Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

James Gunn and Marvel are telling us everything we’re seeing in this sequel to “Guardians of the Galaxy” is remarkably cool, but it’s trying too hard.

The opening set piece to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a battle for the ages with a giant octopod, slug thing. But distracting our attention is Baby Groot plugging in an amplifier to blare “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra.

Now, if you need a reminder of who Groot is, in the last “Guardians of the Galaxy,” he was a sentient tree being that only ever spoke three words, “I Am Groot.” Now he’s a baby. Clear?

But fear not: age differences aside, he and the Guardians still have the same taste in ‘70s AM radio. And apparently more interesting than another CGI battle is watching this four-inch-high Chia pet shimmy its hips. Director James Gunn seems to know we’ve grown desensitized to whatever mayhem is going on behind Baby Groot, and at this point American audiences would still pay hundreds of millions of dollars even if it meant we were placated for something mindless and cute for just a few moments.

That’s what “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” has come to. It’s ridiculous there are people honestly writing about this with any degree of seriousness, let alone even calling it a movie. It’s explosively colorful, filled with endless inane chatter, heavy on catchy pop songs used as superhero music videos, and littered with enough made up space words to convince someone there’s a plot, characters and stakes here.

Gunn jams “Guardians 2” with gigantic space opera moments and activity, but at every turn he shoe horns in a joke to lighten the mood and remind everyone this is all just mindless entertainment. The details don’t matter, because we’re just moments away from another shot of Baby Groot eating M&Ms as the world explodes around him. Continue reading “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America and Iron Man engage in an epic battle of titans in Marvel’s latest.

Civil_War_Final_PosterMarvel’s head-honchos must’ve spent years dreaming up this moment. It’s the moment when Captain America, Iron Man and 10 other superheroes all dash at one another in anticipation of an epic death match. This battle is why we’ve sat through these movies since 2008, and it’s everything fans could’ve asked for.

And whether you’re a fan or not, that may be enough. This particular scene, what is really a sizable chunk of “Captain America: Civil War,” stands out because it’s all these heroes at their best and having a blast. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is clambering through Iron Man’s circuitry, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is web-slinging and talking wise as Chris Evans’s Captain America manages to drop a building on him, and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is sleek, acrobatic and menacing. They’re not trying to kill each other, but are really just having fun.

“I don’t know how many fights you’ve been in, but there usually isn’t this much talking,” Falcon says to Spidey, who really does breathe a lot of life into this film. Except that’s not entirely true. For a long time now, Marvel has been making sensational action sequences that look and feel exactly like this one: rapid fire action editing that resembles comic book panels rather than cinema, carefully allotted portions of screen time for every hero involved, and a bunch of quippy Whedonisms tossed in between the mayhem.

So if this fight really is the best thing Marvel has ever made, is that really saying much?

To be fair, the Captain America movies are arguably a step up from its Iron Man or Thor counterparts. I’d rather watch Cap and Black Widow engage in some Jason Bourne style hand-to-hand combat than watch Tony Stark shoot lasers at swarms of CGI robots.

But regardless of who the participants are, every Marvel movie ever made feels exactly the same. Each one has been polished and tailored to fit a brand image, and they’ve been rubbed clean of their style, emotion and ambition. Anthony and Joe Russo may be listed as directors here, but these movies don’t have directors, just brand managers. It’s meant movies that are perfectly competent, enjoyable and disposable: almost never bad, but almost certainly never great.

In “Civil War,” when Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) bungles a mission in Lagos that leaves 12 civilians killed, the Avengers are brought before an oversight committee to be kept in check by the United Nations. Iron Man and Black Widow both agree to sign the sanctions, but Captain America believes they would be surrendering their right to choose.

Not unlike the recent “Batman v. Superman,” it makes boardroom discussions, MSNBC talking heads and debates about morality the stuff of blockbusters. Say what you will about that film, but Zack Snyder is a filmmaker with a voice and a style behind the camera. He invoked Greek mythology and Christ parables in order to argue his ideas, and he made Bruce Wayne far more of a tortured soul than the narcissist Tony Stark ever could be.

