(Netflix Streaming, December 2017) The first Guardian of the Galaxy was a gamble and a welcome surprise, providing a rare example of colourful space adventure with likable characters and a seemingly effortless sense of fun. This sequel provides more of the same, except that it’s even more self-assured and perhaps a bit more rigid in the way it presents itself. Why mess with a formula that works? Once more, we get the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe blend of humour, action and visual spectacle, with an impossibly colourful palette and a smirking attitude. The film begins with a strong credit sequence in which a big action scene is played in the background while classic rock makes a comeback alongside a choreographed ballet of mayhem. Afterwards, much of the film is spent getting to know Star-Lord’s dad and further team-bonding exercise. Under writer/director James Gunn’s guidance, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 plays well, although the formula is more expected this time around. Characters seem to behave in more expected ways, and the film isn’t afraid to lean on its own biggest strength. The visual aspect of the film is a wonder to behold, completely giving itself to the idea that space opera should be big and bold and rainbow-coloured. Chris Pratt makes for a likable lead, but actors as varied as Zoë Saldaña, Dave Bautista and Kurt Russell (plus Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance) bring much to the proceedings. Despite the massively post-processed nature of a film that’s nearly entirely special effects from beginning to end, the actors end up being the film’s biggest asset: much of its charm is in seeing these characters interact and play off each other. Otherwise, the film isn’t entirely successful—Making Yondu a sympathetic father figure is glossing a bit over several mass-murder episodes, and there’s a sense, especially toward the end, that it has extended its third act a bit too long. But all told, this remains an exceptionally enjoyable blockbuster film, slickly made and able to deliver exactly what it intended. Recharge the Zune, and let’s see what’s on Vol. 3.
(Video on-Demand, March 2017) Given Marvel Studio’s accumulating success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they now find themselves both freed to try new things, and doomed to refresh their formula before it become stale. Doctor Strange certainly shows how they tread the line, as it introduces yet another character, but in a realm far … stranger than the consensually rational universe of most of the non-Thor series so far. The paradox with Doctor Strange is that it’s narratively interesting at its basic character-driven level (which is to say: a gifted surgeon trying to regain his abilities after a terrible accident) and visually fascinating when it throws the rules of reality outside the window in time from some spectacular action sequences, but there’s a big mushy intermediate step in-between that’s almost unbearably dull. But such is the trouble with otherworldly fantasy: In between the characters and the cool sequences, there’s often a stultifying accumulation of bad-guy names, dull plots to enslave the Earth and other assorted generic material from the genre fantasy playbook. Doctor Strange succumbs to that issue, but can still fortunately rely on enough special effects to remain afloat. Benedict Cumberbatch may not be playing a role very much outside his established persona (it’s why he was cast, after all), but he’s compelling enough—and so is Tilda Swinton as an ethereal sorceress. Then there’s the work from Industrial Light and Magic, conjuring an Escheresque nightmare of an urban landscape folding upon itself during an action sequence. Doctor Strange is worth seeing for either (or both) of those reasons, but don’t be surprised to wish for the film to move faster during the rest of it—we know the origin stories by now, and the galactic-threat ones … it’s time for something else.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) By this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we should be used both to mere competency and the dangers of expecting too much. So it is that Captain America: Civil War is both a pretty good piece of pop entertainment, and one that probably won’t change all that much in the series despite its grandiose title. It does have the good sense of taking its dramatic motives in the past movies of the MCU, showcasing the death and destruction of previous instalments as excuse to contain the superheroes of the series. Conflict soon erupts when some of the superheroes rather arbitrarily divined themselves based on who thinks it’s a good idea and who doesn’t. It all