Justice League (Snyder; 2017)

Warner Bros. more than just stumbled out of the gate when they started producing their line of films based on DC Comics which they are now claiming was never meant to be a cinematic universe.  They gave us a story in mid-telling with only the most minor of clues what had gone on before, they made this story overly dark both literally and figuratively, and worst of all it seemed they didn’t understand their own characters by giving us a Superman who doesn’t care about collateral damage and the lives of civilians, a Batman who mowed people down with guns, and a Joker and Lex Luthor who seemed to have switched bodies.  Then they gave us Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman showed us they could make a character who could inspire, that they were capable of starting a story at the beginning without cloning every other origin story out there, that they could give us visuals that were both gorgeous and vibrant, and that they did understand at least one of their characters.

Justice League comes to us from Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and since those are the two films which started the DC movies down the path of “what the hell are they doing?” I admit to a lot of skepticism over whether he could pull off a Justice League film.  When Snyder left the project after primary shooting was done, but before post-production was very far underway, and gave the reins of the project over to second unit director Joss Whedon my concerns became even stronger as even though I love most of Whedon’s work, the possible clashing of styles did not seem like a good omen.  I can say having now seen the film that while Whedon’s influence in the film’s script is definitely noticeable, the directorial styles did not overly clash.  Yes, you can notice Snyder’s heavier, darker style not blending that well with the more light-hearted, self-aware, bantery style of Whedon’s during Justice League‘s introductory scenes, but the film quickly hits its groove making you forget about its imperfect start rather quickly.

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Justice League also manages to get its focal characters which were so wrong in earlier DC movies right.  Ben Affleck as Batman, who I felt was the best part of Batman v. Superman, brings more of the same except without the inclination for murder and just a tad more humility and humor.  Not enough to break the character, but enough to make him more relatable.  Gal Gadot, on the other hand, does not quite give us the tour de force performance she gave as Wonder Woman in her solo movie, but she is still very much the same character inspiring those around her while also kicking ass and looking great doing it.  The only reason she doesn’t stand out as much is that she has to do so much spotlight sharing this time around.  Ezra Miller gives us a very fun, awkward Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg while perhaps the least dynamic member of the team in terms of personality is still well acted as he portrays a young man trying to come to terms with the fact that he has become something of a monster.  In the least surprising spoiler ever to be termed a spoiler, Henry Cavill returns as Superman and his performance may be most surprising of all finally showing us the Superman we all know and love who views himself as a humble, “aw shucks” protector of the weak and not as a powerhouse who happens to hate bad guys.  The chemistry among this crew is also excellent making the cast a true ensemble rather than a bunch of solo actors who happened to be thrown together.

You’ll notice I did not mention either Jason Momoa as Aquaman nor the villain (who I will not name so as to not spoil it, it’s not who you think it is) voiced by Claran Hinds, because they were the two disappointing characters in the bunch.  Aquaman may not be a character most understand past a joke character, but the one thing he has in common among all his various incarnations is a regal quality.  Sometimes he seems haughty, other times noble, but always regal.  Jason Momoa’s Aquaman struck me as a guy you’d see hanging out at a biker bar picking fights.  Sure, he’d be the wittiest guy at the biker bar, but he’s less a ruler and more an alpha dog, and there’s a big difference between the two.  Our villain is also disappointing because he is just so generic.  I don’t remember him ever rearing his head back and letting out an evil laugh but nearly every other bad stereotype a villain can encompass is there.  He even wears a helmet with devil’s horns.

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The story is a lot more coherent than the first three DC films.  Sure there are a few references here and there to past events, but never in such a way that it seemed like we missed some major plot point, so major it could be an entire film unto its own, like in Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.  The story does have one rather large weakness in that it relies on the audience remembering Superman as the character he is in the comics rather than as the character he was in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, and a lot of the character motivation loses most of its oomph due to that.  The story also is awfully generic in its villainous plot which we’ve seen many times before in comic book movies, but I can, for the most part, forgive this as what we needed in a Justice League movie was a solid establishment of the universe we’re in and the characters inhabiting it, so in a way a time-worn familiar plot is what we needed so as not to overly complicate the real focus of the story which is the formation of the world’s most famous team of superheroes.

