Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi; 2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Fifteen movies in nine years.  James Bond, of course, has more at twenty-five, but it took fifty-six years to get there.  Batman has had seventeen movies over twenty-eight years, but that’s not a franchise so much as a popular character getting rebooted.  Star Trek got thirteen movies over thirty-seven years.  Those numbers alone should show how remarkable the Marvel film franchise is, but all of those other long-lasting franchises have also had some terrible entries and box office flops, Marvel has yet to make a film that has disappointed on either an entertainment or a box-office level, though the Thor films have come the closest to doing both.  Thor: Ragnarok not only continues Marvel’s pedigree of excellence, but it is also far and away the best of the Thor films and in the upper echelon of Marvel movies period.

Marvel is advertising Thor: Ragnarok as the studio’s first comedy, though I would argue that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and particularly Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were, but if you know what the term Ragnarok means you know that it’s dealing with pretty dark subject matter for a Marvel movie let alone a comedy.  (If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it for you here.)  This contradiction is a balancing act walked throughout the entire film by its cast and crew as they try to keep things light-hearted and fun while at the same time showing that the story has serious stakes and consequences for those taking part in it.  While they do have to cheat here and there to pull off this feat, pull it off they do and spectacularly enough that the cheating can be mostly overlooked.

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Chris Hemsworth (Thor) was initially cast as Thor largely because of his appearance and because he’d worked with Joss Whedon earlier on Cabin in the Woods so he’d proven he could take on a large film anchoring role.  Take on the role he absolutely did, and with gusto, but the character of Thor is one the more bland Marvel heroes as he has to be both so immensely powerful as to rarely be in honest danger, but also has to embody humility and virtue so doesn’t really have major character flaws, either.  He’s Marvel’s Superman, but without a great rogue’s gallery and level of fame, and this made for a character that even when played as well as possible by Hemsworth is still the least interesting of the Avengers.  Over the last few years, though, Hemsworth has proven he has some real comic chops between his shorts as “roommate Thor” and being the funniest character in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot.  Marvel very intelligently ran with that and allowed Thor to also be the funniest Avenger, which is the defining character trait he’s needed all along and allowed Thor: Ragnarok to finally be a truly special Thor movie.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic with Mark Ruffalo returning as The Hulk/Bruce Banner and showing that he also has comic talent, Tom Hiddleston giving us a Loki who we already knew could be both hilarious and nefarious, and Jeff Goldblum appears for the first time in a Marvel movie as the Grandmaster and manages to steal every scene he appears in with his own eccentric brand of comedic performance.  While these four give the film its heart and soul, Cate Blanchett as the god of death Hela is incredibly menacing and captivating, and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge hold their own in this amazing cast as two Asgardians with more personality than we get from the majority of the gods.  The only real disappointments here are Idris Elba returning as Heimdall and Anthony Hopkins as Odin who both seem like they were more or less phoning in their roles, and Hopkins not even caring if anyone noticed.

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The movie does play fast and loose with the lore of both Marvel comics’ version of Thor and actual Norse mythology.  For the most part, the changes work and add a fun unpredictability to the film for those who know either story of Ragnarok well but could annoy the geekier purists out there.  The patchwork light and dark tones also make for a story able to surprise, particularly in the film’s climactic battle which is the most daring ending to a Marvel film yet, but it can also make for inconsistent motivations from the characters as they act in ways which are more concerned with what is funny or exciting than what is consistent or realistic.

Thor: Ragnarok has one of the most unusual soundtracks for a Marvel movie to date.  Most of the Marvel films use a classic orchestral score while the Guardians of the Galaxy films are famous for their use of classic rock.  Thor: Ragnarok has a largely orchestral score, but it also mixes in techno music reminiscent of 80’s New Age music and somehow has the rights to Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” despite the band’s legendary stinginess with giving out the rights to their music.  This mix works for the most part and allows for some incredibly epic action, but every now and then it can be distracting enough to break the movie’s spell.

