Movie Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)


Title: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Release Date: May 6, 2022
Director: Sam Raimi
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

I wasn’t a big fan of Doctor Strange (2016), but Benedict Cumberbatch has done a good job with the character in various other MCU films including Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).  So I did look forward to this film, especially since it also promised the return of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) after the events of WandaVision.  The multiverse has been a recurring theme of Phase 4 especially in the tv series Loki and What If... and in No Way Home, and this movie leans into the “madness” of its title.

The basic plot involves a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who has the power to jump between universes although she is not able to control it.  America arrives in the main MCU universe (Earth-616) pursued by a giant demon who is sent after her by someone seeking to take away America’s power, which would kill her.  Doctor Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) agree to help and defend America leading into a heavily action-filled adventure. In another universe, they are aided by Stephen Strange’s ex Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). They also meet a crowd-pleasing team of alternate universe superheroes with actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Patrick Stewart, Hayley Atwell, Lashana Lynch, and Anson Mount reprising their roles from other Marvel properties and John Krasinski making a first appearance as a well-known character.

Director Sam Raimi is best known for his camp horror movies like Evil Dead and brings a horror aesthetic to this film as well.  That means we see our protagonists chased by demons and a blood-soaked villain as well as scenes with a heavily-decayed zombie.  There are a lot of brutal deaths in this movie which make it feel more dangerous than other entries in the MCU and may not be suitable for young children or anyone who is squeamish.

There’s a lot that I can quibble with about this movie, although it’s a definite improvement over its predecessor.  I especially felt that the chemistry between Strange and Christine was never strong and it makes the “lost love” element of the plot a tough sell.  America feels more like a MacGuffin than a character for much of the film, although she does get a good moment in the denouement.  Despite the multiverse being a recurring theme in the MCU, this movie felt oddly self-contained as it had no connection with previous multiverse stories.  I also felt that Loki and the non-MCU movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did a much better job with the possibilities of the multiverse for storytelling.  Ultimately, I enjoyed this movie as a it was pretty much nonstop action set pieces with a lot of visual flair.

SCROLL PAST THE TRAILER FOR MORE THOUGHTS WITH SPOILERS

Rating: ***

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Movie Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)


Title: Spider-Man: No Way Home
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Jon Watts
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Studios | Pascal Pictures
Summary/Review:

Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been one of the best parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it was with great enthusiasm that I went to see the third Spider-Man movie (although it took me a while to get to theaters!).  Following up on the end of Far From Home where the Rush Limbaugh-like J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) reveals Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker to the world. Naturally, the publicity has a negative effect on Peter’s life, but also on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya), and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Peter asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help casting a spell that would cause the world to forget that Spider-Man is Peter Parker.  When the spell goes wrong it draws in villains from other universes including Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church).  Peter, M.J., Ned, and May realize that returning them to their own dimension would cause their deaths, so they work on first curing them of the various maladies that turned them into villains in the first place.

BIG SPOILERS AFTER THE TRAILER

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TV Review: Hawkeye (2021)


Title: Hawkeye
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Jonathan Igla
Director: Rhys Thomas (episodes 1,2, & 6), Bert & Bertie (episodes 3-5)
Season: 1
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), is the overlooked Avenger, who not only never got his own movie, but was just kind of there when the first Avengers movie began.  So this is a belated Hawkeye story that focuses on the aging superhero/dad dealing with the trauma of losing his friend Natasha Romanov as well as hearing loss.  Enter Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), who as a child witnessed the Battle of New York in 2012 when her house in Manhattan was damaged and her father killed. Seeing Hawkeye’s heroics, Kate dedicated her life to learning archery and martial arts skill.

This series is obviously a “passing the baton” story as Barton just wants to get home to his family for Christmas but gets caught up in a crisis that center around Kate.  They have a good chemistry and the show has a good balance of humor, action, and more reflective moments.  It also has an surplus of villains including the Tracksuit Mafia, Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) – a deaf leader of the Tracksuits set on vengeance against Barton’s alter-ego Ronin, and Natasha’s sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who was introduced in Black Widow and once again steals scenes left and right.