It’s that story that really shines.  Seeing the group get together is very satisfying and entertaining.  Once we get past the missteps of the past and the film’s opening, we have a team which really is a team.  In The Avengers we saw a group who was a team because everyone knew their roles and performed them well, but in Justice League, we have a group who work well together, seem to really enjoy each others’ company, and who have each others’ backs while also having their roles, as well.

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Final verdict:  Justice League is far from perfect, but most of its imperfections are due to what came before.  If you look at the plot as the villain’s attempted takeover of Earth, then what you have is a very generic film, but the true story here is not that,  that’s just an excuse.  The true story is about the formation of a group of larger than life, powerful individuals finding each other, getting to know each other, and becoming a team who really like each other.  On that level, Justice League works wonderfully.  2017 has had a great many superhero films, and while I feel both Logan and Wonder Woman stand head and shoulders above the rest, Justice League acquits itself admirably putting it in the same category I’d put Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok – movies with no real depth, but are so much fun to experience you don’t really miss it while in the moment.

P.S.  Stay all the way through the credits.  Unsurprisingly there is a teaser for a future Justice League movie.  The surprising part is what they imply the plot will be, and if it’s true it could be a lot more fun than anything I was expecting.

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.

 

 

 

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Robinson; 2017)

My full name is Shaun Ferguson.  I’ve been fascinated with film my entire life, and have intensively studied both screenwriting and acting while also dabbling in nearly every element of film making I can including a rather detailed online study of film editing from a person in the industry, lots of time discussing film criticism with fellow critics, worked with close friends and family who have degrees in cinematography or at least a lot of time in classes behind a camera, and so on.  While my majors in college were in English and Theater, my minor was in psychology and I have had a fascination with it ever since and have continued studying it on my own my entire life.  I have always been enamored with comic books and superhero culture, and while I haven’t collected comic books in a very long time, I still continue to follow what is going on in the worlds of superherodom to some extent and I love studying the genre in regard to sociology, culture, politics, and religion.  Also, I was raised in an extremely sexually repressed environment of very conservative Christians both at home and at the school I attended, and as an adult have turned a near complete 180 degrees away from that upbringing.  I say all this so that when I gush incessantly about how groundbreaking, fantastic, and enlightening Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is, we will both understand that I realize this is a film that may as well have been written with myself specifically as the target audience, it all hits that close to my home.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is yet another biopic in this part of the movie season which gives us biopic after biopic about Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the polyamorous trio who created Wonder Woman and made her a household name.  In 1928 he two Marstons were pioneers in the new field of psychology.  He had a doctorate from Harvard and taught at Tufts University, she also had degrees in both psychology and law, though not doctorates because she wasn’t allowed to at the time as she was a woman, and in addition to their work in the psychology department at Tufts they were also developing a brand new machine which they called a lie detector.  Olive Byrne was a student of William’s whom he became quite enamored of largely due to the fact that she seemed to be an exact mirror image of his wife.  Professor Marston and the Wonder Women shows us the story of how all these factors ultimately weaved together to create the comic book character Wonder Woman.

While the writing of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women definitely follows the beats of the stereotypical biopic formula so closely you can practically predict ahead of time exactly when character introductions will move onto the inciting incident then to the next complication and so on, most everything about the way the film’s story is told is quite unique.  It’s neither a life story nor a focus on one specific event.  It doesn’t chronicle primarily one character, but the relationship between three, and it’s not about one specific event but rather how so many events, interests, and interactions culminated in something which not only still resonates today, but has only become an even greater and more beloved symbol than when Wonder Woman was first introduced.  Yet, despite the complexity of the story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman never confuses nor slows its pace to a crawl always keeping up the perfect balance between making sure the story is told in great enough detail and gripping the attention of its audience.

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The way Professor Matston and the Wonder Women treats its subject matter is also noteworthy.  While the character development is fantastic, the fact that it focuses so vastly on psychology sets it apart from standard character development and makes the writing both insightful and educational simultaneously.   It also treats the polyamorous relationship between its three main characters with an incredibly deft touch, never judging it in either a positive nor a negative way and also avoiding ever making it exploitative nor entirely clinical but rather portraying an unusual sexual relationship and the psychology behind it in the most mature manner I’ve ever seen in a film.

