Tag Archives: Marvel Cinematic Universe

A Marvelous Notion

A Marvelous Notion

Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will soon draw to a close. The first of the Netflix deluge released one month ago, Avengers: Age of Ultron came out last week, and we’ll see in two months whether Ant-Man was a good or bad idea.

The interesting bit, though, is that we won’t know if the MCU was a good or bad idea until the end of Phase 3. There’s more than likely three more years until the next Avengers film—the first of a two-parter involving Thanos and the Infinity Gems—and that is also likely to be the capstone of Marvel’s massive tertiary operation.

That’s a lot of time for a lot of things to change, and by “things” I mean contracts. But let’s back up a second. When someone says “Captain America,” you probably have Chris Evans already in your head. When someone says “Iron Man,” that will almost certainly kick out the sugar plums and bring in the Robert Downey Jr.

Iron Man

Marvel’s marketing as worked so well that their faces have become the brand name for the otherwise genericized mantels of heroes like Band-Aid and Kleenex. The mere visage of them and Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow are money makers beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But the problem, like I said, is contracts.

These aliases are just that: name tags shuffled about between those that are able to don them. Iron Man is just a suit that anyone can wear, as proven by War Machine. Thor doesn’t have to be Thor so much as someone worthy of wielding Mjölnir. But the faces and names under those facades are irreplaceable.

Downey 100% is Tony Stark and vice versa. It’s not that they’re kind of the same person; personality-wise, they are the same person. And to lesser degrees, after a decade and a dozen movies (almost two dozen at the end of Phase 3), these other actors have been cemented as these characters.

Thanos

Captain America: Civil War is going to be the last film on Evans’ contract. Downey barely renewed into both that and Infinity Wars. By the end of Age of Ultron, the setup for a new bunch of Avengers had been laid. Marvel is carefully and studiously transitioning to a future without their core stars.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t ever see our old heroes again. Give Cap’s shield to another All American super soldier and now he—or she!—is the new Captain America. (It seems, though, that Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes could be poised for that.) It’s a classic comic book move. The question is if the general populace is willing and able to take that.

By some mysterious, perhaps supernatural instigation, they nailed casting, which is at least partially why Marvel’s “these are the faces” marketing worked so well. And they all are stars in their own right, making the willingness for ensemble work so remarkable. But then it’s a question of the ones they picked up along the way like Anthony Mackie and Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are able to hold the same indomitable position.

Ant-Man

More than that, there’s the visions behind each individual film to consider. While Kevin Feige might be the man holding the reins on the overall MCU, each entry is a personal statement from the writers and directors. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, was basically a James Gunn film that happened to have MCU ties. And certainly the Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd team up in Ant-Man can only lead to one very particular perspective on the character and story.

Joss Whedon has bowed out of the game. Jon Favreau couldn’t find a middle ground to come back. What happens when Gunn, arguably the most perfect tonal match for Guardians material, and the Russo brothers can’t/won’t return either? Will it turn into a Spider-Man/Batman reboot-a-rama situation?

But like I said, we won’t find out until the end of Phase 3. We won’t know if this was just a great run, churning out an inordinate amount of high quality films in three filmic chunks, or if it was the start of an experiment that Marvel would eventually drive into the ground. It would be neither of those things or something in between. And what does it say of DC’s attempts to keep up?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

It’s really just a lot of questions right now with no answers. Not even Feige could tell you if it’ll work, only that it’s worked so far. See you guys in three years, I guess.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron Review: Older, Not Wiser

Avengers: Age of Ultron

There’s no possible way for the franchise to get any bigger. (Said despite knowing full well there’s the two-part Infinity Wars coming.) Avengers: Age of Ultron is a massive movie, appropriately sized for all the stars, action, and potential it contains. The problem is that its enormity is also struggling for structural integrity as it bows to an even bigger big picture.

In terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), this film slides in at the very end of it all, superseding even the recently released Marvel’s Daredevil. The Avengers have moved on from the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. following Captain America: The Winter Soldier and have started hunting all over the world for Hydra and Loki’s scepter.

Things begin to get troubled as the Maximoff twins—Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olson), two experimentally enhanced humans—futz with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his tender brain. With the contents of the scepter in hand, he accidentally creates Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence that has taken the token logical conclusion of “world safety” to mean “destroy all humans.”

The problem here is that there’s a lot more to the interweaving narratives than just attempting to take down Ultron. Both of the Maximoff twins have entirely fleshed out and massively interesting backstories that are touched and forgotten just as briefly, instead opting to leave the lingering impression that they are validated in both their nefarious roots and their subsequent developments.

There’s also a moderately tended love story between Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), though it feels somewhat confused throughout. The connection on the battlefield is touching considering the accidental and bred lack of humanity in the two, but the romance never quite gets around to feeling natural.

Stretching the humanity thread between that and Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) furtive life and the contrasting Ultron/Vision perspectives, it’s impressive that throughout the whole two-plus hours, a thematic consistency is achieved. Sight of the answer to that question rarely wavers. What it fails to find along the way is a true protagonist, one that grows and pulses along with the overall plot.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

In the first The Avengers, it was quite obvious that the contention—despite the other heavy hitters—lay solely with Captain America and Iron Man, and Iron Man grew into the selfless hero he tries not to be while Cap realized his leadership role. In Age of Ultron, none of the Avengers really change. Their motivations from the first third stay motionless through to the last third.

Between all the lack of characterization, however, is some terrific writing. Director/writer Joss Whedon still knows how to play into the strengths of putting unexpected but not unwarranted words in the right mouths at the right time. Stark, in particular, is a great playground for Whedon’s talents. He even imbues some vocal menace in Ultron while his physicality is decidedly less imposing.

And then there’s the action. A lot of it looks pretty fantastic from the snow-laden banger of an opener to the absolutely oversized climax, but a lot of it is also fairly hard to follow. The ending is especially ridden with a spatial problem where keeping in mind everyone’s location is almost insurmountable for the audience. (There’s just so much going on!)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

While some of the more marketed scenes like Hulk smashing up on Stark’s Hulkbuster are total gems, it’s hard to not think back on the last Avengers and wonder where the tension has gone. The pit of despair is nowhere to be found, nor is the constant question of who will win any given encounter. The sprawling, bursting conclusion even fails to find this quivering notion.

Then, by the end, you even come to question why some of the characters left on the screen are there. It’s not that they’re not great characters or their actors aren’t producing quality performances but rather that you’re already filled to the brim with personalities and plots to chew and digest that it feels a bit gluttonous to keep eating.

It calls to question whether it’s a product of Whedon’s trying to do too much or if it’s because Kevin Feige (the Grand Poobah of the MCU) made Whedon do it all. There’s just as much clamoring towards the future of the filmic universe as there is digging into the past and putting it all on full display. It’s even hard now to reconcile what cameos and teases existed in which movies and have been maintained or abandoned since, especially with a failing continuation between franchises of personal dramatization. (Where is Cap’s moral dilemma or Stark’s insecurity?)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Despite it all, though, there’s certainly an almost unquantifiable fun to the movie. Seeing everyone together again is fantastic, as is their banter and the developments in their individual abilities and tech. It’s like a multimillion dollar show and tell in some ways, and it’s hard to look away. You can’t help but ask what’s next, always hungry for more and more.

A lot of that comes down to the actors behind all the heroes and villains. Each one has held entire movies up on their own either as their Marvel character or someone else entirely, so the performance capabilities are appreciable. But also the chemistry of it all is still remarkable. Whether through happenstance or careful deliberation, this core of Avengers feels rife with superhero camaraderie.

