Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


A new hero rises.

(2021) Superhero (Disney) Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Yuen Wah, Andy Le, Paul He, Jayden Zhang, Elodie Fong, Arnold Sun, Stephanie Hsu, Kunal Dudheker, Tsai Chin, Jodi Long, Dallas Liu, Ronny Chieng, Stella Ye, Ben Kingsley, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Zach Cherry, Raymond Ma, Benedict Wong, Harmonie He. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

 

There are a number of firsts going on in the latest entry into the MCU. The first Asian-American superhero. The first Marvel feature to introduce a new hero into the mix since Captain Marvel. The first MCU film with a director of Asian descent. The first villainous role for Chinese action legend Tony Leung (and also his first English-language film). The first to debut on Labor Day weekend. The first Disney film to resume production after the initial pandemic shutdown.

But is that all there is to a movie? Ground-breaking alone doesn’t make for a great, entertaining film. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fits the bill and then some.

A prologue tells us of Wenwu (Leung), a villain who found (or stole) ten magic arm rings that rendered him invincible as well as virtually immortal. Over a thousand years, he conquered everything there was to conquer, but he wanted more. The “more” was a village called Ta Lo, a hidden village that sits in a neighboring dimension where dwell legendary magical creatures and contains magical power of immense proportions. Wenwu – who would later be used as the blueprint to create the fictional terrorist known as the Mandarin – already led a criminal enterprise and commanded an army of ninjas, including killers Death Dealer (Le) and Razor Fist (Munteanu), but comes by a map that helps him arrive at the village, although the bamboo forest it is located in seemed to be a living guardian of the peaceful village. There is also a human guardian – the beautiful Li (Chen) who bests Wenwu in a fight. The criminal overlord promptly falls in love and, improbably, ends up marrying her.

Because of Wenwu’s criminal past, the couple is denied residence in Ta Lo so Macau is where they end up living. Li gives birth to a son and daughter before she dies, and Wenwu, who had softened into a family man, hardens right back up, training his young son, Shang-Chi, to be a killer while mostly ignoring his daughter, Xiang.

Shang-Chi (Liu) eventually runs away from his father, choosing not to become like him, and ends up in San Francisco, using the name Shaun. He has a bestie named Katy (Awkwafina) who, like him, parks cars at a swanky SF hotel. While Katy’s mom (Long) and grandma (Chin) wonder when the two are going to get married, but they’re just friends (without benefits – this is a PG-13 film after all). However, on a bus ride to work, Shaun is attacked by a group of thugs including Razor Fist and turns out that he has extraordinary martial arts abilities, much to the shock of Katy who is unaware of his past. He manages to beat the thugs, but they steal a pendant that his mother had given him, but let slip that they are going after his sister next. So Shang-Chi boards a plane for Macau, having received a cryptic postcard from his sister which apparently reveals her address and Katy insists on going with.

There they find a bitter Xiang (Zhang) who had resented her brother for leaving her behind with their father. She, too, had eventually run away from home and began an empire of her own with a high-tech fight club on top of a skyscraper. That’s when the goons arrive and so does dear old dad. You see, it seems he needs the pendants to reveal a map that will navigate a safe passage through the bamboo forest to Ta Lo. Wenwu has been hearing his wife’s voice, begging him to set her free from imprisonment in her former home. But he also intends to destroy that home, much to Shang-Chi’s horror. They must find a way to get there first if they are going to stop their dad, who is unwittingly going to release a horrible, Apocalypse-bringing monster onto the earth if he succeeds.