leads to a fantastic airport fight, and then a not-so-fantastic fist-fight between Iron Man and Captain America. At least the action sequences are handled crisply by the Russo brothers, while the script is up to the usual Marvel standards—which is to say, competent but a good step short of impressive. Then again, Marvel hasn’t become a powerhouse studio without learning what makes for a decent blockbuster, and Civil War is another example of how the studio can give the illusion of change without necessarily threatening its cash cows. Performances are fine: Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, while Robert Downey Jr. is his usual self as Tony Stark. A surprising number of characters, both old and new, turn up in this non-Avengers film, redefining expectations of scale when it comes to MCU mid-phase movies. The blend of comedy, character moments, thrills and visuals is up to the Marvel standard. Even Daniel Bruhl’s villain is a bit better than usual; well motivated, devious and arguably even successful in the end. It all leads to a conclusion that slightly changes the status quo, but leaves enough hints that it can be resolved rather quickly in time for the next instalment. After seeing the nonchalant way Hydra was built up and then destroyed in-between chapters, it’s best to keep expectations low and simply go along for the ride. Parallels with the contemporary Batman vs Superman (which shares quite a few plot points) are strongly in Marvel’s favour. Now let’s hope than it can keep this streak of competence going well into the future.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) It had to happen at some point: I think I’ve reached a certain jadedness level regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. The time to wonder at how Marvel maintains such a level of quality has passed; we may have entered the age of diminishing returns. Or I’m being grouchy for no good reason: Ant-Man, after all, is competently made, decently paced, suitably integrated with the rest of the MCU … it’s hard to point at the film and say that something is wrong with it. Paul Rudd is a good choice for the titular role, bringing his usual affability on-screen and setting up an interesting addition to the ongoing MCU serial. The film’s microscopic action sequences feel new enough, and the film’s relatively small scale and restrained ambitions is a welcome change of pace from the usual save-the-world grandiosity of most other comic-book movies. However… Ant-Man does feel quite a bit more ordinary than it ought to have been. The scale-switching action leaves us hungry for more, the usually-enjoyable Corey Stoll seems wasted in a fairly typical villainous role, while Evangeline Lilly seems far more capable than what little she’s given to do here. (But then there’s the sequel to consider.) In short, there’s a sense that as competent as it is, Ant-Man is holding back from its true potential. Without getting into the what-ifs of the film’s troubled production history in which director Ed Wright (whose movies I love) was replaced by Peyton Reed (whose first two movies I love), it seems as if Reed wasn’t able or allowed to push Ant-Man as far as it could go. The result is fine, but the problem with MCU films is that they have to top themselves in order to keep the wow factor: Once you’ve hit The Avengers, Guardian of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier levels, it’s hard to go back to mere competence. Heck, when even Age of Ultron starts smelling like déjà vu, the MCU enters a new phase: how to keep things interesting without necessarily saving the world every time. Ant-Man is a sufficiently different beast to keep things interesting, but it also hints at how difficult it’s going to be to keep up interest at a time when half a dozen new comic-book movies are scheduled every year.
(In theaters, May 2015) Few movies exemplify the mid-2010s blockbuster movie trend as thoroughly as Avengers: Age of Ultron: It’s the apogee-so-far of the superhero movie, it’s practically designed to be the kind of film to save movie theaters from bankruptcy and/or irrelevance and it’s crammed with characters, action sequences and special effects. You don’t get any more “tent-pole film” than this sequel to 2012’s massively successful The Avengers, and the onslaught of commercial tie-ins on TV makes it look as if the film trailer is playing three times per hour. Interestingly enough, Avengers: Age of Ultron is even a competent movie: It juggles a dozen characters with some ease, meddles with current-zeitgeist issues of technology run amok, revolves around exceptionally dynamic action sequences, benefits from good banter and leaves viewers with a sense of