Clearly there are a lot of problems with the movie, despite all the good it does with its size and scope and buckets of fun sloshing about. None of its issues are breaking, to the point where you just give up and say no more. They’re more of the sort where you dismiss in the moment and slowly overlook as the days go on afterwards. Avengers: Age of Ultron is still worth watching, if only for the optimism of a better future.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

+ Potent writing from Whedon
+ Great ensemble performances from the Avengers
+ Unbelievably huge action with some choice gems worth remembering and talking about
– Overflowing with unrealized subplots and some convoluted ones
– Feels stretched beyond reason as it fits (and misfits) into an odd slot of the MCU

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1 Review: Hellishly Good

Marvel's Daredevil

How can anything good happen in a place called Hell’s Kitchen? It’s a real location, named after the brutality that seems to overflow from its residents and onto its dirty streets. It’s also where Marvel’s Daredevil takes place, Netflix’s latest original series and the next entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s one hell of a trip.

This first season covers he origins of lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as well as the origins of his alter superhero ego Daredevil. It actually follows the serial format for comic television: we track the present day hero as he develops his chops for taking down bad guys while visiting the past through flashbacks for the foundational backstory.

In Murdock’s case, he saved a man from being hit by a truck back when he was a child, but some of the dangerous substances on the truck burned away his ability to see with his eyes. But through some ways the show explains, he further develops the ability to see a different way—to see a “world on fire”—and uses his remaining heightened senses to fight crime.

The first thing that’s interesting is that this world is canonical to the MCU, taking place roughly 18 months after the events of 2012’s The Avengers. Most of New York is still recovering from “the event,” a softer colloquialism for a mass alien invasion from a floating portal in the sky. In fact, this is how we believably eschew the modern upscale aesthetics of Hell’s Kitchen to the crime-ridden one of the show. The Avengers left a hole in New York, and the filth of drugs and human trafficking have flowed forth to fill it.

It’s fascinating, though, that outside of a few oblique references and Easter Eggs to the films and some potential future developments, Murdock’s escapades are almost wholly self-contained, and for good reason. For all the grandiose explosions and world-ending consequences of the theatrical entries into the canon, Daredevil is infinitely more personal. This is the hearty, intimate endeavor of one man to save his city.

Truthfully, it’s two men trying to save their city. Opposite Cox’s Daredevil is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, better known as The Kingpin, and he is going about a different tack for redeeming his hometown. Working hand in hand with Russian mobsters, Yukuza, and Chinese gangsters, he is trying to do good through the warped filter of his past.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is one of the highlights of the show. D’Onofrio is an extremely potent Kingpin. Fisk, as a child, was terribly troubled by his father and further his relationship with his mother, and whenever his actions come to a head as an adult, you can see his history in his eyes. You can see his regret and his conflict constantly percolating just behind those big doughy peepers.

That is until he loses it. And boy does he lose it, and it feels dangerous. Some of his vocal gurglings are questionable, but his explosions of emotion—be it rage or sadness or whatever—are the perfect foil to Cox as Murdock. While Murdock struggles inwardly with his desires to fix the city and his desires to remain a good man, Fisk exposes his inner turmoil rather outwardly.

This makes Cox’s performance as important to the tone and direction of the show as D’Onofrio’s, which you would expect since it’s a series named after his character. And he handles the responsibility with aplomb. Besides capably executing on the physicality of the role (fighting and blindness included), Cox holds a necessary tenderness behind his steely demeanor as both an attorney and a crime fighter.

Marvel's Daredevil

Most of the supporting cast does just as well including Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, each one with considerable depth and pesonality. And whether you count James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), Fisk’s righthand man, as a supporting role or the primary villain for nearly the first third of the season, he is a commensurate intimidator with Fisk. It’s a solid one-two of villainy, especially when you throw in Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) emergent psychosis.

Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is fairly problematic, though. The childhood friend and lawfully employed partner to Murdock, he is right there alongside Daredevil and Kingpin all the way through the season, blissfully unaware of his friend’s nighttime activities. But Henson’s acting is more like constant overacting and the character itself tends to flipflop between being moral and being money-hungry without any consideration. Most of the time he’s annoying and confusing. Other times he’s just taking up space.