First of all, the good news: this is one of the best Marvel movies yet, right up there with Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. It is beautifully shot, the fight sequences are phenomenal (particularly the first one on the bus) and the CGI without peer. Simu Liu, who was previously best known for the Canadian TV series Kim’s Convenience, is going to be a huge star, following the example of Chris Hemsworth who was a little-known actor before being cast as Thor. Add to that the lustrous Michelle Yeoh as Auntie Nan, Leung who gets to show American filmgoers what Asian audiences have known for decades, and Awkwafina who continues to become a major A-list star with her performance here.

weaves all the elements together pretty well. I will admit that during the middle the movie becomes necessarily exposition-heavy and drags somewhat, but other than that, he shows a sure hand on the big stage even though he comes from an indie background (Short Term 12) and this is really his first big budget major tentpole release. Undoubtedly he’ll get a lot more like this, in all likelihood including Shang-Chi 2 which is almost a certainty to make it onto Marvel’s schedule eventually.

There are two post-credit sequences, incidentally, and the first one is maybe the best one in the franchise with a couple of cameos by Marvel superheroes and hints at what Shang-Chi’s place in the larger MCU is going to be. Given what I’ve seen here, he’s not going to fade into the woodwork any time soon. This is the must-see movie of the season and by all means go out and see it in a theater if you can.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully weaves Chinese culture, myths and legends into the MCU. Simu Liu is going to be a star and Awkwafina further cements her own reputation. Incredible action sequences and effects. One of the best Marvel movies ever.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long, dragging a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of fantasy/superhero action and violence, as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stunt coordinator Bradley James Allen, who was the first (and only) non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team, passed away on August 7 from an undisclosed illness. The film is dedicated to him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Triaphilia

The Suicide Squad


When it rains, it pours.

(2021) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Viola Davis, Sylvester Stallone (voice), Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Peter Capaldi, Jai Courtney, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Joaquin Costa, Juan Diego Botto, Storm Reid, Nathan Fillion, Steve Agee, Sean Gunn, Mayling Ng. Directed by James Gunn

If ever there was a perfect choice to helm the sequel/reboot of the 2016 DC Extended Universe film Suicide Squad it’s James Gunn. Through his work in the Guardians of the Galaxy films he has shown that he can take minor characters from a comic book universe and elevate them to star status.

Amanda Waller (Davis) pulls together another Task Force X team of lesser light villains residing in the notorious Bella Reve Prison, led by war hero Col. Rick Flagg (Kinnaman). They are sent to the Caribbean island of Corto Matese to find a Nazi-era high rise science installation where a top-secret experiment is being conducted by the U.S. Government; a new regime in the island nation is not friendly to the United States and is likely to turn our own weapon against us. Mayhem ensues, and plenty of it.

More about the plot I won’t reveal because frankly the less you know about it, the more you’re likely to enjoy it. Gunn, who evidently has as much reverence fo DC characters as he does for Marvel deliberately used really low-level villains from the DC pantheon, although Harley Quinn (Robbie) and Captain Boomerang (Courtney) along with Flagg return from the 2016 film. New characters include Bloodsport (Elba), the gruff marksman who is the ostensible team leder; Peacemaker (Cena), a genuinely whacko who wants peace in our time – and will kill as many people as he has to in order to get it. Then there’s Ratcatcher 2 (Melchior) who is the daughter of the original Ratcatcher, and who has the power to control rats. (“What a revoltin’ power that is” moans the phobic Bloodsport) and Polka Dot Man (Dastmalchian) whose dots are outgrowths of an alien spore that his own mother deliberately infected with him in hopes of turning him into a superhero and the CGI King Shark (voiced by Stallone), a human-shark hybrid who isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

The carnage here is visceral and occurs regularly. Heads will roll, explode and be crushed and/or perforated, while bodies will endure all manners of dreadful destruction. The body count here is impressive, and no character is safe from the coroner’s slab. The violence can be numbing after awhile and parents should be extremely cautious in deciding whether they want their younger children to see this. Mature teens should do okay. The other issue I had here was that there are so many characters in the movie (mostly serving as cannon fodder) that we get time to learn little about any of them. It gets overwhelming after a bit.

