(In Theaters, July 2019) Life goes on after The Avengers: Endgame, and so Spider-Man: Far from Home is our first glimpse at the way the MCU reconfigured itself in the wake of its latest event movies. In the Spider-Man context, it does mean going back to a more basic adventures, albeit not an unspectacular one: As Peter Parker and his high-school class heads over to Europe as part of their senior year, trouble keeps following Parker no matter where he goes. The psychological impact of previous movies isn’t forgotten (Parker’s hero worship of Tony Stark ends up being one of the film’s dramatic strands), but we can occasionally take a breath to focus on such teenage issues such as asking out a girl and/or dealing with romantic competitors. From a narrative standpoint, Far from Home is cut from the same cloth as other MCU movies: There’s an effective balancing of character, action, comedy and spectacular set-pieces, pulling elements from previous entries to add a bit more depth to the mayhem. The special effects are quite good, although the film’s ongoing theme of illusions does mean that we’re in for some disorienting visuals that seem markedly less than photorealistic. There is also some weirdness in terms of plotting and characterization (mostly Nick Fury’s, which seems like a parody of itself) that eventually get explained by the end of the credits, but they’re still distracting for most of the film. Tom Holland once again turns in a great dual performance as Parker and Spider-Man, with some great co-leading work by Jake Gyllenhaal, and supporting performances by Zendaya (finally realizing the promise suggested in the first film) and the Marisa Tomei/Jon Favreau couple. The result is generally satisfying, although it comes so close on the heels of Endgame and the spectacular Spider-Man: Welcome to the Spider Verse that it seems perhaps a bit too ordinary in comparison. Still, it’s guaranteed entertainment for dollars, and that’s been the trademark of the MCU for a while now.
(In Theatres, April 2019) The longest MCU movie may warrant the shortest review: It delivers on its promise to be a decent capstone to a 22-movie series. What else is there to say? Well, okay, maybe a bit more. Such as saying that Avengers: Endgame can’t be evaluated on the same kind of criteria as other films—it’s essentially incomprehensible without having seen its prequel, Infinity War, and unlocking most of its details would involve something like 10–20 previous films. As such, the expectations regarding the film are different, and the way it goes about fulfilling them is different as well. At a weighty three hours and change, it’s not surprising if it feels like four films smashed together. The first is a dour and surprisingly slow-paced exploration of a post-Snap world, deprived of half its population. It could have been a series, but the point here is to see the heroic figures of the series defeated, depressed and despondent. The next hour is somewhat more fun, as the MCU doubles upon itself to travel back in time and give fans some quality call-backs—it’s unequally interesting, but it does offer a few good moments. A gigantic 30-minute battle follows, with nearly the entire cast of the series so far back for an encore, a few crowd-pleasing bits and a few payoffs. Then we wrap things up with twenty minutes of various epilogues concluding the Thanos cycle in a rather satisfying (and in some cases, definitive) fashion. Not all of it is perfect—ask too many questions, and you won’t like the answers. But as a logistical exercise in trying to deliver as much payoff as possible to the fans, it’s really quite impressive. It’s not the end (obviously, since the MCU moneymaking machine is so profitable) but it’s an ending of sorts. Of course, the next question is whether the MCU can keep it up—it’s going to have to cultivate another batch of heroes, a new menace and yet keep some of its bewildering complexity in check as it goes harder on the complexities of its comic book origins, especially now that Disney owns the X-Men and Deadpool, and Sony is still trying to keep a spider-verse going. But what would an MCU film be without some meta-fictional content to keep up wondering?