There is, however, an admirable and impressive amount of grit to the show. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of Marvel’s offerings, where things only ever get as dark as classic apocalyptic scenarios, but this is about taking the dirt off the streets and rubbing it in your face.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is exemplified through the excellent production and meaningful directing of the season. There’s a lot to the visual impact of each episode. It’s not just about showing you one talking head after another (though it does indulge in that inevitable trap often) but it’s about filling your head with the idea and suggestions of what is important and what isn’t but showing you some things and simply implying others.

There’s one particular scene early on that features a five-minute, one-take fight scene where Daredevil is trying to rescue a kidnapped child. It is a tiring battle for both him and the audience. This isn’t where Captain American punches a bad guy and proceeds; this is a true slugfest. You can see the methodical nature of Murdock’s combat, assessing and reassessing the tight confines of the hallway while utilizing his abilities to monitor the things beyond sight.

But towards the end, he is worn and exhausted. It’s not even fighting after that long. It’s just desire, and his desire is outmatching the several men he’s dismantling. This culminates in a shot that excludes us from the payoff of the crucible, forcing us to realize this is indeed Murdock’s journey and not ours.

Marvel's Daredevil

Speaking of the fighting, though, there is a lot of it, and it’s pretty fantastic. Very rarely do you see Daredevil get through encounters as if they were mere scuffles. These are full-on battles, each and every time. Sure, he manages to accomplish some superhuman things, but you feel like he earns each and every victory. And that’s not to mention the moves he does are pretty cool.

The story, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as consistent. The personal threads hold tight and intimate throughout, but the intrigue of the procedural elements involving a menagerie of crime organizations, lessons on the dangers of truth-seeking/journalism, and incontrovertible good Samaritanism waver in and out and all over impotent romances. It’s too many dishes stacked up and almost all tip over and break across the singular goal of taking down Fisk.

Despite that, this is still a good show. Whether you’ve watched the other bits and pieces of the MCU or you’ve read every Marvel comic under the sun, Marel’s Daredevil is a compact, forceful, and dramatic season of television. It is well worth your time.

Marvel's Daredevil

+ Intimate and personal foils between Fisk and Murdock
+ Plenty of great performances that fit this darker facet of the MCU
+ Directing that has meaning
+ Fighting that feels real and has consequences
– Wavering and confused threads in the last third of the season

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Late to the Party: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The idea of a S.H.I.E.L.D. series made me nervous. How could it not? The serialization of a sizable component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could only ever be problematic. A television series nowadays survives on the ability to adjust both minutely and drastically according to viewer response each week. Movies, in contrast, are much more like monolithic, nigh immobile cruise ships. The two existing in the same narrative realm seems so star-crossed.

After watching the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix, though, I am convinced. Not that the entire series will work but rather that this season proved it can work. Here’s the quick summary of how it works: following the events of 2012’s The Avengers, we discover that Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t nearly as dead as we were lead to believe after being stabbed through the chest by Asgardian villain and Thor pseudo-brother Loki. Instead, he’s alive and well (sort of) and assembling a team.

To do what? That’s a very good question. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) more or less just gives him a giant plane to serve as a mobile base and tells him to take care of, um, things. The beginning parts of the series are, in a word, weak. The use of Gregg as Coulson and the guest star inclusion of Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill certainly help lend an air of legitimacy and familiarity to something brand new, but suspicions are otherwise immediately raised.

The way the drama is ginned up between a hacktivist group called The Rising Tide and a mysteriously overpowered fellow feels far too much like another take on procedural mysteries like Supernatural or Fringe, which isn’t a bad thing but also doesn’t inspire much interest in continuing. Luckily, you can see the immediate Joss Whedon influences.

The surrounding cast is far more intriguing than the plot. Just the fact that two people are continually referred to as one via Fitz-Simmons—two intelligence experts played by Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge—is a quirky enough bonus to keep things fun and endearing. Not only that, but the acting is commensurate to the pace, which is to say brisk and confident. It strangely makes a story about a man about to explode far less interesting than the people involved.