upbeat progress. Robert Downey Jr is still a delight as Tony Stark, Chris Evans is still as good as Captain America, and Jeremy Renner gets a lot more to do here. Avengers: Age of Ultron is, in many ways, a better film than its predecessor. But there’s one thing it doesn’t have, and that’s the element of pleasantly exceeded expectations. Marvel Studios has defied tremendous odds in bringing its comic-book universe to the big screen, but as far as the whole “team of superheroes vanquish impossible threat” thing is concerned, it’s been done. So it is that while Avengers: Age of Ultron may be fun and fizzy, it does feel like a repeat, and a harbinger of things to come as something like thirty comic-book movies are scheduled to appear on-screen in the next five years: the melodramatic conventions that sustain comic-books only have a limited shelf life on-screen, and the lack of character development in those films can’t forever be papered over with reboots or fake promises of change (like the Hydra/SHIELD plotline, so promising at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and yet so casually dismissed here). I did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I’m wondering how long such movies can remain the flavor of the moment.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) Marvel Studios sure has been on a roll lately; exception made of the dull Thor movies, their last few films haven’t merely played the superhero-blockbuster movie theme as well as it could, but they’ve started playing around with the formula in ways that could be considered risky. So it is that Captain America 2 goes well beyond its predecessor, taking on the style of a contemporary techno-thriller, destroying some of the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far and piling up revelations about the entire Marvel series. It’s standard superhero stuff, but it’s so exceptionally well-made, and takes such unnecessary chances that a less confident studio would have avoided, that it can’t help but earn a lot of sympathy. Making fullest use of Chris Evans’ enduring charm, Captain America 2 also gives bigger roles to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury: both prove equal to the greater scrutiny. (And that’s without mentioning the plum role given to Robert Redford, in a nod to his place in 1970s political thrillers, or Anthony Mackie once again making full use of his limited time in a supporting role.) (Oh, and George St-Pierre bring a welcome –if incongruous- French-Canadian accent to the film.) The title character adapts well to the current era, but the dilemmas of the contemporary surveillance/intelligence state aren’t a good match for someone forged in 1940s idealism, and it’s those themes, even cursorily tackled, that give interesting depths to Captain America 2 as more than just an action film. Still, even on a moment-to-moment basis, directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a really good eye for what makes great action sequences: fluid camera work, movement with weight, solid sound design and clever moments all contribute to making Captain America 2 one of the best-directed action movie in recent memory: the extended car chase is particularly good, as is the elevator fight sequence. (In-between the other Phase 2 films, let’s give credit to Marvel Studio for its choices as it picks lesser-known directors for major movies.) Other fascinating bits and pieces pepper the film, from a deliciously mainframe-punk Artificial Intelligence reprising a character from the first film, to the big and small details tying this film to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an impressive piece of work, whether it’s considered on a moment-by-moment basis or as part of a series that now sports seven other entries. At a time where DC can’t manage to complete even one fully satisfying superhero movie, it’s a bit amazing to see Marvel so successfully achieve the insanely ambitious plan they forged years ago, at a time when even planning a trilogy was a bit crazy.