The camerawork in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is nothing spectacular overall, but it is a step above your standard biopic cinematography and the occasional scene, such as when Marston first sees Olive in the outfit which inspires Wonder Woman’s appearance, is a downright work of art.  The costumes and art direction are top notch, though creating a look to the film which is both authentic and gorgeous and the costumes in particular could get notice come award season.

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Any biopic’s success hinges on the quality of the acting particularly by its leads and not only does it not disappoint in this area, but everyone here entirely impresses.  The two women, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, in particular display talent so on point and nuanced that nearly any actor working today would consider what they’ve done in this film a triumph.  Luke Evans despite playing the title character doesn’t have the emotional depth to his Professor Marston that the ladies do, but he still gives an excellent portrayal anchoring the plot and the other characters in what is the best performance of his career.

Final verdict:  It’s rare enough that a film can be complex, emotional, intellectual, educational, and entertaining at the same time, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women also has true insight into human psychology and sexual dynamics.  I wasn’t that excited about seeing yet another biopic in a year which seems to be layering them on one after another more than seemingly any other year in at least recent memory, but not only did Professor Marston and the Wonder Women absolutely blow my socks off, it’s one of the best biopics I have ever seen and far and away the best so far of this year.  I fell in love with its characters and its story, and I’m pretty sure I had a personal psychological breakthrough by the time it was over, but the best compliment I can give it is that when Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was finished and the credits began to roll I didn’t want it to end.

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.

Wonder Woman (Jenkins; 2017)

Last November, I wrote on article on what the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.  To sum it up, I stated that Warner Brothers and DC don’t understand their own characters, are starting their stories in the middle giving us no frame of reference, and they are focusing solely on action and using no other elements of genre.  We are shown a Batman who unthinkingly kills, a Superman who couldn’t care less about collateral damage, a Lex Luthor who acts like a clown, and a Joker who doesn’t.  We have a story where Batman has been fighting the good fight for a long time and supervillains are filling the prisons, but no one seems to have heard about any of them until now for some reason.  And, every movie has been little more than excuses for people wearing unusual clothing to punch and otherwise injure each other.   I am happy to announce that for at least one movie every single one of these issues has been fixed in a DC Universe film, and the result is a movie comic book fans, action film lovers, and women everywhere have been anxious to see for a long, long time.

The character of Wonder Woman has been a tough one to crack for a very long time for some reason, probably because until recently the comic book business has been all boys, and even now the number of women working in the superhero creation industry is a very, very small percentage.  The history of the character is a long and interesting one, but until the last decade and a half or so, her personality hasn’t been much more than a desire to do good, a mission statement, and some superpowers.  Modern writers have started to latch onto the fact that she is an Amazon warrior and have used that very element of her backstory to give her a role very different from her male counterparts and very well defined.  The film Wonder Woman captures those elements of her character perfectly and expands upon them, giving us the first protagonist, or really character of any size, in a DC film that is true to her source material and also captivating.

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This film is also an origin story, which means we actually start the story at the beginning.  We get to see Diana’s (Gal Gadot) training on Themyscira, her relationship with the other Amazons as she was growing up, and her meeting with Steve Rogers (Chris Pine) which inspires her to leave her sanctuary and enter the world of men.  You would think giving characters motivations would be  an obvious element of story telling, but until now the motivations in the DC films have been muddied at best.  Not so here.  We get to see what inspires Diana, what her life was like growing up, and more so that we end up with a fully formed character we can relate to and root for rather than someone who is just fun to watch.

Wonder Woman is not just an origin story, it is also a film that takes place during World War I, giving us not only an additional genre of war film to work with, but also an interesting historical period as a backdrop, one not used nearly often enough in film.  We get to see a Europe ravaged by war, battles in which chemical weapons are an ever present threat and victories are measured in inches, and technologies which are nearly obsolete today are state of the art.  Throwing a fierce demigoddess into this mix works wonderfully, and gives us a truly original superhero origin story not quite like anything we’ve seen before.