The humor here made me think that in a way that Gunn was channeling Quentin Tarantino; the movie has the same kind of vibe as his more violent pictures although less of the pop culture savvy. There is a mild reference to American meddling from a diplomatic standpoint here, but it isn’t pushed very hard. Otherwise, this is all about the mayhem.

Is this the DC film you’ve been waiting for? Maybe, but it’s certainly the DC film we deserve. It has the grim undertones of the rest of the collective works of the DCEU and while compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe this still remains on a different tier, quality-wise this might be the best DC film since The Dark Knight. That’s reason right there to celebrate.

REASONS TO SEE: Elba and Cena are outstanding. The humor adds to the carnage. The special effects are terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many characters to get involved with many of them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity, strong bloody violence and gore, brief graphic nudity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elba was originally signed to replace Will Smith as Deadshot, but it was decided to give Elba a different character (Bloodsport) so that Smith could potentially return as Deadshot in the future.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until 9/6)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The East

Captain Marvel


Girl powerful.

(2019) Superhero (Disney) Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Rune Temte, Algenis Perez Soto, McKenna Grace, Akira Akbar, Matthew Maher, Chuku Modu, Vik Sahay, Colin Ford, Kenneth Mitchell, Stephen A. Chang, Diana Toshiko. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

 

Vers (Larson) is a warrior of the Kree, a noble race that is at war with the nefarious Skrulls, who are green-skinned pointed-eared shapeshifters. Can’t trust someone who can be anybody else, right? Vers has a problem; she’s lost most of her memories, so she doesn’t know who she is. Her commanding officer and trainer Yon-Rogg (Law) seems to spend most of his time trying to get her from using the energy bolts that she shoots from her hands, which would seem to be an advantage you’d want to develop in a warrior you were training, no?

During a skirmish with the Skrulls and their manipulative leader Talos (Mendelsohn), Vers winds up stranded on planet C-53, which we like to call Earth. And we discover that Vers is really Carol Danvers, a former Air Force test pilot who is One of Us. With her memories returning, Carol discovers that much of what she understood to be true was in fact a big lie and that there’s a monstrous secret that has been kept from her. Will these revelations break her, or mold her into the hero she was always meant to be?

Being that this is a Marvel movie, I’m sure you can guess which one it turns out to be. Sadly, this isn’t one of the better movies in the MCU library. It feels a bit flat and lifeless, even given the nifty special effects and the tireless efforts of a de-aged Jackson as a young Nick Fury (the movie takes place in the Year of Our Lord 1995) and a cantankerous cat. The plot is somewhat predictable and Larsen’s performance is a tad too laid back for my taste, but she still commands a great deal of presence and she’s utilized far better in Avengers: Endgame. It’s not a bad movie, you understand, but it doesn’t quite have the presence of the best movies in the Marvel pantheon.

REASONS TO SEE: Gets the Nineties right.
REASONS TO AVOID: Suffers by comparison to Wonder Woman.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some mild profanity, as well as plenty of sci-fi action sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Stan Lee passed away during the film’s post-production. The filmmakers and Marvel Studios elected to insert a tribute to him at the beginning of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Disney Plus, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive review;; Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fatherhood

Wonder Woman 1984


Did video kill the movie star?

(2020) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Amr Waked, Kristoffer Palaha, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Oliver Cotton, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde, Kelvin Yu, Stuart Milligan, Shane Attwooll, David Al-Fahmi,Kevin Wallace, Wai Wong, Doutzen Kroes . Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

It is somewhat ironic that the first Wonder Woman took place during the waning days of World War I which saw the world (although not depicted in the film) struggling with a global pandemic of the Spanish flu. The sequel has finally made it to theaters (and to streaming platform HBO Max until January 26th) after being delayed more than a year, argely due to the current global pandemic.