Coulson and Gregg, though, offer an odd contrast. Gregg’s acting is…fine. It’s not bad but I do wish it was more consistent. Sometimes it feels like he’s a powerhouse holding back for moments of refined emotional release and other it feels like he just forgot how to talk like a human being. Coulson, however, soon becomes the bonding material for the series’ general intrigue.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Don’t forget that this man was, like, dead. All the way. How can you not be curious about how that happened? Unlike Fury’s death in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we actually saw Coulson die from a direct and fatal attack, so his revival is far more surprising. Whedon, though, is masterful at planting the seed and harvesting the crop. (Both Jed and Joss at this point.)

That’s really what this first season feels like—and also feels like Whedon rarely succeeds (commercially, anyways) at television. He loves the idea of liberally sprinkling seeds in your brain, watering them, and watching them grow. Coulson’s mysterious survival, the overlap with Thor: The Dark World, and the ominous outcome of The Winter Soldier. It all folds so nicely into one another precisely because of the efforts the show takes early on to put up a fascinating lattice that crumbles so beautifully.

A problem, however, is just how much the show depends on the films. A friend complained that it felt like early episodes were just biding time until the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a sentiment I sincerely disagree with and one that I feel is a gross misunderstanding of a narrative foundation, but it does tangentially raise a point that an understanding of the mythos laid down by the other Marvel movies is basically required. Otherwise you wouldn’t care about Coulson’s resurrection and you wouldn’t feel the oppressive and uneasy shadow of Hydra coming up over the horizon. It takes away a large part of the impact when the show kicks it into high gear.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

It’s the smaller integrations with the encompassing universe that is problematic. Well, not problematic but certainly annoying. How many times can they mention Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff as the paragon of espionage? It doesn’t even count as fan service at that point. It’s just cloying. Pandering.

But the show does excel at exploring the smaller bits left by the wayside of the movies. Coulson’s love life—given up in a very Men in Black fashion—gets revisited in a compelling way. And there’s a satisfying reclamation of his death and rebirth. Even the closing bit is a great reminder of how well the show usurps assumptions and many conventions.

Each episode also ends with a tag, an end cap scene that incites further curiosity or merely provides closure. It feels very much like the films not because of the structure or the timing but because they actually achieve the same thing. It’s easy to just chop off each week’s story with a cliffhanger and let the tag just do what comes natural, but they very often come across as well engineered. The tags serve almost perfectly as a bridging epilogue and prologue to what you’ll see either immediately next or further down the road.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The seemingly high budget also can’t hurt. There is a lot of traveling around in this show, and even if there wasn’t, there was a lot of building or dressing sets to make them look like locations from all over the world. With the backing of the obviously and incredibly profitable Marvel and its further parent company Disney, it’s easy to see where the money can come from, and I’m grateful for it. The production value and ability to bring back direct characters and props from the hugely financed movies is a boon to the show.

For as good as it gets once the show finds its footing, it is a bit disappointing that it becomes ultimately predictable. Texting my friend as I watch it, I word-for-word say “I hope [redacted] doesn’t happen,” and then it happens. I even follow my concerns with the explanation that it would be too obvious to have this as a misdirect, and then it happens. It’s often that it’s never the true reason or outcome that is the reward but the further and deeper mysteries uncovered along the way. Of course, after Lost, we all know how that ends. (Poorly.)