(In Theaters, August 2014) At a time where superhero films are in real danger of being overexposed, it’s refreshing to see that Marvel Studios are doing their damndest to avoid resting on their laurels. Their “Phase 2” slate of movies has branched off in interesting directions so far, from quasi-improvised comedy (Iron Man 3) to far-out geekery (Thor 2) to almost-serious political thriller (Captain America 2) to an irreverent space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy. From a plotting standpoint, this ensemble-cast action caper isn’t anything new: we’ve seen more or less the same thing half a dozen times before from Marvel Studios alone. But from the 70s pop-fueled title card onward, it’s obvious that this is a successful attempt to stretch the envelope of superhero films in a new stylistic direction: bold, brash, colorful and with a clear emphasis on fun that feels refreshing after the stone-faced dourness of Nolan’s Batman trilogy (to say nothing of Man of Steel.) The result is never less than highly entertaining. Much of the credits for this success goes to writer/director James Gunn, who manages to ride herd on a good ensemble cast, a somewhat esoteric mythology, complex SFX-laden sequences and surprising pop-culture references (including pleasingly dissonant musical cues). With this film, Chris Pratt makes a strong bid for superstar status, while Dave Batista proves to be an unexpectedly gifted performer and Zoe Saldana shows why she rose so quickly to stardom. Guardians of the Galaxy was an insanely risky project on paper, but the result is pure blockbuster entertainment. Particularly exemplary are the film’s occasional moments of seriousness (tempered by un-ironic fun) and its satisfying coda which takes pains to deliver its payoffs and make sure that everyone is happy. Such crowd-pleasing instincts are a good way to ensure that the audience will come back for more, and a sign that Marvel Studios truly understand what business they’re in.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) I said it about the first movie and I’ll say it again because it’s important: I don’t really care about the entire mythology of Marvel’s Thor character. It’s a hodgepodge of fantasy concepts all blended together and I can’t make myself to care about Asgaard’s sixteen worlds of wonder or whatever. The hammer is lame, the palace intrigue is dull, Thor looks silly and the material with his faithful companions (or, again, whatever) is so under-developed as to be a waste of footage. So it’s no surprise if Thor 2 feels like such a slog in-between the passable parts. I still find Chris Hemsworth compelling in the title role, I’m not entirely immune to Tom Hiddleston’s charming villainous performance as Loki and there are a few nice special effects sequences here and there. But once the geekery cranks up into a salad of made-up words, I’m left rolling my eyes and thanking my own good luck that I never got into comics in any serious way. I’m still frustrated by the absence of thematic depth to the Thor films, and felt my fleeting interest dwindle the longer the film was away from Thor or Loki. I’ll tolerate the result if it means we get another Avengers film out of it, but come Thor 3‘s opening day, look for me anywhere but in the movie theaters showing it. I don’t care and it increasingly looks as if no one can make me care.
(In Theaters, May 2013) Going back to theaters after nearly a year spent at home enjoying a fully-loaded movie cable package with video on-demand feels… strange. So many inconveniences. Ill-behaved strangers. Endless commercial come-ons. Uncomfortable seating. Oh well; at least Iron Man 3 is the kind of film designed to warrant theater viewing: It’s a big, loud, crowd-pleasing blockbuster spectacular, and it’s actually quite good at what it does. You have to be a fan of the first two films (and having seen The Avengers helps as well, which by coincidence was the previous film I saw in theaters) in order to get the most out of this third entry in the Iron Man series: It re-uses many of the relationships set up in the previous movies in order to deliver a few dramatic pay-offs, from Gwyneth Paltrow suddenly cast as an action heroine, or seeing how deftly writer/director Shane Black is able to take the mantle from Jon Favreau and yet make the film his own, much in the same vein as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The direction isn’t perfect –the action sequences aren’t as clean as they could be– but who cares when the dialogue is delicious, the plotting is strong and Robert Downey Jr. delivers another pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, a character so closely aligned with Downey’s public personality as to be undistinguishable from it? It’s all good fun, and Black’s subversive instinct go from unconventionally unsentimental dialogue to messing with big audience expectations at the third-act pivot point. That twist works as long as you’re willing to laugh at the reversal, and see how well it meshes with Stark’s thirst for being visibly indissociable from his superhero identity –otherwise, well, it’s one big thing the trailers haven’t revealed. As the launching entry in Marvel Studio’s “Phase Two”, Iron Man 3 is a solid film. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s accomplished and maybe even more purely enjoyable than the first two entries.