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Final verdict:  Thor: Ragnarok continues the Marvel tradition of giving us an excellent thrill ride with just enough of the familiar to make us comfortable and just enough spin to make a superhero movie not quite like any we’ve seen before.  Its mix of comedy and bold plot complications makes for a bit of a patchwork, but a pretty remarkable patchwork that manages to work far more often than it distracts, though it certainly isn’t perfect.  If you’re already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe then heading out to see Thor: Ragnarok as soon as possible on the largest screen possible is an absolute no-brainer.  If you are either not a fan or have somehow avoided seeing any of the other fourteen films for this long, it’s not quite as easy of a recommendation, but while you will miss some of the nuance longtime fans of the series will enjoy, Thor: Ragnarok is so much pure fun that I find it hard to believe that any but the most interminable stick in the muds will find a good amount of enjoyment in it.

 

 

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is called such because it is the first Spider-Man film since Marvel originally sold the rights to the character and those surrounding him to Sony way way back at the turn of the millenium.  Since then Sam Raimi has made three movies featuring the character being played by Toby Maguire, one of them actually really good, and Andrew Garfield took on the role twice, and was meant to play him a third time, but Sony realized they didn’t really know what they were doing.  So, while Sony did not give the rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel, they did turn to Marvel for help, and the result is an agreement in which Sony retains the rights to produce and distribute the Spider-Man solo films, but Marvel gets to include him in their cinematic universe, Sony gets to include the Marvel Universe in their films,  and Marvel oversees the writing on the solo films so that the character and the world he is in are done justice.  Spider-Man has left his bubble created by Sony and has come home to the world he began in.

We got to see a bit more than a glimpse of Marvel’s take on Spider-Man last year in Captain America: Civil War. and regardless of what you thought of the film as a whole, though it was well received, you were looked at really funny if you didn’t agree that Tom Holland was a fantastic choice as the actor to portray the wall-crawler, and that the writing of the character was spot on.  Now we get to see how Tom Holland does when he has to take the spotlight for more than twenty minutes, and when given the chance to anchor an entire story surrounding him, Tom Holland shines even more brightly.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is more than just a superhero movie, it is also a coming-of-age character piece which uses the superheroic conflict as the means through which our teenage protagonist grows into, if not manhood, then at least his next stage in life.  Tom Holland gives us a spot on Peter Parker and Spider-Man, showing his vulnerability, his awkwardness, horrible luck, and his friendly but nerdy nature as Peter Parker, then changing into the wise-cracking, blustering superhero when the time comes as a means to hide what is really a lack of confidence.  This is a facet of the character that has been missed in all the earlier cinematic incarnations, the fact that his jokes are really just a way of covering up his inferiority complex, and it is fantastic to finally see it realized on the big screen.  Another part of the character that we apparently needed Marvel on board to see is his remarkable intelligence, and that we get here, too.  Only his youth and inexperience keep Peter Parker from being one of the preeminent brains in the universe of Marvel comics, and we see that in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well, both his genius and the inexperience that holds him back.

A character piece is best when there is more than one strong character, however, and definitely get quite a few here.  I could write quite a bit about the crew of high school friends that surround Peter in his everyday life or about Marisa Tomei’s unique but great take on the now not-so-decrepit Aunt May because they are all very well written and acted, but instead I’ll tell you that Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture is not only a very well written and well rounded foil, I believe that he is the best villain yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though, not quite the Netflix shows).  While he may not have near the charm of Tom Holland’s Loki, he makes up for that in being a real person. This is the first Marvel villain with real motivations, real ambitions, and isn’t just a stereotyped cartoon that is around solely for the good guys to overcome.  Vulture in the comics is not only a bad villain, he is one of the worst villains ever put to page in 4 colors, however he is a good foil for the very early Spider-Man still learning his powers.  Spider-Man: Homecoming realizes this, modernizes the character, makes him far more threatening than just an old man in a suit that can fly, but not so threatening that The Avengers would take much notice of him. While this would probably be enough to make a good foe for Spider-Man’s first solo outing, they go the extra mile and make him a character with motives we understand and can even see ourselves going along with under the right circumstances as well as a character who challenges the teenage Spider-Man’s intelligence and ethics, allowing Peter Parker to grow as a person as well as as a superhero.