I won’t go into much detail but it’s an enjoyable series and another great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Movie Review: The Eternals (2021)


Title: The Eternals
Release Date: November 5, 2021
Director: Chloé Zhao
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Eternals is the story of the immortal alien race known as Eternals sent to Earth to fight the Deviants by the ginormous Celestial Arishem.  Over several millennia, the Eternals fight the deviants and defend human civilization.  Eventually the group of ten dissolves and blend into human society in various parts of the world. The main story is set in the present day and involves the Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan) “getting the band back together” when a new threat from the Deviants emerges.  Along the way they make some startling discoveries about the truth of their existence, and face split opinions of how they should react to it in factions lead by Sersi and Ikaris (Richard Madden).

The biggest flaw of this movie is that it is way too long as it tries squeeze in a whole lot of exposition, world-building, and the stories of ten protagonists plus many supporting characters and antagonists.  For a character-driven movie I feel that we really don’t to get enough time to know the characters, who are interesting in their own ways but mostly get short shrift.  Perhaps some sweeping landscape pans and a gratuitous sex scene could’ve been cut for some character development. I liked a lot of the characters, especially Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lia McHugh as Sprite,  Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, and Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, and really wanted to know more about them. I’m pretty sure Eternals was in production well before the launch of Disney+, but I feel that a lot of the problems could have been addressed by making it a short-form tv series.

Nevertheless, it is a solid film in it’s own right.  It feels more grownup than other Marvel films without being dour and humorless. The film has an interesting theological theme under the story of the Celestials and the purpose of the Eternals.  I didn’t like how the Eternals were shown influencing the technology and mythology of human civilizations because that rings too much of the Ancient Aliens canard, but I did like that parts of the movie are set among ancient civilizations of Babylonia, India, and the Aztecs among others. The movie is largely unconnected from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (although they do make a few mentions of what the Avengers are up to) so it could be a good film for people who have not watched any of the other films.

I feel in a year where Marvel has released classics like WandaVision, Loki, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, that Eternals isn’t quite up to par.  Nevertheless it’s a solid if imperfect superhero journey in its own right.

Rating: ***

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TV Review: What If… (2021)


Title: What If…
Release Date: 2021
Creator: A.C. Bradley
Director: Bryan Andrews
Season: 1
Episodes: 9
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The animated Disney+ series does what it says on the tin, asking “What If?” things happened differently in various Marvel Cinematic Universe stories.  It helps to have a knowledge of the existing films to understand why the changes are significant, but I think plot changes are explained well enough to still be entertaining to a novice.  The series is narrated by The Watched (Jeffrey Wright), an alien being who observes the multiverse and is sworn not to interfere.  The animation is high-quality with a painterly quality that fits both the stories’ comic book origins and motion picture predecessors.  The voice cast also includes a lot of the actors who played the roles in the movies, including Chadwick Boseman in one of the final projects he worked on before his death.

The What If? propositions tend to go for comedy or to go really dark.  In the former category, Boseman’s T’Challa becomes Star Lord instead of Peter Quill and his competence makes everything go better for everyone involved, including Thanos (Josh Brolin) who is convinced to give up trying to kill half of all sentient beings and join the Ravagers.  The dark episodes show us what happens if all the Avengers were killed before they could work together and what happens if the world was overrun by zombies (including some of the superpowered).  My favorite episodes are “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) takes the serum instead of Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) and fights HYDRA with a shield bearing the Union Jack.  The other classic “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” has Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) rising through the ranks of Stark Industries where Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) had no life-changing injury to create Iron Man.

While the show works as a series of stand alone episodes.  The penultimate episode leads into a cliffhanger with the final episode requiring The Watcher to be a more active character and bring together a team of characters from previous episodes to be The Guardians of the Multiverse.  The show also ties into some of the recent movies and shows where the Multiverse is figuring to play a big role in the overarching theme of Phase 4 of the MCU.  While not a vital series, it is a fun addition to the lore for fans of the MCU.