It is 1984 – morning in America, right? – and Diana Prince (Gadot) – the alter ego of Wonder Woman – still mourns the death of her love Steve Trevor (Pine) in an explosion at the conclusion of the Great War. She has managed to lie low for the intervening years, occasionally showing up in costume to foil a mall robbery. She works in the antiquities department of the Smithsonian, along with a new colleague, the confidence-challenged and somewhat clumsy Barbara Minerva (Wiig). The two become friends, and work on identifying a strange artifact – it turns out to be the Dreamstone, a magic relic that grants wishes to the bearer.

Before they realize it though, the two women each make a wish – Minerva to be more like her new friend Diana, and Diana to regain her dead boyfriend. Each woman receives exactly what they wish for – and in Minerva’s case, she also inherits Wonder Woman’s powers. Steve returns, his consciousness inhabiting the body of a handsome man (Palaha). At first, the two are happy.

Television huckster Maxwell Lord (Pascal), a cross between Gordon Gekko, Tony Robbins and Donald Trump, gets wind of the stone and decides to use it to become the dreamstone himself – with the power to grant wishes to whomever touches him. With a steady income of well-wishers, his failing business is turned around and Lord becomes a wealthy man in fact instead of just an illusion.

However, the Dreamstone was actually the creation of the God of Lies and it has a terrible downside – it takes from the user as much as it gives. When the President of the United States (ostemsibly Reagan) wishes for more nukes, the world is brought to the brink of destruction, unless Diana can find a way to stop it.

In many ways, this is a worthy successor to the first Wonder Woman and in others, it is disappointing. Gadot has proven herself perfectly cast as the Amazonian superheroine; beautiful and exotic, graceful in her action sequences, and possessed of a strength and confidence that makes her a tremendous role model for sure, but also not incidentally, a budding A-list movie star. She is quite frankly the reason to see this film; she’s spectacular in the part.

 

Pine is second banana here, and he seems comfortable in the role. He serves mainly as fish-out-of-water comic relief, evincing awe at period technology (the space shuttle, computers and cheese in a can. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle here; Wiig shows some real dramatic skill as Minerva, going from a put-upon, mousy nobody to a self-confident supervillain. The transition is not as jarring as you might think. Pascal as the huckster Maxwell Lord, is surprisingly bland; the part certainly shows some Trumpian overtones, but in the end Lord seems to have more of a heart than Trump, or at least so it seems. Still, I would have expected more spice out of Pascal.

There are some really great moments here – like a flight through fireworks – and some truly head-scratching moments as well. The opening prologue, set when Diana was a girl (Aspell) in a competition with fully grown women, nearly lost me at the get-go, while the shoot-out at the mall really made me wonder if I wasn’t about to watch Jenkins bomb after doing so well with her last film. Not to worry though; it does get much better as it goes along.

There has been a lot of chatter on the Internet about a sex scene with the resurrected Steve Trevor and Diana. As Steve was inhabiting another man’s body, some people complained that this was essentially rape as the man whose body Steve was inhabiting couldn’t give consent. Far be it for me to besmirch sexual assault in any form, but could it be we’re getting oversensitive? I don’t think bodies driven by foreign consciouses are a big problem, or ever likely to be. Can we save our outrage for real world rape culture?

That said, this isn’t the home run that Wonder Woman was, but it’s not a strikeout either. It’s definitely a solid base hit, if we’re going to continue the baseball metaphor. Is it worth going to theaters for? I’m sharply divided on this. I think that it should be seen on the big screen in a big theater, but at the same time I can’t really justify the risk for those who might be concerned about picking up COVID and passing it along to loved ones. I think it was the right call for Warner Brothers to make it available at home and that’s probably where you should see it. However, once you feel comfortable going back to the multiplex, hopefully some theaters will show it as a re-release so we all get a chance to see it as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: Gadot continues her ascent as a major star and Wiig delivers a bang-up performance. Gets better as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Extremely uneven. Pascal is surprisingly bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is superhero action/violence as well as a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Wiig was Jenkins’ first choice to play Barbara Minerva, the role was initially offered to Emma Stone, who declined. Wiig was then offered the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 168/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Soul