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But, if you go to a comic book movie to see action and characters are just a nice bonus, you still will not be disappointed.  The film spreads out its action set pieces at excellent intervals and all of them show off the agility, strength, intelligence, and big mouth of our favorite costumed arachnid.  Special effects have advanced a bit since Andrew Garfield’s turn in the red and blue suit, and an awful lot since Tobey Maguire’s day, and we can get a real sense of the speed Spider-Man has, as well as the limitations in scenes such as a hilarious bit in which Spider-Man finds himself in the countryside rather than the city and realizes he can’t swing on his webs to the rescue, like never before.  The action bits take on true creativity as Spider-Man and Vulture learn from one another over time and learn to counteract the regular strategies the other uses, making for action that relies on the intelligence of the pro and antagonist as much or more than on their superpowers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is not content to be just a good action movie and character piece, though, it also is finally a well realized coming of age story.  It’s not a movie about beating the bad guy as much as it’s a movie about Peter Parker growing into the man he needs to be.  This is going to be a journey made over multiple films, so I don’t think this movie is meant to show us the end of his personal growth, but the true catharsis at film’s end is not that Spider-Man beats the bad guy, but how, and what he learns from this in his life as Peter Parker.

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The film does have some flaws.  The fact that it is in the Marvel Universe and the writing was overseen by Kevin Feige added a ton to the film, but the way Iron Man and Happy Hogan were included in the action was awkward.  Happy is given a role of Peter’s watchdog, which seems odd enough on its own, but then he performs these duties by acting as if he doesn’t want them.  Tony Stark himself, also, only seems to be in the movie as less a mentor and more a harsh critic until the end when he suddenly turns 180 degrees without our being shown the change of heart.  This all adds up to a really awkward and unnecessary tie in to the rest of the MCU which probably would have been best left out and merely hinted at.  They also do something odd with an incredibly iconic Spider-Man character, nearly as iconic as Spider-Man himself, that makes for a character who may as well be someone else entirely, just with the same name, and while we will have to wait and see how that plays out in future films, it just seems like a really unusual decision in a film that otherwise manages to nail nearly every major part of the Spider-Man mythos.

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Final verdict:  Spider-Man: Homecoming finally brings us the Spider-Man from the comics to the big screen, and does so in a way that isn’t merely action packed, but also thoughtful and with characters as well rounded and authentic as you could hope for in a comic book movie.   I left the theater knowing that I had just seen the best portrayal of Spider-Man himself ever put on screen, but not sure if the movie itself was better than Spider-Man 2, my favorite of the previous Spider-Man films.  I decided that not only was it better, but that it was a great movie for all the same reasons, just that they took everything Spider-Man 2 did to another level.  Yes, I did say Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great movie, and therefore I wholeheartedly recommend it to all but the most ardent detractors of the modern superhero movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

In 2014, Marvel Studios took a pretty big chance, which ended up having a huge payoff, in bringing us Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel property which was largely unknown even to comic book fans, let alone those who had never picked up a comic in their life.  In Guardians of the Galaxy movie fans got a fast paced space adventure with incredibly charismatic characters and just the right amounts of adventure and humor.  It was the best “Star Wars” movie since The Empire Strikes Back (I went there).  Three years later, and the Guardians are back, minus Groot but plus Baby Groot, except this time we already know and love these characters and are familiar with their schtick and how they fit into the Marvel Universe, so can Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 have the same impact as the original?