“Civil War” is entirely paint by numbers with simplistic, reductive writing. Is this movie really about anything other than vengeance? It bungles its libertarian political overtones by trying to straddle the line and appeal to a mass audience, and it proves yet again that Marvel has very little clue what to do with its villains. “Batman v. Superman” didn’t have a sense of humor, but so what if “Civil War” does?

When has this franchise ever made you feel anything beyond a giggle? Marvel has never been one to make you afraid, sad or joyful, to pay homage to a genre, or even to truly care for the fate of these characters. It’s for the same reason that Marvel movies only look like other Marvel movies. By making them all uniformly bland with glimmers of excitement and pathos, they can tease you for the next one.

Where can the franchise go after a dozen superheroes have all fought in an epic battle? If all we keep getting is more of the same, does it really matter?

3 stars

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Marvel’s latest blockbuster is a mess too beholden to plot threads of the MCU, and James Spader’s great Ultron can’t save it.

AvengersPosterMarvel has been branding their Cinematic Universe in such a way that each subsequent film teases the next, and all seem to be building to something. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” should be that moment, but it doesn’t feel like the culmination of all that’s come before. Worse, it doesn’t even feel like an “Avengers” movie.

With 2011’s “The Avengers”, director Joss Whedon did successfully juggle the many characters who showed up in Marvel’s “Phase One”, and he seemed to wink at the camera while doing so, allowing these big personalities to clash and poke fun in a way that returned the color, fun and originality to what had become an increasingly dense, plot driven series.

“Age of Ultron” doesn’t allow its characters to grapple with a major story as a team. It’s a super mess full of forced backstories and plot threads to past and future movies. Black Widow and Bruce Banner are given an unlikely and unexpected tortured romance while trying to battle their demons. Iron Man hints at fracturing from the team as he will in “Captain America: Civil War”, but feels half-baked and underdeveloped here. Thor disappears from the team to fulfill a nonsensical side plot in a Nordic cave. Hawkeye suddenly has family melodrama on a reclusive farm that slows the film to a halt. And new additions are given neither the screen time nor the emotional heft to truly make an impact.

If Marvel isn’t building to this and still hasn’t arrived at their best, what are we waiting for?

In the film’s opening shot, Whedon weaves through the forest of a fictional Russian-esque country as the Avengers stage an attack on a compound. It’s an unbroken take (achieved through digital trickery) that unnaturally circles the area in an effort to showcase each hero one by one as they deal with some baddies, all before catching them all lunging forward at once in a poster-ready screen grab. It’s emblematic of how “Age of Ultron” both looks and feels, in which Whedon is really just showing off. Some of these elaborate, but not stylish shots only remind how much is going on.

Like the camera, the plot also fails to stay fixated in one place. Upon reaching the compound, they retrieve Loki’s scepter. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) plan to research it in an attempt to create a brilliant form of artificial intelligence that can provide peace on Earth somehow. They inadvertently succeed but manage to create Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a highly intelligent program that in no time flat deduces that the only way to achieve peace is to eliminate The Avengers and evolve mankind through extinction.

Ultron brings to the film possibly Marvel’s first actual theme and message, and he proves to be arguably the best super villain Marvel has dreamed up. He repeatedly sings “I’ve Got No Strings” from “Pinocchio” to show he’s not one of Iron Man’s puppets, and his principled ideas about the evolution of intelligent life resound with the weight of countless sci-fi films before it. “Age of Ultron’s” ideas about AI and the folly of man may not be profound, but delivered with Spader’s quick, dry, ironic tone, it’s convincing.