Glass (2019)


Just because we’re crazy doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

(2019) Superhero (Blumhouse/UniversalJames McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson, M. Night Shyamalan, Shannon Ryan, Diana Silvers, Nina Wisner, Kyli Zion, Serge Didenko, Russell Porter, Kimberly Fairbanks, Rosemary Howard, Leslie Stefanson. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

Glass is the conclusion of a trilogy that began almost 20 years earlier with Unbreakable and then continued in a stealth sort of way in his 2016 film Split. It is director M. Night Shyamalan’s take on the superhero mythos and America’s obsession with it.

It features three characters from those first two movies; heroic David Dunn (Willis), virtually invulnerable and known in the press as the Overseer; Kevin Crumb (McAvoy), possessed of multiple personalities including a super-powered one known as the Beast, and Mr. Glass (Jackson), a criminal mastermind with impossibly brittle bones.

As Dunn chases Crumb, who has kidnapped several cheerleaders and is holding them hostage to feed to the Beast, eventually both of them are captured by the police and sent to an asylum where a psychiatrist (Paulson) tries to convince the three of them that they have no superpowers. Of course, we know that they do and it sets up a coda between the Overseer and the Beast that will lead to one of Shyamalan’s patented twist endings.

Shyamalan conspicuously avoids world-building here, preferring to set things in the real world with three extraordinary individuals. Each has someone who is a civilian counterpart; David’s son Joseph (Clark), Glass’ mom (Woodard) and Crumb’s escaped victim (Taylor-Joy). Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis use color-coding – purple for Glass, yellow/ocher for Crumb and green for Dunn. It gives the movie an almost comic-book feel that I found appealing.

While the soundtrack is wonderful and the performances by Jackson, Willis and particularly McAvoy marvelous, the movie is bogged down by Shyamalan’s attempts to make his film mythic but when push comes to shove, it comes off more pretentious and long-winded than what I think he intended. I had high hopes for this film, especially since Split had been one of Shyamalan’s best films, but was ultimately disappointed in that the movie was merely okay.

REASONS TO SEE: Willis, Jackson and McAvoy are all strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries very hard to be mythic but doesn’t quite get there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, some adult thematic elements and regular profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to retain creative control on the film, Shyamalan mortgaged his own house to co-finance it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
IO

Aquaman


Under the sea, a princess waits.

(2018) Superhero (Warner BrothersJason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park, Graham McTavish, Leigh Whannell, Julie Andrews (voice), Djimon Hounsou, (voice), John Rhys-Davies (voice), Andrew Crawford, Sophia Forrest, Natalia Safran. Directed by James Wan

 

It’s no secret that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has far out-stripped the DC Extended Universe for box office supremacy. There are a lot of reasons for that; regardless, the fact of the matter is that DC has a lot of catching up to do, and here’s where they start.

Arthur Curry (Momoa) a.k.a. Aquaman (although he is rarely referred to by that term) is the son of Polynesian lighthouse keeper (Morrison) and Atlanna (Kidman), a princess of Atlantis. Bullied as a young boy, he learns that due to his half-Atlantean lineage he can communicate with sea animals, control water and swim faster than a dolphin. He can also breathe underwater as well as on land. He is tutored by Vulko (Dafoe), an advisor to the king of Atlantis, Arthur soon becomes a kind of superhero, although he prefers very much to be left alone to drink beer and brood, mainly over the disappearance of his mother and his father’s sad faith that she will return to him someday.

However, the arrival of new princess Mera (Heard) tells Arthur of a power struggle going on in the deep. Orm (Wilson), his half-brother, has claimed the throne, although Arthur apparently has a better claim. Orm means to declare war on the surface dwellers and who could blame him, given all the pollution and damage we have inflicted on the oceans. Arthur and Mera will need to go on a quest to find Neptune’s trident, the most powerful weapon in Atlantis that has been lost for generations, if they are to challenge Orm and save the human race.