This time around, the characters are just as, if not more, charming as in the original.  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Star-Lord, man) is still the leader of the Guardians with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, his right hand bad ass assassin, Dave Bautista as Drax the overly literal Destroyer, Baby Groot voiced once again by Vin Diesel, and Sean Gunn and Bradely Cooper both working to bring weapons expert Rocket (don’t call him a Raccoon) to life.  Michael Rooker is also back as Yondu in an expanded role from the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and he deserves special mention as he and Dave Bautista are, in my opinion, the two true stand outs in the cast. Last time around, while the Guardians did ultimately end up as a complete group, there was still some definite pairing up going on with Quill and Gamora being one team, Rocket and Groot being a second, and Drax being the unfortunate fifth wheel.  This time around, the relationships are much more advanced with every character having quality time with each of the others and now very established ties to each other, making their interactions far more dynamic than the first time around – most of the time, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

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The visuals are of the quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, with very proficient camera work and excellent special effects even if neither is ever terribly inventive.  The art direction on display, however, is definitely unique.  We are shown that the galaxy is a diverse place with equal parts ’60s psychedellia, dystopian grunge, and medieval retro pastiche making up its reaches.  The settings don’t always make a lot of sense, even within the confines of the story, but they are always creative and eye catching.  Even the opening and closing credits hold onto those creative and eye catching visual elements, with the opening credits being one of the most visually dynamic pieces in the entire film and a great way to open things up.

The script is well done with its dialogue being its stand out element.  The plot does have a few pacing issues unlike the first film, and the methods used to move it along can get a tad clunky, but overall it’s a story that does its job of drawing you in and raptly holding your attention, so even the few lulls aren’t obvious in the moment.  The dialogue, though, is the best I think has ever been written in a Marvel film.  Every single line is full of character, is crisp and entertaining, and this is by far the funniest Marvel film made to date with quip after quip, joke after joke, I was laughing so hard I had tears in the corners of my eyes for Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol. 2‘s entire running time, and I have never really found Marvel films quotable before despite how entertaining they are in general, but I’ve found myself wanting to quote many lines from this one, virtually biting my tongue even as I write this.

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This, however, leads me to the films largest flaw, and the flaw large enough that it keeps me from ranking it among Marvel’s best.  Can a movie be too funny?  The jokes are non-stop, one after the other, often verging into straight on slapstick territory, yet the film has a lot to say about familial themes.  Every character in the film deals with daddy issues on some level, with the exception of Baby Groot, and we see the Guardians and their various acquaintances playing the parts of a family unit in the film and all that entails.  It’s the point of the movie, showing when a family is at its strongest and when it can hold you back.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a lot to say about family, and it could say it well, except that it undercuts every serious moment in the film save one with a joke.  Sure the jokes work, but Gunn and the cast did not know when to let the humor go for a minute and let a poignant moment sink in.  I will say, though, that the part of me that’s more analyst and less film fan finds it fascinating that the movie’s main weakness is also its greatest strength.

To those who are wondering how this movie specifically plays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it can be seen without knowing much about the rest of the movies Marvel has created, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is practically a stand alone entity.  The only references to other films in the Marvel canon are to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and even those are more character references and not needed to understand the story going on here.  The future world building that goes on in most Marvel films also seems to be absent here, though it is possible they are just more subtle about it than is often the case and we will see ripples from this movie in future Marvel installments, but importantly even if that is the case it is never distracting nor even obvious.  Anyone can see this movie without having seen another Marvel film in their life and still enjoy it just as much as someone who has seen every Marvel Studios movie to date.

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Final verdict:  Marvel films are always entertaining, they have yet to release an outright dud, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, while not being one of Marvel’s greatest, is still excellent and continues the tradition of high quality we now have come to take for granted from Marvel.  While Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may take the humor a bit too far at times, it is still Marvel’s funniest movie to date, never, ever letting up on the laughs while also giving us plenty of eye popping action taking place in eye popping settings.  You will be entertained, and you may even gain a little insight into family while you’re at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is highly recommended by yours truly, go make Marvel and Disney even richer than they already are, they keep earning it.