I do, however, wholeheartedly believe that the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a winner. And from what I hear, the second season improves upon it. It’s just that it gets off to a shaky start just because of the higher aspirations for its narrative roadmap. Building a foundation is never fun when it has to happen quickly (and almost brutally on television), but the results simply have that much higher to climb because of it. Let’s hope it continues.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Review: Blasting Off

Guardians of the Galaxy

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that leisure was originally a source for fun. Movies, music, and the like evolved from singular instances of encapsulated jollies to include the potential for wreaking emotional havoc. It’s nice, though, to remember what it’s like to watch something like Buster Keaton in The General and just smile. And for that, we have Guardians of the Galaxy, an impossibly electric and exciting film bringing irreverence to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Based mostly on the 2008 revival of a long forgotten Marvel team from 1969, Guardians of the Galaxy finds Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) leading a ragtag and unexpected team of heroes in stopping a potentially universe-ending threat. This includes Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a cybernetically augmented assassin; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a hulking and literally-minded warrior; Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), a genetically enhanced and massively intelligent raccoon; and Groot (Vin Diesel), a living tree who acts mostly as Rocket’s muscle.

Much of this movie’s success lies in its seemingly effortless but impressive pairings. Pratt as Quill is pitch-perfect, channeling some amount of his blissfully ignorant Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation but also flexing (literally, in one instance) his ability to spout verbal jackassery and physical intimidation. The character itself is one trapped in perpetual adolescence given his abduction from Earth as a child, playing towards Pratt’s ability to play immature exceedingly well.

Not enough can be said about how well Diesel and Cooper bring wholly digital characters to life. Especially in the case of Groot, Diesel only had three words to work with, and even then, they only were said in a single order of “I am Groot,” but he consistently found ways to grumble them out with unexpected heart. And Cooper, with his vocal flair for speed and confidence, finds a familiar home in the fast- and dirty-talking Rocket who often sees himself bigger than he actually is.

The overseer of the project, however, is perhaps the most incredibly magnetic pairing. There is rarely such a flawless match between writer/director and his project, but James Gunn fills the Guardians space almost perfectly. His past endeavors have always favored irreverence and self-awareness over attempts to find constant emotional resonance with the audience (though he has a knack for picking that up, too, if given the opportunity).

Most relevant to this penchant is the core conceit of the movie, which is to say it’s about its reluctant heroes rather than the overarching drama. The film’s actual story is a sizable one, spanning the entirety of a galaxy as Quill steals a mysterious orb from the planet Morag (intending to betray his Ravagers clan of miscreant treasure hunters), learns the universal implications of letting its contents fall into the wrong hands, and lashes together a team of unlikely friends and fighters into risking their lives to end the threat imposed by Ronan the Accuser.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Quill even acknowledges that the impetus provided by the orb and its hidden Infinity Gem is rather inconsequential, likening it to the Maltese Falcon, one of the most iconic examples of a MacGuffin. What’s more pertinent is the growth of these five characters as individuals into a single, cohesive unit. And that is the most fitting aspect of Gunn’s directorial abilities. Having more recently focused on character-driven experiments with biting, meta, and funny dialogue, it makes sense his tendencies play into the disadvantages of doing what The Avengers did with an overflowing cast but without preceding, individual movies delving more meaningfully into each character’s backstory.

That’s not to say, however, that each character doesn’t have his or her own moment. With surprising moments of intense poignancy, we are treated to brief interludes of emotional showcases. There’s a scene with Rocket that you learn he’s not just a happy-go-lucky, inexplicably dickish space raccoon that unexpectedly grabs you by the whole of your heart and squeezes it to a pulp. Drax, while ceaselessly lamenting his need and reason for vengeance, even finds time to impart the pathos in one scene rather than spout cold prose.

It’s unfortunate, though, that this also proves to be a weakness of the film. While the contrast makes these moments hit hard and stand apart as relative paragons of character intimacy, the other moments feels incredibly one-note. It largely stems from the fact that this serves as a broad and shallow origin story for several characters that each have tomes of comic history but only have a fraction of a two-hour movie here. Like, we get it. Groot is a sweetheart and everyone else is pretty much dicks.

Guardians of the Galaxy

This makes the side characters more apparent as wasted focus. While the actors behind them do well to excel with what they’re given, the characters are almost irresponsibly given time to shine (well, maybe more like mildly shimmer). Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and Nova Prime Irani Rael (Glenn Close) are given a bit too much import when more time could have been spent on the collective Guardians.