Wan is an accomplished director who has launched two major movie franchises – Saw and The Conjuring – and looks to give DC a badly needed infusion of fun. It’s no accident that Jason Momoa’s Aquaman resembles Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in many respects; the roguish demeanor, the royal bloodline, the affection for humans and the wisecracks; Wan’s no fool, and that lighter sort of superhero sells better in today’s market than the brooding, dark heroes of DC’s recent past.

Other than that, this is pretty standard superhero movie stuff; big battles, lavish special effects, the existence of the human race on the line. Aquaman is at its best, oddly enough, when Momoa’s charm is allowed to shine through; the big special effects are almost too busy with too much going on so that the end result is not eye candy but vertigo.

Heard delivers the best performance of her career as the agile Mera, and Kidman lends needed gravitas as Atlanna. There is also a subplot involving regular Aquaman nemesis Black Manta who is played by the underutilized Mateen, who is due a superhero character of his own one of these days. The wow factor is definitely here, but the movie is a little too long, a little too overwhelming. Still, where it shines, it really shines and Momoa is certainly an action star for the new decade.

REASONS TO SEE: Best DC film since Wonder Woman. Momoa was born to play a superhero.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: The special effects are on the busy side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to director James Wan, the octopus playing drums during the duel between Orm and Arthur is Topo, Aquaman’s sidekick during the 50s and 60s. Wan figured that if Mad Max: Fury Road could have flame-throwing guitars, he could have an octo-drummer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waterworld
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Capital in the 21st Century

Venom (2018)


A face only an alien symbiotic mother could love.

(2018) Superhero (Columbia) Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters, Woody Harrelson, Peggy Lu, Malcolm C. Murray, Sope Aluko, Wayne Pére, Michelle Lee, Kurt Yue, Chris O’Hara, Emilio Rivera, Amelia Young, Ariadne Joseph, Deen Brooksher, David Jones, Roger Yuan, Vickie Eng, Scott Deckert, Nick Thune, Lauren Richards. Directed by Reuben Fleischer

 

The Marvel march to cinematic domination continues with this non-MCU entry into the Spider-Man universe which is separate, even though Spider-Man is ostensibly part of the MCU now (confused yet?) but Venom is decidedly not.

Eddie Brock (Hardy) is an investigative journalist who is all about getting the story, regardless of who it hurts in the process. It gets him fired from his job and bounced from his relationship with lawyer Anne Weyring (Williams). In short, Eddie is a bit of an insufferable prick. While investigating tech billionaire Carlton Drake’s (Ahmed) Life Foundation, Eddie gets infected with an alien symbiote that has destroyed everyone else it has infected.

However, Eddie turns out to be not rejected by the symbiote, which endows Eddie with enormous strength and tendrils/tentacles that stretch out from his gelatinous black skin to take all sorts of shapes and forms. It makes Eddie insatiably hungry and the preferred diet of choice for the symbiote is human flesh, although Eddie draws the line there. But Drake wants his alien back and has big, evil plans for it once he gets a symbiote of his own.

The movie follows the superhero origin story formula to a T, which might work for less discerning fans but for the rest of us is very noticeable. This lack of ingenuity and creativity sabotages the film throughout and despite a fine performance by Hardy and solid supporting performances by Williams, Ahmed and Slate, renders the movie as a disappointment.

There are some plus signs, of course. The interplay between the symbiote and Eddie is downright funny at times, and there’s a motorcycle chase scene that is absolutely off-the-chain. Even though the origin story is formulaic, Venom is nonetheless a different kind of superhero, a super-anti-hero if you will. With a little less playing it safe, this could have been a truly memorable film instead of just a mediocre one.

REASONS TO SEE: Tom Hardy is excellent.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie ended up being a bit underwhelming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of violence (some of it bloody) and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The symbiote and Eddie Brock also appear in Spider-Man 3 in which Brock is played by Topher Grace.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On-Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mask
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bad Times at the El Royale

BrightBurn


With eyes all aglow.

