

But with “Logan,” the majority of the spotlight shines on Hugh Jackman’s alter ego, providing X-Men fans with an examination of the character 17 years in the making that is as complex as anything we’ve seen so far from the franchise, and perhaps the superhero genre as a whole.

Oh, and yes, there’s blood. Buckets and buckets of it to make up for what seems like 10 movies’ worth of carnage that was still trying to appeal to 10-year-old fans.

Director James Mangold takes care to make sure that the movie’s (much) more mature aesthetic manifests itself in more than just claws ripping endless waves of cronies to shreds. “Logan” also deals with some of the darkest themes of the series, making the so-called isolated and lonely experience of being a mutant at Professor Xavier’s school come off as a paradise.

There, teenage mutants are learning to control their powers by grown-ups who have come to terms with their constant struggle of being different from humanity. In “Logan,” children even younger than those at Xavier’s are making ends meet on their own, trying to survive while being hunted down by humans an age when mutants aren’t born so much as they are manufactured.

That’s the case of the young Laura when she eventually crosses paths with an old and grumpier than usual Logan, hiding out in the borderlands of southern Texas where he doesn’t have to worry about anyone that he doesn’t seem to care about anyway.

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That even extends to his care of an old Charles Xavier, who is in a much more vulnerable state than we’ve ever seen him, and who seems to have given up on trying to convince Logan that he is meant to be more than the monster he was bred to be.

The duo reside with another mutant caretaker, passing the days with seemingly no end goal save to wait for their own bodies and mutant genes to wear out on them, until Laura gives them one more mission to embark on.

Jackman has stated that this turn as Wolverine is his last, and if that turns out to be the case, he delivers a powerfully nuanced and emotional performance that allows for insight into his character in ways we’ve never seen before. It’s easy to forget about Logan’s internal plight in other X-Men flicks when he’s fighting for something much grander than getting over his own existential crisis, but “Logan” forces you to contemplate the type of person someone becomes when they’ve become used to enduring through violence and rage.

Patrick Stewart also shines as the debilitated Xavier that has some of the best lines of the movie (whoever knew the professor could be this profane?), and Laura is quietly affecting in a largely dialogue-less role.

“Logan” certainly feels much more like a drama than a traditional superhero flick, one which successfully proves that deeper explorations of the genre’s characters and their motives can make for entertaining films, despite this one’s pacing issues. There aren’t any flashy effects, the villains aren’t of a supernatural nature and the world, or what’s left of it, doesn’t necessarily need saving.

However, the fact that Mangold makes character exploration the focus of “Logan” doesn’t mean it’s truly groundbreaking in any way; it simply takes a different narrative route than other superhero movies, albeit one that transcends the genre’s tropes. “Logan” is bold and brutal, but in many ways we only feel like we’re seeing something totally fresh because it’s the first such intimate foray in, or out of, the genre.

The most interesting thing that Mangold’s script delves into is Logan’s strained relationship with his rage and his efforts to control it. Jackman effectively portrays the struggles that Logan must live with in balancing that rage and using it in small doses, before taking the leap and releasing for the good of someone other than himself.

You never got the sense that that was a problem with previous “X-Men” films, but here it represents his internal journey.

Despite focusing more on the character and how he sees the world rather than how the world sees mutants (of which there are only a handful left in the not-so-distant future of the film), “Logan” by many accounts is very standard fare. The script does right by Jackman’s devotion the character, but very little else is there to intrigue us for the film’s 2 hours and 15-minute runtime.

There’s certainly brutal and bloody violence, but that gets to be heavy-handed at some points. The road-trip-across-America is bogged down by some questionable character choices, and with most of the movie’s most interesting backstory — the “how the hell did we get to where we are?” — Mangold wrongfully chooses to tease instead of explain fully.

As far as diverging from the straight-and-narrow path that today’s endless stream of superhero films are released from, “Logan” is a welcome step in the right direction at showing the storytelling possibilities of heroes we’ve come to know and love, but it’s just a start.

Deep introspection of one of those heroes that moviegoers have grown attacked to means showing sides of that character we never really thought about exploring, but by “Logan’s” end, we haven’t really  learned anything new about him. We just see him in his darkest and most dreary state. For some reason, that’s enough for Mangold,  when it isn’t for the audience.

 

“Logan” is rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook

Directed by James Mangold

2017

Review: “Lego Batman” is endlessly funny, sweetly sincere

 

Perhaps Hollywood really is at the point where Lego-ified franchises understand their characters better than their grounded, live-action counterparts. “The Lego Batman Movie” certainly makes that case.

And if we are at that point, moviegoers had best get comfortable with seeing more and more of their favorite cinematic icons get the brick treatment, if these films continue to be as smart as they are hilarious. If the success of last year’s “Deadpool” relied on taking jabs at itself, “Lego Batman” is a total onslaught of self-deprecating humor.

The concept would have been ridiculed a few years ago, yet here we are. Nine years after receiving the best big-screen version of the Bat in “The Dark Knight,” and less than a year removed from washing the sour taste of “Batman v. Superman” out of our mouths, we have the delightful and delightfully self-aware “Lego Batman Movie.”

A spinoff of a breakout character from the breakout animated hit from 2014, “Lego Batman” is hyper, overattentive little brother to “The Lego Movie,” a whirlwind of everything that universe has to offer (and indeed, beyond the realm of DC Comics) that dares to step out from its big brother’s shadow.