But even in their moments and just about every other moment in the movie, there are laughs to be had. This is a genuinely funny film. The hits hit hard and the misses rarely feel less than casual grazes of smirk-inducing interactions. A large portion of this can be attributed to the writing, of course, but the acting really delivers it all with aplomb.

Laughs thrown your way from Pratt and Reilly are familiar and expected (though still and always appreciated), but Bautista might find himself with more acting opportunities after this. His comic timing as Drax is impressive since the deadpan of his literal interpretations and social ineptitudes requires a substantial understanding of what makes this sort of humor funny, but he does it. And it is greatly appreciated it.

Guardians of the Galaxy

While not something I necessarily minded, I do fear some of the jokes were a bit too “in.” The movie references were heavy and heavily 80s-based. Marvel references were even more obscure than the heroes of the film itself, leaving half of the theatre laughing and the other half awkwardly trying to decipher what just happened. Some of that is a strength of the movie, leaving it to the intelligence of the audience to figure out what the Nova Corps and how the gem fits into the grand scheme of Marvel’s cinematic goals, but other times it feels irresponsibly referential.

Something everyone can appreciate, however, is how great the movie looks. It was nice to see hugely personal interactions take place in grandiose, oversized backdrops including the decapitated head of a former Celestial and the eye-watering lattice of Nova Corps members halting impending doom. And that’s not to mention how well the wholly digital characters of Rocket and Groot look, conveying tangible emotions with virtual facades, and that’s in addition to the action being shot and shown intelligibly and impactfully.

Even with its rough, predictable edges, it’s hard to hold any of them against Guardians of the Galaxy. So much of what it attempts, it sticks the landing. It’s immensely funny and fun and takes you on one hell of a ride, ignoring its own faults for the hope that you won’t remember them any longer than it dwells on them. For a good time, call Guardians of the Galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy

+ Pitch-perfect pairings between director and subject as well as actors and characters
+ Intensely personal and poignant moments find their time to shine
+ Genuinely funny dialogue and character interactions are found from beginning to end
+ Acting across the board is impressive
– Aside from glimpses of depth, characters end up being one-dimensional

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review: Cap Grows Up

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Of all the Marvel heroes we’ve thus far encountered, Steve Rogers has the greatest potential. From weakling to tough guy to Captain America and now finally a man ripped from time and thrust into the unimaginable, he’s the only one to have change from within but also visited upon him that he cannot fully cope with. And with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we see that potential fulfilled with gripping themes, grounded yet attention-grabbing action, and actors that embody their franchise characters better than they ever have before.

Taking its place in the chronological order of the Marvel film universe, Cap has been dutifully working under S.H.I.E.L.D., as we see in the opening action sequence where he and Black Widow oversee a ship rescue. This opens up the complication of the film where it’s revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D., under the watchful eye (ha!) of Nick Fury and senior official Alexander Pierce, has been building three massive helicarriers. Acting largely as drones, they aim to be the greatest deterrent to terrorism with NSA-style oversight.

From the get-go, you can tell this is a much more mature version of our previously bubbly, cartoony Captain America: The First Avenger. In that one, we have a bad guy that pretty much looks like the devil while the patriotism dial is turned all the way up to Fuck Yeah. Here, we have a much more complex look at a very complicated man.

A visual nod towards this idea is Cap’s revised uniform, looking less like the stars and stripes interwoven with Kevlar and more like moderately zealous tactical gear. The whole film has a much more tempered flair to it, grounding the modern themes and making them much easier to take in. With NSA drama still in the news and the name Snowden still fresh on our tongues, it’s easy for this all to hit just a bit too close to home with its questions on security, freedom, and sacrifice.