(2019) Superhero Horror (Screen Gems) Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Abraham Clinkscales, Christian Finlayson, Jennifer Holland, Emmie Hunter, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Terence Rosemore, Gregory Alan Williams, Elizabeth Becka, Steve Agee, Michael Rooker, Steve Blackehart, Mike Dunston, Annie Humphrey. Directed by David Yarovesky

 

Superman was very much a product of his times, an alien baby adopted by human parents when his spaceship crashed to Earth. Possessed of nearly godlike powers, he uses those powers for good and upholding truth, justice and the American way. Even in the midst of a Depression, that seemed very plausible to most Americans, particularly in the Heartland where the Superman saga was initially set.

Nowadays, we see things differently. Take the same storyline – with Elizabeth Banks and David Denman taking the roles of Ma and Pa Kent – and even essentially the same location (Kansas) and set in in 2019 and what you have is not an inspiration but sheer terror. This kid is no way going to use his powers for good but instead to tear this country into pieces – small ones.

=It’s a nifty concept although there have been other dark superhero stories before, even horror tinged ones but almost all of them have been on the printed page. There are plenty of nods to the Superman mythos, from the alliteratively named Brandon Breyer (Dunn), the superhero to the red, yellow and blue color scheme that Brandon often wears to the superpowers themselves. At times it gets heavy handed.

The movie was produced by James Gunn who has been a frequent critic of the President and the movie, written by one of his brothers and a cousin, makes some political allusions that are hard to ignore, although some are a bit more tenuous than others. Certainly, those who are sensitive to such things will notice.

Banks actually does a terrific job as a cross between the aforementioned Ma Kent and Laurie Strode. She captures a mother’s undying need to believe in the best of her child even as her husband exclaims “He’s not our child! We found him in the woods!” which is accurate enough but misses the point completely, just like a man as I can hear many women thinking. Most of the rest of the cast is solid.

The ending is anti-climactic which isn’t surprising because the writers pretty much paint themselves into a corner which leads to predictability. I had high hopes for this one because of Gunn’s involvement but this doesn’t live up to the standards of most of his other films. It isn’t a bad movie but it’s disappointing given its pedigree.

REASONS TO SEE: Dunn is sufficiently creepy in this anti-Superman story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nice concept but a bit too heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some grisly images, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school scenes were shot in the same now-closed high school in Georgia where the middle and high school scenes were shot for the hit Netflix series Stranger Things.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superman: The Movie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Ant-Man and the Wasp


The well-prepared superheroes scan the room to determine who cut the cheese.

(2018) Superhero (Disney/MarvelPaul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peňa, Michael Douglas, Laurence Fishburne, Hannah John-Kamen, Bobby Cannavale, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tim Heidecker, Divian Ladwa, Goran Kostic, Rob Archer, Sean Thompson Kleier, Riann Steele. Directed by Peyton Reed

 

Following up Avengers: Infinity War as a Marvel superhero is like being the guy who bats after Babe Ruth; anything you do is going to be anti-climactic.

Scott Lang (Rudd) has hung up his Ant-Man mantle and placed under house arrest following the events of Captain America: Civil War and is just days away from getting his freedom back. He’s far more interested in being a better dad to his daughter Cassie (Fortson) and starting up a corporate security firm with his buddies Luis (Peňa), Dave (Harris) and Kurt (Dastmalchian) than resuming his superhero career with the tech he was awarded by crusty Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas).

But Pym and his daughter Hope (Lilly) believe they are on the verge of being able to rescue Hank’s wife and Hope’s mom Janet van Dyne (Pfeiffer) – who is also the original Wasp – from the Quantum Realm where she has been trapped for decades. Lang’s successful escape from the Realm makes him Hank’s best friend from a scientific standpoint. However, Hank’s tech is in high demand and after it are corporate espionage maven Sonny Burch (Goggins) and the insubstantial super-villain Ghost (John-Kamen). With a friendly but suspicious federal agent (Park) watching Scott’s every move and with his freedom on the line, can Scott rescue Janet and stay ahead of both the feds and the bad guys?