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The one thing DC has always gotten right is its visuals.  While the stories are messy and the characters confused, watching the action on display in the DC Universe is a wonder to behold, and that is no different in Wonder Woman.  The sharply angled viewpoints, the technique of making some colors vibrant and others dull, and the use of slow motion to concentrate on detail rather than just being a cheap trick is all on display here.  This time around the battles are not just fun, though they certainly are that, but most are also inspiring.  Where most superhero action sequences are really a well choreographed dance with special effects mixed in, the battles here feel like battles, grittier than your usual comic book fare, and Wonder Woman herself feels less like an untouchable icon and more like a badass general leading and inspiring her troops to their best.

The relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor is handled as well as it possibly could be.  Chris Pine pleasantly surprised me last year with his tour-de-force performance in Hell or High Water which showed the world he had a lot more talent than just a pretty face and a decent Captain Kirk impersonation, and he brings that level once again here giving us just the right amount of confidence, smarts, self effacement, and wonderment to make a real person out of this character in a most surreal situation.  Chris Pine and Gal Gadot have some real chemistry going on, and half way through the film we feel it’s absolutely natural that this American spy and demigoddess should be so attached to and inspired by one another.

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The film does have a handful of minor issues, and two fairly major ones keeping it from being absolutely the best superhero film I’ve seen and only meaning that it’s in that conversation.  The film is fairly predictable.  They try to be clever about a major plot point which I won’t go into any more detail about, but if you’ve seen more than five movies in your life you will see a certain major reveal coming from miles and miles away.  The other major issue is that the climax of the film is a bit of a let down with a sort of deus ex machina of a type I thought movie studios were done with using a couple of decades ago giving Wonder Woman her ultimate victory.  These two disappointments were certainly not enough to sour the overall film’s effect for me, but they did make me sigh a bit.

Final verdict:  DC and Warner Brothers finally got it right, and in doing so they outdid themselves to a level that can only add pressure to both themselves and Marvel for the future.  Wonder Woman is exciting, inspirational, thoughtful, and visually stunning.  It makes a few missteps, but not fatal ones by a long shot, and I am so happy that the first superhero film in one of the comic universes starring and directed by women is one of the best films ever seen in the genre as a whole.  Wonder Woman is a must see 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.

 

 

 

Logan (Mangold; 2017)

In addition to whatever their myriad of other powers are, the one additional power that all superheroes seem to have is that they never age.  Superman, Batman, and Captain America are all octogeniarians now, or very close to, and Iron Man, Spider-Man, and that era’s heroes, the X-Men amongst them,  aren’t that far behind.  Yet, not a single one of them has lost a step nor aged more than a decade it seems.  Every once in a while, though, one of the major comics publishing companies will release a story that shows their heroes later in life.  “The Dark Knight Returns”, “Kingdom Come”, and “Old Man Logan” are all classics in this vein, and now Logan, the latest of the Wolverine/X-Men movies brings us a story in which two of the most famous X-Men are looked at in their twilight years.

It’s 2029, and Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) healing power has slowed for some reason, his wounds now leave permanent scars and sometimes never fully heal at all, and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is in his 90s and suffers from seizures and dementia.  They and a third mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are the only mutants left in the entire world.  Wolverine, now going only by his real name, Logan, hides in plain sight by running a limousine service to pay the bills to get the medicine Caliban needs to provide care for Professor Xavier, whose out of control mind could wreak complete havoc if not sedated.screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-16-16-am_0

It’s an interesting premise.  Superhero stories, much like cartoons, are capable of exploring hefty themes by camouflaging them behind spandex and fast paced action pieces, but old age is a theme rarely explored in these types of stories, probably because they’ve been seen as tales for a younger skewing audience until relatively recently.  Superheroes facing their own mortality not because of violence at the hands of a villain or a cataclysmic natural disaster but because their elderly bodies are beginning to fail them puts a whole new spin on the comic book story dynamic, but Logan is not content in leaving it there.  The true inciting force in Logan‘s storyline is not old age but youth when Wolverine reluctantly ends up caring for a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who has powers of her own and has to be hidden away from forces who want to use her as a weapon.