A year after being confused and frustrated by “Batman v. Superman,” “Lego Batman” comes along and shows that some in Hollywood still understand the brooding superhero.

As much for adults as it is for children in both humor (a surprising amount of which is very mature) and substance, “Lego Batman” dwells on the lonely aspect of the hero’s life – the quiet contrast to the colorful high of fighting Gotham crime. With his own theme song to boot, of course (though it’s nowhere near as euphoric as “Everything Is Awesome”).

The film boasts an incredible array of actors lending their voices, including Will Arnett as Batman, Michael Cera as the innocent and untested Robin, Zach Galifianakis as a creepily sentimental Joker, and, in a particularly entertaining “cameo,” Siri as the Batcave’s computer.

They all perform to charming effect, even when there seems to be so much happening that it’s hard to catch some of the most memorable one-liners. This movie is chock-full of them, but so much of its success relies on the endless stream of Easter eggs and references that it never feels like its overbloated with them.

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You don’t have to be world’s biggest Batman fan to catch them, either. There are jokes for fans who are only familiar with the most recent films, the entire universe, and everything in between The film doesn’t discriminate, and it demands multiple viewings to catch all the gags.

You’d probably want to watch a second time anyway, that’s how charming the movie is. Though perhaps not as contemplative as “The Lego Movie,” “Lego Batman” is just as fun, and even more bombastic. The less you know about the plot – especially the constantly surprising third act – the better the experience will be.

Arnett’s Batman is 100 percent aware of how awesome and fun he can be; in other words, he’s completely in on the joke. The movie embraces the character’s history in that way.

Even before we see anything on the screen, as Batman proclaims in a darkened theater that “All important movies start with a black screen,” we know we’re in on it too. And it’s a wonderful joke to be a part of – sincere, thrilling and oh so awesome.

 

“The Lego Batman Movie” is rated PG for rude humor and some action 

Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

Directed by Chris McKay

2017

 

Review: Doctor Strange’s visuals overshadowed by strong characterization

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – the entire superhero genre, in fact – is at a bit of a crossroads. Watching characters like Iron Man, Captain America and, soon, the third different Spider-Man this century grace the big screen has become a regular event seemingly more common than teen novel adaptations.

It’s led to a bit of an oversaturation of the same thing over and over, and Hollywood knows it.

As a result, just when we think we’ve seen it all, along comes the R-rated “Deadpool,” the fresh “Guardians of the Galaxy and the ambitious “Captain America: Civil War” to reshape how the genre can take advantage of the film medium.

The production of “Doctor Strange” takes that philosophy to heart, with excitement having been stirred about its “Inception”-influenced visuals and the introduction of Benedict Cumberbatch to the MCU.

And so we get Marvel Studio’s first feature-length debut since “Guardians,” and it turns out to be, in many ways, not your run-of-the-mill MCU flick. At this point, that’s a great thing. The action teases to be some of the most immersive we’ve seen from a superhero movie in years, and Cumberbatch is an immediately welcome addition as the selfish doctor-turned-magician.

It’s a tantalizing start to a film that, after about two hours, fails to deliver on its promise of being a totally fresh experience. It’s clearly an origin story, but in trying to be something different in terms of aesthetic, it ends up an underwhelming and familiar experience.

“Doctor Strange” is formulaic to a fault in terms of its narrative – there’s simply too much recycled material – and an overreliance on its visuals. It’s clear that it is functioning on the gamble that its special effects take a revolutionary turn. But while for the first time in a long time I found myself wishing I was watching in an IMAX theater, the film’s Rubik’s cube-on-LSD set pieces don’t necessarily mess with the plot in a seamless way.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

In fact, the film explicitly introduces a pretty big loophole that essentially erases any sense of stakes that could be suggested when seeing a city literally being folded unto itself. What we see onscreen almost seems to reflect just how muddled the bigger MCU narrative has become with the addition of film’s lore.

As far as the elephant in the room, yes, the role of Brit Tilda Swinton in an environment clearly evoking an Asian aesthetic sticks out like a sore thumb. Swinton is fine as a Supreme Powerful Do-Gooder, but it feels out of place and inappropriate of Marvel Studios to utilize imagery, architecture and even other characters of Asian origin without going the full distance with arguably the film’s most important persona.

Despite its weak direction, there is some new material that “Doctor Strange” brings to the table. For a movie universe with seemingly so little attention in the prospect of finality, death is a major theme here, as is its inevitability.

Also, Strange himself is a decidedly morally ambiguous character, with a sense of arrogance that isn’t simply replaced with heroism the first time he dons the cape. Instead, the audience welcomes a more dynamic internal journey.

Dare I say it, Strange’s characterization is actually more fascinating to witness then when he engages in what amounts to not much more than combat with glorified metaphysical scepters and weapons, using the very concept of time itself to defeat a villain it doesn’t seem like he has any business even confronting just an hour and a half after first discovering his powers.

For all intents and purposes, the MCU has backed itself into a corner with “Doctor Strange,” a film that suggests powers and abilities that can bring an end to any plight the beloved Avengers might face. Here’s hoping the studio is aware of that fact, and has thought far enough ahead to make Strange’s future adventures more memorable.

 

 

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong

Directed by Scott Derrickson

2016