This does lead to one of the few disappointments with the film, however. In the early parts of the film where The Winter Soldier is introduced, it appears that Cap is addressing both his physical and philosophical limitations. It’s an interesting thought because as an Avenger, he is one of the least physically capable while one of the more strategically viable. And in his own microcosm, he is the sole savior through both might and mind.

Now, as he encounters a metal-armed fellow who not only stops his signature shield throw and sends him reeling with a counterattack, could it be that he is now both irrelevant as a fighter and a leader? He potentially has found his match in a domain he should have secured and his ability to lead is already proven to be undermined with Fury’s own ostensibly personal agenda.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This would have been a deliciously gritty theme for the movie to tackle, but instead it choice relevancy, which isn’t a bad choice, but it certainly highlights a failure to fulfill tangible potential. And then, towards the last half hour, it seems as if it remembered that, as a movie, it has to be a summer blockbuster. It eschews its nuanced and personalized characterization of freedom versus security and replaces it with explosions and general technofear.

Those explosions, however, are pretty damn great. In fact, as a direct consequence of the more subdued appeal of the film (along with directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s desire to infuse the movie with the sensibilities of a 1970s conspiracy thriller), the action feels more dire than ever before. Of any Marvel film thus far, the threats in The Winter Soldier feel dangerously real.

The first major fight on that opening ship sequence feels like serious trouble largely because you don’t see bombastic reaction shots and thrown bodies but because you see hits being taken and dished out with a balance of skill and savagery. It’s pretty fantastic. Part of it is also the incredible sound design. I don’t know what a vibranium shield would sound like getting stuck in concrete, but I imagine they got pretty close with this.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

You combine that with very real, non-digitized action and you get terrific sequences of head-rattling shenanigans. There’s a scene where Fury gets to shine on his own and the entire thing feels dramatic on a level that is pretty much sweat-inducing. Real cars getting blown up sans fireworks and a character who, without any sort of supernatural predilection to staying alive, is getting worked. The danger is real.

Of course, that can also be greatly attributed to the actors being thrown into these predicaments. Chris Evans as Captain America really pulls off the look of a man fully confident in his own abilities (that elevator scene, jeez) but unsure of where he sits in the world with them. And Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow continues to bring a great blend of snark, seduction, and kicking ass.

Anthony Mackie is introduced as Falcon, and though his past is shamefully but understandably glossed over, Mackie manages to make just about everything he says the funniest thing in the movie while maintaining a gravitas greatly needed by a fellow counseling at the VA for PTSD. Of course Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is great, bringing to mind his past political thriller in Three Days of the Condor.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The Winter Soldier, though, is somewhat of a letdown. Naming his actor would be a spoiler, but comic fans already know what’s up, and they’re probably excited. Unfortunately, he’s mostly a conduit through which Cap has a more interesting physical match when really the backstory and implications thereof, while hinted at, are almost altogether missing. It’s understandable since it’s quite a dense bit of drama and history, but if you’re a comics fan, know going into this that you won’t be seeing the complications and resolution you would probably hope for. The portrayal, however, is quite menacing and well done.

In fact, there’s a general sense here that is unfortunately pervasive in all Marvel Cinematic Universe films have, which is that certain things are brought in and let go or squashed down in service of the greater goal, which is The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Characters are introduced for little to no reason and it has to bow to a canon not entirely its own while working towards one it will eventually be a part of. It doesn’t ruin anything here, but it certainly gives an oddly…strategic sheen to the proceedings.

It just can’t overtake the growth the film has imbued into our genial, ripped Captain. Matured to the point of addressing real, genuinely interesting themes and not simply clashing two action figures together to see if good can once again trump evil, this is an unseen but absolutely essential turn for the character. With incredible, slap-you-in-the-face action and a taut, darker story, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

+ Addresses modern concerns with a character made to embody and challenge our ideals
+ Real, gritty action that feels genuinely dangerous and full of consequence
+ Actors that understand how to highlight their character’s strengths and utility
+ Sound design during the action (and out of the action) is fantastic
– Disappointing follow-through on the concept of limitations and leadership

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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