(In Theaters, March 2019) At this stage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe business model, we’re all converts to the Marvel episodic paradigm—to the point where I will reliably show up to theatres despite the inconvenience, just to be ready for the next Big Episode in the series. As a result, the episodic effect also helps weaker episodes in attracting people in theatres. Captain Marvel, compared to other MCU films, is just about average—it’s nicely made without being exceptional at this stage of the series, providing just enough unpredictability to keep things interesting. There are a number of subverted assumptions here: our origin story drops us in media res, with an alien discovering that she’s really human rather than the usual other way around. Even for comic book fans, there are surprises: The Skrull shapeshifting menace is dealt with expeditiously (this time around, at least). Even for the MCU, there’s a bit of a surprise in how the film is set in the nineties, featuring characters in their younger selves (that digital de-aging effect for Samuel L. Jackson is occasionally eerie, but soon becomes unnoticeable) and plugging jokes directly in the mythology of the series so far. (The explanation for Fury losing an eye was a let-down, though.) Much has been said about this being the first Marvel film to star a female character (they all forgot about Elektra, but that’s fine: everyone including the cast and crew of Elektra have forgotten about Elektra) and the film does make use of a slightly different kind of super-heroism without beating it senseless — Brie Larson’s not bad, but a bit bland: Lashana Lynch is more interesting. Captain Marvel’s clearly defined three acts are variably interesting: the opening segment is too focused on cosmic elements and hazy direction to be fully engaging, but things pick up once we’re back crashing on circa-nineties Earth through the roof of a Blockbuster. (I’m now old enough that “my” nineties nostalgia is now a thing, and I’m not as horrified by that as I had imagined.) The third act begins once everyone’s back into space and it doesn’t quite fully realize its promise despite coming a fair way along. I fully expect Goose to be a supporting character in a future MCU film. More than that, though, I do expect to be there, in theatres, whenever the next MCU episode comes rolling along.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2019) It says much about the Marvel Cinematic universe’s self-assurance that it not only knows how to make decent movies (nearly) every single time, but counter-programs deliberate tonal shifts within the series itself. Much as the sombre Avengers: Age of Ultron was followed by the first comic Ant-Man, here we have the even-more sombre Avengers: Infinity War followed by the almost-as-comic Ant-Man and the Wasp. Once more featuring a charming Paul Rudd, this sequel also aims for a lighter, funnier, not quite as melancholic kind of film with the MCU … and that’s not a bad thing. It’s often very funny (with Michael Peña once again winning comic MVP), although the comedy aspect is balanced against more serious elements, including an unusually sympathetic antagonist as played by Hannah John-Kamen. Rudd is backed by capable supporting talent, including a much-welcome bigger turn from Evangeline Lilly, as well as characters played by veteran Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer. The transition from lighthearted caper film to more metaphysical fantasy in interesting to watch, and the top-notch special effects help sell the film’s wilder sequences, such as a car chase exploiting the scale-changing powers around which the Ant-Man series is based. It may not be particularly deep (and at times it feels like a filler episode in between the Infinity War/Endgame two-parter), but Ant-Man and the Wasp passes the time nicely—there’s something interesting, funny or entertaining every few minutes and that’s not a bad change of pace after the sombre conclusion of previous MCU film—which shows up in a ponderous post-credit sequence.
(In theatres, May 2018) The second most interesting thing about Infinity War is that taken on its own, it’s not that good a movie: Far too many characters having too little to do, with meaningless battle sequences and an ending that is nothing but a bit cliffhanger inviting audiences to pay again to see the real ending of the story. That’s all true, and inevitable in light of what is the most interesting thing about Infinity War: The TV serial storytelling model has finally achieved its dominance over the typical way movies are told. It is the culmination of ten years of effort from Marvel Studios to piece together a mostly coherent shared universe, and this effort is paying off here by allowing fans who have seen all 18 movies to date. It does mean that you should show up to the movie with as encyclopedic a knowledge of the series so far in your head—a lot of the finer details of Infinity War are best appreciated when already knowing about the characters involved and their relationship with each other. It also means that whatever audacious ending the film has in mind is likely to be partially dismantled in time for further instalments of the ongoing series. (I remember the end of Winter Soldier even if the series doesn’t.) But that’s almost in the implied contract when purchasing the ticket—the difficult calculation is whether fans of the series will get what they expect from a major crossover event. Here, fortunately, Infinity War does well: At a frantic pace, it does find things to do for a roster of over three dozen characters, and while some of them get short thrift, there’s an impressive virtuosity in finding multiple flavours of science fiction and fantasy co-existing together in a single story without tonal clashes. The “Marvel House Style” does help a lot in unifying characters that can be noble, silly, supernatural, materialistic, alien or young … but it’s still quite a juggling act to make everything feel at home in this cross-stitch of a story. For once, Marvel also benefits from a good credible villain—in fact, Infinity War is most satisfying when considered as a story from the villain’s point of view—all the way to a happy ending in which they get what they’ve wanted all along. Is suspect that reaction to Infinity War will change quite a bit once the next chapters in the series are seen and digested—but I can’t quite say whether this will be seen as a frenetic mishmash, an apex for Marvel Studio or an aperitif for something even better. Such is life in a serial model, though—either the series grows too big for itself (as we suspect that a number of stars will not return for further instalments of the series by dint of being too expensive), or it grows stale and abandoned (leading to an end through disinterest), or it keeps finding a middle ground with occasional spikes of interest. Marvel’s been in the serial business for decades, though, so let’s leave them to figure out what’s next. Tune in next year for the next episode.