This, like the first Ant-Man film the tone is light and irreverent – not to the same degree as Thor: Ragnarok but more like a 90s sitcom; not a bad thing at all There are some genuinely funny lines and bits and if you don’t think about the physics of the Pym particles too much the plot moves along at a nice clip. The stakes here aren’t very high, compared to other recent Marvel films, but who says every superhero movie has to be about The End of the World As We Know It?

Rudd continues to be intensely likable and thankfully they integrate Lilly into the action much more; I wouldn’t mind seeing a Wasp solo movie down the line someday (from my pen to Kevin Feige’s ears). The effects are solid and the cast is awfully strong This isn’t the kind of grand-slam that Marvel has been hitting regularly lately but it certainly is a solid base hit that most Marvel fans should enjoy.

REASONS TO SEE: Lilly as the Wasp is integrated better into the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit watered down from the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic book violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The younger version of Bill Foster in the flashback sequences is played by Langston Fishburne, son of Laurence who plays the older Bill Foster.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fantastic Voyage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bathroom Stalls and Parking Lots

Deadpool 2


Deadpool: Superhero in training.

(2018) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Kesy, Eddie Marsan, Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgård, Brad Pitt, Lewis Tan, Rob Delany, Nikolai Witschl, Randal Reeder, Shioli Kutsuna, Stefan Kapicic, Matt Damon, Alan Tudyk. Directed by David Leitch

 

The Merc with a Mouth returns for a second go-round (third if you count the abortion that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine) in a movie that takes nothing seriously, least of all itself.

In this blockbuster sequel, a despondent Wade Wilson attempts to kill himself which turns out to be impossible. He finds a reason to live when he befriends a 14-year-old sexual abuse victim who calls himself Firefist (Dennison). The kid seeks revenge against the headmaster (Marsan) of an orphanage who has tortured and abused him. When you can shoot fireballs from your hands, revenge isn’t all that hard to come by.

Standing in the way is Cable (Brolin), a time-travelling cyborg who has come back in time to kill the boy. Apparently in the future, a grown up Firefist kills his family and scorches a whole lot of the Earth. To fight the nearly indestructible Cable, Deadpool recruits a superteam of his own although they turn out to be short-lived. Extremely although Domino (Beetz) whose superpower is crazy good luck survives – which is a good thing because she’s one of the best things about the movie.

Nonetheless, Deadpool hopes to reason with Firefist and get him not to turn to the dark side while Thanos…I mean Cable…thinks that the greater good will be served by ghosting a 14-year-old boy. I gotta admit, I was rooting for him to kill the boy at times.

Like the first film there are plenty of occasionally gruesome action sequences. Also like the first film there is an explosion of meta-based humor, poking fun of everything from comic book movies (duh) to Barbra Streisand (Brolin’s stepmother) to every action cliché ever to Les Miserables. There are plenty of brief cameos, some of them virtually unrecognizable.

In short, it’s a hoot and a half. The humor is hit and miss at times but hit more often than not. The movie feels a lot more cluttered than the first but it also has much more scope than the first. The action is an improvement and there’s even a little bit of pathos to mix things up a little bit. I don’t think those who loved the first one will feel any less love for the sequel and I’m pretty sure that most of us will be eager for the threequel. Maybe they can convince Hugh Jackman to show up for the third. That would give Reynolds a whole new opportunity to riff.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds continues to make Wade/Deadpool a compelling character. There are lots of fun celebrity cameos and Easter eggs throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit more cluttered than the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence – some of it extreme, gore, profanity and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios/Verizon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blue Iguana