(In theaters, June 2012) As much as I loathe superlatives in my movie reviews, there’s a good case for considering The Avengers as the best superhero comic-book movie adaptation ever made. While other adaptations have been better movies or been more interesting, The Avengers seems to be the first film to successfully manage the transposition of superhero comic books, in all their flawed qualities, onto the big screen. It doesn’t try to be a parody, an exploration of deeper themes using superheroes (like Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies) or an action movie with incidental superpowers: It’s a committed attempt to recreate the Marvel comic-book experience in live action, and it works about as well as this kind of storytelling can work. Protagonists fighting short inconsequential bouts among themselves? Yup. Alien menace from outer space, curiously concentrated around an urban area? Indeed. A lot of witty banter as the heroes band together as a team? Absolutely. Canny writer/director Joss Whedon has added plenty of humor, attitude and special effects to minimize the exasperating nature of fanboy-driven plotting and the result is curiously enjoyable even for people who haven’t dedicated their reading lives to following the intricate mythology of the Marvel universe. The Avengers, for Marvel Studio, is the crowning success of four years and five movies’ worth of scene-setting: it seemed like an insane gamble in 2008, but it pay off handsomely here as the headliners start interacting with each other. Robert Downey Jr. is still a star as Tony Stark, but Mark Ruffalo also does fine work as the best incarnation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk on-screen so far. It’s true that the villain is a bit weak, and that the first half-hour drags until all the pieces are assembled, but the third act fight through New York City is the brightly-lit action set-piece many superhero movies promised but never delivered until now. Still, the film is seldom as good as when the actors are talking amongst themselves, and it’s this attention to characterization that makes The Avengers work despite its limited aims as a super-hero comics adaptation. It doesn’t try to do anything else, but it’s really good at what it does.
(In theaters, July 2011) The inherent nationalism of the Captain America character makes it a tricky sell outside the United States. How best to translate a superhero originally developed to tap into pro-American anti-Nazi fever to an international audience that, to put it politely, may not believe as much in American exceptionalism? Nazis, unsurprisingly, are part of the answer: This Captain America not only takes places during World War 2 (albeit a dieselpunk-verging-on-atompunk fantasy version of WW2) and squares off against a supernatural Nazi opponent, but director Joe Johnston also adopts an un-ironic filming style reminiscent of classic adventure films. Fortunately, it all fits together, with a little surprise at the end: Trying something a bit different from other films superhero films proves to be a good idea, and Captain America turns into a refreshingly old-fashioned entertainment. A good chunk of the fun belongs to Chris Evans, who takes on the square-jawed heroics with unselfconscious honesty; good supporting roles also go to Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Stanley Tucci as an eccentric mentor and Tommy Lee Jones, chewing on the kind of gruff military man role he’s so naturally suited for. The story plays itself out over a few years, with a few unexpected hooks and references to the real-world history of Captain America: keep your eyes out for a reproduction of the real Captain America #1 cover during the film’s amusing showbiz digression. Fans of the Marvelverse put on film will love the references to Thor and the Iron Man hooks with the importance given to Tony Stark’s father. Add to that a few good supporting characters, a decent romance with chronological room to grow, a nifty coda and some fascinating special effects and Captain America isn’t just good enough to become a high point of Summer 2011 in Hollywood, but a superb lead-in to 2012’s The Avengers.
(In theaters, May 2011) I went into this film not understanding why it existed, and came out of it just as baffled. Granted, I’m not a fan of the comic-book character: I don’t even recall reading an issue of the source material. But unlike better comic-book movies, Thor has no point, no thematic depth and no reason for existing other than setting up the upcoming Avengers film. (At best, those looking for a message will find out that it’s anti-adoption agitprop.) As the film sets up its background in the fantasyland of Asgard, I found myself wishing that the film could go back to Earth, to Natalie Portman (as little as she has to do here) and to something I could care about. Otherwise, it’s all pompous accents, aliens, palace intrigue and invented mythologies that (I’m guessing) teenagers will love a lot more than I do. Am I losing the ability to care about fantasy movies? Maybe, but it’s not as if Thor gives me any reason to care. I’ll grant at least one thing, though: it’s got a certain visual style, and some of the Asgard sequences are pretty. Chris Hemsworth is also very good in the title role: Few other actors could have pulled the arch dialogue and regal bearing without looking ridiculous. Otherwise, it’s more interesting to see how the film exists in continuity with the other Marvel-universe movies, from the return appearance of a few SHIELD agents to Jeremy Renner’s cameo as Hawkeye to the now-requisite post-credit sequence. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling Thor dull or uninvolving, it does feel like a low-expectation, low-results kind of film: the scaled-back main-street fight scene is a clear example of that. Thor does brings back to mind the kind of underwhelming comic-book films that we used to get before filmmakers realized that they had to put some depth into it. To say that Kevin Branagh is behind it all almost boggles the mind.