(Video On-Demand, April 2018) I really wasn’t expecting Thor: Ragnarok to be anything more than a self-imposed completionist task on the way to Avengers: Infinity War. I found the first two Thor movies to be among the weakest of the MCU so far, both dull and imbued of their own nonsensical self-importance. Thor-the-character I liked largely because of Chris Hemsworth’s charm, and Loki is fine as one of the MCU’s most compelling antagonists, but the rest of the series was a chore—a small-town battle in the first film made for a poor high point, whereas the second film’s gleeful waddling in its own uninteresting mythology had me despairing about its self-referentiality. But a change of pace can do wonders, and it doesn’t take a long time for Ragnarok to highlight its difference. Under screenwriter/director Taika Waititi’s particular sensibilities, Thor become much funnier, much looser, and far more interesting. The ponderous visual atmosphere becomes influenced by rock music iconography, and a pitch-perfect use of The Immigrant Song makes for a showcase opening sequence that tells out that it’s fine to forget about the two previous movies. As a matter of fact, the opening of Ragnarok is so jolly, fast paced and self-deprecating that it made me worry that the film would be an insubstantial series of jokes without weight. But as it turns out, the film actually becomes more efficient once its charming hooks are deeply embedded: As the film builds its dramatic tension, the humour is balanced by action and drama and the result is quite effective despite almost completely destroying one of the MCU’s major settings along the way. It helps that Hemsworth meets a worthwhile match in Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie in terms of charisma—once you factor in Jeff Goldblum as an antagonist, Cate Blanchett proving that she can do darkly sexy and surprise appearances by a few MCU regulars, the film remains great good fun throughout. Waititi knows how to make a film that moves (his Valkyrie sequences are visually spectacular and innovative, which isn’t something we often say within the MCU), and the trip to another planet isn’t a distraction from the overall series. Ragnarok leaps over its limp prequels to become one of my favourite MCU films, which really wasn’t something I was expecting when I started to watch it.
(In Theatres, March 2018) Believe the hype. This seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in some ways one of the most original and important of them all—now that Marvel Studio has spent a decade perfecting its house style and establishing itself as a dependable entertainer, they now feel free (or perhaps forced, given the ever-present spectre of superhero fatigue) to strike out in new directions and literally diversify their offerings. So that’s how we end up with Black Panther, the first big-budget science-fiction spectacular largely helmed by black filmmakers, starring black actors, tackling issues of black interest and squarely set in Africa. The result goes far beyond even the most enthusiastic expectations: The afro-futurism of the film is simply gorgeous. The vision presented on-screen, from set design to costumes to high technology, is refreshing to the point of distracting from the plot from time to time. (Wakanda Forever! I’d love to spend more time there.) The narrative supporting the film is decent as well, touching upon issues of interventionism, rebellion, succession and grief. (I got a lump in my throat at one particular line for reasons too personal to share.) Even the original activist meaning of Black Panther gets integrated in the film, alongside other knowing nods and acknowledgments. As with Wonder Woman a few months ago, it’s really interesting to watch Black Panther and notice how it’s conceived from within another culture—wakandian customs and costumes are presented colourfully but not exotically, marking a significant switch from the majority gaze that often stains other depictions of African culture. It’s easy to understand why Black Panther, in the month between its release and the writing of this review, has already become a cultural landmark—there’s never been anything like this in big-budget cinema yet, and the role models that the film offers are far more interesting than what so-called black cinema usually offers. It certainly helps that the film doesn’t hesitate a single moment in embracing its chosen wakandian culture: African accents are a wonderful change from the norm, and the actors in the film are nearly perfect for their roles. Chad Bosewick is restrained but good as the protagonist, but others arguably get more demonstrative roles: Forest Whittaker and Angela Bassett are esteemed veterans, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita N’yongo are already stars, but Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright make a serious play for stardom here. (Wright’s character is a delight whenever she appears on-screen, which is saying much given how good the rest of the cast is.) Artistically, there’s a clear progression here for writer/director Ryan Coogler from Fruitvale Station to Creed to Black Panther: not only does his script manage to touch upon an impressive density of political topics, but his direction is able to benefit from the big-budget means at his disposal—witness the handful of lengthy one shots. As the whitest guy possible, I’m impressed and thankful that the film is both so empowering and so inclusive—after a long series of white male superheroes, it’s a relief to get to play into a different kind of imagination and an honour to witness someone else’s fantastic speculation. If that’s how Marvel Studio plans to stay in business, then they deserve to get more of my money.
(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.