The X-Men series of films is noted for its highs and lows.  It’s rare that the series puts out a merely okay movie.  X-Men, X-Men 2, X-Men: First Class, and X-Men: Days of Future Past are widely viewed as some of the best movies the superhero genre has to offer while X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse are thought to be some of the worst.  Logan is not only a part of that first set of films, but is the best X-Men film to date, and will, I believe, ultimately be compared to The Dark Knight when superhero films are discussed in the future due to its maturity, quality, and artistry.logan-trailer-700x300

James Mangold, Logan’s director and one of its writers, has a very hit and miss history.  He is responsible for the excellent Girl, Interrupted and Copland, but he’s also brought us The Wolverine and Knight and Day, both of which, while not painfully terrible, are mediocre and ultimately completely forgettable.  In Logan he managed to tap into that part of his style which represents his best and then went on to perfect it even farther.  The story is exciting and mature.   His camera work and editing make the visual elements of the story an absolute joy and occasionally even a wonder.  While there are flaws in the film, which I will mention, Mangold manages to take all the pieces that make up the film Logan, most of which are already excellent, and melds them together into something even greater than the sum of its parts.

The majority of the acting in the film is truly high caliber.  Stewart and Jackman are always excellent in these roles, even if the films themselves aren’t always the best, but the added dimension of the characters staring straight on into their own mortality gives their performances an entirely new facet and allows them to breathe new life into the people they’ve been embodying for going on 20 years now.  As great as they are, though, and I don’t want to diminish just how fantastic Stewart and Jackman are here, the truly revelatory performance comes from the young Dafne Keen as Laura.  This girl can’t yet be even a teenager and yet she manages to demand your attention and ekes out incredible amounts of emotion from you.  For most of the film she doesn’t speak, and I wondered if that was a decision made because she was a good physical actress but couldn’t handle the demands of a speaking role.  Eventually she does speak, though, and when she finally does you are blown away all over again at just how amazing this prepubescent child’s performance is.  When I really think about it, it can be considered unfair how good she is at so young an agelogan-photo.jpg

Last year, Deadpool gave us an R-rated superhero film that, while far from the first of its kind, started the debate as to whether more comic book films should be R-rated.  Logan shows us once again that the R-rated superhero film can be excellent, and for very different reasons than Deadpool was, but I do hope that Hollywood takes the right lesson away from what is to undoubtedly be Logan‘s huge success.  Logan works as a more adult film not because swearing and blood are cool, but because some stories need to be visceral and raw to be told well.  You can’t tell a story about mortality without, well, mortality.  Heads get lopped off, deep gashes cut, and very realistic heads get very realistically blown off.  In Deadpool it was for humorous shock value, but in Logan it’s to raise the stakes and show us this isn’t your typical comic book movie where no one gets hurt too badly and even death isn’t permanent.  Both are legitimate and effective uses of graphic material, but it’s also very specific to this type of story, and this should in no way be a cue to Marvel or DC (I’m especially looking at you DC) that graphic content and language are what audiences want in all their superhero movies.

While I meant it when I said I believe Logan will be remembered alongside The Dark Knight one day, it’s certainly not because of the quality of their villains.  Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker is the most legendary element of The Dark Knight, Logan’s villains are the most bland and uninteresting part of the film.  The forum on age and family are spectacular, and couldn’t exist without conflict, but that is all the villains here provide.  Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant give fine performances as the two primary antagonists, but they are given so much less to work with than anyone else in the film that fine is really the best they could hope for.  The villains have motivations and goals, but nothing else exists beyond these factors that we can tell making them one dimensional and ultimately dull.  It’s this unfortunate factor that keeps Logan from achieving full on masterpiece status.

Final recommendation:  If you read anything before this paragraph I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m giving this film my highest recommendation for most everyone.  Don’t take the kids to this one if you mind them viewing violence, as it is intensely graphic, and squeamish adults with no love for superheroes may also want to give this a pass.  But, aside from that this story is so excellent it may convert those who hate the superhero genre, at least for this film anyway, and will also allow squeamish superhero fans to get so engrossed they may get past all the carnage they are witnessing.  Logan is a shining example of what a superhero movie should strive to be, and since Jackman and Stewart have announced they are retiring from the characters after this film, they couldn’t have chosen a better film to be their swan song.