 

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Movie Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)


Title: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Shaun (Simu Liu) a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco, working as a valet and spending nights out at karaoke with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, previously in The Farewell). When they are attacked on a city bus and Shaun shows considerable martial arts skill in their defense, he admits that his real name is Shang-Chi and he comes from a complex family background in China. His father Wenwu (Tony Leung, previously in In the Mood for Love) gained immortality through the use of a magical bracelets called the Ten Rings, and used the power they give to create an international crime syndicate also called the Ten Rings.  His mother Ying Li (Fala Chen) was the guardian of a magical village of Ta Lo which is home to many mythical beasts. The murder of Ying Li drove Wenwu back into crime and eventually into the mad belief that Ying Li is being held captive in Ta Lo.  In order to stop Wenwu from destroying Ta Lo, Shaun and Katy must first reunited with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Macau.

As far as origin stories goes, this movie does a great job at efficiency with the backstories of Shaun, Xialing, Ying Li, and Wenwu filled in by a short prelude and many flashbacks that fit smoothly in to the flow of the movie.  There are a lot of great martial arts sequences, some well-timed humor (mostly from Awkwafina), and some imaginative wonders rooted in Chinese folklore.  A number of small parts and cameos of familiar characters include Wong (Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange and Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) from Iron Man 3, who provides some more humor.

I knew nothing of Shang-Chi going into the movie, but I’ve read that the original Marvel comics used a lot of ethnic stereotypes.  The film has people from Asia and of Asian heritage working on both sides of the camera, and does a great job at winding Chinese folklore into a modern superhero action film. I’d say the biggest flaw is that Xialing, who is constantly said to be in Shang-Chi’s shadow in the movie, is ironically given very little character development in the movie.  A post-credit scene indicates that Marvel has plans for Xialing in future films, though.  Other than that though, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an excellent Marvel movie with a great cast, story, and effects.  It’s also Awkwafina’s second movie of the year featuring dragons after Raya and the Last Dragon, which makes for an interesting footnote.

Rating: ***1/2

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TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

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Movie Review: Black Widow (2021)


Title: Black Widow
Release Date: July 9, 2021
Director: Cate Shortland
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

A standalone movie for Black Widow was long overdue (even before it was postponed by the COVID pandemic) and suitably the bulk of this movie takes place in 2016, just after Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) goes on the run for violating the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War. But the movie also has a prologue set in 1995 where we learn that as a child Natasha was lived as a surrogate daughter of undercover Russian agents posing as normal family in Ohio (why Russia would have undercover agents in the US just after the fall of the USSR, I don’t know, but the geopolitical realities of the world and the Marvel Universe don’t always match up).

In 2016, Natasha learns that the Red Room, the secret Russian program that uses mind control to turn girls and young women into assassins called Widows, is still active.  As a result she has to reunited with her “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh, whose mix of humor and hidden vulnerability make her the MVP of the movie), “father” Alexei Shostakov (a super soldier known as Red Guardian played with chaotic glee by David Harbour), and “mother” Melina Vostokoff (a former Widow and scientists played by the criminally underused Rachel Weisz).

The better part of the movie is fighting and action sequences, perhaps even more so than your typical Marvel movie.  I tend to like the slower, more thoughtful types of scenes in between the fighting.  Still, Black Widow does a great job of developing it’s story of this “fake family” coming together to work out their differences and solve a problem in a way that feels natural when it could’ve been cheezy.  And while this is a popcorn movie, the underlying theme of young women and girls suffering abuse in an uncaring world is a terrifying reality.

Rating: ***

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TV Review: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)


Title: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Malcolm Spellman
Director: Kari Skogland
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, please don’t read.

Much like its predecessor WandaVision, this Marvel series on Disney+ is set shortly after the events of Avengers: Endgame and uses recovering the traumatic events of “The Blip” as the background to series.  Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) were both snapped out of existence for five years and both lost one of their closest friends with the passing of Steve Rogers.  As the series begins, Bucky is in therapy dealing with the murders he committed while brainwashed by Hydra.  Sam received the Captain America shield from Steve, but determines to place it in a museum rather than take up the mantle himself.  He also grows concerned about his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) being in a position where she needs to sell the family’s fishing business in Louisiana, but even as a superhero he can’t get credit from predatory banks.