(In theatres, May 2010) As one of, apparently, only half-a-dozen people who didn’t go completely crazy about the first Iron Man film, my expectations for the sequel were kept in check. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself nodding in agreement at this follow-up’s overlapping snarky dialogues, well-choreographed action sequences and pleasant character beats. The force of the film remains the character of Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr, one of the few superheroes around to actually enjoy the superpowers at his disposal. Contrary to many of his brethren, this sequel tackles the responsibilities of power from another direction: while the parallels with alcoholism get heavy at times (in-keeping with the source material), it’s a neat bit of character affliction that keeps things interesting even when stuff is not exploding on-screen. Add a little bit of honestly science-fictional content in how Stark manages to synthesize a solution to his problem (“That was easier than I thought”, the movie self-knowingly wisecracks) and there’s enough fun here to pave over the film’s less convincing moments. Never mind how a single suit-equipped billionaire can apparently create world peace, or Sam Rockwell’s unconvincing grandstanding as another, dumber billionaire, or the shoe-horned intrusions by the rest of the Marvel universe, or the lengthier stretches in which Iron Man 2 occasionally bogs down. At least the film has a good understanding of the character’s strengths, and works hard at maintaining them. I can’t say enough nice things about the replacement of Terrence Howard by the ever-dependable Don Cheadle, nor of Gwyneth Paltrow’s adorable reddish bangs: director Jon Favreau is fine on-screen and even better directing the whole thing. Iron Man 2 is, unlike other superhero movies often dominated by angst, about joy –and the feeling is infectious. It may not be a classic, but it’s a decent follow-up.
(In theaters, June 2008) The good news are that this “reboot” is much better than the dull yet repellent Ang Lee 2003 film. Of course, that’s a low bar, and the best that this one can do is to score near “better-than-average”. Edward Norton may or may not be better than Eric Bana, but his Bruce Banner is compelling, and in fact more interesting than The Hulk itself. Much like Iron Man (also produced directly by Marvel rather than licensed to others), The Incredible Hulk‘s main strength is its thorough knowledge of the character and its familiarity with the basics. As a result, we skip past the whole origin story in an efficient credit sequence, then pick up later on with a more interesting plot about keeping things under control (or not). The Brazilian favelas make for fantastic scenery that set the tone for a well-controlled, well-delivered experience despite occasional blips of confusion caused by enthusiastic over-editing. (The tie-in novel reportedly covers the missing bits.) The action scenes, ironically, are where the film breaks down most visibly: They go on for a while, but always seem to end too-quickly, without much by way of resolution or built-up climax. But having mastered the art of delivering a satisfying Hulk film, Marvel may want to look at making up something that goes beyond that: Since “the cure” would destroy the character, it’s obvious that this is a goal that will always be frustrated. This particular instance of The Incredible Hulk may be okay, but it doesn’t go beyond that. At least it blurs memories of the previous attempt at the character, and sets up a next one.
(In theaters, May 2008) After so many disappointing superhero films leadened by dull origin stories and barely saved (if at all) by their action scenes, it’s refreshing to find that Iron Man is a superb first entry in a franchise that succeeds through sheer attention to character more than impressive pyrotechnics. Robert Downey Jr is absolutely perfect as arrogant super-genius Tony Stark: his bad-boy manners are compelling in simple dialog scenes, lending credence to the theory that superheroes are only as interesting as their secret identities. He makes the film click long before he suits up and punches through tanks. As for the action scenes, they’re not as numerous as you may think (four, maybe five of them) and they definitely take a back step compared to more unconventional scenes in which Stark thinks, designs, refines and tests his Iron Man suit. A decent sense of humor underscores the entire film, and if there are a number of plot issues (not all of them relating to Stark’s medical condition and the steps he takes in order to solve it), the entire film flows far more quickly than one would expect. While there’s still plenty of room for the series to improve (there isn’t much of an antagonist this time around, for instance), this a solid and confident first entry, well worth a look.