But as for making a convincing narrative and objective for Ultron, Whedon is far less successful. As a villain, Ultron is convenient. He exists in the Internet! He’s unstoppable, and always one step ahead. So when his plan is revealed to make a tangible version of himself, it seems like a step in the wrong evolutionary direction. But even that plan fizzles out to make way for yet another new character, and the resulting final battle is The Avengers taking on thousands of disposable metal baddies. The action sequences feel like a rehash of not just the chaotic spectacle at the end of “The Avengers”, but of “Iron Man 3” for how many Stark-powered enemies they’re forced to bring down.

Whedon has more luck with a battle between Iron Man and a hypnotized Hulk in a crowded city. It isolates the action on two figures and smashes things up real good. Yet it too blends in with the chaos at the Russian compound, then in the African warehouse, then in the Russian city. Marvel seems unable to stage a compelling set piece that doesn’t involve a million moving parts in a busy area.

These scenes are so unmemorable because they lack suspense. They’re hugely bloodless and without any of the dark edges of Christopher Nolan’s or Zack Snyder’s superhero attempts. Marvel also doesn’t see the need to make us care for these characters again, as they’ve already done so in previous films. But it’s easy to forget what makes Tony Stark heroic and likeable in the first place, not least of which because he’s been separated from the brilliant, charming chemistry he has with Pepper Potts (the movie makes a quick, cheap concession to explain why Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman are missing).

When the action does settle down, Whedon brings his trademark smarm to the party, particularly in a scene where all the Avengers try to lift Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer and find themselves unworthy. These characters have shades and nuance, but under Whedon’s dialogue they all seem like the same cocky adventurers with a quick act of wordplay here and a too-clever high-brow pop culture reference the next.

But Whedon has interesting things to work with, and you wish Marvel would withhold flashbacks of Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) assassin up-bringing for her own movie and condense the two hour, 20 minute run time of this one. Johansson is arguably the standout of this franchise, and her interactions with Ruffalo are the closest Marvel has gotten to making Hulk’s werewolf curse understandable and believable.

“Age of Ultron” isn’t a movie though; it’s seven movies, and none of them stick. Marvel has to quit making teases for their next Big Thing and make that movie today.

2 ½ stars

Big Hero 6

Disney and Marvel’s kids movie comic book adaptation is exploding with color and imagination.

With apologies to Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-man or any of the X-Men, “Big Hero 6” is the best superhero movie of the year. No film in the genre this year was as exciting or as colorful as this charming kids adaptation of yet another Marvel comic.

It’s a film that takes the genre back to its roots of training, imagination, possibility, heroics and best of all, fantasy. The space opera visuals of “Guardians of the Galaxy” or the gray doom and gloom of Zack Snyder’s Superman pale in comparison to this new Disney classic, in which the fantastical story, the diverse cast of characters and the charm really do feel ripped from a comic book. Hey, even Stan Lee gets his quick cameo. Continue reading “Big Hero 6”

Guardians of the Galaxy

James Gunn’s film is the most unique movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but not enough so.

The narrative surrounding “Guardians of the Galaxy” is that it’s something of a risk and a departure for Marvel. The comic on which it has based has no name recognition outside of comic fans, and the on-paper, ragtag bunch of misfits that includes a goofy thief, a green assassin, a hulking, deadpan behemoth, a raccoon with a rocket launcher and a sentient tree, could come across as a bad attempt to recreate the success of “The Avengers” or just a strange, downright misfire. But Marvel is specifically known for making movies that are becoming increasingly calculated, planning movies out a decade and including them all in their intersecting web of stories known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To put it lightly, Marvel isn’t stupid, and like the group at the movie’s core, it’s stronger and more put together than you’d think. “Guardians of the Galaxy” may just be the most idiosyncratic movie in the Marvel canon, but any illusion that the film is taking this oddball story and shattering the mold of what Marvel is or does is really pushing it. Continue reading “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is the most bullet-ridden superhero movie ever made, and it has a strange assortment of politics embedded within.