The main antagonist in the series is Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman playing a character very similar to her role as Enfys Nest in Solo), the leader of an organization called the Flag Smashers who are fighting for open borders in the post-Blip world.  Workers who were allowed to move to to more prosperous countries during the Blip are now being forced out.  This is an interesting concept that relates to real life issues of refugee crises, but the goals of the Flag Smashers  seem very muddled in practice, as if the show’s creators wanted to make them somewhat sympathetic but still keep the moral certainty needle pushed towards the shows “heroes.”  Another antagonist is John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a U.S. Army veteran appointed to be the new Captain America when Sam refuses it.  He’s an interesting morally-grey character because he’s arrogant, but also seems to be trying to do the best he can in the shadow of Steve Rogers.  He eventually does turn heel, but then is far too easily redeemed in the final episode.

The series focuses deeply on issues of race and how Black people are treated inequitably in America.  Sam’s reluctance to be Captain America is partially due to the fact that the colors of the American flag don’t represent Black Americans and that a Black Captain America would not be accepted by white Americans.  Issues such as police harassment of Black people and the revelation of super soldier experiments on Black prisoners are covered in the show.  The race issues are unnuanced and a bit simplistic, but on the other hand it’s a credit to Marvel for trying to address them.

The very busy six episodes also include appearances by anti-super soldier villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Avenger James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a fugitive Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and member of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje Ayo (Florence Kasumba).  The series serves as a transition for Sam and Bucky to set them up for future chapters in the ongoing MCU.  I found it entertaining with some good performances, but it bit scattered storywise with too many plot elements packed in.

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TV Review: WandaVision (2021)


Title: WandaVision
Release Date: 2021
Creator :Jac Schaeffer
Director: Matt Shakman
Episodes:9
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 9 episodes of WandaVision, please don’t read.

The Disney+ series reunites Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) as a happy couple enjoying domestic bliss in the New Jersey suburb of Westview.  Or are they?  6 of the series’ 9 episodes feature pitch-perfect recreations of tv sitcoms for each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. But under the facade of the television show there is a reality shadowed in mystery and a lot of creepiness.

Olsen and Bettany do a great job in showing their acting range showing their ability to capture the nuance of old sitcom banter and then shift into more serious and emotional behavior.  The series uses these television genre motifs as a way of exploring grief and the way in which one can find solace in the routine predictability of television entertainment.  Kathryn Hahn is great in her role as Agnes, the nosy nextdoor neighbor.

A lot of the mystery is built up in the first three episodes where it’s really unclear why Wanda and Vision (the latter is supposed to be dead) are starring in these sitcoms.  Is Wanda trapped in someone else’s reality, or is she creating her “vision” of a perfect world?  It’s more complicated than you might think.  We start to get a better idea of what’s going in episode 4 which takes place outside of Westview and involves three supporting characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who stole every scene she appeared in Thor and Thor: The Dark World (and does so here); Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent from Ant-Man and the Wasp; and Captain Monica Rambeau of S.W.O.R.D. (Teyonah Parris), whose character appeared as a child in Captain Marvel. It was great to see the three characters step in to lead roles and work together as a team, and I hope Parris returns for future Captain Marvel films.

A familiarity with the MCU is helpful, although not necessary, as it will help with some back story and Easter eggs in the series.  On the other hand, I didn’t get a big twist in a show because it involved the X-Men series of films, which I’ve never watched, and there was plenty of the show that drew on The Scarlet Witch comics which I haven’t read. At an extra metafictional level, Olsen was born into a family where her slightly older sisters were already celebrities from starring on a  popular sitcom.  Maybe the show’s creators thought it was too obvious, but they resisted making any Full House references that I noticed.

For all the creativity and experimenting that went into the series, I felt a little let down by the final two episodes.  The series finale in particularly is mostly a bog-standard MCU punch-em-out.  A lot of the mystery built up over the course of the series is resolved in perfunctory way or misdirections (I really thought that Dottie and the Beekeeper were going to mean something more).  Also, Rambeau, Woo, and Lewis are just spectators. It’s still satisfactory, but just not as good as I grew to expect from the rest of the series.  One thing it does do well though is set up the next phase of the MCU, and I look forward to see what’s coming next.

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