Captain America is a hero of morals and integrity. He represents the American ideal not because of his politics but because of his values. And yet his presence in comics dating back to World War II has always had to contend with the American political sphere. What would be the implications if the values of America’s greatest hero no longer matched America’s behavior?

Marvel took an ambitious step by removing Captain America from his ’40s origin story and dropping him into the modern day. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a film in which Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must now grapple with thorny, ripped from the headlines debates surrounding America’s defense spending, use of military drones and their technological dominion over our privacy.

It’s the first time a Marvel film has presented grave, real-world stakes. In one way, the modern setting makes “The Winter Soldier” feel hardly like a superhero movie at all, closer to a conspiracy thriller complete with modern weaponry and combat. But in another way, Directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s placement of the film well within the Marvel template and “Cinematic Universe” make the presentation of “The Winter Soldier’s” vague political ideas that much queasier.

Continue reading “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

Why I’m bitter about ‘The Avengers’

Airing some last minute skepticism about “The Avengers” before the movie premieres and some frustration with Marvel.

Look, I’m seeing “The Avengers” tonight at midnight, and my thoughts will definitely be completely changed after its two 2:20 runtime. I will be able to judge the movie as a movie and not by its ravenous fans.

But I’ve been bitching about this movie for too long with no one listening, so I had to get my thoughts down on paper at some point before this evening.

If I’m not on the same page of enthusiasm for “The Avengers,” it’s because I haven’t bought into Marvel’s ad campaign for the last three years. Yes, “The Avengers” is the final product of a massive hype machine that Marvel has executed perfectly since Day 1. Continue reading “Why I’m bitter about ‘The Avengers’”

X-Men: First Class

The X-Men are a treasure trove of possibilities. Any superpower you wish you had, one of them has it, thus their immense popularity and enduring capability of this franchise. “X-Men: First Class” is the fifth installment, and fans of the films are very familiar with the names, histories and mutations of every one of them to the point that even Charles Darwin would lose track. So I would expect no less from Marvel than to exploit every miniscule detail as a way of reminding us how respectful they are of their fans and their millions of dollars in revenue.

“X-Men: First Class” is a carefully constructed film that takes no chances in contradicting the franchise that has carried it to this point. If there is a character, mutation, plot point, building, vehicle or costume that was not completely explained in the original three films or the Wolverine prequel, it is here. It is Marvel’s way of ensuring there will be at least a sixth installment, and God knows how many more.

The difference is that director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) is given mild liberties to not take these details strictly seriously. For instance, it has long been a question of why in Bryan Singer’s two films we see little of the classic costume designs the way Stan Lee drew them in the original comic book series. Surely Vaughn is forced to answer the reason behind Lee’s kitschy ‘60s style, but he’s allowed to do so by making his film a psychedelic period piece. Set pieces, dialogue and women’s clothing choices are rightfully emblematic of a comic series that began as campy fun, and split screen montages are goofy departures from a film otherwise focused on the dourness in the Holocaust and Cuban Missile Crisis. Continue reading “X-Men: First Class”

Why Marvel is starting to piss me off

Marvel’s extended universe and Easter Eggs are getting out of hand.

When Lou Piniella was managing the Cubs, a journalist asked him why he didn’t switch pitchers following a bad loss under the pretense that they could’ve performed better in the next game of the series. Piniella said, “I’m focused on winning THIS game, not the next one.”

Marvel Studios, since 2008 and their separation as an individual studio, has always been focused on the next game.

I bring this up because “Thor” bothered me quite a bit. As the first movie of what will now be a llllooooonnng summer, it signaled to me the same crap Marvel pulled with “Iron Man 2.”

They are making an “Avengers” movie in 2012, and in both “Thor” and “Iron Man 2,” it has been heavily marketed within the movie as a prominent side plot to the main one.

The upcoming film has an all-star cast, is directed by cult TV favorite Joss Whedon, and they damn well want you to know to be excited for it. Continue reading “Why Marvel is starting to piss me off”